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Harvey Cox Says Atheism Won't Last. Here's Why You Should Care What Harvey Cox Thinks...
September 28, 2009 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Harvey Cox, one of the foremost American theologians of the twentieth century, recently retired from Harvard, where he held the oldest tenured professorship in the nation. You've seen him discussed here before for more bovine pursuits. But more importantly, he has argued that atheism is a passing fad; his new book contends it emerges in response to factors that will change the face of faith in the coming generation. Why should you care about an old theologian's last hurrah? His prior predictions have been right.
posted by jefficator (265 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Outspoken atheism is a fad only because pretending to be religious for social reasons is a fad. When one goes up the other comes down.
posted by muddgirl at 8:33 AM on September 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


Homo Sapiens is also a passing fad.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:39 AM on September 28, 2009 [24 favorites]


It's all very well to dismiss Dawkins as "the same as Falwell" in that both espouse a "literalist" view of religion and pretend that makes you all high-minded and sophisticated. However, the shifting sand of definition and interpretation looks exactly like what pseudo-scientists and charlatans do all the time.

I don't want to to imply that I think Cox is fraudulent, but how would an article by Uri Geller about James Randi read any differently? "Randi has a literal view of spoonbending. This is a wooden critique of the thoughtful spoonbending I perform."
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on September 28, 2009 [16 favorites]


I don't think that "Atheism Won't Last" is an accurate description; he says early on "Atheism comes and goes in human history. It always makes a comeback, I think, when religious people get too arrogant, when they begin to look as though or speak as though they know it all, when they begin to impose themselves in ways that are unwelcome to other people in the society" and towards the end, "Atheism will ebb and flow, I’m sure of that". These don't sound to me like he is describing atheism as "a passing fad", he's just recognizing that there are times when atheism comes to the fore. Religion and religious feeling also ebb and flow.

I think the idea of atheism arising at least in part as a reaction against dogmatism and arrogance within religion is an interesting one. I say this in no way to denigrate the lack of belief of those who are atheists as that is always a personal decision and I don't think that any person's religious choice or beliefs should be considered a "fad" if they are sincere in their belief or lack of belief, but I do think that it's interesting to consider atheism as a natural and healthy outgrowth of religion gone awry.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:43 AM on September 28, 2009 [11 favorites]


Also, it seems simplistic to compare 20th/21st century atheism with the rest of history. One big difference is the dominance of the scientific method. In 1200 AD, for example, you might be an atheist just because you hated the local priest. in 2000 AD you might do the same...or you might do it because it just doesn't pass the evidence test.
posted by DU at 8:47 AM on September 28, 2009 [9 favorites]


Thanks for this. I find myself agreeing with Harvey Cox on many things:

I’m afraid that kind of capacity in human beings is equal-opportunity depravity, which atheists and religious people and others have demonstrated that they can share as well. I wouldn’t want my kids taught by a radical fundamentalist either, but also not by an arrogant atheist. A nice atheist or an agnostic, a good person — fine. I just don’t like the kind of arrogance and “my way is the only way to see things” attitude that you find both in religious and nonreligious people.

He's definitely worth listening to.
posted by vacapinta at 8:47 AM on September 28, 2009 [8 favorites]


DU, I think your point is interesting but I also think there is a thesis/antithesis going on in the public sphere with religion and atheism. If religious leaders (or at least those who claim to be religious leaders) start to get arrogant and pompous and crazy and forget about what having faith and being a moral person actually means, then I think you are going to get arrogant and pompous atheist leaders as well. I find the dichotomizing really frustrating as someone who is a Christian but feels that those who don't believe in God can earn my respect, trust and appreciation just as anyone who DOES believe in God can. When he says, "There are some enormously fine and moral people who are not believers", he is absolutely right, but there are jackasses on both sides as well.

On preview, I think vacapinta's point is really good.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:52 AM on September 28, 2009


It's all very well to dismiss Dawkins as "the same as Falwell" in that both espouse a "literalist" view of religion and pretend that makes you all high-minded and sophisticated. However, the shifting sand of definition and interpretation looks exactly like what pseudo-scientists and charlatans do all the time.

so, you're defending the idea that dawkins isn't a literalist with a literalist defense

how clever
posted by pyramid termite at 8:55 AM on September 28, 2009


Yes, obviously there are arrogant atheists. Atheists are humans just like everybody else.

Using this as an argument either for or against religion is the exact same useless he said/she said reporting that the media use for political and scientific issues. The question is not "what do the personalities act like". It's what is the truth. I don't care how charming the shaman was and how "arrogant" the skeptic, is it true that Little Timmy's cancer was cured by the laying on of hands?
posted by DU at 8:55 AM on September 28, 2009 [16 favorites]


when in history have religious leaders not been "arrogant and pompous and crazy?"

i submit that the rise and fall of atheism has more to do with mortal fear.
posted by klanawa at 8:57 AM on September 28, 2009


I went into the article ready to be depressed, since as an atheist the idea of a resurgence of religion in the US doesn't exactly strike me as a good thing, but after reading it I can't really find anything to be that bothered about.

The change he's predicting, which mostly seems to revolve around the decline of "Constantinian" doctrinal Christianity in favor of (what I'd describe as) Charismatic Christianity, which tend to be less hierarchical and more community-focused, seems like it's probably not a bad thing. He also thinks the Evangelical political movements are basically running out of steam; an unmitigated good if I ever heard one.

He also seems to think that fundamentalist movements in general—not just Christian ones, but worldwide—are a passing thing, and will fade out in the future. I'm not sure if I believe that or not; I'd certainly like to, but the article doesn't really get into his arguments for why it's the case.

Although I'd like to believe that we are moving, as a society, towards a rationalist future that will be free of "faith" in the sense of mysticism, I'm not convinced that's achievable. A fair number of people seem to have a deeply-ingrained need for some sort of spirituality that will never be satisfied by rationalism or science (and neither rationalism or science should try to insert itself and fill this role, lest it become distorted in the process). I see this as a regrettable flaw (or, at best, a coping mechanism) in the human psyche, but whatever its value it's almost certainly here to stay. Given that as a premise, Cox's predicted result—more community-centered, experiential / spiritual churches, fewer globe-spanning hierarchial ones with uniform doctrine—seems safer, in the sense of being less threatening or able to impress itself on secular society and those who want nothing to do with it.

Even if the 'cost' is a decline in atheism as a political/social movement, it seems like a net win for society in general. The religion Cox postulates for the future, while still not anything that I'd be interested in, is a whole lot less objectionable than religion as it exists as a political and social force right now. It's the sort of religion that I suspect I could live with.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:58 AM on September 28, 2009 [8 favorites]


For a 'foremost American theologian', he doesn't seem understand atheism. Here are some telling quotes:

I don’t think secular humanists represent a whole lot of people.

I haven’t noticed [a trend toward atheism.]

An atheist seems to me a person who has searched out and thought about all the options and insists there isn’t any God or anything like God, and I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.


If he had actually read Dawkin's book, he would know that last point is demonstrably wrong. He also rehashes every theological canard I've recently seen: there is no disagreement between science and religion, morality comes from Christianity, everyone secretly believes in Something, my God is not as simple and literal as you would believe, etc. Not new and not very impressive.
posted by lholladay at 8:59 AM on September 28, 2009 [15 favorites]


is it true that Little Timmy's cancer was cured by the laying on of hands?

Ah, but thats not fair, now you're using extremism to argue against the entire edifice. You really should read more Harvey Cox. He is arguing for more nuance. Is that inherently wrong?
posted by vacapinta at 9:00 AM on September 28, 2009


I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.

No one actually says that. They just act that way.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:03 AM on September 28, 2009


The vehement point of view that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster only exists when there is an opposing side. I, much like Harvey Cox, believe that anti-FSMism won't last.
posted by lothar at 9:05 AM on September 28, 2009



Using this as an argument either for or against religion is the exact same useless he said/she said reporting that the media use for political and scientific issues. The question is not "what do the personalities act like". It's what is the truth. I don't care how charming the shaman was and how "arrogant" the skeptic, is it true that Little Timmy's cancer was cured by the laying on of hands?
posted by DU at 11:55 AM on September 28


You are correct. The question is "what is the truth?" and that question is impossible to answer.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:06 AM on September 28, 2009


Using this as an argument either for or against religion is the exact same useless he said/she said reporting that the media use for political and scientific issues.

except that he was arguing against literalism with the statement you objected to

The question is not "what do the personalities act like". It's what is the truth.

the truth is that he was talking about literalism in atheism AND religion - so, if you are really interested in the truth, you'll have something to say about the point actually made
posted by pyramid termite at 9:11 AM on September 28, 2009


I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.

No one actually says that. They just act that way.


...how so? How does one act like evidence won't change their mind when there is no evidence that they have ignored?

Writing "further" evidence is a bit of subtle obnoxiousness as well--where is the prior evidence? There's no real evidence that there's NOT god, nor is there evidence that there is god. What evidence is he talking about?

Oh no, now I'm acting like one of the bad atheists whom he would not let teach his child, I'll go cry in my room now.
posted by kathrineg at 9:14 AM on September 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


is it true that Little Timmy's cancer was cured by the laying on of hands?

I certainly don't think so, and I think it's appalling if you discard genuine scientific treatment in favor of mysticism and things, but I think that there's nothing wrong with using faith to help support you through an intolerable situation.

When Kadin says, "A fair number of people seem to have a deeply-ingrained need for some sort of spirituality that will never be satisfied by rationalism or science (and neither rationalism or science should try to insert itself and fill this role, lest it become distorted in the process). I see this as a regrettable flaw (or, at best, a coping mechanism) in the human psyche" I think he is absolutely right; if I pray, I don't necessarily expect it to change any outcomes (though how would I know? It would be at best problematic to do, say, a double blind test with a solid control group), but it helps me. Shockingly, I'm about to quote the grandmother from Dawson's Creek; at some point she is praying during a difficult time and her granddaughter gets angry and distraught and asks if the grandmother thinks her prayer will really change God's mind and the grandmother says something like "Prayer doesn't change God. Prayer changes me." Whether or not there is a God (and I happen to believe there is, but there might well not be), I think the comfort to be derived from religious belief is not to be denigrated. If religion is used as a path to help people strive towards becoming what they want to be and to come to terms with their lives, it's hard for me to find anything wrong with that.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:14 AM on September 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


when in history have religious leaders not been "arrogant and pompous and crazy?"

When in history have leaders, religious or not, not been so?

For a 'foremost American theologian', he doesn't seem understand atheism.

Unless you can boast academic credentials indicating that your understanding is somehow more valid than his, I'd say the weight of the evidence is on you not understanding atheism.
posted by The World Famous at 9:17 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.

The thing about that is that religion isn't about evidence, it's about faith. If you have evidence, it's not faith, it's knowledge. If religious faith isn't a part of your life, that's absolutely fine; if you don't believe in things without proof, there's nothing wrong with that. Some people need evidence for everything, some people don't.

I also think you can have faith in non-God things. I heard this anecdotally, but I'm told that in AA you need to accept faith in a higher power. Apparently there's a woman for whom her higher power is the radiator in the front hall of the meeting space because every time she sees that radiator she knows she's sober. That is a striking and moving demonstration of faith to me in that she is able to create faith in herself and her own sobriety. She doesn't KNOW she can stay sober, but she has faith that she will try. Going back to Kadin's point, I think that faith is a coping mechanism. People need faith, it's part of what makes us human, but it can be faith in science or family or a radiator, it doesn't have to be in God.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:21 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


You are correct. The question is "what is the truth?" and that question is impossible to answer.

Ignosticism is what should really concern theologians.

Theism/atheism debates still require one to buy into a basic theological framework and then decide whether one can believe in the existence of a god or gods. It's like debating whether red or blue tastes better. Cox is, indeed, arguing for more gray area within the framework used to discuss such issues, but Cox is also a theologian - by definition, he believes that such a framework exists, and is defined enough to allow a practical debate of theism. In my opinion, he's hoping to introduce purple, cyan, magenta, and so on into the above taste test and temper the extreme camps occupied by those who strongly prefer the taste of red over those who strongly prefer the taste of blue.

Increasingly, folks are asking if those are even flavors, and if the results of a taste test involving them have any real meaning whatsoever.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:23 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The World Famous, i think you've unintentionally seized on the point: religion, in any other form than personal observance, is an instrument of power. precisely why atheists have lived in fear.

rather like protomammals during the age of the dinosaurs, i should think.
posted by klanawa at 9:25 AM on September 28, 2009


A snapshot of five minutes ago:

Me, in the library, silently shouting and pointing at my computer screen, overwhelmed with the joy of concurrence. Way to post.

Why didn't they tell me they let people be this rad at Harvard? These revelations will never cease!
posted by Poppa Bear at 9:26 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The difficult part - for me, anyway - is that we've lost liberation and process theology to the rhetoric of the right.

Process and liberation are the theological cornerstones in my everyday work in parish ministry and Harvey Cox - amongst others - depends upon their important discoveries. Furthermore, the pharisees on the right know that liberation theology flies in the face of their flag-waving, nationalistic, theocratic, mega-church theology. Process and liberation allow people to use the brain God put in their heads to think for themselves. So, of course, "liberation theology" has become a dog-whistle for "marxist god-haters" on Fox News and elsewhere. So when I lead a discussion on the important work that our Latin American brothers and sisters have completed, or on the vital writings of John Dear, Walter Wink and yes, Harvey Cox, I have to avoid using the term. It's been poisoned - so much of the most important theology of the 20th century has been poisoned by the fundamentalists. I love Harvey Cox, but speaking as someone who lives and works in the trenches of mainline protestantism, I need something that can stand up to mega-churches. Because, at the end of the day, when we show up in our collars to stand for civil liberties and human rights, the sneering, "all-American" mega-church male pastor takes one look at us, gestures at us and says, "Marxists." And we're fighting from a losing position.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:27 AM on September 28, 2009 [16 favorites]


I totally agree. Atheism will pass like any other fad: believing the world is round, using toilets, medicine, etc.

Seriously, though, does he have any evidence that his hypothesis seems likely? I was also looking for some sort of predictions that had been proven right in that last article and I'm not sure what these were supposed to be.
posted by snofoam at 9:27 AM on September 28, 2009


religion, in any other form than personal observance, is an instrument of power.

Change "is" to "can be used as" and I will agree with you.
posted by The World Famous at 9:28 AM on September 28, 2009


The question is "what is the truth?" and that question is impossible to answer.

This. I once got into a dispute with a rabbi about "truth" versus "facts." I maintained that truth is one thing; it varies from person to person. Facts, however, do not. He simply refused to allow this, and insisted that "truth" and "facts" were one and the same.

We didn't arrive at consensus.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:30 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


how about a compromise: "has been"
posted by klanawa at 9:31 AM on September 28, 2009


I maintained that truth is one thing; it varies from person to person.

Then...it's not one thing?
posted by device55 at 9:31 AM on September 28, 2009


Here's a brief precise for the tl;dr crowd:

Militant atheism and free-form "spirituality" are equal and opposite reactions to a resurgence in dogmatic fundamentalism in religion. A map might look like this:

Cultural/Political/Scientific Revolution/Upheaval --> Chaos for the Status Quo.

Chaos for the Status Quo --> Discomfort for some segment of the population.

Discomfort for some segment of the population --> Re-entrenchment in a stalwart comfort. Usually Religion.

Re-entrenchment in Religion --> Rise of Fundamentalism.

Rise of Fundamentalism --> Reaction by Mainstream.

Reaction by Mainstream --> Rejection of Fundamentalism, whether through militant atheism or free-form "spirituality"

Rise of "spirituality" --> Decline of Fundamentalism, decline of atheism.

And interesting question might be WHY does Free-from spirituality succeed and militant atheism decline? Cox doesn't seem to wrestle with why as much as positing that it is observably so. (You can disagree with me on whether he satisfies the "why" question. I won't argue too much.)

I nevertheless believe part of the answer can be found in a previous comment of mine.

(And tl;dr means "too long; didn't read, for anyone unfamiliar!)
posted by jefficator at 9:37 AM on September 28, 2009


I like this fellow. From the last link:
The truth is that both religious revival and secularization are morally ambiguous processes. Both heal and destroy. We still desperately need a way of welcoming diversity that does not deteriorate into nihilism, and a sober recognition that neither religious nor secular movements are good or bad as such.
...
I can understand the people who are encouraged by the worldwide revival of religion today. The victims of atheistic and antireligious regimes are just as dead as those of clericalist terror.
And from the 3rd link:
[It's a reaction to] not just the religious right, but any kind of religious institution or spokesman that is claiming more than religion can legitimately claim. I think humility ought to be one of the marks of any authentic religion. We don’t see a whole lot of humility on the part of many religious people now, or religious institutions, and I think that evokes a kind of legitimate criticism. After all, if we are talking about God, we are talking about a reality that nobody can really define — the unfathomable, the unnamable.
when in history have religious leaders not been "arrogant and pompous and crazy?"

Óscar Romero was a pretty swell guy. Damaskinos Papandreou did some good things with his life and power in the Greek Orthodox church. The latter was amongst the many who assisted the Jews during the Holocaust, the former a supporter of human rights in the Salvadoran Civil War (1980–1992). They're quick examples. Unfortunately, the arrogant, pompous and crazy leaders (religious or otherwise) tend to like publicity, whereas the ones who are doing actual good don't flock to the spotlight.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:38 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The thing about that is that religion isn't about evidence, it's about faith.

What a false dichotomy. This is the kind of non-sensical platitude that unsophisticated atheists forward constantly. Faith based on evidence is not a foreign concept. There's a word for it - induction. Every single person's day-to-day life relies on it. Science relies on it. In fact, science can never, ever hope to rise to anything higher.

The scientific method is such that any positive idea about how the world works is inductive. You cannot prove gravity exists; you can only fail to find evidence of the world working as though it did not exist. The idea that the world will work a certain way just because it has worked that way is, strictly speaking, logically fallacious.

Your science is faith.
posted by jock@law at 9:39 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


is it true that Little Timmy's cancer was cured by the laying on of hands?

Ah, but thats not fair, now you're using extremism to argue against the entire edifice.


And here we go again. Non-mainstream belief = absurd = somehow not defensible, even though mainstream/"respectable" beliefs are just as lacking in evidence.

Who's to say that God didn't cure little Timmy via faith-healer, and it wasn't the chemo?
Who's to say those albino parts aren't "magical"?

Accusations of arrogance (and I'm not saying some people aren't) seems like a last-ditch reply to those who refuse to treat evidence-based beliefs and evidence-less beliefs on par. Respect my groundless belief! Well, ok. Just as soon as you respect the "extreme" ones equally. Your beliefs are on par with them, not with ours.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:42 AM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


Um, I am a Christian, and earlier I said "People need faith, it's part of what makes us human, but it can be faith in science or family or a radiator, it doesn't have to be in God."
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:42 AM on September 28, 2009


The thing about that is that religion isn't about evidence, it's about faith.

What a false dichotomy. This is the kind of non-sensical platitude that unsophisticated atheists forward constantly.


??? I hear this from religious people defending what they see as a lack of evidence for their religious beliefs, as well as from people who just don't give a shit about the argument that religion is invalid because there is no evidence for it.
posted by kathrineg at 9:43 AM on September 28, 2009


The thing about that is that religion isn't about evidence, it's about faith. If you have evidence, it's not faith, it's knowledge.

That's a very narrow view of "evidence".

Every day, jurors listen to evidence and then make a decision about whether a person should go home or go to prison depending on whether they believe the person is guilty or innocent.

It's a belief, not scientific knowledge, but it is formed by evaluating evidence.

Some religious faith is indifferent to evidence, but a lot of religious beliefs are based on weighing evidence the way a jury does. Do I believe this testimony? Is this source trustworthy? Where did these documents really come from? Has science actually disproved the possibility of miracles, or simply failed to observe one in the wild?

And like a jury, different people will come to different conclusions, but that doesn't mean that there has been no evidence presented.
posted by straight at 9:44 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your science is faith.

I think this is a bit of an oversimplification. What happens here is that people construct worldviews loosely based on scientific ideas or discoveries, and then say they are motivated by science or something and use that as a counter to religion. But they believe in their own worldview in a way that is not unlike believing in a religion. Then they presume to speak from a scientific perspective when in fact they are speaking from their own fabricated worldview. Most are not scrupulous enough inwardly to really grasp what's going on.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:44 AM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


Your science is faith.

Not in the way that the vast majority of people use the word faith.
posted by kathrineg at 9:44 AM on September 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


And interesting question might be WHY does Free-from spirituality succeed and militant atheism decline? Cox doesn't seem to wrestle with why as much as positing that it is observably so.

I'd really like to see him prove this, or even convincingly argue for it. Perhaps those arguments are present in one of his books or something, I'm not reading them in any of the links here.
posted by kathrineg at 9:47 AM on September 28, 2009


I hear this from religious people defending what they see as a lack of evidence for their religious beliefs

Yup, it's absolutely true in my case, and I completely recognize that. It is pretty absurd; I'm an intelligent, rational, well-educated adult and in some ways it doesn't make a damn bit of sense that I believe in God in the way in which I do, but there it is. That's how my personal faith manifests itself. It works differently for everyone.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:48 AM on September 28, 2009


Not in the way that the vast majority of people use the word faith.

No, pretty much exactly in that way. It's just a different set of beliefs. The point is that people conflate the idea of pure science (which mostly exists in written protocols but not in practice) with being scientifically minded, or when arguing against religion.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:48 AM on September 28, 2009


Seems like a nice man, but I agree with those whose impression is that his perspective is rather selective:

I don’t think secular humanists represent a whole lot of people.

He's in church on Sunday mornings, I'd assume, so he doesn't see the rest of us out having brunch or whatever, and of course when the main Sunday morning activity of a secular humanist would be staying home, it's hard to get a sense of numbers. His whole perspective sounds like confirmation bias, to me; given that communications technology is just now reaching a level allowing real conversations among regular people from anywhere in the world, I don't think any of us really can have an accurate sense of what ideas will really seize our imaginations in the future.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:50 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your science is faith.

This often repeated statement is an equivocation between two definitions of faith.

What you are describing ; the faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, because it always has; is more accurately described as provisional trust. We believe that consistent behaviors will remain consistent (assuming no outside force acts upon them) because we all have years of personal experience that tells us this is so.

Any honest person, scientist or no, will allow for the infinitesimal possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow - but they wouldn't bet on it. This is faith with a small "f".

Atheism is like this with regards to god. God is *possible* - just not likely. If a god showed up tomorrow on television I would be very surprised.

Faith (with a capital "F") is the stubborn belief in god or gods in the face of contradictory evidence, or in facing the complete lack of evidence.

These are two different definitions. Faith as trust vs Faith as religious virtue.

Dishonest theologians conflate the two in order to undermine the position of the non-believer.
posted by device55 at 9:50 AM on September 28, 2009 [60 favorites]


I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.

No one actually says that. They just act that way.

...how so? How does one act like evidence won't change their mind when there is no evidence that they have ignored?


That's exactly how they do it--by claiming there's no evidence they ignored. By dismissing evidence as non-evidence. This phenomenon isn't restricted to the domain of the current discussion either but operates to some extent in all situations in which someone has a strong emotional attachment to a point of view.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:50 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am playing around with the idea of adopting a new rule for for discussions I take part in:

If the person I am talking to feels the need to redefine the central concept we are debating, none of the past conversation exists any more, and needs to be replaced by a new one based on the new definition.

I have a suspicion that I would not be able to talk about faith or god long enough to come to any meaningful conclusions.
posted by idiopath at 9:51 AM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


The number of people in the western world who admit to being 'atheist' is pretty small I think.

However, in many countries such as the UK and France, the population largely doesn't go to church, doesn't think about religion on a day-to-day basis, has a very sketchy knowledge of the Bible and deeply distrusts people who are overly religious. I would call these people 'functionally atheist', although many would probably call themselves agnostic or Christian out of habit.

I can't really see this changing in the near future. In these countries at least, 'atheism' certainly corresponds to greater freedom, greater social mobility, less respect for authority etc.
posted by Summer at 9:53 AM on September 28, 2009


I'd really like to see him prove this, or even convincingly argue for it. Perhaps those arguments are present in one of his books or something, I'm not reading them in any of the links here.

Well his general argument--and this is actually sort of a theme of his scholarship--is that hierarchical religion all traces back to Constantine. Every form we know of hierarchical religion today either is an order by Constantine or a reaction to such an order. He notes that in the Global South, Pentecostalism is spreading like wildfire, whereas Catholicism is loosing ground and Mainline Protestantism never really got a foothold.

I would assume, frankly, that "religion" is largely a stand-in for "Christianity," but you can certainly find example of Kabbalah gaining on Judaism, various forms of Islam attracting followers over others, etc.

I don't see him explaining WHY this happens. He just uses numbers evidence from outside of the Modern West to illustrate THAT it happens.
posted by jefficator at 9:54 AM on September 28, 2009


Burhanistan: "What happens here is that people construct worldviews loosely based on scientific ideas or discoveries, and then say they are motivated by science or something and use that as a counter to religion. But they believe in their own worldview in a way that is not unlike believing in a religion. Then they presume to speak from a scientific perspective when in fact they are speaking from their own fabricated worldview. Most are not scrupulous enough inwardly to really grasp what's going on."

Who are you talking about? Obviously, no one is perfectly rational.

You are saying that people who are motivated to discard religion in the favor of scientific discovery are fooling themselves because they are really religious, but in a different way. Is it so hard to accept that their motive might be the furtherance of human knowledge, or must they inevitably be in some sort of prolonged battle with their true religious nature?

I guess it follows equally then that spiritual people who claim not to believe in any one religion are fooling themselves, too.
posted by kathrineg at 9:55 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


straight, your point is a really good one on which I hadn't really reflected, especially when you say:
Some religious faith is indifferent to evidence, but a lot of religious beliefs are based on weighing evidence the way a jury does. Do I believe this testimony? Is this source trustworthy? Where did these documents really come from? Has science actually disproved the possibility of miracles, or simply failed to observe one in the wild?

And like a jury, different people will come to different conclusions, but that doesn't mean that there has been no evidence presented.
My personal faith isn't evidence based, but thinking about it it was pretty narrow-minded of me to assume that it works that way for everyone. I do think that ultimately it comes down to a question of belief. You come to a conclusion after weighing evidence, but in the end the decision comes from what you think.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:55 AM on September 28, 2009


You are saying that people who are motivated to discard religion in the favor of scientific discovery are fooling themselves because they are really religious, but in a different way. Is it so hard to accept that their motive might be the furtherance of human knowledge, or must they inevitably be in some sort of prolonged battle with their true religious nature?


No, I'm saying that specifically in these silly argumentative threads, people think they are speaking from a position of science when they are talking about of their own asses.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:56 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I wish that there was something automated so that a MetaFilter thread would close as soon as people start arguing about the definitions of the terms central to the discussion.
posted by The World Famous at 9:59 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


But they believe in their own worldview in a way that is not unlike believing in a religion

At least it's their world view.
posted by Summer at 10:02 AM on September 28, 2009


We still desperately need a way of welcoming diversity that does not deteriorate into nihilism,

Anyone want to illuminate this for me? Am I living in a big diverse chunk of nihilism? Has Nietzche rotted the part of my brain that understands nihilism as Cox understands it?
posted by kathrineg at 10:05 AM on September 28, 2009


I have a suspicion that I would not be able to talk about faith or god long enough to come to any meaningful conclusions.

This problem is built in to the domain of the discussion. See, for example The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

This is not a territory that can easily be mapped so people spend a lot of time on definitions. Taking a rigid point of view with respect to what God means is known as the sin of idoloatry.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:06 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


No, I'm saying that specifically in these silly argumentative threads, people think they are speaking from a position of science when they are talking about of their own asses.

Want to link to anyone in particular who is doing this right now, or do you just want to predict this before it happens so you can get a little dig in at all the people who piss you off?
posted by kathrineg at 10:07 AM on September 28, 2009


Is it so hard to accept that their motive might be the furtherance of human knowledge, or must they inevitably be in some sort of prolonged battle with their true religious nature?

From my perspective, for most people, the science versus religion debate is really more about picking teams than it is about actually forming any kind of personal opinion. Most people are not scientifically inclined enough to form a real opinion about, say, the evidence for evolution. Instead, they rely on their team's experts to tell them what the evidence says. I, for one, fall into this group; I don't look at fossils and analyze strata, I trust people who do to tell me what they see. Someone else might trust his minister to tell him that God told him that the devil put the fossils there to test everyone's faith. Now, obviously, I believe that the other person is wrong, and I think there are good reasons to believe that he's wrong. In a broader way, however, neither one of us is "furthering human knowledge" we're just relying on outside authorities to tell us what to think. My opinion doesn't deserve any credit for being rational or scientific, because it's not, it's just relying on a non-religious authority.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:07 AM on September 28, 2009 [9 favorites]


The World Famous: "Sometimes I wish that there was something automated so that a MetaFilter thread would close as soon as people start arguing about the definitions of the terms central to the discussion."

I think that's when it gets interesting--people view different sources as authoritative with regard to meaning. I am a huge populist, and tend to assert that whatever most people believe is what we should use as a functional definition for the sake of argument. Of course, that's sort of stupid when I attempt to map those populist definitions onto the same terms that are being used to talk about a conversation that is mostly held within a small sphere of highly specialized people with its own vocabulary.
posted by kathrineg at 10:10 AM on September 28, 2009


In addition to DU's point about the prevalence of the scientific method in 20th century thinking, I would add that I think the surge of atheism we see lately is due primarily to the rise of the internet in the last two decades.

If you read many deconversion stories (more), you find that the pre-internet deconversion stories very often involve lonliness and isolation. In the "old days," someone finding their way to atheism would often wonder what was wrong with them, why they were the only one who seemed to have such doubts, and so on.

With the post-internet deconversion stories, that is not nearly so much the case, as 10 seconds with google will make it abundantly clear to any new doubter that they are not remotely the only one, and provide easy access to, for example, the evidence for evolution, and to counterarguments to the arguments of theists.
posted by smcameron at 10:12 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think Bulgaroktonos' point is a good one, but I also think that there's slightly more to it than that. In placing that sort of faith in scientists, there's an extent to which what you're really believing in is the scientific method. You don't believe scientists because you think they're great, you believe them because you understand that they test hypotheses and analyze results in a specific way.

Disclaimer: I am married to him.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:12 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Bulgaroktonos: "In a broader way, however, neither one of us is "furthering human knowledge" we're just relying on outside authorities to tell us what to think."

I agree with you, however I do feel that people who actively and loudly value science* often end up contributing to the futherance of human knowledge via their support, however slightly. I might be wrong, everyone arguing for evolution could be creating an equal and opposite creationist, but I don't think so.


*by this I mean the people who cheerlead it, lobby for its funding, teach the scientific method, and fight for it to have its rightful place in discussions of policy
posted by kathrineg at 10:15 AM on September 28, 2009


You don't believe scientists because you think they're great, you believe them because you understand that they test hypotheses and analyze results in a specific way.

Or you hope they do, anyway.
posted by The World Famous at 10:18 AM on September 28, 2009


Your science is faith.

How did you know I only believe in science through Plato?

Seriously, though, this makes as much sense as if I said Christianity is science.
posted by snofoam at 10:19 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really liked the piece. My favorite was this:
When I meet somebody who says, “I don’t believe in God,” I say, “Describe the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.”
So much of what I hear from professed atheists, in terms of criticisms of religion, is so incomprehensibly far removed from my experience that it's maddeningly frustrating.

Have you ever had a dream like that? The one where you are in conversation and suddenly the other person is speaking in a completely different language that sounds just like English? The words and grammar are perfect, but there is no applicable semantic content. The person points at your shoes and says "The sky was litigious tomorrow, don't you smell?" and becomes angry when you don't understand.

To his credit, Dawkins acknowledges the existence of people like me, like Cox, like Einstein, like Armstrong, people about whom he is wrong. To his discredit, he jumps from the fact that we don't believe in a grizzled omni-everything physical man in the sky to the conclusion that we are atheists. But none of us or the legions like us would describe ourselves as atheists. Perhaps Dawkins is correct that a majority of self-professed believers would term us atheists; that bothers me not in the least. Even the Scripture that literalists so desperately cling to tells us that the vast majority of self-professed believers will believe wrongly, that the way to truth is steep and narrow.

A man watches a platoon of soldiers running silently together. When they stop, he approaches, and asks them: How is it that you kept in time with each other? The soldiers answer him that it was easy because the cadence kept them in step. The man convinces himself that the platoon is delusional, because he knows they were silent, and that there can be no cadence.
posted by jock@law at 10:20 AM on September 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


smcameron: "In addition to DU's point about the prevalence of the scientific method in 20th century thinking, I would add that I think the surge of atheism we see lately is due primarily to the rise of the internet in the last two decades.[...]In the "old days," someone finding their way to atheism would often wonder what was wrong with them, why they were the only one who seemed to have such doubts, and so on."

Or just say "whatever" and go through the motions of being religious for all the practical and legal benefits. Not quite as necessary to go through the motions now as it used to be.
posted by kathrineg at 10:20 AM on September 28, 2009


Obscure Reference: "See, for example The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao"

I read from the Jane English / Gia-Fu Feng translation of the Tao Te Ching every day for many months, once upon a time.

I am in no position to demand that a definition be rigid; I do ask, kindly, that the definition sit still long enough so that something I say that relies on the meaning of that definition can make some kind of sense. Otherwise I would probably prefer to not take part in a conversation that relies on the meaning of the term.

Also? You cite Taoism to back up a claim about sin? This is exactly what I am talking about here, and why I am not even addressing those sorts of claims.
posted by idiopath at 10:21 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Baby_Balrog: "And we're fighting from a losing position."

Not to put words in Cox's mouth or anything, but just from reading the article it seems like he would disagree; I think he seems to believe that you're in the winning position. Granted I'm not sure exactly what his evidence is for this belief, and if it's based mostly on his interactions with young people around Harvard than it could easily be skewed, but it seems like he's saying that people are rejecting the highly doctrinal churches (which the megachurches, especially the Evangelical ones, definitely seem to be) for smaller congregations with less doctrine and perhaps more of a focus on process. That seems like it would be a good thing, if it's true.

I can imagine how the "prosperity gospel" stuff would seem nearly impossible to compete with (and, because it's basically taking advantage of consumerism in order to create the problem it purports to solve, it is), but those theologies can't last because they don't work. They promise their followers, at least in some really egregious cases that I've seen, material rewards in this lifetime that are just not realistically achievable. While they might be able to exist continuously based on nothing more than the Barnum Principle, I don't see how you can get sustainable growth that way.

My suspicion is that the prosperity megachurches will produce a lot of disaffected ex-followers who will be a lot more open to different ideas on their way out of the megachurch than on the way in. Speculation on my part, but it seems to follow from what Cox is suggesting.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:23 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


> From my perspective, for most people, the science versus religion debate is really more about picking teams than it is about actually forming any kind of personal opinion. Most people are not scientifically inclined enough to form a real opinion about, say, the evidence for evolution. Instead, they rely on their team's experts to tell them what the evidence says.

I think that's actually true of most things that don't personally effect people on a day-to-day, direct basis. Including the political system, which is why the two have become so conflated.
posted by meowzilla at 10:26 AM on September 28, 2009


Cox:
It’s too bad [that some people can't believe in anything they can't prove], because they are going to run into a lot of things in life that they can’t prove that they have got to deal with. I mean things like love, for example.
Spoken like someone who doesn't quite understand that psychology and neuropsych and neuroscience exist. And that love is at somewhat measurable and will get more measurable as time goes on. And that it's still pretty fucking awesome.
posted by kathrineg at 10:26 AM on September 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


The man convinces himself that the platoon is delusional, because he knows they were silent, and that there can be no cadence.

Surely the myriad boots on the ground create noise, as the steps fall in sync this noise becomes rhythm, and therefore a cadence.

Or are we supposed to assume there's a magical cadence in every soldier's head, then scratch our chins and thoughtfully ponder the magical cadence in our own head?
posted by device55 at 10:26 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


To everyone responding to the Your science is faith quote, I'd appreciate if you read the entire post. My point is not to deride science as being faith-based. My point, <third-grade explanation>as you can easily ascertain by reading the topic sentence of the post</third-grade explanation>, is that the dichotomy between faith and evidence is a false one. They dovetail with each other along a gradient scale. Science is at one extreme. Day-to-day living is somewhere in the middle. Religious faith is often at the other end. But it's no more fair to say, as the person I was responding to suggested, that religion is utterly absent evidence, than it is to say that science is utterly absent faith.

I really shouldn't have to spoon-feed you this level of reading comprehension.
posted by jock@law at 10:33 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I haven’t noticed [a trend toward atheism.] Students now are enormously more interested in religion, in studying religion, asking religious questions, taking courses, participating in religious institutions [than when I first came to Harvard]. The only trend I see is the other way. But obviously there are people out there buying these books, so I don’t know.

I glad he admits that he doesn't know, but I died a little when I realized that one of the most respected Theologian of Harvard just committed one of the most basic fallacies there is. Of course you would see students interested in religion and taking courses, you are a theology professor.

Christ.
posted by arcolz at 10:33 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


device55: sarcastic straw men are really poor arguments. its like godwin's law - you kind of lose by default when you resort to them.
posted by jock@law at 10:34 AM on September 28, 2009


That's an excellent point, Kadin2048, and I especially appreciate your statement that his arguments may be influence by the experience of living on/near Harvard's campus. When I attended seminary in Chicago, there were no conservative Christians to speak of (Moody was quite a ways up the road and they mostly kept to themselves.) We all lived in this amazing, echoing bubble of progressive theology, studying the civil rights movement, liberation movements, everything from Dorothy Day to Eliade to Derrida. However, once you leave that space (and admittedly, many never do) you enter into the actual marketplace of ideas which is powerfully dominated by Osteen and Beck. You may maintain a relationship with well-meaning secular progressives - however I've found that most of my friends (outside the church) fail to distinguish between the mega-church prosperity theology and the thoughtful, community-based experience that was (likely) their grandparents' church life.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:36 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


device55: sarcastic straw men are really poor arguments. its like godwin's law - you kind of lose by default when you resort to them.

What exactly are we supposed to glean from your anecdote about soldiers silently marching to a cadence that can't be heard?
posted by device55 at 10:40 AM on September 28, 2009


Surely the myriad boots on the ground create noise, as the steps fall in sync this noise becomes rhythm, and therefore a cadence.

Is this where we get to argue about the definition of the term "cadence" in the context of military marching? For crying out loud.

Of course you would see students interested in religion and taking courses, you are a theology professor.

But he didn't say he "see[s] students interested in religion and taking courses." He said that "[s]tudents now are enormously more interested in religion, in studying religion, asking religious questions, taking courses, participating in religious institutions [than when I first came to Harvard]."

So, to the extent that you "died a little when [you] realized that one of the most respected Theologian of Harvard just committed one of the most basic fallacies there is," maybe you can resurrect yourself by actually reading what he wrote.
posted by The World Famous at 10:44 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think of Richard Dawkins as the kind of Jerry Falwell of the atheists. In a way, he’s a kind of fundamentalist. I will explain why. He takes the most narrow and the most legalistic side of religion and makes that religion, and then he’s against it, whereas Jerry Fallwell takes the most legal and literalistic side, and he supports it. But in a way curiously they agree with each other....

An atheist seems to me a person who has searched out and thought about all the options and insists there isn’t any God or anything like God, and I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.
Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, meet pot.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:45 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]




I'm not sure that's actually much of a fallacy, because he says that students are interested compared to when he first came to Harvard. His perspective is that of a theology professor the entire time; what he's comparing is the (I'm guessing), things like the number of students in his classes, the number of them that are active in religious life outside of his classes, and the level of interest he sees in those students.

posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:45 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Basically, I was saying what The World Famous said, only he did it without my classy formatting errors.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:47 AM on September 28, 2009


jock@law Let me reverse that, you tell me what god you believe in and I'll tell you whether or not I do too.

One thing I note that comes up, again and again, in this sort of discussion is believers who say "well, I don't believe in *that sort* of god either", but then don't tell us what they do believe in. Please, tell me what you do believe in. I accept that you don't believe in big old guy in a sheet, but what do you believe in?

Moreover, Dawkins does a bit more than simply clump you and other such people in with atheists. He addresses the more vague notions of deity and dismisses them as well.

For myself, I will say that I don't believe in any supernatural entity of any sort. Whether it is an anthropic being with a long beard, or a fuzzy "the universe is, like, alive and it loves us man" sort of thing. If it requires the supernatural, and there's no evidence for it, I don't put any belief into it.

I won't, and can't logically, categorically say that such things don't exist, I will merely say that absent any evidence I see no reason to work on the assumption that they don't.

Show me evidence, and I'll accept that a deity exists. All I ask is for evidence, absent evidence I ask you this: why should I waste my time and energy believing?

Personally I'm doubtful as to the argument that people need a belief in the divine. 60% of Japan self identifies as atheist, they seem to get along just fine. Further, that percentage is growing, many of the remaining 40% [1] is on the older side. The younger generation, as it is here, is more likely to be atheist.

I certainly can't deny that people often do believe in supernatural things, but I am going to require convincing that this is necessary to them. Humans are remarkably good at pattern recognition, so good that we often see patterns that don't exist. Superstitions of any sort seem, to me, more like unrecognized bugs in the pattern recognition system than any evidence for a need to believe in the supernatural.

On preview

But it's no more fair to say, as the person I was responding to suggested, that religion is utterly absent evidence, than it is to say that science is utterly absent faith.

Faith, in the religious sense, is utterly absent (or should be anyway) from science. Faith in the "I trust, based on prior experience, that the sun will rise tomorrow" is a completely different kettle of fish.

Also, why do you think its unfair to say that religion is utterly absent evidence? Please, if you are aware of any evidence tell me. To the best of my knowledge religion is utterly absent evidence, and I see nothing unfair about that statement.

I do think you are being, perhaps unintentionally, deceitful with your continued effort to juxtapose faith, in the religious sense, with the sort of trust in prior experience that must exist to make sense of anything. These two things are different.

I have "faith" that the sun will rise tomorrow. This is based on prior experience (its risen every day that I've been alive), knowledge about the planetary system (the sunrise is caused by Earth's rotation, it'd take something really amazingly odd to change that), etc. It is not even slightly like the faith that a religious person has in their religion.

My grandmother had that kind of faith, she had FAITH in God, she had FAITH that Jesus would welcome her with open arms when she died. She had no evidence, of any sort, for either of those positions. She had never seen either being, she had never had visions, she had never spoken with anyone who had died, been received with open arms by Jesus, and come back to tell her how wonderful it was, etc. She believed though, because she had faith.

I'd define faith, in the religious sense, as "belief without justification or evidence". That sort of faith, religious faith, is not (or shouldn't be anyway) present in science.

I'll also mention that this is a totally different topic from atheism. Science is not the atheist religion, its possible to be atheist without liking or even knowing anything about science.

[1] Roughly evenly split between Shintoists and Buddhists, if it matters.
posted by sotonohito at 10:47 AM on September 28, 2009 [14 favorites]


Personally I'm doubtful as to the argument that people need a belief in the divine.

I tend to think of this as overarching narratives, which I DO believe people need. Some people's narratives involve the wonder of human curiosity and how it overcomes obstacles, some involve the importance of the environment and nature, some involve God. I think people need to believe in SOMETHING or what's the point? I also think (though people are welcome to disagree with me here) that holding that sort of belief in a narrative can help make it divine, even if it has nothing to do with what is generally considered to be religion.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:54 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


sotonohito, I'd have been glad to have the discussion you suggested in the first paragraph, but the rest of your post tells me, clearly, that you're not actually interested in that discussion. It's quite obvious that you've already gone and made up your mind about what kind of "faith that a religious person has in their religion." Your entire argument is fallacious. Your view on religion is based on anecdotes and straw men.

You're a blind man asking me what a sunset is like, waiting to jump on me with criticisms based on what you know about optic nerves and inconsistencies based on what other sunset-observers have told you.
posted by jock@law at 10:56 AM on September 28, 2009


jock@law: "But it's no more fair to say, as the person I was responding to suggested, that religion is utterly absent evidence, than it is to say that science is utterly absent faith.

I really shouldn't have to spoon-feed you this level of reading comprehension.
"

What you are apparently talking about seems incorrect in context. The way you are defining these terms is not the way that these terms are generally defined, nor were the definitions you are using being used in the original statement with which you took issue.
posted by kathrineg at 10:57 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


jock@law, I think the problem is that you don't understand what science is, so your point makes no sense. Science isn't evidence. It's a framework for investigating and describing phenomena. Science doesn't require that I take anything on faith. I don't have to believe in the plum pudding model of the atom or the Rutherford model or the standard model. Science is only relevant in so much as it does a good job describing what is going on around us and every idea is subject to being replaced by a more useful or more accurate way of describing our universe.
posted by snofoam at 10:59 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


The way you are defining these terms is not the way that these terms are generally defined, nor were the definitions you are using being used in the original statement with which you took issue.

"The sky was litigious tomorrow, don't you smell?"

I didn't define anything, and I used the words in the normal, every-day English way they are used. YOU want to calque onto MY post YOUR definition of "faith" in a religious context. That is the substance of your idiocy.
posted by jock@law at 11:01 AM on September 28, 2009


I think the problem is that you don't understand what science is, so your point makes no sense.

My B.S., magna cum laude, begs to differ. Reread the post until you understand what I was saying. It's really not that difficult.

And lay off the ad hominems.
posted by jock@law at 11:02 AM on September 28, 2009


I think people need to believe in SOMETHING or what's the point?

I think people enjoy their lives without a larger idea. Their families, friends, good food, good music, feeling good about the things they create.
posted by kathrineg at 11:05 AM on September 28, 2009


Mrs. Pterodactyl wrote I think people need to believe in SOMETHING or what's the point?

But, again, I think we're seeing an improper confusion of "believe" in the sense of "I believe I can make the world better" and "believe" in the sense of "I believe in X supernatural concept".

I argue that those are two very different things. Yes, people "believe" that they can make things better, that science marches on, that we're building a better society, etc. But that I argue is not even really related to "believe" in the sense of "I believe in God", or "I believe that Jesus saved me".

Belief, in the first, non-supernatural, evidential, sense is perhaps necessary (I'm not sure I'd actually say "necessary", but it is both common and seems helpful/useful). But to go from there to "therefore belief in the second, religious, sense is necessary and everyone believes in SOMETHING so you're a believer just like me" is I think unjustified.

jock@law ???
sotonohito, I'd have been glad to have the discussion you suggested in the first paragraph, but the rest of your post tells me, clearly, that you're not actually interested in that discussion. It's quite obvious that you've already gone and made up your mind about what kind of "faith that a religious person has in their religion." Your entire argument is fallacious. Your view on religion is based on anecdotes and straw men.

You're a blind man asking me what a sunset is like, waiting to jump on me with criticisms based on what you know about optic nerves and inconsistencies based on what other sunset-observers have told you.
Please, can you try without the condescension dripping from every word?

I've asked, politely, for you to tell me what you believe. You have not only refused, but then rudely told me that I'm either a prick, or an idiot, for asking.

This isn't a hard question, and given your position I think its perfectly fair. You have, so far:

1) Told us that the deity us rude atheists don't believe in you also don't believe in.

2) That you believe in something better, less nasty and low brow, than Jerry Falwell, believes in.

3) Then refused to explain what this something you believe in actually is, rather than what it is not, and rudely told me that I'm either a prick and/or an idiot for asking.

This hardly seems like a way to have any sort of discussion.
posted by sotonohito at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, jeez, so sorry. But your point still makes no sense, no matter how much your BS begs to differ.
posted by snofoam at 11:07 AM on September 28, 2009


One thing I note that comes up, again and again, in this sort of discussion is believers who say "well, I don't believe in *that sort* of god either", but then don't tell us what they do believe in.

considering that a good many of the people here would be hostile to it, why would they? - that and it could be quite a lengthy series of posts

and of course, the "that sort of god" they don't believe in is often some kind of strawman - or strawgod - that someone has come up with - "invisible sky-wizard" - "bearded old man in the clouds" are most common

there's a lot of diversity of belief and thought out there among the religious and much of it is readily available on the net to anyone who wants to know about it - frankly, when people make the kind of bald sweeping statements they do about god and religion, it says to me that they haven't bothered to educate themselves about that diversity and i don't really feel like spoonfeeding them or repeatedly telling them that i don't believe in "that sort of god" either

i'm also not sure why people are so interested in discussing things they don't believe in
posted by pyramid termite at 11:07 AM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


"YOU want to calque onto MY post YOUR definition of "faith" in a religious context. That is the substance of your idiocy."

And your next comment:

"...And lay off the ad hominems."

Hmm.
posted by kathrineg at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think people enjoy their lives without a larger idea. Their families, friends, good food, good music, feeling good about the things they create.

Not to seem tricky, but I think that those themselves are a narrative. I'm not trying to belittle what you're saying; I think those ARE unbelievably important things and I see no reason you can't base your life on them, but if you do I think that becomes your larger idea.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2009


I think we're seeing an improper confusion of "believe" in the sense of "I believe I can make the world better" and "believe" in the sense of "I believe in X supernatural concept".

I'm not trying to be obtuse, but I don't know why those have to be different. If you don't believe in God that's fine, but I am willing to have faith in trying to make the world better in the same way I have faith in my religious beliefs.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:10 AM on September 28, 2009


I think those ARE unbelievably important things and I see no reason you can't base your life on them, but if you do I think that becomes your larger idea.

My point is that it is very easy to muddle through, aiming for some good stuff, but with no overarching narrative. Especially if you consider the passage of time and the changes that people go through, it doesn't seem like all people adhere to any sort of narrative or ultimate belief system.
posted by kathrineg at 11:12 AM on September 28, 2009


Mrs. Petrodactyl: I find the dichotomizing really frustrating as someone who is a Christian but feels that those who don't believe in God can earn my respect, trust and appreciation just as anyone who DOES believe in God can. When he says, "There are some enormously fine and moral people who are not believers", he is absolutely right, but there are jackasses on both sides as well.

Sure, he just chooses to dichotomize the issue himself by setting up a straw-man definition of atheism and then proceeds to explain that those "enormously fine and moral people who are not believers" are not really atheists at all. I don't mind it when theists disagree with me on issues of theology, but I get really pissed off when theists slander my beliefs in order to claim that their mushy middle ground is more moral.

The World Famous: Unless you can boast academic credentials indicating that your understanding is somehow more valid than his, I'd say the weight of the evidence is on you not understanding atheism.

Argument from authority, 10 yard penalty, no first down.

When his statements about atheism directly contradict what most atheists have said about atheism, including the specific person he's arguing against, then you really need to wonder about the legitimacy of those credentials.

It is highly disingenuous to claim a right to self-definition while denying the same right to others. I'm not particularly obligated to accept his claim that his faith is changing with history and inquiry, when he denies the same privilege to atheists.

jock@law: To his credit, Dawkins acknowledges the existence of people like me, like Cox, like Einstein, like Armstrong, people about whom he is wrong. To his discredit, he jumps from the fact that we don't believe in a grizzled omni-everything physical man in the sky to the conclusion that we are atheists.

No, his argument is that the claims to a mushy agnostic godhead are even less compelling than claims to a god that has performed historical acts and miracles. Zeus stands little better as a metaphor for lightning than as an explanation for it.

jock@law: The scientific method is such that any positive idea about how the world works is inductive. You cannot prove gravity exists; you can only fail to find evidence of the world working as though it did not exist. The idea that the world will work a certain way just because it has worked that way is, strictly speaking, logically fallacious.

Certainly. The key difference is that the inference of gravity is supported by millions of data points collected over 300 years. In contrast, liberal theists openly admit that the few datapoints for the existence of god are equivocal and primarily aesthetic.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:15 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Surely we can all agree that Hinduism is complete nonsense, though, right?
posted by clockzero at 11:19 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course you would see students interested in religion and taking courses, you are a theology professor.

I'm late on this because I had the audacity to go to lunch.

Cox is speaking anecdotally about a measurable phenomenon. Enrollment in religion courses is up, the number of religion courses demanded is up, and attendance at university religious events is up.

Peter Gomes notes that when he was named Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church without a PhD, he suspected they were throwing an undesirable bone to an unknown black man as a way of phasing out an embarrassing university position. No one suspected he would transform Harvard's Memorial Church into an even more powerful entity largely by the strength of his own personality.

There is, alas, a flaw in Cox's statement about religious interest at Harvard. When Harvey Cox was a newly minted professor, the average Harvard student was from a New England Prep school. Good old WASP kids that had all the religious instruction they ever wanted crammed down their throats at St. Paul's.

Today's Harvard students come from a cross-section of the country, and many of them are more likely to be from Bible-believing families in Middle America. Interest has grown not in the sense that the same subset has changed its opinion, but in the sense that the set measured has grown to encompass subsets that have a differing opinion. This holds true for almost every university. The people who are getting a college education are different from the people whose parents got a college education.

Similarly, many here might want to consider that religion is of continuing importance to groups that lack a voice within your earshot.
posted by jefficator at 11:20 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


My B.S., magna cum laude, begs to differ. Reread the post until you understand what I was saying. It's really not that difficult.

And lay off the ad hominems.


/reads this, takes a couple of anti-irony pills and stops reading this thread.
posted by hippybear at 11:25 AM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


One thing I note that comes up, again and again, in this sort of discussion is believers who say "well, I don't believe in *that sort* of god either", but then don't tell us what they do believe in.

considering that a good many of the people here would be hostile to it, why would they?


I guess they wouldn't have to. But to come to a discussion about belief in God and ask what kind of God someone doesn't believe in (How much time do you have?) and then turn around and refuse to answer the question turned around seems to be in bad faith.

Pun not intended

The initial phrase is a good soundbite and not much more. Unfortunately, that's what we're used to in terms of theological debate: soundbites, analogies, anecdotes, and fables.
posted by ODiV at 11:26 AM on September 28, 2009


KirkJobSluder, we clearly disagree on some things, but you seem an intelligent fellow. Thanks for your contribution.

I have no disagreement that gravity and God have vastly different amounts of data points. As I said before, it's a gradient scale of faith and evidence, with religion and science (often) on quite opposite ends of the spectrum. (I only say often because for some people, 'religion' is just a spiritual sense of awe at the very clearly objectively-existing laws of the universe. See, e.g., Einstein).

katherineg: an ad hominem refers to the situation where you make baseless attacks against a person instead of attacking their argument. it is quite a different animal than what i did. i never said anything about you personally. i pointed out the significant shortcomings of your comment - that you were telling someone who made no definition that their definition was wrong, and so on. that sort of random nonsense is pretty uncontroversially idiocy. and that comment was indisputably yours. referring to an idiocy that was yours as "your idiocy" is not somehow magically transformed into a logical fallacy simply because you happened not to like the language.
posted by jock@law at 11:27 AM on September 28, 2009


Also? You cite Taoism to back up a claim about sin? This is exactly what I am talking about here, and why I am not even addressing those sorts of claims.

I was going to also link to the wikipedia page on idolatry too, but it's long and rambling. There are all sorts of similar religious grapplings with the same problem (from my point of view, anyhow), e.g. God being spelled G_d, which is an attempt to distinguish God from other nouns which represent things. I can see that from the outside, these may just look like weird practices with no inherent meaning. Language delimits communities of those able to speak to each other (not in the sense of a partition into disjoint sets, though) and agreement on terms to discuss anything meant to be universal (e.g. God) is a big part of the discussion. In order for some form of communication to take place it helps to believe (pardon the expression) that the other side is talking about something and not just manifesting thought disorders. Indeed, though my formulation above drove you to not even discuss those sort of claims we can still try to do so. All formulations are just best attempts and have to rely on the good faith (pardon the expression) of the communicants. Even legal documents have to rely on a court to interpret them in the end.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:28 AM on September 28, 2009


But to come to a discussion about belief in God and ask what kind of God someone doesn't believe in (How much time do you have?) and then turn around and refuse to answer the question turned around seems to be in bad faith.

no, because he's already said he doesn't believe in any of them - so my asking him would be pointless; i have his answer - and he asking me would simply be an opportunity for him to argue why i was wrong for what i believe - and i'm not interested
posted by pyramid termite at 11:34 AM on September 28, 2009


pyramid termite I'm not sure what you're getting at here.

I say "I don't believe in any gods". You say "you just invented some straw-deities to not believe in, the **REAL** gods are better than that!"

To me the question "fine, tell me about these better gods that you believe in" seems perfectly reasonable. Yet you tell me that I'm some sort of bad person for asking. I'd hope you can understand that this sort of thing doesn't exactly convince me that your position is correct.

You appear to be arguing against straw-atheists. I haven't set up any straw-deities to knock down.

So, how about we stop talking about straw, and talk about what's really here.

My position is simple: I don't believe in any deities, whether they're anthropic old guys on clouds, or any more subtle or less anthropic variety. If it requires the supernatural, I don't invest it with belief.

You disagree. It seems reasonable for me to inquire a) what you do believe in, and b) why?

i'm also not sure why people are so interested in discussing things they don't believe in

Well, among other things, its because the less nuanced believers, the ones who do believe in an anthropic old guy sitting on a cloud, have a hell of a lot of political power.

if they were just a bunch of loonies I don't think anyone would care so much. You more nuanced, subtle, non-anthropic, believers are (per most polling) a minority at least as tiny as atheists, and probably smaller (in the USA anyway).

Mrs. Pterodactyl wrote I'm not trying to be obtuse, but I don't know why those have to be different. If you don't believe in God that's fine, but I am willing to have faith in trying to make the world better in the same way I have faith in my religious beliefs.

I think they do have to be different.

Belief in a god takes place in the absence of evidence.

Belief that people can change the world takes place in an abundance of evidence [1].

I don't know, and so far have been unable to comprehend, what causes a person to put belief into something for which there is no evidence. It is, to me, completely mysterious, and rather dangerous.

The critical difference is evidence. "Belief", in the sense of "trusting evidence" is a radically, completely, different thing than "belief" in the sense of "having faith in the absence of evidence".

I think its a shame we use the same word to describe such radically, categorically, different things.

[1] Not necessarily for the better, lots of people have changed the world for the worse, the world, however, is changed by people on a regular basis.
posted by sotonohito at 11:38 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Shoulda previewed.....

pyramid termite wrote i have his answer - and he asking me would simply be an opportunity for him to argue why i was wrong for what i believe - and i'm not interested

But its perfectly fine for you to tell me that I'm a jerk jousting at straw-deities? Nice of you.
posted by sotonohito at 11:39 AM on September 28, 2009


Mrs. Petrodactyl: I tend to think of this as overarching narratives, which I DO believe people need. Some people's narratives involve the wonder of human curiosity and how it overcomes obstacles, some involve the importance of the environment and nature, some involve God. I think people need to believe in SOMETHING or what's the point? I also think (though people are welcome to disagree with me here) that holding that sort of belief in a narrative can help make it divine, even if it has nothing to do with what is generally considered to be religion.

But the central problem here is why do those narratives need to come from a mythological and metaphorical sugar coating when the universe is pretty awesome and incredible in its own right? This certainly isn't a new argument, as its been pushed by such varied people as Dewey, Einstein, and the Neopagan movement. I find though that what happens is people attempt to shoehorn the universe into their narrative rather than build the narrative from the universe. Neopagan theology tends to see everything in terms of gender binaries, ignoring the problem that the metaphor is increasingly strained as you move away from human experience.

pyramid termite: considering that a good many of the people here would be hostile to it, why would they?

Well, then your entire argument is now moot. You can't simultaneously argue that atheists object to a literalist strawdog, then refuse to submit other forms of theism because atheists would object to them as well. And that's entirely the case. I find Einstein's, Sagan's, Wilson's, and Cox's flavors of theism to be just as uncompelling as the God that parted the Red Sea for Moses.

jock@law: I have no disagreement that gravity and God have vastly different amounts of data points. As I said before, it's a gradient scale of faith and evidence, with religion and science (often) on quite opposite ends of the spectrum. (I only say often because for some people, 'religion' is just a spiritual sense of awe at the very clearly objectively-existing laws of the universe. See, e.g., Einstein).

Sure, but when you get there, the problem becomes "why call it God?" I think that the choice of Einstein and others to use to use god-language for the laws of the universe was unfortunate because he had to continually fend off his name dropped in advocacy for a personal God. Which I'm not pushing this argument in an effort to change your mind. I'm doing this to burn down the "literal" strawatheist advocated by Cox and supported by multiple people in this thread that we are just plain ignorant of the possibilities of contemporary theism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:39 AM on September 28, 2009


Bulgaroktonos I'm not sure that's actually much of a fallacy, because he says that students are interested compared to when he first came to Harvard. His perspective is that of a theology professor the entire time; what he's comparing is the (I'm guessing), things like the number of students in his classes, the number of them that are active in religious life outside of his classes, and the level of interest he sees in those students.

There might be some truth to this, if everyone that has taken a class with Harvey Cox and attended (Harvard?) Divinity School, were actually religious. Active in religious life != religiously practicing or believing. As a Muslim apostate and atheist, I studied Islamic Studies at HDS. I was worried that I'd be in the minority in div school being non-religious, but it was pretty great how many atheists and agnostics there were; it felt like home. What was not so great, is the number of my classmates who would put on a facade of beliveing the theology/theological issues they studied just to impress a professor, falsifying their ability to balance criticism and faith. (Un)fortunately, many of my fellow MTS-ers were self-medicating, using academia, their concerns/anger/fear/curiosity/frustration with their upbringing.

Harvey Cox is a brilliant, fascinating, hilarious, and charming man. But I feel like he might be a little naive in thinking that people--namely, his students, are completely honest in their theological investigations.
posted by raztaj at 11:42 AM on September 28, 2009


no, because he's already said he doesn't believe in any of them - so my asking him would be pointless; i have his answer - and he asking me would simply be an opportunity for him to argue why i was wrong for what i believe - and i'm not interested

I'm not sure I'm following how and why you seem to be in a theological discussion against your will. Asking someone to clearly state their position seems like a pretty good starting point to having a discussion about said position. If you're not interested in discussing religious belief and atheism then by all means don't, but when asking someone about their beliefs don't be surprised when they ask about yours.
posted by ODiV at 11:43 AM on September 28, 2009


But I feel like he might be a little naive in thinking that people--namely, his students, are completely honest in their theological investigations.

I don't think he said that he thinks that all of his students are completely honest in their theological investigations or that everyone who take a religion class is religious.
posted by The World Famous at 11:45 AM on September 28, 2009


pyramid termite I'm not sure what you're getting at here.

i'll show you --

Yet you tell me that I'm some sort of bad person for asking.

i did not

But its perfectly fine for you to tell me that I'm a jerk jousting at straw-deities? Nice of you.

please show me where i used the word "jerk" or even implied it

You disagree. It seems reasonable for me to inquire a) what you do believe in, and b) why?

but that's not what you did - you accused me of calling you a bad person and a jerk when i did neither

and THAT kind of intellectual and conversational dishonesty is one of the reasons why i won't discuss my beliefs here

i said it was a hostile atmosphere here to discuss it and you've just proved that
posted by pyramid termite at 11:46 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think he said that he thinks that all of his students are completely honest in their theological investigations or that everyone who take a religion class is religious.

It's more than just those taking a religion class, but those taking religious classes and putting on a false image of being religiously practicing. But I'm speaking about the trust of students studying religion - who say they're practicing and a believer of x faith; but outside of the classroom, are very much complete non-believers in religion, and often, non-believing of god as well.
posted by raztaj at 11:51 AM on September 28, 2009


sotonohito: I think they do have to be different.

Belief in a god takes place in the absence of evidence.

Belief that people can change the world takes place in an abundance of evidence [1].

I don't know, and so far have been unable to comprehend, what causes a person to put belief into something for which there is no evidence. It is, to me, completely mysterious, and rather dangerous.

The critical difference is evidence. "Belief", in the sense of "trusting evidence" is a radically, completely, different thing than "belief" in the sense of "having faith in the absence of evidence".


That is absolutely a fair point. You are right that (again, for me) my belief in God is mysterious and I also don't know what causes me to have that sort of faith, but I do, which is why it's faith for me. We're clearly not going to agree on this; I respect your opinions and agree with some of your points, but we are coming at this from completely different perspectives and it's very difficult to be mutually intelligible with an understanding gap of this magnitude. I am perfectly willing to let you disbelieve in God which is your right and with which I have no problems; I'm also willing to talk about this further if you'd like but it doesn't really feel productive to me as I think there are opinions I have that are just never going to make sense to you.

KirkJobSluder: But the central problem here is why do those narratives need to come from a mythological and metaphorical sugar coating when the universe is pretty awesome and incredible in its own right?

That is also an excellent point. One explanation of which I can think is that I can't comprehend the infinite wonder and majesty of the universe and so it is helpful to me to create something more closely related to my experience. The universe is definitely awesome and incredible, but it's also big and dark and scary and, to paraphrase Terry Prachett, I need something to help me bring light into dark places.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:52 AM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I find though that what happens is people attempt to shoehorn the universe into their narrative rather than build the narrative from the universe

Do you really think it's possible to "build the narrative from the universe"? I'm not even sure it's possible to observe the universe without some sort of narrative framework in your head. I understand what you're saying, sort of, but I think the idea that you observe the universe as a blank slate, and figure out what's going on is wrong.

I also think that, to the extent possible, the mythological narratives religious people use to understand their lives are built from the universe. They're the accumulated knowledge of centuries of individuals observing their lives and the universe and constructing a framework that makes those experiences into a sensible pattern. The Christian story of fall and redemption is a response to certain realities about the world we live in, and by "believing" in it, it can help a religious person make some sense of what they perceive. The same goes for neo-pagan gender binary. Is it possible for certain narratives to help people make sense of the world in a way that won't make sense to me or you? Of course it is. For those people, however, that narrative is as true as it needs to be.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:56 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


jock@law: But it's no more fair to say, as the person I was responding to suggested, that religion is utterly absent evidence, than it is to say that science is utterly absent faith.

Really? Point to one instance of "evidence," as the word is used in science, in religion. Scientific observations are not evidence without a mathematical model which says how likely some experimental outcome is. "I saw the sun rise today" is not evidence except relative to some model like, "the sun has a 50% chance of rising each day." After a few hundred observations of the sun coming up, you have some real evidence for that model being wrong, but you have almost no evidence against the model "the sun has a one in a billion chance of not rising each day."

And the "faith" involved here is basically only faith in mathematical deduction, because scientific statements are always conditional: if we accept model X, then the probability of outcome Y is Z. A scientist doesn't even have to have faith that the universe can be completely described by mathematics. Science has nothing to say about the ultimate nature of the universe. It just tells you that, assuming some phenomenon can be approximately described by mathematics, here is a procedure for deciding which model is more accurate. You are even free to choose a less accurate model for reasons of convenience (e.g., you don't need general relativity to describe the flight of a baseball).

You said almost the same thing yourself: The scientific method is such that any positive idea about how the world works is inductive. You cannot prove gravity exists; you can only fail to find evidence of the world working as though it did not exist. The idea that the world will work a certain way just because it has worked that way is, strictly speaking, logically fallacious.

The thing is, faith in induction is not necessary for science. As device55 said, you only need to accept it provisionally. In fact, it's best to keep in mind that induction requires the same conditions to be repeated, which never actually happens.

There are very few religions that embrace this radical doubt, where no absolute statements are possible, only conditional ones. Maybe Zen Buddhism? On the "spiritual" side, Eckhart Tolle is pretty good at avoiding absolute statements. But teachings like these are not theistic, and deny the existence of the individual soul.

The only way to make the major monotheistic religions compatible with science is to shift into fuzzy notions of "mystery," scripture as metaphor, the value of tradition and community, etc., where the religious person is free to choose what statements should be taken literally. At that point, sure, there's no conflict between science and religion, any more than between science and the Rotary Club.
posted by mubba at 11:58 AM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think religion arose as a coping method for dealing with the fear of death. We may be the only species capable of actually contemplating and worrying about our own demise. Animals live more in the moment. They can feel fear, of course, but when they do, it's fear of what is happening right then and there. Humans can fear anything they can imagine, and most especially death. Religion offers the mind an escape hatch from that fear, if you're willing to assume things to be true for which no evidence exists. I am not willing to make such assumptions. Some people are. And thus it will always be.
posted by jamstigator at 12:06 PM on September 28, 2009


pyramid termite I'd say stating that I'm not worthy of discussing the topic with you implies that I'm a jerk.

It does strike me that you're being rather unpleasant. You've said that the gods atheists don't believe in are straw-deities. You have steadfastly refused to provide any example of a non-straw-deity.

To me this is frustrating and highly annoying. You claim that I'm wrong, you further claim that my entire position is based on foundations of sand, that my reasoning only applies to the crudest and most easily knocked down straw-deities, and then you say "but I won't tell you about the vastly superior deities your atheism can't stand up to".

Please, if you've got a case state it, don't taunt me by telling me that I'm horribly wrong but you won't tell me why I'm wrong.
posted by sotonohito at 12:08 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think religion arose as a coping method for dealing with the fear of death.

I think religion arose as a means of explaining the unknown in the world, and that the "fear of death" thing is one of the reasons it is so tenacious in the face of other ways to explain the world around us. But I am not a theologian or a serious student of the history of religion. There is a lot of serious academic work on this topic, so it's sort of silly to have a speculative discussion about it.
posted by The World Famous at 12:11 PM on September 28, 2009


It seems to me that Jock@law's initial comment is essentially a restatement of David Hume's position. I can't see why people are getting so out of shape over a point that's essentially old news.

Hume’s solution to this skeptical problem is to argue that, rather than reason, it is natural instinct that explains our ability to make inductive inferences. He asserts that “Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin'd us to judge as well as to breathe and feel”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume#Science_of_man
posted by shen1138 at 12:16 PM on September 28, 2009


pyramid termite: you accused me of calling you a bad person and a jerk when i did neither

To be fair, when you accuse atheists of arguing against strawgods and asking questions only to set up a smackdown, "bad person and jerk" are reasonable inferences at least from the rules of inference advocated by jock@law. If you don't want to answer, don't answer, but attacking atheists for not discussing definitions of god you yourself refuse to discuss strikes me as unfair.

Mrs Petrodactyl: Sure, I can understand that, even though I disagree with it. My disagreement is that the universe is warm and cuddly compared to many theistic narratives, even as moral parables. I can think of few things more awesome than the fact that we are stardust, the product of one of the most brilliant events of the universe.

Bulgaroktonos: Do you really think it's possible to "build the narrative from the universe"? I'm not even sure it's possible to observe the universe without some sort of narrative framework in your head. I understand what you're saying, sort of, but I think the idea that you observe the universe as a blank slate, and figure out what's going on is wrong.

Sure, and science is a narrative. The problem is that when you've abstracted your understanding of the universe down to four forces (that unify into one at high energies), does the view of an anthropomorphic deity still make sense? An essential problem with theistic narratives, even highly abstract ones, (as opposed to the Tao, or Buddhist metaphysics) is that it's still derived from the anthropomorphic God that mooned Moses, parted the Red Sea, and has some sort of covenant with humanity that will be fulfilled at some point.

It's the Epicurean conclusion: if god is neither benevolent, nor omnipotent, why call it God? I've not encountered a compelling argument that the four forces or quantitative genetics require or are improved by adding "and an invisible impotent God" to the narrative.

Which again, I'm not engaged in this argument in order to convince you that you are wrong. I'm staking my case to quash the strawatheist argument that atheists only object to "literal" theisms. Yes, I'm aware of those flavors of theism, and even subscribed to them at one time. I can't profess them now.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:17 PM on September 28, 2009


The thing is, faith in induction is not necessary for science. As device55 said, you only need to accept it provisionally. In fact, it's best to keep in mind that induction requires the same conditions to be repeated, which never actually happens.

Hrm. That would mean you would have no reason to actually apply anything based on science to the real world. Funnily enough, few people who claim a belief in science live as if every scientific statement was merely a conditional statement whose antecedents could never again be true.

You either walk outside expecting your feet to stay on the ground or you don't. You expect fire to burn you or you don't. Simply carrying around a belief that "if the phenomena of objects falling could be modeled mathematically, then my feet would be attracted to the ground at a certain rate physics demonstrates" will not help you make those decisions.

Therefore people who believe in science DO take the antecedents of the conditional statements to be true, DO take act as if the theory of gravity were true, and DO display faith in induction.

The fact is, science does require faith in induction if it's ever to be used, and its utility (the assessment of which is itself based on faith) is the reason for its massive influence. That's not a knock on science, but it should be appropriately humbling to realize that yes, faith does underlie it too.
posted by shivohum at 12:20 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


shen1138: t seems to me that Jock@law's initial comment is essentially a restatement of David Hume's position. I can't see why people are getting so out of shape over a point that's essentially old news.

Sure, it's old news and one that both science and the philosophy of religion has moved beyond. The argument that scientific inference and religious faith can be equated in that way doesn't hold much water.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:21 PM on September 28, 2009


Prof. Coz says "We don’t see a whole lot of humility on the part of many religious people now" and "[atheism] always makes a comeback, I think, when religious people get too arrogant, when they begin to look as though or speak as though they know it all, when they begin to impose themselves in ways that are unwelcome to other people in the society". So he says atheism isn't going away anytime soon. Got it? So we're talking very long term predictions where nobody has any idea about Prof. Cox's prognostication skills. Ray Kurzweil has often been right too, but I doubt true A.I. will arrive by 2030.

Do you realize how fast religious belief has declined among scientists? What about western European nations? People who use critical thinking daily just aren't nearly so likely to base their morality upon fairy tails. I'm sure we'll see more & more critical thinking as technological progress drags people into more & more logical work. I don't think this means an end to spirituality scientist or buddhist style, but fairy tails? You know, people can even believe that immortality comes through influencing others or helping more fit memes, i.e. Carl Sagan achieved considerable immortality.

Prof. Cox argues that society needs religion for moral guidance in decision making, even saying science cannot make moral decisions. I'm quite confident that he is dead wrong on this point. Society's decisions are more & more based on evidence, critical thinking, and optimization. You cannot inject morality into those decisions without understanding their basis, that very understanding helps make religion irrelevant.

You don't need religion to tell you that AT&T is morally wrong for raising the price of an SMS, but you need analysis skills to clearly explain the social costs of AT&T's action. Yes, theologians may prove useful when selling the political action against AT&T, but the underlying decision that AT&T was morally wrong is now largely scientific. Worse, your religious thinking may obscure mild but effective solutions, like requiring that credit card bills say how long it'll take to pay it off making only the minimum payment. How will you know this is effective without science?
posted by jeffburdges at 12:22 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sure, and science is a narrative. The problem is that when you've abstracted your understanding of the universe down to four forces (that unify into one at high energies), does the view of an anthropomorphic deity still make sense?

Well, maybe not at the exact same moment. The same way when you're dealing with light as a wave, it doesn't make sense to deal with it as a particle, but we've abstracted here. We're now in the realm of the abstraction and not the actual.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:23 PM on September 28, 2009


You don't need religion to tell you that AT&T is morally wrong for raising the price of an SMS

But you do need values. Science doesn't (and can't) prove values.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:26 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


After RTFA, I think Harvey Cox says some very reasonable things and seems to have a positive, open-minded attitude toward religion.

But unfortunately, words like "faith" and "sin" are bound to raise some hackles among people who don't feel that religion is necessary. After all, we did just recently come out of a 1500-year period where they were used for political domination. And they are still used by fundamentalists to actively oppose science and social justice. It's not fair to assume that nonreligious people will automatically understand religious words as they are used by more enlightened religious people.
posted by mubba at 12:28 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


shivohum: he fact is, science does require faith in induction if it's ever to be used, and its utility (the assessment of which is itself based on faith) is the reason for its massive influence. That's not a knock on science, but it should be appropriately humbling to realize that yes, faith does underlie it too.

Do you not see a difference between the claim that empirical induction usually makes useful predictions of the world around us, and the claim that we should adopt a set of purely aesthetic worldviews unsupported (and unsupportable) by empirical evidence?

Obscure Reference: Well, maybe not at the exact same moment. The same way when you're dealing with light as a wave, it doesn't make sense to deal with it as a particle, but we've abstracted here. We're now in the realm of the abstraction and not the actual.

Sure. But wave-particle duality isn't just an abstraction, it's something that is reflected in the physical properties of things under certain conditions. It improves our ability to make predictions of the universe. I've yet to see a strong argument that viewing phenomena as divine actions really allows us to see things more clearly.

Obscure Reference: But you do need values. Science doesn't (and can't) prove values.

Sure, but when you scratch under the surface, many religious values can be justified using a purely atheistic framework. You don't need laws passed on the mountain or dictated via divine inspiration to have a moral system.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:31 PM on September 28, 2009


Point to one instance of "evidence," as the word is used in science, in religion.

Sorry to repeat myself, but I really think that most of the time when religious people use the word "evidence" with regard to their religious beliefs, they are talking about evidence of the sort a jury weighs in order to decide a legal case.

This is absolutely not the same as the scientific method. But it's the best we've got in trying to discover the truth in a criminal trial, and we generally think the process is good enough to make very grave decisions (whether an accused will go free, die, or be imprisoned for a long time).
posted by straight at 12:31 PM on September 28, 2009


@Obscure Reference: I disagree that values are required. Required for what, exactly? While I can agree that science does not provide them, it does not follow therefore that only religion can (jock@law's science/religion continuum notwithstanding).
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:36 PM on September 28, 2009


Sure, and science is a narrative.

Are you suggesting that science is a narrative build directly "from the universe"? Because I strongly disagree. Science as a narrative is only possible with the understanding of the scientific method, without it you don't understand anything, you're just observing phenomena. You can't derive the scientific method from the universe.

The scientific method also had to be developed by individuals working within the context of existing narrative frameworks. Science as a narrative is great, but it's built on the millennia of narratives that preexisted it. Admittedly this is something of a trivial derail, but I think it's important that we not act as if modern science is something that people woke up in 1700 and were suddenly able "to do," instead of something that arose from a context, a context that was highly religious.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:37 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


jefficator, I appreciate the tl;dr summary and I get the Rise of "spirituality" --> Decline of Fundamentalism, decline of atheism hypothesis. However, I do not understand this part:

as much as positing that it is observably so

What data are the basis for that statement? I want to see graphs or at least tables. According to census results in western countries it looks like "spirituality" and atheism/agnosticism (defined here as casual, not militant) are both hear to stay. For example, look at the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) findings for 2008. Look at the "change in % of total adults 1990-2008" column. The overall number of people who are christian declined, however there were increases in the "less hardline" christian denominations. The greatest increase was the no belief group. I see no evidence that either spirituality or non belief will "win". It looks like the population is headed towards a 50/50 split between spirituality and atheism. Take a look at this graph of European religious belief. As religious belief declines the percent of people with general spirituality increases but the no belief category also on average increases. "Positing that it is observably so" ain't good enough. Where are his numbers?
posted by Procloeon at 12:37 PM on September 28, 2009


Oh, yeah, my PhD advisor has a wonderful story about religion. You give a rat and a human two levers marked blue and green, one gives food and one gives a shock, but they swap roles randomly with blue giving food 80% of the time. A rat quickly learns the best strategy is "always choose blue", but a human will forever give green a chance looking for a pattern. Isn't this the basis for religion along with many other human faculties? But now science & math let us figure out when the rat's approach is better.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:37 PM on September 28, 2009


You don't need religion to tell you that AT&T is morally wrong for raising the price of an SMS, but you need analysis skills to clearly explain the social costs of AT&T's action.

Um. No. I'm an AT&T executive who just got a fat bonus for raising the price of SMS. Greed is good and I am a winner. I defy you to convince me that I'm morally wrong without appealing to some sort of religious standard.

Note that "Lots of people don't like what you did and we're going to gang up and make you sorry you did it" absolutely does not count as convincing me I'm morally wrong. Holding a gun to someone's head (or waving a fistful of cash under his nose) is not a moral argument.
posted by straight at 12:39 PM on September 28, 2009


How about waving eternal life in front of his face?
posted by ODiV at 12:41 PM on September 28, 2009


atheism is a passing fad

I'm a little confused. If you don't believe in God, you don't believe in God. How can theism or atheism be a fad? I get how all these recent discussions about atheism can be part of a fad (I suspect that they are); I get how publishing books about atheism can be part of a fad; I get how loudly proclaiming yourself an atheist can be part of a fad...

But to say that atheism itself is a fad is like saying belief that 1 + 1 isn't 3 is a fad. It's not. It's something you believe or disbelieve. If I told you that the fad had changed, and now all popular, smart people believe 1 + 1 = 3, you wouldn't be able to change your belief, however much you might like to. You could claim that you believed 1 + 1 = 3, but that would be a lie.

The term "atheist" describes me. It means someone who doesn't believe in God. I don't believe in God, therefor I'm an atheist. It's not a fad. I've never believed in God.

If I was posing as an atheist, that might be because I've been lured into a fad. But I'm not posing. I simply don't believe. If you SAY you're an atheist (because it's trendy) whereas in reality you believe or are unsure, then you're following a fad -- but you're not an atheist. You're a liar who is falsely claiming to be an atheist.

Even if God exists, he is hard to locate. Most religious people don't believe that you can see or hear him on a daily basis (if ever). As long as God is invisible and inaudible, there will always be people who don't believe in Him. This has been true throughout history. What is likely to change it? (If God came down to Earth and showed Himself, then only fools would be atheists.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:45 PM on September 28, 2009


KirkJobSluder: Do you not see a difference between the claim that empirical induction usually makes useful predictions of the world around us, and the claim that we should adopt a set of purely aesthetic worldviews unsupported (and unsupportable) by empirical evidence?

Well, they're different in that some of the worldviews in category B I might find unacceptable.

But the reason I might find those worldviews unacceptable, and accept others, as well as the reason that I accept the claim that "empirical induction usually makes useful predictions" -- these reasons all share the characteristic of being alogical and "purely aesthetic."

That is, I adopt them (assuming I have a choice in the matter) on the basis of essentially non-empirical grounds, because I feel them to be "useful," "beautiful," "a necessary assumption to being live a healthy life" or whatever...

Now, can you argue about criteria adopted on aesthetic grounds? Of course, if you assume another worldview: that there is some commonality between people that might allow persuasion. It's just that the the debate must employ aesthetic strategies -- perhaps focusing on things like logical consistency, arguments by analogy, arguing about the beauty of various ideas, etc. Empirical evidence may of course be useful, but only inasmuch as it bears on the these aesthetics.

This is as true for the inductive assumption as it is for any other worldview. It's simply that induction has -- in the eyes of most educated people -- extremely strong aesthetic support.
posted by shivohum at 12:45 PM on September 28, 2009


Sure. But

Sure. But

Values cannot be derived from facts. There has to be some hidden assumption of a value in there somewhere in your atheist framework. The usual one is that survival is good. Lots of people accept that on faith without even noticing.

As for using abstractions to make predictions and claiming that those with God in them aren't so used, that wasn't what I was responding to. I was addressing the myth that science provides a seamless grid covering everything. What it provides is a set of incompatible grids out of which one chooses the appropriate one for ones purpose at the moment. At those moments when you're using the quadernity (four forces that unify in to one at high temperatures grid) you don't also use the trinity.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:49 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


How about waving eternal life in front of his face?

Christianity teaches that eternal life is a reward for those who acknowledge their wrongdoing and genuinely repent. If I say to myself, "Right and wrong is bullshit for losers, I'd take the SMS money if I could get away with it, but I'll give it back because I want to go to heaven," then I don't qualify.
posted by straight at 12:59 PM on September 28, 2009


@Obscure Reference: Is this comment in answer to my post? I'm trying to read it that way but it's making little sense.

Even if we were to accept that values cannot be derived from facts, it still does not follow that they therefore must come from religion. Other than that, I have no clue what point you're trying to make.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:06 PM on September 28, 2009


Bulgaroktonos: The scientific method also had to be developed by individuals working within the context of existing narrative frameworks. Science as a narrative is great, but it's built on the millennia of narratives that preexisted it. Admittedly this is something of a trivial derail, but I think it's important that we not act as if modern science is something that people woke up in 1700 and were suddenly able "to do," instead of something that arose from a context, a context that was highly religious.

It came out of contexts that were highly religious, but those religions had radically different and mutually irreconcilable things to say about the theistic nature of the universe, and humanity's role within it. So the fundamental question is do we still need a weak theism in order for scientific inquiry to work? I think the transcendental argument for god is extremely weak, and the argument that scientific induction as a purely pragmatic enterprise can stand on its own feet is fairly strong.

Is god-language necessary to understand the history of the universe from the first nanoseconds to the present day? So far, no one was provided me with a strong argument that worshiping nature as evidence of the hand of an invisible and impotent god, is substantially different from just enjoying the awe and majesty of nature.

shivohum: This is as true for the inductive assumption as it is for any other worldview. It's simply that induction has -- in the eyes of most educated people -- extremely strong aesthetic support.

No, it's not "as true" and while the argument for inductive assumption isn't as ironclad as pythagorean theorem, there is about 200 years of work after Hume showing it to be generally a better epistemology than "hey, God did it." (Empiricism can at least show that you probably won't be turned into a kosher dill pickle at 5:00 EST. With "God did it" all bets are off.)

Obscure Reference: Values cannot be derived from facts. There has to be some hidden assumption of a value in there somewhere in your atheist framework. The usual one is that survival is good. Lots of people accept that on faith without even noticing.

Pardon, but exactly what and who are you arguing against here? You've made quite a leap from the silly claim that a theist/atheist duality is just like the physical wave/particle duality, to arguing about moral philosophy.

Obscure Reference: As for using abstractions to make predictions and claiming that those with God in them aren't so used, that wasn't what I was responding to.

Actually, yes you were in that the claim on the table here is that God does not appear to be sufficient or necessary to explain the universe. If you want to talk about God as essential to moral philosophy, you need to make an a different argument and not pin that strawman on me.

Obscure Reference: I was addressing the myth that science provides a seamless grid covering everything.

Certainly, I'm not a believer in that myth either, and I'm more than willing to argue that science has very little to say about moral philosophy.

Obscure Reference: What it provides is a set of incompatible grids out of which one chooses the appropriate one for ones purpose at the moment. At those moments when you're using the quadernity (four forces that unify in to one at high temperatures grid) you don't also use the trinity.

Well, I don't understand what you mean by "incompatible." There is nothing incompatible in the wave/particle duality, nor is particle physics incompatible with biology (in fact, wave/particle duality is essential for understanding the function of some enzymes). The Christian trinity certainly has claims in that area, ("I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth..."). Certainly you can argue that's a figurative turn of phrase rather than a literal one, but then I have to ask why I should put more stock in it than other creation myths or no creation myth at all.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:06 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm an atheist, but I have much more respect for and understanding of religious people who claim their religion is the only way, than for relativists who believe all religions are equally valid, which is what Harvey Cox seems to be saying. I can't understand dedicating your life to something that you weren't damn sure was true. I also can't stand religious people say their religion helps to get them through the day - any true religion is following the rules set out by your God, not using your faith as an emotional crutch. I'm an atheist, but I prefer fundamentalist religious people - I understand them much better.
posted by JasonM at 1:07 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


A rat quickly learns the best strategy is "always choose blue"

Rats don't overthink a plate of beans.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:10 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


no one was provided me with a strong argument that worshiping nature as evidence of the hand of an invisible and impotent god, is substantially different from just enjoying the awe and majesty of nature

Of course not. Why would they? Nobody is advocating the worship of nature, or implicating an impotent god.

I liked your earlier posts, and goodness knows I'm guilty of this myself sometimes, but I'd appreciate it if you tried to be less fighty and insincere.
posted by jock@law at 1:11 PM on September 28, 2009


JasonM: an atheist such as yourself really ought not to lecture others on what "true religion" is. You have no authority with which to make that statement.
posted by jock@law at 1:13 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, it's not "as true" and while the argument for inductive assumption isn't as ironclad as pythagorean theorem, there is about 200 years of work after Hume showing it to be generally a better epistemology than "hey, God did it." (Empiricism can at least show that you probably won't be turned into a kosher dill pickle at 5:00 EST. With "God did it" all bets are off.)

Oh - and the basis for believing in the applicability of probability theories to real life is what? More empirical evidence, itself analyzed based on induction? Or aesthetic criteria?
posted by shivohum at 1:14 PM on September 28, 2009


jock@law: Of course not. Why would they? Nobody is advocating the worship of nature, or implicating an impotent god.

Actually, that is pretty much exactly what Einstein's deity is all about, or what is advocated when E. O. Wilson suggests god-language as a narrative for understanding the natural universe. God is implicit in the awesome structure of the natural universe, but impotent and uncaring in regards to human concerns. I'm not being at all insincere when I say that this most liberal of theisms is still unconvincing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:16 PM on September 28, 2009


Well, I don't understand what you mean by "incompatible."

I mean not compatible. E.g. you use Newtonian mechanics for slow things and relativity for fast things. You use light being a particle for when it can only be in one place at a time and use it as a wave when you're creating interference with another wave. They contradict each other but not in a bad way. They are ways to organize experience and you use the one you need for the occasion. They are models. You talk about sunrise when you're enjoying it, but think about the earth's rotation when you do astronomy.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:16 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Faith according to the apostle Paul:

Hebrews 11:1 - "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (NIV)

I fail to see how this definition of faith can be applied to science.
posted by xmattxfx at 1:24 PM on September 28, 2009


You're a blind man asking me what a sunset is like, waiting to jump on me with criticisms based on what you know about optic nerves and inconsistencies based on what other sunset-observers have told you.

You know, one can argue that "militant atheists" are condescending and arrogant without succumbing to said vices. I mean, you'd still be engaging in hyper-broad generalization, but come on now. Walk the walk you ask of others, at least. Hey, I should start a tax-exempt cash cow cult New Religious Movement with that mantra! See? No fair.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:24 PM on September 28, 2009


mubba: The only way to make the major monotheistic religions compatible with science is to shift into fuzzy notions of "mystery," scripture as metaphor, the value of tradition and community, etc., where the religious person is free to choose what statements should be taken literally. At that point, sure, there's no conflict between science and religion, any more than between science and the Rotary Club.

You seem to say that as though it's a bad thing, or at least an unlikely thing, or perhaps that it diminishes religion somehow; it doesn't seem to me as though that's necessarily the case. It also seems like that direction is exactly where a lot of modern, progressive, non-fundamentalist congregations are going: reading scripture as metaphor and not literal truth, community rather than hierarchy, spiritualism and inquiry rather than catechism, etc. At least that seems to be the upshot of what Cox is saying (or how I interpreted it).

That seems like a good thing for everyone involved. There shouldn't be any more conflict between science and religion, in general, than there is between science and the Rotarians.

Although it's a bit odd for me to defend theism since I don't share it myself, there are belief systems which are both non-trivial and are completely reconcilable with science. The "process theology" (sometimes 'process philosophy') of Whitehead always impressed me as falling into this category.

Likewise, the God of Einstein and Spinoza ("who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not...with the fates and actions of human beings") seems similarly difficult to object to. Really, the only objections that I have with these systems (and the reason I do not find them compelling) is that they're overly complex, and that a simpler explanation--one without any God--exists which seems to explain everything that I have personally experienced. But that objection is an inherently subjective one. Someone with a different set of experiences might need that additional factor, God, in order to make sense of the data (experience) that they're trying to model (fit into a coherent worldview inside their mind).
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:25 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


God does not appear to be sufficient or necessary to explain the universe.

It depends what you mean by "explain." If you mean describe, the big bang does fine. If you mean answer why there's something rather than nothing, God does better than the big bang. But it doesn't do it in the sense that I expect you now to say "Oh! I was wondering about that." In this case it's more of a pointer or a shorthand for something a lot more complicated and hard to communicate. I'd certainly never try to make the argument on the first date. It requires more intimacy.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:26 PM on September 28, 2009


Food for thought: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent then why in the hell does He permit Metafilter threads on religion to happen?
posted by joe lisboa at 1:28 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Anyone else notice that the guy who lectured others about not properly reading his comments just did it himself? Either that, or jock@law is seeing something in JasonM's comment that I'm missing entirely. And what the hell does he mean by "an atheist such as yourself"? Is he seriously suggesting atheists can't understand the concept of religion?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:30 PM on September 28, 2009


KirkJobSluder, that is not a fair characterization of the position. At the very least, that's a bizarre use for the word "impotent" -- is the Pope impotent with regard to the Catholic Church because he can't keep dust off of the bench in Notre Dame's belfry?

Einstein's quasi-Deist First Cause doesn't and can't interfere with human concerns, not because of impotence, but because such things are trifles compared with the immense undertaking of what he's actually talking about. Impotence means general weakness, not a particularized inability. Whatever caused the universe to come into being -- whether intelligent or not, spiritual or physical or an imaginary event in some Cartesian hoax -- was emphatically not impotent.

(I should note that Einstein keeps coming up, not because I think his scientific genius makes him an authority on religion, but because he's emblematic of a particular kind of understanding of spirituality and referencing that viewpoint through him is less esoteric and more accessible than talking about Spinoza all day).
posted by jock@law at 1:32 PM on September 28, 2009


Obscure Reference I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you argue that religion provides value.

You (properly) reject guns to the head and wads of cash waved under the nose as "value", but how does religion offer anything other than a bigger gun (hell) or wad of cash (heaven) [1]?

Saying "God says this is valuable" doesn't really provide value.

Value is derived from society, that's all.

As for "living is good", well, you're alive, and you've taken action to preseve your life, so regardless of its universal applicability its self evidently something you (and I, and every other human except suicides) agrees on. Seems like a reasonable basis for beginning to derive "value" to me. Why reject it?

GhostintheMachine I think we can safely say that its impossible to discuss things with jock@law, he hasn't replied to any of the people who have asked him valid questions in this thread. He's a dead end.

[1] Or reincarnation as lower or higher things, if we want to go for non-Western religions.
posted by sotonohito at 1:33 PM on September 28, 2009


Food for thought: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent then why in the hell does He permit Metafilter threads on religion to happen?

Punishment.
posted by The World Famous at 1:33 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


xmattxfx: that would be a good point if the Apostle Paul were taking part in this conversation
posted by jock@law at 1:35 PM on September 28, 2009


You know, in my life I've made many predictions that have turned out right. I have also made more than a few predictions that turned out wrong.

I suspect this kind of thing happens even to the highly-credentialed.
posted by moonbiter at 1:36 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


@Obscure Reference: Is this comment in answer to my post? I'm trying to read it that way but it's making little sense.

Even if we were to accept that values cannot be derived from facts, it still does not follow that they therefore must come from religion. Other than that, I have no clue what point you're trying to make.


It was responding to someone who yes-butted me. The point I'm trying to make is that values, be they aesthetic, moral, or otherwise, must eventually be derived from other values. Facts can enter into it, but can't be all of it. Religion in the small sense addresses values. Science cannot. Atheists who have values need to address on what these values are based. Which they can do without God, but not by sticking to facts and rationality. Ought can't be derived from is. Thing is, the non-religious like to say they only accept proven facts, yet the non-psychopaths among them also accept some values, usually ones they haven't thought through.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:36 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


shivohum: To put it simply, everyone got past the epistemological crisis of having to deal with a lack of certain knowledge by focusing on "good enough" knowledge. Been there, done that, and moved on except for a handful of people who still cling to obsolete epistemology as a loophole to argue that all epistemologies are fundamentally equal. If it still puzzles you, sit in a corner for a half an hour until you can figure out how to know you are not a dill pickle.

Obscure Reference: Ahh, well pure bullshit. Relativity isn't incompatible with Newtonian mechanics, it expands Newtonian mechanics, and showing that Einstein's equations collapse down to Newtonian ones when the Lorenz transformation is trivially small is simple algebra. Wave-particle duality is likewise a matter of syntactic sugar and not incompatible.

And of course, you are arguing a straw-man anyway in that no one has particularly argued that science is incompatible with or replaces art, or even religion for that matter. I have no conflicts in watching a sunrise while listening to Beethoven's explicitly religious 9th Symphony, Arvo Part, Phlip Glass, or reading poetry by Rumi. The conflict comes when religion insists on being more than a pretty metaphor or turn of phrase.

Obscure Reference: It depends what you mean by "explain." If you mean describe, the big bang does fine. If you mean answer why there's something rather than nothing, God does better than the big bang.

How so? First of all, the Big Bang is one of the best supported theories in science these days. It's supported by at least a dozen different lines of evidence involving a few million data points. Furthermore the whole statement "God does better than the big bang" as the cosmologist credited with the theory was a Catholic Priest. As far as theories of the past go, the Big Bang is looking pretty solid.

In regards to what happened before the Big Bang? Well, "God did it" is unworkable because if you open that line if inquiry, you have to explain why God hasn't turned you into a dill pickle yet. Since god works in mysterious ways and can do anything, we can't make any hypotheses about him. There are at least a dozen alternative theories, and I'm more than comfortable saying, "I don't know." (Furthermore, I'm not hung up on the idea that the scientific method will ever discover anything about the universe, some mysteries will remain eternal mysteries.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:41 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Obscure Reference I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you argue that religion provides value.

I mean in the logical sense. It starts with values, e.g. God is good. From which one could argue one should do what He says. Values can only be derived from other values.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:44 PM on September 28, 2009


It's probably just me but I don't think it's necessary for us to decide whether or not there is a God (and which sort, and why, and how we know) in order to discuss the actual post, which I thought was pretty interesting.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:49 PM on September 28, 2009


jock@law: Einstein's quasi-Deist First Cause doesn't and can't interfere with human concerns, not because of impotence, but because such things are trifles compared with the immense undertaking of what he's actually talking about. Impotence means general weakness, not a particularized inability. Whatever caused the universe to come into being -- whether intelligent or not, spiritual or physical or an imaginary event in some Cartesian hoax -- was emphatically not impotent.

Well, that's just a bit of semantic fluff. Regardless of whether it's a "particularized inability," or a "general weakness" the end result is the same: the mechanical universe will keep ticking on to its inevitable impersonal conclusion. Using god-language to describe it may make you a better person, but it won't do anything in regards to the universe its self. And at that point, it's my opinion that the "God" metaphor has been stretched well beyond the breaking point.

Obscure Reference: The point I'm trying to make is that values, be they aesthetic, moral, or otherwise, must eventually be derived from other values.

Which is a complete non sequitur as we were not talking about values, we were talking about epistemology. If you want to change the subject to moral philosophy, then do so.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:51 PM on September 28, 2009


KJS: That's non-responsive. The point was that the language you were using -- 'nature-worship' and 'impotent' -- was unnecessarily inflammatory. Like I said, I have liked your contribution to this thread but would greatly appreciate your being less fighty if you could try. Thank you! :-)
posted by jock@law at 1:53 PM on September 28, 2009


how does religion offer anything other than a bigger gun (hell) or wad of cash (heaven) [1]?

In many religions, the afterlife assurance is but one of the many services they offer.

I suspect, given our ability to just not think about death most of the time, that the afterlife is not what drives most people (who are not facing imminent death or otherwise really considering their mortality) to religion. It's perhaps what causes a lot of older people to seek out religion in the twilight of their lives, but it's pretty obviously not what most younger people are concerned about.

Because death is sort of the elephant in the room in human experience, it makes sense that all religions would have some sort of explanation or justification for it. (Even if that explanation is "you just die"; although the explanations usually seem calculated to either be comforting or to modify behavior via threats, they don't need to.) But that's not necessarily the defining characteristic of any particular religion.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:53 PM on September 28, 2009


Kadin2048: for the record, no, I think it's a great thing that religion is evolving that way. As long as everyone understands that it's a human construction, and it's not used to manipulate the masses for the benefit of a few, what's the harm?

What I was trying to get at was what I might have said better below.
posted by mubba at 1:55 PM on September 28, 2009


Obscure Reference: I mean in the logical sense. It starts with values, e.g. God is good. From which one could argue one should do what He says. Values can only be derived from other values.

Sure, the problem is that the values espoused by religion appear to be arbitrary and derived from an independent moral philosophy. "There is a God," seems to lead equally well to genocide as charity, and the argument that belief in God provides a moral compass seems to be fairly weak.

jock@law: hat's non-responsive. The point was that the language you were using -- 'nature-worship' and 'impotent' -- was unnecessarily inflammatory. Like I said, I have liked your contribution to this thread but would greatly appreciate your being less fighty if you could try. Thank you! :-)

Please, for the record, I hold nature-worship in extremely high esteem.

shakespherian: It's probably just me but I don't think it's necessary for us to decide whether or not there is a God (and which sort, and why, and how we know) in order to discuss the actual post, which I thought was pretty interesting.

Well yes. I'm not that interested in this argument to convince other people. I think that Cox is playing things a bit falsely when he makes a strawman of atheist thought, and explains that it will wain primarily because he defines atheist is some strict ways.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:02 PM on September 28, 2009


To put it simply, everyone got past the epistemological crisis of having to deal with a lack of certain knowledge by focusing on "good enough" knowledge. Been there, done that, and moved on except for a handful of people who still cling to obsolete epistemology as a loophole to argue that all epistemologies are fundamentally equal. If it still puzzles you, sit in a corner for a half an hour until you can figure out how to know you are not a dill pickle.

Ha! Translation: scientistic academics, seeing no genuine solution to this problem, call it solved by acclamation, pat each other on the back, and head off to get themselves a ham sandwich (unless they keep kosher).

Also, the argument was not that all epistemologies are "fundamentally equal," but that they all rely on a kind of faith--i.e. that they're all justified by aesthetic criteria rather than empiricism. Those are very different positions. Various religions may still be "wrong"--it's just that they're not the same kind of wrong as when people argue against the existence of gravity.
posted by shivohum at 2:03 PM on September 28, 2009


shivohum: Also, the argument was not that all epistemologies are "fundamentally equal," but that they all rely on a kind of faith--i.e. that they're all justified by aesthetic criteria rather than empiricism. Those are very different positions. Various religions may still be "wrong"--it's just that they're not the same kind of wrong as when people argue against the existence of gravity.

Of course, people do make the argument that scientific inference is exactly the same sort of faith as belief in the Word of God in order to disagree with the Big Bang (which is essentially the same thing as arguing against the existence of gravity.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:07 PM on September 28, 2009


mubba: Makes sense. I agree completely. Even if his views on atheism are not exactly as open-minded and positive as I'd like, I'd be happy to have more people like Cox in the world, particularly if it meant fewer people like, say, Pat Robertson.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:07 PM on September 28, 2009


How so? First of all, the Big Bang is one of the best supported theories in science these days.

You're arguing with someone who denies it. I just wan't more bang for my buck. Tell me how the big bang "explains" WHY the universe exists rather than merely how.


Ahh, well pure bullshit. Relativity isn't incompatible with Newtonian mechanics,

Logically? It certainly is. Mathematically you can say one is an approximation to the other than holds in most cases we encounter in every day life. Is it time for me to ask you what "incompatible" means? "Compatible" doesn't mean "works and plays well with others" in my usage but refers to the laws of logic, in which ~P and P are incompatible. I hate it when the religious people need to be the ones insisting on logic.

Food for thought: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent then why in the hell does He permit Metafilter threads on religion to happen?


God created cortex.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:08 PM on September 28, 2009


&gt I am a huge populist, and tend to assert that whatever most people believe is what we should use as a functional definition for the sake of argument.

From a top google hit on a relevant query: "Newsweek polling found that 62 percent of Americans believe theirs to be a Christian nation – which, despite being down from 69 percent last year, is a formidable number."

By your logic we should be a Christian Nation as a matter of policy based on that populist sentiment. So you're comfortable with that, kathrineg?
posted by tarheelcoxn at 2:09 PM on September 28, 2009


SO I was reading through this religion thread on MeFi, same good old stuff, all about the Internet and the new support for atheism that didn't exist before, some arguments rehashed better or worse than before, then BAM like a pie in the face this footnote just hits me straight out of the 19th century:

[1] Roughly evenly split between Shintoists and Buddhists, if it matters.

And I'm just blown out of my seat, this comment is so backwards and completely misunderstanding what religion means in Japan or indeed anywhere, and that's when I remember what I always have to keep reminding myself about these religion threads on MeFi or forums or anywhere, which is that unlike Harvey Cox nobody here has actually read any literature on this topic except for maybe Nietzsche or Freud, neither of whom understood what they themselves meant by "religion", and once again I have arrived at that special place on the Internet where everyone is just throwing around words that they don't understand.
posted by shii at 2:12 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sure, the problem is that the values espoused by religion appear to be arbitrary and derived from an independent moral philosophy. "There is a God," seems to lead equally well to genocide as charity, and the argument that belief in God provides a moral compass seems to be fairly weak.


As it stands, I totally agree with you. A random invented religion can have any old values. So, what do your values come from? And on what grounds do you argue genocide as inferior to charity?
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:28 PM on September 28, 2009


Of course, people do make the argument that scientific inference is exactly the same sort of faith as belief in the Word of God in order to disagree with the Big Bang (which is essentially the same thing as arguing against the existence of gravity.)

Sure, and the problem with their argument is not that their argument is scientifically unsound - that would be a non sequitur. Their argument must be fought on aesthetic criteria ("is this the best interpretation of your scripture?" "why would God give us reason and then require us to disregard it?" "does it make your life better to disbelieve in science?" "what are the purposes of your belief anyway...and how does that relate to denying the big bang?" etc.).

For that matter as you probably are aware there's a good argument that all scientific hypotheses are also "confirmed" or "disconfirmed" based on aesthetic criteria (were gathering x,y,z pieces of evidence a good test or not)?
posted by shivohum at 2:34 PM on September 28, 2009


Value is derived from society, that's all.


If society told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?

It turns out someone already did my work for me. Read this.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:39 PM on September 28, 2009


shii Interesting that you don't bother telling me what speficically you found so mind blowingly stupid about what I wrote.

Its perfectly accurate. In polling roughly 60% of Japanese self identify as atheist or non-religious, 20% or so as Shintoist, and 20% or so as Buddhist.

Now, if you meant "the overwhelming majority of Japanese will be married in Shinto ceremonies and buried in Buddhist ceremonies regardless of their actual religious thoughts and attitudes" you are, of course, perfectly correct. But that's culture, not religious feeling.

The question is not, do Japanese people go to shrines to buy good luck charms, but rather do Japanese people actually believe that stuff, and the answer is about 40% do, and the rest just do it because its part of their culture.

Hell, when I was there I bought a few omamori (including one for "easy delivery", to hang on my ethernet cable as a joke). That doesn't make me a believer in any kami of Bodhisattva.

The "if it matters" was not meant to imply that there's no significant difference between Shintoism and Buddhism, there is and I have read academic papers on how those differences caused interesting problems historically. It meant "in the context of a general discussion of theism vs. atheism and people claimed need for religion the operative fact is that 40% of Japanese self identify as religious, and the specific religion is irrelevant to the discussion".
posted by sotonohito at 2:43 PM on September 28, 2009


sotonohito, it's mindblowingly ignorant because in the context of Japanese religion, Buddhism and Shintoism are labels without much actual meaning. A person of belief in Japan is, almost always, both Buddhist and Shinto. You seem like you start to understand this, but then you say "that's just culture" -- well, no. People actually believe in both, which is not hard to do. It's a relatively simple matter to include the Shinto naturalist deities in the pantheon of Buddhist ones.

You're asking the Pope if he thinks Aquinas was right or Augustine. The proper reaction is Wha?
posted by jock@law at 2:49 PM on September 28, 2009


I'm not sure whether this now counts as a de-rail, but I'll return, if I may, to the subject of TFA.

Falwell was a Fundamentalist: the word has a doctrinal meaning when applied to Christians. The worst you can accuse Dawkins of in this regard is having the same realist approach to Christianity that most Christians, whether Fundamentalist or not, apparently have (leaving aside for the moment the anthropological arguments about whether religion's apparently ontological statements are actually meant that way).

Calling that approach "fundamentalism" is to turn the word into a blunderbuss. The God Delusion sometimes descends into sniping, but there are arguments there. They're not all against Jerry Falwells's God (we know a song about that).
posted by pw201 at 2:57 PM on September 28, 2009


&gt I am a huge populist, and tend to assert that whatever most people believe is what we should use as a functional definition for the sake of argument.

From a top google hit on a relevant query: "Newsweek polling found that 62 percent of Americans believe theirs to be a Christian nation – which, despite being down from 69 percent last year, is a formidable number."

By your logic we should be a Christian Nation as a matter of policy based on that populist sentiment. So you're comfortable with that, kathrineg?


Read the rest of the comment; this time feel free to consider whether I say that populism should be the basis of public policy or law.
posted by kathrineg at 3:03 PM on September 28, 2009


jock@law Interestingly, I have a degree in Japanese history. I'm quite well informed about the realities of Japanese religion, both current and historic. I've written papers on the subject.

Which is why I know that you're not well informed here.

Yes, in fact, it is "just culture" to the majority of Japanese. You could say, and in fact I have, that the Japanese have turned "being Japanese" into a religion. But that's just snark, and shouldn't be taken to mean anything serious.

Most Japanese visit the graves of their ancestors, buy omamori, toss a few yen into the shrine's collection box, etc because its part of being Japanese, not because of any actual religious feelings or belief that there really are kami.

To the Japanese for whom the religious feelings are real, the distinction between Buddhist and Shintoist is significant, meaningful, and affects their life. No, the Japanese don't go in for Irish style Protestant/Catholic brawling on the topic. Quite the opposite, if anything. But if you told one of the 20% of Japanese who identify as Buddhist that their religion was Aquinas to the Augustine of Shintoism, they'd say you were full of it.

This isn't to say that the self described Shintoists won't have Buddhist funerals, or visit Buddhist temples from time to time. But they don't consider themselves to be an amalgam of Buddhist and Shintoist, they consider themselves to be Shintoist, that's why they identify themselves as such.

If that strikes you as being rather ambiguous and difficult to get a quick grip on, welcome to understanding Japan, lots of Westerners have a hard time with it. More study helps.
posted by sotonohito at 3:05 PM on September 28, 2009


sotonohito: Could you actually sincerely say that the people who answered "Shinto" in that survey do not believe in Buddhism? If so, there must be some sort of surge of support for nationalist exclusivism that I simply haven't heard of.

The question is not, do Japanese people go to shrines to buy good luck charms, but rather do Japanese people actually believe that stuff, and the answer is about 40% do, and the rest just do it because its part of their culture.

When you say "just ... because it's part of their culture", what exactly is your point? Does that mean that it's not good enough to be considered religious activity, or that the temples and shrines aren't doing their job? Or is it, as I suspect, that going to shrines "merely" to take pictures with your significant other and purchase good-luck charms is harmless because it does not conflict with Christianity?

This is not a new debate. When the early Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote a book to explain Japan to outsiders in 1890, he related an common error that repeats itself all too often today, for the same reasons that atheists believe their philosophy would work around the world:
On more than one occasion we have heard a Japanese asked by a European traveller what his religion was,—whether Buddhist or Shinto,—and have been amused at his look of blank perplexity. He could not, for the life of him, make out what the enquirer was driving at. It is the established custom to present infants at the Shinto family temple one month after birth. It is equally customary to be buried by the Buddhist parish priest. The inhabitants of each district contribute to the festivals of both religions alike, without being aware of any inconsistency. They do not draw the hard and fast distinctions with which we are familiar.
From the Meiji Constitution until 1945, Shinto was not considered a religion in Japan, except by a tiny minority of evangelical Shinto priests, one of whom went to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago-- the Americans were oblivious that he was presenting a case that Shinto should be considered religious rather than merely appearing as a representative of that category that is so obviously ubiquitous around the world. Anyway, most people disagreed. They knew what religion was, but Shinto was not included. It was just that thing that they did. Here is what a Japanese Christian wrote in 1934, hardly a peaceful time in that military period:
[It] is true that the shrines of state Shinto are the monuments and tombs of men who have rendered conspicious service for the state. In this respect they differ not at all from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and the Cenotaph in London.
There's more-- there's actually several dozen pages more, and I'll present it all next spring in Minnesota if you'd like to attend.

The words "culture" and "religion" that you use simply don't make sense in the context of Japan. Nor do they work in any other culture in the world. When we try to apply our categories to other people we will find they don't fit very well. We can try to force our ideals onto them, as we are now doing in the Middle East. Or we can realize our mistake.
posted by shii at 3:06 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Obscure Reference: Tell me how the big bang "explains" WHY the universe exists rather than merely how.

Well, what do you mean by "why?" If your question involves issues of question and meaning, well science doesn't pretend to answer that, and you need to go down the hall to philosophy or theology. That's never been an issue for debate.

Obscure Reference: Logically? It certainly is. Mathematically you can say one is an approximation to the other than holds in most cases we encounter in every day life. Is it time for me to ask you what "incompatible" means? "Compatible" doesn't mean "works and plays well with others" in my usage but refers to the laws of logic, in which ~P and P are incompatible. I hate it when the religious people need to be the ones insisting on logic.

Well we were not talking about logic, we were talking about science. Generally we say that theories are incompatible when they can't be reconciled into the same theoretical framework, and of course, theories are rejected if they don't have evidence to support them.

So Einstein's theory is compatible with Netwon's because it is a mathematical elaboration of Netwon's theory and makes the same predictions for most of its range. Likewise, Netwon's theories elaborate on those of Kepler, and Lemaitre and Hawking elaborated on Einstein. None of these theories are compatible with the concept of an aetheric medium through which light travels.

Quantitative genetics is compatible with Darwinian evolution, but not the evolutionary theories of Lamarck, Owen, or Lysenko. Which is one of the reasons why the latter are just historical curiosities.

Obscure Reference: As it stands, I totally agree with you. A random invented religion can have any old values. So, what do your values come from? And on what grounds do you argue genocide as inferior to charity?

Well, there are a fair variety of arguments along those lines, none of which require religion. I'll freely admit that my values are probably not philosophically rigorous, because I'm not a moral philosopher by any means. But I do get highly pissed off when people assume that I have no moral values at all because I don't have a religion, or am mistaken regarding the entirely secular nature of my values.

shivohum: Sure, and the problem with their argument is not that their argument is scientifically unsound - that would be a non sequitur. Their argument must be fought on aesthetic criteria ("is this the best interpretation of your scripture?" "why would God give us reason and then require us to disregard it?" "does it make your life better to disbelieve in science?" "what are the purposes of your belief anyway...and how does that relate to denying the big bang?" etc.).

I'd say aesthetics has little to do with it, being a completely different field of philosophical inquiry. Their argument is epistemologically unsound because it's trivial to show that the methodology of generalizing from a multitude of different points of data is more sound than the methodology of generalizing from a literary work of uncertain provenance. (With the associated caveats as to the limitations of the knowledge gained, and such knowledge will be open to later revision.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:39 PM on September 28, 2009


> Show me evidence, and I'll accept that a deity exists. All I ask is for evidence, absent evidence I ask you this: why should I waste my time and energy believing?

If you find believing in a deity takes time and energy, I respectfully submit that you are Doing It Wrong. I don't need to show you any evidence that the scientific method makes the world a better place, because we've both accepted that premise, despite evidence to the contrary¹. Would it change your life for the better if you started from the premise that we were put here with a purpose and that purpose includes promoting Peace and Love? If both the premises I just gave are in fact wrong if we objectively evaluate the evidence, what then?

I look at Cox's work and I smile because I see Good Things. You look at it and see... what? I feel like you're threatened by him. Am I reading that wrong?

Faith, in the religious sense, is utterly absent (or should be anyway) from science.

I have to laugh at this. There is some very clear big-F Faith that goes into what gets cited and why, what tests are considered valid and why, etc. Why do you think prefrontal had to publish a paper on fMRIs of dead fish? It's precisely the fact that despite the best practices, software, etc. in place, a sizable minority of fMRI papers still got published using the faulty statistical methods.

This doesn't even get into the Born Again follks who make up a non-trivial portion of the population in even some of the hard sciences. I went to public boarding/magnet school for science and math for 11th and 12th grades, and I distinctly remember the physicist a Christian group brought in for a talk. I ended up walking out on the talk; I definitely didn't believe in his God.

My mom sat on a hiring committee at a university that shall remain nameless. There were nods around the table when another person proclaimed that they needed somebody from an Ivy to fill the position. I've worked on lots of grants and worked with grant writers, and it's clear that funding is the same market: a reputation market. There's some evidence, yes, but evidence is not the whole story. Oh, and tenure? How is tenure not a religion? Academia just oozes with the sort of Faith that I love. I don't pretend we can justify our kooky habits, and I think you should stop trying, because as somebody who doesn't go to church on Sunday I feel like it makes us both look bad.

Put another way entirely: why do you think Science should be so pristine? Should people not care about their Erdős number? I'm only half joking here.

I'll tell you what I believe in: I believe in a world where academics respect and admire the Christians who work hard for Peace and Justice, the Christians who diligently guard the books—even the ones they disagree with—for centuries. We respect them in their efforts to be Christlike. Why do I believe in such a world? You're telling me the evidence suggests these people are delusional and are doing more harm that good? I'm telling you that I've grown up surrounded by Christians, and yes, there have been some real kooks, but they've been no kookier than a few sysadmins and physics majors I've met, and two of my rather well-adjusted roll models arose every morning reliably and prayed before eating a meal. I take it on faith that respecting and admiring these people and the social structures they support is a Good Thing. I could go on about how skepticism is good and healthy too, and how tenure actually does suck, but maybe I should stop because this is turning rantish.

¹ Atomic weapons, people of high religiosity self-reporting as happier, islands of plastic bags in the pacific... there are plenty of examples of the science/technology that we've produced with our beloved scientific method failing to make the world better.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 3:43 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


Read the rest of the comment; this time feel free to consider whether I say that populism should be the basis of public policy or law.

Please explain your comment, because I'm apparently too dumb to understand what you think populism is good for.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 3:48 PM on September 28, 2009


tarheelcoxn: I look at Cox's work and I smile because I see Good Things. You look at it and see... what? I feel like you're threatened by him. Am I reading that wrong?

I think that Cox makes the same lazy mistakes that characterizes most published statements theists make regarding atheists: 1) that we can't be both atheist and open to evidence, and 2) that we react against fundamentalist religion in ignorance of the liberalization of faith from some quarters.

My objection to Cox is that he's chosen to mischaracterize my beliefs and values, in order to make his moderate views look more reasonable. If Cox wants to turn his congregations into social justice love-ins, good for him, he doesn't need to turn me into the secular boogeyman to do it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:53 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


tarheelcoxn: And sure, I'll freely cop to the fact that institutions and individuals are often loaded with bias.

Does that particularly mean that the methods are unsound and should be abandoned? And for what?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:56 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd say aesthetics has little to do with it, being a completely different field of philosophical inquiry.

I'm using aesthetic in a broad sense, like you said in one of your earlier responses (speaking of "purely aesthetic" worldviews).

Their argument is epistemologically unsound because it's trivial to show that the methodology of generalizing from a multitude of different points of data is more sound than the methodology of generalizing from a literary work of uncertain provenance. (With the associated caveats as to the limitations of the knowledge gained, and such knowledge will be open to later revision.)

You can only show that something is "more sound" if there's a common basis of soundness. If they believe their scriptural assumption trumps scientific induction in the particular hierarchy of alogical values they possess, you can't show squat based on the quality of the generalization.

"You can't show squat" meaning both philosophically that you'd have to make an aesthetic, not a scientific, argument to dispute them (the quality of data from which to generalize is a scientific argument...but they don't accept science as that important) AND that from a persuasive/pragmatic standpoint, you'd similarly be better off by addressing them from their point of view.
posted by shivohum at 4:11 PM on September 28, 2009


Well we were not talking about logic, we were talking about science.

So you're saying our notions of incompatibility are, uh, incompatible? I'm changing my mind about idiopath's new rule! And they say no one's mind was ever changed on the internet!

I do get highly pissed off when people assume that I have no moral values at all because I don't have a religion, or am mistaken regarding the entirely secular nature of my values.

Well, I certainly never implied the former, but explain to me what is meant by the secular nature of your values. Are you saying there's no underlying belief system? Or just that you don't like to consider the underlying system a religion? Maybe our notions here are also incompatible.

Don't feel you have to answer if you're not having a good time. I'm trying to piss anyone off.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:17 PM on September 28, 2009


Atheists who have values need to address on what these values are based. Which they can do without God, but not by sticking to facts and rationality. Ought can't be derived from is. Thing is, the non-religious like to say they only accept proven facts, yet the non-psychopaths among them also accept some values, usually ones they haven't thought through.

Even if "because God said so" was the ultimate source of all values, though, that situation would still have an is/ought problem - unless you explicitly define "ought" as "what God wants," which is kind of cheating.

I'm not really sure what point you're making here, though. Prescriptive or normative ethics is generally considered to be the domain of philosophy, not of science, but there are certainly approaches to ethical philosophy that are secular in nature. So, people are addressing it today (e.g., Rawls, Nozick, Walzer), and have been for centuries (e.g. Epicurus, Mill). On preview, I think your question can be answered by saying that these systems are assembled without reference to a higher deity, which is the defining feature of religion.

Would it change your life for the better if you started from the premise that we were put here with a purpose and that purpose includes promoting Peace and Love? If both the premises I just gave are in fact wrong if we objectively evaluate the evidence, what then?

You can certainly decide to dedicate yourself to promoting the values of peace and love without religious reasons for doing so. I'm certainly not an expert in philosophy, but I think the idea of the virtuous life (as in, a life lived according to specific principles or virtues) as a foundation for ethics goes back at least to Aristotle.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:54 PM on September 28, 2009


Tell me how the big bang "explains" WHY the universe exists rather than merely how.

Well, obviously it doesn't. There is no why. Why do you feel there must be meaning to existence? It just is. Science can attempt to describe how it exists, how it came into being, etc (although it may fail, because we may simply never be able to gain the knowledge necessary to explain everything - or perhaps it's too complex to truly understand, the way most people will never understand the trickier parts of theoretical math), but it doesn't attempt to explain why things happen. But like I said, even the question "why" implies that there is a why to begin with, which I see no reason to believe.
posted by wildcrdj at 5:07 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


explicitly define "ought" as "what God wants," which is kind of cheating.

Why is that cheating? I mean, you'd have to explain how you know what He wants, and such, but I don't see why it's cheating.

Prescriptive or normative ethics is generally considered to be the domain of philosophy, not of science

Yet if someone claims religion is a separate domain from science, people want to start a fight about it, or declare it an invalid domain because it's not science.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:07 PM on September 28, 2009


> I can't comprehend the infinite wonder and majesty of the universe and so it is helpful to me to create something more closely related to my experience. The universe is definitely awesome and incredible, but it's also big and dark and scary and, to paraphrase Terry Prachett, I need something to help me bring light into dark places.

I'd just like to toss in that I think it's awesome that you are up-front about the fact that you're using a metaphor that's not rational or perfect to help you get by. I'd also like to point out that we do this for introductory physics students. We tell Lies to Children about concepts like friction. This is a good thing. :)

I'd also like to toss out that Cox in particular was responsible for promoting the sort of theology that helps bring light to dark places. I humbly submit that if you've been resisting reading about Liberation theology you could do worse than spend a few minutes on it.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 5:07 PM on September 28, 2009


There is no why. Why do you feel there must be meaning to existence?

What's the meaning of meaning? Do you have any goals in your life? What are they based on? To what extent do you rationally choose them?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:12 PM on September 28, 2009


Boy, am I glad I'm not participating on this thread.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:22 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why do you feel there must be meaning to existence?

That, right there, is a deep question. Is it logical to care enough about the universe to actually investigate and try to understand it?
posted by The World Famous at 5:22 PM on September 28, 2009


shivohum: The problem as I see it is that your everything is equal solipsism is its self, nothing more than an alogical and aesthetic preference, which can't be reasonably argued against fundamentalism, scientism, or my pragmatic acceptance of science for some questions with some caveats. It's not a new argument, but it's a philosophically unreasonable one. And I'll hang my hat with those who admit that it's a thorny problem, but still have some compelling arguments that some forms of knowing are more reasonable than others.

Obscure Reference: Or just that you don't like to consider the underlying system a religion?

Well, to break down the many definitions of religion that are commonly used. My values are not based on a supernatural belief in a god, gods, or soul. My values are not adopted as part of a community commonly identified as "religious." And my values are not based on a ritualized set of ceremonial practices commonly identified as "religious."

Obscure Reference: Yet if someone claims religion is a separate domain from science, people want to start a fight about it, or declare it an invalid domain because it's not science.

Oh, I'm not claiming it's an invalid domain. I'm claiming that I don't find arguments for religion to be convincing. Well, some religions I find to be clearly wrong, others I find intellectually interesting but flawed, and others I find plausible but unconvincing.

The World Famous: That, right there, is a deep question. Is it logical to care enough about the universe to actually investigate and try to understand it?

Probably not, but I don't feel that's a choice that needs to be logically justified.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:28 PM on September 28, 2009


Why is that cheating? I mean, you'd have to explain how you know what He wants, and such, but I don't see why it's cheating.

Well, it may be what God wants, but that still leaves the question of why you should do what God wants. The is/ought distinction still stands.

Yet if someone claims religion is a separate domain from science, people want to start a fight about it, or declare it an invalid domain because it's not science.

The objection as I understand it is not that only science is worth pursuing (after all, I doubt even the most hardened of militant atheists would be opposed to artistic expression). I think for many the objection is rather that religion requires beliefs (i.e., in a higher deity) which are thought to be at best unnecessary and at worst damaging.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:33 PM on September 28, 2009


> I liked your earlier posts, and goodness knows I'm guilty of this myself sometimes, but I'd appreciate it if you tried to be less fighty

lock@jaw I think this describes my feelings about you in this thread perfectly. :/
posted by tarheelcoxn at 5:39 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


en forme de poire: My objection comes when people use the problem that science isn't perfect to demand that attention be given to supernatural explanations for scientific phenomena.

Along with my other criticisms of Cox that he's playing fast and loose with the definition of "atheist" to make his point, that he assumes those of us who identify as such are ignorant of liberal religious movements, and that we threaten some sort of tyranny or discrimination if not balanced by moderates like him.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:49 PM on September 28, 2009


It's part of the definition of God that one ought to do what He wants. I suppose that can be considered cheating since, like Descartes speculates, one might be prey to an evil demon pretending to be God.

I think for many the objection is rather that religion requires beliefs (i.e., in a higher deity) which are thought to be at best unnecessary and at worst damaging.

Yes, an inferior, or harmful domain. Though some, like Wittgenstein, thought the domain of philosophy was the disease for which it ought to be the cure.

Ultimately, my beliefs are not random but come from (the domain of) my experience. And, as these are not your experience, they seem weird. And even unaesthetic. I felt that way at one time. Sometimes I try and describe how I got from there to here, but I'm not good at it. Cox is a much better writer than I am. (attempt to un-derail)
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:52 PM on September 28, 2009


Boy, am I glad I'm not participating on this thread.

I hear ya.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:09 PM on September 28, 2009


Read the rest of the comment; this time feel free to consider whether I say that populism should be the basis of public policy or law.

Please explain your comment, because I'm apparently too dumb to understand what you think populism is good for.


I tend to assert that whatever most people believe is what we should use as a functional definition for the sake of argument. Of course, that's sort of stupid when I attempt to map those populist definitions onto the same terms that are being used to talk about a conversation that is mostly held within a small sphere of highly specialized people with its own vocabulary.

I really have no idea why you feel that particular statement has anything to do with public policy or law or anything beyond the specific context that I placed it in.
posted by kathrineg at 6:11 PM on September 28, 2009


The problem as I see it is that your everything is equal solipsism is its self, nothing more than an alogical and aesthetic preference, which can't be reasonably argued against fundamentalism, scientism, or my pragmatic acceptance of science for some questions with some caveats.

I think the problem is that you're confusing the fact that a worldview is of a certain (aesthetic) character with the idea that it is indisputable, and, as I've tried to say, that simply is not my position. I only hold that the disputes are of a different, more subjective character than empirical argument, and science too is grounded in this subjectivity. Recognizing subjectivity does not mean resigning oneself to the impossibility of constructive dialogue. Speaking of which, thanks for the debate.
posted by shivohum at 6:14 PM on September 28, 2009


> If Cox wants to turn his congregations into social justice love-ins, good for him, he doesn't need to turn me into the secular boogeyman to do it.

Ah. See, when I read the “When I meet somebody who says, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ I say, ‘Describe the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either’” bit I picture not an educated mefite, but rather a surly undergraduate who hasn’t hashed out the arguments the way you clearly already have. Perhaps it is condescending. Hadn’t thought of it that way. Honestly I don’t think Cox has managed to—or even tried to, for that matter—turn you into a boogeyman. Dawkins? Yes. You? No. Maybe you were talking about his chunk: “An atheist seems to me a person who has searched out and thought about all the options and insists there isn’t any God or anything like God, and I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.” I do agree that that's a straw man, but it's not far off the mark when it comes to Dawkins in the very narrow sense that Dawkins doesn’t spend his time just living his life and not thinking about God; he spends his time essentially evangelizing atheism and making money off that enterprise. Not that I fault him for it. He does come off like a dick and makes me cringe when I hear him talk, though. :(
posted by tarheelcoxn at 6:19 PM on September 28, 2009


> I really have no idea why you feel that particular statement has anything to do with public policy or law or anything beyond the specific context that I placed it in.

Because your original had “I am a huge populist, and tend to assert...” and I don’t buy that you’re a populist in any way, shape or form. I think you were abusing the term populist, which is odd because you are so often articulate and because you were abusing other people about definitions.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 6:25 PM on September 28, 2009


tarheelcoxn: I've been trying. But I feel there is a wicked double-standard going on in this thread in that it appears to be quite acceptable to attack my beliefs with both barrels, and support an interview with claims that are grounded in what I find to be offensive stereotypes, but responding is "fighty." I've been trying and I'm open to suggestions.

shivohum: I only hold that the disputes are of a different, more subjective character than empirical argument, and science too is grounded in this subjectivity.

Sure, and I hold that there has been about 300 years of philosophical inquiry (not science) since Hume that wrestles with the problem of subjectivity. Sure, there are problems with science as a epistemology, but in terms of understanding the universe, most of the alternatives are even more problematic. When I say that theism's attempts to move into the realm of science are problematic, it's not just the lack of evidence, it's a methodology that uses circular logic to reach an a priori conclusion.

tarheelcoxn: Well, perhaps I am a bit twitchy on this. But he's making arguments that I find to be common stereotypes that don't reflect my beliefs or position as an atheist. On the positive side, I can agree with his assertion that more secularism is a good thing, and that we should be a part of the conversations. On the other side, the whole good agnostic/bad atheist thing really grates on my nerves.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:38 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


On the positive side, I can agree with his assertion that more secularism is a good thing, and that we should be a part of the conversations. On the other side, the whole good agnostic/bad atheist thing really grates on my nerves.

Fair enough. I think maybe the title of this post was "fighty" and inaccurate, which got us into that mode in the first place and isn't really fair to Cox. And to respond to your earlier question, no, I definitely don't think we should abandon the scientific method, but we definitely should fix the broken publish-or-perish path to tenure where it hurts us, and I do think it hurts us. Or maybe we should abandon tenure. I don't know, but I do know that as a scientific community (at least the academic chunk of it) we tend to be rather unscientific about our careers.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 7:16 PM on September 28, 2009


If you mean answer why there's something rather than nothing, God does better than the big bang.

All it does is kick the can down the road. You still have no answer for why God exists.
posted by empath at 7:53 PM on September 28, 2009


An atheist seems to me a person who has searched out and thought about all the options and insists there isn’t any God or anything like God, and I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind.

That doesn't describe me, and I consider myself an atheist. I spent a lot of time thinking about the existence or non-existence of God in the past and came to the conclusion that he almost definitely doesn't exist and I'm not really going to revisit the question unless new evidence comes up. Some might classify that as agnosticism, but I agnosticism implies a wishy-washiness about the question that I personally don't have. I'm as convinced that God doesn't exist as I am that the Sun is going to rise tomorrow. Might it not? Sure, but I'm not preparing for the possibility.
posted by empath at 7:57 PM on September 28, 2009


It's part of the definition of God that one ought to do what He wants.

I guess the point that I'm making is that you seemed to be saying earlier that prescriptive ethics can't be deduced, only assumed, and so atheists have unexamined assumptions in their moral foundations (e.g., for utilitarians, you may know that certain actions will minimize suffering, but why is it good for people to be free of suffering?). I'm arguing that the same thing is true for religion (you may know that God likes something, but why is it good to do what God likes?) -- it's just obscured because these assumptions are part of the common definition of God. That is, belief in God incorporates both 1) the belief in a supernatural being and 2) the belief that one should do what He says.

Yes, an inferior, or harmful domain.

To be clear, I personally think there are plenty of counterexamples to the school of thought that religious beliefs are damaging -- Gandhi and the Catholic Worker spring to mind, as well as more generally the Liberation theology that was mentioned upstream and in the last article (thanks for the link, tarheelcoxn). My point was more meant to be that there are objections to religion that don't criticize it for not being located in the domain of empirical facts, but rather for being a non-parsimonious model of the world.

In any case, a much more pressing concern, and one that I can entirely get behind, is the problem that KJS identifies here:

My objection comes when people use the problem that science isn't perfect to demand that attention be given to supernatural explanations for scientific phenomena.

Anyway, sorry for the continuation of the derail.

I thought there was actually quite a bit to like in the above articles, but I share the concerns KJS and empath brought up about Cox's characterization of atheism. I also took a little issue with the framing that atheism and secular humanism are beneficial primarily because they act as extreme views to balance fundamentalism, rather than because they are important alternative worldviews in their own right. (Also, suggesting that politicians not go after the secular humanist vote certainly reflects the prevailing political reality, but it was still kind of a cheap shot.) The last linked article, though, is quite fascinating and made me want to read more about the work he cites in Latin America and the USSR.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:28 PM on September 28, 2009


I guess the point that I'm making is that you seemed to be saying earlier that prescriptive ethics can't be deduced, only assumed, and so atheists have unexamined assumptions in their moral foundations (e.g., for utilitarians, you may know that certain actions will minimize suffering, but why is it good for people to be free of suffering?). I'm arguing that the same thing is true for religion (you may know that God likes something, but why is it good to do what God likes?) -- it's just obscured because these assumptions are part of the common definition of God. That is, belief in God incorporates both 1) the belief in a supernatural being and 2) the belief that one should do what He say

The difference is that that while the theist can't be sure that God is good, there is at least the possibility that God represents a meaningful foundation for morality.

But I can't see any hope for the atheist that moral judgments are anything but an expression of opinion. If atheists are right, then our desires for justice are no different from our desires for sex or power or chocolate. And if my personal desire for power is stronger than my desire for justice, I see nothing the atheist can offer me but threats and bribes to convince me I ought to choose justice. The atheist offers me no hope that it is even possible to choose justice if that's not the way my genes and environment have shaped me.

The possibility that God exists at least offers the hope that good and evil are meaningful terms that I could use to judge and order my desires. And if God exists, then there is at least a hope that human beings can transcend the biological and cultural forces that seem to determine our behavior. Hope that it is still possible to choose compassion and generosity even if biology and history have conditioned me to be more strongly inclined to selfishness, greed, envy, contempt, etc.

I certainly don't deny that there are atheists who are very moral people, but I don't think it makes any sense. If atheists are right, free will is an illusion. Not only is there no real reason to be good unless I get something out of it, it's not even possible to be anything better than the sum of my desires, whatever they happen to be.

To put it another way, my vision of true morality is that some day Dick Cheney might come to believe that torturing people is evil, that his role in having people tortured was evil, and that he ought to do everything in his power to end torture and try to make any restitution possible to his victims. And that he would believe this not because someone is holding a gun to his head, not because he's afraid of hell, not because lots of people hate him, not because he thinks it's in his best interest or America's best interest, not because he's decided that a world without torture would make him feel good inside or help him sleep at night. But rather he would believe that people have worth that is more fundamental than anyone's opinion, a worth that is valid whether all of humanity recognizes it or no one recognizes it. I can't see how atheism could possibly underwrite such a vision.
posted by straight at 9:42 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Except that Cheney and Bush are just as convinced that what they did was God's will, and who are you to say it's not?

What if it is God's will to torture and abuse prisoners, and kill unbelievers. Would that make torturing and abusing prisoners and killing unbelievers good? Can you judge God's actions as being good or evil outside of what God declares to be good or evil?

What if your god tells you to kidnap enemy soldiers and sacrifice them en masse to ensure the sun rises in the morning and the rains come to cause the crops to grow?

Morality based on religion is just as arbitrary as morality based on pragmatism or utilitarianism.

People do 'good' because of societal pressure and because human nature is simply to treat other human beings decently (as long as they're in your social unit, however it's defined).

I think it's probably best to think of moral codes the same way that mathematicians do math. You accept certain principles as axiomatic and derive the rest from that -- if you want to start with utilitarianism, that's one way -- if you want to be a pragmatist, that's another way, and if you want to be a hedonist, that's another way. You don't even have to accept that the axioms are true -- they only need to be useful.

It is entirely possible to derive a moral code from a set of axioms that doesn't include god and many people have done it throughout history. To say that it doesn't betrays a staggering amount of ignorance of the last 3000 years of philosophical inquiry.
posted by empath at 10:27 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


If atheists are right, free will is an illusion.

Btw, what does free will have to do with atheism? Calvinists don't believe humans have any free will at all.

And many atheists will argue that free will does exist. You really need to read more philosophy, because you haven't a clue what you're talking about.
posted by empath at 10:35 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm going to be less fighty in the face of an obvious display of ignorance and prejudice, and just echo what empath said.

But I'll make the case that theists come to moral conclusions the same way that atheists do. We sit down and think hard about how certain principles apply to our actions. How is it that you can say that a religious interpretation of inherent human worth is more reasonable than a religious interpretation of just warfare against demon-led foes?

If anything, the fact that almost every society has philosophy of good vs. harmful acts, but many societies lack a singular lawgiving God should tell you something.

And meanwhile, please, there are hundreds of moral philosophers you could be reading who will lay out multiple arguments for various moral values.

And let me give you a hint, it's reasonable to argue that each human life is uncountably precious, because the circumstances of human existence are highly improbable in the vast scheme of things.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:39 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The possibility that God exists at least offers the hope that good and evil are meaningful terms that I could use to judge and order my desires.

Let me ask you this -- if you prayed, and God spoke to you, and you knew for sure it was God, and God asked you to kill your own child -- would you do it? Why or why not? Would that be right or wrong?

Would it be right or wrong for someone else to harm you to stop you from doing it? Why or why not?

And don't say that God wouldn't ask that, because he did it, according to the Bible.
posted by empath at 10:40 PM on September 28, 2009


For further reading:

Ethical Systems

Some of those are based on religion, the vast majority are not.
posted by empath at 10:51 PM on September 28, 2009


@straight: This basically boils down to the "if there is no God, everything is permitted" argument, which basically equates atheism with meta-ethical relativism. I don't want to push this farther off-topic, but the short version is that ethical reasoning in the absence of a deity has been around since antiquity, that while genes and environment might help to explain behavior they certainly do not have to justify it, and that the ethics an atheist arrives at can take the form of moral absolutes. I tossed out a few references here if you're curious; if I stumble on a more cohesive summary of thought on this subject I'll pass it on.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:14 PM on September 28, 2009


Didn't we argue about god last week? Let's argue about potato chips.
posted by tehloki at 1:02 AM on September 29, 2009


I think you'll find they're called crisps, old chap.
posted by Grangousier at 1:03 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


IT'S CHIPS YOU LIMEY ASSHOLE
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:07 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


KirkJobSluder and en forme de poire, thank you for the irenic responses.

I'm aware that there have been lots of attempts to justify morality without theism. I'm just saying that I find all of them unsatisfying and unpersuasive. For instance:

And let me give you a hint, it's reasonable to argue that each human life is uncountably precious, because the circumstances of human existence are highly improbable in the vast scheme of things.

This just seems to me like an elaboration of your feelings and preferences. "I like snowflakes because every one of them is unique. I like chocolate because of the creamy texture. I value humans because intelligent life is rare." Why should I sacrifice my desires for the sake of other people just because your heart is warmed by the thought of how improbable human life is?

Sure, acts of love and compassion can make me feel good, but so can sex, power, and the lamentation of my enemies. Why should I choose compassion when selfishness can make me feel good with far less effort and sacrifice?

No, I haven't read every philosopher you mention or allude to, but has anyone really come up with a compelling account of morality that is more than a fancy way of saying "I like compassion and justice and I think you should like it too"?
posted by straight at 2:36 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


what does free will have to do with atheism?

Human beings are subject to the laws of cause and effect like everything else in the universe. The only way I can see that humans could be anything more than the sum of the causes and effects that precede them (plus some quantum randomness, perhaps -- which is certainly not the same as free will) is if there is some spiritual component to human nature.

And many atheists will argue that free will does exist.

You linked to a paragraph about Sartre in which he "argues" against determinism by waving his hand and defining the problem away: either man is wholly determined (which is inadmissible, especially because a determined consciousness-IE, a consciousness externally motivated-becomes pure exteriority and ceases to be consciousness)

No explanation of how such a thing as an "undetermined consciousness" could possibly exist. Do you have a better example of an atheist explaining how human beings could be any more free from the laws of cause and effect than a computer program? Or a rock?

Let me ask you this -- if you prayed, and God spoke to you, and you knew for sure it was God, and God asked you to kill your own child -- would you do it? Why or why not? Would that be right or wrong?

No. But then there are plenty of things in the Bible that I already think are genuinely good and genuinely from God but that I don't do. I own two coats even though there are people who have none.

Look, I'm not saying that theism guarantees that the theist's morality is infallible, or maybe not even any better than the atheist's moral code. What I'm saying is theism gives us a reason to believe that Right and Wrong might have some some meaning greater than simply a description of behavior that many of us happen to like. If there is such a thing as Right and Wrong (with capital letters), I would think all human beings would have some sense of it, whether they believed in God or not.
posted by straight at 3:04 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think you understood my point. I was merely observing that today your "ought" is merely "suffering sux0rz" while your "is" is hundreds of hours of scientist, statistician, programmer, and computer time. All reasonable moral systems accept "suffering sux0rz". All reasonable modern moral arguments use this utilitarian moral metric. So only the evidence & analysis arguing that "AT&T raising SMS prices" implies "people suffer" matters. Yeah fine your "is-ought" gap may still exists, but why should anyone care?

I mean, I'm happy if a priest finds inspiration in this analysis to give a sermon on Christian values and switching from AT&T to T-mobile. But the "Christian value" underlying sermon is still "suffering sux0rz", which was proved outside any moral framework, and people mostly agree upon in principle. (see Peter Singer's comments)

p.s. I personally imagine the second derivative of the rate of technological advancement could become another moral metric which is preferable to minimizing suffering, but I doubt we'll see any divergence within my lifetime, definitely not today.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:42 AM on September 29, 2009


"The earth is round. It's just a fact. If you think differently, you're wrong, and possibly crazy."
"Such arrogance! I don't want you raising my children. A nice spherist, maybe, who accepts and gives equal airtime to the flat earth perspective, but I've had it with you arrogant 'facters'."

Stupid old dickwad.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:46 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


straight: I'm aware that there have been lots of attempts to justify morality without theism. I'm just saying that I find all of them unsatisfying and unpersuasive. For instance:

Saying that you don't find secular frameworks to be persuasive is a vastly different statement from saying that you have trouble understanding why atheists are moral at all.

straight: This just seems to me like an elaboration of your feelings and preferences. "I like snowflakes because every one of them is unique. I like chocolate because of the creamy texture. I value humans because intelligent life is rare." Why should I sacrifice my desires for the sake of other people just because your heart is warmed by the thought of how improbable human life is?

Well, first of all the reduction of an argument that each person has intrinsic worth to simply a personal preference is just plain stupid.

Secondly, why should I sacrifice my desires for the sake of other people just because your heart is warmed by the thought of God?

straight: Human beings are subject to the laws of cause and effect like everything else in the universe. The only way I can see that humans could be anything more than the sum of the causes and effects that precede them (plus some quantum randomness, perhaps -- which is certainly not the same as free will) is if there is some spiritual component to human nature.

Why do you insist on projecting your personal prejudices, failings as a moral person, and lack of imagination onto a philosophy you also insist you don't understand or subscribe to? And why do you call out atheists for handwaving when your appeal to a spiritual component is a blatantly cheap and sentimental handwave?

Which, I get rather tired of saying "I believe foo" and hearing "No! If you are an atheist, you must believe bar," because bar is an easier argument for you to attack.

straight: What I'm saying is theism gives us a reason to believe that Right and Wrong might have some some meaning greater than simply a description of behavior that many of us happen to like. If there is such a thing as Right and Wrong (with capital letters), I would think all human beings would have some sense of it, whether they believed in God or not.

Sure, and there are a few hundred other reasons out there. You don't get the right to cling to a cheap out that makes your heart warm and fuzzy and criticize others for coping to the fact that moral philosophy is hard.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:29 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


OK here's what I believe. I have a soul. This is something I know a priori. I am not just an input/output system with a central processor. I experience the world in terms of qualia. I have sensations, thoughts, and emotions.

Whether or not this is an emergent property of the laws of nature doesn't matter (assuming all of reality operates according to perfectly rational, mehanistic laws).

The fact is my soul travels through existence on a plane that doesn't make sense when I try to reduce it to the interactions of atoms and subatomic particles. There is just too much that is unknown about how reality works for me to discount my visceral, souful experiences.

To me faith is an existential decision, and not an entirely rational one. To me, belief is not so much about declaring "I KNOW there is a God, who is omnipotent and omniscient, ect, ect. . " It is more of a process of exploration, discovery, searching for divinity, connecting with other souls, hoping there is a benevolent force, and pondering possibilities. Sometimes I delude myself, sometimes I don't. At times I will grasp a fleeting sensation of the divine. Sometimes it takes the form of an overwhelming and all-consuming sense of compassion. Sometimes it happens when I'm out with friends at a bar and the perfect song comes on the jukebox and for a moment I feel less alone in the world.

You can all these experiences "emergent phenomenon" if you wish, but I don't believe you have enough evidence to know that for sure. Besides, that concept is so far removed from the way I experience the world, it only has an abstract meaning to me.

You may call this handwaving and I don't care. I have only this one soul, and I'm not going to waste it worrying about what rules it operates by, if any.
posted by Acromion at 6:03 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Limey Asshole is actually one of the new flavours that Walker's tried out last year.

OT

If religion helps to restrain the less morally capable amongst us (such as those on the anti-social behaviour disorder spectrum) from harming other people, then maybe some good may come of it. These people cannot be compelled to act based on their compassion, as they are likely to have none, and must be threatened with personal pain in order to motivate them AFAIK. Obviously, from time to time such people attain a position of power within *arbitrary* organisation and enact a whole bunch of destructive behaviour, so whether or not religion helps society deal with such people is questionable.

posted by asok at 6:22 AM on September 29, 2009


On a more sober note, it's certainly true that moral philosophy is loaded with axioms about Right and Wrong that are difficult to justify with ironclad proof. However the transcendental moral argument for God strikes me as a circular one. God is necessary to make certain moral problems less thorny, therefore God exists. God exists, therefore, certain moral problems are less thorny.

The problem is that I don't really think that God does much to simplify moral philosophy. Before you can make a Christian ethical argument regarding the state of the American health care system, you have to start with a whole bunch of statements about the nature of God: God exists, God is concerned with human well-being, God wants us to be happy, God considers charity in service the general welfare to be a virtue. Rather than a framework based on whether a public policy is consistent with the reasonable applications of certain principles, your framework must make some claims as to the nature of God.

Which is where the criticism comes from that cultures make God in their moral and ethical image.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:46 AM on September 29, 2009


I say this in no way to denigrate the lack of belief of those who are atheists

That is the sweetest thing nobody ever said to me.
posted by srboisvert at 7:11 AM on September 29, 2009


If there is such a thing as Right and Wrong (with capital letters), I would think all human beings would have some sense of it, whether they believed in God or not.

Actually, people do argue that such a sense of justice is intrinsic to humanity, and is part of what makes us human. It's obviously still a leap from a description of our psychology to a moral value, although for me this is not so difficult an axiom to accept: if a sense of justice and empathy is not valued, then it becomes a liability. So, the alternative becomes a world run by sociopaths, who would have an "advantage" by being unencumbered by ideas like reciprocity and caring for one's fellow humans. If this isn't the world you want to live in, then I think the choice is pretty clear.

(This actually ties in with asok's point above: the secular alternative to the religious influence on the sociopathic is the law, which in part functions to add an extra penalty to antisocial behavior, in case someone was born without a conscience or allowed it to be overridden.)

The problem is that I don't really think that God does much to simplify moral philosophy.

This.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:50 AM on September 29, 2009


KirkJobSluder: "On the positive side, I can agree with his assertion that more secularism is a good thing, and that we should be a part of the conversations."

Actually, Cox derides secularism as any sort of movement and says that he is in favor of secularization. Which, I suppose, should be done at the behest of non-secularists.
posted by kathrineg at 8:46 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


straight: "What I'm saying is theism gives us a reason to believe that Right and Wrong might have some some meaning greater than simply a description of behavior that many of us happen to like. If there is such a thing as Right and Wrong (with capital letters), I would think all human beings would have some sense of it, whether they believed in God or not."

If all human beings have some sense of right and wrong, why do we need god to add some greater meaning? Is it just to add an authority so that we can off-load some of the burden of judgment?

There is a lot of beauty and responsibility in the idea that we are responsible for determining right and wrong as a community as well as for ourselves. I think shoving some of that responsibility onto a god is unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive. Especially as that god is usually constrained and taught by humans with the same flaws and limitations that we all have.
posted by kathrineg at 9:04 AM on September 29, 2009


There are, of course, religions outside of the Judeo/Christian realm that specify that you do NOT take things on faith, but rather demand evidence. Hell, you can have whole religions without a G-d figure at all!

(Yes, I'm a Buddhist who can't bring herself to type the word "G-d" with the vowel for quasi-superstitious reasons. If ze's out there, I don't want to be all coopting hir perspective on anything.)

Yeah, it sticks in my craw a bit to have "religion" used to mean exclusively theistic religions, specifically those of the Abrahamic tradition.

But anyway: the Buddha said to basically not believe anything you can't prove, even if he's the one who said it. ESPECIALLY if he's the one who said it. So, religion and the scientific method aren't always at odds. Faith, yes. I heard a really good description of faith as "believing that which you know isn't true." So yeah, faith doesn't hold up to the standards of scientific scrutiny. But not all religions require faith.

Also: not to bash the scientific method over here, but it's not entirely without flaws. You can find data to support nearly any conclusion you can come up with. It's not like science is this perfect empirical wand that you can wave around and say "AHA! It must be true! SCIENCE!"

"And we're fighting from a losing position."

Things that also stick in my craw: Religion v. Science as a zero-sum game. Cox agrees with me on this that you can HAVE BOTH. They don't always agree, but hey, not all religious beliefs agree with each other either, so to try and pretend that either side represents some kind of consensus is loony to begin with.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:47 AM on September 29, 2009


I think people enjoy their lives without a larger idea. Their families, friends, good food, good music, feeling good about the things they create.
posted by kathrineg


According to polls, 92% of Americans believe in God. World-wide, the vast majority believe in some sort of "larger idea."
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:03 AM on September 29, 2009


The idea that access to knowledge about right and wrong is some kind of foundational aspect of humanity is incredibly problematic. If there really is an underlying objective morality and human beings have some kind of intuitive or innate access to it, then the widespread disagreement on the content of morality (let alone its nature) brings up fun questions like:

1) Are people who claim to not have access to this knowledge really human?

2) What do disagreements about the content of that knowledge say about that knowledge?

3) Is there some actual, observable faculty which permits this knowledge, or is the supposition that humans have access to this knowledge just self-impressed flattery?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:24 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Guy_Inamonkeysuit: "I think people enjoy their lives without a larger idea. Their families, friends, good food, good music, feeling good about the things they create.
posted by kathrineg

According to polls, 92% of Americans believe in God. World-wide, the vast majority believe in some sort of "larger idea."
"

I don't disagree. I think my statement makes more sense in the context of it as a reply to someone who believes that everyone believes in an overarching idea, or their lives lack meaning. I don't think that everyone does.

I also question whether people really do think about god (or whatever structure) on a day to day basis as a means to shape their decisions. There is research that shows that people generally do not act according to consistent principles, but rather based on the specific situation. Cheating on a test doesn't correlate to cheating on one's taxes. Etc.
posted by kathrineg at 10:36 AM on September 29, 2009


Why are the only two options "morality comes externally from god" and "morality develops internally from some biological process"?

I quite like this article about morality. It also emphases the role that empathy plays in the majority of moral decision-making. I agree with the idea that, at the base of any fundamental moral system, empathy is one of the driving factors. It also explains why children seem to lack any moral system that's not derived from a set of rules derived by their parents - until a rather surprising age, children lack the capacity to empathize with their parents or friends. It also explains why Objectivism is widely considered to be an amoral political system - it is by definition devoid of empathy.
posted by muddgirl at 11:02 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find it immensley comforting that Firefox has seen fit to abbreviate this page's title as "Harvey Cox Says Atheism Won…".
posted by jepler at 11:44 AM on September 29, 2009


It would be weird if the core values of a religious movement so influenced a society, if the internal definitions of religious identity became so widely accepted that everyone in the society, even adherents to minority faiths or people of no faith at all began to perceive a few specific elements of their lives as determining "religiosity" in some general way.

For example, say there was a religious majority who thought that personal encounter with a scriptural document and acceptance of its authority, along with a personal devotion to a saviour figure were the "fundamentals" of good religion... and their views were so influencial that even outsiders began to measure religious identity by these standards with their own relationship to a text and religious figure, and those who saw themselves as irreligious did so according to this standard... Then you'd have atheists and religous people disagreeing about the "truth of things" without addressing their underlying shared values about what "being religious" means.
posted by ServSci at 11:58 AM on September 29, 2009


At times I will grasp a fleeting sensation of the divine. Sometimes it takes the form of an overwhelming and all-consuming sense of compassion. Sometimes it happens when I'm out with friends at a bar and the perfect song comes on the jukebox and for a moment I feel less alone in the world.

I'm an atheist, and I've had those sorts of experiences, too. I just don't feel the need to attribute it to some supernatural force. I like to think that it was just part of who I am and what makes me human.
posted by empath at 12:08 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


...not to bash the scientific method over here, but it's not entirely without flaws. You can find data to support nearly any conclusion you can come up with.

grapefruitmoon, you've got your understanding of science backward there. The scientific method isn't about finding data to fit a conclusion, but about finding a conclusion that fits the data. Science revises its conclusions as it acquires more data. If you want to start with conclusions and then find data to support it, that's faith.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:17 PM on September 29, 2009


GhostintheMachine: Yes, I know how the scientific method is supposed to work, but see recent salmon/fMRI thread for exactly what I'm talking about. It's like the underpants gnomes:

1) Conclusion.
2) ????
3) DATA!

So, yeah, the scientific method is supposed to be "Data first, THEN conclusion" but bad science often has it that the data is molded to fit the situation. Just look at phrenology! Or pre-frontal lobotomies! I'm not deriding all of science here, but saying that science is infallible... yeah, I direct you to the fish/fMRI thread. Still working out the bugs on that one.

It seems like in these discussions "science" becomes a shibboleth for "reasoning" when in fact science itself is a lot murkier.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:34 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Funny, I see the salmon thing as an excellent example of the scientific method in action. It was once scientifically accurate to state the sun travelled around the earth, that heat was a liquid you couldn't measure, that all matter on earth was composed of four elements. But as more data was added, those conclusions were first called into question then corrected (sometimes more than once). Too many see science as something fixed rather than a process that continues. The salmon thing showed our understanding of MRIs to be incomplete, something to be explored further, and could likely lead to their deeper understanding (or rejected entirely, of course). I'd go so far as to say the scientific method IS infallible, given enough time and access to data. To suggest that obviously incorrect results derived from incomplete information indicates a failure of the process shows a misunderstanding of the process. To point to an unsolved mathematical problem as "proof" that mathematics itself is flawed is probably the closest analogy I could suggest.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:57 PM on September 29, 2009


I'm an atheist, and I've had those sorts of experiences, too. I just don't feel the need to attribute it to some supernatural force. I like to think that it was just part of who I am and what makes me human.

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think that distinction is important or interesting, existentially.
posted by Acromion at 1:25 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd go so far as to say the scientific method IS infallible, given enough time and access to data.

Well, yeah, but time hasn't come to a screeching halt. Thus, there's no doubt a whole metric slew of crap that science hasn't figured out yet, or that science thinks it has a handle on, but is totally dead wrong.

I trust in the scientific method. I also know that it took until 17somethingsomething AD for it to figure out gravity. I do not trust that it has the deeper mysteries of the universe plumbed in this, a measly few millennia into human existence.

If there's some kind of afterlife or rebirth, I fully intend to check in on science in about the year 10,000 and see how it's doing on that kind of thing. We've got a way to go.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:42 PM on September 29, 2009


That some people are not good at science, or act dishonestly while using it as a cover, is not an indictment of science.

And of course, neither are the same sorts of things and indictment of faith.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:43 PM on September 29, 2009


It was once scientifically accurate to state the sun travelled around the earth, that heat was a liquid you couldn't measure, that all matter on earth was composed of four elements.

To a greater or lesser degree, all of those were as true as any other scientific theory, in that they were useful models that helped people make predictions about future events. It was only when we were able to record more useful observations about reality that they became untenable.
posted by empath at 2:45 PM on September 29, 2009


If I wasn't more or less convinced that Myers-Briggs is a load of horsepucky I'd say that there seems to be kind of a P-J issue going on. I'm comfortable with the conditional statements that result from the scientific method, but it seems like there's a lot of people who find the conditionalness (conditionality?) of scientific statements, along with the slow replacement of what we thought we knew with what we now think we know, to be seriously disturbing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:51 PM on September 29, 2009


I'll also point out that atheists like Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Isac Asimov, etc. have historically still expressed spirituality in vaguely religious terms occasionally. Younger public intellectuals like Dawkins are clearly push away from such terminology by the fundamentalists. So Prof. Cox's is wrong when he claims that Athiesm will pass when Christian fundamentalism passes. But otoh, surely atheists will again feel comfortable using Christian terminology once fundamentalism passes. You'll notice that Sam Harris has already deemed Buddhist terminology credible. So yeah I agree with an extremely restricted version of Prof. Cox's assertion.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:02 PM on September 29, 2009


KirkJobSluder, I was not trying to say either "atheists aren't really moral" or "here's what atheists really believe" because that's not my position, and I can see why such statements would be annoying and offensive. I apologize if that's how it came out. I don't mean to be putting words in people's mouths, but I am arguing that the atheist attempts to characterize morality are weak and not generally persuasive, that they don't add up to a concept that is as strong as what people generally seem to be talking about when they refer to things as Right or Wrong, Good or Evil.

Well, first of all the reduction of an argument that each person has intrinsic worth to simply a personal preference is just plain stupid.

I think that's unfair. It's not just me. The argument that statements like yours are essentially emotivist has been made very persuasively by philosophers such as Alasdair Macintyre. I haven't yet seen a convincing rebuttal, but I'd be interested in yours if you have one.

And why do you call out atheists for handwaving when your appeal to a spiritual component is a blatantly cheap and sentimental handwave?

Sartre (in that one quote empath linked) doesn't seem to acknowledge that what we know about physics and biology and psychology and culture raises any problems for the idea of free will. You may find the idea of human souls unconvincing, but it is at least an attempt to explain how humans might be able to have free will. Is there an atheist hypothesis for how humans could have free will that you think is better?

The problem is that I don't really think that God does much to simplify moral philosophy.

I agree. It's more complicated if God is involved. It's just that I think something like God, some transcendent reality, is the only way in which moral philosophy could be more than elaborate enumeration, explication, and ranking of our preferences.

If all human beings have some sense of right and wrong, why do we need god to add some greater meaning?

Because if that sense of right and wrong is merely a successful-so-far accident of biological and cultural evolution, I don't see why we should feel obliged to submit to it if we don't want to (at least on those occasions where society isn't holding a gun to our heads or waving cash under our noses).

But then the whole idea of "wanting" becomes problematic. Am I to simply be swept along by whatever desire happens to feel strongest or most compelling? How am I to judge among my desires if morality is just another desire?
posted by straight at 9:52 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great articles, crazy crazy thread.

I've learned something today though. People hold religion a lot more closely to themselves than many of the agnostic/atheist school would give them credit for, and I think that outright attacks on it fail most of the time.

Where the belief structure of the world is headed, I don't know. But here's to hoping it gets a little saner in the future.
posted by saysthis at 10:32 PM on September 29, 2009


How am I to judge among my desires if morality is just another desire?

Several people have pointed out several possible answers to that already in this thread, which don't rely on the existence of God. You can start with Aristotle and work your way up to Peter Singer or pick anybody in between. Almost every philosopher of note (religious or not) has tacked this issue at some point.

Further, religion doesn't answer the problem in any meaningful way, as has already been pointed out.

Asking questions is a useful start, but actually looking for answers is kind of important, too.
posted by empath at 10:55 PM on September 29, 2009


Man, religious arguments are like watching people on either side of a stone wall bashing it with their fists over and over again trying to get through to strangle the people on the other side.

Except that they're at entirely different parts of the wall.
posted by that girl at 1:06 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


straight: I think that's unfair. It's not just me. The argument that statements like yours are essentially emotivist has been made very persuasively by philosophers such as Alasdair Macintyre. I haven't yet seen a convincing rebuttal, but I'd be interested in yours if you have one.

Because the relative scarcity of human life in the universe is something that can be reasonably operationally defined, measured, and talked about. It's reasonably safe to say there are no humans on the Moon, Mars, or Venus at this time, lacking both evidence for human activity and the necessary environment for them. Likewise, the uniqueness of each human being is something that can be reasonably operationally defined. With both of these two concepts, we have an external and relatively safe external real-world referent that we can come to a consensus on. We might disagree about the implications of that, but there is at least something there that can be debated.

You can make the same claim about Buddhist ethics as well. It all starts from a handful of generalizations about the world, and then expands to a complex ethical system. Now you can certainly argue that there are some gaps in logic along the way, but it's really hard to say that the whole enterprise is an exercise in wish fulfillment.

In contrast, to theism, given that god doesn't exist, there is no evidence for the existence of god, and there is no reason to believe in god other than the emotive sense that philosophy is superficially easier with a god.

Sartre (in that one quote empath linked) doesn't seem to acknowledge that what we know about physics and biology and psychology and culture raises any problems for the idea of free will. You may find the idea of human souls unconvincing, but it is at least an attempt to explain how humans might be able to have free will. Is there an atheist hypothesis for how humans could have free will that you think is better?

Certainly. My view is that the determinism/free will debate is a philosophical circle jerk that is antiquated and overly simplistic. It's an issue that has little to do with such questions as whether Roman Polanski should be made to stand for the same process as every other convicted child molester in American criminal justice systems. I leave such metaphysical rubbish to the emotive navel-gazers. And please don't evoke biology and psychology which point out that the behavior of organisms can only be explained in probabilistic terms to build your straw-determinist.

I agree. It's more complicated if God is involved. It's just that I think something like God, some transcendent reality, is the only way in which moral philosophy could be more than elaborate enumeration, explication, and ranking of our preferences.

Which makes your argument inherently an appeal to emotion, and a rather circular one because you are shaping your God to validate your preferences.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:50 AM on September 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I really don't understand any religious person's fixation with morality. Every religion has its own concept of right and wrong, good and evil. Their differences are often subtle, sometimes conflicting. We cannot be sure any particular one is the "true" morality desired of whatever supernatural force may rule the universe, nor can we be sure that supernatural force is benevolent and deserving of us following its rules. So following any particular flavour is just wishful thinking at best. Atheistic morality, where you actually define "right" and "wrong", is no more or less than the same thing.

Morality may be "a successful-so-far accident of biological and cultural evolution", but that doesn't make it meaningless. What aspect of biological and cultural evolution isn't accidental? And if it's been successful, it would be good to investigate why that is, and use that information to improve upon it if possible. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" certainly makes it easier to form working groups to achieve higher goals and the improvement of all. But history gives us plenty of examples of times where killing other humans can be desirable, so it's not an absolute rule.

So why "submit" to morality that isn't imposed from above, but is instead a result of evolution? I'd say because that makes morality much, much more important and deserving of attention. Humans shouldn't follow morality because it's an arbitrary system of rules imposed by some supernatural entity that may or may not have our best interests in mind. They should follow it because it has helped maintain the existence and development of human society throughout the entirety of human history. Morality becomes something more than a test of loyalty or submission, and turns into a vital requirement for the preservation of the species.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:31 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or for the tl;dr version, the path from "god exists" and "soul exists" to the ethics of contemporary religions involves pretty much the same kinds of moral logic as atheistic philosophy.

Especially when you start looking at some of the more abstract theisms like scientific pantheism, it's really difficult to make the case that human morality is contingent on god at all. (And how do we deal with the idea that the god of humans is also the god of parasitic wasps?)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:12 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


And how do we deal with the idea that the god of humans is also the god of parasitic wasps?

Some religious philosophies deal with this by equating all living things as being essentially the same - that the person you're talking to used to be, or might be in the future, a parasitic wasp. So, therefore, if there's a G-d of one of them, he's got to be involved with all of them.

Even Christianity gets into the "G-d loves the sparrows, but he loves you way more" thing.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:44 AM on September 30, 2009


I'm an atheist, and I've had those sorts of experiences, too. I just don't feel the need to attribute it to some supernatural force. I like to think that it was just part of who I am and what makes me human.

This is the beginning of the answer.

Just so we're clear, everyone feels this. Human communion, profound compassion, self-transcendence. These are all things people seek or hope for.

To a believer's mind, such things are inextricably bound up in the idea of the numinous. And so when an atheist says "I don't believe in God," the believer rightly but incorrectly and unfairly hears "I don't believe in human compassion and the journey to become good; I don't believe in hope." And when a believer talks about such things being part of his experience of God, the atheist rightly but incorrectly and unfairly hears "Transcendence of our greedy little selves and the search for a better world are driven by a supernatural force." And so the believer walks away thinking the atheist is a blind curmudgeon and the atheist walks away thinking the believer is a superstitious fool.

And yet there's inter-observer agreement that transcendent things at the heart of humanity happen. And inter-observer agreement is as good - if not better - a meaning for objectivity than what can be measured by scientific instruments. That's kind of what I was getting at with the cadence thing. And like the cadence, all you need is shared experience, not magic.

The numinous doesn't have to be "supernatural." I don't know a single person whose conception of God is some shining man of power and light in the sky or in outer space or in anywhere physical. I know very few people who believe in a God that interacts with the world except through us. Even faiths that keep around the idea of miracles - I'm thinking of Catholics - emphasize instead being the living sign. For a not insignificant number of people, God is an idea. Not a symbol. Not something that stands for something else. Not a talisman. But an idea, a real idea. God is our conceptualization of what we imagine all these things lead to. A believer of this sort looks at the awe-inspiring structure of the universe and marvels at how things work together, at how elegant solutions are. He looks at the joy - the profound, lasting, harmonious joy - that people can bring each other. And he wonders where all of it leads.

God is the summit of the mountain of our journey for all that is good in the world. God is the hope for fulfillment of all our efforts.

And if you can't get behind that, then I guess you can't get behind that. But I do. And I think it's pretty damn intellectually defensible. It's that apexal sort of thinking that makes people seek out better things. It is faith, and Faith, and if you don't recognize it then you don't know what those words mean.

I was asked earlier to detail what I do believe in. The answer is that I don't believe in anything; that doesn't mean that I do believe in nothing though. Real religion is humanity gazing at the stars and needing to know what's out there. What's "out there" I can only talk about vaguely. I haven't seen it. But there's definitely an "out there," and everyone believes there's an "out there" and so I really don't understand atheists, who seem to be denying something everyone knows exists simply because they don't feel as compelled by it as I do. Maybe that's what they do, maybe atheists really are "out there"-deniers. But I doubt it. I have to think atheists are just confused about what it is they're denying. Maybe they think "Oh well he's Catholic, and clearly there's no such thing as getting pregnant without sex, so he's wrong" without understanding that the historical and cultural stuff is almost entirely allegorical and absolutely entirely beside the point. The theological tenets of whatever human organization you join is irrelevant to the question. Spiritual seekers and spiritual dwellers, all of that is a pedestrian concern. I'm Catholic because it's a rich tradition that succeeds in making me feel a connection to the numinous. There's a reason that Catholic worship is centered around communion with all six billion other Catholics and not trying to imagine what God looks like and bowing down in submission or praying for physical, miraculous intercession like some primitive plea to the corn god or something. Whether you are churched or unchurched, and if you're churched which church you belong to, are utterly irrelevant to and emphatically not the question.

The real question is this: How do I bring more transcendence, more hope, more joy, more "out there" and bring it in here?

That question is what I believe in.
posted by jock@law at 6:43 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


jock@law: To a believer's mind, such things are inextricably bound up in the idea of the numinous.

Which is one of the core points of conflict. Religion at least within our current cultural context claims a monopoly on love, compassion, awe, wonder, and beauty, and then insists that those of us who don't believe in god live impoverished lives as a result. It gets tiresome on sheer repetition.

I guess the problem here is that I do see the theology as allegory and that everyone lives in a communion with the numinous. That's what makes me an atheist. I can listen to Beethoven, Part, Glass, and hymns by Hildegarde von Bingen. I can read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, The Lord of the Rings, and watch Star Wars and 9 and enjoy the underlying spirituality of those works. I'm critical of the ways in which those allegories can be misleading, but they make for rollicking good reads.

But I think the conception that gods are just human-created literary metaphors is a pretty radical and fringe one within mainstream religion. The church of my childhood still includes a group recitation of the apostolic creed and doxology, which make both historical and physical claims about god. The ritual affirms the historical claim that we are sinners and Jesus redeemed our sins. The historical claim informs the ritual. And that is when I decide I'd rather meditate on the alien and inhuman acron-ness of acorns (whoops, there is that evil nature worship again). And I do that out of respect for Christian rituals, ritual space, and communion, not mockery of it.

jock@law: ... and so I really don't understand atheists ...

You could have just left it at this.

It's a little bit frustrating when you have the great insight that these assumptions are incorrect and unfair, but proceed to make them anyway. I don't believe in "nothing," and I don't deny that there is an "out there." I don't consider my atheism to be centered on "denial," and even if it was, I understand quite clearly what it is I don't believe in, and I'm aware of liberal theologies, religion as community, and religion as metaphor. Basically you've just repeated the same objection I had in regards to Cox, and I not-so-politely suggest that your lack of understanding would be better served by listening to our beliefs rather than telling us them. Because I'm getting pretty tired of repeating myself in answer to the same incorrect and and unfair stereotypes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:58 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


jock@law: How do I bring more transcendence, more hope, more joy, more "out there" and bring it in here?

Why do you assume that atheists are not interested in the same questions?

Is it possible for you to write your profession of faith without the offensive and overly simplistic strawman you've created for contrast? Is it really necessary for you to attack my beliefs at all to assert your own?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2009


There's a reason that Catholic worship is centered around communion with all six billion other Catholics and not trying to imagine what God looks like and bowing down in submission or praying for physical, miraculous intercession like some primitive plea to the corn god or something.

6 billion Catholics, really? I was going to guess that was a typo but you italicized it and everything.

That entire comment is ridiculous. You seem to know nothing about the actual practices of religious people other than yourself. Instead, you want to assume that your personal beliefs are shared by everyone, define "real religion", and then imply that atheists are wrong because atheists don't agree with you.

Your condescension about primitive religion is hilarious. I'm sure you would bitch and complain if I characterized the Eucharist as "some sort of thing where they pretend like they're cannibals, or something."
posted by kathrineg at 10:25 AM on October 1, 2009


kathrineg: I find it ironic that liberal religious people often make strawmen of both atheists and religious conservatives in order to position themselves as the voice of reasonable moderation. "Ecumenicism" appears to be breaking bread among like-minded congregations, but not Conservative Catholics or Southern Baptists, and certainly not that monster Richard Dawkins.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2009


God is the summit of the mountain of our journey for all that is good in the world. God is the hope for fulfillment of all our efforts.

And if you can't get behind that, then I guess you can't get behind that. But I do. And I think it's pretty damn intellectually defensible.


I'm a "believer" in that I believe in stuff and I'm not atheist, and I can't get behind that. We are the own hope for fulfillment in our efforts. And we are the summit of our own journeys.

I would like you to intellectually defend your assertion, as I think that it's an easy-out and not actually a solid statement on the nature of G-d. It's like saying "G-d is everything that's pretty!" It's really distilling the idea of an ominipresent G-d into saying "G-d is nice." I don't see any real premise here that's on par with theological ideas of what the nature of G-d and our conception of hir is all about.

maybe atheists really are "out there"-deniers.

I'm not an atheist, but like atheists, I believe that what's "out there" is a lot of stuff that's just like what we've already got, and is equally worthy of being explored. That "stuff" does not need to include any idea of G-d whatsoever to be important.

It's all the same void, man.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:22 AM on October 1, 2009


Likewise, the uniqueness of each human being is something that can be reasonably operationally defined. With both of these two concepts, we have an external and relatively safe external real-world referent that we can come to a consensus on. We might disagree about the implications of that, but there is at least something there that can be debated.

But it's "the implications of that" which is the whole entire point.

1. Human beings are unique
2. ???
3. Morality!

I understand that some people (you maybe?) make that jump from 1 to 3 intuitively, they find the uniqueness of human beings so valuable that it inspires them to do altruistic things. They share with those in need, they speak out against torture because humans are unique and therefore valuable.

But there are plenty of people who don't make that jump, who shrug their shoulders at the uniqueness of human beings. What does the first group have to say to the second group other than make threats or bribes?

Me: It's just that I think something like God, some transcendent reality, is the only way in which moral philosophy could be more than elaborate enumeration, explication, and ranking of our preferences.

KirkJobSluder : Which makes your argument inherently an appeal to emotion, and a rather circular one because you are shaping your God to validate your preferences.

But I'm not making any statements about what God is like. I'm talking about language. I'm saying that the only way a statement like "torture is wrong" could mean more than "some people really don't like torture" is if:

1. There were some universal consensus about morality (which there clearly isn't) to which the statement could appeal, or

2. There exists some sort of transcendent, objective standard of morality, either given by a creator or maybe something along the lines of Plato's forms.

I really don't understand any religious person's fixation with morality. Every religion has its own concept of right and wrong, good and evil. Their differences are often subtle, sometimes conflicting.

I think something I haven't clearly said is that I'm not talking about morality in the sense of "How do decide whether a given action is right or wrong." I'm talking about morality in the sense of "Why should I do the right thing if I don't want to and no one is forcing me or rewarding me?" I don't think the real problems with the world are people disagreeing about right and wrong. I think the real problem is people not giving a shit about right and wrong.
posted by straight at 12:23 PM on October 1, 2009


straight: But there are plenty of people who don't make that jump, who shrug their shoulders at the uniqueness of human beings. What does the first group have to say to the second group other than make threats or bribes?

How do you make that case if step #1 is "God?" Which again, making that case is what secular and religious moral philosophy is all about. The fact that you are not convinced by secular moral philosophy doesn't make it inherently invalid.

straight: But I'm not making any statements about what God is like.

You can't say that torture is wrong according to an objective morality granted by God without saying that God dislikes torture. Basically, you've reduced your theology into an exercise in rationalizing your ethical preferences.

straight: 2. There exists some sort of transcendent, objective standard of morality, either given by a creator or maybe something along the lines of Plato's forms.

Sure, and there are a fair number of arguments for a transcendent, objective standard of morality, some of which involve God, and some of which don't.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:15 PM on October 1, 2009


I'm talking about morality in the sense of "Why should I do the right thing if I don't want to and no one is forcing me or rewarding me?"

Well, that's just following rules that hold no value. That's not following "right and wrong" because it's right and wrong, but because it's on a list somewhere. That to me is a piss poor reason for doing something. Blindly following orders... never a good idea. If something is actually the "right" thing to do, then we shouldn't need to be forced or rewarded in order to do it.

In an odd way, it's people who simply rely on divinely-inspired rules, the fear of punishment in the afterlife, or the possibility of heavenly reward who don't give a shit about right and wrong. It's not enough to have a right and wrong; there has to be an understanding why right is right and wrong is wrong, both on the religious and the atheist side.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:54 AM on October 2, 2009


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