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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Terry Eagleton’s traditional theology; and a new version of Pascal’s Wager

Posted by Adam Roberts on 10/13/06 at 11:51 AM

Clearly a believer in the idea that a book’s title should not veil in obscurity the message of the book, Richard Dawkins has called his latest The God Delusion.  There’s been a deal of fuss about the vehemence and single-mindedness of Dawkins’ anti-God position, in this book and his earlier writing, and some of it has come from perhaps-unexpected quarters.

For instance: Terry Eagleton (a ‘philosopher’ according to Wikipedia) joins the slinging of the mud, giving the book one of the least temperate and, I must say, least effective thrashings I can recall the London Review of Books ever publishing.  Eagleton’s main point is a reasonable one, although it is expressed with a rather hysterically insistent and unreasoned manner (without, for instance, particular reference to the specifics of Dawkins case, and without making allowance for the fact that Dawkins is writing polemic rather than metaphysics). Dawkins, Eagleton says, takes religion to be a sort of malign unity, finding examples of the worst in religious thought and practice and then unfairly extrapolating them into religion as a whole.  In fact, of course, the varieties of religious discourse are very great.  Not all religious thinkers are Ian Paisley or Oral Roberts; a lot of very clever people have been theologians.

Take creation.  Dawkins pitches his argument against a narrowly mechanistic view of what calling God ‘creator of the universe’ might mean, something along the lines of ‘God is an entity that caused the universe to come into being’.  This, says Eagleton, is wrong! wrong! wrong!  Creation is not some form of ‘super-manufacturing’.  Making reference, several times, to what he calls ‘traditional theology’ he elaborates the following belief-position:

[God] is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even in the universe had no beginning.  To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.  … God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificent rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

But we’re entitled to say, here: ‘his research grant body?  What are you on about Terry?’ Dawkins doesn’t pretend there’s a panel of super-Gods who will judge the effectiveness of Jehovah’s work as a creator and award funding accordingly.  Eagleton inveigles-in the concept by way of discrediting the work of ‘scientists’ (who?) and bigging-up his terribly Romantic and untraditional notion of God the Artist.  To say that God brought the world into being ex nihilo may indeed be a way of stressing his freedom-to-act as uncaused-causer; but it is also a way of saying that he’s very clever, if that word is used in its full sense, and without the sneer that Eagleton here intends.  How could it be anything else?

Dawkins, who is as obsessed with the mechanics of Creation as his Creationist opponents, understands nothing of these traditional doctrines …

Suggesting that God is an artist, bringing in notional grants-awarding straw-bodies and denying that God is clever: none of this is ‘traditional doctrine’, whatever Eagleton says.  This appeal to ‘tradition’ as an attempt to discredit Dawkins is a pretty rum manoeuvre by Eagleton, I’d say.

[Dawkins] asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.

‘Is rather like’, here, is rather stupid.  The inference, I suppose, is that asking Dawkins’ question is rather like asking a clearly insane question. But nobody believes that Blair is an octopus; where well over half the world’s population do believe that God speaks, or at least can speak, to them.  This thing claimed here to be ‘rather like’ another thing is not like at all.  What Eagleton seems to be getting at here, though he’s making a poor fist of it, is the accusation that Dawkins is making a category error in thinking that God is ‘existent’; or more exactly (since Dawkins clearly doesn’t believe that God is existent) in thinking that anybody in the world is so stupid as to consider God to be existent.

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is.  Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.

Personally I don’t see that there is more than ‘one sense of that word’, but of course this may be a failing in my own imagination.  What is surely true, however, is that the world’s four billion or so believers-in-God don’t have recourse to any supersubtlety on the question.  Surely for the large majority of them God exists in a straightforward way.  And when Eagleton says ‘for Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore is’ he surely means ‘for a certain kind of theologian, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is.’ There are of course currents of twentieth-century theology that develop this point.  But in both the Judaic tradition (where, say what you like about God in the Torah, he’s a pretty lively character, with a face, backparts, a temper, and the kinds of interpersonal relationships that even Al Gore can manage) and most especially in the Christian tradition Eagleton’s position is spectacularly wrongheaded.  The point about Christ is that, though still God, he was indeed a person; and moreover a person in pretty-much the sense that Al Gore is a person.  It is this ‘personification’, in a strict sense, that enables the faith of many Christians.  If a Christian thinks of God as ‘Father’, and relates themselves conceptually to that Father-figure as a child might to their actual father, then God shares that aspect of personhood with Al Gore, who is himself a father.  But Eagleton’s biggest argumentative muddle comes next:

[God] is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.  He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing.  God and the universe do not add up to two any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

I don’t see that Eagleton’s ‘rather’ is warranted in the first sentence there; although an ‘also’ might usefully be replaced without removing the sentiment from the context of most believers’ beliefs.  But that last sentence is just weird, really amazingly clumsily un-thought-through.  So, like, the universe is to Eagleton’s foot as God is to envy?  In the sense that the foot and the universe are made out of atoms, and God and human envy is sort-of immaterial?  What has Eagleton’s envy to do with the ultimate ground of the possibility of existence?  Like his sly importation into Dawkins’s argument of a tedious-dull scientist, whose efforts are aimed at satisfying his grant-awarding-body (tch! we all know what those scientist-types are like!), this envy, by a process of transference, stains Dawkins’ own argumentative motivation.  Or else Eagleton is hinting at his trampling Dawkins’ position with an I refute it, thus! and a slamming of his left foot hard down.

I have no idea why Dawkins book gets Eagleton, by the evidence of his review, so worked-up and cross (‘would make first-year theology student wince … ill-informed … shoddy old travesty …not even the dim-witted cleric who knocked me about at grammar school thought that … grotesquely false’ and so on).  He’s certainly entitled to disagree; that goes without saying.  But he doesn’t address one key question that is central to Dawkins’ polemic.  In a nutshell it’s the question whether religion is true.  Is the assertion that there is a God true or false?

This is, itself, a clumsy way of putting it, of course; and religious friends of mine get uncomfortable when discussing this matter with me in those terms, as if I’m somehow missing the point.  But one of Dawkins’ strongest arguments, it seems to me, is that disbelief in gods is the great point of human commonality.  I am, to speak personally for a moment, an atheist, but I certainly don’t see that this atheism disqualifies me from talking about religion.  Without exception, every intelligent Christian and Muslim I have ever met has been emphatically atheist with respect to almost all the forty-thousand gods humanity has worshipped at one time or another.  Atheism – a refusal to be credulous, a proper intellectual scepticism and dialectical open-mindedness – seems to me the default position of the healthy, sapient psyche.  My intelligent Christian friend and I concur in our atheism concerning animistic tree-spirits, the river Scamandar, the divine Emperor Augustus, Wotan, Quezocoatl, Cthulu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Of course, we disagree on one specific example: the Christian trinity, which my friend believes divine and which I do not.  But to worship the Christian trinity and not to worship the divine Emperor Augustus is, in part, to believe that the Christian trinity embodies a truth that the divine Emperor Augustus does not.

The closest Eagleton comes to this key matter in his review is to say near the end, (rather surprisingly, I think, given the tenor of the rest of the piece):

Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy.

Rhetorically this gives the impression that a ‘but’ is just around the corner; but there’s no but.  It’s left hanging.  But, Dawkins might say, if belief in God really is on a par with believing in the tooth fairy, then pretty much everything Eagleton says falls at the very first hurdle: which is to say the tooth fairy does not exist.

Belief in the existence of the tooth fairy would be a sign not of ‘faith’ but credulity; and insistent belief would not be ‘strong faith’ but a stubborn credulity.  Eagleton’s review fails the test set by proposed by the estimable Skeptico (I think it was he): that when American politicians talk about ‘faith schools’ and ‘faith-based initiatives’ in glowing terms, replace the word ‘faith’ with the word ‘credulity’ and see what the argument sounds like.

Actually I’m being unfair to Eagleton in at least one regard, and this brings me to the Pascal’s Wager part of my post.  Eagleton dislikes the way Dawkins is so snippy and dismissive of religious faith and the many things it has achieved.  He’s right, although it could be said that polemic (which Dawkins’s God Delusion clearly is) has no duty to be respectful.  Religion is, as Eagleton says, ‘the richest, most enduring forms of popular culture in human history’; and a de haut en bas attitude of contemptuous dismissal is, to put it kindly, ill-judged and unkind.  Religious people have done terrible things in the name of religion; but then atheists in the Soviet Union and its satellites did terrible things in the name of atheist dialectical materialism in the twentieth-century.  Clearly religion has no exclusive right on inhumanity.

And this, as an atheist, is my personal stumbling block.  This is the place where I begin to doubt my own atheism.  Bear with me here.

To stay with the truth-claim question for a moment, as it relates to religion.  There are at least three sense in which religion can be assessed as true or false.

1.  Religion does make some claims that can be tested to determine whether they are true or false.  For example, one of the tenets of Christian worship is that the communion bread becomes the body of Christ, and the communion wine becomes the blood of Christ.  This matter of transubstantiation was something literally believed in by generations of Christians; wars were fought and purges enacted.  But as a claim it is easily falsified; the bread does not become flesh.

2. But religion of course makes a number of other claims that are not falsifiable in this way.  It’s not possible to prove or disprove, for instance, that God exists, that he is responsible for creating the world, that when we die we go to heaven (or hell).  These are claims that, by their nature, cannot be subjected to experimental testing. Now it seems to me that they are all claims inherently implausible.  In fact I’d go further and say that they are enormously implausible, much less convincing than the descriptions of the universe and human life that the material sciences provide.  But this is not the same thing as saying that they have been, or indeed that they could be disproved.

3.  And finally, the tricky one.  What of the claim that an individual who has religious belief is mentally better placed than one who has not?  To set individual counterexamples aside for a moment (‘I know an atheist and he’s extremely well adjusted; I know a religious believer and he’s a manic-depressive’) might it be the case that, in the main, religion enables people to cope with life better than no-religion does?  Is there evidence that it provides explanatory structures and purpose that helps people get through their days; it ameliorates the fear of death and the pointlessness of suffering; it gives them mental and emotional strength.  Clearly, here, I’m making an empirical not a metaphysical claim.  If religion does these things – and it’s a big if, of course, but if it does – then it does so regardless of whether the belief itself is true or false.  If this is the case (and I’m being extremely speculative here) it might explain, by pinpointing an evolutionary advantage to the believer, why religion is so widespread amongst humanity.  So the question I don’t have an answer to: is this true?

This leads, it seems to me, to a new spin on Pascal’s Wager.  Wikipedia has a rather good account of this famous bet.  I especially like the nifty little diagrams they reproduce representing the way the Pascal considered the possibilities of belief and unbelief so heavily weighted towards the former.

In it’s original form, of course, it’s pretty easily refutable; and the wikipedia link above runs through the objections, from Voltaire onwards, to good effect.  But what if we consider religion not as metaphysical truth/falsity, but as social practice, as an empirical feature of human life?  What if believing, for all its challenges and difficulties, for all the duties it imposes upon you and the sacrifices it requires of you (or, perhaps, because of those things) tends to make you a more deeply contented and better-functioning person?  What if it frames you as a social animal in a more fulfilling manner?  And what if adhering to one’s atheism condemns one to a nihilist and pointless sort of existence?  In that case wouldn’t it make sense for your own wellbeing here and now, to believe?

My problem, or stumbling block, is that I can’t get past my belief that religious belief is just not true.  Specifically; that since it seems to me [1] and [2] above are untrue, [3], however notionally desirable, would be unworkable for me.  But, unlike Dawkins, I’m prepared to accept that this might be my loss, and nobody’s gain.  I honestly don’t know.


Comments

Eagleton is dismissive because Dawkins is implicitly challenging his faith in the Zizekian messianic-Leninist future, which is why he’s pitching all of his objections as though Dawkins was arguing against continental philosophy.  That’s why the sneers at science, the scornful “you’re taking things too literally” combined with the appeals to a traditional body of text, the inflated Romanticism.  When you mangle Catholicism and Marxism together, they each look even more incoherent.

As for your second part, well, I’ve written a good deal about the strategy of addressing God even when you don’t really believe.  It becomes a particular form of relationship to ideas within society that you can’t help but have been affected by.  That permits you to direct objections to “God” rather than on insisting that people give up what may be for them a life-enhancing belief in God.  There should be something in your Email at the moment, unless it’s gotten lost.

By on 10/13/06 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m surprised that people are still talking about “God” any more. I disproved his existence a couple of weeks ago.

Link

Eagleton and others (Zizek?) seem to be moving to a theology which renounces the “first cause” definitions / explanations of God, and apparently even the personhood and agency of God. It seems to me like a desperate, decadent post-Leftist ploy, but it’s not like I have anything better to offer.

St Augustine did something like that “God is not an old man with a long beard up in the sky, but a spiritual substance”. That’s a pretty close paraphrase of what he actually said.

By John Emerson on 10/13/06 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Religion” is not a useful category.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/13/06 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K.  Empirically it is a category, though, isn’t it?  It describes the social and personal praxis of billions.  What sort of terminology do you prefer?

Rich; yes, it’s in my inbox.  Gotta give my daughter and bath and put her to bed now, but will reply soon after.  (Looks v. interesting).

John.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the world is lagging sadly behind you.  But in time they’ll catch up.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/06 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, “Religion” is a term with no agreed-upon definition—hell, we can’t even figure out its etymology.  More specifically, our use of the term “religion” is polemical in origin, and usually in intent as well.  ("Religion" is set in opposition to “reason” or something—or else “religion” is set in opposition to “godless nihilism.") I prefer terminology that does not stack the deck in advance. 

I propose a moratorium on the use of the term “religion,” and we can use other categories to talk about the phenomena grouped under the term “religion.” (So, for instance, we could discuss Al Qaeda as a “political” movement, which it in fact is.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/13/06 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does its etymology matter?  Religion is a very broad term, I agree, and religious practices and beliefs come in an enormous variety of forms; but they all share belief in God or gods, belief in ‘spirit’, which is to say belief a non-material component to human life and/or the cosmos; in a survival after death.  It’s an umbrella term for a range of a type of beliefs.

“Religion" is set in opposition to “reason”.’ By whom?  Not by me.  Many religious people are highly rational.  The anti-rational or mystical variety of religious belief has a lot of adherents, but isn’t the dominant strand I’d say.

I propose a moratorium on the use of the term “religion,” and we can use other categories to talk about the phenomena grouped under the term “religion.” (So, for instance, we could discuss Al Qaeda as a “political” movement, which it in fact is.)

Are you really suggesting that ‘politics’ can in any sense at all be separated out from ‘religion’?  That they are somehow cleanly differentiated terms?  But of course not.  And besides, what makes ‘politics’ a term with an ‘agreed-upon definition’ in a way ‘religion’ isn’t?

I’m not trying to pick a fight here, by the way.  I mean, I can see an argument that goes ‘Dawkins attacks religion.  But religion isn’t a meaningful category, so we can disregard his attack.’ Which would be sloppy thinking. But I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing.

I can also imagine a religious person objecting that describing them as ‘religious’ lumps them in with Scientologists, Creationists, New Age crystal nutters and schizophrenics, and they’d rather not be lumped in with those people.  But a better way of not being confused with people who believe bizarre and improbable things, it seems to me, would be not to believe bizarre and improbable things.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/06 at 05:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In actual fact, not all things commonly called “religions” share the beliefs you name.  You are also falsely determining it according to “beliefs,” when in fact many things commonly called “religions” are better described in terms of practices—take, for instance, non-believing Jews or Catholics who nonetheless participate more or less devoutly in Jewish or Catholic liturgical life.  When it becomes a matter of “belief,” then it’s easy to dismiss this thing called “religion” as “like knowledge, except without evidence.” And don’t pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about with defining religion in opposition to reason—plenty of atheist critics of religion do that, and you’d have to be completely illiterate not to know that.

I am not suggesting that religion can be cleanly separated from politics—just the opposite, namely that “religion” falsely groups together phenomena, some of which would be more productively analyzed under the rubric of politics.  What is analytically important about Al Qaeda, for instance, isn’t that they pray facing the east five times a day instead of taking communion every Sunday.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/13/06 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts,

Dude, I think you need to do a bit more reading before you try this shit. It’s just bad. Like, really, really bad scholarship. God as artist is very much a part of traditional theology. I’ll point you toward Von Balthussar for the history and as an example. If you’re trying to explicate some kind of ‘traditional theology’ with your explication of God’s personhood, well, you really, really need to read more.

Now, that doesn’t mean his review wasn’t shit, I just can’t deal with your really bad scholarship. I don’t have any real dog in this fight. Dawkins has never much impressed me and neither has Terry Eagleton, so I’m not picking sides here.

Piety may be a better category from which to act, but I don’t think from prior conversations it would be worth my time to engage in that discussion with you. Just, please, stick to science fiction.

By on 10/13/06 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I see what you mean; and there’s a great deal in what you say.  On the other hand, you start by separating ‘belief’ from ‘practice’; then end by suggesting that the important thing about Al Qaeda is not that their religious practice differs from the religious practice of Anglicans.  Which, when you put it like that is obviously true.  But it’s not the particulars of their religious practice that is salient here; it’s precisely their beliefs; beliefs which, in many instances, they do indeed share with Anglicans: that this world is not the ‘real’ world (the world of ‘spirit’, behind the veil of matter, trumps it in importance).  That there is a God and they know what He wants.  That by doing what He wants they’ll go to heaven when they die.  This is the sort of belief that enables for instance suicide bombing, recklessness in battle, disregard for the lives of non-fellow-believers and so on.  That determines, in part, Al Qaeda strategy.

Dawkins’s point is that once a person premises their world-view on a set of beliefs without evidence, or indeed (as he would argue) on beliefs that fly directly in the fact of the evidence, it’s then very easy for them them to accept all sorts of crazy shit without evidence, like ‘yes, blowing up myself, these London underground trains and dozens of ordinary commuters, mostly cleaners and office grunts, is a good idea‘, when, you know.  It isn’t.  Actually.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/06 at 05:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"And don’t pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about with defining religion in opposition to reason—plenty of atheist critics of religion do that, and you’d have to be completely illiterate not to know that.

Busted!  I am completely illiterate.  I mean, completely.  Not partially, or ‘only with respect to atheistical critiques of religion’, but completely.  Yes.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/06 at 05:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, Plenty of people hold beliefs like you describe without engaging in suicide bombing.  Suicide is a particular political strategy for which various religious or non-religious belief systems could provide support.  If you’ll note, suicide bombers do not suicide-bomb just at random, specifically in order to go to heaven, but rather in service of specific political goals.  If we were to take al Qaeda as a strictly “belief"-oriented issue, how could we even counter it?  By converting them to Christianity?  But then they’d still believe in God, heaven, etc.!

You are also ignoring the fact that there have been plenty of terrorist acts in the name of secular ideologies such as nationalism that don’t fall neatly into the category of “beliefs that fly in the face of evidence.” Using “religion” in order to explain terrorism just doesn’t work (not that I think “terrorism” is a great term either).  Also, it’s not the case that terrorism is always “a bad idea,” considered in terms of political goals—empirically, it mostly hasn’t worked well, but radical Zionist groups, for instance, had a great deal of success with it.

In short, using “religion” as a determining category obscures much, much more than it clarifies.  I would even go so far as to say that it clarifies precisely nothing.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/13/06 at 05:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But it’s not the particulars of their religious practice that is salient here; it’s precisely their beliefs; beliefs which, in many instances, they do indeed share with Anglicans: that this world is not the ‘real’ world (the world of ‘spirit’, behind the veil of matter, trumps it in importance).”

Again, what the hell are you talking about? I’m sorry you’re illiterate, but are you aware of your ignorance as well? You’re talking about Gnosticism, not Christianity, and that’s a really skewed view of Islam, nearly racist. As if the London bombers actions weren’t more directly related to politics than other-worldly beliefs.

Now, the thing is we all believe things without ‘evidence’ of the kind you mean all the time. Maybe when people start believing all sorts of things uncritically they do even crazier shit, like sit back at the deaths of 650,000 or kill in the name of the state.

By on 10/13/06 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"In short, using “religion” as a determining category obscures much, much more than it clarifies.  I would even go so far as to say that it clarifies precisely nothing.

Sounds rather like you’re saying ‘let’s not talk about religion ... pay no attention to that man behind the curtain ... look! over there! Talk about something else!’

But there are a billion and a half Christians on the planet; a billion Muslims; a billion people from other (let’s put the word in inverted commas since you don’t like it) ‘religions’.  This, whatever it is, is what most human beings do.  It inflects their behaviour and preconceptions in a thousand ways, on a massive scale.  We’re going through a phase of increasing religiosity.  Religions are powerful: the two largest landowners in my country are the Church of England and the Queen, who is head of the Church of England.  For reasons not unconnected to this, the two best State schools in my local area are Church schools, and my daughter (who’s just toddled off to primary school) was forbidden from going to either of them because her parents (not her, but us) don’t go to church.  I can’t imagine this working with, let’s say, race (’you’re daughter can’t come to our school; her skin’s the wrong colour’) without their being a national outcry, but religion, religious practice, belief and tradition have a special, protected status in the UK.  As they do in most countries around the world.  So my daughter’s been parcelled off to the third-best school in Staines because of the stranglehold religion has on children’s education.  No you’re right, religion clarifies precisely nothing.

What chances would an atheist Presidental candidate have of being elected in the USA?  None, obviously.  But that’s only to say that democracy works, because the majority of people in the USA not only have religious beliefs but wouldn’t really trust a leader who didn’t have them.  But let’s not talk about religion, you’re right.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/06 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is it the category of “religion” as such that’s really at play in the situation in the UK, or is it specific institutional arrangements and matters of national identity (tied, to be sure, to certain forms of piety)?  The category of “religion” doesn’t seem to do you much good in this specific instance—power relations might work better.

I’m proposing a more materialist analysis here.  You’re just begging the question by saying that things normally called “religious” have an effect in the world—well, yeah, obviously.  My question is whether the concept of “religion” helps us to analyze those things.  My answer is still “no,” despite the fact that people in the US tend to trust people who adhere to forms of piety that are familiar to them, and despite the fact that church membership carries with it certain benefits in the UK.  Just saying that both those things are about “religion” gives us nothing to work with, at all.

(And why the hell not just go to church if the school thing is so important to you?)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/13/06 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(My intent here is not to do some kind of back-handed apologetics for religious belief—this is strictly an intellectual matter for me.  I do not currently practice any “religion,” though I do study the history of Christian theology.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/13/06 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K’s resistance to the term “religion” is appropriate. I am reminded of the old comment that the only thing the world’s religions have in common is that they all use candles.

By on 10/13/06 at 06:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: “I can’t get past my belief that religious belief is just not true.”

Dude. There is scriptural warrant for thinking that the Christian God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. At least in Matthew 25:31 ff, the important thing is not to believe in God but rather to follow the injunction of the Learned Theologians Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to each other!”

By on 10/13/06 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K.  “(And why the hell not just go to church if the school thing is so important to you?)” Would you, I wonder, suggest the opposite to believer?  ‘Dude, my friends make fun of me for believing in Christ.’ ‘Well, renounce Christ then, if having “friends” is so important to you.’ Or is the implication that ‘atheists, not believing in God, clearly don’t really believe in anything, and must have no qualms about for instance lying.’

The school example is a trivial one in many ways; the school my daughter is going to is fine and I have no long-term worries about her education.  But I’m puzzled by your idea that ‘power relations’ exist in some ideal form outside the actual structures of human interaction.  And religion is certainly one of these latter: one of the world’s major ones.  Terry has a point when he says that being flip and dismissive of ‘religion’ means being flip and dismissive of most of humanity, since religion is one of the things most of humanity ‘do’.  Which would be deplorable.  But at the same time: this very diverse group of religious believers also concentrate most of the world’s wealth, power and influence into their hands.  I don’t see how any systematic analysis of power relations could procede without considering that.

Parallels: aflfuent white people telling poor black ones that ‘race’ is not a useful category.  Male power figures telling female subordinates that ‘gender’ is not a useful category.  The world’s privileged telling the world’s poor that ‘class’ and ‘money’ are not useful categories.

Though having said that, I should add that I endorse Adam K. when he says: “... religious belief—this is strictly an intellectual matter for me.” For me too.  And I can’t pretend that my atheism has placed any real barriers in the way of me being, eg, successful at work, doing mostly what I want in my private life etc.

None of that was really the point of my post.  I am actually intrigued by the Pascal’s wager wrinkle.

By Adam Roberts on 10/14/06 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan: “I am reminded of the old comment that the only thing the world’s religions have in common is that they all use candles.”

I really really don’t see this.  Not at all.  I listed the things, very broadly conceived, that religion covers: belief in God; belief that God created the cosmos; belief in a soul or spirit; belief in a life after death.  Adam K. replied that “in actual fact, not all things commonly called ‘religions’ share the beliefs you name.” He’s right; not all religions share all these.  But most do; and all share at least some.

So, all these beliefs, and/or practices orientated towards the ritual acknowledgment of these beliefs, and codes of living that are predicated upon these beliefs, are shared by: one and a quarter billion Catholic Christians of various sorts; one billion Protestant Christians of various sorts and one billion Muslims of various sorts.  That the majority of people on the planet. Of the remaining billion-or-so people who are adherents of other religions, many of them share many or all these beliefs.

By Adam Roberts on 10/14/06 at 03:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony: “It’s just bad. Like, really, really bad scholarship ... I just can’t deal with your really bad scholarship”

That’s pretty insulting.  I’m abashed.

“I don’t think from prior conversations it would be worth my time to engage in that discussion with you. Just, please, stick to science fiction.”

Abusive and dismissive. I’m doubly abashed.

What a compelling and convincing argumentative strategy you’ve lighted upon, sir.

By Adam Roberts on 10/14/06 at 04:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R.

It’s misleading to say, of a religious believer, that they’re an “atheist with respect to” all the other gods they don’t believe in. It may be effective polemic, but it’s misleading and false nevertheless.

If I really, really like beef and dislike all the other kinds of meat, is it reasonable to describe me as a “meat-hater with respect to” all those other kinds? No; I may be a veal-hater, a pork-hater, etc., but I’m definitely not a meat-hater. Is it misleading for a vegetarian to describe me as such in order to bolster their rhetoric on how natural vegetarianism is?

By Anatoly on 10/14/06 at 07:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

People who like to read Anthony Paul Smith’s self-described “animal fighting for a small scrap of ground” style, plus many more ruminations on theology not about religion because that’s not a useful category studied intellectually without belief, might want to go to The Weblog, where such comments naturally belong.  Why they’re showing up here, I’m not sure.

In the meantime, people should realize that Dawkins tosses his greatest criticisms at the Abrahamic religions (primarily Christianity, Islam, Judaism), and that when Adam Roberts writes about the conflict between Dawkins and Eagleton, a lot of the traditional atheist arguments have to be referenced.  People can either deal with this, or they can pretend that they are the first ones to discover that not all religions are focussed on belief in God, and that Dawkins’ criticism of what he sees as the ideological effects of the dominant religions (dominant in a power relationships sense) is invalidated because he didn’t address Buddhism.

By on 10/14/06 at 09:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

Your comments have no connection with what Anthony or I have said.

People generally seem to be misunderstanding the stakes of my rejection of the category “religion.” If Christianity is your problem, talk about Christianity.  If Christianity *and* Islam *and* Judaism are your problem, talk about the “three great monotheisms” or even “abrahamic religions.” Introduce some historical specificity!  Dawkins isn’t *really* arguing against an abstract timeless concept—he’s primarily arguing against Christianity.

The term “religion” is also problematic because it is almost always modelled on Protestant Christianity, where the big deal is taken to be “faith,” meaning “beliefs.” (Adam R. continues to insist that religion is about having certain beliefs, although he’s making token gestures toward “practices.") Thus, again, if you want to talk about Christianity, talk about Christianity.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K., you could show some argumentative charity by writing that as your introductory paragraph rather than as your concluding one.  When Eagleton writes “[God] is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even in the universe had no beginning” or “For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is”, he’s not really talking about an abstract timeless concept either.  Nor is Pascal’s Wager especially contextless.  So put in the boilerplate objection and go on—preferably without bits like asking why the hell Adam R doesn’t just pretend to be Christian so that his daughter can go to a good school.

By on 10/14/06 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich Puchalsky,

The problem is not that Dawkins ignores Buddhism (or Unitarianism, for that matter); it’s that he ignores non-Abrahamic religions in too convenient a manner. It is convenient for Dawkins to pretend that non-belief in a personal God equals atheism (in particular, that allows him to trot out the old “Einstein was an atheist” line, which used to infuriate Einstein so much). In the real world, non-belief in a personal God may equal atheism, or it may equal Buddhism, transcendetalisms of various kinds, Unitarianism etc. etc. - and most of those creeds are not only explicitly anti-atheistic, but actually religious in the pejorative sense according to Dawkins - they insist on faith without scientific evidence etc.

If Dawkins were to focus on the Abrahamic religions in an honest manner, he would bash the personal God idea as he does without pretending that someone who doesn’t subscribe to that idea (like, oh say Einstein) is thereby automatically in his camp. But of course, then he wouldn’t be Dawkins.

By Anatoly on 10/14/06 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich and Adam R.,

You are falsely quoting me.  I told Adam he should go to church, not to pretend to.  I do not understand how going to church would be a lie—whether or not he was in the church during a particular service would be a simple empirical fact.  I told him to actually go, not to sit at home and claim to be going.  Does the school have some kind of clause where the parents have to go to church “sincerely” or something?  (Maybe they do, but Adam didn’t mention it.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 11:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anatoly, I see a lot of this conversation as being similar to what always happens when feminists in an Internet forum try to discuss rape; some concern troll pops up to say that women commit rape as well as men, and that they don’t understand why feminists are always focussing on men when they discuss rape.  Since 99+% of rapes are committed by men, the “women commit rape too” trope is theoretically true, but beside the point if you actually want to discuss the prevailing violence in our society.

Dawkins is speaking out of a particular tradition.  You can either focus on whether he’s representing Einstein correctly, or you can address whether he has a point.  It’s up to you.

By on 10/14/06 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Adam K., I’ll modify my last sentence to read “preferably without bits like asking why the hell Adam R doesn’t just regularly sit through a boring and meaningless (to him) Christian service so that his daughter can go to a good school.”

By on 10/14/06 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

Plenty of parents sit through boring and meaningless jobs so that their children can eat—and that’s for forty hours or more per week!  This school thing only requires one hour.  In any case, it’s an academic question, since Adam R. seems to be quite content with his daughter’s education.

Also, this was not a “concern troll.” I have a couple hard and fast rules when it comes to reading blogs—one, I always point it out when someone puts the word “argument” in italics, and two, I always point out that “religion” is not a useful category for analysis.  Neither is parallel to trying to explain away racism or rape.

As for whether Dawkins “has a point,” I happen to think that doctrinaire atheist polemics such as Dawkins’—while undoubtedly very satisfying for the author and for those already convinced of his opinion—are unlikely to prove persuasive.  I also find them to be incredibly boring.  An internal critique of certain Christian groups, from the point of view of resources in the Christian tradition, seems like it has a better chance of succeeding in getting people to act in a more humane manner. 

Yet it does remain the case that some people are beyond persuasion, and one must not underestimate the importance of “venting.” And of course he “has a point” insofar as certain Christian groups do, or promote the doing of, awful things.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

If you just recall the book for a moment: the (mis-)representation of Einstein’s views is not just some aside, it forms a substantial part of the argument (one from authority, in this case). It’s very much a part of his point. He goes on and on about it. It’s not like I blew a footnote out of proportion.

There is no ‘tradition’ he’s following while doing that. Let me try to explain again: you are right in that it would be legitimate for Dawkins to limit himself to criticising a particular very widespread religious tradition, without getting hung up on the fact that “not all religions are like that”. If that were his strategy, whining about that would indeed be similar to the rape-discussion-trolls you’re describing. But he’s doing more than that: instead of quietly ignoring the kinds of religion he’s not interested in criticising, he falsely mislabels them as atheism and enlists them to the aid of his cause.

By Anatoly on 10/14/06 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Arguments? My point was that you have no argument except for one based on poor understanding. You, frankly, don’t know what traditional theology is. If I point this out to you are you going to admit it? No, because you’re pretty sure that you’re right. So what would be the point in arguing with you or even trying to point to resources? What is the point to calling you to be a smarter atheist (since self-describing yourself as an atheist shows concern with some local religious practice around you)? Whatever, I’ve wasted enough time.

And, yes, if someone who believed in Jesus thought that having friends was more important I would say to get over Jesus. If banging chicks is more important to you than Allah, get over Allah. It sucks that you’ve been mistreated and that your daughter apparently could have a better education by people you think are idiots, but the world is rarely fair or just.

Rich,

You’re still an ass. I like commitment. Though, for the record, Buddhists are guilty of violence as well. Do you want a book reference or are you familiar?

By on 10/14/06 at 01:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K.: “Also, this was not a “concern troll.” I have a couple hard and fast rules when it comes to reading blogs”—one of which could analogously be that whenever you see feminists discussing rape, you point out that women rape people too.  Yes, I get that.  That is, after all, a fact, and it’s important to point that out whenever you see it. 

And why should people care about that one hour a week?  Like what’s the big deal about telling women to dress conservatively if they don’t want to get harassed when they go out in the evening; it’s only a small amount of time, and some people have to dress conservatively for 40 hours a week for work.

For the rest, no, you don’t get Dawkins’ point.  He’s not a meliorist, and while “An internal critique of certain Christian groups, from the point of view of resources in the Christian tradition” would indeed be more likely to accomplish something—and would be less tiresome to hear—that’s not what he wants.  It’s like telling a Marxist that they really should be concentrating on getting more progressive taxation within a liberal system.

Next, Anthony Paul Smith.  Only Anthony could take a statement about Buddhists being “beside the point if you actually want to discuss the prevailing violence in our society” and come back with “Buddhists are guilty of violence as well”.  I’ve rarely seen a more perfect example of the quintessential APS.  I dub this the “unconcern troll”.

Next, Anatoly.  Anatoly, Dawkins’ misrepresentation of Einstein is really not what Adam R. seemed to be basing this post around.  Sure, you can talk about that if that’s what you want to talk about, but I’m not sure if it has much to do with what Adam R., as opposed to Dawkins, was saying.  Nor does it have much to do with what I’m saying.  I’m certainly not claiming that Dawkins is correct to attack “religion” in the way that he does.  I can see why he does so as an argumentative strategy; respect for any religion tends to add to overall respect for “the religious” as a social category, which is what he’s trying to diminish.  In order to attack the Abrahamic religions, he pretends that all religion shares certain characteristics with them—I’m not sure if he just doesn’t know otherwise, or whether he thinks that carefully saying otherwise would detract from his polemic.  He may be wrong in terms of effect, as well as analytically.  But so what?

Now, you do respond to Adam R. directly with:
“It’s misleading to say, of a religious believer, that they’re an “atheist with respect to” all the other gods they don’t believe in. It may be effective polemic, but it’s misleading and false nevertheless.

If I really, really like beef and dislike all the other kinds of meat, is it reasonable to describe me as a “meat-hater with respect to” all those other kinds?”

That would only work as an analogy if most Abrahamic religious believers thought that all the gods existed, but that their religious system was better.  I don’t think that this is actually the case.  A Christian doesn’t generally say that we can’t be sure whether Shiva exists or not, but that God is better—he or she most often flatly thinks that Shiva doesn’t exist.

By on 10/14/06 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts, I’ve been thinking about the central problem that you present for the last half of your post:

“My problem, or stumbling block, is that I can’t get past my belief that religious belief is just not true.  Specifically; that since it seems to me [1] and [2] above are untrue, [3], however notionally desirable, would be unworkable for me.”

Perhaps a more useful way for you to approach thinking about this would be through the existential concept of bad faith.  What’s so bad about bad faith?  It’s always seemed clear to me that it would be more comforting to be able delude yourself about your inherent freedom, and that most people are happier doing so (the waiter who thinks “I am a waiter” is happier than the one who thinks that he’s presently doing a boring and servile job).  I think that there is a fairly exact analogy between this and most of the types of religious belief that are current in our society.

So the question is, why do you think that bad faith is bad?  If you could encourage it in yourself, would it be wrong to do so?

By on 10/14/06 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

Ah, yes, I see what you’re saying now. You got me, I didn’t catch the meaning of your Buddhist line until this second read. My bad.

That said, I still think you and Adam are horribly misguided on this religion thing and could use a bit of reading. Hell, maybe even talk to a few people, but do it at different times and really start to figure out where their piety lies. My guess is that you’ll find most religious people not to be as unified in their identity as you’re both assuming. And, just to correct Adam’s views of traditional theology, maybe grab a text on that as well. In the end, I am unconcerned about what either of you do, so you got me there too.

By on 10/14/06 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “bad faith” thing is actually kind of the point I was making with “why not just go to church to fulfill the technicality and get your daughter in the school.” Why this bourgeois moralism?  I understand that atheists can be just as moralistic as anyone—but why do *you in specific* need to be so moralistic about this one issue? 

Or if you think being “religious” would benefit you in some way, why not just get involved with church and see how it goes?  We’re not talking about Southern Baptists or something here—we’re talking about Anglicans.  No one’s going to corner you and demand a notorized signature on a document affirming the Nicene Creed.

(So in short, Rich and I are in complete agreement on this issue, which I thought of first.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do think that there’s a large difference between taking an action dictated by others and between changing your own belief.  What’s more, I don’t think that Adam should necessarily answer that he thinks that there’s nothing bad about bad faith.  If he decides that he thinks that bad faith is inherently bad because it’s better to be truthful than happy, then that value judgement would probably also make him uncomfortable going to church even as a technicality.

By on 10/14/06 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

adam r,

The notion of ‘falsifiable’ that you’re using in (2) seems a little strange to me.  I mean, the geocentric model of the solar system was falsified (in every important sense) by at least the time of Kepler, wasn’t it?  That’s not because it was strictly inconsistent with any particular observation.  It just didn’t explain the total body of observations as well as the heliocentric model did.  Things seem pretty much the same to me concerning the claim that we have immortal souls, and the claim that the universe was created by a personal God of the kind most people believe in.

By on 10/14/06 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Humans interested in the utility and origin of the category “religion” should read J. Z. Smith’s essay “Religion, Religions, Religious”, and probably some of the other stuff in Relating Religion.

By ben wolfson on 10/14/06 at 04:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

APS: “In the end, I am unconcerned about what either of you do, so you got me there too.”

Yes, you’re unconcerned about what we think or do, yet you continue to comment.  In other words, you want to yell at people.  I think that the phrase unconcern troll was well chosen.

But, you know, I care about whether other people understand or not, so I’ll actually go on for a bit; the complaint that atheists are over-unifying the religious identity of those they disagree with is quite common.  And it should be common, because atheists tend to value a certain kind of truth which owes a good deal to analytical coherence.  Thus, when an atheist thinks “how would I think if I believed?”—which is, if you were paying attention, what the second half of Adam R.’s post was largely about—they tend to assume that they would have a coherent, analytical religious belief.

And there’s really nothing wrong with this.  If someone wants to write about Foucault without reading Foucault, you can blame them for not reading Foucault.  But if someone is forced to confront the overwhelming social reality that our society is dominated by certain religious traditions that it is not easy to escape, you don’t demand that they be expert in those traditions before they can say anything.  That’s like saying that no one should write about their working conditions without a thorough understanding of neoclassical economics.

Now, in actual fact, I think that Adam R. probably has a better understanding of traditional Christian theology than you do, APS.  Von Balthasar, however influential, was a 20th century theologian, and probably not “traditional” in the casual sense that Adam R. was using.  But I admit that I may be biased by my belief, based on your previous comments, that you don’t really take the time to understand anything that anyone writes.

By on 10/14/06 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

That argument that Adam R. knows theology better than Anthony is similar in form to trotted out in the infamous debate about whether John H. is a “continental philosopher.” I’d be willing to bet that your claim about Adam R. will end up far outrunning what Adam R. wants to say, similar to what happened in that other debate. 

And just to piss you off, I’ll point out *again* that this is one of the problems that comes up when you are constantly trying to speak on behalf of someone else.

I will thank you for restraining yourself from claiming that Adam R. knows traditional theology better than me as well, although you are of course free to do so if that suits your rhetorical purposes.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And I’ll once again reply that I’m not trying to speak on behalf of someone else.  I’m presenting my views, and what Adam R. wants to say will be said by him.  Just as, in that other debate, I think it’s clear that my opinion is that John H. has in fact done more continental philosophy than any of the people arguing against him, even though he doesn’t agree.  It’s a matter of genre analysis of a particular essay, and it’s actually possible for me to disagree with John H. about it.

In the current case, I fully expect Adam R. to weigh in with an “oh, I don’t know anything about theology really”, but that still leaves him knowing more than APS, whose method of response appears to leave him effectively knowing less than nothing.

By on 10/14/06 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of the problem may be the ambivalence of the word “theology.” Does one mean academic theologians?  The official catechism of a given church body?  What it seems like most Christians believe?  If it’s the latter, then one is leaving oneself wide open to a whole range of legitimate attacks, because it provides no guardrail against simple projection and straw-mannery.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, defining “theology” as “what it seems like most Christians believe” is dangerous because it allows one to expose one’s biases—certain ideas are held to be impossible objects of lay belief, basically because they’re too complicated or sophistocated.  (As though it’s “easy” to understand God becoming man or the resurrection of the dead, but God-as-artist is “hard.” For example.) The variety and sophistocation of lay belief is very surprising—for instance, I recently had a conversation with my grandmother about these issues that was like a revelation.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Yes, you’re unconcerned about what we think or do, yet you continue to comment.  In other words, you want to yell at people.  I think that the phrase unconcern troll was well chosen.”

Dude, it’s the internet. In real life I’d probably not like you or Adam R all that much (and I doubt you’d like me either) but I wouldn’t yell at you. The most I’d do is mumble about you two needing to read more about stuff you know little about. But I hardly think my saying ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about regarding theology’ is yelling. I do get annoyed by Adam R’s pendantic atheism, but commenting on his post of a review of a book I’ve not read was probably not the place to voice - especially knowing you’d be around.

I recommended Von Balthasar, who I’m sure you Wiki’d right away (but be careful, Wikipedia describes Eagleton as a ‘philosopher’), not because he is a figure from way back in the history, but because his project is essentially the construction of a theological aesthetics that draws on the entire history of Christian theology. It would allow one who doesn’t much know about theology to ‘catch up’ as it were. Considering the standing Von Balthasar is held in with the Roman hierarchy I’d think it could count as ‘traditional’ in most senses.

As to my knowledge of these things - what are you talking about?

By on 10/14/06 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R,

The distinction you make between (1) and (2) seems strained to me.  Is the claim that there is a person-like God who created the universe a priori implausible?  How about the claim that we are immortal?  I would have thought that they are rather a posteriori implausible, given the evidence we have about what the world is like.  If the world were different, then it might seem plausible that there is a God and that we are immortal.  Maybe your point is just that the stuff in (1) has been disconfirmed to a greater degree than the stuff in (2)?  But I disagree with that too--at least in the case of our having immortal souls.

I guess the issue boils down to the way you’re using the word ‘falsifiable’.  I don’t know your background, but in case you’re interested, that’s a term that got popularized by Karl Popper.  Since Popper, my sense is that the following two views have been pretty widely accepted by philosophers of science:  First, defeated hypotheses are usually defeated incrementally--they are rarely strictly inconsistent with observation.  Second, when a new observation incrementally disconfirms a hypothesis, it does so only given substantial background hypotheses.  The upshot, as I understand it, is that there is no ‘falsification’, in the sense of a single observation which implies that a hypothesis is false.

My point is just that, even if the claims in (2) aren’t falsified in the Popperian sense, that doesn’t mean much, since hardly anything ever has been.

But I guess the main question is whether it’s ok to believe in God for reasons other than those supporting the truth of that belief (like the fact that it would make you happy, etc.) I agree with other people here that, if you knowingly tried to do that, the state you’d be in wouldn’t really be one of genuine belief.

By on 10/14/06 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Personally I don’t see that there is more than ‘one sense of that word’”

I’m a philosophy person and actually all of my work right now is tracing the genealogy of the various subtle senses of the notion of existing and how they are most commonly conflated to produce very confusing problems in philosophy.  I don’t really want to get into it but yes there are a variety of different ways that god could be said to (or not to) exist.  I’ll follow this up personally if you’re interested.

Also, I’m totally not acquainted with the book but the impression I got was that it was targetted against “lay theology” or presumed beliefs held by common people, and so I don’t think that what theologians think have much to do with it, traditional or not.  I could be very wrong though.  My only other interaction with this book was actually advising someone not to spend twenty dollars on it without actually reading the inside jacket of it because I assumed it was one of those “academic with no background in theology, from a field like biology or something writes a book arguing against all the annoyingly uneducated relgious folks who hate their work” and from the tone of this discussion it seems I may have been confirmed.

By on 10/14/06 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

APS, message #5: “But I hardly think my saying ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about regarding theology’ is yelling.”

Message #1: “Dude, I think you need to do a bit more reading before you try this shit. It’s just bad. Like, really, really bad scholarship.”

Message #2: “Again, what the hell are you talking about? I’m sorry you’re illiterate, but are you aware of your ignorance as well?”

Message #3: “What is the point to calling you to be a smarter atheist (since self-describing yourself as an atheist shows concern with some local religious practice around you)? Whatever, I’ve wasted enough time.”

The yelling is what you’re here for, right?  Since you can’t do it in person.

By on 10/14/06 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, If you’re not careful, he’s going to mention the pony-tail.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Because we’ve so elevated the discourse ...

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/14/06 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m surprised no one took the bait of Rich’s first comment.  (I’ll admit that I didn’t read it until just now.) It was well-executed, but conditions around here have changed such that the trigger words—Zizek, continental philosophy, attacks thereon, etc.—don’t work as well anymore.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/14/06 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm.  Seems to me, from my nugatory knowledge of blog-comments-thread-protocol, that there’s a couple of things I, as author of the original post, could do here.  I could as it were throw up my hands: say something like ‘why can’t people play nice?’ or ‘I wash my hands of the lot of you.’

Anthony has called me, specifically, illiterate, ignorant and insufficiently knowledgably in traditional theology; which naturally is all true (the latter two are, of course, entailed by the first).  He doesn’t know me personally, or he could with perfect justice have added ‘ugly’ to the description.  If I were to reply by saying, for instance, ‘I’ve read bits and pieces of Christian theology, some Augustine and Aquinas and so on; a few more modern thinkers (Kierkegaard, Buber, Simone Weil).  But it’s patchy; and my knowledge of Islam is patchier still, limited to some general introductory books, like Armstrong’s guide, and the Qu’ran itself.’ Anthony might well reply that this is merely an assertion on my part; there’s no proof that I’ve done anything but look these names up on wikipedia.  He’s right; it’s difficult to prove that I’ve read these things.  More, it’s inherently unlikely that I’ve done this reading, since I am, as he points, illiterate.  (What did I do?  Get my Jewish wife to read it all out aloud to me?) Hence I have no right to an opinion, or more specifically, no right to voice an opinion on this matter.  I should ‘stick to science fiction’.

I concede without prompting that I know much much less of the full range of what we might call traditional theology than Adam K., who’s been making a systematic study of the topic; I’ve been reading his dispatches from that enormous front line at the weblog, which has been both fascinating but has also given me an inkling of how much I don’t know.  So, with respect to that, I believe he’ll have the citations to disprove what I’m about to say.

Which is my original claim: that Eagleton can’t with any justice describe the theology that appeals to him, of God-as-artist, as ‘traditional theology’.  This in part, as Adam points out, a matter of what we mean when we say ‘traditional’.  But one thing I know a little about, in my capacity as Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of London, are the religious-debates of the Romantic and Victorian periods, especially in Britain.  To put it very crudely, the elevation of the figure of ‘the artist’ to a cultural pinnacle is a Romantic and post-Romantic phenomenon.  God as an artist (or more specifically, the idea that what artists do is mimic in little what the great ‘I AM’ does in Large) was Coleridge’s idea, following a couple of late C18th German thinkers; and it resonated largely through the C19th century.  God is not an artist in the NT, in Augustine, in Aquinas – not because it’s not an attractive and interesting way of thinking about God, but because artists didn’t rank that high in the cultural pecking order in those days.  Eagleton likes the notion of God as artist; and good luck to him.  But it seems to me that he’s got a version of ‘God’ in his mind that he considers sophisticated and eloquent, that works for him, and then he reads Dawkins’ book, doesn’t find mention of that God.  So therefore Dawkins’ version of God is a gross caricature, a straw man etc etc.  To which Dawkins might, if he wished, reply that it’s not ‘God’ as he manifests to Terry Eagleton (all very loving and enabling, by TE’s own account) that is the problem; it’s god as he manifests to the majority of the world’s four, or four-and-a-half committed believers.

Rich and Adam K., actually, seemed to me both to be making the same point, unlikely as that may seem, and an especially good point to boot.  Rich puts it in the terms ‘what’s so bad about bad faith?’ Which is a very good question.  With Adam it’s (unless I’ve misunderstood; and if I have I apologise in advance and await correction) that religious belief, whilst not entirely irrelevant, is much less important than religious practice.  That it distorts what religion-in-the-world is actually about to extract a sort of unified field of ‘religious beliefs’ and then stick that tail on the donkey on the argument.  So, ‘religion’, for want of a better word, isn’t really a set of rigid beliefs you must force your mind into; it is rather what a lot of people do, both socially and also intellectually or spiritually … this latter ‘doing’ being characterised (except in the more mentally-calcified cases) by a continuing process of questioning, examining, doubting and resolving.  As a questioning, examining, doubting and resolving individual myself I could with perfect validity go to church, and get involved in the religious life.

Re schooling, and on point of fact: it’s not enough just say you’re Anglican or catholic of whatever on a form to get your kid into a church school: it’s a fairly big deal here in the UK; and plenty of parents were doing just that; so now the bar has been raised, and you need actually to go to church, take communion etc.  Which I couldn’t in conscience do, to speak personally.  But this may, pace Rich’s point, be a piece of stuffed-shirt idiocy on my part; what is so bad about bad faith.  And I do take the force of what Adam K is saying, assuming I’ve understood it correctly.

A good friend of mine, a Catholic, has said something to me along these lines in a previous conversation: that I should go to church, but really go: not just turn up on the odd Sunday and sit at the back sneering, but get involved in the church, help organise the jumble sales, actually live the life.  The fact that I lacked certain mental-conceptual beliefs would matter much less than that I was taking a place in a sustaining community.  And I can see the attraction of this, I really can: not that it would make life magically happier, or easier, because I daresay it would be, in some senses, much harder (or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say more exacting) than living outside the church; but that only then would I really see what it is about ‘being religious’ that is so appealing to so many people.

If I understand the tenor of comments on this thread, that I am ridiculously overstating the importance of ‘belief’ (there is a God, he rules the universe, we all have souls, we all live on after our deaths, God will judge our souls at death for what we did in our life) for religious people.  What really matters is not believing five impossible things before breakfast, but taking one’s place in a community.  And community, clearly, is hugely important to human beings.  Who lives outside the polis?  gods and monsters, and I’m certainly not the former).  But this is also a problem I have.  No tribe, you see.  Not even this community of bloggy virtual people since, as Anthony puts it, I’m to be banished ‘back to sf’, my thoughts are not welcome.  But then again, one of the ways in which Christianity seems especially interesting to me.  Because [and this most assuredly is not traditional theology; and may, given my atheism, be merely impertinent] it has always struck me that one of the key points of Christ was that he was an outsider, that precisely he didn’t belong to the in-crowd; that he gathered around him a bunch of misfits and social failures, and then preached a gospel of giving up the trappings of community, money, jobs, marriage (though, yes, as St Paul says, it’s better to marry than burn; but better still to do neither).  But this is very much by the way.

To put it another way: my Catholic friend to me: ‘so you think the local Catholic school should take your non-Catholic daughter?  But then in what sense would it be a Catholic school?’ Which is a good point, tho it seems to me (and I end with a clear Godwin’s-infraction) the same form of argument ‘You want these Jews to be regarded as German citizens?  But then in what sense would ours be a German nation?’

By Adam Roberts on 10/15/06 at 05:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, you are wasting your time on this blog? The Democratic Party needs you! You need to be one of their pundits (or whatever if that’s an insulting term) as you’re very good at shifting attention, moving the argument along to new terms that you will set, etc. And I’m not joking, I am impressed by this skill even as it annoys the hell out of me. You really know how to take the piss out of someone.

Let’s get boring then. Adam R demonstrates through the above post that he has no familiarity with theological discourse (and I suspect that Eagleton is correct that Dawkins’ book would make a first-year theology student wince, much as the literature on intelligent design would make a first-year biology student wince). To suggest that the eucharist can be proven not to be the body of Christ misunderstands exactly what is meant by that within Roman doctrine. It’s also to completely ignore the beliefs ‘on the ground’ so to speak, that is the beliefs that get acted upon rather than merely ascented to. Religious observance is rarely about an accent to a set of scientific beliefs, it is about disiplining the body and mind so as to foster obedience to the ‘divine law’. Perhaps Christians would be better off with less bizarre beliefs than transubtation (but to understand this you have to understand medeval discussions of substance, prior to Descartes), but attempting to debunk these beliefs through falseification misses the whole point about religious people. Now, if he hadn’t referenced ‘traditional theology’ I wouldn’t have said anything, but he seems to think that traditional theology is all about the scientific ascent to empiricial truths. He seems to think that CS Lewis is traditional theology. If he wants to reference the history of religious conflict and violence, he should have done so, but again he would have to understand the nature of the religious debates around them.

I take it you accept the Von Balthasar point?

By on 10/15/06 at 05:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, you called yourself illiterate. Look, I’m not funny. I try really hard sometimes, too hard even, and sometimes what I think will come across as a joke does not. I was just trying to point out your ignorance on the topic, playing off your self-deprecation. It wasn’t funny and it didn’t have the effect I wanted. I should stick to reading philosophy of religion and theology, rather than writing. (Go on and say it, it’s ok! I know it’s true!)

Does Eagleton directly relate God to artists? Orthodox theology (traditional in the vulgar) does posit God as the ultimate creative force through love above and beyond anything else. That is what I was taking your comments above to be referencing in Eagleton. Now, as to whether or not God as artist is the best way to say this or not is a question, but it is not a question that the creative God is more than evident in all those orthodox theologians you mentioned above and I would suggest also in both testaments of the Bible. In Kierkegaard God is more like an intensity of thought within experience. Kierkegaard in many ways takes more seriously the cultural issues surrounding belief than the others (though I’m not going to pretend I’ve read all of Augustine or Aquinas). I don’t know though, the Death of God theologians may be of more importance than both traditional theology and Kierkegaard in the modern situation.

From your post above I took Eagleton’s main problem to be that Dawkins’ doesn’t make himself familiar enough with actual religious traditions. That he doesn’t get the nature of religious ‘systems’ which, from what I can tell, he collapses into belief. which is also what I’m trying to suggest to you as I think you’ve also done this.

Now, I apologize for the snark. I get annoyed in these discussions very easily because everyone thinks they know exactly what religion is, when it is very complicated. So, yes, I wish people would read more, and with more brackets of their personal beliefs, for that seems to be the way to address these problems adequately. I don’t believe in Allah any more than I believe in Jehovah. I find myself being more comfortable with Jesus, but it doesn’t appear to constitute itself as a belief anymore than I believe in Che Guevara (PBUH). I do go to mass and I enjoy it. I’d even say I really mean everything I say there and intend everything I’m supposed to intend. Not sure if that’s bad faith or not. Could just be confusion. But when I read religious literature or literature about religion (and it is a bad word that comes from convenience) I bracket my position. I get past that I let others believe for me so I can get to their presuppositions or the ground of their experience. I can tell you, at that ground does not lie positivism and so to ask those questions, it seems to me, really misses a lot.

Your last paragraph is disturbing, but I don’t know that it is true. For one, your friend is a bit mistaken. Most Catholic schools do take religious non-Catholics. In France many Muslim children attend Catholic school and the same is, I am told, true here in the UK. And while the form may be the same, the argument is essentially different. Catholicism is no longer tied to ones citizenship and there are, in theory, good public schools for those who do not want a religious education. But, I’m still confused, why would you want your daughter to attend a religious school where they teach religious doctrine if you and your family are staunch atheists? To equate your plight with the exclusion from society that the Jews faced does border on the obscene. Being Catholic assures you no more privilege in modern, secular society than being an atheist. You can still shop at ASDA and you’re more likely to get beat up just because a bunch of guys are drunk than because you don’t affirm the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

I agree with you on the community stuff and it reminds me of Spinoza’s remark that maybe the aim of religion is the dissolution of religion. But I doubt Dawkins would like Spinoza’s God either.

By on 10/15/06 at 06:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Psychologists often make a distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” religion. Extrinsic religion is religious oberservance for the putpose of obtaining some benefit, e.g. going to Church so you can get your daughter into a Catholic school. If I recall correctly, the distinction is due to Gordon Allport. See for example this Guardian article by Robert Winston, which (inevitably) also mentions Dawkins.

By on 10/15/06 at 09:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Most Catholic schools do take religious non-Catholics. In France many Muslim children attend Catholic school and the same is, I am told, true here in the UK.

Same in the US, especially in big cities.

I’ve been following this thread with considerable interest. FWIW I’m quite sympathetic to AK and APS. My longish comment to Joseph Kugelmass’s new post on Michaels, Badiou, and Zizek doesn’t speak directly to the squabble in this thread, but . . .

By Bill Benzon on 10/15/06 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R., Your historical point on “God as artist” seems to me to be correct.  It also seems to me that “God as artist” doesn’t carry the argumentative weight you assign to it.  He’s saying that God is more like an artist than like an engineer—he didn’t “intelligently design” the universe to be some kind of perfectly functioning machine, but rather as a gratuitous overflow of his own goodness.  God creates the universe because he wants someone to share his goodness with. 

(I just read this in John of Damascus [8th C.] last night, and he’s drawing on many, many others who say the exact same thing.  Basil the Great says that the creation of the universe is “God’s hospitality to man,” in which he provides superabundantly for our needs and desries.  For Gregory of Nyssa, “beauty” becomes a much more important category than “goodness.” John of Damascus explains that certain animals were created specifically to delight us with their beauty or weirdness.  As I move forward in history, presumably I’ll run into more of this.)

I would say that an “Intelligent Design” argument that treats the universe as akin to a watch found on the side of the road is more un-traditional than the Romantic “God as artist” idea—“God as Engineer” is a product of deism and of a mechanistic view of the natural world that has since proven inadequate even on scientific terms.  Dawkins is right that many Christians hold to the idea of “God as Engineer,” but such a belief would be better described as “popular belief” than “traditional theology.”

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But this may, pace Rich’s point, be a piece of stuffed-shirt idiocy on my part; what is so bad about bad faith.”

Here I think that you’re mixing up Adam K. and I; I didn’t say that it was stuffed-shirt idiocy (that was more Adam K., with his “bourgeois moralism"), I invited you to consider whether you really thought it was bad to delude yourself if it made you more happy.  And, perhaps, whether you thought there was any difference between you deluding yourself and you helping someone else to delude themselves (i.e., you might lie in order to tell someone that that look great; is that different in kind than telling them that you’re confident that God is watching over them?).

More later when I have time.

By on 10/15/06 at 11:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony: “Hey, you called yourself illiterate.” Well, actually, you called me illiterate, here.

You also said: “to suggest that the eucharist can be proven not to be the body of Christ misunderstands exactly what is meant by that within Roman doctrine.”

My understanding (I’d be interested to be corrected by more expert people) is that the Catholic and Anglican churches believe that transubstantiation literally happens, in the specialist sense that it happens substantially (which is to say, more than ‘just’ symbolically or metaphorically).  There were attempts by Catholic theologians in the C20th to shift to the much more common-sense notion that the bread symbolises Christ’s body, with a change in terminology to ‘transfiguration’, but it was squashed by the Pope.  I forget which one.  I assume it’s important to the Christian eucharistic that Christ is actually there; and if the bread still looks bready to the communicant it’s because the accidents of breadiness may not have changed.  But the substance has changed.  Except I’ve never understood how this squared with substance theory as it used to be advanced; if a substance radically changes then how can the accidents stay the same?

My point in the post is that saying ‘look, this piece of bread has now undergone a change and is actually the body of Christ’ is a statement that can be tested, for instance by analysing the bread before and after.  (You’re at liberty to say: ‘but these tests are not the point!’ You can even say, although it seems a lot less sensible to me, ‘but these tests are incapable of apprehending the subtle and miraculous change that has taken place!’) But this is a different sort of statement to the statement ‘God created the universe’ or ‘our immortal souls shall be judged after our deaths’.  In this latter case there is no test that can ascertain the truth or falsity of the statements.  You can believe, if you choose, on whatever grounds (faith, for instance); or you can disbelieve.

I really thought I was being uncontentious by saying that.  If a religious believer says to me ‘but science can’t disprove that God created the cosmos!’ I have to concede the point; nor can science ‘explain’, in a watertight way, how the cosmos came into being.  But the religious person can’t prove either.  It’s not that sort of question.  In such a case, it seems to me, that one must go with the most plausible explanation, although what seems implausible to me may seem very plausible to you.  But if you say ‘I believe God created the cosmos’ then I can neither refute you with science, nor could I even suggest a repeatable experiment that would test your statement.  It’s not that kind of statement.

My point was the third assertion: that religion makes for a more robust psychological health in the believer; that religious belief suits human beings (hence its very widespread nature); that human beings do better when they believe.  I wonder: is that true?  My gut feeling (going with ‘truthiness’ rather than truth) is that it is true.  My emphasis was on belief because that’s my personal stumbling block.  If the argument is ‘these four and a half billion humans ... only a very few of them actually believe this rigmarole about virgins getting pregnant and dead men coming back to life and the al-Hajar-ul-Aswad stone being black because it has soaked up all the sins of the pilrgims; for them it’s all about social and personal praxis ... identity, belonging, purpose etc’ then I’m surprised.  If that is the case, then fair enough.  But it doesn’t help me.

Eagleton’s review seemed to me to have a number of good points against Dawkins (I mention them above); but its tone is really rather incoherently aggressive.  And that, I think, is counterproductive.  Your own comments seem fairly aggressive too, Anthony; although maybe (as you say) that’s the error of translation from computer to computer.  And maybe being aggressive and dismissive works for you.  It may also be that Eagleton himself just wants to convey how very strongly he feels on this matter, but that’s seems to me poor strategy.  Along the lines of:

RELIGIOUS PERSON: I believe in Christ.
ME: Respectfully, I don’t.
RELIGIOUS PERSON: But you don’t understand, I really really really believe in Christ.
ME: Well in that case, sign me up to your church!

One variant of this would be ‘you don’t believe?  But how can you say that when you haven’t read a tenth of the theologians I have?

By Adam Roberts on 10/15/06 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R., The real problem with scientifically testing transubstantiation is that the scientific test can only ever get at the “accidents,” which are conceded in advance not to have changed.  Transubstantiation is, as you note, the opposite of how substance/accident works, and that’s kind of the point—hijacking the philosophical language in order to talk about a miraculous event.  There is a long history of this—for instance, hypostasis and ousia in trinitarian thought.  Even philosophical concepts somehow manage to become metaphorical when they enter the realm of theology.

If you want to take a look at the early phases of the development of this, you might check out the debate of Radbertus and Ratramnus, available in the Early Medieval Theology volume of the Library of Christian Classics series (which should be a standard reference work in most academic libraries).  Taken together, it’s like 40 pages in that volume.  Ratramnus’s argument anticipates your own, nearly exactly—but Radbertus is what later figures picked up on, and it should be clear from the comparison that Ratramnus’s counter argument isn’t hitting directly on what Radbertus is trying to say.  (Radbertus’s argument is excerpted; the complete text can be found in the Patrologia Latina, vol. 120.)

Have I raised the level of discourse yet?

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 01:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, if you look above my comment you’ll see that Adam said you would have to be illiterate to not notice that many atheists put reason and faith in opposition and you said that you were, in fact, completely illiterate. It was obviously a joke that I attempted to build on to poor effect. I apologize and hope we can move on where I will refrain from attempting humour.

As to the Eucharist: Anglicans do not believe that it literally happens in the same way that Catholics do. Anglican doctrine is not nearly as determined as Catholic doctrine in this regard that at times has tended towards a certain positivism (correct me if I’m wrong, Adam K). Anglicans belief, as it was explained to me in confirmation, is that the essence of the bread shares in essence with Christ. That is, we take it as body and blood, not as bread and wine. Can this be empirically verified? No, and neither can your taking of money as value. The systems around which support money as value are no more natural than the systems around Eucharistic doctrine, and you don’t question those. So, what I’m saying you’re being horribly naïve about what passes for acceptable belief and what doesn’t by trying to bring in a strict positivism.

Actually, my argument (thanks John!) is more along the lines of:

You: I think religious people’s beliefs are strange and that they are x.
Me: But that’s not actually what they believe.
You: How can you say that’s not what they believe? I’ve not read anything that tells me otherwise.
Me: Well you should read some more.
You: But I don’t believe, so why should I?
Me: :Head explodes:

By on 10/15/06 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K’s explanation of transubstantiation is better than my own. Likely owing to his tradition really believing it, while my own just says, “Yeah, sure… it’s Jesus and not bread. Whatever.”

By on 10/15/06 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I don’t mean to come crashing in like Mongo from Blazing Saddles, but isn’t there some point in asking oneself: ‘do I really believe that this bread becomes more than symbolically Christ’s body?  That it literally changes?’ Because the obvious answer, ‘no’, might also be the right answer.  In which case the statement ‘this bread literally becomes the body of Christ’ would be, you know.  Untrue.

In any other example of a substance changing (eg lead becoming gold) contemporary science would have no trouble detecting the alteration, after all.

But you’ve certainly raised the tone.

By Adam Roberts on 10/15/06 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: “the scientific test can only ever get at the “accidents,” which are conceded in advance not to have changed.”

So that you are committed to a Realist ontology? And also committed to the belief that what something Really is has no necessary connection with the world we see, hear, and feel?

By on 10/15/06 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, on Anatoly: “Now, you do respond to Adam R. directly with: “It’s misleading to say, of a religious believer, that they’re an “atheist with respect to” all the other gods they don’t believe in. It may be effective polemic, but it’s misleading and false nevertheless.  If I really, really like beef and dislike all the other kinds of meat, is it reasonable to describe me as a “meat-hater with respect to” all those other kinds?” That would only work as an analogy if most Abrahamic religious believers thought that all the gods existed, but that their religious system was better.  I don’t think that this is actually the case.  A Christian doesn’t generally say that we can’t be sure whether Shiva exists or not, but that God is better—he or she most often flatly thinks that Shiva doesn’t exist.”

This is right, I think.  I was trying to make sense of Anatoly’s objection by translating it into other terms (eg: a football fan doesn’t have to be ‘emphastically atheist’ with regard to Chelsea in order to be a committed Arsenal supporter).  But all the examples I came up with seemed to be predicated upon an individual who accepts the existence and importance to others of the entities-in-question; whereas a Christian believes in the trinity and considers worship of the divine Augustus a pagan superstition.  It doesn’t compare.

By Adam Roberts on 10/15/06 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not saying that we can’t ask whether or not it’s true, but I’m just saying that the irrelevance scientific testing is already taken into account in the formulation of the doctrine.  One could say that that’s akin to passing a bill in Congress that says the Supreme Court is not allowed to review it, and that would be fine.  But every Roman Catholic and Anglican in the entire world is going to say to you, “Yes, of course it appears to the senses as bread and wine.  Obviously.” And I don’t see how science is going to get beyond some variation on sense-data in trying to figure out what this bread and wine really are. 

It would be totally acceptable from the point of view of the Catholic doctrine if they turned out to be indistinguishable from any other piece of bread, etc.—in fact, it would be directly predicted that that would be the case.  I don’t know what you mean by a “substance” such as gold or lead that would be detectable aside from its physical properties (i.e. accidents). 

This is said to be the only case in which the normal rules of substance/accident are reversed—a miracle.  It is true that it only makes sense in the context of prior affirmations about God, Christ, etc.  But on its own terms, the doctrine is incapable of empirical disproof.  The only way to get at it argumentatively is within the context of Christian belief, where there are plenty of arguments back and forth. 

This is not to say that you’re not allowed to say that the eucharistic miracle does not happen.  I’m not trying to say that at all.  But to insist on the empirical aspect is not to confront the doctrine head on—it’s basically a straw-man, even though I know you don’t intend that.  It doesn’t work as a counterargument.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would just like to note that this thread would have been much less interesting if it hadn’t started out rudely. Civility is overrated.

That Slovak Kotsko is a motherfucker!

By John Emerson on 10/15/06 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Brad, My personal belief here is irrelevant—I’m just dealing with the way the doctrine is structured. 

But within the doctrine’s own terms, the substantial reality of Christ in the sacrament is a matter of salvation and the communication of grace, which is supposed to have effects in the real world.  If you wanted to attack it from that angle, then you might have some grounds—“See, Christians are just as bad as everyone else, so this obviously has no effect.” That would have an empirical aspect to it that might be very appealling to some persons involved in this argument.  But most people consider that kind of argument to be rude and so refrain—even though in my opinion it would be a perfectly legitimate argument (to which various people have developed counter-arguments, of course, though not necessarily convincing ones).

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I’m in no way trying to aim arrows at you, personally.  We’re talking about the doctrine here, not individuals.

But the ‘you can only argue the transubstantiation business from within the belief-structure of Christianity’ seems to me an unlikely and exclusionary thing to say.  Or to put it another way:  saying ‘the eucharist is a central Christian rite becuase the bread symbolises Christ’s body’ seems to me the kind of thing that only the most snarly of atheists could object to.  On the other hand, saying that ‘the eucharist is a central Christian rite becuase the bread literally and miraculously becomes Christ’s body’ is a very different statement, because it’s really not true; and more than that, it’s really quite silly.  I can believe that most practicising communicant Christians aren’t too bothered by the doctrinal quibbling; that the ritual is important not the supposed literal transformation.  I’d also believe that many Christians, if they think about it, think of it as a symbolic not a literal transformation.  But the church insists on the second version.  And it’s a silly thing.

Dawkins’ point (of course) is that training people to believe silly and impossible things is really really bad for their mental wellbeing, and for the prospects of them as properly functioning members of society.  He may well have a point.

By Adam Roberts on 10/15/06 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R,

It doesn’t literally change, it changes in substance. That’s two different things within Christian doctrine. Now, I see what you’re saying, and I just did it the other day with the doctrine of the trinity and various ontological debates within Christian theology, but that doesn’t change the facts on the ground. If people didn’t believe these things perhaps they would act no different, but they do. So you have to think about that from their position, not the position of an enlightened atheist who knows that this is silly to think. For one thing, to be a fool for Christ is praised in Christian doctrine and for another, you believe a myriad of silly things surely (like that the money in your pocket is real).

Does Dawkins hold, or do you hold, that a society of atheists would necessarily for a better society than a religious one?

By on 10/15/06 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R., If you told a Roman Catholic that the bread doesn’t “literally” become the body of Christ, I think that person would respond, “I don’t believe what you think I believe.” You’re still not responding to the actual doctrine as it stands—it says that the host substantially changes, not “literally” taken in the sense of “physically, obviously, etc.” Everyone in the world, Christian or not, agrees that the senses perceive bread and wine both before and after consecration.  You continue to argue against a doctrine that is not in fact held by the Catholic Church.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A relevant responses to the doctrine as it stands might be as follows: “All that substance/accident stuff is sheer sophistry--no miracle occurs, and that’s that.” Or “it’s illegitimate to construct the doctrine so that empirical disproof is impossible a priori“—but that wouldn’t be an argument simply against transubstantiation, but against almost all doctrines.  Resurrection, for instance, is a priori unfalsifiable using empirical methods, etc.

You can reject it tout court—which necessarily entails taking down a lot of other doctrines that are formally similar to it—but you can’t use empirical evidence against it if you want to argue against it on its own terms.  The only arguments that pertain to transubstantiation as a discrete matter, rather than to doctrine as such, are internal critiques from the Christian tradition itself.  Since you don’t seem to want to accept all of Christianity except transubstantiation, I don’t see why you seem to find this to be such a frustrating thing.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As to the more substantive question of Dawkins’ opinion, I happen to think that vulgar empiricism (or scientism) is bad for people, much worse than religious belief.  It produces the very worst form of fundamentalism. 

Dawkins is an example.  I do not find him to be a healthy or appealling person.  I do not want to be like him, nor would I want my children to be like him.  In my experience, vulgar empiricism consistently produces people like Dawkins.

(N.B.: It is possible to be an atheist without being a vulgar empiricist.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the philosophy can become rather tricky and everyone will concede, I’m sure, that theologians are clever fellows.

The atheist surely objects to the *apparent* fallacies, rather than the precise theology per se. That is, in this example, saying that the the bread in substance becomes christ, while muttering if pressed that this is an inobservable, untestable claim is the actual problem. Its the smuggling in of sophisticated philosophical arguments that aren’t actually routinely explained that is objectionable, since the effect is for followers to accept statements that would be classed as nonsense without the heavyweight justification, in a process that looks a lot like equivocation.

To give a different example, I’ve recenty had arguments with people who claimed that Saddam really did have WMD. Of course, no WMD were found, but Saddam was pretty evil and definitely intended to obtain WMD. So while we all accept that Saddam didn’t *literally* have WMD, it is clear that the claim that he did needs to be understood in the broader sense. Dawkins point is that it really is suspect, if not dangerous, to casually use words like “exist” in exceptional ways for things that you want to treat differently.

By on 10/15/06 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An interesting section from an interview with Dawkins in Salon:

I have to ask you about a letter that I’ve come across from the intelligent design advocate William Dembski. He thanked you for your outspoken atheism. His letter to you said, “I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God’s greatest gifts to the intelligent design movement. So, please, keep at it!” What do you make of that?

Yeah, I get that quite a lot. It is a very difficult political dilemma that we face. In the United States of America at the moment, there’s a big battle going on, educationally, over teaching evolution in public schools. Science is definitely under attack. And evolution is in the front-line trench of that battle. So a science defense lobby has sprung up, which in practice largely means an evolution defense lobby. Now, it is true that if you want to win a court case in the United States where it’s specifically on the narrow issue of should evolution be taught in the public schools, if somebody like me is called as a witness and the lawyer for the other side says, “Professor Dawkins, is it true that you were led to atheism through the study of Darwinian evolution?” I would have to answer, “Yes.” That of course plays into their hands because any jury is likely to have been brought up to believe that atheists are the devil incarnate. And therefore, if Darwin leads to atheism, then obviously we’ve got to throw out Darwinism. Well, that is exactly what Dembski is getting at. He claims to like the things that I say because I am playing into his hands by allowing people like him to make the equation between Darwinism and atheism.

But it’s not just Dembski. I’ve heard this from various scientists—hardcore evolutionists—who wish you would tone down your rhetoric, quite frankly.

That is absolutely true.

They say this hurts the cause of teaching evolution. It just gives fire to the creationists.

Exactly right. And they could be right, in a political sense. It depends on whether you think the real war is over the teaching of evolution, as they do, or whether, as I do, think the real war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, between science and religion. If you think the war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, then the war over the teaching of evolution is just one skirmish, just one battle, in the war. So what the scientists you’ve been talking to are asking me to do is to shut my mouth. Because for the sake of what I see as the war, I’m in danger of losing this particular battle. And that’s a worthwhile political point for them to make.

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.

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.

By Bill Benzon on 10/15/06 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If we’re going to take this war of naturalism vs. supernaturalism as analogous to the class struggle, then Dawkins would be utopian.  Any time would be a great time to abolish religion!  Aren’t we lucky Dawkins happened to come around to show us the error of our ways—if only he’d arrived sooner!

In actual real life, you have to pay attention to actual real life.  Wait for when the time is right—in the meantime, make strategic advances based on the divisions among your opponents (for instance, religious people being divided about evolution).  Marx and Engels didn’t rail against the 10-hour law in England, for instance.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R.: “A good friend of mine, a Catholic, has said something to me along these lines in a previous conversation: that I should go to church, but really go: not just turn up on the odd Sunday and sit at the back sneering, but get involved in the church, help organise the jumble sales, actually live the life.”

In the U.S., you can do this without bothering with the obligatory Christianity, by joining a Unitarian Universalist church.  I didn’t know whether it was worth saying anything earlier when Anatoly was insisting that Unitarianism “insist[s] on faith without scientific evidence etc”, because he might have been talking about historical U.S. Unitarianism, or contemporary transylvanian Unitarianism or something.  But American UUism includes as part of its traditions “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit” and has nothing about faith.  (Though the traditions also sort of include something about practise—“Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”.)

So, until unrelated events intervened, I actually lived the life.  Results were mixed.  One distinct problem is that UUism includes a high percentage of people like myself: perhaps “argumentative” is a good euphemism.  Imagine a Salvadoran refugee who is culturally Catholic, a vaguely New Agey gay activist, an old-leftist atheist, and a liberal Christian ex-Baptist all trying to agree on a religious service under a system that covenants to affirm and promote “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.

But it is possible.  I can remember many moments that were community-religious in the sense that you seem to be imagining.  Not in a political sense, because there were those too (such as when we took out a newspaper ad declaring that our religious freedom was being infringed on by the state’s ban on “gay marriage"), but in the ordinary sense of hymns, funerals, birth ceremonies.

But there are two reasons why I don’t think it’s worth doing this with a standard hierarchical church.  First, you have to at least tacitly assent to things that you don’t believe; second, you have to contribute to a power structure that you probably don’t really support.  Adam K.’s bit about why not spend the extra hour would just as well tell people why not just spend the 40 hours working meaningless jobs and not complain.

What I meant by “what’s so bad about bad faith” is different.  It was intended to point out that even if you describe religious belief as people fooling themselves into believing untruths—which you say you’re stuck doing—that doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so is bad, or at least, more bad than being unhappy, if you believe that this makes some people happy.  That’s for you to decide.

By on 10/15/06 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like Unitarian Universalism quite a bit, though I’m no longer associated with them.  I grew up in their youth program which was extremely good in my time but has had some problems lately.
UUs as a congregation are pretty free from dogma (except the general consensus of at least moderate liberality which is more of a bottom up than top down thing.) This means that some of the roles traditionally played by a religion are not fulfilled, because there’s no central doctrine or grand mythos that one can find a concrete sense of meaning in.
I locate a big part of belief in action, and I think that quite a few people can be called, say, christians because they conduct their lives as though a christian doctrine were true.  This is without regard to how intensely they’re intellectually committed to the idea that those doctrines are literally true.  To once again skirt around actually talking about what I’m studying in philosophy, I actually think that the distinction between literal, metaphorical and “performative” truth is something of a historical one.
UUism is a little lacking in this regard, at least as a coherent structure (this is maybe a good thing in some regards.) You can’t live your life as though UUism were True, because the closest thing to a core in their beliefs is a sort of misty dialog about the commonality of all humans or other living organisms or whatever.  You can however, live your life within UUism, because there’s a great community there if you’re into the whole perspectivistic discursive faith community thing.  Still, I think that it’s Not For Everybody because that’s not how everyone wants their community and religion to work.  The majority of people (in my opinion) are still looking for the big best truth, a relatively homogenous community based around it and the ability to make clear cut decisions about wide aspects of their lives based on an interpretable central doctrine.

By on 10/16/06 at 12:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts: What do you make of William James on the question of goodness and belief, and on the efficacy of belief? James turned up in Bill’s comment on my post, and in Scott’s comments on Anthony Paul Smith’s post, because he does a marvelous job (in The Varieties of Religious Experience) of arguing that religion is valuable on pragmatic grounds.

(I’m not breaking ground here; I just want to have a sense of how James fits for you before proceeding. James seems to be impressed with religion in the same way as you.)

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/16/06 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony: “You [ie AR]: I think religious people’s beliefs are strange and that they are x.
Me: But that’s not actually what they believe.
You: How can you say that’s not what they believe? I’ve not read anything that tells me otherwise.
Me: Well you should read some more.
You: But I don’t believe, so why should I?
Me: :Head explodes:

I can see how that would be infuriating.  Needless to say it’s not how I see it.  I’m making a couple of claims about ‘religion’, a category I’m happy with where others aren’t.  Those claims are:

1. It goes without saying that the varieties of religious discourse are very great.  This is an absolute bedrock observation about the nature of religion in our world.

2.  But that said, there are a number of things that most religious people believe, and/or upon which they predicate their lives within religious communities of various kinds.  In other words, you’re right with the first line in your little dialogue: I do think religious people’s beliefs are strange and that they are ... but I can spell them out: belief in God; belief that God created and is lord of the cosmos; belief that human beings have souls that survive death; belief that the way we act in this life determines what happens to our souls after we die.

Now, if you’re going to say “but that’s not actually what they believe”, I’ll confess I’m going to have a hard time swallowing it.  Those are pretty basic tenets for most of the world’s religious people (the Christians, Muslims, Jews and, if you substitute ‘gods’ for god, Hindus).  There are, of course, religions that don’t subscribe to all of those beliefs, but (a) they’re a small proportion of the overall number of religious people, and (b) most of those exceptions still believe a good chunk of the things I mention: Buddhists believe not only in human souls but in the way we act in this life influecing what happens to our soul after we die.

Me, I believe none of those things to be true.  This puts me on the outside of the typical human experience.

Again, I wasn’t trying to be deliberately controversial in listing these ‘religious beliefs’; surely they’re just the way things are.  It’s not that “I’ve not read anything that tells me otherwise”; it’s that this is the way the world is structured according to the stuff I have read.  And whether I’m personally a believer or not is irrelevant to that; it’s an empirical fact, whether or not it’s also a metaphysical fact.

It’s very interesting to read about the survival of Unitarianism, something I know about in its nineteenth-century, rather than contemporary, form.  But Unitarianism represents, globally, a rather small percentage of ‘religion’.  Which is not to dismiss it; but only, here, to concentrate on the main manifestation.

By Adam Roberts on 10/16/06 at 06:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K: “If we’re going to take this war of naturalism vs. supernaturalism as analogous to the class struggle, then Dawkins would be utopian.  Any time would be a great time to abolish religion!  Aren’t we lucky Dawkins happened to come around to show us the error of our ways—if only he’d arrived sooner!

This is absolutely right.  Contra Dawkins, it seems to me (speaking atheistically) an impossible and rather stupid dream to think that religion could be wished away, or that the world would be necessarily be better if it were.  Religion, across the whole of human history, and across the whole world today, is unavoidably one of the core things people do.  It’s not so much that it has generated a huge wealth of wonderful art and thought (although it has); it’s that it’s very close to a large majority of people’s hearts, woven tightly in there in a million different ways.  Might as well plan to get rid of sex.  Or, at least, this is how it seems to me.

By Adam Roberts on 10/16/06 at 06:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K, again: “The only arguments that pertain to transubstantiation as a discrete matter, rather than to doctrine as such, are internal critiques from the Christian tradition itself.  Since you don’t seem to want to accept all of Christianity except transubstantiation, I don’t see why you seem to find this to be such a frustrating thing.

As a matter of fact I don’t want to ‘accept all of Christianity except transubstantiation’.  The core beliefs of Christianity, as Islam etc., seem to me untrue.  I’m happier predicating my belief-structures on shit that seems to me not untrue.  What I do wonder, in this post, whether Christians are as a rule better off psychologically and socially than non-believers.

We may have to agree to disagree on the whole ‘transubstantiation can be dismissed by anyone, but can only be critiqued from withing the church’ thing.  Don’t agree.  For instance, the assertion: ‘under these conditions this piece of bread undergoes a radical and miraculous change which leaves everything about the bread that is analysable by science unchanged but literally (in the sense of substantially) alters the very nature of the bread’ could get shaved by occam’s razor down to ‘the bread symbolically alters during this ritual’.  Or does occam’s razor only apply from within the church?

I’m not trying to bait you, and we’re (or maybe I’m) obviously disappearing up the angels-on-a-pinhead fundament here.  I don’t believe that transubstantiation is in any sense a problem for the vast majority of Christian believers.  We could let it lie.

By Adam Roberts on 10/16/06 at 06:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph K.  William James.  [Tch, all these Js and Ks.  Can’t you Americans find any other letters to begin your surnames with?] I’m enough of a Victorianist to be fairly engaged by Jamesian pragmatism; and he’s a better prose stylist than his brother.  But I couldn’t call my self especially expert.

I’m intrigued.  Are you, perhaps, suggesting that James’s ‘will to belief’ schtick is the sort of more palatable version of Pascal’s wager I mention in the origina post?  (Seems a long time ago now, that post).

By Adam Roberts on 10/16/06 at 06:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich says:

But there are two reasons why I don’t think it’s worth doing this with a standard hierarchical church.  First, you have to at least tacitly assent to things that you don’t believe; second, you have to contribute to a power structure that you probably don’t really support.

I’d agree with this. To be accepted as part of a community (rather than just being a visiting outsider, which is altogether different), an incomer would need to act as though they shared that communities’ core beliefs. It’s very stressful for a human to pretend to believe things that they find absurd.

This isn’t specific to “religion”. For example, I have friends in the Socialist Workers’ Party who have difficulty swallowing some aspects of the local Marxist dogma - but make the pretense of believing them in order to be accepted into that community. I think there’s a case for regarding Marxism as being a religion operationally, even though it’s a godless one - and you you could equally well apply Dawkins-style arguments to it. (See also Rudolf Bultman’s “History and Eschatology” ). Interestinly, some ex-Marxists are taking an explicitly religious turn.

The point about supporting the power structure is also well taken. Someone who is pretending to share the communities beliefs can easily end up in a situation where continuation of the pretense requires them to do something that they (in reality) consider to be seriously morally wrong.

E.g. A guy I’ve known for over twenty years recently came out as gay. He was treated very, very badly by the church group he’d belonged to all his life, and ended up leaving. Now, I wasn’t even trying to be accepted as a member of that church group, so I had no problem standing by my friend. But if I was trying to be accepted into that group, I’d have had an awkward choice between standing by my friend and continuing to belong to the group. (Before anyone else points it out: yes, I know that not all religious groups are based around homophobia. This paticular one was).

By on 10/16/06 at 06:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ev-psych-wise, religious belief plays a role in the evolution of altruism. What I’ve seen most recently argues that altrusitic instincts cannot arise by pure natural selection, except if the breeding population is divided into acculturated inbreeding groups and there is competition between members of the groups. (Competition would include war, etc, but can also mean differential fertility based on more a efficient exploitation of the environment, more successful ways of childraising, etc.)

Religion raises the free rider problem to a very high point, because religions exploit true believers, and weak religionists profit from this. Thus, punitive action against slackers is necessary for religious groups insofar as they actually do motivate altruism and have socially-beneficial results.

By John Emerson on 10/16/06 at 06:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Has anyone here actually read Dawkins’s book? (I haven ‘t.) I’ve seen a review that mentions that Dawkins has invoked memes to explain this and that about religious belief. I’m wondering whether or not that’s a prominent part of his argument.

I ask because, at this point, memetics has been around for 30 years—the term first appeared in The Selfish Gene (1976)—and has no substantial intellectual work to show for 30 years of pop intellectual chitchat. Dawkins himself seems to have been rather circumspect in his own treatment of memes, though Dan Dennett has become a true believer. I’m wondering whether or not Dawkins has decided to take a leap of faith and reclaim his baby or whether he’s still tentative about it.

By Bill Benzon on 10/16/06 at 06:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, BTW, that evpsych stuff is intellectually close to the behavioral economics work you reviewed with favor at your joint. I’ve written an essay-review of D.S. Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, which argues that religion is an expression of biological mechanisms of group selection.

By Bill Benzon on 10/16/06 at 07:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should have said that altruism is evolutionarily successful if there’s a net fertility advantage for the total membership of an alruistically-organized acculturated social group on the average, even though altruism means that some individual members sacrifice their own fertility for the sake of the group.

Attempts to describe mechanisms for the biological evolution of altruism beyond the closest kin without culture (without learned behavior not transmitted genetically) have proven unsuccessful, I’m told.

By John Emerson on 10/16/06 at 07:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s my understanding as well, John. Computer simulations of the math indicate that biological group selection is possible, but we’ve not actually found any real examples. Wilson’s book is quite interesting, but his case that it’s biology that’s at work here is very weak. Looks like culture to me.

By Bill Benzon on 10/16/06 at 07:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R,

You seem to believe that religion is one and religions emanate from this one. That is, you seem to believe that because, in your mind, there seem to be similar beliefs that religions share in some universal beliefs. And, certainly, one could say that there are affinities between beliefs, but you’re reducing every religion to what you think it means to say, “God created the universe”. You’re reducing particularity in a false universal. That’s my first problem with your approach. Let me try and state it more clearly - it’s not that you don’t understand these religions, it’s that you can’t within a universal framework. Again, this is a debate with religious studies, but it seems obvious to me that something is always left out in translation. Otherwise, why would there be any religious conflict? Wouldn’t these beliefs foster similar pieties? Which brings me to my next point.

When Adam K says that ‘religion is not a useful category’ it is quite underdetermined what he means. I’ve been convinced that what is a useful category for these discussions, and may help to give some definition to this statement, is piety, following the work of Philip Goodchild (don’t bother looking him up on Wikipedia, Rich). Piety is essentially about the way you organize your time, what you give your attention to. Though Philip has a pretty impressive philosophical conceptual edifice around this statement, I think you pretty much understand it intuitively. If piety is taken in this way, where religions are materially about the organization of time and attention, then beliefs hardly seem to matter for discussions of religion from outside specific traditions. You’re able to form a truly critical mode of reasoning with this as a central concept in thinking religion. You can ask questions like, with your mouth you proclaim this belief but with your actions you express this piety. You’ll find that most evangelical Christians would profess to believe that their religious experience is the central experience of their life, and with their action they express that it is actually capitalist society which organizes their time and attention more. It’s a matter of ‘bad faith’ from an unironic position. Or so it seems to me, but Rich says I’m clueless, but he also said some stuff about Badiou without reading him, so who knows.

Now this gets away from much of your post, but that’s because I think to understand religious phenomena you have to get away from the kind of thinking you’re presenting. Notice, I didn’t say that you have to become a Christian or accept belief theist belief. I’m just saying that the way you’re going about religion is all wrong and leading to an insulatory position for yourself and other intelligent atheists, who could be challenging in a more interesting way what the majority of people in the world experience.

But, I’m thinking this won’t be convincing in the way I’ve described it. And we’ll keep returning to pious positions, instead attempting to speak from a philosophically secular space.

By on 10/16/06 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s this part

“Atheism – a refusal to be credulous, a proper intellectual scepticism and dialectical open-mindedness – seems to me the default position of the healthy, sapient psyche.”

that seems the logically weak part of the initial post.  Once any and all religious faith is set up as definitionally credulous as opposed to thoughtful, the game’s pretty much up.  (*That’s* the key mischief here with the way “religion” functions here as a generic category.) It seems far more interesting to think about the ways religious thinking of a variety of kinds may work as a ground for knowledge, not the opposite of knowledge.  The trouble with the Dawkinses is you get these sweeping intolerant arguments.  Not that Eagleton can’t be a little sweeping too sometimes but his seems by far the more attractive position here.

By on 10/17/06 at 02:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Susan C.  “It’s very stressful for a human to pretend to believe things that they find absurd.”

This is absolutely right.

Anthony P S:  “You seem to believe that religion is one and religions emanate from this one.”

What was it that I said that tipped you off to this?  Maybe it was when, in my post, I said: “Dawkins ... takes religion to be a sort of malign unity, finding examples of the worst in religious thought and practice and then unfairly extrapolating them into religion as a whole.  In fact, of course, the varieties of religious discourse are very great.” Or was it when, in a comment, I said: “It goes without saying that the varieties of religious discourse are very great.  This is an absolute bedrock observation about the nature of religion in our world”?  Yes, I can see how you got from those statements to your summary of my position.

Why not put it this way: most religious people (my term, keep it there ‘under erasure’ or whatever for a mo)—most religious people in the world believe in God.  Now, what they take ‘God’ to be, how the concept manifests in their lives, what it means to them, how dominant a feature it is and a hundred other things vary enormously from culture to culture, person to person.  (How could it be any other way, given the enormous variety of human cultures and individuals?) But this variety is predicated upon a premise—the existence of God—I take to be untrue.

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/06 at 04:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts,

I think you’ve got an interesting point in calling James’s “will to belief” a more palatable version of Pascal’s wager. I’d agree with that.

James’s argument in The Varieties of Religious Experience is slightly different. To put the matter briefly, James seems to view religion as an aesthetic phenomenon with an ethical payoff—it is a particular sort of story about the world that enables the individual to adjust to ethical obligations. For a temperamental individual, religion takes the form of a “dark night of the soul,” followed by a spiritual rebirth. For someone like Emerson, on the other hand, religion serves as a safeguard against anxiety about their own contentedness; religious doctrine confirms their intuition that the world is a blessed place. Thus religion, according to James, not only makes people better and happier, but is especially effective at doing so because of its ability to incorporate subjective experiences of guilt, contentedness, error, alienation, and so on.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/17/06 at 04:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why not put it this way: most religious people (my term, keep it there ‘under erasure’ or whatever for a mo)—most religious people in the world believe in God.  Now, what they take ‘God’ to be, how the concept manifests in their lives, what it means to them, how dominant a feature it is and a hundred other things vary enormously from culture to culture, person to person.  (How could it be any other way, given the enormous variety of human cultures and individuals?) But this variety is predicated upon a premise—the existence of God—I take to be untrue.”

Fine, but you can’t get anywhere from there. It’s too formal and abstract. If you can live with that fine, but I still think it’s a weak position to hold.

By on 10/17/06 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin Denby—Interesting observation. Certainly a Dawkins doesn’t seem to think a religious person could actually think and reason about matters of faith, much less that they could have doubts. He seems to think religion is a matter of utterly blind and unreasoning belief.

I’ve not read this particular Dawkins book—only book I’ve read is The Selfish Gene—but I’ve read articles and intereviews 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.” On gets the sense that Dawkins—and Bertrand Russell before him—wants to say that humans, real honest-to-god human beings, are rational and don’t believe religious nonsense but those others, they’re not human beings, they’re drooling — drooling!—troglodytes.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 07:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R.: “But this variety is predicated upon a premise—the existence of God—I take to be untrue.”

APS: “If you can live with that fine, but I still think it’s a weak position to hold.”

Oy.  Look, rather than watch the painstaking rediscovery of most of sociology—gee, maybe religion concerns *how people organize their time* rather than what they say they believe!—maybe I should ask you once again to try reading Adam R.’s original post, and see what he’s really asking about.

Adam, since you start from this orientation towards truth, and it’s not likely to change, given that you’re in your early 40’s, consider the advantages and disadvantages of bad-faith-ism.  It’s a subset of nihilism.

Yes, it’s true that it looks very likely that there is no God, and that the vast majority of religious believers are hopelessly confused, and that the professional theologians have mostly given up on actually trying to permit people who know much about their respective religions to believe, and are just amusing themselves with intellectual systems.  But so what?  What is the best route, for you and the people around you, given this situation?

Well, probably the best route, if you care about happiness, is to both help to a limited extent to delude other people, and to delude yourself, insofar as that is possible.  Sure, Dawkins is right that the Abrahamic religions are in general nasty pieces of work that encourage people to be violent and stupid.  But people are still happier while killing each other than they would be confronting the void.

So there’s the opportunity for a lot of creative work here.  Clearly you can’t give up on your core commitment to truth (what I take to be the basic value of nihilism); you shouldn’t try to actually believe in God in any straightforward way, unless some miracle occurs and actual evidence appears.  But the intellectual and mythic maze that the various religions have built over the centuries is one that it’s quite possible to lose yourself in—as you learn more about it, you’ll find that most theologians are simply other bad-faith-ists who have been down this road before you, and have complicated matters to the point which you’re most likely going to die before you reach the center of the maze and determine for sure that there’s nothing there.  You could do your bit to extend the maze, for the benefit of yourself and of future generations.  Or, more immediately, you could try to help other people rescue something good from the twisted, Bronze age religious wreckage that they’re surrounded with so that they can be happy without being quite so pushed towards religious violence as they are now.

It might be objected that this creative work is not creative, since it’s not aligned with what you truly believe.  Well, all creative work is temporary; anyone who thinks that their science or art is going to last is also deluding themselves.  So it only has to last for a while—about 30-40 years in your case, probably.  You could be wrong when you think that you’re deluding yourself, and actually be approaching the truth, unknowing.  Surely a bit of scepticism about your own powers will stand you in good stead here.

Or it might seem like it’s too much work.  Well, you shouldn’t devote any great proportion of your time to it in any case; that would make you more likely to reach the center of whichever maze you choose.

Or you could choose a more mystic, direct-experience approach—probably difficult for an intellectual, but some people do it.

Or you might just concentrate on other creative work, which you do already with your professorial occupation and novel writing and so on, and give the whole thing a miss in the form of straightforward atheism or unconcern.  Some people really are happier that way.  It’s up to you.

By on 10/17/06 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin: “It seems far more interesting to think about the ways religious thinking of a variety of kinds may work as a ground for knowledge, not the opposite of knowledge.  The trouble with the Dawkinses is you get these sweeping intolerant arguments.”

I agree both that Dawkins is too extreme in his animadversion (he does, I’d say, tend to work with a ‘the worst of religion is all religion’ caricature) and that it would be absurd to describe religion as ‘the opposite of knowledge’.  Yes, I agree.

Rich: you make some good suggestions; although “but people are still happier while killing each other than they would be confronting the void” is a pretty strongly negative characterisation of homo sapiens sapiens.  But maybe your right; and the options you spell out are pretty much the full range of options.  And in general (Scott K put it very well in a comment to this weblog post) I don’t go about haunted and tormented by the absence of the Christian God, any more than I go about haunted and tormented by the absence of phlogiston.  But there is a nagging sense at the back of my mind (perhaps a simple-enough grass-is-greener psychological tic) that makes me think ‘so many people in the world seem to derive strength from it; maybe I am missing something crucial to the experience of being human.’ Before I became a father I’d have said I was perfectly happy not being a father; that parenthood held no especial attractions for me.  Now that I am a father it’s changed everything about me and my life and for the better.  (Course, my daughter does at least exist).  So, when Jo K summarises William James

Thus religion, according to James, not only makes people better and happier, but is especially effective at doing so because of its ability to incorporate subjective experiences of guilt, contentedness, error, alienation, and so on.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about; or, more precisely, wondering about.

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/06 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An a brief ps: I’m a little sorry I dragged in my daughter’s schooling to this row; I fear it made the whole ‘schooling’ thing seem a bigger deal than it actually is in our lives.  Of course, I’d prefer it if religion were taken out of education in the UK; a secular system, like the French one, seems to immensely better.  But I was reading this article from today’s paper, about the resistence to Government proposals (not policy; just proposals) that faith schools should indeed open their doors to a small percentage of ausgangeren.

The point, and I’m not sure I’ve communicated it very well in my post, is that this category of religion in which many people here disbelieve does actually coordinate enormous power: money, resources, political influence and in many parts of the world actual political potestas.  Maybe it doesn’t seem that way to individual religious people, in the same way that I daresay individual white male upper-class Victorians didn’t necessarily feel personally empowered by their caste.  But denying that there even is such a category as ‘religion’ seems to me as unhelpful as if a white male upper-class Victorian had said ‘the concept of class isn’t useful.  There’s no such thing as ‘the upper classes’ you know, just a lot of very diverse people who happen to share certain qualities, but differ very much in others.’ Dawkins attacking it, crudely and perhaps even ineffectively, is very much like a fired-up socialist attacking Capitalism.  (’Capitalism is not a useful category’).

But I’ve flogged this horse enough, now I fear.  Perhaps it’s dead, or indeed perhaps it’s like the tooth fairy.  (The Tooth Mare. E) Enough.  Or too much!

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/06 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t trying to exhaust the options for everyone, Adam, I was trying to go through a particular set of options for those people who start out with the implicit judgement that a certain kind of truth is the most important value.  I don’t think that it’s really that likely for that implicit judgement to change in a mid-life adult, once made.  Although I should probably re-read William James on conversion experiences.

As for the “hauntingness” of religion, perhaps being a father has something to do with it.  Wait until your child’s first pet dies.  I successfuly avoided Cat Heaven, but completely wimped out and plumped for Cat Reincarnation, perhaps because I live in an area where Christianity is powerful and Hinduism is not rather than the reverse.  Those atheists who can tell their 5 year olds that their cat is never coming back, a la PZ Myers, well, I admire them, but I couldn’t be them.

By on 10/17/06 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, off hand, do you know what percentage of your countrymen profess belief in God?

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Something apparently not mentioned (though I’ve skipped a lot of posts) is the question of quasi-religion or lax religion.

Everyone in Norway is a default Lutheran unless they take steps not to be one by declaring for a non-Lutheran church or sect. The level of intensity of belief is extraordinarily low, to the point that people tend to leave the church if they start to get religious. The Anglican church is much the same, and the Catholic Church in some places.

Roughly, an established church without Inquisitorial powers is a nice compromise between religion and irreligion. The American disestablishment actually strengthened religion, alas.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: there are various figures out there, but I’m assuming it’s about two-thirds, or a little more, of the global population who believe in God, with some marked local variation.  This poll, for instance, gives figures of 45% of Brits who “said they believed in God, prayed regularly and would die for their belief.” It’s over 90% in Nigeria, and nearly 80% in the USA.  (These are 2004 figures, and the poll was of ten thousand people.) The figures I mention in the comments a couple of times, of something like a billion and a quarter Catholics, a billion Protestants, a billion Muslims and a billion-or-so adherents of other faiths (out of six-and-a-bit billion people on the planet) are from Wikipedia; but they’re fairly well-sourced figures, and some good articles (actually) on those specific religions.

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/06 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not so much interested in the global value, but in the contrast between the USA and Europe. My impression is that the USA is considerably higher than Europe, Britain included. Given the close cultural kinship between the USA and Europe (England especially), why is the percentage of religious so much higher here? The separation of church and state is often given as a crucial factor and I’m willing to accept that. But I’ve not yet found a convincing reason that that factor should be so important.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 01:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of interloping, I don’t think it has much to do with the separation of Church and State. Isn’t the (far) greater percentage of religious belief in the states owing to the nation being founded upon Puritanism (even at the time considered rather ascetic and demanding by the more pragmatic Anglican majority)? America was settled with overtly religious motivations (unlike, say, Australia and New Zealand, which, recent immigration aside, have similar levels of religious belief to the UK).
When coupled with the fact that Europe en masse has seen a decline in religious belief or at least its ritual practice (and this is the case even for the very recently Catholic mass majority of Poland), the States look to be quite distinct from the UK in this (important) regard. Whereas America started with a clean(er) slate, Europe, and especially the England with Anglicanism (a church established for the most pragmatic of reasons), has a long history of it churches being tied up with the quotidian facts of life (see The Vatican’s past and current sway over Roman and Italian politics), such that Europeans, in the most glib and general of ways, simply don’t seem to take religion as seriously (or rather, they do, but without considering it as divorced from the rest of life).
As a final possibility, the American concern with/quest for identity has long been far greater than that of Europe and Britain (the cliched but nonetheless partially true notion of history being all about this side of the pond, yet having to be sought the other). I’m thinking, by way of a crass example, of seeing the new Scorcese film last night, in which characters who are third, fourth, fifth generation immigrants, refer to themselves as ‘Irish.’ Would religion, alongside and entwined with ethinicity and nationality, not be a profound manner of claiming or asserting one’s cultural identity in a nation that seemingly puts great stock in it?

By on 10/18/06 at 08:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ethnic identity—in the US this is strongest where reinforced by ethnic settlement patterns. Some parts of Boston have been Irish for 150 years. On the West Coast (or the NW, anyway) where the search for identity is actually stronger, neighborhoods are less uniform a lot of people grow up with no ethnic identification at all. Portland OR has a few small ethnic neighborhoods or recent immigrants (Vietnamese, Russians, and a few others) but the old ethnic neighborhoods, which were never as uniform as in the East, are now nonexistent. Even the black neighborhood is pretty mixed.

Establishing a church tends to make it corrupt. In England, parishes were sold on the market—they were called “livings”. Swift was a pastor of the Anglican church despite serious doubts (expressed by contemporaries) about whether he was a believer at all, and various sorts of lax theology and practice were developed.

Established pastorates are responsible to the state, which pays the bills, and not in any sense to parishioners. Swift was Anglican in an area (Ireland) where the population was almost all nonconformist or Catholic.

By John Emerson on 10/18/06 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Touche. I know what you’re going to say.

The Irish of both persuasions were pretty religious despite having an established church, which they completely ignored. Probably ethnicity was the reason.

By John Emerson on 10/18/06 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, this is too complicated a question to be tucked away in comments. But, sure, the fact that America was settled by religious dissenters is important. But that was 400 years ago. What features of American society have maintained a high degree of religious adherence in the population. Why has America had waves of religious revivalism every two generations or so since before the Revolution?

Yes, I do think identity has something to do with it. And the separation of church and state has something to do with identity as well. I’ve said a bit about this, but I’m not very happy with that formulation.

I’m finding the following book to be suggestive:

Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. Eiko Ikegami. Cambridge University Press, 2005, 476 pp. $80.00 (paper, $36.99)

Reviewed by Lucian W. Pye, <A HREF="http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20051101fabook84656/eiko-ikegami/bonds-of-civility-aesthetic-networks-and-the-political-origins-of-japanese-culture.html
“>Foreign Affairs</A>, November/December 2005

This is a pathbreaking study of how historically, Japanese personal networks, both vertical and horizontal, operated to establish powerful norms of beauty, propriety, and good manners, which in turn gave a distinctive dimension to Japanese political behavior. The powerful, and those aspiring to power, had to take seriously group participation in composing poems (haikai) according to rigorously defined standards; they had to display refinement in reacting to art and music, elegance in carrying out ordinary tasks such as pouring tea, and exact discipline in their dress and social manners. It is standard in most cultures to associate dignity with authority, but the Japanese carried the linkage of aesthetics and power well beyond mere dignity. Ikegami, a sociologist, traces the evolution of the various strands of Japanese aesthetic standards as they developed in the key cities where government officials and merchant leaders interacted. The result is a rich and detailed cultural history from medieval times to the Meiji period.

The book was alse reviewed in Science, but you need a subscription to read that review. Here’s a commentary on that review (scan down the page a bit).

So, Ikegami is arguing that artistic networks operated (horizontall) outside the vertical channels of the Tokugawa state and thus allowed Japanese from all walks of life to interact with one another on a more or less equal basis. This, she argues, was critical in forging a coherent national identity.

The effect of separating church and state is that personal affiliations through the church are independent of the mechanisms of the state. Ikegami is giving me a way of thinking about the implications of this.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John—the Ikegami might interest you. I like it quite a lot.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 09:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a pathbreaking study of how historically, Japanese personal networks, both vertical and horizontal, operated to establish powerful norms of beauty, propriety, and good manners, which in turn gave a distinctive dimension to Japanese political behavior.

Not really on-topic, but:

In Owen’s “Chinese Poetics” the author says that, for Chinese, “poetry was not fictional”. In other word, a good poem expressed the truth of a situation in an authoritative way that others failed to recognize only at the cost of damaging their claim to be perceptive, reasonable and decent.

Scholars of Chinese poetry sometimes use the “decoding” method, effectively saying that such and such a poem is not really a poem, but a veiled political message. But what Owen explains is that poems are still read esthetically, but the esthetic values are regarded as non-relative and true, and that hese esthetic valuies are relevant to politics.

In English, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark” uses the metaphor of something stinking to make a poltiical statement. In China this kind of poetic statement was functional in the political system. Many great statesmen were poets, and a few were great ones.

Japan is comparable, though I know less. During one period the heads of two clans competing militarily and politically were also the leaders of two competing poetic schools, as though Tennyson and Browning were fighting it out to be Prime Minister.

By John Emerson on 10/18/06 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Copied from Bérubé’s blog where it was posted by Central Content Publisher:

It was illegal to leave the Church of Sweden (the Swedish Lutheran church) until the dissenter law of 1860. In 1951 this law was extended to allow citizens to legally be non-Christians. 78% of Swedish citizens are considered Lutheran today, mostly because children born in Sweden were automatically registered as Lutherans until 1996.

According to the 2005 Eurostat “Eurobarometer” poll, only 23% of Swedish citizens responded that “they believe there is a god”, and 53% answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force” and 23% that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, god, or life force”.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

IIRC Emmanuel Swedenborg, the visionary heretic who founded his own sect, who came from a high ranking Lutheran clergy family, was buried in a Lutheran cemetery and a Lutheran funeral. Apparently you couldn’t leave and were never kicked out.

By John Emerson on 10/18/06 at 04:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea of religious belief and its relation to evidence has cropped up now and again during this thread, but I don’t think that it’s been dealt with in more than an offhand fashion yet.  For example, Adam Kotsko declares, “Resurrection, for instance, is a priori unfalsifiable using empirical methods, etc.” and Rich Puchalsky admonishes, “you shouldn’t try to actually believe in God in any straightforward way, unless some miracle occurs and actual evidence appears.”

Motivated by Colin Danby’s allusion to religion as a ground of knowledge rather an opposition to knowledge, I want to ask “Is religion something that we can know to be true, or can we only feel a ‘truthiness’ about it?” My personal experience is with Christianity, so I’ll be taking my main points from that belief system, but the question can certainly be applied to other systems as well.  And since I’ve got Badiou on the brain right now (thanks to Joseph K.), what he has to say on Saint Paul will figure prominently in my comments.

First of all, what if a religion--say, Christianity--is true in the same sense that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (I forget who first made this comparison, but thanks for the imagery).  In other words, literal, historic actuality is allegedly not the appropriate criterion to apply to such questions; rather, what should predominate are utilitarian considerations of “does a belief in this tenet--independent of the facts on the ground--get me where I want to go aesthetically/ethically/relationally/whatever?”.  In this case, after their experience of Christ’s resurrection event, the disciples felt him in their heart, or some such, and were motivated to pursue the Good and the Beautiful (even to the point of martyrdom), but not necessarily the True.  It seems obvious to me that such a view of religion certainly has some practical appeal, despite its problems.  After all, there is much overlap in teaching among the Ethical Monotheistic religions, and even other systems (Buddhism, say) have strong ethical components that would lead one to speak honestly, not cheat on one’s spouse, provide shelter for the poor, found hospitals and universities, etc, and generally fulfill the altruistic roles that benefit the species in a group-selection sense.  However, this sort of answer is ultimately unsatisfying, intellectually and morally--for me personally, apparently for many others who have posted to this thread, and to many in the U.S. and around the world who are appalled at the blatant disregard for truth in the wake of the whole Saddam-WMD debacle.  We--rightfully--abhor the (ab)use of truth as a means some other, lower, end.

Thus I am compelled to ask: beyond a crass utilitarian level, can religion be said to be True?  Badiou certainly insists that the supernatural elements of Christianity, at the very least, are fables.  Granted, he is approaching the text from the position of a non-believer, but beyond that, he seems to think (like Adam and Rich) that no evidence of historical veracity has been offered; indeed, that no such evidence is possible.  However, throughout his otherwise insightful discussion of the formal elements of Paul’s argument, Badiou seems to be illegitimately ignoring Paul’s content, thereby selecting only the textual evidence that supports his claims while ignoring any counterexamples that might arise.

For example, Badiou holds up Paul as the herald of a new idea of subjective universalism. Unfortunately for Badiou, however, Paul’s subjectivity is utterly exclusive:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1.8).
In other words, subjective experience is all well and good, but if another individual’s subjective experience differs from Paul’s, then they are perforce wrong, and damnably so.  If the potentially myriad subjective experiences of others can be summarily dismissed, what then is so special about subjectivism per se?  Though I must confess limited familiarity with Badiou’s corpus, there seems scant effort from him to defend his precious subjectivism from Paul himself.  Why is that?

Or again, when Badiou appropriates Paul’s claim that there is “neither Jew nor Greek” in Chapter 4 of Saint Paul, he speaks explicitly in terms of the respective cultural discourses, namely an adherence to prophetic revelation (Jewish) or anthropocentric rationality (Greek).  Badiou opposes to both of these discourses the declaration of the subjective Event, which is claimed to be outside all utterances of prophecy or logic.

And yet, even within Paul we see explicit and repeated reliance on prophecy (as in his epistle to the Hebrews), and, more importantly for my purposes here, we see the appeal to rational evaluation of evidence--despite Badiou’s insistence that the attempts at rational faith by, e.g., Pascal (p.49ff), are in utter contradiction to Paul’s central message.  Specifically, one of the central texts for Christian apologists that is very nearly, but not quite, evaluated by Badiou is from I Corinthians 15:
“I delivered to you that which I also received, that Christ died on behalf of sins, according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that was raised the third day according to the scriptures.  And that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  Then he appeared to over 500 brothers at one time, of whom the most remain until now, but some also fell asleep.”

This unquestionably points to corroborating evidence for Paul’s claims both from Jewish prophetic tradition and from the eyewitnesses to the Event, whose first-hand evidence, at the time of Paul’s writing, could for the most part still be evaluated directly.

So, then, what Badiou takes in Paul as an utter break from previous modes of discourse seems to me, rather, a tactical (and only occasional) choice in the declaration of a truth that admits of more than one representation.  Hence, alongside the Christ of the Damascus experience, the very Greek Logos (a la the Apostle John) and the thoroughly Jewish Messiah (a la the Apostle Matthew) are also called into service by Paul, particularly in his letters to the Romans and to the Hebrews, respectively.

For Badiou, it is solely the formal elements of Paul that are of consequence (that is also why he can so easily equate the diametric opposites of Paul and Nietzsche (p. 72)).  The content, however, must be in large part forsaken. Thus Paul needs to be distanced from any claims that might independently compel assent.  Paul simply cannot be making claims that can be evaluated by those in the “reality-based community”, whether in the mode of Jewish thought--via signs, or in Paul’s terms, spiritual gifts--or Greek thought, via rational reflection on the observable, historical occurrences surrounding Christ.  And this is where Badiou--and, in my opinion, Kotsko and Puchalsky--err.  For Paul does in fact make claims to historic actuality, both in the Resurrection and in the aftermath of that Event, which can in principle be shown to be either true or false.

Of course, one can evaluate the evidentiary claims that are the content of Paul’s--and others’--writings and still consider them to be insufficient, or disproven based on other evidence (the Problem of Evil is nowadays a common attempt at refuting the notion of an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly loving God).  But what one cannot legitimately do is pretend that there is no evidence whatsoever

By on 10/20/06 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The evidence seems to indicate that Paul did not write the letter to the Hebrews.  Badiou clearly lays out which letters are considered authentic based on the scholarly consensus (which he accurately reports), and it’s unfair to say that he excludes Hebrews based on some ulterior motive when he says from the start that he’s excluding it for scholarly reasons.

(Generally, French people seem to think Paul wrote Hebrews, though.  Jean-Luc Nancy, for instance.  People in other countries know better.)

As for empirical evidence of the Resurrection, what do you want?  The actual body is said to have been taken up into heaven.  Also, Paul had a vision long after the resurrection—he was not among those who “saw the empty tomb” or whatever, based on his own report.  Before the vision, he was so sure that Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead that he was actively persecuting Christians.  Obviously something is going on here other than being convinced by empirical evidence.

It’s weird to me that The Valve has become the number one blog for discussing Paul.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/20/06 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What is “vulgar” empiricism?  Is it in contrast with some refined empiricism, or just an extraneous insult?

Eagleton talked about Dawkins having a “very English brand of common sense” which most believes in what it can touch, weigh, and taste, as if this was a bad thing… as for the Englishness, I immediately thought of the epistemologies of the Epicureans and the Carvaka.

No one seems to have mentioned Eagleton’s whitewashing of Christianity, such as his saying Jesus and the Ten Commandments were open-minded about sex as long as no one was hurt, and ignoring the mentions of eternal fire in the Gospels.  Much of his review seemed a passel of platitudes from some religious-liberal wish of what Christianity really were like.

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

"And this is where Badiou--and, in my opinion, Kotsko and Puchalsky--err.  For Paul does in fact make claims to historic actuality, both in the Resurrection and in the aftermath of that Event, which can in principle be shown to be either true or false.”

I agree that Paul makes claims to historic actuality, and that Christianity does in general.  Those claims are pretty self-evidently false, or at least unproveable.  But really, the Christians who (for instance) oppose the teaching of evolution are right to do so; it’s one of many elements of science that call their entire project into question.

Of course it’s doctrine to claim that these are different discourses, and that empirical evidence doesn’t matter, etc.—all of the stuff above about transubstantiation, for instance.  But the operating core of the religion depends on the mass of people who make it go not really knowing about theology or science or both.

So no, I’m not denying that Christianity makes claims to historical actuality.  I’m saying that for anyone who cares about truth, as Adam R. evidently does, it’s a mistake to try to believe in the absurd.  But you don’t have to, not directly.  Any intellectual who wants to try the consolations of religion should be capable of erecting a theological or mystical or even philosophic maze faster than they can traverse it.  There’s centuries of material from different religious traditions to work with, and no one has time to read it all, so you can still be reading in hope on the day you die.

By on 10/21/06 at 12:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Again and again and again people are assuming that fundamentalism is the only valid form of Christianity and that anything else is just liberal equivocation.  Fundamentalism didn’t even exist until around the turn of the 20th century.  Biblical literalism was an innovation.  The damn Roman hierarchy supports the teaching of evolution!  (Half of all Christians worldwide are Roman Catholic.)

If you mean fundamentalists or evangelicals, say that.  It’s completely understandable that those are the types of Christians one would want to talk about most, because they’re most politically motivated and most dangerous—but they didn’t take out a copyright on the word “Christian.”

By Adam Kotsko on 10/21/06 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Roman hierarchy is coming to its senses, and they aren’t going to be supporting it much longer.  At least, that’s my guess.  Having a sophisticated nonliteral explanation was fine, as long as few people could understand it and fewer people cared.  But now that a basic understanding of evolution is becoming more and more of a mass phenomenon, that isn’t going to work.

And of course fundamentalism is recent.  Fundamentalism is a reaction to the success of empiricism.  It was easy to believe in all kinds of BS as long as belief didn’t really matter—as long as there was really nothing that you could do about important life crises.  But once modernity took over, along with the attitude that it was both possible and desirable to affect events, people necessarily started to demand more of their religions.  Only a few mystics, philosophers, and bad-faith-ists were ever really satisfied with allegorical interpretations; most people don’t have time or interest, and accepted them insofar as they understood them in lieu of anything better.

By on 10/21/06 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait—so as a result of the success of empiricism… people started demanding that religions baldly assert things that are empirically false… I’m not following here.  I agree that fundamentalism is a reaction to empiricism, but I don’t see how its particular method of dealing with it makes it worth taking more seriously than other versions of Christianity.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/21/06 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As a result of empiricism, people started to demand that when they died, they were really truly going to go to somewhere like a literal Heaven, just as empiricism had made it really possible that, say, when people got sick, they could actually be cured.  That’s what people had always wanted.  I didn’t write that fundamentalism was itself empirical; I wrote that as it became possible to do more in the physical world, people’s expectations for the nonphysical world increased accordingly.  Very few people really understand empirical science either, so science and religion to them are really competing forms of magic, and it’s pointless to believe in a form of magic that is weaker than another one that you can see every day.

Some religions, like Roman Catholicism, have a sophisticated double framework that is intended to permit intellectuals in the church to still remain in it, and continue to control the rest adminstratively.  But theology was always really mostly for theologians and, insofar as they cared, the associated administrators.

I’m not saying that religions in general don’t also have important ritual, community components—of course they do.  That’s why people can be culturally Catholic or culturally Jewish, even if they’re atheists.  But that is not enough, by itself, to sustain a religion.

By on 10/21/06 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, I think that the turning point with regard to evolution came with good old Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Up to his era, it was still possible to believe in evolution as shorthand for a kind of progress towards a greater goal, which is allegorically quite consistent with a religious viewpoint, or (for other thinkers) in a kind of guided evolution which is still somehow in keeping with man being created in God’s image.  But now that part of a basic understanding of evolution is that it doesn’t really work this way, the whole thing is going to come collapsing down.

By on 10/21/06 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We’ve probably beaten this thread to death by now, but it reminded me of two classics I can recommend:

[url="http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html"]The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame
[/url]

Plato’s Euthypro

By on 10/21/06 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,

Yes, Badiou does specify which books he and others think Paul wrote.  I could’ve sworn Hebrews was a part of that list, but I don’t have Saint Paul in front of me at the moment, so I could have screwed that up in my initial post.  I’ll get back to you.  But honestly, I think my point about Badiou ignoring a plethora of textual evidence still stands, even if the letter to the Hebrews is out.

As far as “empirical evidence” goes, I would include eyewitness accounts as a part of that.  And for Paul’s contemporaties--but certainly less so for us--fulfillment of prophecy ("according to the scriptures") would also serve as evidence. You’re correct that Paul was not initially converted by analyzing such evidence; I happen to think Badiou is incredibly insightful in analyzing Paul’s reliance on a subjective experience as foundational to his belief.  Nevertheless, Paul still claims that there is evidence that can be evaluated independent of his Damascus road experience.  My point here is not to prove Christianity, but to show that Paul pointed to evidence which could be used to prove it.  And that’s one of the important parts of Paul that Badiou ignores, and that others here were at least glossing over.

Rich, would you care to elaborate on the “self-evidently false, or at least unprovable” nature of Paul’s claims?  They seem potentially evaluatable to me, though being 2 millennia removed from the events recorded certainly makes such a task harder for us.  Or is “provable” a different category for you than merely “evaluatable”?  “Self-evidently false” to me involves such things as irreconcilable logical contradiction, which I don’t see in Paul.

Perhaps the comments dismissive of any possible empirical vidence on this thread were really just short-hand for “I’ve already examined the evidence and found it unconvincing.” But that was never explicitly stated, and so I wanted to bring that discussion to the fore.

By on 10/22/06 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Kyler, “potentially evaluable” is a very low standard to meet; it is a “potentially evaluable” question whether the Angel Moroni really gave some golden plates to Joseph Smith, but it is not really provable, despite the events being more recent.  Any objections having to do with, say, Smith’s previous career as a con man, do not *prove* the falsity of the supposed eyewitness testimony and so on.  Which is not to propound scepticism towards well-attested historical events, but to say that failure of evidence by our standards is not disproof.

But the question of empirical evidence, in this connection, leads for me ineluctably to Laurence Stookey and the crispy Jesus.  Stookey is a Professor of Preaching and Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, and a Methodist pastor.  I once happened to look into one of his books—I now forget the exact context—in which he examined the question of Jesus’ body being taken into Heaven, discussed in a brave, empirical sense.  As I vaguely recall, this turned quickly into something about how if Jesus’ body was pulled into the upper atmosphere, wouldn’t it burn up due to air friction.  More research needed, that was the conclusion as far as I recall.  I tried to look up Stookey to see which book this would have been, but couldn’t find it. (Although I did happen to hit the text of his sermon Imagining the Ridiculous, which seemed like it might be applicable, but it wasn’t—other than perhaps the bit “First of all we must say firmly and clearly that Jesus was not proposing some strange new kind of economic theory. He was not suggesting that all workers be paid the same amount regardless of the amount of their labor” which emphasis some theological leftists might wish to examine.)

Now, the crispy Jesus is not the wild-eyed creation of an empirically-crazed fundamentalist.  This comes out of standard liberal Protestantism, perhaps not highly theologically informed, but not ignorant either. 

The Roman Catholic church has a lot more experience with getting caught out by annoying empirical questions about how crispy Jesus is, so they have settled on transubstantion and similar doctrines, which firmly say something like “this is a matter of faith, and no evidence is relevant”.  But they only do this when pushed.

Look at the certified “free of doctrinal or moral errors” popularized theology here, for instance.  Whatever Adam Kotsko may say, the Pope says that truth can not contradict truth.  This leads directly to such recent statements as “In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.” This gets directly into biological science, and the church is of course going to retract it later when they are forced to, in favor of something that I’d guess will be like “the accidents of biological evolution have no bearing on the principle of faith that a certain man was the first man”.

So, yes, it’s quite apparent to an unbelieving theologian that Christianity should preemptively abandon anything to do with empirical evidence.  But this isn’t how Christianity works, and it never has been how it works.

By on 10/22/06 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and I’ve confused things by making two opposite predictions about the same event, the reaction of the Roman Catholic church to evolution—whether they will “back off” and decline further into cultural religion / irrelevance, or insist that evolution really is false and become more fundamentalist.  My sense is that their current position is untenable, and they have to do either one or the other.  The long term argument says that they’ll back off, as they have before; the short term one, especially concerning statements by the current Pope, indicates a turn towards fundamentalism.

By on 10/22/06 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’It’s misleading to say, of a religious believer, that they’re an “atheist with respect to” all the other gods they don’t believe in. It may be effective polemic, but it’s misleading and false nevertheless.’

No it is not. You’re simply playing word games.

‘If I really, really like beef and dislike all the other kinds of meat, is it reasonable to describe me as a “meat-hater with respect to” all those other kinds? No; I may be a veal-hater, a pork-hater, etc., but I’m definitely not a meat-hater. Is it misleading for a vegetarian to describe me as such in order to bolster their rhetoric on how natural vegetarianism is’

This is simply sematics. No atheist hates God. They don’t think a God exists. You know all the meats exist. You do not believe Thor does. It’s simply a weak analogy.

And there are not 1.2 billion Catholics. Many catholics bleed off into other religions and the church simply keeps counting them.

By on 10/22/06 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ugh.

I really don’t understand why I should be explaining this, GH. I have a feeling you’re just sniping at my analogy, having no argument. Words like “word games” and “semantics” are good signals (if not always reliable). But here you go.

If there’s a predicate P, and a predicate Q defined thus: Q is true of an object x, if for any y whatsoever xPy is false; then Q embodies the idea of “not being Py for any y”, and to speak of something as being “Q with respect to a particular y” is misleading and false.

xPy means “person x believes in god y”. Qx means “x is an atheist”.

xPy means “person x eats meat y”. Qx means “x is a vegetarian”.

It’s false and misleading to describe someone who’s very much Py for some specific y as “Q with respect to all other y’s”, or “Q-but-one-y”. The correct way to say it would be that they’re “not-P with respect to all other y’s”, but that’s not as convenient for propaganda purposes.

Q already contains the idea that no y’s are admissible, it’s part and parcel of the definition of Q, and it is this fact that gives Q its distinctive character; it is this fact that causes some people to like Q and Q-people, and others to dislike Q and Q-people. It is this fact that gives Q its emotional, moral, philosophical, historical baggage. Describing someone who’s definitely not Q at all as “Q-but-one-y” is a cheap attempt at abusing the concept of Q-ness for propaganda, hoping that an inattentive reader will come to associate traits, allusions, ideas, reactions that they’d already linked in their mind to Q, with something that is not Q.

My analogy is neither weak nor wrong. It holds perfectly where it’s relevant. It shows that with another choice of P and Q the silly formations like “Q-but-one-y” or “Q with respect to all other y” are more obviously ridiculous. They’re not more obviously ridiculous because the situations are different with respect to the relevant question, but because this example is more down-to-earth, and is not philosophical or mystical or religious.
The logical error (more precisely, the intentional fallacy) is one and the same. Yes, people believe in gods but eat meat. Yes, vegetarians hate meat but atheists don’t hate gods, they deny their existence. For the purpose of this analogy, which illustrates a very basic logical fallacy, it doesn’t matter. With any analogy whatsoever, you can always find something about it that’s very different from the original situation, and proclaim that it’s weak or wrong because of it. There’ll always be something different because it’s an analogy and not an identity. The question is, is the difference relevant to the idea that the analogy attempts to faithfully reproduce? In this case, it isn’t.

By Anatoly on 10/22/06 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anatoly: I see your point that there’s an element of rhetorical overreach in referring to Christians as, for example, “Thor-atheists”. But I think that in turn you’re missing the point, because it actually is the case that most Christians would react as scornfully to the idea of the existence of Thor as atheists react to the idea of the existence of the Christian God. They actually are Thor-atheists in the strongest sense, and the rhetorical overreach is justifiable because it helps emphasise how arbitrary is the choice of any particular personalised God.

In brief, I think the difference *is* relevant to the idea that tha analogy attempts to faithfully reproduce.

By on 10/22/06 at 11:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thor believers and Christ believers might be thought of as analogous to monarchists in politics who happen to support rival dynasties. Except that many of the classic arguments of traditional atheism originated in Jewish and Christian polemics against paganism and the pagan gods. It’s as if an incautious Orleanist used rhetoric against the Bourbonists that tended to make fun of the whole idea of kings.

By Jim Harrison on 10/23/06 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"classic arguments of traditional atheism originated in Jewish and Christian polemics against paganism and the pagan gods”

Can you give examples?  The arguments I’m familiar with either originated against Yahweh, or originated as ‘pagan’ (e.g. Epicurean) arguments against pagan gods.  The latter had the fundamental objection of “gee, if there were real gods you’d think people would agree on them more”, which seems to kill off gods who care if we believe in them, and the theodicy argument of “if gods are powerful and benevolent why is there so much suffering?  They must be either weak or non-benevolent, if they even exist.”

Yahweh can get the same arguments, plus more legalistic (sophomoric?) ones about omnipotence, which tend to annoy me even as a lifelong atheist.  “Imagine the universe is a computer simulation, and God is the programmer.  *That’s* omnipotence.  And we can’t prove such a Creator doesn’t exist, either, so stop trying.  Saying the Christ story makes no sense, now that’s just fine...”

By on 10/23/06 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Contributions to atheism from the side of faith: Xenophanes, the Jewish polemic on idolatry, the Stoic rejection of the notion that the Gods shared the passions and vices of mankind, the long tradition of negative theology, various Vedanta philosophers, umpteen mystics, Maimonides, Pascal (for whom God almost becomes his own absence).

For good reason, sensible orthodoxy was nervous about people who doubted the reality of the pagan Gods. Though the Church insisted that the old Gods were really demons, they also insisted that they were at least real demons because they recognized that skepticism about spirits, even evil spirits, tended to expand into forbidden areas--c.f. the guy in the late renaissance who got in trouble for doubting that there had ever been a Diana.

By Jim Harrison on 10/23/06 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

Crispy Jesus...that’s classic.

I’m going to take a slightly different approach to this discussion, if you don’t mind.  I am intrigued by the image you invoke of someone who wants so badly to believe that they create a religious/mystical/philosophical maze faster than they can traverse it.  I think that’s a powerful idea; however, I’m worried that it may prove too much.

Specifically focusing on your use of the term “absurd”: what sort of work can that word do?  Is the resurrection of Christ just as absurd as Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith?  Is the Flying Spaghetti Monster touching me with his noodly appendage just as absurd as reductionist materialism?  Is there even a way to answer this in an objective manner?  Or am I stuck believing that, say, transsubstantiation is absurd primarily because I had a bad case of indigestion the first time I attended Mass?

Yes we all have to make value judgements based on what we think is worthy of our time and effort as opposed to what is “absurd”.  My point is, anyone can devise a maze to ensure that they don’t abandon some cherished belief, whether it’s religion or non-religion.  As for me, I’d rather not be stuck perpetually in the realm of Bayesian analysis, where the only thing we can learn is that we have incommensurate presuppositions.  That’s why I spoke up initially when claims of “that’s absurd” surfaced on this thread, and that’s also my problem with much of what Dawkins writes.  Granted, he seems much more interested in polemics than in apologetics for his position, but not knowing his thought process, I can’t decide whether he thinks religion--of whatever sort--has been proven wrong and is therefore absurd, or whether he starts with the assumption that religion is absurd and then unsurprisingly concludes that it is wrong.

What I’m trying to figure out, then, is: how does one get a definition of “absurd” that doesn’t illegitimately privilege right out of the gate whatever options the subject favors and eliminate a priori those that the subject disfavors?

By on 10/23/06 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I am intrigued by the image you invoke of someone who wants so badly to believe that they create a religious/mystical/philosophical maze faster than they can traverse it.”

Note that I’m being serious when I say that I haven’t come to any conclusion about whether this is a generally bad thing to do or not.  Bad-faith-ism, as I call it, is something that pretty much only intellectuals do, so it’s not for everyone, but it’s decidedly not the same thing as, say, hypocrisy.  The motivations for it can range from compassion (if, for instance, you honestly think that the best thing that you can do for a grieving person is to try to fool them into thinking that there is a God, and after all you might be wrong when you think you’re fooling them), to a liking for intellectual puzzles, to a form of stoicism, to cowardice.  It’s not necessarily a matter of “wanting so badly to believe”, it could just be not seeing any better options.

With regard to the absurd, I think that it’s a false equivalence to mention religion and non-religion.  Empiricism calls on evidence; it may be incorrect to believe in something because of good evidence, but it’s not absurd. 

Nor do all religions that have religious belief really require belief in the absurd.  Something like Buddhism, say, has pared the specifically religious beliefs down to reincarnation, which is intrinsically untesteable enough to not quite be absurd—it’s not like taking something that would normally be perfectly testable, like the composition of a wafer, and declaring it to be untestable as a matter of principle.  The Flying Spaghetti Monster appears absurd in part because it’s a parody of religious escapes of empiricism; you think that you’d *see* a Flying Spaghetti Monster (or feel the touch of her noodly appendage, etc.) if one existed, but it’s no problem for a religion to define one as indetecteable.

By on 10/23/06 at 07:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So far, I’ve only read through half of the comments but wanted to, briefly, make one of my own:

Religion, as an umbrella for all spiritual subsets, is conjectural about the numinous. Owing to the un-nature of the numious, there are no evidentiary human categories for confirmation. I think that’s what Dawkins is about.

<HR>

Dawkins on Colbert:

<object width="425" height="350"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/wln28Y8IvV0"></param><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/wln28Y8IvV0" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" wmode="transparent" width="425" height="350"></embed></object>

--WLB

By on 10/25/06 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This conversation is… bizarre?

I’m pretty damn certain my relatives believe that God and Jesus are actual person(s) with whom they, quite personally, have a relationship.  They believe that both of these person(s) are actual intelligences who talk to them, in some cases with words and in some cases in emotions, and tell them useful things like what career to pursue, who to date or marry, and whether to have children.

I am convinced that they believe these things because they repeatedly say that they do, and because they act like they do.  It is possible that I am interpreting these data points from the perspective of a nonbeliever, but one of my data points is a tendency amongst my relatives to pray silently for answers to important questions in their life and then afterwards report that the Holy Spirit entered them and they just “knew” what was right.  And I think its pretty fair of me to interpret that sort of behavior to mean that my relatives actually believe in god-as-a-person, so to speak.

I am also pretty damn certain that my relatives are not the only people out there who think this way.  My relatives attend churches who teach this sort of theology, and that sort of church seems relatively common in my experience.

Its going to take an awful lot of citing obscure theologians to convince me that my relatives do not believe the things they say they believe, their church says they should believe, and which they act as if they do believe.

By on 10/27/06 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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