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Monday, October 23, 2006

Fear of Religion

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/23/06 at 01:10 PM

Now that Adam’s stirred up a hornet’s nest with his Eagleton-on-Dawkins-on-religion post, I want to keep things buzzing along. In that discussion I commented:

I’ve not read this particular Dawkins book . . . but I’ve read articles and interviews where he goes on about religion, and it’s clear to me that there’s something very defensive in his stance and it’s not mere scientific reason he’s defending. The stridency of his position reeks of ritual, like the kid chanting “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

That is to say, it is one thing to argue that no gods exist and hence that religious belief is irrational. Dawkins is doing more than that. In a review of The God Delusion published in The New Republic, Thomas Nagel points out: “One of Dawkins’s aims is to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization. He does this by persistently violating the convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing with gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and practices.” That is what I find bothersome.

The Uncanny Zone

Dawkins, of course, is not the only one to carry on like this, though some reviewers seem to think he’s reached new rhetorical heights. Bertrand Russell did it in the last century and Daniel Dennett has gone of the war path as well. Further, not only does Dawkins argue against religious belief, he also offers accounts of just why people believe. This is not new either, both Marx and Freud, among others, had some thoughts on that subject, which has recently gained new life through a variety of contemporary psychologies - evolutionary, cognitive, and neuro. Well, I think there’s more to Dawkins’s crusade than the mere implausibility of religious belief, something that’s driving him to be offensive. 

What is it?

In asking that question I am, of course, stepping back from the arguments Dawkins advances against religion. But I am not seeking to discredit Dawkins’s anti-religion arguments through an ad hominem argument. Though I’m somewhere in the vicinity of atheism, agnosticism and humanism, I am not particularly interested in arguing about the existence of God or gods one way or the other. As far as I can tell, my target is a certain kind of discourse, a kind which Dawkins exemplifies particularly well, but others participate in it as well. And what bothers me about this discourse is not that it is against religius belief, but that it is against the religious as well.

What particularly bothers me is that I cannot articulate just why I believe that distinction - between religion as a set of propositions about the world, and the religious - is both appropriate and important. I can point out that how we in fact live in the world is different from how we reason about it, but I do not yet see how to convert that observation into an argument. I feel betwixt and between.

But then, that’s where I think Dawkins is as well, betwixt and between. I want to return to Nagel’s review, “The Fear of Religion.” If Nagel is correct on a certain point - and I must assume that he is, because I’ve not read Dawkins’s book - then I think he has uncovered a clue as to what’s going on with the discourse Dawkins uses.

The Faith of a Reductionist

Nagel argues that Dawkins hasn’t made his case against the so-called God Hypothesis but also that Dawkins is mistaken in thinking that hypothesis to be the only alternative to science. Roughly the first half of the review is given over to throat-clearing of one sort or another. Nagel then settles down to his main argument, which is about how Dawkins deals with the argument from design. Nagel suggests, first of all, that Dawkins’ misconstrues the main point of the argument from design:

The reason that we are led to the hypothesis of a designer by considering both the watch and the eye is that these are complex physical structures that carry out a complex function, and we cannot see how they could have come into existence out of unorganized matter purely on the basis of the purposeless laws of physics. . . . But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. . . . If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them. [My italics, WLB]

Now Nagel is ready to begin:

All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins’s physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

This entire dialectic leaves out another possibility, namely that there are teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation--principles that therefore provide an independent end point of explanation for the existence and form of living things. That, more or less, is the Aristotelian view that was displaced by the scientific revolution.

Keeping that in mind, Nagel turns his attention to Darwinian evolution, granting that it provides plausible account of how, over time, organism after organism is exquisitely “designed” to fit its environment, yet there is no organism. But where did life itself come from?

The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable properties. Since 1953 we have known what that material is, and scientists are continually learning more about how DNA does what it does. But since the existence of this material or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?

Of course there is a huge difference between this explanation and the God hypothesis. We can observe DNA and see how it works. But the problem that originally prompted the argument from design--the overwhelming improbability of such a thing coming into existence by chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics--remains just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance with natural selection.

Acknowledging that “Dawkins recognizes the problem,” Nagel asserts that “his response to it is pure hand-waving.” Thus, in Nagel’s view, Dawkins has not made his argument. I take it that Nagel believes there is still room for a rational person to have faith in God-the-Designer, though that is not what Nagel himself wishes to argue.

Nagel agrees with Dawkins “that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question,” but disagrees with Dawkins’s apparent assumption we must choose between “purely physical causation” and divine design: “The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.”

Nagel goes on to suggest that we are going to need non-reductionist models to account for “conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth” and, presumably for life itself, though he doesn’t mention that, nor does he tell us where such models will come from or what they’re like. But such matters are certainly beyond the scope of a book review. At this point Nagel’s work is done. He has exposed a critical weakness in Dawkins’s position. It is not only that Dawkins has nothing useful to say about the origins of life, but that Dawkins’s philosophical presuppositions commit him to a position that has, so far failed to provide such an account and has no immediate prospects of providing one in the foreseeable future.

Reductionism in Trouble?

I am sympathetic to Nagel’s argument. I think he has a plausible suggestion about the source of the desperate arrogance that informs not only Dawkins’s writing on religion, but also Dennett’s and others as well. These thinkers are reductionists working at a time when, for example, a skilled science journalist, John Horgan, can write a book about The End of Science. Despite the apparent science-bashing in the title, Horgan doesn’t bash science at all, but he is impatient with claims that far outstrip actual accomplishments. For example, he is an outspoken critic of superstring theory in physics. Perhaps, he argues, physics has gone as far as it can go and so, in effect, it comes to an end. There is no more doable physics. While it is not at all clear to me that Horgan is right in this, that science is coming to an end in many arenas, I am sympathetic to a weaker claim, that a certain kind of science is in deep trouble. Just how one characterizes that kind of science . . . well, I’m going to wave my hands and pass on that one, though I have some relevant remarks in my review of Horgan’s book. That’s a different argument.

Let us assume that Nagel is correct, that not only is Dawkins a committed reductionist, but that Dawkins cannot see any alternative to reductionism other than religion. Why not? And just why does this situation force Dawkins to take a militant stance as an atheist? How is it that an attack on religion is also a defense, not of science, but of a reductionist view of science? Why doesn’t Dawkins attack non-reductionist views of, say, biology or psychology, in addition to attacking religion? Does he think such views are unworthy of attack, or that they are, for all practical purposes, essentially religious? If so, why?

It’s not at all clear to me just what kind of questions those are. But they aren’t about personal motivation in any simple sense. They are also about modes of thought and argument, and in a fairly open-ended sense. It is not at all clear to me that we know, anymore, just how to think about ultimate issues. While I am reasonably convinced that Dawkins does not know, I am not convinced that anyone does. Thought, like time, goes on.


Comments

"But I am not seeking to discredit Dawkins’s anti-religion arguments through an ad hominem argument.”

I never knew that you wanted to be a rapper, Bill.  At least, those are the only people that I know who talk about going around busting AKs.

By on 10/23/06 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You simply cannot use the expression “desperate arrogance” and then claim you are not engaging in an ad hominem attack on somebody.

What we have here, I think, is far less than meets the eye, which is to say what looks like a debate about metaphysics is really a set of turf fights.

By Jim Harrison on 10/23/06 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, thanks for the heads-up on your post. As it happens, I just finished posting something on Dawkins’s “God Delusion” on Horganism, my blog, http://discovermagazine.typepad.com/horganism/. Also, in this month’s Discover I provide an updated defense of The End of Science, which you kindly cite in your post. By the way, I enjoyed your review of EOS, but you realize of course that I demolished your argument that science can continue through non-reductionistic approaches to complex emergent phenomena.

Back to Dawkins. You overthink his views of religion. He hates religion because it make false claims about the world and because it’s destructive. His major mistake is in thinking that science can explain the ultimate mysteries that have traditionally been the province of religion.

By John Horgan on 10/23/06 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"a position that has, so far failed to provide such an account and has no immediate prospects of providing one in the foreseeable future.”

Dawkins could of course reply that the same is true of religious positions, and his position is at least one with a rich track record of providing evidence-backed accounts.

I’m inclined to think that science is inherently reductionist, for non-strawman values of reductionist.

By on 10/23/06 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Horgan: “You overthink his views of religion. He hates religion because it make false claims about the world and because it’s destructive.”

I basically agree.  And that’s why one of his “aims is to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization.”

I’d add, though, that you (Bill Benzon) are carrying out a classic discourse in your own reply.  You find his outrage bothersome—he is informed by “desperate arrogance”—and then:

“And what bothers me about this discourse is not that it is against religius belief, but that it is against the religious as well.

What particularly bothers me is that I cannot articulate just why I believe that distinction - between religion as a set of propositions about the world, and the religious - is both appropriate and important.”

I can articulate just why.  It’s because some people generally do become uncomfortable when other people point out that “propositions about the world” do real harm when they are held, and acted on, by real people.  It’s as if meme theory has run rampant, and these propositions have taken on a life of their own, without being instantiated by real behavior. 

In actual political conflict, it is necessary to criticize the people holding to the proposition, not just the proposition itself.

A stance that wants to smooth out political conflict by appeals to non-offensiveness, and that attacks any criticism of people, is one of “concern”.  This stance has become so well-remarked-on, in these days of justly heated response to the right wing, that the term “concern troll” has been created to describe people who habitually engage in it.  But of course you can’t troll your own blog.

By on 10/23/06 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think Nagel exposed a critical weakness in Dawkins’s argument.  We’re doing work in abiogenesis and we have been since before we even knew what DNA was.  It’s not been entirely successful but it’s not been a theoretical wasteland either.  The naive “Pure chance” theory has not been given up by pop culture but we have a lot of theories about the genesis of life which would significantly reduce the “complete accident” factor of the genesis of life.  There are also people like Stuart Kauffman, doing work with system dynamics to show that life may actually be a natural consequence of the laws of physics.
I don’t think its evolutionary theory’s fault that Nagel doesn’t know about or doesn’t consider work in abiogenesis.

Reductionism is really out of style in the humanities right now.  I think its an easy target because you can use the word, imply equivocation between various forms of it, and import all kinds of negative feelings about a vague notion.  There are challenges to strict reductionism (in the form of work done by people like the folks at the Santa Fe Institute, for instance the previously mentioned Stuart Kauffman) but in general I think its used too often in scholarship just to refer to scientists that we think are stuck up.

I doubt The God Delusion is a work of monumental scholarship and I don’t think it represents an attack undertaken by the whole of reductionism.  I think it represents the work of a single man who converted away from a religious background and who is now critical of the people who he sees as having been dangerous not only to his past well being but also towards his work and his ability to do his work.

By on 10/23/06 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Dawkins, of course, is not the only one to carry on like this, though some reviewers seem to think he’s reached new rhetorical heights. Bertrand Russell did it in the last century...

However snide Dawkins (or Russell’s) remarks on religion may seem, there is, however obvious, a very powerful skeptical argument supporting those remarks which the theist continually ducks and avoids: any presumed “God” (or gods) sanctions all of human and natural history.  Voltaire , if not Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, perhaps illustrates the issue more effectively than do Englishmen.  Of course the clever theist--even an Adam Aguecheek--typically suggests that the skeptic is overthrowing all human decency and morality, but in effect, the Voltairean is merely pointing out that the greatest Immoralist and tyrant and all-around villain of history would have to be none other than the primum mobile, Jehovah (or Allah, Brahma,Zeus, etc.)--since a King-tyrant God (who, if existent, recently signed off on a tsunami-slaughter of 300,000 or so) is really quite untenable (god = satan?) , the alternative is atheism.........

By Stew Rutolaffsky on 10/23/06 at 04:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What exactly would be an “alternative to reductionism other than religion”? If the world can’t ultimately be explained by science, what different approach will be able to? If we can’t think what such an alternative might be, doesn’t that leave only religion? (That is, for those who can’t simply accept there’s not likely to be an explanation.)

It’s puzzling to me that otherwise smart, non-mystical people like Bill Benzon, Jonathan Derbyshire, and, indeed, Thomas Nagel have come down so hard on Dawkins’s book and its “deperate arrogance.” It suggests that atheism is still far from acceptable even in “intellectual” circles.

By Dan Green on 10/23/06 at 04:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait—so you’re willing to accuse Dawkins of presenting religion as the only alternative to reductionism, that he’s afraid of religion, that he’s defensive, that he’s offensive, that he’s defending a purely reductionist view of science, that he has no explanations to offer for the origin of life, all because you’ve read some review somewhere?

Could you maybe move your admission that you haven’t read the book somewhere up near the top instead of burying it 8 paragraphs down?

By PZ Myers on 10/23/06 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That admission is right there at the top of the post, where I quote a comment I made last week to another post.

By Bill Benzon on 10/23/06 at 05:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

Another thought-provoking post.  You respond to Bill Benzon thus:
“It’s because some people generally do become uncomfortable when other people point out that ‘propositions about the world’ do real harm when they are held, and acted on, by real people.  It’s as if meme theory has run rampant, and these propositions have taken on a life of their own, without being instantiated by real behavior.”

This, I think, brings us right back to the discussion on Michaels and diversity.  I, for one, am torn about how to respond to the phenomenon you describe.  For example, I think religion ought to be treated just like any other claim made in the marketplace of ideas--hence my comments elsewhere on the necessity of evaluating, to whatever extent we are able, the empirical claims made by religion.  So I can really sympathize with those like Dawkins who are flabbergasted that we give any old nonsense a free pass just because it claims to be “religious”.

But at the same time, as I said in the initial thread on Michaels, it seems to me that we as a society have already determined that we will not corporately adjudicate between the rival truth-claims of religions (or non-religions).  Hence the whole First Amendment, separation of church and state, etc.  As a practical matter, it is as you describe: confronting someone’s beliefs necessarily(?) becomes an attack on the person.  And there seems to be much wisdom in avoiding such conflict.  Is there, then, no way to make positive progress in discussions of religion or politics?

I think one possible way is to try harder to separate attacks on ideas from attacks on persons holding the ideas.  Lowering the passionate intensity of the discussion just might lead to less conflict.  That, unfortunately, is precisely what you identify as the problem with the current situation.  I certainly don’t want to avoid all individual accountability by accepting a “my memes made me do it” defense.  But I don’t think that is the only alternative to intextricably intertwining attacks on ideas with attacks on persons.

By on 10/23/06 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hence the whole First Amendment, separation of church and state, etc.  As a practical matter, it is as you describe: confronting someone’s beliefs necessarily(?) becomes an attack on the person.

I think there’s something there, Kyler, though I don’t quite know what. That is, a parallel between separation of church and state and distinguishing between a person’s beliefs and the person—a variation on “hate the sin, but not the sinner” perhaps? Whatever reason the framers of the Constitution had for that separation, is its only contemporary value to protect the state from the ravages of religion?

Why not argue that that citizens should be required to pass a rationality test before they are licensed to vote? Why bother trying to convert the religious to atheism, why not just deny them the right to vote on the grounds that right to vote is too precious to be granted to such irrational people? Is it a mere matter of political expediency—you’d never be able to get such a provision enacted into law—or is there a deeper reason? After all, if religion is so pernicious, shouldn’t the religious be denied full citizenship? Why let mere expediency get in the way of debating the issue?

In his interview in Salon Dawkins has already refused expediency:

[Salon] Well, I think a lot of these scientists really do accept Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria. These are hardcore evolutionists, but they say religion is an entirely different realm. So you, with your inflammatory rhetoric, just muddy the waters and make life more difficult for them.

[Dawkins] That is exactly what they say. And I believe that actually is the political reason for Steve Gould to put forward the non-overlapping magisteria in the first place. I think it’s nonsense. And I’ll continue to say that I think it’s nonsense. But I can easily see, politically, why he said that and why other scientists follow it. The politics is very straightforward. The science lobby, which is very important in the United States, wants those sensible religious people—the theologians, the bishops, the clergymen who believe in evolution—on their side. And the way to get those sensible religious people on your side is to say there is no conflict between science and religion. We all believe in evolution, whether we’re religious or not. Therefore, because we need to get the mainstream orthodox religious people on our side, we’ve got to concede to them their fundamental belief in God, thereby—in my view—losing the war in order to win the battle for evolution. If you’re prepared to compromise the war for the sake of the battle, then it’s a sensible political strategy.
Throughout the ages, one has resorted to that kind of political compromise. And maybe it would be a good thing for me to do as well. But as it happens, I think the war is more important. I actually do care about the existence of a supreme being.

So, why not argue that the religious should not be allowed to vote? Is there a principled reason for not making such an argument? If so, what is that reason and what are its implications?

By Bill Benzon on 10/23/06 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Is there, then, no way to make positive progress in discussions of religion or politics?”

Sure there is: you win.

That sounds flip, I know, but it’s intended to criticize the assumption that power politics is a zero-sum game.  If one side is right and the other side is wrong, then one side defeating the other is not a zero-sum outcome.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a procedural liberal, and in many cases I don’t think that “we [should] corporately adjudicate between the rival truth-claims of religions (or non-religions)”, if by “we”, you mean “the state”.  I think that I’ve already implied in these threads that I think that leftism has to accept religion as one of the things that people do, and even call on it when possible, although its basic discourse should not be a religious one.  But individuals and groups adjudicate between rival truth-claims all the time.  Increasing tolerance for gay people in the U.S., for instance, necessarily and unfortunately involves defeat of Christian truth claims and increasing societal acceptance of nonreligious, universalist ones.  And that, in turn, necessarily involves criticism of actual people who hold to these beliefs.

But calls for “lowering the passionate intensity”—well, there’s a long tradition of responses to that in American politics, in both religious and nonreligious traditions.  Two samples, off the top of my head:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” —Frederick Douglass, letter

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”—MLK Jr., _Letter From Birmingham Jail_.

By on 10/23/06 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So, why not argue that the religious should not be allowed to vote? Is there a principled reason for not making such an argument? If so, what is that reason and what are its implications? “

Personally I think Dawkins idea is not so much to repeal rights to those with unsound beliefs, rather that society should not hold up a wall around these unsound beliefs we call religion against rightful and reason-based attacks.  Let ideas fly where they may, so that those who decide to act dangerously through misguided beliefs may be persuaded not to.

Nice post Rich.  Two excellent quotes

By on 10/23/06 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nagel is talking about the physics that seems to tweak the universe to just the right conditions for life; not (as much) about abiogenesis.

As for Santa Fe emergence, the smartest people I know who’ve been working there now think “emergence” is another reductionist name, lumping disparate phenomena together.

One of Nagel’s big issues is consciousness, which Dawkins doesn’t seem to touch, and which Dennett is just sort of dumb about.

By on 10/24/06 at 12:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“Nagel is talking about the physics that seems to tweak the universe to just the right conditions for life; not (as much) about abiogenesis.”

I don’t think this is true, though it probably should be.  Read this again:

“The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable properties. Since 1953 we have known what that material is, and scientists are continually learning more about how DNA does what it does. But since the existence of this material or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?”

His argument is basically “Evolutionary theory doesn’t explain the existence of DNA/the origins of life!  Therefore Dawkins has to take as much on faith as the creationists, because he’s just pushing the question back.” But that’s not true because while evolutionary theory such as Dawkins does indeed does not explain the existence of these things, there are whole other branches of science devoted to doing just that.  Now, why physics seems to be tweaked just right to produce life can function as a more profitable attack on science (though there are people thinking about that too) but even if it is successful the only entity you’d get to propose is an intelligent designer which tweaks the laws of physics before setting the universe in motion, not a Christian god.

“As for Santa Fe emergence, the smartest people I know who’ve been working there now think “emergence” is another reductionist name, lumping disparate phenomena together.”

What do you mean by this?  I haven’t been keeping up with the Santa Fe people as much as I’d like to.

My criticism of the use of reductionism here and by extension, how I perceive it used in the humanities too much, is based on simply not using the term very technically.  Typically reductionism is defined as the belief that “the whole is reducible to the sum of its parts.” You can very well be deeply religious and reductionistic, given some interesting metaphysical and theological beliefs.  You can also believe in holistic concepts like complexity theory type stuff, not be a reductionist and still support Dawkins fully.  Typically I see the word reductionism used to refer to what is essentially naturalism.  One who isn’t willing to allow supernatural or metaphysical teleological concepts into the discussion is labeled a reductionist.  It’s a big nasty sounding word we can drag out to subtly condemn someone without actually saying anything.  Nagel does this very thing by calling what Dawkins does “world-flattening reductionism” and then saying that to do this is to reduce everything to particle physics.  Firstly, I just don’t think that’s strictly what that word means.  I can sit here and chant to myself “English is a living language” and explain the general trend in using “reductionism” in this way, but it’s extremely irritating and obfuscating and there are plenty of better words out there.  The most compatible variant of reductionism I could find (on wikipedia) is “scientific reductionism” which is roughly the idea that science can explain everything.  This isn’t strictly related to the other definition of the term but we find it used sometimes equivocally.  Science being a general endeavor to explain everything possible, science itself seems to aim to be essentially scientifically reductionistic, though I guess one could differentiate people on their confidence in this possibility.
I’m not a fan of Dennett though I haven’t read his work, because right on the face of things he comes across as somewhat questionable, but apparently he also criticizes the use of the term “reductionistic” in a somewhat similar way.  He also makes a distinction between reductionism and “greedy reductionism” which I think is somewhat useful.
I am personally not a reductionist in the strict sense but I do believe that if you trace causation all the way down, the furthest you can go is something like particle physics and that you won’t find intervening supernatural or teleological causes on the way.  I recognize this as a matter of a certain faith and I accept it because I think it is a powerful, coherent and elegant system for understanding the world, much more so than alternatives.  Other people disagree.  I do suspect that Dawkins is disagreeing essentially on these grounds: that religious understanding is much less coherent than scientific understanding.  The reason that Dawkins doesn’t attack other “non-reductionist” views of biology, etc, is that he really isn’t in this case on a huge crusade to defend his view of science against all attackers.  He doesn’t need to scrounge among possibilities looking for every alternative to science other than religion to additionally attack.  Religion is very big and powerful and specifically damaging towards the kind of world Richard Dawkins wants.  Therefore he will use his status as an academic celebrity to attack it.

Anyway, I like Dawkins and I’ll always be ready to defend him to the extent that I think he deserves it, but this sort of thing always makes me cringe.  People are very keen on misinterpreting what he is actually saying and doing in his other work and I think that this is in large due to his building reputation of being very outspoken and bitter on some unpopular issues.

By on 10/24/06 at 04:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

WF: Nagel is talking about the physics that seems to tweak the universe to just the right conditions for life . . .

JSN: Now, why physics seems to be tweaked just right to produce life can function as a more profitable attack on science (though there are people thinking about that too) . . .

By that tweaking I believe you guys mean the anthropic principle, which Dawkins apparently invokes in the book. Nagel mentions it in his review:

Dawkins recognizes the problem, but his response to it is pure hand-waving. First, he says it only had to happen once. Next, he says that there are, at a conservative estimate, a billion billion planets in the universe with life-friendly physical and chemical environments like ours. So all we have to suppose is that the probability of something like DNA forming under such conditions, given the laws of physics, is not much less than one in a billion billion. And he points out, invoking the so-called anthropic principle, that even if it happened on only one planet, it is no accident that we are able to observe it, since the appearance of life is a condition of our existence.

I’ve not read much of the discussion on the anthropic principle, though I do believe theists also have invoked it in defense of their notions.

JSN: I am personally not a reductionist in the strict sense but I do believe that if you trace causation all the way down, the furthest you can go is something like particle physics and that you won’t find intervening supernatural or teleological causes on the way.

I agree with this. Between the servomechanism, the computer, and complexity we have ways of thinking about purpose, intention, and design without having to invoke the supernatural. For some of my thinking on these matters, see this, this, and this.

Note that Dawkinsian memetics is a very reductionist way of accounting for human behavior and culture. When Dawkins introduced the idea in The Selfish Gene it was a rather casual thought experiment. But the idea took hold and has generated a significant popular literature, but no science that I can tell, nor even any interesting speculation. Some reviews (e.g. this one in the NYTimes) indicate that Dawkins invokes memes in The God Delusion as a possible element in an account of religious behavior. As I’ve not read the book I don’t know how much emphasis Dawkins gives to such speculation, but I’m inclined to think that talking about memes, even speculatively, is only a little more illuminating than speculating about spirits and demons. One Robert Aunger attempted a neural account of memes (The Electric Meme) and, in the process, managed to produce some of the most wretched neuro-speculative tomfoolery I have ever read.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/06 at 07:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, note that when I brought up memes, I was criticizing your own rhetoric, which would only criticize sets of propositions rather than persons—as if sets of propositions had an independent, Platonic existence.

The following is a good example of “concern” rhetoric:  “So, why not argue that the religious should not be allowed to vote? Is there a principled reason for not making such an argument? If so, what is that reason and what are its implications?”

When people like Dawkins argue against religion, it’s not because they want an authoritarian atheistic state.  “Concern” takes the normal operation of liberal democratic politics and stigmatizes it as somehow leading to either totalitarianism or chaos.  Remember the term “blogofascists”?

As for the anthropic principle, I don’t see what’s either bad or religious about it.  All that it says is that arguments about the rarity or otherwise of our position in the universe don’t work, because we’re not observing from a random position.

By on 10/24/06 at 08:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The following is a good example of “concern” rhetoric:  “So, why not argue that the religious should not be allowed to vote? Is there a principled reason for not making such an argument? If so, what is that reason and what are its implications?”

That may very well be what you call “concern” rhetoric, Rich, but my questions are not rhetorical ones.

When people like Dawkins argue against religion, it’s not because they want an authoritarian atheistic state.  “Concern” takes the normal operation of liberal democratic politics and stigmatizes it as somehow leading to either totalitarianism or chaos.

That’s not where I was going; you added “authoritarian” all on your own. Still, given that religion is so very evil, why doesn’t Dawkins, or Dennett, argue for an atheistic, albeit, democratic state? There must be a reason other than mere expediency. What is it? Is the reason obvious to you? If so, tell me what it is, because I don’t see it at the moment.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t such a reason. For all I know there is a very common word or phrase that designates that reason. But I can’t think of one off hand. I should think freedom and dignity has something to do with it. But that needs to be spelled out more.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/06 at 09:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, it is inherently authoritarian to remove people’s voting rights.  You’re playing a rhetorical game, whether you realize it or not.

And taking the game on your terms would be a mistake.  Sure, I could try to recapitulate all of liberal political theory for you, and explain why “you are wrong, even evil” does not translate into “you should be disenfranchised”.  But can’t you do that on your own?  There’s a lot of material there.

In the meantime, bringing up “why not argue that the religious should not be allowed to vote?” makes it appear that this is a natural consequence of Dawkins’ position.  The Dawkins interview that you quoted starts with him saying “I think it’s nonsense. And I’ll continue to say that I think it’s nonsense.” Him saying that something is nonsense has nothing to do with the removal of voting rights.

By on 10/24/06 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Benzon:

Thanks, I haven’t read the rest of the review because I don’t have a subscription so all I’ve had to go on is what is quoted.  Nagel’s criticism of Dawkins is reasonable here, though you could patch up Dawkins argument relatively easily.  My point was that there are two conditions for the formation of life A) that physics is structured such that life-supporting molecules can possibly exist B) that such life supporting-molecules actually form.  As for the likelyhood of A, we don’t particularly have any scientific ways of figuring this out and that’s traditionally considered a weakness in science.  You can apply the anthromorphic principle to this, and that’s a popular account of it.  Deism is totally acceptable here too, as well as any number of other theories.  We have no way of knowing.
As to B, my opinion is that work in theoretical organic chemistry is giving us a number of ideas about how life could have formed and we no longer have to rely on pure chance.  It’s becoming more likely that we are going to uncover chemical processes that allow for a reasonably high likelyhood of life formation on planets that resemble ours to some specifiable degree.  It could be that life forming in the universe during its lifetime is virtually inevitable.
So Deism is still defensible but Christian theism (which is the target Dawkins seems to be primarily after) remains reasonably unnecessary.

I hope that it’s not true that Dawkins gets back into memetics in a big way in this book.  Memetics is an easy target and I’ve always had to defend him as creating it as a casual thought experiment and not something he took seriously.

As for the argument that’s going on here, I have to agree with Rich.  I personally am into the naturalism thing with quite a bit of vigor but I don’t want to remove the voting rights of supernaturalists.  You added “authoritarian” when you suggested that he might as well support the disenfranchisement of religious voters.  I see your point to some degree, in that Dawkins is arguing against that sort of “wall of etiquitte” that prevents us from criticizing religion.  But it seems to me that he doesn’t seem to show any signs of pushing this beyond discourse.  He argues that nobody should believe in “religion” and contributes to discourse on the subject by publishing a book about it.  He doesn’t argue that religious people should be punished.  I think he holds on to the idea that people should be essentially free to make up their minds, but that discourse should occur without constraint, and he sees “religion” as constraining free discourse and being somehow disproportionately exempt from attack.

Anyway, your website looks very interesting and I’ll have to get around to reading through it when I can.

By on 10/24/06 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the claim that “Dawkins has to take as much on faith as the creationists” a little problematic? I mean, what’s the analogy? Let’s remember, Science (when we treat it that way, capitalizing) is a method, not an entity. I think the difference here has been elided; Dawkins isn’t taking anything “on faith”. Though you could argue: Dawkins is taking “on faith” the fact that the creation of life/the universe/ and everything is explainable by natural causes, this is a methodological claim, and I don’t think it’s in any way equal to the “on faith” used by creationists.

By on 10/24/06 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope that it’s not true that Dawkins gets back into memetics in a big way in this book.  Memetics is an easy target and I’ve always had to defend him as creating it as a casual thought experiment and not something he took seriously.

His blurb for Aunger’s Electric Meme is a marvel of diplomacy, having the “feel” of a positive endorsment without actually endorsing the ideas at all, just the presentation: “What more, one might ask, needed to be said about memes? The answer turns out to be plenty, and Robert Aunger says it clearly, intelligently and entertainingly.” I think you’re right about it having been “a casual thought experiment.” For better or worse, the idea caught on and so he’s stuck having to elaborate it and defend it in some measure. Dennett, OTOH, seems to be quite serious about memes.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/06 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, it is inherently authoritarian to remove people’s voting rights. You’re playing a rhetorical game, whether you realize it or not.

Perhaps I am, Rich, but you’ve not convinced me of it yet.

Voting rights are tricky. I couldn’t vote until I was 21. But the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age to 18. It was passed in 1971. I don’t recall just what reasons were given for passing the amendment, but there was a lot of talk to the effect that if you’re old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to vote.

But why have any age requirement at all? Why not let 10-year olds vote? There is an obvious answer to that question. Children aren’t sophisticated enough to make such decisions. I don’t think that’s an authoritarian reason. It seems sensible on the face of it.

In the overall context of this argument, it’s obvious enough where I might be going with this, so I won’t go there, not quite. But pointing out why children aren’t allowed to vote is quite easy. My sentence above—Children aren’t sophisticated ... decisions - contains only seven words, but it expresses the essence of the reasoning, if not the details. What’s the seven or ten or 25 word sentence that expresses the essence of why religious believers - irrational, foolish, and even evil as they are - should nonetheless be allowed to vote? If that really requires the recapitulation of “all of liberal political theory,” then there is intellectual work to be done.

For one way that knowledge advances is that big complicated lines of reasoning are refined and abstracted until the essence can be presented in only 100 or even ten words. If someone has already done that work in this case, then I’d like to know about it. If not, then there work to do.

But I’m not going to do it, because I’m not the one who thinks religious believers are necessarily irrational, or foolish, much less evil. While I’ve not been convinced by any of the arguments for the existence of God—though I should admit that I haven’t considered them seriously since my undergraduate years— I have no problem understanding how an intelligent and reasonable person could find such argumentation satisfying. Now, back in my college days, one of my philosophy professors - Edward Lee - presented St. Anselm’s ontological argument in a way that I thought was very convincing, though I wasn’t convinced. And, as I vaguely recall, I wasn’t convinced that Kant’s refutation worked either. But that’s neither here nor there. My point is simply that crediting such arguments doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, put someone outside the community of reasonable human beings.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/06 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t there a kind of “compartmentalization” going on?  Suppose your next-door neighbors believed in Thor or Zeus, but were otherwise quite rational.  When discussing whether to vote for a school bond issue they debated the issue on its merits.  The “craziness” only occured when issues having to do with Thor were raised.  This is called secularism.  There is assumed to be a public sphere where a belief in Thor doesn’t really come that much into play. 

However, when all the believers in Thor get together and say that Thor has a particular view of the Bond Issue, then secularism seems threatened.  The only reason to “respect” your neighbors’ view of Thor in the first place was that it didn’t interfere with their judgment in other arenas of life.  But once it does interfere, then there is a reason to tear down that wall of respect.  We don’t really expect other irrational beliefs to be respected, so why do religious ones get special consideration? Only because a certain secularism protects religion as long as religion doesn’t seem to have an inordinate influence outside its own sphere.  If someone says Jesus wants lower taxes I don’t think there’s any reason to “respect” that opinion just because it is “religious.” Au contraire.  Its religious basis makes it, if anything, less worthy of respect.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/24/06 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s a most useful observation, Jonathan. I’ll think about it and perhaps say some more later.

Meanwhile, I note that in some states convicted felons loose the right to vote. I’m not sure I agree with that policy, but it does have a certain logic to it. I think it would be difficult to argue this one on mental competence, but one could argue that, when a person has violated the norms of the state to a certain degree, they abrogate the right to participate in the state through voting. They’ve broken their “contract” with the state and loss of voting rights is a consequence of that breach. I have no idea whether or not that’s what has actually been argued or whether the idea is straight-out punishment.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/06 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are other approaches to the fine-tuning problem than the anthropic (not anthropomorphic) principle.  One is some form of evolutionary physics, cf. Lee Smolin I think, with black holes spawning off baby universes, so there’s selection for universes which produce many black holes, which incidentally supports us.  Greg Egan had some wacky quantum ideas in some of his novels but I won’t go there.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of memes; the spread of ‘meme’ seems to be a fine example of its concept.

By on 10/24/06 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

Why allow religous believers to vote?  Well, in this country, if we’re going to disenfranchise people based on worldview, I think it would be the atheists who would lose.  After all, the vast majority of people everywhere believe in some sort of deity--so why shouldn’t it be the non-theists who are punished for their “irrational” refusal to accept the obvious signs of the existence of some type of deity?  I imagine such a scenario would be unacceptable to just about everybody participating in the discussion.

And therein lies an important part of the issue, methinks.  My initial post expressed this in terms of “practicalities”, while you were looking for more basic principles.  Maybe the principle has to do with an aversion to the idea of “might makes right”.  I don’t want my rights taken away if someone else happens to have more power than I; so in order to ensure my rights, I allow you to keep your rights as well, regardless of how much power I have.
This is perhaps the cynical way of describing what we might otherwise just call “freedom of conscience”.

By on 10/24/06 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

As an added thought, no I don’t believe the First Amendment exists solely or even primarily “to protect the state from the ravages of religion”.  As a historical matter, I believe the First Amendment was enacted to protect religion from the ravages of the state. 
The First Amendment doesn’t limit religious or other expressions of private citizens, it limits the government.

Jonathan,

You bring up an interesting point about the Thor Lobby.  I think I’m uncomfortable with your position, or at least the way it’s expressed.  I think it’s kind of preposterous to expect that someone’s beliefs don’t impact the rest of their life, including their politics.  After all, your beliefs influence how you vote--why shouldn’t others’ beliefs influence them?  Political beliefs based on a religious worldview ought not be privileged before the law, but neither should non-religious views.

I guess I just disagree with your assessment that the public sphere is a place where “a belief in Thor don’t come much into play.” Instead, I see it as a place where belief in Thor most definitely comes into play, but so does a belief in Zoroaster, and Jesus, Yahweh, and Allah, and None of the Above.  Only in this instance is their truly freedom of conscience and expression.  Given the vast array of beliefs impinging on the public sphere, we as a society may end up tacking back and forth a bit in our policies, but (hopefully) we’ll never go too far off in one specific diretion.  If some belief is truly “absurd”, then voting populace ought to be trusted to see it as such.  In these cirumstances, then, it is the democratic process that ultimately justifies the political outcome.

I’m worried that the “secular” view you propound just doesn’t equate to true freedom.  What you’re advocating sounds like “You can believe whatever you like, but just shut up about it when we grown-ups are talking.” The ability to exercise the same rights and participate equally in public discourse is what I’m after.  As a reductio of your position, we could just as well argue that Christians in ancient Rome had the “right” to refuse to worship the Emperor.  After all, they really could believe whatever they wished as they were being thrown to the lions…

By on 10/24/06 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The First Amendment doesn’t limit religious or other expressions of private citizens, it limits the government.

I think you’re right about this. Here’s a brief and preliminary attempt to think about the importance of the separation of church and state. I need to do better.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/06 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

since a King-tyrant God (who, if existent, recently signed off on a tsunami-slaughter of 300,000 or so) is really quite untenable (god = satan?) , the alternative is atheism.........

Stew,
Why stop with the tsunami?  Isn’t every single death over all time attributable to such a god?

I fail to see how the reality of death makes any and all gods untenable, however.  You seem to be importing a lot of preconceived (anti-)theological notions into such a claim.  Among them: death, or any type of suffering, is necessarily a bad thing; the free will of humans does not ever interfere with the will of god; and perhaps most importantly, god does not have the right to interfere with humans living their lives as they see fit.

While most (but not all) theists would agree with the first claim, many (especially Christians) would be inclined to disagree with the second point, and many others (espeically Muslims) would be inclined to disagree with the third.  So your recourse to atheism is not as obviously necessary as you seem to think.

Furthermore, where do you get your notions that slaughter is morally untenable?  You may have anticipated this line of reasoning with your “clever theist” reference, but I think it merits exploring.  The existence of absolute standards of right and wrong across all cultures has served as a relatively common--and in my opinion, powerful--apologetic for theists.  In other words, if the problem of Evil is supposed to trip up theists, then the problem of Good seems to me to trip up non-theists equally.

Whence the absolute standard of Good to which you are appealing in your condemnation of a god hungry for slaughter?  All cultures have some notion of right and wrong ("conscience", in traditional Christian parlance)--is this explicable entirely in terms of evolutionary advantage?  If so, there is no grounding to any of your claims beyond personal or group preference; there is just what happened to evolve under selective pressure over countless millennia.  Certainly such morality would be useful, but I don’t see the rationale for making it normative on all beings, even god(s).
And if you are appealing to some normative principle beyond evolutionary advantage, what is it and why should I be beholden to it?

By on 10/24/06 at 09:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Right.  I really do believe this.  The public sphere should be the province of the grownups.  Any belief not based on the actual merits of the issue in purely secular terms should not be given serious consideration.  There should be no automatic deference to a position just because it is *religious.* That’s just a get out of jail card for positions that can’t stand rational scrutiny. 

Relgious (or non-religious) folks will be on different sides of various issues.  Religion as a way of legitimizing one political perspective over another should be subject to ridicule whenever possible. Playing the god-card threatens secularism but also theatens the free excercise of religion itself.

By on 10/24/06 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This discussion has been useful for me. It’s helped me sort some things out. Here’s thoughts.

Voting

I think I’ve made progress on this voting business. There’s nothing new here, and it’s a bit simple, but it’ll have to do for the moment.

What’s voting for? It’s a way for groups to make decisions that are binding on all members of the group. Is there any other way to make such decisions? Yes, you can let a leader decide or you can talk things through to consensus. Let’s set the first alternative aside. On the second, sometimes you can’t reach a consensus for whatever reason. If the group is too large, talking-through is too unwieldy, but even small groups can get deadlocked. So, you vote.

In either situation, we can distinguish two situations. In one situation all parties share more or less the same assumptions, but they can’t reach agreement because their interests are different or because the issue at hand is murky and complex and people see it differently for whatever reason. In the other situation people don’t share assumptions and hence cannot discuss certain issues. Now, voting can decide matters in either case, but the consequences for the group can be very different. If people don’t share assumptions, people who loose the vote may decide that they really really don’t like the decision? What do they do? Perhaps they leave the group.

The really messy thing is, people in the group may not even know that they don’t share assumptions until the vote has been taken and some people have lost and, all of a sudden, realize that they can no longer abide by the group. What happens then? Maybe the losers change their assumptions so they can feel more comfortable about staying. Maybe the winners change a bit to accommodate the losers. Maybe the losers stick around, but withdraw from the public sphere. And maybe the leave.

If you don’t like the way biology is taught in your child’s school, for example, you try to get the school board to change that. If you fail, maybe you take your kids out of public school and home school them. Parents have a legitimate interest in their child’s education. And scientists have a legitimate interest in how their subjects are taught.

And so it goes. I’ve said nothing new. I suppose my point is that, considered as a mechanism, voting can accommodate both disagreements within a paradigm, and disagreements between paradigms. The right to vote has been and is premised on various things, but paradigm conformance - as we now understand the notion of a paradigm or perspective or whatever - has not one of them. Children, women, felons, and those lacking property, for example, have not been excluded on the basis of paradigm or worldview conformance. But now it’s become a distinguishable issue.

Still, it seems to me that if you are willing to grant that people with substantially different worldviews can legitimately have the right to vote, is it consistent to ridicule and demean them because they vote differently than you do? I am, in effect, saying that, when you grant the right to vote, you also grant dignity.

Attitude

Coming at it a different way, when you’ve used all the arguments you can think of and your opponent still disagrees, what do you do? Well, you can walk away, or you can use scorn and ridicule and see if you can bully your opponent into submission. That’s where I think Dawkins is coming from. So, I suppose I’m agreeing with John Horgan, and that I’ve been over-thinking Dawkins.

Of course it’s not just Dawkins, or Dennett, or good old Bertrand Russell. It’s lots of people. For the last five years or so I’ve been on an Evolutionary Psychology list that has had 2000-3000 members. A good many of them are professional academics and some of those who post are quite senior and even distinguished. A number of disciplines are well-represented: genetics, behavioral genetics, primate ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, psychometrics, neuropsychology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, political science, economics, and more. There are a number of issues that come back time and again and get quite contentious, among them: psychoanalysis; intelligence, IQ, gender, and race; and religion. The religion discussions are not about the existence of god, of course; they are about the nature of religion as a human activity. And that discussion can become quite intemperate.

Many people favor the sort of view that Dawkins and Dennett apparently hold, that religion results from the mis-application of mental abilities that evolved for other uses. And memes. Others - myself included - disagreed. There is a respectable body of thinking, for example, that sees religion as a mechanism for engendering group cohesion and, as such, as played an essential role in human life. Some hold that religion is unequivocally bad, while others take a different view. One discussion devolved to the point where some people even seemed to think that the mere discussion of religion as a human phenomenon was dangerous, prompting one senior scholar to remark, “We don’t have to pray but it doesn’t hurt to listen.”

It’s one thing to get into an argument over the existence of god, or the nature of biological evolution. But these arguments were going off the deep end over the issue of whether or not religious behavior and belief is the result of neuro-psychological mistakes or useful psycho-social mechanism. But then, I’ve seen such flare-ups over such trivial matters as whether or not silver-plating makes a difference in the tone of a trumpet - this was not, of course on the EvPsych list, but a trumpet list. You have people discussing just what those differences are while others point out that, when you do blind comparisons, listeners can’t hear any difference.

Reductionism

What then of the observation that got me started, that perhaps Dawkins was, in effect, attacking religion as a way of defending a reductionist epistemology? Well, there are a lot of people who do not believe in god; some call themselves atheists, some agnostics, and some are a bit perplexed by it all. Among these, some are like Dawkins and Dennett - and a bunch of people on the EvPsych list - in that they think religion is somewhere between foolish and evil and, as such, should be combated. Others don’t think religion is foolish or, at any rate, aren’t nearly so bothered about it. I’m in this group.

Why this difference? Is it merely a reflection of myriad personal choices and idiosyncrasies, or is there something systematic? If so, what? Perhaps those who were raised in a religious home and then rebelled are more militant than those who were not so raised. Or perhaps, as I’ve suggested, the militant ones are also reductionist. These are not, of course, mutually exclusive. And there are no doubt other possible factors as well.

On the whole I’m inclined to think that this difference is systematic. But I have nothing more to say on the matter than I’ve already said.

Politics

On the question of religion and American political life, I’ve been deeply impressed by economist (and Nobel Laureate) Robert Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism. He argues that American public life has been, throughout its history, strongly affected by waves of religious revivalism and that it has, historically, been an egalitarian force. For example, he argues that what we might call the “spiritual capital” needed to fight the Civil War originated in camp meetings in the first quarter or so of the 19th century and was then maintained and amplified in a variety of ways (including continued camp meetings). I think this is an important piece of work. But too much to discuss here.

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

Let me end by quoting a big chunk of a piece I referenced above:

Consider the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

<BLOCKQUOTE>We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In Jefferson’s formulation the government gains its power by grant from the people. The people, in turn, gain their power, their unalienable rights, from their Creator. This quite reverses the logic of legitimization prevailing in traditional European monarchies. In those governments the rulers got their legitimacy from God and their subjects, in turn, got their rights and obligations through their relationship to the ruler. In that scheme democracy is implausible. Jefferson, and the new nation, emphatically rejected that scheme in favor of a different one.

In this new system the separation of church and state secures two ends, religious freedom and, even more fundamentally, the state itself. The first is obvious, and has occasioned much discussion. The second seems obvious as well, but is somehow more subtle. How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.

And that, I suggest, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends.</BLOCKQUOTE>

If you are a believer, than the relevance of religious belief to your Being is self-evident. But, if you are a social scientist attempting to understand human behavior, how do you make sense of Jefferson’s words and of the subsequent political history of America? I don’t think America would have worked if it weren’t for all those camp meetings and the associated networks of belief and association. I think there are real psycho-cultural mechanisms here and I’d like someone to tell me how they work.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/06 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

However, when all the believers in Thor get together and say that Thor has a particular view of the Bond Issue, then secularism seems threatened.  The only reason to “respect” your neighbors’ view of Thor in the first place was that it didn’t interfere with their judgment in other arenas of life.

Interesting - but how narrow is this argument?  What if we substitute “believers in Thor” with “believers in Ayn Rand” or “believers in Marx”?  Should we prevent them from voting because of their irrational beliefs?  What if one or the other of those groups decides *your* political beliefs are irrational, and wants to (and has the power to) prevent you from voting on them? 

Should we just make sure that the one right-thinking group is given enough power to ensure that only right-thinkers get the vote?  (Our group will be right-thinking enough to distinguish the right-thinkers from the deluded.) Or should we, having established who are the right-thinkers, just give them the authority to do what needs to be done, and forget the whole voting thing anyhow - which only opens the door to people with hidden irrational thoughts getting out and voting on them.

(It will, of course, be obvious who the rational, right-thinkers are, because they will agree with me on all things.)

By on 10/25/06 at 10:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m assuming here that religious belief is often compartmentalized to an astounding degree--for better or for worse.  It’s a belief that’s clearly irrational to anyone who doesn’t hold to the same religion.  Yet that same irrational person is apparently rational in all other areas of life. 

Not being a believer I don’t really know to what extent believers actually hold their beliefs.  Any truly rational person either admits that religious belief is a convenient fiction, a metaphor, or else compartmentalizes belief so that it doesn’t interfere with everyday decisions.  Isn’t that the very definition of fanaticism?  Allowing religious belief to spill over into some other area of life where it doesn’t really belong? 

If someone based a vote on a candidate’s astrological sign, wouldn’t we call that irrational?  We wouldn’t then deny the vote to believers in astrology, even if we had the political power to do so.  Even if the franchise is implicitly based on some idea of rationality there isn’t a mechanism for obliging people to vote for rational reasons.  Nor should there be such a mechanism.  Most sane astrologers probably vote for candidates based on political reasons, not astrological ones. 

It is not that I personally disapprove of some particular religious belief, but that this belief is weird and unjustifiable to anyone not belonging to that particular group.  We are taught not to mock others’ beliefs because our own beliefs might be equally absurd from the point of view of others.  So secular respect for religion is really born out of a sense of absurdity and contingency, not out of sense of plausibility.  We respect our Thor-worshipping neighbor not because we think Thor might really exist, but because we think, our own belief in Osiris is equally unjustifiable to her.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/25/06 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s good to see that you’re starting through liberal political theory, Bill.  However, you still have a ways to go:

“Still, it seems to me that if you are willing to grant that people with substantially different worldviews can legitimately have the right to vote, is it consistent to ridicule and demean them because they vote differently than you do? I am, in effect, saying that, when you grant the right to vote, you also grant dignity.”

There is no essential element of human dignity that says that you can not be ridiculed because of your beliefs.  All political actions, within a liberal system, are conflicts between freedoms for different people.  Saying that dignity means that people should not be ridiculed means that you’re saying that other people should not speak.  The same values that say that everyone should be allowed to vote, no matter how politically stupid they are, say that everyone has to be allowed to speak, whether they are ridiculing someone or not.

Of course, you can ridicule the person doing the ridiculing in turn by describing them as having “desperate arrogance” or something.  But you can’t hide your engagement within a pretense that you respect human dignity and they do not.

“Coming at it a different way, when you’ve used all the arguments you can think of and your opponent still disagrees, what do you do? Well, you can walk away, or you can use scorn and ridicule and see if you can bully your opponent into submission.”

No, at the end you take up weapons.  That is what a liberal political system is designed to discourage, and that’s why it’s ludicrous to ask whether there is a “principled” reason to avoid disenfranchisement.  People can make up any number of principled reasons, as many as there are different principles in the world, but the principle of not having a political system dominated by violence is the one that truly makes the system stable.

As for not wanting the system to also include ridicule, well, you’re confusing an academic discussion, which probably should not include ridicule, with politics, which has more serious (or, at least, basic) concerns at stake.

Mixing up the elite discourse with the discourse of people who actually have something at stake is one of the besetting problems of the moderate left.  It’s why I chose the quote from MLK that I quoted earlier.  Here’s another very sarcastic quote, chosen at random from today’s Eschaton (Duncan Black):

“If only we get the Wise Old Men of Washington in the room together, and have them put politics aside, then all will be well.  The problems we’ve had, in an era where one party controls everything, are all due to partisan bickering.  If only sensible voices, like Ignatius’s, who are unfettered by the petty concerns of politics - you know, getting the support of voters, the consent of governed - could rise up above the fray and politicians could have the “strong stomachs” to listen to them, then we’d eventually find the pony.”

That’s pretty much what I hear when people start going on about the horrors of ridicule rather than the horrors of, say, Christian support for our failing government.

By on 10/25/06 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That is what a liberal political system is designed to discourage, and that’s why it’s ludicrous to ask whether there is a “principled” reason to avoid disenfranchisement.  People can make up any number of principled reasons, as many as there are different principles in the world, but the principle of not having a political system dominated by violence is the one that truly makes the system stable.

I don’t quite see how the second sentence follows from or complements the first.

But you can’t hide your engagement within a pretense that you respect human dignity and they do not.

I wasns’t aware of trying to hide any engagement. See, for example, this comment in another thread.

In any event, as far as I can tell there’s something about religious believers that I respect and, as far as I can tell, Dawkins does not. Maybe it’s their intelligence or maybe even it’s their belief, though I don’t share it. I do not, in generally, think that religious belief is evidence of a morally culpable defect in mind or character. Dawkins talks as though he believes something like that.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/06 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I took your original question “Is there a principled reason for not making such an argument?” to mean “is there some reason other than its practical difficulties?” But the practicalities of handling political conflict are what underpin the whole system.

If instead you meant “is there some reason other than because it would sound bad”, then Dawkins already addresses the pragmatic question of whether “sounding bad” will hurt his cause or not.  That’s what his whole answer is about.  Note that although he’s willing to “sound bad”, he’s not advocating the kind of paternalism that you brought up with your comparison to children.

As for your last paragraph, yes, I understand that you and Dawkins disagree about certain things.  What I object to is your attempt to set the ground rules for political discourse—to say that Dawkins is wrong not because you disagree with him, but because of something to do with human dignity.

By on 10/25/06 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Still, it seems to me that if you are willing to grant that people with substantially different worldviews can legitimately have the right to vote, is it consistent to ridicule and demean them because they vote differently than you do? I am, in effect, saying that, when you grant the right to vote, you also grant dignity.

Um, sure, it is perfectly consistent.  Dignity has nothing to do with voting.  Granting citizens the right to vote has to do with the legitimacy of the elected body.  In democratic nations, we believe that the governments should have the consent of the governed.  There are various ways of doing this, but in general the larger the group of people allowed to vote for the elected body, the more consent by the people. 

But this is just a matter of process.  It has no implications for the substantive views of the people doing the voting.  You are free to ridicule the beliefs of your fellow voters if you think it will help persuade other voters to think and vote like you.  Or, in other words, politics ain’t beanbags and everyone knows this. Why would anyone want to unitlaterally disarm himself from one rhetorical weapon among others?

By on 10/25/06 at 04:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah I think you’re missing something about how public discourse works.  When you’re writing a book about a contentious issue, your goal is to persuade as many people to your side as possible.  Your target audience is not the entrenched on the other side, but the people in the middle ground that can be persuaded.  You write with passion if you think there’s a desparate need to convert those people, you ridicule the other side if you think the other side is plainly ridiculous.  Dawkins is still fighting an intellectual game inside the sphere of discourse implied by liberal politics.  He’s not a tyrant, in fact he’s pretty tame in comparison to some of the people who he’d be most likely to criticize.
Giving someone the vote does not remove your ability to criticize someone, in fact if anything it places a greater emphasis on it.  Like I said above, criticisms against an opponent in public (not necessarily academic) discourse are rarely for that opponents benefit but are for those still open to persuasion.  With rhetoric you can sway the vote, or you can change the shape of public opinion.  Voting as a mechanism opens up the possibility of this kind of discourse, because you’re no longer vying for direct political power within administrations or through force, but for a share in public opinion.  I mean, look at conservatives and liberals.  If you think that they abstain from ridiculing one another because the vote gives everyone dignity, you’re living on another planet.  However, extremely few people seriously suggest disenfranchisement for political beliefs.
The disenfranchisement of convicted felons is a pretty interesting possible counterexample.  It really depends on some of your socioeconomic beliefs.  Given that a disproportionate amount of people incarcerated are for minor drug offenses and fall into certain racial groups, it’s been suggested that politics plays a bigger role in this than immediately evident.

As for Dawkins, I still maintain that this is less systematic than you believe.  He was raised religious and turned, which typically breeds animosity.  His work is specifically threatened by the religious.  He is in a position to criticise these people.  There need be no other reason.  “Reductionism” which you still use in a relatively unclear way, doesn’t have to have anything to do with this.

By on 10/25/06 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For a good time - if, that is, you aren’t looking for sex, but a discussion of science and religion - there’s a classic kicking around the internet, Science and the Supernatural, at this link: http://www.marxists.org/archive/
haldane/works/1930s/lunn.htm

It is JBS Haldane’s debate with Arnold Lunn, Lunn was a chestertonian, one of the Knox crowd, and best known as a skier. And he certainly isn’t a thinker, unfortunately for him. Haldane keeps knocking him over with a truck. There are some great quips. Here’s a nice Haldane quip: “Huxley said that the besetting sins of scientists were jealousy and pedantry. “Pedantry,” by the way, is the term which we apply, in controversy, to the accuracy of our opponents.”

By roger on 10/25/06 at 10:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dawkins on Colbert:

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By Bill Benzon on 10/26/06 at 04:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, so we have academic vs. public or political discourse and the rules are different.

When you’re writing a book about a contentious issue, your goal is to persuade as many people to your side as possible.  Your target audience is not the entrenched on the other side, but the people in the middle ground that can be persuaded.

I’d amend that just a little. You’re still writing for the entrenched on your side. Your folks need to see their position strongly present in the public sphere. And, of course, they can always use the best arguments for their own purposes.

So, <A HREF="http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/books/review/Holt.t.html?ref=books&pagewanted=print
“ TARGET="holt">writing in the NYTimes</A>, Jim Holt asserts that Dawkins does a rather poor job of dealing with “the traditional arguments for the existence of God.” In an academic book on religion that would be fatal, but in public discourse it’s different. Here the point of rehearsing these traditional arguments and presenting refutations is simply to make a good show of it for his folks, who probably don’t care whether or not he presents these arguments well. They just want confirmation of their views and he’s the one to give it to them. Holt also observes:

Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as “sucking up to God” and “Nur Nurny Nur Nur” (here the author, in a dubious polemical ploy, is imagining his theological adversary as a snotty playground brat). It’s all in good fun when Dawkins mocks a buffoon like Pat Robertson and fundamentalist pastors like the one who created “Hell Houses” to frighten sin-prone children at Halloween. But it is less edifying when he questions the sincerity of serious thinkers who disagree with him, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, or insinuates that recipients of the million-dollar-plus Templeton Prize, awarded for work reconciling science and spirituality, are intellectually dishonest (and presumably venal to boot). In a particularly low blow, he accuses Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, of attempting to “justify the Holocaust,” when Swinburne was struggling to square such monumental evils with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps all is fair in consciousness-raising. But Dawkins’s avowed hostility can make for scattershot reasoning as well as for rhetorical excess.

If this were an academic book, this too would be bad. But in public discourse, I presume, it’s par for the course. Lots of people do it.

As for memetics, its rather dubious credentials in the academic world is irrelevant here. What matters is that the notion has a lot of pop credibility. So if he hasn’t really laid on the memetics, perhaps he should amp it up some more. But there is probably a limit to how much of that he can do. For his standing in the public world is in no small measure derived from his standing in the academic world. He’s got a prestigious academic post. He doesn’t want to embarrass Oxford or cause problems for academics who support him. As long as he does this, he can say whatever he wants.

What this amounts to, as far as I can tell is that - certain intellectual matters aside, such as memetics and the psychology of religion - my disagreement with Dawkins is not on matters that can be reasoned about. It’s a political disagreement. Hence, though Dawkins argues in the name of reason, the rationality of his arguments is irrelevant. What matters is how effective he is in rallying the troops and attracting new recruits. On the face of it - his obvious popularity - he would seem to be rather good at those tasks. So, he’s doing just fine.

As for Dawkins, I still maintain that this is less systematic than you believe.  He was raised religious and turned, which typically breeds animosity.  His work is specifically threatened by the religious.  He is in a position to criticise these people.  There need be no other reason.

Actually, his work is threatened only by some religious people, but by no means is it threatened by all religious people. Nonetheless, he argues against religion in general, not against those types of religion that threaten his work. At the end of his review, Nagel says:

Dawkins seems to believe that if people could be persuaded to give up the God Hypothesis on scientific grounds, the world would be a better place--not just intellectually, but also morally and politically. He is horrified--as who cannot be?--by the dreadful things that continue to be done in the name of religion, and he argues that the sort of religious conviction that includes a built-in resistance to reason is the true motive behind many of them. But there is no connection between the fascinating philosophical and scientific questions posed by the argument from design and the attacks of September 11. Blind faith and the authority of dogma are dangerous; the view that we can make ultimate sense of the world only by understanding it as the expression of mind or purpose is not. It is unreasonable to think that one must refute the second in order to resist the first.

Why not confine his critique to fundamentalism and be satisfied with that? If Dawkins really cannot make a meaningful distinction between religious belief in general, and fundamentalist belief, then there’s something he doesn’t understand about belief, psychology, social life . . . I don’t know where the disconnect is, but it’s there. In the Salon interview he voices such a distinction, but says it doesn’t matter for him. He’s fighting a war. Well, in this one it seems to me he’s a bit like Cheney and Rumsfeld; he doesn’t like the intelligence he’s getting (about the nature of religious belief etc.), so he’s set up his own shop to give him what he wants to hear so he can wage the battle he wants to wage.

What I object to is your attempt to set the ground rules for political discourse-to say that Dawkins is wrong not because you disagree with him, but because of something to do with human dignity.

OK. I disagree with Dawkins on this or that and I can argue at least some matters on intellectual grounds, e.g. memes and the psychological grounds for religious belief. That’s one sort of thing. As for dignity, you’re right, that’s a different kind of issue. As I’ve indicated on another thread, I think there’s political ground to be gained by talking to a listening to fundamentalists and evangelicals. But you can’t do that while ridiculing them and their beliefs.

By Bill Benzon on 10/26/06 at 05:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim Holt (quoted above): “Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie.”

Bill, your comments here would make a good test case for meme theory.  In a conversation that has tried out all the tropes of contemporary “concern”, it was inevitable that Michael Moore would show up.

BB: “Actually, his work is threatened only by some religious people, but by no means is it threatened by all religious people. Nonetheless, he argues against religion in general, not against those types of religion that threaten his work.”

That’s because he’s being intellectually honest.  Sure, it might be more palatable to most people if he concentrated on those lower-class fundies and left the High Church out.  But it’s not what he actually believes.  In the thread to Adam R.’s post, I referenced a Roman Catholic popularized (but supposedly accurate) doctrinal page.  That no more accepts scientific evolution than the fundies do.

BB: “As I’ve indicated on another thread, I think there’s political ground to be gained by talking to a listening to fundamentalists and evangelicals. But you can’t do that while ridiculing them and their beliefs.”

That’s a pragmatic argument.  Dawkins addresses it over and over.  Clearly you disgree, but it’s not like this is a new concept for him.

But most pragmatic arguments of this type have a very fuzzy “you” in the “you can’t do that” that slides in the assertion that everyone has to be doing the same thing.  Well, it’s not true.  Dawkins could attack all religion while parts of the Democratic Party apparatus, say, try to have a dialogue with fundamentalists.  The only reason that you can’t have both happening at once is if Dawkins is somehow a spoiler for anyone trying the other strategy.  That’s what some people assert, in an attempt to shut him up.  I don’t think it’s convincing at all.  At the limit, it becomes the well-known “I was going to vote Democratic, but then some blog commenter wrote something mean”.

By on 10/26/06 at 08:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s because he’s being intellectually honest.  Sure, it might be more palatable to most people if he concentrated on those lower-class fundies and left the High Church out.  But it’s not what he actually believes.  In the thread to Adam R.’s post, I referenced a Roman Catholic popularized (but supposedly accurate) doctrinal page.  That no more accepts scientific evolution than the fundies do.

Never said he didn’t believe it, Rich. It’s not his honesty I’m questioning.

As for the Catholic church, official doctrine is one thing, what actual Catholics believe is another. But the fundamentalists and the artibers of official Catholic doctrine hardly constitute the entire population of the religious. Why do you, along with Dawkins, insist on making these rash generalizations?

By Bill Benzon on 10/26/06 at 08:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, what do I care what Catholics believe?  What I care about is how their political power is used.  The arbiters of official Catholic doctrine also happen to be in charge of the church hierarchy. 

But it goes beyond that.  Look at the polls here and scroll down to “Vote By Church Attendance”.  Not until you drop below “monthly” do the voters become primarily Democratic.  So anything that makes people take religion less seriously helps.

By on 10/26/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, what do we know about adherence to official doctrine and religious attendance? One would think they are positively correlated, but who knows? And it might vary from one bit of doctrine to another. That’s one issue.

What do we know about effectiveness of various tactics to move people away from religious belief? I’m imagining experiments where we first have people answer some questions about religious belief. Then we expose them to some persuasive material. And then we retest to if they’ve changed. Does refutation of the traditioinal arguments influence them? Does ridicule and sarcasm change them?

We might want to try something more sophisticated, though I don’t know how it would be done. I’m thinking that mockery coming from Dawkins might not have any effect at all, or even might strengthen their religious belief—you know, just to spite that liberal elitist snob. But mockery from their friends and associates might have some effect. Just how we’d arrange for that would be difficult, and then there are experimental ethics to worry about.

By Bill Benzon on 10/26/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, the argument has moved to territory in which you perfectly well may be right.  Pragmatically, what Dawkins is doing may or may not be counterproductive.  But that’s a far, far different argument than the objectionable (to me) one that you started with.

By on 10/26/06 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nagel’s argument has a major flaw, namely:

“We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain.”

This is just false; the DNA molecule (presumably housed within a single-celled progenitor organism) is not in any way “just as functionally complex” as later organisms.  This point is central to Nagel’s argument and without it his rejection of Dawkins’ thesis becomes extremely weak.  Note also that while we may not know exactly how the first organism(s) formed, we do know, for example, the origin on the complex molecules and the heavy elements and such.  Science paints a picture of decreasing complexity as we go back in time.

As for Dawkins’ “fear of religion”: I’m always surprised by the way people who are otherwise very aware of other forms of prejudice are still willing - indeed, enthusiastic - to buy into the demonization of atheists.  Dawkins’ views on religion barely rise to polite hostility; if he were discussing, say, politics (or any other subject besides religion) nobody in their right mind would consider him “vehement.”

There isn’t any need for an ulterior motive; the poor guy just doesn’t believe in God.  We live in a society where, if you’re a public figure who doesn’t believe, you have to twist yourself into a metaphysical pretzel in order to accommodate the belief of others.  He declines.  The most parsimonious position is that it’s all nonsense and without merit, yet openly admitting such is frowned upon; it’s as simple as that.

By on 10/26/06 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As an ex-atheist, ex-agnostic mezzo-humanist who now believes in God and (this is an important distinction) the power of prayer, I would add my two cents, based solely on my own experience in the realm of the unknowable spirit.

Atheism is, in and of itself, a religion, subect to all the negative traits that make organized religions so easy to dismiss: dogma, pride, hubris.

I do not wish to engage in a debate with someone whose ego is clouding his vision and closing his heart to the very great mysteries of our existence, but I will say, unquivocably, that my own experience tells me, profoundly, that God exists. I am not alone.

It is fine to not believe in God. But please do not harp about the evils and hypocricy of religion when you yourself belong to a congregation.

By Knox Bronson on 10/27/06 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He’s defensive because the vast majority of the population is out to silence, ridicule, vilify or kill him for his rationality.  And because they are promoting an ugly, violent, possibly suicidal culture of ignorance.  Seems simple enough to me.

By Michael C. Rush on 10/27/06 at 07:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>>Atheism is, in and of itself, a religion

That’s a nice Republican-style attempt to redefine reality to slant it in your favor.  In other words, a blatant lie.  Refute atheism if you can, but don’t try to paint it with the filthy brush of religion so that it bears a similar taint to what you are trying to defend (and isn’t it interesting that you consider “religion” a negative thing in the first place?).

If atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.

If atheism is a religion, then health is a disease.

By Michael C. Rush on 10/27/06 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reviewing Dawkins for Nature, Lawrence M. Krauss writes:

. . . this book is, for the most part, a well-referenced sermon. I just have no idea who the intended parishioners might be. In his preface, Dawkins claims he hopes to reach religious people who might have misgivings, either about the teachings of their faith or about the negative impact of religion in the modern world. For these people, Dawkins wants to demonstrate that atheism is “something to stand tall and be proud of”.

I found this slightly puzzling. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but I am not particularly proud of it. Indeed, I am rarely, if ever, proud of not believing in things. More generally, I think the strategy of focusing on telling people what not to believe is less compelling than positively demonstrating how the wonders of nature can suggest a world without God that is nevertheless both complete and wonderful — an argument that Dawkins reserves for the final few pages of the book. And while there is a lot to complain about in the ubiquitous facile piety so prevalent today, complaining can nevertheless start to get tiresome.

. . .

Several indulgences detract from the flow, but more importantly, I was struck at how Dawkins’ presentation, particularly in the early chapters where he builds his case against God, might offend those who, like myself, are quite sympathetic to his central thesis. I suspect that few thinking people of faith are unaware of the remarkable evil that has been done in the name of God, or the possibility that, although most cultures worship some god, this could be a mere reflection of the workings of the human brain rather than definitive evidence for God’s reality. Yet Dawkins seems to suggest early on that even agnostics might never confront these issues and that he needs to “raise their consciousness”, as he puts it. At the very least I find it doubtful that constantly questioning the intelligence of ‘true believers’ will be helpful in inducing any such reader to accept Dawkins’ strongly argued thesis that both God and religion are nonsensical and harmful.

By Bill Benzon on 10/27/06 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>>That’s a nice Republican-style attempt to redefine reality to slant it in your favor.  In other words, a blatant lie.

That’s a nice Bill O’Reilly-like response: putting words in my mouth and accusing me of lying.

First off, any Repube would perceive me as an old-school Berkeley liberal, which is what I am.

I was just sharing my own experience, not something I read in a book or heard someone else say. It’s not an intellectual game.

As I said, it is fine for you to not believe in God. But since neither you nor Dawkins cannot disprove the existence of God, and you can’t, then we must categorize the atheistic no-God belief-system as a religion. I don’t see how there can be any argument about that.

Given the vehemence of your response, and your absolute conviction that you and your fellow atheists alone posess the one Truth, I might, having seen many of them pop up around Berkeley over the last forty years, go so far as to identify your particular brand of atheism as a cult.

By Knox Bronson on 10/28/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Brights: cult or not?

<CENTER>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights TARGET=brights</CENTER>

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kox: As I said, it is fine for you to not believe in God. But since neither you nor Dawkins cannot disprove the existence of God, and you can’t, then we must categorize the atheistic no-God belief-system as a religion. I don’t see how there can be any argument about that.

Not to be argumentative for the sake of it; but this suggests your definition of religion is ‘belief in something that cannot be rigorously proven’.  But by that definition everything is religion; the category becomes meaninglessly huge.

Dawkins would agree that we cannot disprove the existence of God; or of Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Thor, the elephant in the room, that everything isn’t ‘just a bad dream’ or the fact that I’m the single greatest player of the Gibson Flying V in the history of mankind.  But with most of these we are content to apply criteria not of absolute proof but of relative plausibility.

Let’s say you decide to believe, on the balance of probabilities, that I’m not the greatest guitar player in human history.  It wouldn’t make sense to call your (perfectly reasonable, and highly plausible) belief a religious belief.  Would it?

By Adam Roberts on 10/28/06 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’Kox’ is a mis-type, by the way; didn’t mean to imply snippiness.  Please read: ‘Knox’.

By Adam Roberts on 10/28/06 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, let’s face it: with Dawkins and his adherents, there is certain level of proselytism happening which I would normally associate with proactive, in terms of spreading the “good” news, religious groups.

I would not say my definition of religion - belief in any unprovable theorem or statement, i.e., you are or are not the greatest guitarist who ever picked up a Flying V - makes everything a religion. But i would say that anywhere we are trying to explain/decipher/understand the great mysteries of the universe and the existence of life within it - you know, the eternal questions - and once you say “this is the way,” and denigrating the beliefs and/or the experience of others, you have staked out a claim in the “religious” world.

I am not religious, but as I said in my first post, I believe in God, and in prayer. I also believe in super-string theory and quantum mechanics, as much as I can understand them ... and have you seen where our theoretical physicists have taken our conception of the universe in the past couple decades? We are not in the same old universe anymore!

Lastly, I would like to remind you of the graffiti that was seen all over London in the late sixties: “Clapton is God.”

Frankly, I’m a Hendrix man myself.

And that I will argue about.

my verification word: truth39

By Knox Bronson on 10/28/06 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The dude in the middle, in the <S>firey</S> fiery cloud, is god:

<CENTER></CENTER>

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/06 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benson wrote: “The dude in the middle, in the firey cloud, is god:"

Hey Bill, it’s “fiery,” first off. (I know: cheap shot on my part.)

But I am glad you have found a power outside yourself in which to believe.

As far as the Brights go, cult or not, I have no idea about them, nor do I really care. They are organized enough to have put a name to their belief-system, that much is clear.

It takes work to not believe.

By Knox Bronson on 10/28/06 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yo Knox, I’m returning the favor. The name is “Benzon,” not “Benson.”

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/06 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon wrote

Actually, his [Dawkins’] work is threatened only by some religious people, but by no means is it threatened by all religious people. Nonetheless, he argues against religion in general, not against those types of religion that threaten his work.

It really would have helped to read the book itself, rather than depend on critical (and often mistaken) reviews for sourcing.  Dawkins sees ‘moderate’ religious people as enablers of the religious threat, propping up the fringe religious (a non-trivial fringe in the U.S.) by agreeing with and supporting the virtuousness of believing in the absence of evidence, or worse, believing in the teeth of contradictory evidence.  I can tell that none of the participants in this thread have ever argued with young-earth creationists proposing teaching ID creationism in public schools at a school board meeting while good Episcopalians sat in silence.

I’ve actually read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but scanning through the comments here I see no clear indication that most of the other participants in this thread have done so.  PZ has, I believe.  It’s an interesting phenomenon, this heated discussion of a book that no one participating has read.  Makes me glad I finally left academia.  Twenty years of listening to blather about stuff few of them had actually read finally wore me out.

RBH

By on 10/29/06 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oohh! “Against the religious” (!) How dare anyone suggest that the religious are at least one brick short of a full load?

Like one of the two churches near me - who were trying to accost passers-by with their blackmailing lies, and who had hung a little poster on the wall of someone’s front garden - without asking permission.
I tore it down & broke it up.

You should have heard the ranting about how I was going to die and go to hell ...

Almost as sad and funny as the time the other lot (Potters House) were having a wedding, and someone had managed to drop their car-keys down the grid. I suggested, as loudly as possible, that they should pray to Jesus for a miracle to raise the keys up again.
Complete sense-of-humour failure: - I really can’t see why, since they are always on about “
Jesus’ power”.

Hmmmm .....

Seriously, has one considered that:
All religions kill, enslave and torture.
and that:
All religions are based on fear and superstition.
And:
All religions are some ceombination of moral and physical blackmail.

No?
Perhaps you should.

By on 10/30/06 at 04:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon said: “As I said, it is fine for you to not believe in God. But since neither you nor Dawkins cannot disprove the existence of God, and you can’t, then we must categorize the atheistic no-God belief-system as a religion. I don’t see how there can be any argument about that.”

That’s because Bill Benzon can’t think straight!

Everyone has been looking for “god” for over 500 years so far, and no rsults yet.
This should suggest something ....

How about this TESTABLE, FALSIFYABLE proposition...?
Even if any god exists, that god (or gods) is not detectable.
Now, all the religious belivers have to do is detect “god”.
In the meantime, we can continue with the default postion, that since god is not detectable, we can safely ignore him/her/it/them.
Because the god thing(s) have no effect at all here, in this universe.

Do you believe in Thor, or Baal Mr. Benzon?
No, of course not, well, what about the muslim “god” allah)?
No, or yes, because his characteristics are incompatible with those of the christian god: which gives you two undetectable gods, straight away.

Oops.

By on 10/30/06 at 05:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon said: “As I said, it is fine ... argument about that.”

I didn’t say that, Knox Bronson did.

As for thinking straight, you aren’t thinking at all. You’re just ranting.

By Bill Benzon on 10/30/06 at 07:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I’m not ranting, I put a testable proposition up (BTW there was a typo: I should have said 5000 years)...

Well, lets see an answer to that testable proposition?
Put up, or shut up.
That’s the great thing about the metodological naturalism of the scientific method.
You have to put it to the test, or else you are vapouring in an empty space.

Mereley whining “You can’t dispove “god’s” existence, nyahh, nyaaah” shows that, in fact, you do not have an argument.
Except, perhaps on faith: which is DEFINED as: Belief without evidence.
Oops.

By on 10/30/06 at 08:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Belief without evidence is not identical with belief in spite of evidence.  One may well be a common definition of faith, but (even being accounted a fairly religious person myself) I can only describe the other as pigheadedness.  It seems to me that a lot of the bile directed toward the religious is drawn from equivocating between the two.

I think we can safely say that the only strictly logical view on the subject of most religions that have survived into the technological era (by which I mean, for example, theologically developed Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) is a sort of agnosticism.  To be blunt, you can’t prove or disprove that the sort of God I, or the Muslim family down the street, believe in exists any more than you can prove or disprove that human souls are not reborn in a succession of increasingly enlightened states until desire and individuality are transcended.  As was somewhat sarcastically noted, that is in fact what faith is concerned with, though a more charitable description might be “belief in areas where objective proof is not forthcoming.” Which is not to say that it is entirely shorn of evidence, but that any evidence with a chance of being convincing is subjective.  I think this is the sort of evidence our confirmed Berkeley liberal above refers to, and ultimately it is, I think, the only sort of evidence people do, in fact, base beliefs about religion on.  It seems that this is why religious views provoke such strong reactions and seem to provide such strong justifications for atrocities in the eyes of those committing them; they’re self-definitive, and apparantly far too many people are willing to kill a lot of other people in the name of a self-defining belief rather than call it into question.

This includes, to my way of thinking, antireligious beliefs, which have a nasty tendency of promoting the same sort of behavior as those who hold them criticize in those who hold religious beliefs… let’s not forget that the “enlightened” unsuperstitious forces of secular humanism are every bit as guilty of mass murder and persecution as organized religion, they’ve just had less time to go about it, historically speaking.  Those who disagree may reference such shining points in human history as Soviet/Chinese purges and the French Revolution.  One might be tempted to claim that these movements were based on other, similarly irrational claims (Marxist-Lenninist dialectic strikes me as requiring as much faith as Roman Catholocism, if in widely different areas) but considering that these bases were strictly humanist, antireligious and, at least purportedly, rationalist in their aspirations, I’m not sure that discounting them because they fail to live up our standard of rationality helps the case at all… they still killed a lot of people for what we, now, consider to be pretty poor reasons, and they did it based on ideological grounds.  If anything I think the strongest argument such a claim can support in view of the historical record is that people simply do these sorts of horrid things to eachother, and that religion, because it touches off such strong emotions, has simply been found to be one of the most effective ways of justifying them rather than being their actual motivating force.

I’m more interested in the, I think, inevitable subjectivity of religious experience though, as I think it may have something to do with the reason Benzon finds it so moving, even where he cannot in all honesty share it.  You may well be able to tell who I read from this thought, but I’ve got the idea that the reason we find faith so strongly motivating, even if only to the extent of finding it strongly repulsing, is that those who have it have, in a sense, more strongly commmited their identities in a certain way.  It’s something like the feeling of being a high school student who, as yet, doesn’t know what he wants to study in college.  No real flaw is present, indeed this may even be the best choice, objectively speaking, but I think we can all at least sympathize with a bit of jealousy toward those who somehow, inexplicably, know exactly what they want to do with their lives.  Whether that motivates admiration or disgust is a different matter, but I think the choice to commit to an agenda on such a subjective basis provides a sense of developed identity which makes one an object of admiration, however muted, to those who simply can’t share it for whatever reason, and an object of hatred for those who are oppositely committed.  Hence one can find a reason to respect the religious without really respecting religion, or a reason to insist that religion itself is grounds for questioning one’s competence and worth as a human being, depending on whether (and perhaps why… I have known athiests that were not rabidly antireligious and I can only assume it has something to do with their reasons for being athiest) one is undecided on or opposed to religion on a given subject.  Does this ring true, or have I misinterpreted your sentiment?

By on 10/30/06 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tingey wrote: Mereley whining “You can’t dispove “god’s” existence, nyahh, nyaaah” shows that, in fact, you do not have an argument.
Except, perhaps on faith: which is DEFINED as: Belief without evidence.

The problem is that to discuss matters which transcend or bypass faith and are instead based on one’s own experiences, that are also, in some cases, beyond the limitations of simple intellectual discourse, as profound as those experiences might be, and as subjective, anything I say will be dismissed as “nyahh nyahh nyahh” or as belief without evidence.

Whining? Look, bitch, I don’t care what you armchair existentialists think or don’t think. As I said way back, I spent many years as either an atheist/agnostic, take your pick, and then something happened that changed my perception in a profound manner, and opened my eyes to a universe of mystery and wonder. I don’t need you to enjoy it.

Dawkins himself has stated the need for atheists to be evangelical in smiting evil religion from the planet. Why do you need to impose your no-God belief system on me?

Atheism, no matter what drag in which you tart it up, is just another religion. It becomes more clear as this thread progresses.

By Knox Bronson on 10/31/06 at 12:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Bitch”?

By Ophelia Benson on 10/31/06 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oy.  Having abandoned this thread at the point where Bill Benzon and I seemed to come to some sort of greater mutual understanding, I come back to see what Ophelia Benson said, and find this.

Suggestion: ex-atheists who have religious experiences are much like those few leftists who “see the light” and become far-rightists.  There is something distinctly Horowitzian about Knox’s style.

By on 10/31/06 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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