Reason redux.
July 7, 2001 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Reason redux. This does not sound like the "media ideologue" or one-trick publicity hound that some of you tried to portray him. Or is it all just clever posturing?
posted by rushmc (25 comments total)
In that other thread, someone made the assertion that the science/religion "war" can be likened to the left-wing/right-wing "war" where each side attempts to appear as the underdog.

I'm going to have to disagree.

Last time I checked (and I can dig the numbers up if required), atheists made up a whopping 3-8% of the American population. While there may be a few of us, that are increasingly vocal, and while they may make up a significant percentage of the "scientifically-educated", atheisism is, by no stretch of the imagination, as popular as the "religious" make it out to be.

There's a difference between eschewing "organized religion" and being atheist. Very few people are willing to actually make the statement that "you know what, I don't think there is a god". What I'm finding, instead (sadly), among my friends is this weird kind of newage-hippie-deism. Organized or not, they're still following the assumption that some "god" created everything and that everything is going according to some "divine plan".

According to the religious right, my hippie friends are all "atheists" because they don't subscribe to the word of "Our Lord Jesus Christ", but the fact of the matter is they're far closer to "Christian" than they are to atheist, with all their talk of "blessings" and being "watched by angels".

If this nation (which is the only place I have any...qualification... to speak about) is supposed to be turning away from god and being over-run by atheists, I find it interesting, then, that a former president(Bush) got away with making the statement that (paraphrasing, it's been a few years) "atheists aren't fit to be american citizens" during a press conference on national television, without recieving any siginificant backlash.

Make no mistake....this is God's Country.

I, for one, am happy to see Dawkins dropping any PC fascade and saying "you people are idiots".
posted by jaded at 12:21 PM on July 7, 2001

I wish there were more like Dawkins around. I'd like to hear more debate, on TV, in magazines, out in public view. Then maybe the masses could get a real chance to hear all sides and then make up their minds.
posted by quirked at 12:49 PM on July 7, 2001

Hallelujah & Amen, jaded. (pun intended). Us atheists have been maligned more than many (any?) other "minority" groups in America. We are the one group that it is usually OK to *bash*. Maybe we need a marketing campaign, with tee-shirts, webpage banner ads, etc...something like, "Atheists: Defenders Of Reality!"
posted by davidmsc at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2001

atheists are easy to bash because they are considered members of the too-smart-for-your-own-good club, or intelligent elite. a select few of the population are members, and even less are willing to defend it.

generally, they are viewed either as novelties of the religious debate, or with the same contempt as witches were in salem circa the late 1600's. instead of trials, atheists are simply labled as "arrogant", "eccentric" or "wrongheaded" and sentenced to the periphery of any discussion.
posted by will at 1:54 PM on July 7, 2001

Atheists will have the last laugh, though. Won't all the Christians feel silly when Judgment Day doesn't come!
posted by kindall at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2001

I've said it before and I'll say it again:

You've got to have some cast iron balls to say, without hesitation, that "there is no God".

Me? I'm an agnostic.
posted by dr. zoidberg at 2:35 PM on July 7, 2001

Isn't the point, though, that we should not invoke God in our search for a cosmological paradigm unless it is absolutely necessary, unless the only explanation is divine intervention.

I can't see that happening, frankly.

Two or three hundred years of the application of scientific method to the development of technology has brought us reliable treatments for many diseases, commuications such as the internet and a million other boons as well. And, of course, nuclear weapons and ecological disasters. Technology may not always be nice, but it's effective. It works. If something doesn't work, a reputable scientist ought to be happy for you to point it out. We all know that this ideal is not always achieved and that a certain amount of dogmatism takes place.

The difference is that the religious cosmology has nothing but dogmatism going for it. Things are because they are because I say so dammit and that's all there is to it. If you want to achieve anything in that model, you need to petition God or one of his intermediaries to intercede for you. Individual people might believe that it's been effective for them, but it's certainly not reliable, not like systematic experimentation, theorising and discussion has been in the scientific model.

The Big Bang, or Natural Selection are models drawn from observation of the universe, the data observed used to form a general theory which is both descriptive of the data and predictive, that is to say that given specific conditions specific phenomena will occur. Good theories do that. That is why they are useful. When they cease to describe the phenomena accurately or predict behaviours with any certainty (probably due to more accurate obxervational methods), it's time to look for a new theory.

Newtonian, Quantum and Einsteinian models of the Universe may not rub happily along together, but they all work in their own scale and are all useful for interacting with the Universe.

None of this is true of the Bible. Whatever spiritual value it has it has none as a tool for interacting practically with the Universe or building a useful paradigm.
posted by Grangousier at 4:21 PM on July 7, 2001


Atheism is a statement about belief, agnosticism is a statement about knowledge. Yes, I am a "hard" atheist. But, at the same time, I take fairly agnostic aproach when considering the matter. I see absolutely no evidence for god, and therefore choose live my life as though "he" does not exist, and will state as much, when asked about the matter. From an ontological standpoint, though, I will be the first to admit that the mere question of god's existence is one that we humans are ill equiped to ask, much less answer.

One thing should be clear: I've never *ever* come down on someone just for believing in god (or being christian). I come down on people that get in my face with it. When people start trying to pass laws based on a "judeo-christian" morality, it pisses me off. I actually find religion to be incredibly fascinating. As such, when religious people start talking about it, I'm usually pretty tolerant because I'm interested in what it is that makes them tick.

Also: the reason the new-age babble of my hippie friends bothers me so much is because it is they're perfectly happy using the language and imagery of the "organized religion" that they claim to to be rebelling against. Sure, I'll give you that "feeling blessed" can be construed as just "feeling very lucky", but to use to words "I felt at though I was touched by an angel" or "I felt as though an angel was watching over me" -- both direct quotes -- invokes very specifically Christian images, and undermines any credence they may have as "freethinkers", at least in my small mind. It strikes me as more than a little incongruous for someone to dump everything about Christianity except for the imagery.

And just to be totally clear, I don't go around telling people what they need to believe in. The closest thing I've generally come to "evangelizing" atheism is explaining my own beliefs on the matter, and questioning - in a friendly manner - other people's beliefs. But none of it is as random as say, a mormon walking up to me on the street and trying to spread the word. I rarely bring it up, and try to judge whether or not the person might be interested in what I have to say on the matter, before going off about it.

And another thing: I don't claim to have all the answers. In fact, I'd go so far as to claim that many of the questions are from a pragmatic sense, little more than navel gazing because the anwers are essentially unknowable. And that is, in fact, one of the problems I've always had with religion: the incredible arrogance to make the statement that "this is how it is, and this is how it always has been, follow the rules, or go to hell." One attitude I share with Dawkins is that I would be incredibly excited to hear about a new theory that had a chance of replacing evolutionary theory -- and as noted in the article, that's what separates most of the religious from many (at least this one) atheists. Most of the devout, that I've known at least, become very very uncomforatable with the idea that their entire way of life might just be a big mistake.

On the other hand, if someone actually went so far as to prove god's existence, I think the front of the line to meet the guy would be full of some very curious atheists.

And finally: there are plenty of "weird" things that happen (some of them to me) that I have no hope of understanding, from either a scientific or philosphical stance (i.e. "how" or "why" ), so I'm not quite the anti-spiritual-meterialist that you probably mistook me for. One thing you're not going to catch me doing, though, is using religion laden imagery to describe them. If for example, I were to hear voices - which I do, most likely as a result of my migraines - you're not going to hear me prattling on about how I hear the voices of angels or god or some such. Of course, I've already explained that one away, so it probably doesn't count. Oh well.
posted by jaded at 5:00 PM on July 7, 2001

I made that point you're talking about, jaded, and I'm not sure I know what you're disagreeing with. (For the record, I'm a thoroughgoing atheist, materialist user of and believer in science.)

skallas: Dawkins even admits that science can't explain all

He does? Does that mean he says that there are things that science in principle can't explain, or just that there are things it hasn't explained yet? The first would just be the old distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and I for one don't believe there is such a thing as the supernatural.

On the other hand, if all you're saying is that we don't have all the answers, well, big deal. Any scientist that's thought honestly about it would tell you that any scientific claim is going to be empirically "wrong," that is, there are always going to be residual inaccuracies. That's the whole thing about science--it makes claims clearly enough that they can be judged inaccurate. Trading ignorance for error, as someone said. That doesn't mean that it's not, in a deeper sense, right.
posted by rodii at 5:13 PM on July 7, 2001

(Just to be clear, the last two posts overlapped--I was responding in mine to jaded's *first* post above)
posted by rodii at 5:14 PM on July 7, 2001

If you're at all a fan of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and would like some further, well-developed thinking on some of these topics, I highly recommend The 2001 Principal. It uses that movie as a context for examining several topics that this discussion has touched on, from the natural (human?) reaction when confronted with cognitive dissonance, to an examination of the atheistic proclamation "I don't know", to consideration of the Anthropic Principal (which seeks in some ways to reconcile the demands of science with the existence of God). As an intellectual exercise, I found this one of the most thought-provoking sites I've come across.

I'd prefer more considered and reasoned debate and discussion, and less name-calling and mischaracterization of those with opposing views. Not all people who follow organized religions are intolerent bigots. Not all people who declare themselves atheists are self-centered pseudo-intellectuals. I went to MIT and I believe in God. I believe both "sides" have valid objections to the others' tactics and principals. But, IMHO, we gain nothing by voicing them except the further alienation of those who don't share our views. If that's your goal, by all means keep it up. It's far more constructive, however, to see what we can learn from others.
posted by JParker at 11:52 PM on July 7, 2001

He is opposed to religious schools, Skallas, not (to my knowledge) advocating governmental policy outlawing them. He doesn't think small children, inclined to believe what their elders tell them, should be taught speculation as fact (and because of FAITH, they are taught to never question these facts, and to deny any evidence contradicting them). That doesn't seem as evil as you make it out to be.
And yes, it seems harsh to label religious people as stupid. Insane might be better. What else can you say to a grown person, an adult, who believe in, let's say, a literal translation of the bible?
As for less structured religious belief, such as Jaded's hippy friends, well, that's not really insane, but it's pretty closed minded. People should accept that there are things they don't know, and not need the quickest, easiest answer for everything that happens.
If, at the end of the day, science can't explain the universe, and everything in it (which will probably be the case) that doesn't mean there are ghosts. And it doesn't mean there is reincarnation. It just means there will be things we can't understand. A gerbil could look at my computer for centuries, and never understand it. Never know how it works. But that doesn't mean there are little demons inside it. At least I hope not.
posted by Doug at 12:40 AM on July 8, 2001

Agnosticism: Join us in the middle of the road!

For me, atheism and religion both fail the "and... before that?" question. For religion it's "who created God/Yahweh/Fred? and then who created that?" for atheism its "so there was this big bang.... what happened before that?" Nobody knows. It's my personal theory that nobody will ever know, but I believe we find out when we die (there's a fantastic cop-out, huh?).

It seems if you live a relatively good life, God should let you in anyways if he's real. And if he's not? Well, the maggots will have a nice dinner.
posted by owillis at 1:03 AM on July 8, 2001

It's far more constructive, however, to see what we can learn from others.

I can see nothing to be learned from those who willfully choose self-delusion, ego-stroking, and wishful thinking over open-minded question-asking in the sincere (and consuming) desire to know WHAT IS TRUE. Except by counterexample. These people are freaks, whatever their majority in numbers, and they scare the hell out of me.

Far better to die at once and enter an eternal oblivion of non-being than to "learn" to assess the universe and my place in it based upon blind faith, quiet acquiescence, and demoralizing subjugation of my wit and will to anyone's dusty, manipulative precepts codified in archaic tomes of questionable origin and the curiously shifting oral traditions of self-interested parties.
posted by rushmc at 1:48 AM on July 8, 2001 seems harsh to label religious people as stupid. Insane might be better.

Without disagreeing with you, I think the point might well be open to some debate. Blatant irrational denial of demonstrable, empirical fact, it seems to me, can belong to either domain, stupidity or insanity. The construction/adoption of outrageous fantasies to embolden one to continue in existence as we find it, however, does seem closer to pathology.

In truth, though, I think that stupidity and insanity are probably just two points along the same continuum. At some point, one becomes stupid to the degree that it deviates them sufficiently from the norm that the label "insane" becomes accurate and appropriate.
posted by rushmc at 1:56 AM on July 8, 2001

I had no idea we had so many atheists abounding aqui! Richard Dawkins is an idealogue. I agree with him. But I can certainly see how he'd grate on the nerves of the antithetical zealot. He is a zealot himself, but hasn't a choir to back him up. Rather, he has science (a belief in it to be sure [and why shouldn't he?]), which is fine enough for me. But his perceived audaciousness by the fundagelicals might be just enough to tip the scales in favor of "progress". What angers them today just might be enough to color future conventional ideaology that makes the idea that the Ptolemaic Universe revolves around us look pale in comparison.
posted by crasspastor at 2:42 AM on July 8, 2001

He is a zealot himself

I can think of worse things to be than a zealot dedicated to truth, reason and understanding.

Definition of "zealot" from A fanatically committed person.
posted by rushmc at 9:42 AM on July 8, 2001

Rather, he has science (a belief in it to be sure [and why shouldn't he?]), which is fine enough for me.

Just pointing out what I wrote and that I agree with you.
posted by crasspastor at 11:16 AM on July 8, 2001

For religion it's "who created God/Yahweh/Fred? and then who created that?" for atheism its "so there was this big bang.... what happened before that?"

It's an interesting question, but "atheism" doesn't so much fail the question as sidestep it. The question is based on a common-sense model of the universe and contains some assumptions which aren't true.

We are used to thinking of time and space as independent: time happens at its constant rate, and space just exists, as a three-dimensional canvas for matter to move around in. But it doesn't quite work this way; time and space are a single field. There is no time without space or vice versa. This is why time slows down when you travel very fast (remember Einstein?).

It makes no sense to speak of time outside the universe. Time is a part of the universe just like space is part of the universe. If you imagine something outside of the universe, its sense of time - if it had one - would not be related to the universe's time, and terms like "before" or "after" would not apply.

Talking about "what happened before the Big Bang" is such a look outside the universe. If the universe didn't exist yet, then the space-time-field your question refers to must have been some other universe, not this one. So, the answer to the question "what happened before the Big Bang" is, "nothing, because time did not exist before the Big Bang".

(ug, college was a long time ago)
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:28 PM on July 8, 2001

I think Mars is clearly right, at least for "standard" cosmological models. Counterintuitive though it is, "time" is something that only happens when there is space for it to happen in/with. It's worth noting that in some newer models, however, there is a definite sense of "before the big bang," since the big bang is actually the universe "budding" off another universe, and this could keep on happening, and have been happening, essentially forever. So even on Oliver's own terms, it's not true to say science isn't working on the question.
posted by rodii at 12:36 PM on July 8, 2001

A more mature atheist or agnostic would see the value of religion as a philosophy

haahhhahahe. Yeah. While, in theory, I would actually agree with you. In practice, I'd have to say you're full of it. There are two (which is to say, two that I am currently going to consider) big problems with that. Or really, one big problem, divided into two classes: People. a. people who control religion b. people that "consume" religion.

The people in charge of religion are, from my standpoint, very interesting beasts. Some of them are "good", some of them - and these are the ones that make it on TV, are manipulative, power mongers. Pat Robertson and his ilk are as far from "christ", in my ever so humble opinion, as a human being can get. And yes, I realize that they don't "speak", or represent, all xians, but they do have the power and the visibility to affect all xians, and affect the rest of us in the name of xianity.

I don't like that.

The people that consume religion, particularly the brand sold on the 700 Club (which I watch now and then), are sheep. They're not considering the moral implications of living a christ-inspired life. They're looking to get into heaven, pure and simple. And if they're watching the 700 club (heh) religiously, then they're trying to buy their way into heaven. Half of the programming on that show is about how "when you follow the word of god, you become rich and prosperous, and you get to go to heaven, to boot!" People like that feeling that their lame purposeless lives are actually just a prelude to something grander, and infinite, so they buy it hook line and sinker.

I saw it on TV, it must be true, ma.

I happen to think that the teachings of Christ, from a purely philosophical standpoint, are pretty cool. He was a standup guy, for the most part, and had some neat things to say.

The vast majority of so-called practicing xians would do well to actually read his words. It always strikes me as funny when I've read more of "the book" than someone else who claims to follow it...

(if this seems disjointed, and I'm sure it does...I need to go have my morning coffee, which I shall do presently)
posted by jaded at 2:44 PM on July 8, 2001

I never said that "religion==xianity". I was simply using it (xianity) as an example. Given that it's the predominant one here (in the US), it's the one I've had most day-today exposure to. Which is not to say that I'm not familiar with the myriad of others, simply that from a "local" standpoint, they don't much "mattter".

Most of the (religious) people I know don't, as you surmised, actually watch the likes of Robertson. They don't watch, to my knowledge, any religious programming at all, actually. They also don't go to church. Neither do they pray, for the most part. Once in a while, you'll catch them saying grace. Why do they say grace? Because that's "how they were brought up". They don't give any consideration whatsoever to the actual meaning behind what they're doing. They say "bless you" to a sneeze reflexively. They don't actually believe that if they don't say it, an evil spirit is going to take over my body. It's simply part of their social programming. In fact, when pressed, they don't have any clue as to what they believe. When quized on the rituals and beliefs of the system they claim to be a part of, they are woefully ignorant. They neither understand nor question the beliefs they were "brought up" with. Nor do they, for the most part, truly care. Going to church is a chore you have to endure when going back to visit the family. if one truly believed in god and in christs teachings then I, for one, would think that one might be more inclined - excited even - to go give thanks to the lord.

People that are deeply religious and mean it, I'm willing to give some respect to. They puzzle me, but their words and actions are far more congruent than most of the population. But most people claim to be christian (or catholic or jewish, or whatthefuckever) and don't even have the slightest inklink to what they're saying. I see it all the time, and it deeply saddens me that people are such sheep.
posted by jaded at 4:28 PM on July 8, 2001

the simple human right as raising your child as you like

More nonsense...there IS no such "right." Try raising your kids to be murderers. Or cannibals. Or in a closet with daily beatings & insufficient food.
posted by rushmc at 12:13 AM on July 9, 2001

How many "religious" people even take the bible literally? Very few

Perhaps not so many of those who apply the essentially meaningless term "religious" to themselves, but a substantial number of those who call themselves "Christian" do.
posted by rushmc at 12:16 AM on July 9, 2001

A more mature atheist or agnostic would see the value of religion as a philosophy and consider its proper role

I see no value in religion as a philosophy, plain and simple. And I'm certainly not willing to let YOU decide what it's "proper role" should be. You are trying to sidestep the conclusions of logic and common sense by being all squishy and saying "it's all good, don't pick on the erroneous, the weak minded, the self-deluded, there's room for all perspectives." Truth and reality simply don't work that way, no matter how nice and accommodating you may like to envision yourself. Thus the destructive inanity of political correctness.
posted by rushmc at 12:20 AM on July 9, 2001

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