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Monday, November 13, 2006

Negation of Thought

Posted by Daniel Green on 11/13/06 at 04:30 PM

AC Grayling provides Richard Dawkins with reinforcements:

“Atheism" is a word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies. Presumably (as I can never tire of pointing out) believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views “a-fairyists”, hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time.

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a “faith” in “the non-existence of X” (where X is “fairies” or “goblins” or “gods"); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. “Faith” - specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief - is a far different thing, which is why the phrase “religious thinktank” has a certain comic quality to it: for faith at its quickly-reached limit is the negation of thought.


Comments

Interesting that it is called a “‘reliance’ on reason and observation.” Couldn’t it as easily be called “‘faith’ in reason and observation”?

“Reliance” and “faith” are different how?  After all, it depends first of all on the belief that reason and observation are dependable ways to perceive reality; they might not be.

By Joe Fischer on 11/13/06 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nice reference, Daniel. Grayling makes an important point: assuming an absence is not the same thing as faith, which looks forward to a presence. In other word, expecting that one can live without reference to a God is not the same thing as expecting and insisting that God has intervened and will intervene in our lives. The burden of proof falls on the believer.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/13/06 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Faith includes that element of unknowability, “the evidence of things not seen.” We depend observation of the physical world for our very survival, but it would sound strange to describe that as a “faith.” Noboby would use the phrase “leap of faith” to describe my firm belief in the existence of my hat.

It does seem very strange to compare a belief in one’s own existence in an empirical world to a belief in a religious “faith.” We don’t have “conversion narratives,” for example, concerning empirical facts based on observation.  I’ve never seen the Indian Ocean but I still believe it exists.  It seems to me that’s a very different sort of “taking it on faith” than any religious proposition might require.

In fact, in the religious tradition faith is admirable (supposedly) because it’s NOT based on self-evident observation or reason (credo quia absurdum est).  It is precisely because it might not be true that belief in it can be a sign of merit. 

Religious people are just as empiricist in their every day lives and non-religious people.  They too rely on reason and observation for almost everything.  This is not some special “faith” that some people have and others don’t.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 11/13/06 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I frequently try to explain that atheism does not play a role in atheists’ lives that religion does in religionists’ lives. No providence, no afterlife, no salvation, no worship.

I sometimes call myself a naturalist. “Nature” doesn’t satisfy most of the functions of religion, but it is awe-inspiring and somewhat foundational.

By John Emerson on 11/13/06 at 08:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Emerson—true, but with one exception: it appears that atheism plays a much greater role in Richard Dawkins’ life than religion does in most religious people’s lives.

There’s got to be some way of understanding faith other than “knowledge, only stupider.” Things like loyalty, faithfulness, trust, etc.  Which is not to say that understanding faith as a form of knowledge does not come from Christianity! 

Still, I think that polemics against religion tend to overemphasize the “belief in propositions” aspect of faith and downplay the “loyalty to or trust in God/Christ” part—an understandable emphasis, because on the knowledge side of thing, the anti-religionists have already won before the debate has started.

Also, although his last sentence is supposed to be a slur against religion, he’s not saying anything that negative theologians and mystics haven’t been saying for millenia.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/13/06 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I think that the propositionalization of religion was a response to the modern age and to science, and fundamentalism is an extreme version of it. The ontological status of God still bugs me, though.

For Dawkins, atheism is a project like his various other projects. But what moves him toward this project or his other projects isn’t atheism, and I would guess that he just takes hi motives for given and doesn’t think about them at all.

By John Emerson on 11/13/06 at 09:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The overwhelming majority of human beings throughout history have believed in some kind of god; only a tiny minority of people throughout history have believed in fairies. Presumably this goes a long way towards explaining why we have the word “atheist” but not the word “afairiest.” This point has no bearing on whether gods or fairies exist, of course; I’m just pointing out that the comment Grayling is so proud of is really kind of inane.

By on 11/13/06 at 09:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is that really true?  It seems to me that the belief in spirits, fairies, genies, sprites, nymphs, and goblins of various sorts has been extremely prevalent throughout human history. The overwhelming majority of people throughout human history have probably believed in something very “fairy"-like, whereas the idea of a single omnipotent God is probably a more recent, and limited, invention, historically speaking.  Doesn’t a lot of it depend on how you define “god” and “fairy”?  Let’s have some intellectual rigor here!

By on 11/13/06 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, the Chinese believe in various things like fairies. Some friendly, some malevolent.

By John Emerson on 11/13/06 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Animism, in the history of the species, is the dominant religious mode. It safely hides fairies.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/14/06 at 12:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Religion is used as the foundation of social order, legal and otherwise. Mysticism is called esoteric knowledge because its role is secondary to that of the binding together of the group; a function performed by the continual retelling and reinterpretation of primary religious texts. Religion is law, and priests are judges. Go to Church on any sunday that’s what you’ll hear.
Religion is like Yiddish. It’s been dying for 200 years and it’s going to be dying for 200 more. What is not dying, or at least not so quickly -and not quickly enough- is foundationalism. Drives me fucking nuts.
I can’t think of another reason Dawkins would be making a fool out of himself like he is.
“The sky is green”
“No dammit it’s blue!  BLUE! BLUE!
OPEN YOUR EYES!!”
“The sky is green”
D- takes gun and shoots self.
exeunt omnes.

By on 11/14/06 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I sometimes call myself a naturalist. “Nature” doesn’t satisfy most of the functions of religion, but it is awe-inspiring and somewhat foundational.

Interesting, John, most interesting.

Emerson—true, but with one exception: it appears that atheism plays a much greater role in Richard Dawkins’ life than religion does in most religious people’s lives.

Yes, Adam, I believe that’s so. And not just Dawkins, but Dennet and all the others who have actually been loopy enough to call themselves “brights.”

For that matter, there’s the techno-utopions and the geeks-of-the-singularity. This seems rather “faithy” to me. The singularity, as you know, is that one-time event in the not-so-distant future when computers will equal and then surpass us in, I guess, intelligence. And the transhumanists too. All these folks present themselves as creatures of science and reason, but they got more loops than a box of Cheerios.

Animism—all sorts of later 19th century conversations on whether or not it was religion true and proper.

By Bill Benzon on 11/14/06 at 06:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The “Singularity” is a secular Rapture for geeks.

By John Emerson on 11/14/06 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes. Now, how many believers in “The Singularity” also worship at the Church of Dawkins?

By Bill Benzon on 11/14/06 at 08:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: why is it ‘loopy’ to call yourself a bright?  Or anything else?  (I mean, is this just healthy name-calling on your part, or something more?)

By Adam Roberts on 11/14/06 at 08:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s healthy name calling, but also, it’s a critique of this bit of branding, as they call it in the advertising branch of the culture commodification industries. If you’re going out in the world as a bright you might as well pin a sign on your back that reads “kick me because I’m smarter than you are.”

By Bill Benzon on 11/14/06 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My feeling is that “bright” is an unsuccesful attempt at rebranding.

The singularitists I’ve run into seem to be into space colonization, AI, robotics, and transhumanism, and right-libertarianish in politics. There’s sort of an air of anime, comix, and gaming about them.

The Dawkinsian I know best (on the net) is PZ Meyers, who is a liberal Democrat, biologist, and evolutionist with no occult or mystical tendencies. Some of the people at GNXP approach singularitism.

By John Emerson on 11/14/06 at 08:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, you write: “It seems to me that the belief in spirits, fairies, genies, sprites, nymphs, and goblins of various sorts has been extremely prevalent throughout human history.” Absolutely. But those are not all the same thing, are they? And there is no agreed-upon category to which they all belong, no generic descriptor of them, certainly no single word. Which is why there is no “a-” word which one can attach to disbelief in all such beings. By contrast, in the Western world the word concept of “god” and belief in some god are so widespread that the term “atheist” commends itself. In other words—this was my point—there are simple and obvious sociological and linguistic reasons why the word “atheist” exists and the word “afairiest” does not. I hope that’s “intellectually rigorous” enough for you.

I can understand Grayling’s frustration, though. The word “atheist” was not coined by unbelievers but by believers, and if you look at its use in 16th-century England what’s noteworthy is that it is always being applied to people who are (according to our lights) quite obviously theists, including Jews. In that context “atheist” meant “non-Christian” or “non-orthodox Christian.” It was perhaps in an attempt to evade such a tendentious term that T H Huxley coined “agnostic” to describe his own position. This is forever a problem not only with ethnic but also with ideological minorities, who have to decide whether or not to contest the ways they are named.

By on 11/14/06 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Secular foundationalism is the metaphysic of individualism.
Logically absurd, morally grotesque. And silly.

By Seth Edenbaum on 11/14/06 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m an athiest. 3rd generation (at least) on my mothers side.
Rilly!

By on 11/14/06 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To insist that an atheist’s position is an act of choice (let alone faith) is to grossly over-inflate the importance, persuasiveness and validity of the evidence for a ‘positive’ choice (theism). To insist that the only otherwise legitimate position is either theism or agnosticism is to further insist that in all such matters he declare himself agnostic.

In this sense the atheist must be agnostic on the existence of Thor, Zeus, Wotan, and a host of other proposed deities. I can’t imagine any atheists who wouldn’t gladly acquiesce in this regard, providing of course that the theist do likewise. Any theist who maintains the intellectual integrity to remain sincerely, avowedly agnostic on the existence of all gods but his chosen one, will earn my respect. I’ve yet to come across one that does though.

By on 12/30/06 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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