Home > Uncategorized > In which I take my leave from the new atheism

In which I take my leave from the new atheism

The following is a conversation that I had recently over at whyevolutionistrue.com, beginning with my comment, here, in response to Jerry Coyne’s post “Critical Mail of the Week”, here. I do not record it as purporting to show that my response is more correct or more able than those of my interlocutors. I record it as what is currently on my mind. I have found myself, over the last year or two, distancing myself more and more from the new atheism, although I was, I think, once associated more closely to it. Part of the reason for this was the anger I felt towards the churches (an anger I still feel) because of their intransigent approach to issues of assisted dying, an approach which made my wife Elizabeth’s torment more tormenting than it need have been, and which, in the end, I believe, dramatically shortened her life. I do not think that a reasoned theological argument can be produced for opposing assisted dying, and I hold Christianity and other religions largely to blame for the way in which my wife was forced to live in fear and torment, as well as for the way that she was forced to go to Switzerland in order to bring her increasingly intolerable quality of life to and end before she need have done had assisted dying been readily available in Canada. So, I adopted a very negative and angry response to religion, and expressed this anger in what I hope were often reasoned posts on this blog, 900 of which I have archived for my own use, but are no longer available here. I may repost some of them in the days ahead.

However, as time went on I found myself at loggerheads with much that sailed under the banner of the New Atheism, finding its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw. Of course, it does apply to the fundamentalists and some evangelicals (two separate points of view), but some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical. Some of that theology may simply be composed of what have come to be known as “deepities”, though that classification seems to me to have arisen because of the unwillingness of atheists to engage with what theologians and other religious believers have to say in defence of their worldview. And that it is an opposition of worldviews is, I think, something that has been lost sight of.

I think some of this comes out in the following conversation. There seems to be a belief that theology must simply be delusional, because there is no objective supernatural existent corresponding to the word ‘god’ — or at least that no “slam-dunk” arguments can be produced for such an existent. Consequently, it has become fairly normative to believe that religion has to do with “confected” entities, and religious thought itself not only delusional but even pathological. (Boghossian — in his book on making atheists — repeats the accusation that faith is pathological in his book  so often that one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.) I do not think this is true, even though I dissent from much that is said in defence of Christianity. Empirical science is not the only source of truth or understanding. Indeed, I believe that the new atheism is quickly attaching itself to beliefs that are as dogmatic and irrational as many religious dogmas, and to a kind of ideological certitude that may be as dangerous as the ideologies of the past that caused so much harm in the course of what Robert Conquest has called The Ravaged Century.

With that introduction, here is the conversation. It is hard to present it in such a way as to be always in sequence, but I am sure that you will be able to find your way. I have not asked permission of those who participated in this conversation for its reposting here, but since it is a matter of public record, beginning with my own comment (you can click on the permalinks to access the conversation in sequence and in their original context, if you wish), that I beg their indulgence in using it as a way of expressing some of my concerns about the new atheism. (In addition to this post I suggest you read the defence of Massimo Pigliucci at aRemonstrant’sRamblings, and follow some of the links in or after that post. In some instances I have edited the following conversation for spelling and added quotation marks to indicate quotations, where this helps to make the bones of the conversation more clear):

The Conversation

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 2, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink

Jerry, you say: “But I have to say this—I don’t think, based on other things I’ve read, that Hart makes a slam-dunk case for God.” But of course, if you read Hart, you will see that he makes no case for a “slam-dunk” case for God, and disavows any such intention.

Indeed, can you really make a “slam-dunk” case for anything? Even evolutionary biology is an evolving science, as are all sciences. As has happened in the past, it is always possible that some little thing has been missed, and evolutionary science in the next hundred years will look very different to the way that it looks today. The point is not about making slam dunk cases, but whether there is at least some rational basis for religious belief and practice. And, while I can’t follow Hart in everything he has to say in his new book (and I have read it once rather quickly), it is hard to fault him on his endeavour to apply rational argument to “belief” in God.

If it sounds condescending, as some of the comments above suggest, to be told that you first have to read something before making critical remarks about a book or an essay or a position adopted by just anyone, the condescension is surely well placed. One of the things that I am increasingly finding, as time goes by, is that there is a reluctance to read what others write if you disagree with them (I do not include you in that number), but there is also a tendency to approach, as an outsider, whole complexes of thought without immersing oneself in the thought itself, and trying to put the best construction on it.

I am willing, with the best of them, to treat religion in a high-handed way, but religion can really only be understood from the inside. It is not a theoretical system of thought in the same way that science is, and its conclusions concern people as individuals, and how they understand and interpret the very complex things that pertain to them as persons, often in very trying circumstances. I suggest, to anyone who is prepared to dismiss religion out of hand without really making an effort to understand how it functions in a well-lived life, to read Ronald Dworkin’s little book Religion without God and see how interpretive frameworks work for one’s understanding of what overall or overarching meaning may be given to a life.

Religion is like that. It is not a list of propositions to be believed or not believed. It is an interpretive approach to life. I find that, at crucial points, this approach has made forays into public life which are extremely damaging to that life, and I oppose religion on those grounds. But I find it hard to fault the effort to make sense of one’s life as a whole, which is what religion is really all about. That is why liberal “believers” can read myth as myth, and use it as an element in such an effort. But to think of religion as either desiring to, or able to, make a slam dunk case for the existence of God is simply to misunderstand religion where it really counts, and it distresses me to see people casually dismissing people’s religious understanding in a cavalier fashion, without trying to see how religion fits into the context of an entire life project. So far, I see little evidence that anyone else is trying to provide this, and if atheism can’t, it is not going to be an alternative to religion, but merely a carping annoyance on the margins of religion.

And remember, if you will, that Plantinga is a philosopher of religion, not a theologian, or someone with the “cure” of souls (as it is often put). His arguments endeavour to do what most religious people do not, and have no intention of doing: to prove, rationally, that it makes philosophical or scientific or objective sense to interpret life in terms of religious stories and their expression in a life. Indeed, where religion attempts to do this in ways that in some way parallel the achievements of science (as in the fundamentalist project) it is, in many respects, distant from what religion has traditionally been understood to be. For fundamentalism is precisely the religious mimicking of science, and a pretty poor substitute at that. It wants to be able to claim the same kind of certainty for its conclusions as science claims for its. It is a lost cause, as modern theology and philosophy of religion have almost unanimously agreed.

But to take that failure as the paradigm case of what religion is is simply to have misunderstood religion. I think Plantinga comes within the scope of the fundamentalist project to some extent (where my doubts about his own philosophical project arise for me), although in many respects more sophisticated (though this sophistication is scarcely to be expected in an email interview). I disagree heartily with most of his arguments, and there are powerful counterarguments to them. I do have a considerable sympathy for his argument about the self-defeating nature of naturalism, though I think, in the end, it is invalid, but understanding the argument, and showing that it does not succeed is, I suspect, not so easy to do as is often suggested. The kinds of things that he is discussing comprises a fairly large area in philosophy, of which I do not have a very strong or comprehensive grasp, but the supposition that it can be dismissed simply by suggesting that there is no “slam dunk argument for God” simply won’t do as a response.

This betrays a serious misunderstanding of what Plantinga thinks he has done, and certainly it has nothing whatever to do with what David Bentley Hart is doing, and touches not at all the ordinary life of those who are trying to live out their religious faith in their lives. I have said it before, and will say it again: most neu Atheismus simply fails to reflect how religion functions for many people. That isn’t to say that the new atheism does not respond appropriately to fundamentalists, for fundamentalists make outré claims that are simply indefensible, but so long as atheism does not distinguish, from amongst a rich variety of ways in which religion has been understood, those ways that are not amenable simply to scorn and confident dismissal, and begin to shape its opposition with greater sophistication, it will only be talking to itself, as, it seems, it increasingly is.

Reply

whyevolutionistrue

Posted March 2, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

Eric,

Thanks for this comment. But if you really think religion can be understood only from the inside, then isn’t atheism self-defeating, except for fundamentalists. The fact it, though, that New Atheism hasn’t been effective just in converting “fundamentalists,” (indeed, that’s probably the worst target), but those who are young or on the fence. Just read Dawkins’s “converts corner”; and I get some (albeit many fewer) emails saying I’ve helped people transition out of religion.

Of course we all recognize that religion is more than just a series of empirical propositions, but those empirical propositions are the buttresses for everything else. How many people would remain Christian if they knew for sure that Jesus didn’t exist, or was not divine or not resurrected?

In fact, I’m perfectly happy with the progress of secularism in this country and attribute that to the unceasing efforts of atheists–both of the strident and conciliatory stripe–and the prevalence of the internet, which lets doubters know that they are not alone.

I don’t know where the idea comes from that New Atheism is ineffective, or we’re doing it wrong. The fastest growing group of believers in America is those with no religious affiliation (even though many of those are either spiritual or believer in God.)

As for Plantinga, or (probably) Hart, I’m sorry, but I can’t take this seriously. They surely are trying to make sense of life, but they do so in a completely irrational way, confecting fictitious beings, moral rules, ideas about “ground of being” and so on. That might have sufficed in the twelfth century, but we’re adults now, and should put away our childish things. Why should I take Plantinga any more seriously than, say the Aztecs, who sacrificed childen and others to their gods by ripping out their hearts. It’s all childish nonsense, and it’s hard for me to dignify it by taking it seriously. Often pointing out its irrationality is the best tactic, at least for me.

Reply

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 3, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

Jerry, thanks for the reply. First of all, let me make it clear that I am not criticising the drive towards secularism, since secularism, to my way of thinking, is an impartial public sphere in which metaphysical beliefs (such as those adhered to by some religious believers) should play no foundational role in determining public policy. This is very important, and it is important that the religious understand that their beliefs should not be given central billing in determining what our laws should be. This already deals a blow to religions, since most religions are also cultures, and where they have been regnant have truly ruled over the actions and thoughts of citizens. It is right that secularism should be given primacy of place in the context of the public conversation, and those religious believers who think that their religious beliefs should govern public policy and law should be peremptorily put in their place.

My point, however, is different than this. I am not arguing — how could I possibly so argue? — that religion should regain its privileged ascendency in the public sphere. What I am arguing is regarding the rationality of religious belief, and the possible arguments that can be raised in its defence. There is a fairly large contingent of philosophers of religion as well as theologians who argue, not only for the rationality of religious belief (over which there can be all sorts of dispute — that is in the nature of philosophy, and theology as well), but for the primary this-worldly character of religious belief and practice.

Take D.Z. Phillips’ The Concept of Prayer, for example, where he makes it clear that God is the unknown and unknowable centre of the religious life, and that religious ritual and practice, including prayer, must be understood against the primacy of this unknowing. Don Cupitt points out somewhere that our regard for our beloved dead is very similar to religious practice. We cannot change them. They are fixed in time and forever. They do not exist as the persons they were. And yet we pay them homage, and in doing so our own lives can be transformed. Religious people talk to God, and in doing so do not transform God, for after all God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But we can change, and in the process of encountering the unchangeability of the divine, we undergo change ourselves, perhaps only an acceptance of ourselves as we are (which Christians would call forgiveness and grace).

The point that I am making is that, for most of the time that I was a priest I did not speak of God as a real being over against us, while I did speak of God as the ground of our being only insofar as he is the unchangeable goodness against which we judge ourselves (and find ourselves judged in the encounter). At the same time, at the periphery of our believing, since we are, after all, a quizzical and incautious species, we not only tell stories about our god or gods, stories which in some sense reflect our own understanding of ourselves as this is provided by our encounter with the silent inscrutability of the divine, but we also try to reason with our understanding of what underlies the personal transformations that we experience as we encounter that inscrutable unknown in our own lives, an encounter and transformation that, in Christian parlance, is called grace and forgiveness. None of this is in any conflict with science. Indeed, it is foolish to think that religious believing should in any sense be in conflict with scientific discovery, just as Ronald Dworkin does not see his “religion without god” as in conflict with science either.

My break with the church came, not because of my suddenly realising that there is no god “out there” in some objective sense in the way that my car is in the garage (if gods are finite existences and part of the furniture of the universe, then they are, as Hart rightly says, not the god of Christianity). I never thought there was such a being. I broke with the church over the fact that the church thinks it can parlay the unknown and inscrutable God (the vanishing point towards which all our devotion and commitment is directed) into absolute moral rules. This kind of certainty is unwarranted and dangerous, and religious believers need to be reminded that at the heart of their belief is mystery, not certainty. And, surely, no matter how much science learns, at the heart of our lives as individuals there is a mystery, the very mystery of there being a universe and living beings like us and the rest of the biosphere in it. Our lives are lived between two nothingnesses, and are characterised by conflict, suffering and doubt (amongst other things like love and wonder, beauty and sublimity, as well). Within the scope of our lives there is much to wonder about, to question, to doubt, to fear, to regret, to be thankful for, to be mystified by. Religion’s function has always been, in a sense, the discipline of these two nihils, and a way of accepting the shortness and uncertainty of life in the context of the effort to live most fully in the light of an obligation that extends far beyond the individual. This seems to me still a worthy task.

Of course, you could say that those who think like this are hypocrites, but there is much confirmation for this dimension of religious belief within most religious traditions. Religions do not so much make knowledge claims (though, under the pressure of science, religions have been put on the defensive, so that they feel bound to cash in their faith in terms of such claims), as to provide an interpretive framework within which to craft a life story. As most spiritual directors would say, this is something that can only be achieved with great discipline and commitment. Notagod suggests that this can be found in any myth, and that may be true. But, wherever it is found, it has to be within a living tradition of some sort. What is needed is an interpretive framework for an entire life, and that kind of resource is not accessible to those reading the Greek myths, for instance, for they are no longer, as William James realised, living options for most people.

However, don’t get me wrong here. The position of the church over such things as assisted dying, the acceptance of gay people, and other issues of morality are enough to make the Christian myth inaccessible to me too. Even Hart recognises (in his book Atheist Delusions) that institutionalisation of Christianity has been largely a disaster. Religions are dangerous because they represent accumulations of power. For this reason liberal societies must place limits on institutions that can form power blocs that can be subversive of democracy. Liberals frown on that, but one of the insights of the Enlightenment was a warning against such aggregations of power, and the way that they can make democratic governance impossible. I reflect on that sometimes regarding about the Arab Spring in Egypt. Some people say that it is better to have an elected Islamist than a military dictator. Really?! I’m not sure. Democratic polities have grown up over centuries. Such a polity cannot be imposed on a society divided into power blocs, if those blocs are unwilling to compromise. Africa is riven by such divisions, and by the impossibility in many if not most African countries of developing indigenous forms of democracy. To my mind, this is the main reason for opposing religion and especially religion’s role in public discourse. The epistemic point, so far as fundamentalist religion goes, is unanswerable. But it is, I think, unfair to lump all people in that particular demographic, and to dismiss as nonsense all that religious writers (philosophers as well as theologians) are trying to do. Much of it is, of course, shallow and inconsequential, but it is important to remember that not all religious thought is of that quality.

Reply

Notagod

Posted March 2, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

As is the case with many christians and christian supporters, they haven’t experienced life that isn’t centered on a mythological father figure and fanciful stories. The things that you covet so strongly and frame as not available outside christianity, can really be found without the deception and manipulation inherent within all mythology. You seem not to acknowledge though I’m sure you are aware that many, if not most, atheists have experienced life from a “believer’s” perspective and found that life to be wanting, among other things, honesty, integrity, and sincerity. No matter what else can be attributed to christianity, the foundation is deceptive and manipulative.

Deception and manipulation is the foundation of religion no matter which of the millions of christian gods you choose to worship or support. It is ridiculous to expect a special treatment of each brand of christianity when each brand claims to worship the same god as all the others. The distinction and definition of ownership of different gods should be the responsibility of the creators and owners of those gods, don’t you think? If they aren’t willing to state that they have a different god, how should I be responsible for defining the character of those gods for them?

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Ben Goren

Posted March 2, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

Eric, the problem is that of the fruit of the poisoned tree.

The heart and soul of the religious quest for Truth, Justice, and the American Way is the principle that there is an intelligent agent who represents the ultimate moral authority. And, however you get to that position, there are some very obvious and very common conclusions that directly and shortly follow from it.

Most obvious, of course, is that you’d damned well better make sure you’ve aligned yourself properly with this ultimately moral agent.

How you’re supposed to do that is, obviously, a matter for no small debate, but the general — and, given the initial insanity, only logical conclusion, is that this agent somehow communicates to us what is ultimately moral.

This is the point at which it all breaks down, and spectacularly so. We know every such proposed agent is entirely fictitious, which means that everything that is ever proposed as the agent’s communications is a purely human fabrication. Some small few of those fabrications — but an increasing number over the generations — have come through attempts to independently derive morality through empirical observation, with the premise that that’s the method by which the agent communicates with us. But the overwhelming majority are clearly nothing more than cynical and exploitative efforts by sociopaths to appropriate for themselves the ultimate moral authority of the agent on whose behalf they speak.

And that’s why it’s so important that we, as a civilization, do away with the notion that there’s some powerful alien whose idea of morality we should accept. Even in the most generous case, should it be true that some powerful agent exists, since it is ultimately alien, there’s no way even in principle we could trust it with our own moral principles; as the Man who was about to be Served belatedly discovered, it could well be a cookbook.

Only humans are even theoretically capable of deciding for ourselves what is and isn’t in our own best interests. The abnegation of that responsibility by so many people represents the ultimate moral failing — indeed, the ultimate evil — that is possible for humanity.

That’s why it’s imperative that we cut this whole nonsense off at the root. As soon as it’s clear that, yes, Virginia, we really are on our own and it’s up to us to figure this out together, that’s when true progress towards civil society can finally take off. But as long as so many still cling to their imaginary friends…well, frankly, we’re divinely fucked.

Cheers,

b&

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Diane G.

Posted March 2, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

…without trying to see how religion fits into the context of an entire life project. So far, I see little evidence that anyone else is trying to provide this, and if atheism can’t, it is not going to be an alternative to religion, but merely a carping annoyance on the margins of religion.

Please see the Council for Secular Humanism, the American Humanist Association, the International Humanist and Ethical Union and many other similar efforts to do exactly what you say–the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, for instance, atheist Unitarian churches, etc.

Transitioning from a myth-ridden to a rationalist society is a multi-pronged effort; “new” (and most “old”) atheists are concerned with addressing people’s reasons & fear-motives for clinging to superstition, the first hurdle to be overcome before minds can be open to a secular ethics.

Reply

Ben Goren

Posted March 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

Also see much (but not all) of Europe as well as Japan — healthy societies with few believers and marginal church attendance. Rather, they do much of the same stuff that Americans do when Americans aren’t being religious: spend time with family and friends, enjoy the arts and sports (whether as spectator or participant), pursue hobbies — in general live life.

That’s where I don’t get this need to replace religion.

You don’t need religion or a church in order to sing in a choir or listen to one.

You don’t need either to have a book club or pot luck dinners.

Neither is necessary for a lecture series on ethics, or poetry slams, or heated debates on existential matters.

And you certainly don’t need either in order to have an extended community of family and friends.

All of that is clearly true even if either currently serves as a one-stop shopping experience for “all of the above” for a sizable minority of the American population.

So what’s left that people get out of churches and / or religion that they don’t already have lots of access to elsewhere? What, aside from the crazy mythological bullshit, is left that we’d miss?

Cheers,

b&

Reply

Diane G.

Posted March 2, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

Couldn’t agree more. (I just listed the organizations I did as apparently they fill the bill for some people; and some of the people involved have been trying awfully hard to do just what Eric says nobody’s doing.)

Reply

Ant (@antallan)

Posted March 2, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

I’m not sure I have much to add to the comments above, but perhaps I’d frame it in this way.

However “interpretive frameworks work for one’s understanding of what overall or overarching meaning may be given to a life”, religion as an interpretive framework is fatally flawed insofar as it makes a virtue of faith and denies that the world is wholly naturalistic.

I would suggest that the best way for people to “understand and interpret the very complex things that pertain to them as persons”, should be based on reason and evidence (science, broadly defined). Someone might that find myth or poetry, history or literature, art or music helps them to make sense of their life as whole, but how else can they distinguish helpful truths from comforting lies?

It may be that “liberal ‘believers’ can read myth as myth, and use it as an element in such an effort”, but your scare quotes suggest that you already realise that such people are no longer religious in any meaningful sense (see, e.g., Anthony Grayling’s Ideas that Matter), that they have left faith and supernaturalism behind.

(If they have not, then likely they are still reading myth as metaphor, and their efforts are thus undermined by the same fatal flaws.)

But atheism qua atheism shouldn’t even try to be an alternative to religion.

Sean Carroll said, “We don’t have final answers to the deep questions of meaning and fulfilment and what it means to lead a good life. Religion doesn’t have the final answers, either; but maybe it has learned something interesting over the course of thousands of years of thinking about these issues. Maybe there is some wisdom to be mined from religious traditions, even for naturalists (which everyone should be).”

Let’s be generous to religion and say that this is true. (Although superior wisdom might come from a multitude of seams.) But please God, don’t let it be Alain de Botton that’s in charge of the mining!

More seriously, don’t let anyone be in charge of the mining. That mining is a social project, not one for (new/gnu) atheism alone. (Or for any single atheist or cadre of atheists.)

It may be that secular humanism has already mined some of that wisdom. But no-one set out to provide all the nones in Europe and elsewhere with an alternative to religion — nones who are a majority in many of those countries (including the UK, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, if not the recent census) – and the majority of nones are not humanists. It seems they’ve just figured things out for themselves. (But, sadly, at least some of them have been indulging in other kinds of supernaturalism and similarly flawed projects.)

It behooves us, as atheists and scientific sceptics, to focus on weeding out the bad interpretive frameworks (i.e., those that have no basis in fact), to allow the good ones to flourish. But I don’t think it’s for us to say what the “alternative to religion” must be.

/@

Reply

Ant (@antallan)

Posted March 3, 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink

PS. “It seems they’ve just figured things out for themselves.” Of course, I was subconsciously channelling this.

“no longer religious in any meaningful sense (see, e.g., Anthony Grayling’s Ideas that Matter)” Grayling defines religion as: “a set of beliefs about a supernatural agent or agents, and a set of practices entailed by those beliefs, usually articulated as responses to the wishes or demands of the supernatural agent or agents in question.”

Reply

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

Well, Ant, what can I say? I’m not sure, for starters, what “wholly naturalistic” means. Showing that reality is wholly naturalistic is, I suspect, self-contradictory, since it would include a non-scientific (and hence, non-naturalistic) form of reason. That’s really the basis of my concern. So soon as you begin to look at life as a whole, with all the practical, moral, and aesthetic questions that arise when you do so, you are already deeply embedded in interpretive uses of reason, which naturalism (which is quickly taking on the tones of scientism) dismisses as non-empirical, not empirically verifiable, etc. Even humanists (to refer back to Diane G) recognise this. AC Grayling, for instance, in a recent book, speaks about free will as a foundational necessity for humanism, whatever science may say (apparently). All I am saying is that dismissing religion out of hand (and recall that I have not suggested any reference to the transcendent, or at least the supernatural in my remarks about religion) is merely a move in an ideological game in which the only meaning given to the word ‘truth’ is basically understood in terms of verificationism. This is an entirely unsatisfactory way of understanding what it means to be human; and your reference to the uses of faith really begs the question, because, while fundamentalism insists on faith as an epistemic stop gap, just as Boghossian claims, that is not the way it is normatively used in many religious/theological contexts.

As for your follow on note about Grayling, it is not at all clear that religion necessarily includes belief in a supernatural agent or agents, as I have already tried to make clear. As to the use of scare quotes around “believers”, the reason for this is (as just stated) that it is largely critics of religion who consider the belief in supernatural entities “out there” as definitive of religion. Indeed, as I see it, much of the controversy over religion consists in two solitudes talking past each other. Each characterises the other dismissively, with a kind of uncritical certitude, without any effort at all to try to understand what is being said. On the new atheist side there seems to be no recognition that contemporary theology begins with questions, doubts and a sense of mystery, and recognises itself as an entirely human work of interpretation. Gordon Kaufman, for instance, in his book In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology is very clear that religion is not just (or not even) a collection of beliefs in supernatural beings, but is primarily an attempt to understand what it means to be human, and how religious myths and metaphors may be used in order to provide the interpretive basis for doing this. The idea that science is adequate for doing this kind of interpretive work is almost as silly as supposing that science can replace literature and music, art, dance and theatre. The idea that mystery is simply a fillip for scientific enquiry and discovery simply ignores vast areas wherein science is simply of no help whatsoever in determining how human life makes sense, which is why I have consistently opposed the idea that scientific truth is the only sort of truth or knowledge that there is.

Reply

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink

I might add here, in a follow on note of my own, that it really is a bit tiresome when people express, with so much certitude, opinions about things where certitude is not likely to be found. New Atheist dismissals of religion, just like fundamentalist cavils over evolution, seem to me to be parallel ignorances, based on ideological certainties for which there is insufficient evidence. You may think I am making a 180 degree turn here, but that is not so. From early days I found the ideological certainty of scientism self-defeating, as self-defeating as the know-nothing fundamentalism to which, increasingly, it now seems, the new atheism was a response. I used to say that scientism was an accusation levelled against viewpoints not shared by the accuser, and that no one espoused scientism, until it seemed clear that that is exactly what many new atheists espoused. It is here that I found I could no longer follow. I am just as resistant to religious certainties.

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roqoco

Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

That’s all very well, but most people when they use the word religion are referring to the traditional beliefs represented by religious organisations, such as churches. And those organisations do generally make very specific claims about the existence of supernatural deities. And that’s the kind of religion that atheists don’t believe in on account, generally, of insufficient evidence for supernatural entities.

Mystery, sense of wonder etc. are not precluded by atheism, by definition, since they don’t imply the existence of deities. If people want to define theology so that it addresses these issues only and makes no particular claims about Gods then there is no reason why atheists can’t encompass it. However, given it’s traditional associations it would probably be wiser to use another name.

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Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

In response to roqoco:

“most people when they use the word religion are referring to the traditional beliefs represented by religious organisations, such as churches.”

Perhaps, though it is not clear what you mean by ‘most people’. Most religious people are unclear about the core teachings of their churches. So if an unreflective belief in supernatural entities is definitive of ordinary religion, it does not follow that all religion falls into that category. Some people who “believe in” evolution do not understand evolutionary theory in the slightest. Should responses to evolutionary theory be aimed at the evolutionary theory of the ordinary man or woman in the street, or to the more sophisticated and much more definitively founded beliefs of authorities in the field? Sure, if atheism wants to reject common, garden variety supernaturalism, by all means do so, but say that that is what you are doing, but don’t pretend, as you do so, that any last words have been said about religious belief, or religious forms of life.

Mark you, I’m not defending most religion. What I am saying is that the simplistic notion that many atheists have of religion and its beliefs is not representative of some of the best that religious writers have said. Much religion is a mass phenomenon, and intellectually lazy and uncouth. Yes it is. But why take that as definitive of religious interpretations of human life?

To be honest, it seems to me that the new atheism is largely aimed at American fundamentalism, which deserves fairly short shrift. That’s probably why Dawkins spends most of his time flogging his books in the United States. But at the same time he dismisses what might be called “interpretive” types of theology as evidence of hypocrisy. They should believe, he thinks, as fundamentalists believe, because, in some sense, this is what religion really is. He’s said it often enough. But this is like shooting ducks in a barrel, and defining your opposition out of existence. The non-realist Anglican isn’t even religious, let alone a Christian. Well, maybe so, but if he really wanted to oppose religious ways of interpreting life he should dig a bit deeper. This is my problem. I don’t care a fig about fundamentalism, except insofar as it is a danger to civil society and human rights. Intellectually, it doesn’t exist. But if intellectually fundamentalism doesn’t rate on the intellectual significance meter, then atheism that opposes it doesn’t register either. That’s why I have almost entirely stopped reading atheist blogs, because they are repetitive and uninteresting, going over and over the same ground with the same mind-numbing declarations of certainty. Fundamentalists pay them no mind, and those who understand religion differently will find most that is said on them irrelevant, as I increasingly do. What most people believe is simply irrelevant to the question whether religion is or is not rational or can be understood in rational ways. That is the only point I wanted to make.

I hold no brief for religion, and find that institutional religion intervenes in public policy disputes in unhelpful and often disastrous ways, but it seems incredible to me that it can be dismissed so simply as some atheists think. Religious language is far more complex than that and serves more purposes than is imagined by so many who no longer believe, sometimes for laughably jejune reasons. I do not think this is particularly helpful in the long run, and find myself no longer able to participate in it, though at first I misunderstood the main motivations underlying the new atheist rejection of religious belief.

Reply

Tulse

Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

“…the simplistic notion that many atheists have of religion and its beliefs is not representative of some of the best that religious writers have said.”

Eric, the vast majority of adult atheists were brought up in a religious faith, so I think it’s unfair to say that our notions are “simplistic” — they are largely informed by our experiences as active believers. When I was a Catholic, what was taught in Mass and at Sunday School was not “the best that religious writers have said”, but was instead that Jesus was born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and that gays are going to hell.

“Much religion is a mass phenomenon, and intellectually lazy and uncouth. Yes it is. But why take that as definitive of religious interpretations of human life?”

Because that is how religion impacts on human life for the vast majority of people. If you prefer an academic debate about some rarified form of innocuous belief, that’s fine, but that’s philosophy and not sociology.

“What most people believe is simply irrelevant to the question whether religion is or is not rational or can be understood in rational ways.”

Perhaps, but that view is itself irrelevant to the way that religion impacts the world. I don’t see the point in arguing over some abstract, idealized representation of one particular variety of religious belief when, on the ground, actual religious beliefs of actual believers are doing so much harm.

Reply

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

Precisely, that’s philosophy, not sociology. I am the last person to deny the damaging impact that religion, as a social phenomenon, has on society. That’s why I am agin it. But that says nothing at all about the rationality or truth (or whatever) of religious beliefs, or as to their appropriate meaning. Fundamentalism is a well-known deformation of religious belief, not a good example of it. Defeating fundamentalism is defeating a simplistic, not to say stupid, version of religious belief. That it has terrible social consequences in unquestionable, and for that reason alone needs to be opposed. But atheists are claiming more than a response to the social impact of religious (or some religious) beliefs. They seek to say what is true. And that’s the province, in this case, of philosophy (at least partly), and needs to be attended to. Oppose fundamentalism and other simplistic forms of religious believing all you like — even as an active priest I was opposed and criticised it strongly — but don’t suppose that this puts paid to religious belief in any but a superficial way.

Tulse

Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

“Fundamentalism is a well-known deformation of religious belief, not a good example of it.”

Says who? I think it’s silly to demand that atheists now act as judges on theology in addition to everything else. Why do you get to say that fundamentalism is a “deformation”? More to the point, how are atheists supposed to react when you say that but fundamentalists declare that it is other views that are “deformed”?

It’s not the job of atheism to adjudicate theological disagreements — we have to take what people claim at face value. And as far as New Atheism goes (to the extent there is such a thing), one main feature seems to be a focus on religion as actually professed, rather than the airless, abstract, academic versions that few people actually believe.

If you want to argue that there may be some highly philosophical and refined version of astrology, or homeopathy, or leprechaunology, which can be defended as rational, well, that’s fine, but those views have no practical import. What is at issue, at least in my view, is the rationality of actual beliefs and their impact on the world.

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

“I think it’s silly to demand that atheists now act as judges on theology in addition to everything else. Why do you get to say that fundamentalism is a “deformation”?”

First of all, isn’t that what atheists are? Judges of theology and other expressions of religious belief?

Second, historically, fundamentalism is the odd man out, so it is, from an historical point of view, a deformation, and what is more, obviously false. There are more sophisticated expressions of religious belief, and, while they are no more likely to be decisively refuted than atheism is likely to be confirmed, there is at least more to be said once the superficially destructive work of the new atheists is done. That’s all.

And, as for being able to state evolutionary theory. Yes, I think I can too, but lots of people who think they know what is implied by the neo-Darwinian synthesis do not understand it, and many people are ill-equipped, whilst they know the outline of evolutionary theory quite well, to deal with criticisms of it. Hey, I’m not a believer; I just think atheism has to be a bit more sophisticated. Simplistic denials are not going to go very far, especially in a world that is falling apart at the seams. Religions have terrible social consequences, but some of them have good social consciences, and it is only fair to make a distinction here, as well as to distinguish arguments which are decisive from those that simply are not. There is a lot of stuff being done in philosophy of religion, some of it by atheists who take religion seriously. There are students of religion, like Joseph Hoffmann, who are also defenders of more sophisticated conceptions of religion, and yet are atheists and humanists for all that. All I am saying is that if the new atheism is a kind of know-nothing scientism (parallel to the equally troubling know-nothing fundamentalism), then for wisdom we will have to look elsewhere.

By the way, your “pop” responses are as childish as a lot of the other things that you say. Grow up.

Ben Goren

Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

“First of all, isn’t that what atheists are? Judges of theology and other expressions of religious belief?”

No.

Well, of course, certainly, some are, but huge numbers of especially Europeans and Japanese simply never gave it any thought, and modern religions are no more significant nor interesting nor sophisticated to them as the newspaper’s daily horoscope.

And that’s the fundamental point that I think lots of us are trying to make: we think the European model of atheism, in which religion simply isn’t a factor in daily life yet people still have strong communities (stronger than typical American ones) and fulfilling lives (with higher GINI scores than us). And they didn’t get there by manufacturing atheist churches, but simply by coming to their senses.

“Hey, I’m not a believer; I just think atheism has to be a bit more sophisticated.’”

What you’re trying to do is herd cats. “Good luck with that,” as they say.

You yourself have done no small amount to help build a better religion-free society with your work at promoting the radical notion that we should have as much compassion towards each other as we do our cats and dogs. We need more people like you doing more work like that to demonstrate how to live (and, eventually, die) rationally than we need people trying to model a religion-free society after our current religion-infested one.

Atheism can’t be a better religion than religion; it’s a category error.

But individual atheists can and do build meaningful secular societies, which is all that really matters in the end.

And, of course, if you start up a new choir of mostly atheists and some religious person wants to join you because you sing better than the choir at the church, you’d be most welcoming — and that’d be one more brick moved from the dysfunctional sacred society to a modern secular one.

Cheers,

b&

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

Thanks for your comments, Ben. There are a couple of points that need to be made in response.

First, I’m not trying to herd cats. I saying that there is a place for more sophisticated discourse about religion, and I’m not sure that this has really been achieved by the soi-disant new atheists yet. There is a lot of sophisticated atheism, but there seems to be a tendency to by-pass this in favour of a more populist approach. And while populist approaches have their place, there comes a time when more sophisticated takings account of religion needs to be made. But I’m not saying by any means that all atheists should be involved in this more academic task.

I guess my concern is that there are already better voices in the choir, and they have been given pretty short shrift in favour of a more (as I said) populist approach. But when this approach becomes, as I think it has a tendency to do, a kind of paean of praise to science, marginalising all other forms of knowledge, including that accessible by way of imagination, and even, in some cases, religious reflection, then I think a serious wrong turn has been made.

You say that atheism can’t be a substitute religion, but then, in a sense, it really can. This is what humanism is, by any measure, and it has offered itself as such a substitute for a long time.

My comments began as a remark about David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God which, whatever else you say about it, is a tour de force of reason. Maybe not science, but of reason. And no one reading it can simply dismiss him as in some sense pathological, as I think Hart himself tends to do with the new atheism. I don’t think you could call what he does an epistemic pathology, as Boghossian would. It is in this spirit that I have offered my comments. We do need to take account of what sophisticated religious believers are doing and saying. Simply dismissing them with clever-clever remarks won’t do. Doing so is itself a betrayal of reason, in my book, and it is, to a certain extent, because of this growing tendency to a kind of irrationalism masquerading as science that I have more or less shut down my blog.

Ben Goren

Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

“I saying that there is a place for more sophisticated discourse about religion, and I’m not sure that this has really been achieved by the soi-disant new atheists yet.”

But isn’t that just the Courtier’s Reply? (I’m sure you know the one.)

“And while populist approaches have their place, there comes a time when more sophisticated takings account of religion needs to be made.”

Why?

The foundational premises are hopelessly wrong, so we know that whatever that’s actually useful that’s associated with religion doesn’t have its origins in religion and isn’t in any way dependent on religion.

Sure, if you get a kick out of pig-wrestling — as so many of us here do — then, by all means, hop in the sty and get dirty. But there’s certainly no practical reason to do so. We don’t need to do a molecular analysis of the tree’s cambium in order to know that its fruit is poisoned. Sure, that sort of thing is of academic interest, but there’s absolutely no additional culinary knowledge to be gained.

And I don’t see any significant strategic nor tactical advantage to that sort of thing, either, except, of course, possibly for entertainment values. The majority of Americans who think we don’t share a common ancestor with the rest of life on the planet have no need of sophisticated religion, so what are we going to do with it? Convince a few obscure theologians to forego their pensions because we’ve convinced them that their theology isn’t as sound as they make it seem? Then what?

“But when this approach becomes, as I think it has a tendency to do, a kind of paean of praise to science, marginalising all other forms of knowledge, including that accessible by way of imagination, and even, in some cases, religious reflection, then I think a serious wrong turn has been made.”

This is also the heart of the debate going on elsewhere on this site about the value of philosophy. And it’s my firm position, along with many (but certainly not all) of the other regular here, that imagination is very important, yes, but you don’t actually know anything until you test your imaginings against reality — and that process of testing and the knowledge gained therein is what constitutes science. And, yes, we’d assert that anything else you think you might know but haven’t actually tested…well, you’re only fooling yourself and you don’t actually know it. This is because, time and again, our imaginations have tricked us into unfounded confidence, even certainties, that turned out hopelessly worng. No prime mover is responsible for motion; rather, inertia and gravity work together to keep the planets in their orbits. The Luminiferous Aether was a loverly theory; such a shame it had to be put to the test. And, of course, the gods and all things supernatural.

Indeed, the hard part isn’t imagining things; that’s the easy part. The hard part is sorting out amongst all the things we imagine which are useful and which are mere playful fantasies.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy, so long as you remain consciously aware that that’s all they are. That includes science; before the CERN team confirmed the Higgs, every physicist you would have spoken to would have been most careful to explain that we well might not find it and what it would mean either way, even if she was in the midst of writing a dissertation hypothesizing future physics based on an assumption of the future confirmation of the Higgs. And half of said dissertation would be caveats about how failure to find the Higgs would invalidate this or that bit of her work.

“We do need to take account of what sophisticated religious believers are doing and saying.”

Yes, agreed absolutely — but not by drinking their KoolAid and chasing them down their own rabbit holes.

Even if they’re absolutely sincere in their delusions, they still remain deluded. And we do neither them nor ourselves any flavors by patronizing them by treating their delusions with dignity. They’re (mostly) responsible adults who can and must be prepared to take full and direct criticism of their firmly-held beliefs, and to fail to do so is as insulting as failing to give somebody the opportunity to zip up open trousers.

The damage has already been done by the mere fact that they’ve failed to align their beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of empirical observation. Only science is capable of curing that illness, and not helping to administer that treatment, even if it might hurt, is as irresponsible as failing to set and splint a broken bone.

Of course, every patient has the right to refuse treatment…but we’re also now starting to get into serious public health concerns akin to those related to infectious diseases. We’ve got to protect ourselves from Typhoid Mary somehow, after all. And, since there’s nothing but cognitive discomfort as a negative result from application of this particular cure, why should we even think to avoid broadcasting it as far and as wide as is reasonable?

Cheers,

b&

Tulse

Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

“First of all, isn’t that what atheists are? Judges of theology and other expressions of religious belief?”

No, not judges of the quality of the theology, what is “correct” versus “deformed”. We’re not interested in some sectarian argument over which is the “truest” form of a particular religious belief. What we are evaluating is the quality of the arguments from a secular point of view.

“Second, historically, fundamentalism is the odd man out, so it is, from an historical point of view, a deformation, and what is more, obviously false.”

“False” in what way? I’d argue that in terms of
its philosophical commitments Catholicism is just as “false”. And arguably fundamentalism is at least more philosophically consistent with its initial axioms than most other theologies. Honestly, I don’t see it the job of atheists to pick and choose among equally silly beliefs.

“There are more sophisticated expressions of religious belief.”

“Sophisticated” in what way? Again, you’re using terms as if it’s just obvious what they mean and how they get applied to belief systems, but that seems based purely on bias and preconceptions.

Is believing the earth was created in 6 days 6000 years ago any more philosophically absurd than to suggest that a man turned water into wine and rose from the dead? Or that an angel provided golden plates describing the arrival of Israelites in the New World? Or that an evil being named Xenu cast aliens into volcanoes? Don’t all of those claims involve in principle similar violations of our understanding of the world?

As I see it, part of what is “new” about New Atheism is a refusal to grant respect to traditional religious beliefs just because they are traditional.

Ben Goren

Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

As I see it, part of what is “new” about New Atheism is a refusal to grant respect to traditional religious beliefs just because they are traditional.

Indeed — no Christian would think twice about mocking the Egyptian myths about Horus and Set with the semen lettuce wrap and the rest. But making remarks about enchanted gardens with talking animals and angry wizards, talking plants that give magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero, and zombies with an intestine-fondling fetish and that’s deemed disrespectful.

Sorry. The whole point of atheism is the recognition that nothing is sacred, even if it’s traditionally been spoken of in very somber tones. Ideas have to compete on their merits, and those merits are judged by a rational analysis of empirical observation. You may think your invisible friends aren’t silly, but the mere fact that you still believe in them at best entitles those beliefs to pity and more likely scorn, neither of which is compatible with respect.

Again, the outsider test is applicable. Imagine a modern-day revival of ancient Egyptian paganism that had a sacred ritual of serving a meal of semen wrapped in lettuce, perhaps with mayonnaise as a substitute. Is that really any less bizarre than serving play-pretend flesh and blood in the physical form of crackers and grape juice? How is either undeserving of mockery?

b&

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

Thanks for the discussion. This will be my last comment on the subject. There is very little distance between some forms of humanism and religion. Why I continue to thematise religion is because many people still adopt a religious outlook on life (such as, for example, Ronald Dworkin, and I regret that he did not get the chance to enlarge on his Swiss lectures which are now published as Religion without God). Religion need not be theistic, and some are not, such as Jainism and some forms of Buddhism.

Diane, you ask whether it is more ridiculous to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, than to believe that someone walked on water or turned water into wine. Yes it is, because those who believe the 6,000 year age of the earth obviously hold this to be factually true (and, as I said, this is simply false). What is meant by turning water into wine or walking on water is less clear. Indeed, there are plenty of clues in the gospels that these are more in the nature of myth and symbol (to assimilate Jesus in some way to the Yahweh of the Jewish scriptures), than factual claims about contrary-to-fact events. But this is something that must be looked at from a critical hermeneutical perspective, and for that more familiarity with the terms of this perspective in contemporary critical historical study of the Bible is needed. Religious understanding of the world is far more highly nuanced than you seem to think. You may still want to reject it, but not treating it on its own terms is to fail to answer the case made by those who understand religious belief in these terms. And if you can’t tell the difference (this goes for Tulse and Ben as well) between the know-nothing insistence of the fundamentalist that biblical texts are literally true, and those who use sophisticated philological and other techniques to discern the meaning of ancient texts, then there is no place where the present discussion can go.

Ben tells us that no Christian would hesitate to mock Egyptian religious beliefs. That may be so, but those who know the most about them would not mock, but try to understand what it was about those beliefs that made them compelling to the early Egyptians. And they would not hesitate to point out that (1) these beliefs at one point were subject to internal criticism, and replaced by a short-lived monotheism, and (2) that Judaism recognised a relationship between its beliefs in one God and Egypt. The point, however, for most thoughtful Christians, would be to seek to understand the diversity of religious beliefs, and try to discern what it is about religious beliefs that have been so persistent over millennia, and what this has to tell us about religious belief and practice now.

As to the claim that “Ideas have to compete on their merits, and those merits are judged by a rational analysis of empirical observation,” this goes without saying (so long as you recognise that rational analysis and empirical observation are distinct critical tools), and contemporary theologians make every effort to subject religious belief to examination, criticism, and very often revision. Gordon Kaufmann, for instance, speaks of religions as human imaginative constructs for which religious believers are responsible. Don Cupitt has spent a lifetime trying to understand what religion is for, how it functions, and how Christianity can be reinterpreted in ways that make it conformable to the worldview of today. Lloyd Geering, in New Zealand, writes about Christianity without God, and, though tried for heresy by his own (Presbyterian) church (despite being the head of a theological college) was exonerated. There is lots of very sophisticated work done by theologians today, and it is more sophisticated, thoughtful and morally responsible than the know-nothing fundamentalism that insists, in the teeth of the evidence, that humans and dinosaurs shared the earth, and that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old. To lump these know-nothings together with someone like Lloyd Geering or Don Cupitt, or Dominic Crossan is foolish and irresponsible. It is foolish because the intellectual sophistication of the latter is obvious to anyone who reads them, and irresponsible, for it is a claim made, just as fundamentalism is, in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.

As I say, this will be my last comment on this. It is clear that, in the presence of this kind of uninformed rejection of contemporary theology and philosophy of religion, there is not much point in saying anything more.

Ben Goren

Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

“What is meant by turning water into wine or walking on water is less clear.”

Eric, we keep hearing variations on this theme from “sophisticated” theologians as well as those like you who defend them…but, frankly, I just don’t see these claims as being backed up by the evidence.

As a professional musician, I’ve played more church gigs than I can count at churches all across the spectrum. And, even in the most sophisticated of them, they literally do believe that Jesus literally turned the water into actual wine and that he set foot on wet water and did not sink.

I’ve heard sermons by the Jesuit head of the region’s largest Jesuit parish at a church that hosts the most respected Catholic high school in the area…in which he made quite clear that it is good to have faith because Thomas literally thrust his hand into Jesus’s side.

And I’ve heard sermons by the pastor of a very politically liberal UCC church that’s made up mostly of urban professionals (including university faculty) and does great things for social justice…in which he expressed painful longing to wish he had been amongst the Israelites when YHWH moved amongst them like the wind so he could personally connect with him as they did. And, if I remember right, he made no hint of the allegorical nature of the water-into-wine miracle when telling that story at a wedding ceremony.

And I don’t think I’ve ever done an Easter gig in which Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the grave and appear personally in the flesh to the Disciples, or a Christmas gig in which Gabriel didn’t personally Announce to Mary that she was with Child.

Ben tells us that no Christian would hesitate to mock Egyptian religious beliefs. That may be so, but those who know the most about them would not mock, but […]

That’s just the point! You’re asking us to judge the majority of Americans who think that humans were magically created by Jesus by the standards of an half a dozen (at most) “sophisticated” Christian theologians with a deep understanding of Egyptology, when nobody even knows who they are or would recognize their concept of Christianity.

Should we not judge Catholics by Catholic doctrine because the Reformation somehow made Protestantism more “sophisticated”? Should we not judge Lutherans by Lutherain doctrine because Joe Smith’s much more “sophisticated” revelations rendered it moot? Should we not judge Morons by Smith’s hallowed works because Hubbard’s own “sophisticated” told us that it’s all just illusions from body thetan infestation anyway?

There’s really only a very few practical approaches we can take, all empirical.

We can go by official publications, such as the various variations on the Credo or the Catechism or statements of faith or the like. In that case, the literalism is clear and indisputable.

We can go by that which is preached to the masses by those in authority, again, in which case, the literalism is clear and indisputable.

We can go the statistical route and survey believers for what they themselves say they believe, once again, in which case, the literalism is clear and indisputable.

The only way to get to a conclusion other than literalism is to limit your survey to an insignificant and obscure population whose main function is to serve as a source of propaganda — apologetic theologians. And, frankly, that makes as much sense as trusting press releases from politicians under indictment. Sure, they’re not entirely devoid of facts, but you’d have to be insane to take anything in them at face value without independent verification.

Cheers,

b&

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

Sorry, Ben, but what you have just shown is how much you do not know. No problem there, of course: we’re all ignorant of something. But there’s no point discussing with someone who thinks he knows it all already. Read a few non-apologetic, constructive theologians, and then try to say what you’ve just said. Until then — this is the point, sadly — there’s scarcely a connecting dot between you and theology. Oh, sure, there’s all sorts of “sophisticated” theology that’s just apologetics by another name, but then there’s a lot of other stuff that is being done in which the tradition is tormented and tortured until it begins to appear that religion is so much different than the literalism that you think religion must be tied to. But there’s scarcely any point in discussing any of this if there is an unwillingness to learn. Read some Cupitt or Kaufman (Gordon), if you like, and see how far you are away from capturing even a whiff of what they are saying. But don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. By all means oppose the silly fundamentalists, of whatever stripe, and the canonical beliefs of most religions are stated in literal terms; but don’t suppose you’ve thus put paid to the religious quest, which is something else altogether. It can even be carried out by atheists, and perhaps all who carry it out faithfully are atheists at heart, even though they speak in terms of God. A bit of epistemic humility, as well as openness, is always advisable. Truly my last comment.

Ben Goren

Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

But my point, Eric, is that the leadership and the laity stand in stark contrast to the sophisticated theologians…and that, not only is there no reliable objective method to resolve such differences (Why should a small group of theologians get a louder voice than, say, polygamous Morons?), any objective method that one would normally apply would inevitably discount the sophisticated theologians as irrelevant. They’re a negligibly tiny fraction of the population, they’re virtually unknown and generally ignored when known, they’ve got no official standing, and their positions are diametrically contradicted by official positions.

Even before we get to the substance of the arguments of the theologians, we first have to establish their relevance — and I simply don’t see how that can be done, aside from propagandistic arguments.

Answer me honestly: what percentage of weekly churchgoers would recognize the names of Cupitt or Kaufman? For that matter, what percentage of practicing ordained clergy would? And, regardless of name recognition, how many of both groups, if presented a characteristic sample from either theologian, would agree that the theologian’s arguments are a significant factor in that person’s personal faith?

You can cite the most brilliant and moving and sophisticated theologian imaginable, but it doesn’t mean anything unless he’s actually representative of religion. Not theology, but religion.

Cheers,

b&

Tulse

Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

Is that really any less bizarre than serving play-pretend flesh and blood in the physical form of crackers and grape juice? How is either undeserving of mockery?

And how are we to judge the relative “sophistication” of each? Which is less “deformed”?

Ben Goren

Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

That’s exactly it. One could employ a scientific analysis and rationally analyze relevant objective evidence — in which case the obvious conclusion is that both are batshit fucking insane. Philosophically, however, there’s no way to distinguish — or, rather, you can come up with any philosophical justification you want for any conclusion you desire, which amounts to the same thing.

Which comes right back to the question of honesty. If you’d barely be capable of holding your ridicule and contempt for the Neo-Egyptians for their ritual, in what sense is it honest to smile and pretend to respect the Christians for theirs?

b&

roqoco

Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

pop >

Reply

roqoco

Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

So the “real” religionists are some kind of elite cognoscenti of intellectuals and everyone else who thinks that religion is about the doctrine of their particular church are just misguided? Sounds a little like the Da Vinci Code. Of course this intellectual fraternity, whoever they might be, wouldn’t include the catholic church, or do you imagine that the pope and his cardinals don’t actually believe in God, but just get some wishy washy feeling of awe and mystery, whenever the topic is brought up?

And it may be that over here in the UK some of the clergy have lost their faith, but no doubt they reason that it’s better to stay put and not lose their stipend as well. Faith can be very tenacious if your living depends on it.

Reply

Eric MacDonald

Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

Now you’re just being silly. The point is that the attempt to make a rational case for religion is not being made by ordinary believers, just as the case made for atheism is not made simply by those who, for whatever reason, disbelieve. If you want to oppose religion, you have to give its strongest case, not the beliefs of those who do not reason about religion. In the same way, evolution needs to be defended by those who really know what is entailed in the theory, not by those who pick it up incidentally by listening to science programs on TV.

Of course, faith can be very tenacious if your living depends on it, but those who make a living from it can also understand their faith in ways established by theologians whose living does not depend on any particular theological method or conclusions. There are lots of radical theologians as well as radical believers in the church (to take only the church as an example), and there are many ordinary believers who, given the chance, do in fact welcome more liberal understandings of their faith.

But I did not simply dismiss believers with a simplistic faith, though I would hold their leaders to account, and I am not saying that the only “real” religionists are … etc. This is really jejune, as I said.

Reply

roqoco

Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

pop >

roqoco

Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

@Eric: The theory of evolution is a clear scientific theory and does not need experts to either state it or understand it, at least in it’s fundamental form. I am not an evolutionary biologist, but I can articulate it’s main tenets, as I expect can you. But what is this theory of religion that is so much more compelling and different from the beliefs of the vast majority of religious believers? You don’t in fact say and neither do you name anyone who is capable of articulating it, or any place, where it is articulated.

The word “religion” has a meaning in the English language and here is a dictionary definition:

“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

It should be apparent then, that there is more than one religion and since they are all different any attempt to formulate a theory of religion that encompasses the specific claims of all of them is doomed to failure. It should also be apparent that most religions involve some kind of supernatural agency, i.e. a God, and that is the part of religion that atheists (and new atheists) specifically do not believe in. So, if your argument isn’t just an equivocation on what the word religion means, then that is the part that you need to defend in order to convince atheists to change their minds. So far attempts to defend this aspect of religions have resoundingly failed and, of course, if you do know of some body of thought that does justify the existence of supernatural entities, then lay it on! And, if there is some other aspect of atheism, that you feel all atheists (or new atheists) share and that you think sophisticated theologians have refuted, then you need to make that explicit.

Reply

Diane G.

Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

“Even humanists (to refer back to Diane G) recognise this.”

“Only humans are even theoretically capable of deciding for ourselves what is and isn’t in our own best interests.”

That last is pretty much the definition of humanism. I’m amazed that you felt like there was any need for an “even” in the first sentence I quoted.

The mystery to me is why you’re clinging to the word “religion.” What you’re propounding sounds totally humanistic to me, and to complain that no one else is doing anything like what you describe as necessary is to completely overlook a long tradition of exactly what you’re talking about. Have you ever looked at the work of Paul Kurtz?

I’m being a bit of a Devil’s advocate here, as I’m a very unherdable cat, so I mostly avoid the organized Humanist associations, but there was a time in my life when I needed to know that there was a non-religious (read: non-supernatural) framework for living an ethical life, and was delighted to learn of all the humanistic initiatives throughout history and especially the contemporaneous ones. (A history which, of course, includes a separate branch called religious humanism.)

AFAIC humanist (little “h”) is what we all are once we give up supernatural beliefs.

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  1. gbjames
    9 March 2014 at 12:34

    Bottom line, as I read it is this, Eric…

    You seem to desperately want to rescue some special something from the world of religion. And, sadly, the world of religion, as it appears in the real-world societies we inhabit on our little blue rock, is a grab-bag of horrors. Gnu atheists react to the bag of horrors demanding that we chuck the sack overboard and be done with it. You agree with us that the horrors in the sack exist but worry that some special gem is going to be lost in the drink.

    And it annoys you that gnus don’t appreciate the gem. We’re “uninformed”. We don’t understand that while believing the world to be 6000 years old is obviously a false belief, converting water to wine is something very different.

    I guess I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand this profound distinction. And I’m definitely too unsophisticated to understand the appeal of “…the religious quest, which is something else altogether. It can even be carried out by atheists, and perhaps all who carry it out faithfully are atheists at heart, even though they speak in terms of God”. I think the only person such a statement makes sense to is one who would give almost anything to recover the warm-fuzzy feeling he/she used to get at the worshiping hut before recognizing the whole thing was a con.

  2. 9 March 2014 at 13:23

    Thanks, Eric. I have not finished reading that comment stream, but I’m bookmarking it so that I can continue.

    I never thought that you really were a fit for New Atheism. I know that I am not. That’s probably why I tend to say that I am non-religious rather than atheist.

    For myself, I have no regrets for the time I spent in religion. I am not angry at the religious or at the churches. I confine anger to those who would try to impose their crazy ideas on me. And I have sensed that your view was somewhat similar.

    A note to gbjames: I never believed the earth was 6000 years old. I grew to doubt the miracles long before I left religion. Yet, I don’t think religion is necessarily irrational. Paying lip service to belief in miracles might, for some people, be a cost worth paying because it admits them to a community that provides value.

    I guess I’m an adherent of the gospel of Rodney King (as in “why can’t we all just get along”).

  3. 9 March 2014 at 15:34

    Hello Eric,

    Thanks for sharing the comment stream. Having read yours and others responses to the post, do I understand you correctly, that for our criticism of religion, we should deal with the arguments of Plantinga and Swinburne and the rest of those faculty who talk about ground of being and so on?

    Don’t you think, as those sophisticates that you mention are mainly in academia, their arguments are most of the time dealt with by those in academia? Maybe this is a very simplistic view that you reject. I haven’t read Hart’s book but will in due course but I have read an article where he dismisses atheism as a religion and if his book is written in the same manner, I am not sure there would be much to expect.

    The people I interact with daily are the sort that believe Mo met with an angel of god, that the universe was created in a few days. How would you suggest I respond to such? Do you propose that I first refer them to more nuanced religious views before I can say what I believe of their opinions?

    On a different, I mostly don’t call myself atheist not for any reason except that it doesn’t at one go tell someone about what I believe.

    And I agree with Neil why can’t we just get along?

  4. 9 March 2014 at 15:35

    sub

  5. couchloc
    9 March 2014 at 15:36

    Again I find myself in basic agreement with Eric’s view of the issues. My reactions to new atheism have always been mixed as a philosopher. On the one hand, they have expanded our reach by reaching millions of people in a way that atheists hadn’t done before. More people have read Dawkins and Harris than have read J. L. Mackie. And they have pointed out the social consequences of religion in the practical context in which these concerns arise, which is not usually the focus of academics and philosophers of religion. For all this we should be greatful and recognize their impact. On the other hand, the new atheists are a very mixed bag intellectually. They have appealed to weak arguments and defended views that aren’t accurate about religion. They have also said a range of things about religion which are not always consistent with each other in overall import. A good example of this character of new atheism comes out of the dialogue Eric recounts above. Several people defend new atheism by saying that it’s focused on popular fundamentalist forms of religion and that their lack of focus on liberal forms religion is well placed. But here is what Dawkins wrote in his book in fact (p57): “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural…..” If that isn’t a broad claim I don’t know what is. New atheists can’t defend their lack of sophistication by trying to narrow their subject matter to popular religion.

  6. Steersman
    9 March 2014 at 21:47

    Eric:

    … the unknown and inscrutable God (the vanishing point towards which all our devotion and commitment is directed)

    I rather like that – the point on the horizon where the parallel rails of the track that we’re on “virtually” meet. Somewhat analogous to someone’s paraphrase of, I think, Tillich to the effect that “God” is sort of a catch-all for our “ultimate concerns”. Why I tend to the view that while atheists in general, and new atheists in particular, make a credible case against the fundamentalist and literalist interpretations and views, many of them have gone overboard in rejecting any and all aspects of the “religious” or deistic ones. As the Canadian priestess Greta Vosper put it a few years ago:

    Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the [literal] word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are the ones who must throw that monster out with the bathwater. [MacLean’s, March 31, 2008]

    Arguably the fundamentalists are making a fetish out of the bathwater while many of the New Atheists seem bound and determined to throw out both the bathwater, quite understandably, and the baby. And while I can sympathize with the former, it seems that there is in fact some not inconsiderable value in many of the perspectives that come in under the rubric of “religion” or theology. For instance, I think most would agree that we would be impoverished if we were to excise all references to Greek and Roman mythology that motivates and undergirds such useful parables as Prometheus. As the American moralist Philip Wylie put it many years ago, something echoed by Dawkins in his The God Delusion, there is within the Bible much that is “profound psychology and exquisite logic”. Though the trick is, of course, to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    In any case, I’m happy to see that you haven’t entirely abandoned the field.

  7. Egbert
    9 March 2014 at 22:16

    Well Eric, good luck on your journey beyond new atheism. I do hope you can start up some fresh blog where we can once again, hold some kind of thoughtful discussion about the state of religion, or the state of atheism, without everything having to be framed in terms of science or where religion is blamed as the source of all problems.

  8. paxton
    10 March 2014 at 09:07

    Eric, As is so often the case, the question of rational religion seems to turn on what we mean by religion.

    For me, the most compelling religious movements, represented to some degree in most of the major religions, is the quest to discard the distorting lens of egoism through some sort of union with the rest of the universe, which may be conceived as ‘god’, or creation. In a way, philosophy and science are such quests, attempting to temper the subjectivity of the self with objective standards of reason and evidence. Both require faith from the adherents because they replace the immediacy of perceived reality with abstractions of universality. But both science and reason are reductionist. They falsify error by restricting the field of inquiry. They are unsatisfying to many because they focus on the parts and not the whole. They are essentially analytic; they may aim to be synthetic, but they are limited in both their models and in the data available to test them. They are necessary but not sufficient as a framework for an “authentic” life.

    Religion, at its best, has sought to get beyond the limitations of evidence and reason, which are never sufficient to guide understanding or action, through psychological techniques which may get us in touch with insights and wisdom which science and philosophy cannot attain. The danger of course is that these psychological techniques may be used to further distort, rather than clarify.

    Today we are better able to understand our connection with the rest of creation, thanks to the work of Darwin, Wallace and other scientists. We are not a separate creation, but biologically related to all living things. Whether two or 2,250 we all share ancestors within the last 100,000 years. Our survival depends on millions of cooperative bacteria in our guts as well as thousands of other species in our environment. There is much for religions to work with, but they must first clean out the historically accumulated detritus that no longer stands up to reality. The new atheists don’t have all the answers but they are doing vital work of creative destruction–exposing the false gods that enable the worst aspects of religion to squeeze out the best aspects.

    As you review your previous posts, recall the liberal Scottish minister who risked punishment from his church because he supported assisted dying. I believe you took your leave of him at the time. Maybe you would feel differently now? Do you really want to reject the new atheists who are doing much to push Christians in a positive direction, i.e. to abandon untenable superstitions, because they don’t offer fully satisfying alternatives to religion?

  9. 10 March 2014 at 11:19

    GBJ. You write: “You seem to desperately want to rescue some special something from the world of religion. And, sadly, the world of religion, as it appears in the real-world societies we inhabit on our little blue rock, is a grab-bag of horrors.”

    Two things. First, I don’t want to rescue a “special something” at all. I don’t know that there is a special something. I just think the point must be argued. However, simply dismissing religion as empty of intellectual content, without joining the argument, or dismissing argumentation as shadow boxing, is simply silly. Even if Plantinga and Swinburne are wrong, their arguments have to be met. However, I don’t think that traditionalists of the Plantingan or Swinburnian type are the main bearers of the religious tradition. Trying to resurrect the miracle of the resurrection seems to me, largely, a waste of time, though, again, the arguments have to be met. I think they can be. I think it can be shown, by New Testament testimony alone, that the resurrection is not what Christian orthodoxy has often taken it to be. And even there it is not always clear what is orthodox belief and what is not. But it is harder to deal with people like Don Cupitt, John Caputo, Lloyd Geering, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dominic Crossan, Richard Holloway, usw, than new atheists seem to believe. And no one is even making the effort. They are just dismissed as hypocrites because they are not fundamentalists, which is a case of begging the question, if ever there was one. This seems to me good evidence that the scientistic way of approaching these issues is inadequate at best, and simply beside the point at worst.

    Second, religions are also integral to cultural systems. (We often forget, in defending minority cultures in the West, that we already have a culture that is worth defending, and that may easily be destroyed by accommodating incompatible cultures. I suspect the Parti Quebecois is onto something here.) It’s easy enough to dismiss religion and affirm the religionlessness of the Scandinavians, but it’s harder to show that Scandinavian culture is not historically rooted in Christian ideals of justice and community. People say we can be good without God, and then go on to say that goodness is something scientifically determinable. First of all, the last claim is dubious to say the least, and the first claim has not been given any content since the culture we inhabit is shot through with religious assumptions: it is not entirely secular. Weinberg’s claim that good people do good things, but it takes religion to make people do bad things and think them good, may be a bit catchy, but it’s not true, especially if we take the determinism of much if not most of the new atheism into account. (They assume it, and then promptly ignore it.) But if determinism is true, people do bad things because they simply are made that way, whether religion is involved or not. You can’t claim the benefits of responsibility without some aspect of responsible choice, and you can’t accuse anyone of irresponsibility if they’re not responsible. So, where, then, is goodness?

    Certainly, religion is a grab bag of horrors, but some religions are more horrific than others, and horrors are not the only thing that religion provides, and goodness and civility are do not inhere in disbelief — quite the opposite I sometimes think! Roman Catholicism’s nisus towards totalising power is a bad thing. Islam is intrinsically bad, it seems to me, notwithstanding some of the claims that are made for Muslim forms of devotion, since Islam is a totalising religion and authorises (even commands) the use of violence in order to achieve supremacy. Christianity has been characterised by great evils — why else do you think I am opposed to its hegemonic cultural claims? — but it has also introduced ideals of self-sacrificing altruism that are, in some of its instances, truly inspiring, and its role in the development of the educational traditions of the West are undeniable. Of course, religion should not have power over public policy. That’s where secularism comes in. But secularism is not a anti-religious system, despite the fears of some religious believers. Secularism is a political ideal, in which people’s obsessions, religious or otherwise, do not get a casting vote in determining public policy.

    All I am saying is that simplistic argumentation, and especially the gratuitous accusation of pathology, whether from the atheist or the religious side (and Ed Feser thinks of the new atheism as a pathology, as, I believe — without checking my source — does David Bentley Hart), is simply a failure of reason — which is why I find Boghossian’s book dangerous. This kind of in your face dismissal of others and their deeply held convictions about human life is pointless posturing. It may have got the attention of a lot of people, but it is socially disastrous, as some of the discussions on the new atheist web seem to confirm. You can find your own examples, but some of the misogyny displayed on the new atheist is web positively atavistic, not to say bestial. I simply cannot live in that atmosphere. I am used to civility and sensitivity, and even nuanced discussion (from which Jerry Coyne says we should run a mile). I find myself more and more attracted to the calm and civilised tone of philosophers like Julian Baggini, whom I have elsewhere slandered, thinking I was doing reason and rationality a service, when what I was doing was expressing my ill-suppressed anger.

    So, in short, I think we need to return to truly rational discussion. We may disagree with someone, but we must say why. We must produce arguments, and give reasons. We cannot continue to pretend that reason is all on the side of disbelievers. Free thinkers need to think and to reason, not to dismiss with cavalier disregard for other discussants. So far, I see no evidence whatever that the new atheists have made the slightest effort to understand anything about the logic of religious discourse, simply dismissing it as failed science, and while I respect Jerry Coyne greatly for the effort that he has put into reading a great deal of theology and philosophy of religion, I sometimes feel that he is too quick to dismiss things he has not understood. For a corrective, reading a book like DZ Philips’ The Concept of Prayer is useful. (I once spent two days trying to locate a copy of the book in London second hand bookshops, without success.) Some of the other philosophers who followed on some of Wittgenstein’s comments about religion, culture and art, are also useful, Rush Rhees and Basil Mitchell amongst them. But also read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, some of Crossan’s work on the origins of Christianity, as well as some recent science of religion, like Atran’s In Gods We Trust. Even Keith Ward’s God: A Guide for the Perplexed is helpful. I have bones to pick with all of them, but the logic of God language is very different than religious believers have often been led to believe. Indeed, the concept of prayer used by many Christians simply misunderstands what can reasonably be meant by prayer, if they take seriously what is meant by the word ‘god’. As I have said many times, the main thing that would convince me not to be a Christian is what most Christians seem to believe. However, even they can be convinced, with careful argument and demonstration, that much that they believe is simply a betrayal of the Christian tradition, including, or especially, their concept of what is often mistakenly called “revelation”. To dismiss almost everything that is being contemporarily said about religion, as is so often done, is sloppy and unprofessional. I have been guilty of that, and I want to make a new start, and one of the first things that one must do is to forget everything one has been taught about religion, for much that we were taught — certainly much that I was taught — is simply wrong, and can be shown to be so.

  10. 10 March 2014 at 11:32

    Paxton:

    As you review your previous posts, recall the liberal Scottish minister who risked punishment from his church because he supported assisted dying. I believe you took your leave of him at the time. Maybe you would feel differently now? Do you really want to reject the new atheists who are doing much to push Christians in a positive direction, i.e. to abandon untenable superstitions, because they don’t offer fully satisfying alternatives to religion?

    To start with the first, I have already written to the Scottish minister to that effect. (I didn’t exactly take my leave of him, but doubted whether his attempt to get assisted dying accepted by his church would be successful.) As to the new atheists pushing Christians in a positive direction, this is precisely what they fail to do. Instead of doing this, what is generally done is to say that the only honest religion is fundamentalism, and that those who dissent from the literal meaning of their doctrines and traditional texts are hypocrites. This is scarcely helpful. What they are doing is attacking the most obviously silly form of religion, and saying that any other form is a declension from religion as it should be, if religion is to be honest, that is, from fundamentalism. But fundamentalism is a product of a scientific age. True, many earlier Christians read some parts of scripture literally, but this seemed, in the absence of much that we know now, more reasonable than it does today. If you read Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, it is clear that Hume thought the argument from design to be faulty, but he had no decisive argument against it. After Darwin, Hume’s argument seems almost like an anticipation of the theory of evolution.

  11. gbjames
    10 March 2014 at 12:25

    At some point, Eric, it becomes absurd to “meet” the arguments of theology. There’s no there there, or at least there’s never been any “there” when I’ve tried to wade into it. What’s the point, exactly?

    So we’re to agree that sophisticated theologians have taken the bag of horribles and thrown out a bunch of the more ghastly of the horrors. And some horrors aren’t as horrible as others. So what? What remains in the bag that anyone cares about? A ground-of-being? I honestly don’t see any reason to give a rip about a theologian’s ground-of-being, except to the extent his/her theological mutterings are used to rationalize and justify the actual real-world horrors that real religious faith generates in the physical world we share.

    By all means, have at it. Go make the effort you assert must be made. Go engage with sophisticated theologians. But here on Planet Earth we’ve got child rape syndicates running world wide religious institutions. We’ve got real-world religion motivating beheadings and acid-throwing at girls. We’ve got Jesus motivating the spread of ever more guns to ever more unstable people. God-fans are making it ever easier to persecute gay people in Africa. And everywhere the pious are making sure that human suffering is ennobled and enabled. While you worry about the sophisticate’s ground-of-being we’ve got the world’s actual religious traditions being lived out in catastrophic ways.

    If you think that ‘even they can be convinced, with careful argument and demonstration, that much that they believe is simply a betrayal of the Christian tradition, including, or especially, their concept of what is often mistakenly called “revelation”’, then go do that. I’m skeptical, but I’ve no problem with you taking that approach if you want. Just please stop insisting that the rest of us do it, too. To suggest that it is gratuitous to confront religion direct and loudly, which is all “new” atheism really is about, or that it is pathological to refuse to respect traditions that enable the horrors to continue is, quite honestly, weird.

    I reassert that I think your case is little more than an expression of fear of loosing that gem somewhere hidden in the bag of horrors. You say this is not true, that you aren’t sure there actually is “something special” at all. But I don’t know what else could motivate such despair about the “gnus”. The only gems I see are ones that religion doesn’t own.

  12. gluonspring
    10 March 2014 at 12:43

    You take your leave of new atheism for what? Mild mannered atheism? Christianity?
    Philosophical Deism? Deity-free Buddhism?

  13. couchloc
    10 March 2014 at 14:36

    gbjames,

    Recall the quote I offered from Dawkins in my previous comment (p57): “‘I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural…..'”

    There would be few problems here if the new atheists described their concerns as narrowly focused on fundamentalism or religion in the street. They do talk this way on occassion, of course, and nobody objects to that. But this claim is often mixed with a more expansive view that “science,” or maybe “biology,” holds the keys to explaining all facets of life and society in its complexity. And this latter view is often expressed with a kind of dogmatism that discounts the alternatives. When someone tries to raise concerns about this more expansive view (i.e., Eric), what happens is that people retreat to the narrow view as all that’s intended (what new atheism “is really about”). To me this is misleading given the claims new atheists have actually made (see above).So I see the problem as that new atheists are not very clear about what they are attacking and have made a hash of some difficult issues. These things need to be sorted out if atheism is to move forward in a proper way.

  14. Michael Fugate
    10 March 2014 at 14:39

    Eric, I was just wondering how you were doing – missing your posts.
    I would never accuse Jerry of not reading before commenting on topics, but I see this happening all too often. Then again, there is so much to read because of so many holes in my background – ignorance is rampant. Rarely do I comment at WEIT, but if so I try to tie it into what a philosopher or theologian has said without ever gaining much traction. If I am reading Hart correctly, then he is trying to equate the emotion of transcendent experience with God. Perhaps this is true, but God just becomes a catch-all for those feelings that tie us to the rest of the natural world including humanity. This view is bit hard for me to get my head around, coming from a fairly literalist Christian community, into biology, then atheism, but I can see what you mean about the science-mimicking of fundamentalism. There are so many different worlds out there to explore – it is hard to know where to start.

  15. gbjames
    10 March 2014 at 15:31

    Couchloc… Well obviously I disagree. The reason we tend to dismiss all gods is that the world of “gods” is so large and to date believers can’t even agree on a definition of what the word refers to. If there is a hash, it is inherent in the nature of “god” itself. Every believer’s got their own special definition and at some point it simply isn’t worth going through yet another variation of highfalutin treatise on the subject. All we get is incredibly turgid and unfalsifiable claims about the numinous, transcendent, and being-that’s-been-grounded.

    But then, of course, I haven’t read that special volume by theologian X who lays it all out in perfect clarity. I’d appreciate it if someone would do me the favor of providing a two paragraph synopsis of the argument that demonstrates someone’s usefully defined deity.

  16. 10 March 2014 at 16:01

    I’ve always thought it weird but understandable that your main concern, Eric, was for a ‘replacement’ of the traditional religious role. I thought you’d figure this dichotomy out for yourself. I was wrong.

    I’ve never understood why this is of any concern at all considering the availability of all kinds of interests and pursuits people can join; they don’t need to come under the banner of the religions that have claimed ownership for them so replacing the religious banner with something else makes no sense to me. Never has. Join community groups, join those involved with the same kinds of interests you might have, and so on. Nothing has changed… except the label. Recreating a religious blueprint under some other name for the kinds of involvement that religions once played in the community to me is nothing more than a longing for an earlier and simpler time. Life has a way of exposing this longing to be based on a fictionalized and sanitized past.

    My main concern that motivates me as a New Atheist is to confront religious privilege in the public domain for what I think are better and compelling reasons than religious… be they philosophical, aesthetic, scientific, political, or even metaphysical This has long been your interest, as well, specifically concerning end of life issues. The privilege afforded to religious constraints imbedded into law and public policy seems to me to be exactly the kind of issue of religious privilege in action causing real harm to real people in real life, as you well know, and one well worth challenging. But to challenge this privilege here means it must be challenged there and there and there… until we get to the root issue of why privileging religion is never the better reason: because people mistakenly assume that this is justified. And here we find the same problem Boghossian has pointed out: religious claims about reality are founded on a kind of epistemology that does not allow reality to arbitrate and adjudicate claims made about it but require a special dispensation from it. That’s why efforts to reveal end of life issues honestly and forthrightly seem to have so little traction challenging the religious privilege afforded to policies about it in law. Sure, the majority of people are quite willing to allow individuals final say about their choices in dying and for excellent reasons. So the problem isn’t getting others to appreciate the harm being done in the name of religious assumptions privileged in law; the problem is allowing the law to continue to privilege religious assumptions imbedded in it! And that means the challenge before us is to tackle why religious privilege is unjustified so that we can propel lawmakers to stop doing this… not just about end of life issues but wherever and whenever it is found: in education, governance, public policy, medicine, research, child rearing, and so on. There are better reasons for abandoning religious privilege than assuming we can (and should) find a suitable replacement for it. And this doesn’t mean we must replace it with only a scientific one; but we should use reasons grounded in evidence adduced from reality than ones exempted from it! We should abandon religious privilege altogether because it isn’t based or justified by reality’s arbitration of its causal effects; it’s based on assumptions disassociated from its real life effects, and this – not the company of people pointing out this disconnect – is a source of continuing harm well worth confronting.

    For the public domain to give up religious privilege is a huge shift away from social traditions and a step into the unknown, into the future, away from the comfort and familiarity of a bygone era sanitized and scrubbed clean of its biases and prejudices and discriminations, and towards the adventure that awaits. Sure, it’s going to be filled with problems because that’s what real life includes but giving up the need to confront religious privilege because you pine for some kind of emotionally satisfying Lent is hardly the fault of the company that seeks to end religious privilege. I do not think – and I’m pretty sure you know this as well – that you can be a religious accommodationist and expect to have your voice more widely respected when you call for the end of religious privilege in the matter of end of life issues unless you’re also willing to tackle religious privilege in community affairs where there seems to be a benefit. I don’t think you’re ready for this because I think you have always wished to privilege some religious aspects and traditions – especially the book-lined philosophical and academic libraries where you feel most at home – for the social good you attribute to it. But that isn’t a good reason for withdrawing from the battle altogether; it’s just a selfish one you’ve privileged.

  17. Steersman
    10 March 2014 at 17:10

    Gbjames (#11):

    Every believer’s got their own special definition and at some point it simply isn’t worth going through yet another variation of highfalutin treatise on the subject. All we get is incredibly turgid and unfalsifiable claims about the numinous, transcendent, and being-that’s-been-grounded.

    While I can sympathize with your position and even think there’s some merit in it, one might also argue that both your reliance and that of many “New Atheists” in general on “unfalsifiable” is the crux of the problem and a manifestation of the attendant or implicit “scientism” that apparently motivates many of Eric’s criticisms. You may wish to take a gander at several of Massimo Pigliucci’s posts on the question. But the short version or synopsis seems to be that there are likely to be many things that are true, but which are not readily provable as such if at all – a case in point being, arguably, string theory.

    And while one might argue that that limitation or aspect is a bug if not a feature of life in general, it seems rather clear that it is in fact a fact. As Stuart Kauffman put it in his At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (something which both Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins seem reluctant to consider as a very significant element of evolution):

    The theory of computation is replete with deep theorems. Among the most beautiful are those showing that, in most cases by far, there exists no shorter means to predict what an algorithm will do than to simply execute it, observing the succession of actions and states as they unfold. The algorithm itself is its own shortest description. It is, in the jargon of the field, incompressible. [pgs 21-22]

    Or, more colloquially, there are known unknowns and then there are unknown unknowns. How we deal with those unknowns of the latter type is maybe a moot point, but one might argue that labels such as “faith”, intuition, induction, or values – none of which are readily obtained by any algorithmic process – might have some applicability. Apropos of which, I find it somewhat amusing or ironic that individuals such as Coyne, Dawkins, and Myers seem to predicate their (new) atheist activism on an inchoate and unarticulated belief in the value, in the sweep and import, of humanity’s evolution. If not then why not a belief in nihilism, in “après moi, le deluge”? Self-aggrandizement or transcendence? Their arguments seem rather consistent with Eric’s “an obligation that extends far beyond the individual”, do they not?

    But I find it equally problematic that that arguably dogmatic scientism extends into many other areas, a case in point being Jerry’s insistence that there is no such thing as free will. While the nature and scope of that phenomenon is murky at best – I tend to something analogous to the “degrees of freedom” concept of engineering and statistics – it seems that Jerry’s claim is no more than a conjecture at best and a very long ways from even being dignified with the term “hypothesis”. However, even apart from the fact that his insistence on that claim tends to discredit both his science and his atheism, I think the more problematic consequence is a deprecation if not a repudiation of consciousness itself, something which seems to be rather central to both the concept of god and its utility.

    In any case, while one might argue that the concept of god has some problematic baggage following in its train, that some people have made a hash of that concept or used it to justify or motivate any number of horrors is, I think, no reason to throw it out with its bathwater. One might just as “reasonably” or analogously argue that since many have used, for examples, fire or technology for equally horrific purposes that we should repudiate their benefits.

  18. gbjames
    10 March 2014 at 17:37

    Just once I’d like to see a response from the Sophisticated Theology™ side of the fence that didn’t instruct the reader to go read XandSo’s Treatise on Sophistication.

    If is is simply conjecture that “the concept of god has some problematic baggage following in its train” then I’d counter that the reader spend a little more time with the daily newspaper.

    And if one feels the need to caution against what may be lost when the bathwater is dumped, then I don’t think it unreasonable to ask for evidence that is a baby, or any other critter, there at all.

  19. 10 March 2014 at 18:10

    GBJames (#16):

    Just once I’d like to see a response from the Sophisticated Theology™ side of the fence that didn’t instruct the reader to go read XandSo’s Treatise on Sophistication.

    You’re suggesting that, for example, Pigliucci’s take on falsification is no better than Plantinga’s on grace? Or, pace those who champion Feynman’s status as science’s patron saint, that you agree with him that the philosophy of science has as much value to science as ornithology has to birds? Which might hold water if you were to suggest that all scientists are bird-brains or have no more foresight than them.

    If it is simply conjecture that “the concept of god has some problematic baggage following in its train” then I’d counter that the reader spend a little more time with the daily newspaper.

    You can’t have read what I wrote very closely if you think that that was the sum total of my argument. “Motivated reasoning” perhaps?

    And if one feels the need to caution against what may be lost when the bathwater is dumped, then I don’t think it unreasonable to ask for evidence that [there] is a baby, or any other critter, there at all.

    When you’ve finished quantifying all of those “unknown unknowns” then you might have some justification for insisting that there’s no baby obscured by the murky if not bloody bathwater.

  20. gbjames
    10 March 2014 at 18:22

    No, Steersman, what I’m suggesting is that people making arguments need to make their own arguments and not constantly demand that some other bit of theo/philosophical expertise be examined elsewhere. If you (the poster) can’t make the point directly on their own then the argument is poorly considered. My observation is that a very high percentage of comments from the “Sophisticated Theology™ side of the fence rely on pointers elsewhere. I see it as a dodge.

    I don’t see anything I missed in your statement about bathwater. Can you demonstrate there is a baby in there we need to worry about? Consider how burden of proof works. Reference to “unknown unknowns” is a non-answer.

  21. 10 March 2014 at 20:08

    Sorry Tildeb, nothing that you say here resonates with me. What are you talking about? Who’s withdrawing from the battle? I’m simply saying, in what appears to have been received as a act of “deconversion” (from what to what?), that I have too many difficulties with the way that the new atheism is developing. It is not compatible with where I find myself. It does not respond to religion except insofar as religion is fundamentalist. There’s lots of it about, so there’s lots of reason to oppose it, but it doesn’t really do the trick in other respects. I do not think, despite being told umpteen times that it is so, that science and empirical knowledge exhaust what we can know, and that there are other kinds of knowledge. I have mentioned interpretive disciplines, and everyone tells me they all reduce to empirical knowledge. I don’t get it, but I have not been shown how this is so. I simply think this is a storm in a teacup, and what is more, does not address any of my concerns. I am amazed at some of the things that are being written over at whyevolutionistrue.com. What’s the issue here? I’m not talking about religious privilege. Indeed, I have spoken clearly against it and in favour of the public sphere being secular. I’m not talking about relaxing my strictures against some forms of religion, where they impinge on the public sphere to the public harm. I’m not giving popes a clean bill of health or superstition an imprimatur. What really is the issue here?

  22. 10 March 2014 at 20:42

    GBJ. It’s not despair about the new atheism. It’s just a fundamental disagreement with some of the central spokespersons for the new atheism. I do not feel this is the way to go. I simply disagree with too much. I’m told, as couchloc says, that the new atheism has decisively refuted religion, all and any religion, apparently. But this doesn’t take into consideration that religion is a very complex reality. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Rastafarianism…. Yes, yes, I know: all this variety in itself condemns religion, but the new atheism is directed almost entirely against Christianity. If we mean religion, let’s mean religion, but then, if we do mean religion, we need to know about it, and we need to know about it in some depth. There is, of course, no rational way to uphold an absolute claim to religious truth. That’s a given. Despite claims to have it, this is something that the diversity of religions defeats. However, not all religion makes such claims. The neighbourhood fundamentalist does, and so does the Roman Catholic Church in its institutional exemplification, but then where do you put theologians like Hans Kung, who has rejected these absolute claims? How do you respond to those who understand religion, based on perfectly reasonable analyses of religious concepts, as not about absolutisms, but about the pieties of everyday, ordinary life, and the civilities that underlie these pieties, the kinds of things that might be expressed by the Chinese for their ancestors. Indeed, there are very Buddhist interpretations of Christianity that make a lot of sense. Gone, of course, are literal beliefs, but there are ways of using myths that do not depend on literal readings of the myths. But what I find most jarring, is the constant quite angry, negative denunciations of religious “believers”, regardless of the content of their beliefs, without the option. “Give up, or we’ll bury you,” type of attitude. I’m not the only one who feels this. Indeed, I’m a latecomer to this point of view, which is widespread. The problem is that I simply do not see the global claims of the new atheism confirmed by sound argumentation. Some religion is stupid and know-nothing, but it is not all like that, and I have tried to suggest places where you can find an expression of alternative views of religion. I held (and still in a measure hold) that sacred texts are the problem here, and exert a gravitational pull towards literalism. If this is so, then there is reason to despair. But the basis for the new atheism seems, on the face of it, to be opposition to American fundamentalism and its rejection of Darwinism. It begins with the completely inane dismissal by American fundamentalists (and now that Islam has a larger footprint in the West, Islamic fundamentalists (is there another kind?)), of the theory of evolution, or the theorem, if you like, of evolution. That’s the first step, and then everything is drawn into the argumentative maelstrom (much of it as inane, if you follow the discussions, as the fundamentalism it purports to confute), without sufficient attention to the nuances (yes, there’s that word again, from which we are advised to run) of philosophy of religion and theology (not the fundamentalist variety). And while I don’t carry a torch for religion, I think the revolutionary desire to overthrow religion will not bring about the land of dreams that people think will follow its destruction. The myths of reason are perhaps the most seductive of them all. I think that the result of the destruction of religion, were it achieved, might well be disastrous. (George Orwell’s 1984 society was not a religious one.) But no one is really thinking of what is to follow. They are too busy celebrating the destruction of something which is, in fact, still quite alive and well and capable of doing harm, if it is not reformed. I hope there is a place for liberal religion, because the alternative, unfolding elsewhere in the world, is not encouraging. I simply can no longer take part in the new atheist project. I will oppose religion in those aspects of it which seem to me to be a harm (and that is many of its aspects), but I can no longer, as I have to some extent done, participate in an uncritical assault on religion itself. Too much of our political culture, for one thing, is tied up in religion. I want to see aspects of it which are important preserved, and the intrusive aspects of religious institutions restricted. But the free-for-all negativity that I read on so much of the atheist web is not much better, perhaps even worse, than the religion it desires, according to its leaders, to supplant. Religion is not the only thing that can blind us to the truth.

  23. 10 March 2014 at 21:04

    Makagatu. No, I’m not suggesting that everyone read and respond to Plantinga. That’s just an example of someone who at least seems to have some standing in contemporary philosophy. What I am suggesting is that, if we are to oppose religion, we have to argue soundly, and this means acquaintance with the sources. So much that I read about religion from atheists is simplistic. I have defended Dawkins, because that was a starting point, but I don’t see that we’ve advanced very far from that starting point, and I do not think that many of the new atheist arguments do in fact defeat all forms of religious belief. There are quite “secular” forms of Christianity and Judaism, for example, which could be thought to be atheistic, except that they still find a role for the religious myths, the concept of God, and liturgical forms of devotion. That’s why I think Philips’ book The Concept of Prayer is important, because he shows how prayer functions in the religious life, based on the assumption that God is unknowable, and that God does not intervene in the way things go. Indeed, he tells us that this is how prayer must be seen, given the concept of God in question, that this is part of the logic of prayer. You can even find evidence for this in Jesus’ teachings about prayer, assuming that “The Lord’s Prayer” originates with him, in the final submission, “Thy will be done”. My point is simply that, given this conception of religious devotion, the unknowability of God is its basic premise. But the new atheism thinks that we must begin with something that the religious person cannot provide: a proof of, or evidence for, the existence of God. But this is not something which this form of religion would think possible. On this understanding of religion, God is a limit concept which governs religious experience and practice. In some ways, I think this is what David Bentley Hart is saying too, although I don’t presume to understand his arguments completely. If God is conceived of in this way, as the Ground of Being, as that on which we are completely dependent, etc., but as something that is above our understanding, then religion and religious experience are in some sense transcendent, or at least they move towards transcendence. Religious experiences, or religious practices are what happen when we press religious thought and experience to their limit. And that, as Wittgenstein said, is the mystical. There are, of course, perfectly immanent ways of interpreting mystical experiences. Sam Harris does this. But this does not diminish its importance for him. In a similar way, religious belief, even when the beliefs are the product of what Tillich calls the broken myth, may have (not just “feel good” value) but great value to the carrying out of one’s life project. Ronald Dworkin certainly believed that there are legitimate and important secular forms of religious belief. I think we should take the possibility seriously, and stop playing “whack-a-mole.”

  24. gbjames
    10 March 2014 at 21:14

    “…but the new atheism is directed almost entirely against Christianity.”

    Come on, Eric. Two things here. 1) half of the time Gnus are attacked for being Islamophobic. The other have of the time what you claim here. And you yourself keep making defenses of theology based on the Christian (and “post-Christian”) perspective. I don’t recall ever seeing you tell us to go read some Islamic theologian let alone study the Popol Vuh. Besides, most of the atheists you and I encounter are familiar with Christianity because we’ve been steeped in it for a very long time. Are you actually surprised that Xtianity gets the brunt of our attack? There are dozens of churches in my neighborhood and nary a Hindu shrine.

    Ultimately, however, I just don’t get the point. It is clear that the insistence from NA’s that religionists “put up or shut up” regarding pick-your-deity is deeply troubling to you. I don’t have a clue what you are so worried about, but I do think you need to get beyond complaining about scientism and the lack of sophistication of vocal atheists.

    What do you want to do? Why don’t you just do it? What do you think should happen beyond some amorphous kind of respect that we refuse to offer? What do you want atheism (new, old, middle-of-the-road, …) to do if not to confront religion as we do? Why don’t you “show the way” by demonstrating in action whatever you think the “right way to do it” is?

    Because, for the life of me it looks like nothing but nostalgia and fear. You raise the specter of 1984, as if that were a threat in the real world remotely similar to theocracy. Really? This is the future you think we need to fear? While yet another pedophilia story runs in the daily news? While gay Ugandans are being set on fire?

    You keep saying that we need to preserve aspects of religion that are important. Which ones? Because I’m fairly certain that your list will not include many items that even the meanest of us mean old gnus wouldn’t put on our own list of “good things”. Art, music, literature. Community. One place we would likely diverge is when we get to “respect for theological rumination”. That one would not be on my list. I’ll not offer false respect for it.

    Finally, I don’t think I have a tin ear but I am unable to distinguish “But the free-for-all negativity that I read on so much of the atheist web is not much better, perhaps even worse, than the religion it desires, according to its leaders, to supplant.” from plain old tone trolling.

  25. 10 March 2014 at 21:17

    For an atheism that takes religion seriously, and attempts to respond to its claims with reason and civility. There are all sorts of people who are atheists, but who see the point of religion, and not only understand why people may be religious, but can respect them for that. I spent years with people whom I came to love and respect, even though, sometimes, I had to tell them that I found their expression of faith inadequate. Many were happy to hear that there were more rational ways of understanding Christianity. Some, of course, thought I was a heretic. But do I not receive the same response from new atheists for questioning their certainties?

  26. 10 March 2014 at 21:56

    Eric (#21):

    I can sympathize and agree with many of your arguments and positions, but I have to question this:

    I do not think, despite being told umpteen times that it is so, that science and empirical knowledge exhaust what we can know, and that there are other kinds of knowledge. I have mentioned interpretive disciplines, and everyone tells me they all reduce to empirical knowledge.

    Considering that “Empirical evidence (also empirical data, sense experience, empirical knowledge, or the a posteriori) is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation or experimentation” and that, in turn, “Observation is the active acquisition of information from a primary source [which in] living beings … employs the senses”, I wonder how else you can know something except through the senses. We can’t sense, for example, ultraviolet radiation but, if I’m not terribly mistaken on the physics, we can sense its effects through intermediaries like phosphorescence.

    And while I’ll concede, and have argued, that intuitions and gestalts are a sometimes reliable source of knowledge, they are arguably still “sense experiences” quite possibly “delivered” up to our consciousness by unconscious processes happening “underneath the hood”. But which are, presumably, still predicated on prior sense impressions stored some place in our brains.

  27. 10 March 2014 at 23:16

    GbJames (#20):

    No, Steersman, what I’m suggesting is that people making arguments need to make their own arguments and not constantly demand that some other bit of theo/philosophical expertise be examined elsewhere.

    That looks to be some serious hyper-skepticism. I suppose if I told you about bridges and linked to articles describing their design you wouldn’t believe me, or check the sources, until I built one for you in your front yard. I provided the link to Pigliucci’s posts on the topic, and here’s another one, his response to Stenger, wherein he says:

    (As a side note, I really wish that scientists who write about philosophical topics updated their knowledge of philosophy of science: falsifiability as a criterion for considering a hypothesis scientific has been superseded a number of decades ago (Ladyman, 2002).)

    Considering that you put such weight on the concept of falsifiable – “incredibly turgid and unfalsifiable claims about the numinous” – I would have thought that you would have wanted to see some evidence, or serious and credible suggestions, that your “faith” was misplaced.

    My observation is that a very high percentage of comments from the “Sophisticated Theology™ side of the fence rely on pointers elsewhere. I see it as a dodge.

    Considering that I’m hardly arguing for any “sophisticated theology” as I think much of it qualifies as “Philosophick Romance” at best, you might want, as Eric in effect suggests rather pointedly for those with the eyes to see or willingness to use them, to consider that there is a rather broad spectrum on that “side of the fence”. Apropos of which, you might consider this from Richard Dawkins:

    Nevertheless, I wish physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs, and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason. [The God Delusion; pg 41]

    A charge which might reasonably be laid at the doorsteps of many new atheists. Seems to me that Eric and many others have also rather pointedly insisted on differentiating between those two fairly broad classes or types of concepts of god. Which many of those new atheists seem too obtuse, or too dogmatic, to have noticed.

    I don’t see anything I missed in your statement about bathwater. Can you demonstrate there is a baby in there we need to worry about? Consider how burden of proof works. Reference to “unknown unknowns” is a non-answer.

    I wonder what type of evidence you would need or accept, what type of evidence is possible, for metaphors such as “the angry sea”.

    As for the existence of “unknown unknowns”, you may wish to peruse this Wikipedia article on the Theory of everything. If that is little more than a wan hope, one might reasonably argue that however far we get there might well still be a great many of those unknowns beyond our reach. In the light of which I would think most rational people would be a little circumspect about making overly dogmatic statements predicated on unwarranted certainty.

  28. 10 March 2014 at 23:40

    GbJames (#20):

    No, Steersman, what I’m suggesting is that people making arguments need to make their own arguments and not constantly demand that some other bit of theo/philosophical expertise be examined elsewhere.

    That looks to be some serious hyper-skepticism. I suppose if I told you about bridges and linked to articles describing their design you wouldn’t believe me, or check the sources, until I built one for you in your front yard. I’m not sure what “unfalsifiable claims about the numinous” you think are being made, but you might want to consider that right out of the chute “unfalsifiable” really doesn’t seem to do the heavy lifting you think it does. Why I provided the link to Pigliucci’s posts on the topic, and here’s another one, his response (1) to Stenger, wherein he says:

    (As a side note, I really wish that scientists who write about philosophical topics updated their knowledge of philosophy of science: falsifiability as a criterion for considering a hypothesis scientific has been superseded a number of decades ago (Ladyman, 2002).)

    Considering that you put such weight on the concept of falsifiable (2) – “incredibly turgid and unfalsifiable claims about the numinous” – I thought that you would have wanted to see some evidence, or serious and credible suggestions, that your “faith” was misplaced.

    My observation is that a very high percentage of comments from the “Sophisticated Theology™ side of the fence rely on pointers elsewhere. I see it as a dodge.

    Considering that I’m hardly arguing for any “sophisticated theology” as I think much of it qualifies as “Philosophick Romance” at best, you might want, as Eric in effect suggests rather pointedly for those with the eyes to see or willingness to use them, to consider that there is a rather broad spectrum on that “side of the fence”. Apropos of which, you might consider this from Richard Dawkins:

    Nevertheless, I wish physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs, and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason. [The God Delusion; pg 41]

    A charge which might reasonably be laid at the doorsteps of many new atheists. Seems to me that Eric and many others have also rather pointedly insisted on differentiating between those two fairly broad classes or types of concepts of god. Which many of those new atheists seem too obtuse, or too dogmatic, to have noticed.

    I don’t see anything I missed in your statement about bathwater. Can you demonstrate there is a baby in there we need to worry about? Consider how burden of proof works. Reference to “unknown unknowns” is a non-answer.

    I wonder what type of evidence you would need or accept, what type of evidence is possible, for metaphors such as “the angry sea”.

    As for the existence of “unknown unknowns”, you may wish to peruse this Wikipedia article on the Theory of everything (3). If that is little more than a wan hope, one might reasonably argue that however far we get there might well still be a great many of those unknowns beyond our reach. In the light of which I would think most rational people would be a little circumspect about making overly dogmatic statements predicated on unwarranted certainty.

    —-
    1) “_http://smithandfranklin.com/uploads/articles/1393679455Response%20to%20Stenger.pdf”;
    2) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability#Criticisms”;
    3) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_everything”;

  29. 11 March 2014 at 07:55

    GBJ. A very quick response to your comment 28. I did not say that the new atheists do not address themselves to Islam. This would be silly, since the book that sparked the others, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, is largely addressed to the growing problem of Islam. Of course, it would be, since it was a response to 9/11. And of course others have occasionally addressed themselves to this problem too. But the bulk of new atheist criticism has been addressed to Christianity. I remember how Jerry Coyne responded to my criticism of a rabbi. He felt I was really out of bounds, and that he would take care of the criticism of Judaism, thank you very much. My point is simply that the bulk of new atheist criticism has been addressed to Christianity. When I have criticised Islam I have generally been aligned with Islamophobes and extreme racists, and I have limited my own critique of Islam for precisely this reason. I think, if you care to do a tally, that you will find that the new atheism criticises Christian belief 9 out of 10 times, more or less, despite the fact, I might add, that Christianity is the one religious tradition which has the most internal criticism, and has sought to liberalise itself. It hasn’t been markedly successful at doing this, since many Christians, like other religious believers, think that modernism in belief is a denial of religious belief. The point is, nevertheless, an important one, since formerly Christian countries, countries that identified themselves as Christian, are countries in which democracy has flourished, and I think it likely that Christianity, directly or indirectly, contributed to that fact. It is also significant that countries with Roman Catholic majorities have been more vulnerable fascist forms of government (Petain, Franco, Mussolini, and even Hitler, who came from Catholic Austria, and whose concordat with the Vatican played a large part in legitimising his rule.) There is something about the Protestant reformation which led to more free form critiques of Christianity and the birth of representative institutions. I assume that aspects of this inheritance are still integral parts of open societies. While I do not think that the new atheism will give rise to Orwell’s nightmare, the use by Boghossian of the term ‘pathological’ is worrying. From the other side, I was very concerned about Ed Feser’s use of the same trope. The tendency to use this kind of language is in effect a failure, not a triumph, of reason. But what is of more concern is that this language is being used by people who would like to see the destruction of religion and its replacement by the use of reason. Dawkins’ use of John Lennon’s song is not an anomaly. It is really believed that religion is the major source of evil, and that reason will save us. I think this is a will-o-the-wisp.

    It is true that I principally adduce examples from liberal Christianity in the course of proposing that religion may be held in a way compatible with reason. I simply am not aware of traditions of liberal Islam, Hinduism or other religions. I might have added comments about humanistic Judaism, but have taken my cue from Jerry Coyne, and have left the critique of Judaism largely up to him. I am not aware that he has addressed himself to Jewish belief more than a few times. Since Christianity itself has been most open to criticism, it is obviously a more convenient target. This is interesting, since the religion most resistant to criticism is Islam, and it makes claims that are arguably more questionable than those made by Christians (aside of course from fundamentalist Christians). I do think that we should be aware that entire cultural traditions are involved here, principally the one that underlies the open societies in which most new atheists are privileged to live. I remind you and others that while the new atheism carries out its critique of Christianity, Christians are perhaps the most persecuted religious group on the planet, and very little has been said by the new atheists themselves to deprecate this fact.

    I do wish that people would desist with the nostalgia/fear speculations as to why I no longer wish to be thought a new atheist, a movement to which I gladly attached myself. I have simply come to think differently, and find that I no longer think that anti-theism as such is a responsible position to hold. I would remind you that there are many non-believers who quickly expressed their dissent from a new form of atheism that they considered brash and unhelpful. Not having been an nonbeliever for long, and not at all familiar with humanist and atheist traditions, I readily took up the banner, but increasingly find it lacking in depth and civility.

  30. gbjames
    11 March 2014 at 08:27

    Steersman… It would depend quite a bit what you told me about bridges. I’ve actually been on several bridges in my life so, no, I wouldn’t refuse to acknowledge their existence. I would, however, not take you very seriously if you told me that there was one running from Baton Rouge to the far side of the moon. And I think you’d not bother to take seriously the links I provided as evidence if I made that assertion to you.

    However, this is a poor analog. The pattern actually goes like this: Theologically Minded Person (TMP) tells the atheist to go read Wise Theologian A. Then he’ll understand. No such understanding if found. TMP then points the atheist at Wise Theologian B. Again, no understanding is found. After years of such iteration the game becomes rather a pointless bore.

    If you can’t describe the thing clearly yourself, then you don’t understand it.

    As for “two fairly broad classes or types of concepts of god”, I don’t think I or any other atheist would disagree that there are a great many ways to partition the vast array of opinions amongst believers about the nature of the deity/deities. Certainly some are more whacko than others. And some are more dangerous than others. And more bat-shit crazy in the face of the obvious than others. Some have abandoned more items from the bag of horribles than others. This is not in dispute and I don’t know a single atheist that would disagree. But all of them share at least a kernel of awful. All of them assert that belief in supernatural entities is a perspective that deserves respect, if not agreement, from all of us. And this is where we part ways. This is the objection Gnus have to “nice” (aka “liberal” aka “sophisticated”) belief. These ideas do not deserve respect. These ideas are what drives the awful consequences that occupy so much of human life..

  31. gbjames
    11 March 2014 at 08:55

    Eric: Here’s what it all comes down to, IMO. People have different senses of decorum. And it appears that your’s is disturbed by the disrespect Gnus have for theology. Well, fine. I don’t like body piercing and extreme tattooing much. But I don’t fear that tattoo parlors are going to lead to 1984. If I actually thought that I’d be out building tattoo removal clubs and doing my best to reduce the amount of skin modification on the planet.

    What I don’t see from your position is anything tangible. What are you advocating? Is it really just “be nice to theologians”? Why is it that you never reply with a list of gems-of-religion that we must take care not to lose? Why don’t you describe the baby you fear will go down the drain when the tub is empty? The reason that the nostalgia/fear speculation exists is that “I’ve come to see it differently” isn’t a very satisfactory description. Why have you come to see it differently? (And let’s make sure we agree on what “it” is, please.)

    PS: There is certainly a great deal of persecution of Christians around the world. Generally (always?) this is by (surprise!) other religious communities. But Muslims are under attack from other Muslim sects all over, as well as from Buddhist communities in Myanmar. Christians and Muslims are killing each all over Africa. Both are full of gusto when it comes to attacking gay people because God sez that’s the thing to do. Atheists need only be identified to find themselves subject to the death penalty in thirteen countries in the world.

    To my knowledge there is not a single atheist community tormenting believers in the world, despite the Christian trope, here in the US, that limiting their ability to discriminate against gay people is a form of persecution. I think you should adjust your perspective machine if you think the world is threatened by impolite atheists.

  32. 11 March 2014 at 10:13

    I think you should adjust your perspective machine if you think the world is threatened by impolite atheists.

    I have never suggested that the world is threatened by impolite atheists, but I think the language used by some atheists is worrying, that’s all, and it is language that I cannot myself adopt. I do think the degree of stupidity contained in so many comments on atheist blogs is itself a sign that not all is well with atheism as a respectable intellectual position. I do not find incivility helpful at all, and the volume of incivility and plain stupidity of what some people consider a refutation of religion seems to me deeply worrying, if reason is what this is all about. Some of the misogyny expressed in some of these comments is also very troubling. Indeed, Dawkins response to “elevatorgate” was disturbing in its misogyny, and in its lack of understanding of what women are faced with day in and day out. Very little of this appears here because I simply trash such comments without the option, but it is endemic to the new atheism.

    As to persecution of Christians. This is almost always persecution by Muslims, and it is almost universally ignored by the Western press, and the new atheists scarcely take note of it at all. Muslims are also divided, and this division threatens the peace of the Middle East and therefore of the entire world. It is indicative of something dreadfully wrong with Islam. These things are all the product of dogmatic thinking. I hold no brief for dogmatism of any form, and that is why I now oppose the new atheism because it has become increasingly dogmatic over the last few years. The use of the term “deconversion” with respect to my decision to withdraw my support from the new atheism is an indication of this trend. It suggests that it has become cultic in the course of its development, and I cannot belong to any cult. The degree of certainty expressed by the new atheists regarding their supposed refutation of religion has a troubling dimension, whether it will ever lead to a “brave new world” or not. Boghossian’s use of the word ‘pathology’ was my cue to abandon the new atheism, or any other kind of dogmatic atheism.

    As to not being able to describe “the thing clearly” myself. I can, of course, though it would take a book or two. Blog posts are not the place to do it, but any responsible atheist must address the fact of godless religion, and the role it may play in human life. Religion itself is not the problem, dogmatism is. Religion is closely allied to dogmatism, but there are other forms of dogma as well, including moral and political dogma (and I would include the apotheosis of science in the catalogue of dogmatisms). Marxism became a classical case of political dogmatism, but there are other forms as well. I think the new atheism has achieved this status, and I am simply unwilling to ally myself with dogmatism in any form.

  33. gbjames
    11 March 2014 at 10:30

    Eric: “I have never suggested that the world is threatened by impolite atheists, but I think the language used by some atheists is worrying” This is a distinction with very little difference.

    I’m not sure which blogs you are referring to. I hang out at Jerry’s not-a-blog mostly and I think that complaining about incivility there is marginally laughable. It is one of the most civil rooms on the Internet. I also hang out some at a few other atheist spots, Hemet Mehta’s Friendly Atheist, Eberhart’s What would JT Do, sometimes Greta Christina’s Blog. None of these places seem to me to be dens of disrespect (of people). Perhaps you need to visit other sites to get a broader view of the atheism world?

    The Western press, the US press at least, ignores virtually all world news, not just that involving persecution of Christians by Muslims. In any case, are you now laying what passes for journalism these days at the door of Gnu Atheism? Really?

    If it requires a book for you to describe the gems of religion, then I don’t think you really can. And this is the problem with theology, IMO. It substitutes length for clarity and confuses turgid excess with profundity. If you can put your complaints about impolite atheism into a few words in a blog comment why can’t you identify a short list of treasures we’re abandoning in our disregard for faith?

  34. 11 March 2014 at 11:37

    Godalmighty! GBJ. How many times do I have to say that I’m not talking about gems of religion? I am talking about philosophy of religion which proposes completely different ways of apprehending religion, such as some of the stuff written by Richard Rubenstein, Don Cupitt, Richard Holloway, and a lot of ordinary language philosophy of religion which followed on some of Wittgenstein’s remarks about religion and culture. As to incivility, certainly, there is considerable civility amongst most commentators on whyevolutionistrue, but the incivility arises when you take the absolutely stupid, not to say abusively dismissive comments that are made about religion. I don’t think this kind of idiocy takes us anywhere, and I no longer want to participate. So, I won’t. And if you haven’t noticed the irrationality of many of the comments, then you are not reading closely. This is my last comment on this particular issue.

  35. gbjames
    11 March 2014 at 11:49

    I didn’t know you were a swearing man! ;)

    But I think you are, despite your objection, concerned with gems. We’ve been over this territory so many times that I frankly don’t know how you can deny it. I’d go search the archives but…

    If it isn’t about gems, then what is the complaint? (other than etiquette). If Rubenstein/Cupitt/Holloway/”lots of…” aren’t offering gems, then why are we having this conversation at all? If these guys aren’t offering gems of religious insight then how are they relevant? And if they are then why not just summarize the insights (aka pearls) from these guys in a way that convinces?

    And, for one concerned about respect and civility… “absolutely stupid” and “this kind of idiocy”?

  36. pancakesandwildhoney
    11 March 2014 at 11:55

    Hi Steersman,

    In preface I find that I agree with most of what you have said thus far. In fact, that discovery has made me question whether or not my initial diagnosis of your position in this debate was correct, that is, did I misunderstand your overall point on Joe’s blog some time back? If I did, mea culpa. (Of course, I stand by my criticisms, but perhaps there was a larger point being made by you that I failed to notice.)

    That said, I must criticize this comment: “I wonder how else you can know something except through the senses.”

    Take the sentence “Either it will rain tomorrow (at a particular place) or it won’t”, in symbols R v ~R. We can determine that this sentence is true by going to that particular place and seeing whether or not it rains there. But we need not do so. By truth table analysis we can determine that it is true prior to such an empirical investigation. Hence, the sentence R v ~R is said to be knowable a priori. A sentence or proposition is said to be knowable a priori if it can be known to be true without the need to experience any of the things taht the sentence is about. That is, if you can know it, doesn’t matter how you came to know it, independently of experience, then it is a priori. For instance, a person may as a matter of psychological fact come to believe that seven and five are equal to twelve by counting objects, that is, as a result of experience. But if this truth can be known independently of experience, it remains an a priori truth.

    Here are a few more a priori truths, the sentence “All bachelors are unmarried.” is an priori truth. Or “Art is Art” is an a priori truth. Or “All prime numbers are numbers”. Or 7+5=12. Or “There is no biggest prime number”. Or Pythagoras’ theorem. Or the theorems of logic. Or “A cube has twelve edges.” Or the sentence “If everyone who went to the show received a door prize, then everyone who didn’t get a door prize didn’t go to the show.”, and so forth. I don’t want to get too far afield, but even the most ardent empiricist concedes that things can be known a priori.

    Have a good one.

  37. pancakesandwildhoney
    11 March 2014 at 12:04

    gbjames,

    Are you using the word ‘gem’ in the same way that Stove uses the word ‘gem?’

  38. couchloc
    11 March 2014 at 12:09

    “I do think the degree of stupidity contained in so many comments on atheist blogs is itself a sign that not all is well with atheism as a respectable intellectual position……the volume of incivility and plain stupidity of what some people consider a refutation of religion seems to me deeply worrying…”

    I second this. It seems to me there were two possibilities with the new atheists. They could have leveled a sensible critique of religion in its various forms, attending to the difficulties and subtleties of religion, and doing this while hewing to strong standards of argument and fairness in debate. But this is not what we were offered. Instead, we were given a largely simplistic critique of certain forms of religion, which dumbed-down its subject matter, and failed to engage the more complex difficulties religion raises. And much of this was done under the veneer of a holier-than-thou-smug-sort-of-rationalism. It is worth noting that the result of this approach has largely been the polarization of the debate about religion today. Both sides now basically shout at each other, and spend their time explaining why they have been misunderstood. It seems to me this situation resembles the broader political situation in US society today, which has also become increasingly polarized between “right” and “left”. The two parties have given up the pretense of a serious engagement and mostly talk to their bases.

  39. 11 March 2014 at 12:15

    Religion itself is not the problem, dogmatism is.

    I can’t believe you said that.

    It seems to me that dogmatism is the result of relying on a very poor epistemology wherever it’s found. Fine. We’re in agreement. But this does not in any way improve the epistemology that empowers religion… and the full spectrum of beliefs it enfolds to be considered such. To assume that religion in all its manifestations contains no fundamental and ubiquitous methodological problems for its contrary and incompatible claims with each other, but that the problems criticized by New Atheists are the dogmatic renditions of it, is simply ludicrous… not because of a dogmatic assumption by New Atheists but by compelling and overwhelming evidence adduced from reality that this is the case.

    Religion has been, is, and shall remain a problem, not (just) because of dogmatism but, because its beliefs are justified by a very poor epistemology and people then act on these beliefs all the time. To grant religion a pass by proclaiming only the dogmatic versions are the central and motivating problems for negative acts is to sever the causal connection between acts justified by religious belief and the role reasonable merit of the motivating beliefs themselves play. Surely you recognize this assertion you make as the tired ‘a few bad apples’ excuse. Ironically, you don’t seem to recognize that makes you part of the problem challenging religious privilege based on just these kinds of really poor assumptions. But you don’t refute dogmatism (defined as 1: a positiveness in assertion of opinion especially when unwarranted or arrogant. 2. : a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises) by utilizing the same very epistemology that empowers it.

  40. couchloc
    11 March 2014 at 12:23

    I will just add that I have learned quite a bit from atheist blogs and find some commentators insightful. But this doesn’t detract from the point that this is mixed with judicious amounts of stupidity by others, which has left a bad impression.

  41. Steersman
    11 March 2014 at 15:24

    GBJames (#30):

    However, this is a poor analog. The pattern actually goes like this: Theologically Minded Person (TMP) tells the atheist to go read Wise Theologian A.

    And that looks like a rather poor strawman: I wasn’t telling you to go read “Wise Theologian A”, but a well-regarded biologist and philosopher whose opinions on falsifiablility in particular seem quite credible and of some import to the argument you were advancing. You may want to read his “Nonsense on Stilts” which addresses the difference between science, pseudo-science, and outright woo. Particularly since some of the positions advanced by various “New Atheists” look to come in under the second if not third classification.

    But all of them share at least a kernel of awful. All of them assert that belief in supernatural entities is a perspective that deserves respect, if not agreement, from all of us. And this is where we part ways.

    All of them? That also looks like a serious straw-man to me, not at all supported by the facts – not all of them are predicated on “supernatural entities”, and rather damning proof of Eric’s criticisms of the dogmatism in “New Atheism”.

  42. 11 March 2014 at 15:32

    Eric (#32):

    I think the new atheism has achieved this status, and I am simply unwilling to ally myself with dogmatism in any form.

    A commendable position, generally speaking in any case as one might argue that that is in itself a rather dogmatic statement. For instance, the U.S. Declaration of Independence asserts that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ….” Which, while a commendable value and premise – an axiom in terms of logic, still appears not obtainable through the application of deductive logic or science. One might suggest that, as an alternative, we should be very circumspect and cautious about allying ourselves with any particular manifestation of it without considering the consequences and implications.

    In any case and somewhat apropos, I thought you might be interested in this book – available on Kindle – titled How to Make a Social Justice Warrior (1), a term that might be applied with some justification to many “New Atheists” and “feminists” – particularly, with respect to the latter, those who insist that “connecting ‘virulent’ with ‘feminism’ is misogyny”. But it was written by Will Shetterley (2) who argues that several salient features of those “warriors” are their dogmatism and cultish group-think:

    Irving L. Janis could have been describing social justice warriors when he wrote in Victims of Groupthink: “The member’s firm belief in the inherent morality of their group and their use of undifferentiated negative stereotypes of opponents enable them to minimize decision conflicts between ethical values and expediency, especially when they are inclined to resort to violence.[”] The shared belief that “we are a wise and good group” inclines them to use group concurrence as a major criterion to judge the morality as well as the efficacy of any policy under discussion.

    “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

    —-
    1) “_https://kindle.amazon.com/work/make-social-justice-warrior-intersectionality-ebook/B00IRUW8J6/B00IRUW8J6”;
    2) “_http://sjwar.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/13-how-to-make-social-justice-warrior.html”;

  43. 12 March 2014 at 08:03

    Which, while a commendable value and premise – an axiom in terms of logic, still appears not obtainable through the application of deductive logic or science.

    Precisely, and that is why I reject the scientism that would relegate this kind of claim to the dustbin. While not speaking directly to the Declaration of Independence, which has its own historical context, and must be understood within it, as well as within its history of interpretation, there seems to me a fairly sound basis for believing that such moral claims can be justified. Not slam-dunk justified, but justified within an ongoing cultural conversation, in which interpretive moves and countermoves play a key role. Just because we cannot achieve the certainty of some scientific conclusions in morality or politics, law, aesthetics, history and other domains of human concern (and I emphasise that “some”, because much science does not achieve the kind of certainty that is being used as the standard against which other knowns are expected to be measured) does not mean that we cannot reach sound conclusions in ethics, law, politics and other crucial aspects of human endeavour that demand rational assessment. By illegitimately using scientific method and empirical confirmation as the touchstone by means of which to assess what can be given the accolade of the word ‘truth’ we not only distort the kinds of expectations that we bring to such areas of concern, but we also leave room for largely illegitimate kinds of scientising pursuit, such as some forms of sociobiology, which hopelessly distort efforts to achieve rational consensus about matters of great concern to us. One of the things that the new atheism has done is to make it almost impossible, without contradiction, to make value judgements. Since “free will” and “determinism” are understood according to the strict cause and effect principle in terms of which scientific hypotheses are conceived and confirmation sought, the pose of moral outrage which is so often a feature of new atheist judgement of religious morality is reduced simply to the effervescence of a collocation of atoms and molecules held within the boundaries of the human skin, although those who express such outrage seem not to notice how inconsistent this is with their “bag of molecules” metaphor for the human “person”. I simply cannot find a way of translating this language into human terms, one of my chief reasons for bringing an end to my new atheist association. As for justice warriors, some of the most effective advocates for justice that I have known are Christians, who find in the Christian story a basis for concern for those unjustly condemned to second-class status in a world that is all about wealth, possessions and social standing. (And this is not to deny the philanthropy of people like Bill Gates, who has no religious commitment, though perhaps he should be more concerned about a society that permits such vast wealth as his to be accumulated in a society that also commits so many to penury and hopelessness.)

  44. 12 March 2014 at 08:23

    Couchloc, far be it from me to condemn all that is said on the atheist web. Of course not. I have not only learned much, but have on occasion changed my mind on issues where I had thought my mind firmly set. My point is that too much of it is of little value, and consists of high-handed dismissals of religion while showing little attempt at anything that could be termed rational thought, a posture often encouraged by the bloggers themselves (or web-siters, if you like). And while I was quite prepared to defend Dawkins’ amateur philosophising in The God Delusion, because it was, as I thought, a rough and ready start to a popular critique of religion that was much needed, I am not encouraged by the continued claim that this critique can be carried on without some familiarity with either religious studies, theology or philosophy of religion, premised merely on the grounds that there is no slam-dunk case for the existence of God. To take a vast cultural enterprise like religion, and dismiss it almost entirely on this basis, is something to which I can no longer give support. Jerry Coyne has suggested (to my mind, disastrously) that if anyone uses the word ‘nuanced’ about religious thought we should run a mile, when some appreciation of nuance is exactly what is needed if the critique of religion is to go forward. As one who cut his philosophical eye teeth on conceptual analysis, I find the blunderbuss critique not only to be lacking in nuance, but for that very reason to have simply allowed itself to run out in pointless repetition of accumulated error. This has not only encouraged shallowness of thought, it has meant that progress in understanding of either religion or atheism is at a standstill.

  45. gbjames
    12 March 2014 at 08:51

    Pancakes: I’m but a simple-minded fellow and use the word “gem” in the common-man’s way, to represent a bit of treasure, a small but sparkling thing, the possession of which is desirable.

  46. Barry
    12 March 2014 at 10:12

    Eric, it isn’t “New Atheism” that you are leaving, but atheism. Maybe this is why you are having so much trouble articulating a clear reason. For what is a clear rationale to you is muddled to me. I recall your exchange with Jerry Coyne about “other ways of knowing” and felt that you were confusing subjective and objective experience. You never did establish another way of knowing despite your rigorous pleas to the contrary. Now that you default to the pejorative language of “scientism” (a unnecessary term invented by those who don’t like the encroachment of scientific enquiry into areas of broader human experience) it is only a small step for you to lash out aimlessly at those nasty atheists on websites whilst ignoring the huge number of nasty and aggressive religious websites attacking atheists with impunity (not to mention the constant stream of religious apologetics that have been spewing out similar nonsense in more mainstream publications) – it’s not exactly a balanced analysis. And it may be that you are just too sensitive for the robustness of the debates that take place, and there is no shame in that.

    But having defined the value you see in religion without God, it is evasive to say the least not to state the evidential basis of that value. It simply won’t do to deflect criticism by saying it would take a book to explain. You have been invited to distill a few nuggets (gems if you will), but you won’t do this.

    It is also clear that, having made your decision to leave atheism, you are thrashing about and clutching at straws in your attempt to mount as rational a post hoc defense as you can. But surely you must see that you are simply repeating the shopworn arguments of the very religious groups you attempt to put distance between. “One of the things that the new atheism has done is to make it almost impossible, without contradiction, to make value judgements.” Really? In what sense do arguments about free will make it impossible to make value judgments?

    “Just because we cannot achieve the certainty of some scientific conclusions in morality or politics, law, aesthetics, history and other domains of human concern … does not mean that we cannot reach sound conclusions in ethics, law, politics and other crucial aspects of human endeavour that demand rational assessment.” I don’t know a new atheist who is arguing otherwise Eric. However, you seem to be rejecting (alleging “scientism”) that science can play any significant role in these areas, and this makes no sense.

    Maybe it would help if defined where you currently saw the boundaries between knowledge that can be uncovered by the scientific method broadly defined, and the other ways of knowing that you claim but have so far been unable to substantiate. Second, what exactly do you see as the difference between “reason” and the scientific method broadly construed?

    Your affection for religion clearly runs deep and is understandable given your background. You seem to want some of this back. Holding to some middle ground where you get to launch missiles against new atheists and simulataneously criticize the fundamentalist excesses of extreme religion is an intellectual desert occupied by Hart, Plantinga etc. As to your definition of this middle ground? – “I am talking about philosophy of religion which proposes completely different ways of apprehending religion, such as some of the stuff written by Richard Rubenstein, Don Cupitt, Richard Holloway, and a lot of ordinary language philosophy of religion which followed on some of Wittgenstein’s remarks about religion and culture.”

    Exactly what are those “completely different ways of apprehending religion”?

  47. 12 March 2014 at 12:18

    Barry, I find it unacceptable to be told what I am doing, when that is not how I have described either my beliefs or intentions. And the way you segue from this to different “ways of knowing” is simply way off base. There is no connexion. It is important to recognise that I have never (except by oversight) spoken of “ways” of knowing at all, and do not think this is a helpful conception. There are different “knowledges”, if you like, which are, at base, experiential, empirical, observational, etc., etc., which are not all departments of, or analogous to, science. Our moral and political knowledge resemble religious convictions much more than they do any of the sciences, and I think it quite reasonable that we may be said to know with respect to our moral values or political convictions, though with various levels of certainty. We may also have knowledge about religion, as well as what may be termed religious knowledge, if we restrict that to what can be reasonably known about religion as a human creation (and by this I do not mean evolutionary theories of religion as hard to fake commitment and counterintuitive supernatural agents). I do not think we can know that there is a god or life after death, or that the various doctrines of the religions are true. We can interpret those doctrines in ways that make perfectly good sense of what religious people do. A prayer of confession and request for forgiveness make sense in the context of various religions, without assuming that there is a god beyond us who hears and forgives. The problem with most gods is simply that, insofar as they are thought of as existing, they are too much like us, simply magnified manifold. But the God of Christianity (and I assume of Islam and Judaism as well) is unchangeable, so relationship with such a god is not even analogously personal, except insofar as the personal is perfectly immanent within us. And so the prayer of confession and petition for forgiveness can’t change God; it can only change us. God therefore need not exist in order to be the appropriate symbol of our endeavour to live will, as well as of our repeated resolutions to begin again. Indeed, as Don Cupitt points out somewhere, the most selfless devotion is something that we offer to our beloved dead, who cannot be changed by our devotion, but who do change us in and through the offering we make to them. If you are looking for a completely different way of apprehending religion, this is the direction in which I would look. From an institutional point of view this conception of religion is a non-starter, because it gives the institution no purchase over the minds and wills of others, but it may nevertheless frame a useful religious ideal, greatly improved over the models that are usually held up for our approval.

    So far as knowledge goes, I do think we have moral and political knowledge, and neither is scientific in the paradigmatic sense. Just think of the tradition of political thought beginning with Locke and ending, say, with Rawls (just to take two arbitrary markers). There are no certainties to be had, and political thought continues to refine and revise what we have come reasonably to claim that we know. Science, despite the general self-congratulation that scientists accord to their particular kind of knowledge, is also continuously being revised. (The reader might with profit consult Bernard Williams book Truth and Truthfulness to get a sense of just how tricky claims to truth and knowledge really are.) Indeed, to use Kantian language, our knowledge is always formulated within the limitations of our particular faculties. This is presumably what Hawking meant when he spoke of “model-dependent realism”. Things exist within our conceptions of them, and depend very much for their salience upon their salience within our conceptual schemes. To beings otherwise equipped, our science might well seem rather coarse, just as, for earlier humans, it would have seemed magical. However, just to add one more point, I have never suggested that science has nothing to contribute to other disciplines of thought. Of course it does, but this is something we should merely take for granted, without turning every discipline into a science. Science contributes to history, literary study, archaeology, biblical criticism, art and music criticism, etc., without turning history or various other disciplines into sciences. I would add that it is perhaps correct to say that all disciplines which provide justifications for our beliefs are “critical”, but even that is not to turn them into sciences, merely that they must have a methodology for distinguishing what is more likely to be true from what less likely to be true, and the standards and methods of “proof” will differ from discipline to discipline.

    As for suggesting ways in which to understand religion, I have briefly alluded to one way above, but I have done this before, to very little effect. My referring you to books is meant to remind you that the criticism of religion must take into account what philosophers and theologians have to say, and taking them seriously. New atheists present laughable argumentation regarding the existence of God, without taking into consideration what theologians and philosophers of religion have said. I am not setting forth this defence here. What I am saying is that too little attention has been paid to those who recognise the problems raised by modern discoveries for classical metaphysics, but who have tried to put a spin on religious language which exemplifies what the religious quest has been about (arguably) all along. The response from people like Dawkins is to say that they think fundamentalists are honest, and those who are not literalists are being dishonest and hypocritical, without even trying to understand what modern theologians (as well as some philosophers of religion) are trying to say. Fundamentalism is dead easy to refute, Gordon Kaufman not so much.

  48. couchloc
    12 March 2014 at 13:26

    “Eric, it isn’t “New Atheism” that you are leaving, but atheism. Maybe this is why you are having so much trouble articulating a clear reason.”

    This seems misleading to me. There are several other atheists who have raised concerns about new atheism, including Kitcher, Ruse, Baggini, Pigliuici, H. Allen Orr, Frans de Waal, and others. To suggest that one has to accept new atheism or nothing, seems merely to confirm Eric’s complaint that new atheists lack nuance.

    “You never did establish another way of knowing despite your rigorous pleas to the contrary.”

    I disagree with this. I think the problem stems mostly from new atheists’ inability to understand the relevant issues. Eric has given a pretty clear statement of his views about history, for instance, to support his view. I don’t see that this example has been disproven really.

    “you default to the pejorative language of “scientism” (a unnecessary term invented by those who don’t like the encroachment of scientific enquiry into areas of broader human experience)….”

    This again seems to simplify the debate. PZ Myers is hardly worried about “the encroachment of scientific inquiry,” since he’s a scientist, and he agrees there are justifiable claims of scientism. So this seems like another simplification. Must we simplify everything to suggest there are only two options in every debate?

  49. Barry
    12 March 2014 at 13:49

    “I find it unacceptable to be told what I am doing, when that is not how I have described either my beliefs or intentions.”

    What you think you are doing doesn’t match how you describe it. That is the problem, and my reference to your exchange with Jerry Coyne about “other ways of knowing” illustrates what I think is similar muddled thinking.

    “There are different “knowledges”, if you like, which are, at base, experiential, empirical, observational, etc., etc., which are not all departments of, or analogous to, science. Our moral and political knowledge resemble religious convictions much more than they do any of the sciences, and I think it quite reasonable that we may be said to know with respect to our moral values or political convictions, though with various levels of certainty. We may also have knowledge about religion, as well as what may be termed religious knowledge, if we restrict that to what can be reasonably known about religion as a human creation (and by this I do not mean evolutionary theories of religion as hard to fake commitment and counterintuitive supernatural agents).”

    I don’t disagree that our subjective selves hold certain things to be true, but there is a significant difference between my personal experience of a transcendent entity and the broader claim that I have knowledge that such an entity actually exists. Absent any verification this doesn’t constitute knowledge at all. Referencing moral and political knowledge compounds your problem. When you say, “…I do think we have moral and political knowledge, and neither is scientific …” you don’t define the “knowledge” component. What exactly is “political knowledge” in the way you mean it? Do you mean knowledge of ideas and/or events…or your feelings and reactions to them? And when you say “neither is scientific” do you mean that that “knowledge had not been achieved by the scientific method broadly construed?

    With respect to you points about religion, it is getting tiresome to hear further repetitions of the need for new atheists to read the right books and take them seriously. The statement, “My referring you to books is meant to remind you that the criticism of religion must take into account what philosophers and theologians have to say, and taking them seriously” seems to have been written in all seriousness, as though philosophers and theologians are representing knowledge in the same way. I wonder if you could give me just one example of an argument you think is convincing that new atheists haven’t taken seriously or addressed? In what sense is Gordon Kaufman not so easy to refute?

  50. Barry
    12 March 2014 at 14:11

    couchloc –

    “This seems misleading to me. There are several other atheists who have raised concerns about new atheism, including Kitcher, Ruse, Baggini, Pigliuici, H. Allen Orr, Frans de Waal, and others. To suggest that one has to accept new atheism or nothing, seems merely to confirm Eric’s complaint that new atheists lack nuance.”

    Indeed they do, but to avoid your argument ad populum my point is that eric has hardly articulated this clearly…at least from my perspective.

    ” I think the problem stems mostly from new atheists’ inability to understand the relevant issues. Eric has given a pretty clear statement of his views about history, for instance, to support his view. I don’t see that this example has been disproven really.”

    Oh please! Read E.H Carr’s “What is History?” Specifically the chapter on “Is History science?” Leaving simplistic views of testubes and labwork to one side for a moment, the whole thesis regarding historical knowledge rests on scientific (as broadly defined) methodology, in some cases explicitly so.

    “This again seems to simplify the debate.”

    Then I beg you to make it more complicated. My point about scientism (an argument I have had over at Pigliuci’s site) is that it is a pejorative label lacking definition – its practice has been applied to individuals (such as Harris), yet even there the claim is poor. It’s become somewhat of a rallying cry amongst theistic bloggers and a blanket term to refute the scientific method. The simple fact remains that if science is inappropriately applied then it ceases to be science. Eric jumps on this bandwagon with such alacrity – again without specifics). This has nothing to do with simplifying an issue into a false dichotomy.

  51. 12 March 2014 at 14:13

    Barry, I’m not sure what the point is of answering comments like yours, except that I hope that something will click along the way, but it doesn’t seem to. Did you read couchloc’s comment for a start? Just saying “What you think you are doing doesn’t match how you describe it” doesn’t do the trick I’m afraid, and referring to my difference of opinion with Jerry doesn’t do it either, because I don’t think he understands the point any better than you do. This is not a question of subjectivity/objectivity at all, for there are quite objective things that we can know about political and moral principles that can be discussed, debated, and to which we can come to agreement. Simplistic talk about subjectivity or relativity doesn’t cut much ice here, and shows a disregard for what has been achieved in our understanding of principles of governance and morality. The problem with introducing science into these discussions is that science simply has nothing to say, except insofar as it may be able to show, experientially, which principles work and which do not. But this doesn’t turn either morality or political philosophy into a science (despite the bastardised political science that pretends to do so). As to the idea of “the scientific method broadly construed”, I have yet to see an account of this that either cements its relationship with science, or in any clear sense demarcates a methodology. For those you have to go to the disciplines involved. And with regard to religion I gave you an explicit example of what I meant, and then suggested you read a book or two if you are really interested in getting it right. There is no way to enter this discussion unless you are prepared to read. It is silly to suggest otherwise, and no matter how tiresome you find the appeal to what is written on the subject, the requirement still holds: if you are going to justify your critique of religion you must at least understand what is being done in religious studies generally and in philosophy of religion in particular. It is really tiresome, I must say, to have this thrown in my face time and again. You wouldn’t even undertake gardening without trying to learn something about how to do it, and what flowers or vegetables require this kind of soil, shade or sunlight, this kind of fertiliser, etc etc.; why should you think knowledge of religion is any different? This is really getting us nowhere. This doesn’t mean that you must, but those who want to do a reasonable critique of religion must do so; and that is my concern.

  52. 12 March 2014 at 14:28

    Sure, Barry, but then to EH Carr you must add work by Richard Evans, Collingwood’s Idea of History, etc. For example, Evans writes: “Moreover, the theory and history of history have become an entirely separate branch of learning since Carr and Elton wrote.” (In Defence of History, p. 9). This is admonition that you might attend to. Certainly, scientific investigation may provide material for history, but the fundamental interpretive aspect of history is not amenable to scientific treatment, as anyone who has tried to determine who was responsible for WW I, or whether it was indeed a war whose prosecution served any useful purpose, would appreciate. Merely parroting Carr (who wrote his What is History? back in 1961, and in whose book there is not in fact a chapter entitled “Is History Science?” (possibly in the American edition, I don’t know), but rather “History, Science and Morality.” Indeed, he points out that the facts do not come to the historian in a “pure” form, but only through the minds of those who record them, that is, already interpreted. You talk about me jumping on bandwagons. So please stop dichotomising in your simplistic freshman way, which is what you are doing, or simply stop talking nonsense. Talk about tiresome!

  53. Barry
    12 March 2014 at 14:45

    The chapter in EH Carr is indeed entitled History, Science and Morality, but the question he answers in that chapter is as I stated. Correction noted, but it doesn’t help your argument to reference either Evans or Collingwood.

    “the fundamental interpretive aspect of history is not amenable to scientific treatment,” – you are absolutely right, when a historian takes the (sometimes incomplete) facts and offers their interpretation of events, that isn’t science. But in what sense is that knowledge? Because when new facts subsequently come to light (e.g the Zinoviev letter), in what sense was the earlier interpretation “knowledge”?

    “You talk about me jumping on bandwagons. So please stop dichotomising in your simplistic freshman way, which is what you are doing, or simply stop talking nonsense. Talk about tiresome!”

    I thought this was the kind of attitude of which you were so dismissive with new atheists? It’s a pity to see you descend to this level. “simplistic freshman way” – very classy.

  54. couchloc
    12 March 2014 at 15:02

    “Indeed they do, but to avoid your argument ad populum my point is that eric has hardly articulated this clearly…at least from my perspective.’

    All I’m saying is that Eric is not alone in being an atheist and thinking new atheism has certain problems. I’ve found that case persuasive, but it seems we disagree.

    “Oh please! Read E.H Carr’s “What is History?” Specifically the chapter on “Is History science?””

    To Eric’s response we might add another from Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Concept of Scientific History.” “Without a capacity for sympathy and imagination beyond any required by a physicist, there is no vision of either past or present, neither of others nor of ourselves; but without this, normal — as well as historical — thinking cannot function at all……The contrast which I am trying to draw is not the difference between the two permanently opposed……human demands…..The contrast I mean is one between different types of knowledge.”

    “My point about scientism….is that it is a pejorative label lacking definition….It’s become somewhat of a rallying cry amongst theistic bloggers….”

    Did you completely miss my reference to the PZ Myers?

    I will agree with you that claims of scientism are sometimes made in ways that are unhelpful. But this doesn’t detract from the point that there is a usage that’s relevant. Nobody here is against science; we’re merely concerned with scientific overreach in ways that we perceive are harmful. Incidently you’ve got the historical account wrong: the notion of “scientism” was introduced in contexts that have nothing to do with theism and it was only later that theist bloggers got on the bandwaggon. So you’ve got the history backwards I think.

  55. Michael Fugate
    12 March 2014 at 15:21

    As a case in point, this commentary appeared on Guardian today:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/12/scientific-study-flawed-manual-women-heart-disease

    What is an individual (in this case a woman) supposed to do in light of scientific knowledge? Individual results will vary, as they say. This may be one of the big differences between science and non-science, observing the path of an individual agent vs the path of a population of agents. Ernst Mayr called this population thinking and it is something that science does to verify results. Science lumps individuals together to make inferences about individual’s actions. It doesn’t tell us what each individual does, but what some or most do.

  56. 12 March 2014 at 15:31

    I’m sorry, Barry, but I must say your oversimplifications shine through, and I have marked enough freshman essays to recognise the genre. Take, for example, your point that my reference to Evans and Collingwood does not help my case. Well, perhaps not, but why not? Evans is directing his argument to Carr’s theory of history before the history of history and the theory of history became a separate discipline in its own right. I also point out that Carr states explicitly that facts do not come to the historian as pure facts, but already as interpretations. This raises questions as to its status as a science. It is, as I have continued to say, an interpretative discipline to which science may, on occasion, make a contribution. Take the argument, in Evans’ book, Lying about Hitler, in which he considers the number of people killed in the terrible Dresden raid nearly at the end of the war in Europe. There, he points out, there are perfectly reasonable estimates based on the size of the square in which bodies were burned, the size of the grating on which they were burned, how many bodies could be burned at the same time, and how quickly they burned, etc. These are “scientific” in the sense that the descriptions provide quantifiable empirical evidence. But then take the raid itself, and discuss whether it was justified, what purpose it served, who demanded it and why, etc., and you are into another level of discussion entirely to which science makes practically no contribution at all. You take no account of any of these things, some of which I provided you with in my last comment. This is oversimplification, and it is sign of special pleading, lack of background knowledge, and an unwillingness to listen to any ideas but your own. This, I am afraid, is often a sign of the beginner. And these are things that I have repeated and repeated, and so far few commenters have taken notice, aside from couchloc’s very careful comments. If you are going to respond to my comments, you must at least try to take what I say into consideration, otherwise we just end up talking past each other (or at least one of us does). It is not because I am dismissive that I have characterised your comments in the way that I have, but because they are oversimplifying and made without regard to what others have to say. It is called tunnel vision, and it is characteristic of a tyro. I’m sorry, but I did not mean to offend you, merely to say that you must demonstrate more depth. As I see from a comment just in from couchloc, the same concern is expressed there. I am grateful for his reference to Berlin. This has been my own point all along, though not so elegantly expressed. Different types of knowledge, not different ways of knowing.

  57. Steersman
    12 March 2014 at 21:47

    Hello Pancakes (#36),

    We meet yet again on another if related field of battle, but a moot point whether as “friend” or “foe”. :-) Although I tend to find some sympathy with Massimo Pigliucci’s masthead motto: “Truth springs from argument amongst friends”.

    In fact, that discovery has made me question whether or not my initial diagnosis of your position in this debate was correct, that is, did I misunderstand your overall point on Joe’s blog some time back? If I did, mea culpa. (Of course, I stand by my criticisms, but perhaps there was a larger point being made by you that I failed to notice.)

    No problemo – convoluted discussions tend naturally to misunderstandings. But without reprising our entire conversation there (1) and on other of Joe’s posts, it was largely to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Less obscurely or cryptically, it was that I was largely agreeing with Joe that many “new atheists” such as Jerry Coyne were far too cavalier in discounting the contributions of “religion” – particularly the Catholic Church – in the advancement of human knowledge, and that far too many Catholics, such as Peter, are far too steeped in if not besotted with Catholic dogma. Canons to the left of us, canons to the right – so to speak.

    That said, I must criticize this comment: “I wonder how else you can know something except through the senses.”

    Take the sentence “Either it will rain tomorrow (at a particular place) or it won’t”, in symbols R v ~R. …. Hence, the sentence R v ~R is said to be knowable a priori. A sentence or proposition is said to be knowable a priori if it can be known to be true without the need to experience any of the things that the sentence is about. That is, if you can know it, doesn’t matter how you came to know it, independently of experience, then it is a priori.

    I would say that that distinction – A priori and a posteriori (2) – is not a particularly credible one, and looks very much like a false dichotomy. One might “reasonably” ask where an understanding of, for example, raining and not raining first comes from if not from experience, and, more directly, whether or not you think that “knowing something to be true” qualifies as an experience or not. Consider (3):

    Although other sources of evidence, such as memory, and the testimony of others ultimately trace back to some sensory experience, they are considered to be secondary, or indirect.

    Putting the cart before the horse methinks; seems rather specious if not intellectually dishonest to concede “trace back to some sensory experience” while calling that experience “secondary”. But also (4):

    ex•pe•ri•ence n.
    1. The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind

    Seems to me that the experience of the particulars – it will rain or not rain; the stove is hot or the stove is not hot – comes first followed by the experience of the generalization, i.e., R v ~R. Exactly how that process happens internally is probably moot though of some import, but rather untenable to insist that it is something other than the sensing of various neurons and synapses in the brain – the same way that a thermostat senses room temperature and responds accordingly.

    But I think it is some sort of gestalt, an inductive leap, whereby all of those particulars are integrated into an “illuminating” or “revelatory” whole – something which seems rather universal given the ubiquity of cartoon images of lights turning on to represent the dawning of an idea. As a case in point, consider this story about the British astronomer Fred Hoyle in Paul Davies’ The Mind of God (highly recommended by the way):

    Fred Hoyle relates such an incident that occurred to him while he was driving through the North of England. “Rather as the revelation occurred to Paul on the Road to Damascus, mine occurred on the road over Bowes Moor.” …. One day, as they were struggling over a particularly complicated integral, Hoyle decided to take a vacation from Cambridge to join some colleagues hiking in the Scottish Highlands:

    “As the miles slipped by I turned the quantum mechanical problem … over in my mind, in the hazy way I normally have in thinking mathematics in my head. Normally, I have to write things down on paper, and then fiddle with the equations and integrals as best I can. But somewhere on Bowes Moor my awareness of the mathematics clarified, not a little, not even a lot, but as if a huge brilliant light had suddenly been switched on. ….” [pgs 228-229]

    I think the process is rather analogous to phase changes as with water from liquid to ice – you might be interested in this Mathematica (5) demonstration which models that process or transition as an increasing number of connections between a set of buttons or vertices; you might note the reference therein to At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity by Stuart Kauffman who seems to have been one of the first to develop or promote that type of concept.

    In any case, it would appear that, offhand, there are significant portions of philosophy that are still mired in archaic concepts and terminology that aren’t particularly credible or have been proven to hold very little water – Aristotle’s understanding of inertia for one, free-will versus determinism for another, and reason and experience (a priori and a posteriori) for a third, the last of which might benefit from some understanding of neuroscience, arguably the roots of virtually everything that we are and experience – something which Dennett emphasizes with some justification.


    1) “_http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/is-zucchini-a-good-thing/”;
    2) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_priori_and_a_posteriori”;
    3) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empirical”;
    4) “_http://www.thefreedictionary.com/experience”;
    5) “_http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/ConnectivityBasedPhaseTransition/”;

  58. Another Matt
    12 March 2014 at 22:30

    But if this truth can be known independently of experience, it remains an a priori truth.

    Here are a few more a priori truths, the sentence “All bachelors are unmarried.” is an priori truth. Or “Art is Art” is an a priori truth. Or “All prime numbers are numbers”. Or 7+5=12. Or “There is no biggest prime number”. Or Pythagoras’ theorem. Or the theorems of logic. Or “A cube has twelve edges.” Or the sentence “If everyone who went to the show received a door prize, then everyone who didn’t get a door prize didn’t go to the show.”, and so forth. I don’t want to get too far afield, but even the most ardent empiricist concedes that things can be known a priori.

    It’s always worth rereading Quine’s classic Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Your “a priori” truths are what Quine refers to as “analytic” (as opposed to “synthetic”) truths — those which are independent of facts. His analysis of why maintaining the distinction is ill-founded is fascinating.

  59. Another Matt
    12 March 2014 at 23:19

    There is no way to enter this discussion unless you are prepared to read. It is silly to suggest otherwise, and no matter how tiresome you find the appeal to what is written on the subject, the requirement still holds: if you are going to justify your critique of religion you must at least understand what is being done in religious studies generally and in philosophy of religion in particular. It is really tiresome, I must say, to have this thrown in my face time and again. You wouldn’t even undertake gardening without trying to learn something about how to do it, and what flowers or vegetables require this kind of soil, shade or sunlight, this kind of fertiliser, etc etc.; why should you think knowledge of religion is any different? This is really getting us nowhere. This doesn’t mean that you must, but those who want to do a reasonable critique of religion must do so; and that is my concern.

    I would like this to be repeated over and over. It’s just a matter of honest and competent scholarship.

    One way in for those of us who just can’t see why reading theology isn’t a waste of time is not to consider it an engagement with religious about the truth of their claims, but rather as a kind of anthropology — it’s the truth about what their religious belief is that Eric is getting at. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to know the history of all the religions or the details of all the theologies in order to mount a critique of religion. But one does need to cultivate the ability to grasp why for instance different denominations disagree in their interpretations of sacred texts or theology — what is the content of the disagreement, and what was the context? It’s obviously important to them, and it doesn’t take a great deal of empathy to make a human effort to understand. We secular humanists talk a lot about respect for humans — that means taking other humans’ beliefs seriously enough to understand what they really are and why they hold them.

    Try making the task not to consider “what if it’s true?” — which is still extremely important — but “why does this belief exist?” That would be a good first step.

  60. pancakesandwildhoney
    13 March 2014 at 01:28

    Another Matt,

    Still a priori truths though, which was my point–things can be known independent of experience. Yes, Quine’s Two Dogmas is foundational on the distinction, but not the last word, I don’t think. In fact, the last decade has seen some good work coming out of the philosophy of language and other areas defending the distinction. Gillian Russell’s Truth in Virtue of Meaning is a great example.

  61. pancakesandwildhoney
    13 March 2014 at 02:43

    Steersman,

    Yes, as Joseph Joubert once remarked, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

    As for the a priori/a posteriori distinction, I am not sure how it is not credible. It is a standard epistemological distinction. Telling me that I have a functioning brain is not much of an objection, I am afraid. Also, you are using a verbal trick by using the word “experience” as an analytic truth. I offer a counterexample to your above comment and you respond by telling me your concept of experience is immune to counterexamples. That is, it is a rather uninteresting truth (analytic truth). But of course you have merely avoided the real issue here. I have given you an example of me discovering the truth of something by simply constructing a truth table. Nothing else. No observation.

    If you think the a priori and empirical distinction rests upon an outdated psychological theory about abstraction, I tend to agree. But, really, empirical knowledge just means requires justification from experience. And a priori knowledge just means doesn’t require justification from experience. Suppose someone knows that ravens are birds, that Caesar either was born before Caligula or was not born before Caligula, that hydrogen molecules are molecules, or that there will be a storm tomorrow if there is a gale. These are clear-cut examples of what philosophers have meant by a priori knowledge. A person does not have to have observed ravens directly or indirectly in order to be entitled to say that he knows all ravens are birds; he does not have to have looked into Roman history in order to know that Caesar either was or was not born before Caligula; he need not have watched physicists’ experiments with hydrogen in order to know that hydrogen molecules are molecules; nor need he have seen tomorrow’s weather map to know that there will be a storm if there is a gale. In these cases the only experience that is required is whatever experience may be needed in order to enable him to understand the words in which the knowledge is expressed: no sense experience beyond this is necessary to justify his claim that he knows. And if being a living person makes all knowledge rest upon experience, then no counterexample can refute empirical being construed in this way, which means that it is an analytic truth (“living person” means “knows everything through experience”). The problem of course is that you have an empirical conclusion, that is analytic, while some of the steps used to reach the conclusion are inductive, for an empirical conclusion could never be established by reasoning that was completely deductive at every step. (See Carl Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science). And I think you will find that argument very hard to come by (does its negation lead to a contradiction? I don’t think so). And your whole enterprise is still plagued by the problem of induction, which is the reason some philosophers, even Russell, tried to argue that some knowledge is not based on any argument from experience.

    To reiterate, a subject like logic is concerned only with a priori knowledge (logic seeks a priori knowledge of the rules governing the validity of arguments) and therefore need not rely upon observations in reaching its conclusions, at least deductive logic. And pure mathematics is here as well.

  62. pancakesandwildhoney
    13 March 2014 at 03:02

    General comment.

    Someone may say, “These supposed “problems” are confused pseudo-problems. This sort of philosophical speculation about God and religion is meaningless.” Such a remark is too crude, however. Perhaps most of the perplexities that philosophers have felt regarding God and religion do arise out of misunderstandings of one sort or another; but all the same, the problems here are serious intellectual matters, for the misunderstandings out of which they arise are important and persuasive ones, not silly ones easily rooted out. They are philosophical problems that have to do with very basic, general questions about meaning, truth, reality and knowledge. These problems deserve to be examined and unravelled, not just dismissed out of hand. After careful reflection upon what has been said about God and religion by religionists and by philosophers down through the ages, one possible conclusion that we might come to is that religious talk is basically confused and incoherent, and in the end makes little sense. Even if this negative conclusion were to be reached, (and that is a tough road to hack) however, that would not mean that philosophical problems about religion do not deserve attention; far from it. For if religious thought is confused, then at any rate its confusions reflect strong and deep human intellectual tendencies; and these tendencies toward confusion can hardly be outgrown unless their sources are traced and understood. In fact, I could say the exact same thing about the philosophy of mathematics or any subject, for that matter.

  63. 13 March 2014 at 03:02

    Another Matt (#59):

    We secular humanists talk a lot about respect for humans — that means taking other humans’ beliefs seriously enough to understand what they really are and why they hold them.

    Try making the task not to consider “what if it’s true?” — which is still extremely important — but “why does this belief exist?” That would be a good first step.

    Not sure that that necessarily holds a lot of water. What about beliefs in astrology or UFOs or Big Foot or Heaven’s Gate? While I readily agree that it is appropriate to ask “why does this belief exist”, I also think a useful answer is more likely to be found more with understanding the psychological and neurological motivations or causes than attempting “to grasp why for instance different denominations disagree in their interpretations of sacred texts or theology”. And the latter would appear to result in getting lost in the weeds, lost in the details, without ever coming to terms or grappling with the root causes of “why those beliefs” exist in the first place. Somewhat apropos, Michael Shermer’s answer to that in his The Believing Brain (highly recommend):

    Shermer: Here I am interested in … why people believe anything at all. …. My answer is straightforward:

    We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.

    Not at all easy to disentangle those “reasons” from the facts themselves – which are frequently rather thin on the ground.

  64. 13 March 2014 at 03:25

    Pancakes (#61):

    I have given you an example of me discovering the truth of something by simply constructing a truth table. Nothing else. No observation.

    But I “observe” that you have constructed a truth table that apparently exhausts all possibilities – and I “see” that it is good. But I note that I wouldn’t have appreciated that construction unless I had been exposed to any number of experiences – of language, of science, of art – that undergird that conclusion.

    Seems to me that, offhand, you are partitioning reality into the reasoning and observation processes when, from what I managed to glean from Quine before my eyes glazed over, they are integral parts of the same whole:

    Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact.

    Really think that your “and a priori knowledge just means doesn’t require justification from experience” doesn’t hold any water at all.

  65. 13 March 2014 at 04:01

    Eric (#43):

    Steersman: [The Declaration of Independence], while a commendable value and premise – an axiom in terms of logic, still appears not obtainable through the application of deductive logic or science.

    Eric: Precisely, and that is why I reject the scientism that would relegate this kind of claim to the dustbin. …. Just because we cannot achieve the certainty of some scientific conclusions in morality or politics, law, aesthetics, history and other domains of human concern … does not mean that we cannot reach sound conclusions in ethics, law, politics and other crucial aspects of human endeavour that demand rational assessment. By illegitimately using scientific method and empirical confirmation as the touchstone by means of which to assess what can be given the accolade of the word ‘truth’ we not only distort the kinds of expectations that we bring to such areas of concern, but we also leave room for largely illegitimate kinds of scientizing pursuit, such as some forms of sociobiology, which hopelessly distort efforts to achieve rational consensus about matters of great concern to us.

    Ah ha! Some common ground! :-) However, while I generally agree with your arguments and conclusions there, it seems – as suggested by the recent discussions on both a priori and a posteriori, and those on synthetic and analytic truths – that the question of scientism or not is bedeviled by an imprecise definition of what is meant by “science” – “broadly construed” or not – in the first place. And it seems to me that in that regard Jerry Coyne is on a somewhat better footing than, for examples, either you or Massimo Pigliucci in suggesting, in effect, that its core elements, its sine qua non, is common across a great many fields of human endeavor – from art to history to philosophy to mathematics to science itself – with his assertion that the practice of plumbing qualifies as science through the use of induction to frame a hypothesis as to the cause of a problem, and through the use of deduction to find a solution. As
    the British scientist and Nobel Laureate P.B. Medawar, in his Two Conceptions of Science essay in his The Art of the Soluble, argued:

    ” … but the activity that is characteristically scientific begins with an explanatory conjecture which at once becomes the subject of an energetic critical analysis. It is an instance of a far more general stratagem that underlies every enlargement of a general understanding and every new solution of the problem of finding our way about the world.” [pgs 153-154]

    Seems to me that that “hypothetico-deductive scheme of scientific reasoning” – as Medawar phrased it – is based on the use of both inductive and deductive processes of thought, and constitutes the common “tool-kit” of all humanity – and of many other species for that matter since we’re all largely built from the same “hardware”. As I argued recently on one of Massimo’s posts:

    … I think it important to try to emphasize and elucidate what we share in common rather than what separates us – including the methodologies and principles that undergird our differing professions.

    And our differing ways of knowing, of our “different types of knowledge”.

  66. gbjames
    13 March 2014 at 07:44

    AnotherMatt: You said:

    But one does need to cultivate the ability to grasp why for instance different denominations disagree in their interpretations of sacred texts or theology — what is the content of the disagreement, and what was the context?

    Given that there are 40,000 Christian sects (by one count), imagine the difficulty in actually doing what you suggest. It would be, what…?, 40,000 factorial comparisons?

    It question to answer is not what are the nearly infinite deltas between these sects, but what does this fragmentation tell you about the religion project?

  67. Another Matt
    13 March 2014 at 10:09

    Given that there are 40,000 Christian sects (by one count), imagine the difficulty in actually doing what you suggest. It would be, what…?, 40,000 factorial comparisons?

    It question to answer is not what are the nearly infinite deltas between these sects, but what does this fragmentation tell you about the religion project?

    Yes, agreed. This is absolutely the most important question, but it isn’t the only question. I’d never suggest that someone actually try to find all the differences; but to try to understand why so many people take them so seriously is really important just as a matter of basic compassion and/or scholarship.

    Let’s say you were writing a paper about medical ethics in Catholic hospitals. Do you think you’d be missing something if you ignored the Thomist Natural Law in your work? Or what if you didn’t ignore it, but got many of its important doctrines wrong, and didn’t care? To any Catholic who took his church’s doctrines seriously, that would be sufficient grounds for dismissing your work altogether — you couldn’t be bothered to do the basic minimum to understand their point of view.

    There was a point recently when atheists were patting themselves on the back for knowing more about world religions than the religious themselves. This happened because atheists had been doing the requisite research. But I got the feeling from some of my atheist peers that since the study found that atheists knew more about religion, simply being an atheist was enough to also be a member of that knowledgeable cohort. This won’t do.

    Hitchens’s Razor is excellent: “That which is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.” This is a really healthy attitude — it helps cut through lots of BS. What it doesn’t say is, “That which is asserted without evidence may be safely ignored.” It’s still important to make an account of what is actually being asserted.

  68. gbjames
    13 March 2014 at 10:33

    I don’t know, Another Matt… Yes, one always should research relevant material when making a case. If we’re talking about the differences between the Amish in community A and those in community B, it makes sense to do the relevant observations of these two groups. But in terms of the main issues that this blog has wrangled with in the past (and others in the broader atheist blogosphere routinely do), this is a pretty un-interesting sort of question most of the time. This is partly why I find Eric’s quest for engagement with the theology of not-religion-anymore peculiar. Here we have some “post-Christian” people talking about religion without gods and such. It might be marginally interesting to “engage” in conversation with these subjects.. maybe over cocktails or something, but in terms of confronting real problems of the world this sort of “engagement” seems to me to be a complete waste of time and energy. If someone finds it valuable in some personal way, fine, everyone has personal interests. But to be so pissed off at those of us who aren’t interested is just weird, IMO.

  69. 13 March 2014 at 10:51

    Just a quick comment on this remark: “But to be so pissed off at those of us who aren’t interested is just weird.” I’m not pissed off with those who are not interested. I’m saying that the new atheism sets itself up in such a way as to illegitimise forms of religion other than those it claims to have refuted, and in doing so, to claim that this is the only legitimate form of religion. That is, any belief system that does not accord with scientific canons of evidence is ruled out as somehow an illegitimate project. I call this scientism, and reject it as science overreaching itself in a way that is self-defeating, because the claim that these are the limits of knowledge is not itself empirically verifiable. So, no, I’m not pissed off. I merely accept, as many atheists do, that we don’t have to take matters to this extreme, and should welcome forms of religion that do not have the deleterious consequences that so many religious institutions do. However, when the humanist chaplain at Harvard (I believe) speaks of accommodation with his religious compeers, the new atheists condemned him outright. It is a kind of religious intolerance in reverse, and I find it stultifying. But I’m not pissed off. If you want to be wrong, you don’t have to ask my permission! But I think the new atheism has become a liability to humanism, and I no longer choose to associate myself with its arrogance.

  70. gbjames
    13 March 2014 at 11:31

    OK. Not “pissed off”. “Agitated about”, perhaps? “Annoyed with”? Whatever the proper phrase is, I’m having a difficult making sense of it. I must want to be wrong.

  71. 13 March 2014 at 11:37

    Not pissed off, not agitated, just arguing a case. I think that the new atheism has taken a wrong turning, and makes unsupported claims for the omnicompetence of science. This shows in its fairly simplistic dismissal of religion. This is my last comment on this thread.

  72. gbjames
    13 March 2014 at 11:40

    “This is my last comment on this thread”.

    I think there’s an echo in here.

  73. couchloc
    13 March 2014 at 12:03

    “It might be marginally interesting to “engage” in conversation with these subjects.. maybe over cocktails or something, but in terms of confronting real problems of the world this sort of “engagement” seems to me to be a complete waste of time….”

    It seems to me that the issue can be understood in terms of the practical consequences for how to confront religion, and, hence, concerns a “real problem.” Compare the difference between:

    “Religion poisons everything.” Hitchens

    “Religion has sometimes had good effects. But to determine whether these effects are good on balance, we need sensitive empirical research on the issuse” (I paraphrasing from memory). Dennett

    The first attitude seems consistent with the dismissive response. There’s nothing to learn from religion, it’s all crap, based on faulty epistemology, etc. etc. So there’s no reason engaging the details of religion since it won’t change the strategy new atheists take in the public sphere.

    The second attitude recommends something different. It suggests a more careful examination of religion and its implications across a range of human practices, settings, etc., while recognizing the evident epistemological problems we all agree upon. On this approach we have reason not simply to dismiss religion, but to try to understand it better, because this affects atheists’ strategies towards it (you can’t beat your enemy if you don’t know them). So I worry gbjames is misunderstanding the broader concern here. It’s only because you’re committed to the first view that you fail to recognize the “practical” consequences of Eric’s recommendation. I’m putting words in his mouth, but this is maybe one way of understanding things.

  74. 13 March 2014 at 12:10

    I just said I would no longer comment on this thread. It’s becoming a full time job between here and whyevolutionistrue. However, I have just said something similar over on Jerry’s “website”. The point is to know what we are opposing, if we are opposing it. Just a blanket dismissal of religion if there are forms of religion that cannot be thought to come within that general rejection, is irrational. Indeed, since there are likely to be religions for some time to come, it would be better to encourage liberal forms of religion than simply to dismiss it outright. As religions become more liberal they more and more approach to humanism, and there may be a point of transition when this is what will happen. I do have reservations about the likelihood of religions of the book acknowledging fully that their sacred scriptures are simply human creations, and this has always tugged me back towards more militant forms of atheism. However, this does not take into consideration what more and more philosophers and scholars of religion are saying, and at the very least atheists must take these things into account when they reject religion. Anything else is, it seems to me, simply irrational, and this is what has increasingly struck me about the new atheism (even if this does not uniquely identify a single group of disbelievers).

  75. 13 March 2014 at 12:18

    Let me add something to that. It seems to me that there is an increasing intransigence on both sides (although the new pope seems to be moderating the rhetoric coming out of the Vatican somewhat), and in some places the development of ever more shrill forms of fundamentalism, both Christian and Muslim. I do not think an equally shrill form of atheism is at all helpful in this context. It is just buying into the same kind of easy rejection of alternatives, and may become part of the problem. If this is true, it would pay humanists and atheists and agnostics to moderate their rhetoric so that they are not perceived as intransigent idiots (as too many of the religious are becoming). I just listened the other day to Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining why he prefers the word agnostic, and found it compelling (notwithstanding AC Graylings’ disagreement expressed with so much clarity in a number of his works on religion).

  76. pancakesandwildhoney
    13 March 2014 at 12:33

    Steersman,

    A piece of a priori knowledge may depend upon a person’s grasp of language, and that person may have learned language from experience. But if a person, having learned a language, can come to know a truth without any further experience, then that truth is known a priori.

    The same for arithmetic. I know that seven plus five equals twelve is true wituout actually examining the results of adding seven things to five things to see if we obtain a collection of twelve things.

    As for Quine, yes, his criticisms are serious, but not substantial enough to reject the distinction. Quine claims that the distinction not only has the serious problems that he establishes, but that it is illusory; nonexistent. And his criticisms are not strong enough to support that conclusion, as Grice and Strawson have shown.

  77. Another Matt
    13 March 2014 at 12:35

    I do have reservations about the likelihood of religions of the book acknowledging fully that their sacred scriptures are simply human creations, and this has always tugged me back towards more militant forms of atheism.

    That’s a tough one, and probably the biggest obstacle we face. I know from experience that it tugs a lot of religious people back toward fundamentalism when they are challenged on the authority of their scripture (or tradition), because there definitely is a feeling that if it is “merely” a human creation, what good is belief in the truth of its doctrines? Faith is empty without at least some revelation from on high. Some of this could possibly be solved with a series of hermeneutic moves. If we can’t ever remove religion, we should want to help obviate sentiments like “what good is Christianity if it doesn’t tell us who deserves to be put through go to hell.” The first step there seems to be to combat literalism itself rather than the doctrines it leads to. I don’t know, maybe I have too pragmatic an attitude about this, but I’ll take an ex-fundie Tillich over a fundamentalist any day even if I disagree vehemently with both, and even if I think the Tillich is still spouting nonsense. There may not be such a thing as “benign nonsense,” but some of it is definitely more virulent than others. One of the “new atheist” things I’ve had a hard time with is the black-and-white thinking not just about what counts as nonsense, but what its consequences are — I don’t think it’s all the same.

    While I’m thinking about it, I wonder if at some point you’d be willing to repost one of your old articles, entitled “Holiness is a dangerous illusion” (or some such) — that is, if you still agree with what you said then. I used to point friends toward it now and again when the “holiness” concept came up.

  78. gbjames
    13 March 2014 at 13:19

    couchloc: “gbjames is misunderstanding the broader concern here”.

    I don’t think so, obviously.

    I’m perfectly able to distinguish between really-hideous religious practice and nice-liberal jesus-is-a-metaphor religion. These are not equally dangerous forms of delusion. And I would welcome a world where every Xtian church morphed into one of Eric’s we-ain’t-got-no-gods post-Christian book clubs. And I wish Eric well in establishing getting Fred Phelps and his family to convert. But I have very low confidence that that will actually happen and I will continue to object whenever artificial respect is demanded for either form. I dislike both versions, but for slightly different reasons. One part of the spectrum is more immediately dangerous. The other is less dangerous but in some ways more frustrating because it relies much more on turgid and obscurant prose that is nearly indistinguishable from the output of a postmodern content generator.

    For what it is worth: The Hitchens quote and the Dennett quote are not mutually exclusive perspectives. I think you would recognize that from a reading of the two relevant books.

    While you use Hitchens here as an example of a “dismissive” atheist response, elsewhere we hear Hitch being used (by Eric) as an example of a very religious man! (“Hitchens was a deeply religious man. He just thought of religious dogma as ridiculous, and so it is, for it tries, as every mystic knows, to say the unsayable.”) Which is it?

  79. Steersman
    13 March 2014 at 14:19

    Eric (#75):

    … the development of ever more shrill forms of fundamentalism, both Christian and Muslim. I do not think an equally shrill form of atheism is at all helpful in this context.

    While I think some new atheists go overboard at times, are a little self-indulgent in their anti-theism, it also seems frequently the case that the best course of action is to fight fire with fire.

  80. 13 March 2014 at 14:41

    Pancakes (#76):

    The same for arithmetic. I know that seven plus five equals twelve is true without actually examining the results of adding seven things to five things to see if we obtain a collection of twelve things.

    Maybe because you have the memory of seeing, of experiencing, of observing that “adding seven things to five things” is the same as (aka “equal”) to “a collection of twelve things”? Just a thought.

    And his criticisms are not strong enough to support that conclusion, as Grice and Strawson have shown.

    Nice hypothesis but I rather doubt that it has been shown or “proven” to be “true” to the satisfaction of every last (living) philosopher who has ever put their oar into the water on the topic. One might suggest that it is rather analogous to much of theology – and suggestive of the joke that if you took all of economists in the world and laid them end to end they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. Still seems to me to constitute a false dichotomy at best, and more likely to qualify as a deeply flawed and problematic if not incoherent argument predicated on an unwillingness to address the implications of neuroscience.

  81. 13 March 2014 at 15:01

    I’m saying that the new atheism sets itself up in such a way as to illegitimise forms of religion other than those it claims to have refuted, and in doing so, to claim that this is the only legitimate form of religion. That is, any belief system that does not accord with scientific canons of evidence is ruled out as somehow and illegitimate project. I call this scientism…

    What rubbish.

    Religious forms are illegitimate because of the METHOD used for those justifications… in the same way that all forms of ‘alternative’ medicine are illegitimate because of the method used for their justifications. If there is justification contained in some religious or alternative medicine CLAIM – as you insist there is – then it has to be shown to be justified not by the fiat of belief about reality (be it by the local practitioner or a sophisticated academic version of it) but by reality’s arbitration of the likelihood of this claim being accurate OF reality.

    Why you continue to redefine and misrepresent this understanding as ‘scientism’ reveals your refusal to understand and appreciate why this illegitimacy seems to matter in regard to claims founded on this methodology. This refusal you continue to maintain is the root cause of your misplaced blame on New Atheism and the foundation for your accommodation.

  82. pancakesandwildhoney
    13 March 2014 at 15:02

    Steersman,

    You have made all knowledge empirical knowledge by definition. If that is your track, then so be it. But you have only avoided the real issue here.

    How could anyone “prove” it beyond all doubt? We cannot have that sort of metaphysical certainty about anything except maybe some mathematical and logical truths.

    Even if I grant you that the distinction is problematic, ambiguous, and, perhaps, incoherent, none of that justifies the rejection, as illusory, of the analytic-synthetic distinction and notions which belong to the same family. Such criticisms scarcely amount to a rejection of the distinction. They justify a clarification or at least constitute a prelude to a clarification. In fact, even if you thought the distinction useless and that you could get on without it just fine, that still commits you to acknowledging its existence, which means that Quine has to go even further than that. And he does. He goes too far. Because Quine says that the distinction does not even exist. I’m sorry, but his premises do not entail that conclusion.

  83. couchloc
    13 March 2014 at 15:51

    “I will continue to object whenever artificial respect is demanded for either form.”

    I don’t think Eric is claiming that one has to “respect” religion. What he’s saying is that in responding to religon new atheists should respect reasonable and fair standards of argument and engagement. The dismissive response they adopt is a type of anti-intellectualism, and leading atheists astray.

    “The Hitchens quote and the Dennett quote are not mutually exclusive perspectives.”

    Fine. Fine. — We can argue about the particular examples, fair enough, but I think the distinction made is relatively clear. The point I was trying to make was that there are practical consequences behind Eric’s concerns about how to present atheism in society. Atheists should worry about this too.

    I’ll make this my last comment. Cheers.

  84. 13 March 2014 at 15:54

    Pancakes (#82):

    You have made all knowledge empirical knowledge by definition. If that is your track, then so be it. But you have only avoided the real issue here.

    Seems to me that, based on your “concession”, I’ve only “avoided the real issue” if my assertion that “all knowledge is [fundamentally or at root] empirical” is false. Which you’ve apparently conceded is not disprovable, but one that I would consider far more consistent with far more “facts” than the position you advance.

    In addition, while I will concede that there is some merit in the concepts of “analytic” and “synthetic”, although one might suggest that “analytic” is little more than “true by definition” which seems pretty empirical to me, it also seems that those concepts are rather fuzzy at best, and that there is frequently some degree of overlap. For instance, I remember reading many moons ago Nagel and Newman’s Gödel’s Proof – not that I ever managed more than a superficial understanding of the proof itself – and a salient quote was this quote relative to “Russell’s antinomy”:

    In short, [set] N is normal if, and only if, N is non-normal. It follows that the statement “N is normal” is both true and false. This fatal contradiction results from the uncritical use of the apparently pellucid notion of class. [pg 24]

    And you no doubt appreciate, or should appreciate, the consequences of integrating contradictions into a system of logic or a proof therein: ex falso quodlibet.

  85. couchloc
    13 March 2014 at 15:57

    Let me clarify that with fundamentalism we should be rather dismissive. I’m not referring to that. Part of Eric’s point is that there are more complex forms of religion that go beyond this and that can’t be assimilated to the fundamentalist model. Those views need more care.

  86. gbjames
    13 March 2014 at 18:05

    Couchloc: Perhaps you can define “fundamentalism” here. To me it does not include standard Catholicism, Methodists, UCC, etc. Yet all of these deserve to be dismissed, IMO, for the all entail advocacy of “faith” as a legitimate modifier for action. They all involve intercessory prayer and invocations of supernatural powers. Why should these belief systems be just as subject to “dismissal” as Pat Robertson’s version of ya-ya?

  87. couchloc
    13 March 2014 at 22:50

    Biblical literalism.

    I don’t think Catholicism can be reduced to a “faith-based” religion. The catholics founded the modern university system in europe, they give reason an important role, they have tried to modernize in some ways, etc. They have views find backwards, of course, but to lump them with the fundamentalists is another simplification to me. Most catholic professors I know abhor fundamentalism. I wont comment on the others.

  88. couchloc
    13 March 2014 at 22:56

    Sorry, I see that you weren’t lumping them together, but making a different point. My response is that, yes, what you mention is worthy of criticism. But there are other aspects that are rather respectable and could teach atheists a thing or two. E.g., the catholic view of educating the “whole person” (physical and spiritual), their anti-consumerism, their attempt to make values central to the good life, etc., are all worthwhile.

  89. pancakesandwildhoney
    14 March 2014 at 00:45

    Steersman,

    You say: “if my assertion that “all knowledge is [fundamentally or at root] empirical” is false. Which you’ve apparently conceded is not disprovable,”

    You have made “all knowledge is empirical” an analytic truth, yes. Now it cannot be the case that the premises are true and the conclusion is false, because it cannot be the case that the conclusion is false. So, you have validated your argument by weakening the conclusion–by weakening it to nothing (for an analytic truth says nothing about the world). Your argument is no longer an inductive argument, good friend. Of course, I am insisting, however, that the epistemological situation remains the same, but must now be differently described.

    You continue: “but one that I would consider far more consistent with far more “facts” than the position you advance.”

    Problem of induction. If it is only reasonable to believe justified propositions, then the invalidity of induction means that we cannot justify general hypotheses or propositions about unobserved cases. Hence, it follows that we cannot reasonably believe any general hypothesis or proposition about the unobserved. This is the whole reason Kant introduced the synthetic a priori. And it is a huge problem for so radical an empiricist as yourself.

    “although one might suggest that “analytic” is little more than “true by definition” which seems pretty empirical to me, it also seems that those concepts are rather fuzzy at best, and that there is frequently some degree of overlap.”

    Something being true by definition means that it is true independent of any empirical justification. If you understand the words, then you know the sentence is true. As for it being fuzzy, it is like the sentence “All bachelors are over 20 years of age”, which seems to be neither analytic or synthetic (working this out yields what is sometimes called ambiguous logic). But of course we could just introduce a new category: borderline cases. Or we could try to work out some artificial language or logically perfect language. Carnap’s artificial language failed and logical positivism died its second death, but I don’t see why key terms of a natural language could not be deliberately sharpened to permit a division between semantic analytic and synthetic, since the various sciences often do so quite successfully. The trouble lies with the axioms that allow us to construct such axiom systems, which are composed of one or more axioms, one or more rules of inference, and statements or theorems that follow from the axioms according to the rules of inference. Are the axioms analytic or synthetic? And that is what the whole dispute has been about for the past three hundred years.

    There are ways around Russell’s paradoxes (and Cantor’s as well). Russell and Whitehead avoid them. Zermelo avoids them. Von Neumann avoids them. Of course, this is all beside the point. More importantly the discovery of the paradoxes in set theory showed that concealed contradictions could be contained even in basic principles which had seemed simple and self-evidently correct. This focused attention upon the problem of consistency. Introduce Hilbert and meta-mathematical reasoning, then that raised another important question about deductive systems and their completeness. And it is good that you bring up Godel, for he was able to demonstrate that for systems of the most important kind, like Russell’s Principia Mathematica, consistency is incompatible with completeness. Such systems, if consistent, must necessarily be incomplete. In this sense, systems of this kind are said to be incompletable. Because of the way the formulas of the system reflect meta-mathematics, the special Godelian formula expresses a true statement about natural numbers just in case the meta-mathematical assertion with which it is correlated is true. That assertion is the assertion that this very formula is not a theorem. Thus we have a formula which is not a theorem if it expresses a truth about the natural numbers, and is a theorem if it expresses a falsehood about the natural numbers, forgiving my crude assessment. And the deeper into the rabbit’s hole we go. :)

  90. Another Matt
    14 March 2014 at 01:34

    Are the axioms analytic or synthetic? And that is what the whole dispute has been about for the past three hundred years.

    I was going to say something about this this morning, but I’m already in over my head; perhaps you’ll forgive a self-indulgence. It seems to me that axiomatic systems can be set up almost like counterfactuals — “suppose X is true; what follows?” Then “the world” is the arbiter of which axioms are successful and which aren’t, and it does become an empirical matter (though, not completely since, “what follows” still requires inference that isn’t derived from experience).

    I have seen some people defend “2+2=5″ as a perfectly good axiom in the abstract, but one which would instantiate a degenerate physics. A universe in which that were true would be a member of the infinite set of null-set universes — one where empiricism would be impossible because it couldn’t sustain observers. I’m not sure there’s a pragmatic difference between that and a synthetic truth, but I suppose if one were determined to make everything empirical, it would count. :) Cf. Is Logic Empirical? by Hilary Putnam.

  91. pancakesandwildhoney
    14 March 2014 at 04:53

    Another Matt,

    To play Hume’s advocate, you are assuming that nature is uniform. Why? Because it has been in the past…Oopps! :) Hume still has you trapped. :)

    The 2+2=5 axiom is interesting, although has you say it would lead to “a degenerate physics.” Of course, in Hume’s mind, it is just as reasonable as any other axiom, which is crazy, but Hume was an irrationalist after all (people always forget that about him). However, I think axioms like that are more interesting when they don’t express statements about the results of correct counting. When we pass beyond rational numbers and consider the real numbers (which include irrationals–some real numbers are irrational and some are not), we find that the laws of the real numbers have exceeded the bounds of what we can construe in this way. The theory of real numbers, in distinguishing between rational and irrational numbers, introduces a subtlety which goes beyond the procedure of counting. Here the intricacy of the mathematical formulas has begun to outrun our capacity to construe them as statements about counting: the theorem taht a real number is either rational or irrational cannot be viewed as a true statement about counting. The arithmetic of transfinite numbers, and, a fortiori, all forms of set theory in which it is derivable, go still further in this direction, of course. For example, the theorem that there are more real numbers than there are rational numbers cannot be construed as a truth about our procedures of counting. Here the elaboration of the mathematical formulas has far outrun the bounds of what can be construed as statements. Axioms construed in this light, while still deeply flawed, or not, are more interesting, in my mind. Just rambling here.

  92. gbjames
    14 March 2014 at 07:37

    @couchloc: If it isn’t faith that catholics rely on in the belief that wine and crackers are really real Jesus when consumed with the proper magic words, then I don’t think we have a common definition of the word “faith”.

    As for the “educate the whole person” bit, for the life of me I can’t see why atheists need to learn from the Catholic Church about both “physical and spiritual” education. Are you serious? What has a secular school have to learn except about the delights of “serving the lord”?

    I’ll maintain my position that there is good reason to “dismiss” non-fundementalist religion just as we do as fundamentalist versions.

  93. 14 March 2014 at 09:06

    @couchloc, who says I don’t think Catholicism can be reduced to a “faith-based” religion.

    Are unfamiliar with the catechism? The profession of faith: god comes to man, man’s response to god, the creeds, god the father almighty, creation of heaven and earth, man in god’s image, Jesus Christ his only son born of Mary, conceived by the holy spirit, suffered, crucified, died, buried, descended into hell and rose on the the third day, yada, yada, yada. The religion is founded on faith-based beliefs, built on faith-based beliefs, acts on faith-based beliefs, and promotes faith-based beliefs. Creed by catholic definition means “I believe…” and not for compelling reasons adduced from reality but imposed on it.

  94. 14 March 2014 at 09:26

    @Another Matt, who writes I have seen some people defend “2+2=5″ as a perfectly good axiom in the abstract, but one which would instantiate a degenerate physics.

    Obviously you’ve never done mole problems where 2 moles plus 2 moles can be all sorts of answers – including 5 – depending on which chemical compounds are being mixed, without degenerating physics! These seem to be accurate calculations with observable results. The point is that math is still related to reality in that it is a symbolic representation of quantities it contains. Sure, it’s axiomatic, but the knowledge we accrue from applying this representative system to reality is still dependent on reality for verification… although ignoring this necessary step seems to justify in some people’s mind that it’s a different way of knowing than the way reality is allowed to arbitrate other claims made about… and then labelled as evidence for ‘scientism’.

  95. Another Matt
    14 March 2014 at 09:56

    @tildeb:
    In the chemistry case the + and = signs have a different meaning from how we use them in arithmetic. It’s been a long, long time since I did any mole problems, but I seem to remember a lot of underlying algebra to account for the numbers at the molecular level. I also seem to remember using a “yields arrow” rather than an equals sign to avoid confusion.

    I’m talking more about a case where anytime two couples go on a double date, a fifth wheel automatically joins the party — this would lead to some pretty strange physics at a subatomic level, yes? The problem with counting protons (say) in such a world is that every conceivable pair of pairs would “cause” a fifth entity to pop into existence.

    @pancakes:
    I’m not necessarily assuming that nature is uniform — plenty could change in the future that we’d need to take account of.

    “However, I think axioms like that are more interesting when they don’t express statements about the results of correct counting.”

    I agree, actually, but I think counting is a really important subset of what one can do with the Reals. Such an axiom would have pretty profound effects on “the results of correct measuring” as well — measurement of continuous intervals includes all the Reals. Some of the irrationals (e.g. square roots), and at least one transcendental (pi) can be said to be derived from rather simple distance measurements. A universe in which 2+2=5 would have some pretty wacky spatial features, or none at all — working that out is way beyond my learning.

  96. 14 March 2014 at 12:00

    @AnotherMatt,

    Fifth wheel! Ha!

    I understand what you’re saying. I just wanted to make the point that we require reality to be the foundation for any symbolic representation of it (to criticize the notion many people cling to that math and logic somehow and mysteriously seem to ‘exist’ independent of the reality they are trying to describe). My selection of moles was simply a way to show that what numbers mean depends entirely on what it is being quantitatively compared and do not themselves contain an independent meaning untethered to the reality (and the relationships between things it contains) that they are trying to describe.

  97. pancakesandwildhoney
    14 March 2014 at 12:28

    Another Matt,

    If you are not assuming that nature is uniform, then why would what follows X being true matter? What’s the relation?

  98. 14 March 2014 at 12:36

    “I just wanted to make the point that we require reality to be the foundation for any symbolic representation of it ”

    Thus far Tildeb. However, this is not necessarily the case, since we can take the symbol ‘God’, which may have no instatiation in reality, and yet use it as a symbol to represent something quite imminent, such as a limit point of moral striving, and whilst there may not be any chance of achieving that limit point, and the symbol does not refer to any reality, it could still function in a regulative way in our lives. The same happens, as I understand it, in string theory, which is a conception which so far has no confirmation, and yet from which conclusions can be drawn. So here are symbols which reach towards a (possible) reality, and yet may in fact not be instantiated in any reality at all. Religious concepts are often like that, their effective reference being to organisational aspects of human projects. Suppose that there is no being corresponding to the term ‘God’. It does not follow that the concept itself, within its religious context, cannot serve purposes having to do with moral commitment and personal development. Indeed, the logic of these concepts can often be shown to quite independent of the existence of any corresponding entities.

  99. 14 March 2014 at 12:39

    I should add that, so far as mathematics is concerned, we can develop axiomatic systems which have no application whatever to reality. Sometimes such systems are developed, and only later are shown to have practical application.

  100. 15 July 2014 at 16:46

    Hi Eric, I hope you’re well. Sorry to be off-topic, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts concerning the recent news coming out of England about assisted dying legislation. Two prominent Anglicans have surprisingly come out in favour, and there’s a bill that’s going to be debated in the House of Lords on Friday. Latest update here:

    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jul/15/assisted-dying-leading-doctors-lords-back-legalisation

  1. 10 March 2014 at 11:39
  2. 14 March 2014 at 14:24
  3. 30 June 2014 at 11:38

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