“New Atheists’” Bad Rap

/OpenRant

The “New Atheists” are frequently disparaged as shrill, abrasive, and counter-productive — but when I read them what I see are wrters:

  • who are dumbfounded that >50% of Americans don’t “believe” in evolution,
  • who watch awestruck when Catholic and Muslim leaders tell millions of people not to use condoms (knowing full well that thousands of them will die of AIDS),
  • who see people riot in the streets because of cartoons in far-away newspapers,
  • who listen attentively to the stories of abuse of women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali,
  • who see the news of children dying from “faith” healing,
  • who realize that the election of W. Bush was funded and executed by a motivated religious community,
  • who do battle with people on education boards who would turn science into Bible-study,
  • who see decades of needless conflict that fall along religious lines (as in the former Yugoslavia),
  • who realize a person that (openly) does not “believe in god” cannot be elected to high-office in this country,
  • who fear what notions of sin, hell, judgment, and rapture are doing to the minds of our youth,
  • who see families in under-developed nations ripped apart by religious missionaries,
  • who see people mumbling to unseen gods to help them win lotteries or football games, or mumble to unseen gods to save them from their own sins and to avoid damnation,
  • who see people who have translated their god-beliefs into other areas of their lives such as astrology and numeracy or who live in fear of alien abductions,
  • who see people missing life because they are sure they are heading to another one,
  • who look at the history of the Church and realize when the Church was strong, when the Church had power—everybody but the Church suffered,
  • who look out and see the worst cases of the suppression of freedom in our modern world comes from highly religious countries…

—when I read Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens, I see people who look at all this and have said enough!

These writers see that god-worship is most likely an expression of our complex psychology and evolutionary past. They see that scripture and revelation are merely the “best” writings of tribal peoples. These atheist writers continue to affirm the mystery of our world, and they discuss the ways that we as a species have been successful at understanding our mysteries and dispelling our fears. They have shown that it is not by praying that the rains come–nor by our sin that earthquakes strike, and it is not by praying we cured ourselves of plagues nor through such techniques have we come to understand the rotations of our solar system. It is not by adherence to holy-writ that we have gained equal rights for women or released races from slavery—it has been the kinship of enlightened, scientific worldviews and liberal politics. 

Throughout history, the majority of the conservatively religious have been on the wrong side of these issues. While some enlightened religious leaders may have helped to push for the abolition of slavery in the United States, there were many more on-record as being for it. In our country the more devout, more pious, more religious South was the champion of human ownership, not its dispeller. 

These writers have looked out and asked, what is it that all of these problems have in common—what is it that the perpetrators of our modern ills seem to share? And it is not difficult to see they share holy books, and they share revelation. They share a view that plain right and plain wrong is writ large in their Bibles and Korans and that their God hath helped them to see the light—that Jesus has saved them or that Mohammed has guided them—and that, by god, they are going to spread the news!

These writers can plainly see that the more religiously devout a nation is the more of social ills it seems to suffer. They can see that enlightened societies with high incidences of disbelief—with large numbers of atheists and lightly-held-to-gods are better adjusted, less violent, and more socially integrated. They assume this is no accident.

These writers seek to dispel the mythology of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism; they seek out ways to release our minds from the subservience to gods. They see the next step in the long childhood of our species is to put away our lightly-veiled paternal transference onto supernatural beings. They seek to switch-on the light and bring people out from the shadows of their gods—they are for exposing the real questions of our universe and for sharing with everyone what it is very likely we really do know—that we were not created in the image of a deity, that we need not fear eternal torture, we need not get down on our knees and pray, we need not worship, we need not praise, we need not be shackled to ludicrous texts!

/CloseRant

Of course there is more to say. At the same time I think all of the above is true, I also think these writers paint with too-broad a brush, and in so doing they have made enemies of friends in the moderate/liberal religious community. There is much more to say. So much more to say…

20 Responses

  1. Long ago and far away, when such books sold well among the young, I started reading books by separatist feminists. The ones that assumed all men are rapists. The ones that assumed marriage is equivalent to prostitution, and that childbearing was a form of gender slavery, and that if I married and had children I would be a gender traitor, and if I really loved my gender I would forswear relationships with men and start up a separatist community until we overthrew the patriarchy.

    But you know, my boyfriend was just so much fun I couldn’t give him up. And then I remembered my father was my biggest cheerleader when it came to getting an education and a science-based career and starting a business. And then I got married to that fun guy and had kids, including a – shudder – yes, a male child. I brought another male into this patriarchal world, yes I did . . . And even though those writers had some good points, I thought, their picture lacked something . . . what is that phrase I was looking for . . . oh yes, a connection with complex, lived reality.

    Though I know, respect and love some atheists, I am not a fan of the New Atheist authors. It is not because all their points about toxic religion are wrong, any more than separatist feminists were wrong to point out that men have gotten a massive free ride from the intellectual, emotional and physical labors (pun intended) of women or wrong to catalogue the manifold, well-documented and vicious evils of men, which go on to this day. But you know, if you get your head out of your books, or peer around the computer screen, you find that not all men are rapist bastards. And not all religion is toxic. There’s a bigger picture in Realityland, and one would think that people who claim to love science so much would bother to do better research and observation.

    Somehow the New Atheists miss the fact that Western religion was a major force behind the development of human rights movements and the development of science. If the statistic Tyson cited in an earlier post is right, that 50% of religious Americans are moderates and/or liberals, the New Atheists also miss the fact that those people in general share little in common with the goals, interpretations and methods of fundamentalists.

    In other words, the religious people who helped elect Obama, without whom Obama would not be in the White House right now, the religious center and the religious left, support many of the New Atheists’ goals around science and around human rights, but are distinctly not welcome by those self-proclaimed enlightened New Atheists . . . enlightened, my pew-sitting arse.

    What I think is utterly hypocritical about the New Atheists is that they are as rigid, exclusivist and dogmatic as any hell-proclaiming religionist, preaching intellectual and moral damnation to all who reject their brand of intellectual correctness and their gospel of enlightened intolerance. Sam Harris on the one and only proper way to be a mystic had me laughing so hard I spit out my coffee. I know Benedictine monks who are less rigid — less “orthodox” — than Harris.

    Being the religious person that I am, I confess that I am a wretched sinner whose fondest wish would be to see a cage match between Sam Harris and Mark Driscoll, preferably with them in Speedos. And that’s why I need religion, folks . . . nobody’s retinas should have to perceive Harris or Driscoll in a Speedo. It’s Good Friday and today through Easter, I shall attempt to keep my thoughts on better things. I’m going right now to church to repent.

  2. ****the following comment is from Jesse, trapped behind an evil corporate firewall!****

    welcome back Tyson, i’ve been missing your rants…..see, i still do check this site for updated editorials! as does mrs. Anna i see. very eloquently written.

    i hold the view between you two…..i don’t believe in what “organized religion” teaches and i don’t believe the world should be without religion any more than i believe the world should be without guns.

    i don’t know about anyone else, but i crave variety in everything. i want some chocolate in my peanut butter. if we lived in a world that was predominantely run by science, there’s no doubt i would be in a monastery somewhere in Italy. but i would probably be the cook in that monastery, breaking down the best way to make bean soup with the most scientific of measurements, like Nacho Libre!

    what does this have to do with anything athiest vs. theiest? well, it’s not what other people think that dictate my beliefs, just my outer appearance. as Anna K. so intelligently pointed out, the religious rite and the new athiests are probably of the exact same beliefs, it’s just the views of others that make them appear the way they do.

    and i know it really won’t matter when we’re all roaming around as ghosts later on…..or zombies depending on if World War Z has started yet or not.

  3. Anna, I see you’re at it again. I want a word on this, although I guess my arguments are already void, arrogant “New Atheist” as I am.

    I strongly disagree with the ludicrous idea that the criticism of religion would be comparable with extreme feminism. I am as little against the opposite gender as I am for formulating ideas and arguments. It is true that you can adhere to a religion and still be mainly a rational, moral and compassionate, but this is not due to the religion. Name a moral statement or action that can not be stated or performed without a religious context.

    This is also why your assertion about western religions (I will assume Christianity) contribution to secular values is simply wrong. Religion always tend to adopt social advancement when the wind of opinion starts to blow the opposite way. The matter of fact is that if religious moderates really want to part with fundamentalism, they must start calling a spade a spade. The only thing religion achieves is to make us content with less. Religion do poison everything.

    But no, this doesn’t mean religion is everything, thankfully. Those religious people must not have relied on their religious obligations when they put their vote on Obama. One can easily imagen more likely choices in the case that they would have. But to me this just seems like a red herring to the real objective; the attempt to discredit religious criticism.

    Your portrayal of the “New Atheists” strikes me as quite slanted. If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. I can only see that your own subjective views are coloring your rendering of their arguments. While the history of the religions are filled by nothing but intolerance, especially in the physical sense, the only thing atheists tries to do is to enforce the intolerance against false or incorrect arguments. Beliefs and arguments can not be respected, because they are not something you can respect by definition.

    Where have Harris stated there is only one way to be a mystic? Have he not explicitly stated that just as there is no one food that everyone like, there is not only one way to connect with the spiritual. I would really like a reference to any contrary statement he have made.

    Your repents are reserved for those you have done wrong, not to some cosmic dictator. Based on the amount of misrepresentations and lies in your thesis I’m very tempted to demand repent from you.

  4. Jesse, thank you for your kind words. You would like the monastery up the road from me. Their bakery is what supports them – and yes, they are exact with their measurements.

    If there’s an afterlife and we become ghosts, I hope you and I will meet up for some spectral beers and plan a really excellent haunting somewhere. Maybe we could poltergeist some evil corporate firewalls . . . ? ;-)

    ***
    Roger wrote: Anna, I see you’re at it again. I want a word on this, although I guess my arguments are already void, arrogant “New Atheist” as I am.

    — Hi, Roger! Yes, I’m back, at least for the moment . . . Are my arguments void in your view, because I am religious and therefore hold what you consider to be false beliefs? I was an atheist for many years; my father’s an atheist; I have friends who are atheists. I am happy to discuss things with atheists. I think the New Atheists are wrong for many reasons, but I am not opposed to atheism per se.

    Now, I will repent that my comment above was a snarky rant, and for someone who criticizes the New Atheists for being uncivil, that’s the pot calling the kettle black, and I shouldn’t have done it.

    However, you said you were tempted to ask for my repentance for being a liar who misrepresents things. Well, I don’t consider myself a liar, and I don’t think I’m misrepresenting anyone. I take the New Atheists to be grossly distorting and misrepresenting religion and religious people, even as they claim to be public intellectuals defending education and reason. Must I set aside my indignation at their hypocrisies, even as you use this blog to freely express your indignation at religious hypocrisies (which are, I agree, abundant)?

    We do indeed strongly disagree when it comes to religion and the New Atheists. I wonder whether, despite the disagreement, we still can address one another as individual human beings? It is hard to do so sometimes, isn’t it?

    Roger wrote: I strongly disagree with the ludicrous idea that the criticism of religion would be comparable with extreme feminism. I am as little against the opposite gender as I am for formulating ideas and arguments. It is true that you can adhere to a religion and still be mainly a rational, moral and compassionate, but this is not due to the religion. Name a moral statement or action that can not be stated or performed without a religious context.

    — Okay . . . you did say you saw I was “at it again,” which I assume means you at least occasionally read my other comments. Where have I ever claimed that one has to be religious to be moral? I don’t believe that at all. I have said that religion frequently makes people behave immorally. Religion is AMORAL, just as any human enterprise is, including science. It depends entirely upon how one uses it. People can use it to commit evil, or they can use it to do good.

    Roger wrote: This is also why your assertion about western religions (I will assume Christianity) contribution to secular values is simply wrong. Religion always tend to adopt social advancement when the wind of opinion starts to blow the opposite way. The matter of fact is that if religious moderates really want to part with fundamentalism, they must start calling a spade a spade. The only thing religion achieves is to make us content with less. Religion do poison everything.

    — This is quite a string of assertions as well . . . For one thing, religious moderates and liberals are indeed in serious and prolonged conflict with fundamentalists, up to and including legal battles. If atheists cannot be bothered to read religion stories in the news or follow the religious press, and if atheists are thus unaware of all the confrontations resulting from these conflicts, then they need to do better research.

    The Western religions in your view may not have contributed to ‘secular values’ . . . unless those secular values include respect for human rights and the development of science, which I assume they do. In the United States and Britain, at least, Christianity was directly connected with the abolitionist movement and the early women’s movement. Nietszche was right: In many ways, Christianity was and is a ‘slave’ religion which elevates the victim over the victor. One of the most profound themes in Judaism, the Exodus, privileges slaves above masters, very unusual in the ancient world. The liberationist strains running throughout the Jewish and Christian narratives stand sharply distinct from other systems, like Taoism, Hinduism and the beliefs of the Hellenistic world, which emphasized the importance of preserving social hierarchies and which extended little sympathy for those on the bottom rungs of the social order. The Judeo-Christian traditions repeatedly call for the established order to be turned upside down. In the U.S. social justice movements have been directly inspired by this, which is why Martin Luther King Jr. so often quoted the prophet Amos. Has religion been used to repress people? Absolutely. But it’s also been used to free them.

    As for science, one of the reasons many historians think it developed in the West as opposed to say, China, which was more poised for technological advance in some ways, is because of specifically Western theological contentions around the divine as representing ultimate truth and rationality; and Western ideas around cause and effect derived from a linearly chronological theology which claimed that the natural world had a beginning and will have an end (as opposed to cyclical/eternal views held in many Eastern religions). Modern science grew out of natural theology, which in the West was influenced by both Greek ideas (preserved by the Muslims and incorporated by medieval Christians) and by Judeo-Christian ideas that that there were ‘laws’ that could be discovered in nature which reflected the presumed rationality of the divine Logos. Such unusual theological notions directly supported the modes of thought needed to develop science. Has religion been used to suppress inquiry? Absolutely. But it’s also been used to foster it.

    Roger wrote: But no, this doesn’t mean religion is everything, thankfully. Those religious people must not have relied on their religious obligations when they put their vote on Obama.

    — Well, I worked in a campaign office for several months to help get Obama elected, and I was surrounded by dozens of other religious people enthusiastically volunteering to do the same. What religious obligations do you think we had to set aside to support Obama? The obligation to foster peace? To promote justice? To extend charity?

    Roger wrote: But to me this just seems like a red herring to the real objective; the attempt to discredit religious criticism.

    — I discredit the New Atheists’ brand of religious criticism which is based on what I consider to be an anti-pluralist philosophy of intolerance, broadbrush contempt for billions of people, and apparently, ignorance of actual, lived religion.

    Roger wrote: Your portrayal of the “New Atheists” strikes me as quite slanted. If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. I can only see that your own subjective views are coloring your rendering of their arguments. While the history of the religions are filled by nothing but intolerance, especially in the physical sense, the only thing atheists tries to do is to enforce the intolerance against false or incorrect arguments. Beliefs and arguments can not be respected, because they are not something you can respect by definition.

    — Well, I think tolerance is essential to the functioning of a liberal, civil society; meaning that even if you think your neighbor’s beliefs are wrong, you cooperate together on other things, assuming everyone is law-abiding. That is the very definition of intellectual freedom and freedom of conscience, is it not, that neighbors can hold different views and still be citizens together? Intolerant societies are inevitably illiberal and uncivil, as far as I can tell.

    The ‘history of the religions are filled by ‘nothing but intolerance’? You can’t find any evidence in history of religious people extending theological notions of peace and love and charity by working for social justice, caring for the sick and the poor, housing the homeless, setting up universities and hospitals?

    And how far does “enforcing intolerance” extend? Clearly, you and I disagree on many things, but would you be willing to work with someone like me to get real science (that is: evolution and evolution only) taught in science classrooms? I oppose creationism: it’s not science and even worse, it’s bad theology. Would you work with someone like me to promote women’s rights and gay rights (I see them as deeply linked, myself, and also as theologically supported)?

    Or are my false and incorrect religious ideas too much to tolerate? What does that intolerance mean, anyway, in real life? Does it mean you couldn’t permit yourself to work civilly with me on anything, even as we disagree about religion, even if we shared certain educational and social goals? This is not a snarky question, it’s an honest question. I’m wondering how far “enforcing intolerance” and disrespect “by definition” for my false and incorrect ideas should go – far enough to prevent common courtesy? Far enough to prevent any other kinds of alliances on shared goals?

    And I also wonder what you mean that ‘beliefs and arguments cannot be respected, because they are not something you can respect by definition.’ Yet you feel that I’ve treated the beliefs and arguments of the New Atheists with such disrespect that you ask for my repentance. But I think the New Atheists’ views are false and incorrect. So why, if I am only doing what you yourself claim the right to do, should I have to repent for criticizing views I consider false, but no one has to repent for criticizing mine? Bit of a double standard, isn’t it?

    Roger wrote: Where have Harris stated there is only one way to be a mystic? Have he not explicitly stated that just as there is no one food that everyone like, there is not only one way to connect with the spiritual. I would really like a reference to any contrary statement he have made.

    — Yes, Harris’ tolerance for many ways to reach a mystical state is a bit like a vegetarian’s tolerance for many ways to get nourishment . . . as long as no one eats meat! Harris is very plain in his preference for non-theist, non-religious methodology to attain mystical states and in his flat rejections of religion as a proper or desirable or even feasible means to do so. He favors insights from the brand of Buddhism he prefers, which as he admits does not much resemble Buddhism as practiced by most actual Buddhists. Harris is quite narrowly specific about how to be a proper mystic, saying it should be as rational and unambiguous as a technical manual: “Mysticism, to be viable, requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.” (p. 217)

    Does this render all those mystics “nonviable” who have achieved that state in ways other than what Harris recommends? How is this statement about “viability” different from saying, that yes, actually, there IS really only one proper way to connect with the spiritual? Harris specifically excludes religious modes as acceptable vehicles toward the insights of mysticism: “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. ( . . . ) religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.” (p. 221) Yet many mystics have gotten to that unitive state through employing religious imagery, concepts and practices, though Harris seems to think that religion (with its “bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time”) cannot reliably lead to the transcendant, which would be surprising news to Western mystics like Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhardt or Thomas Keating.

    Roger wrote: Your repents are reserved for those you have done wrong, not to some cosmic dictator. Based on the amount of misrepresentations and lies in your thesis I’m very tempted to demand repent from you.

    — Well, I’ve repented above for my earlier tone. But as I don’t think I’ve lied or misrepresented anything, and as I do think the New Atheists grossly misrepresent religion, what we have here are differences of opinion.

    I see nothing to repent of in thinking differently from you; nor do I think you need to repent for thinking differently from me.

    But I wonder how unforgiveable it is, first of all, for law-abiding people to think differently from one another; and second, what responses should reasonable people in a civil society make, when they do so?

  5. “I was an atheist for many years”

    Ok, this begs the question, where did you find the evidence for your religion? Well, never mind, let’s keep at the subjects at hand.

    I do not think any of “us” deny the fact that people, who happen to be religious, are acting in moral and constructive ways. But I can only restate my challenge; Name a moral statement or action that can not be stated or performed without a religious context.

    The truth is that there’s a big difference between religion and science. Religion is, at least, a description of what one have to believe. Science is a tool for figuring out what to believe. This certainly do make science amoral, although it can give us strong hints to our moral values.

    However, religion is building a whole different case for itself. I will of course point out that there are important differences between religions. The tenets of Islam is more dangerous than those of Christianity, but both mentioned religions are not simply amoral, but positively immoral. To be a believer of these faiths you positively have to acknowledge their holy books and the content therein. Limiting myself to the Christian bible, we both know what we can find in it. A medieval moral where slavery is accepted, the woman are treated with the level of respect of the animals and property of the man, so called original sin (which is a concept without meaning) to only name some of the barbaric sentiments.

    “If atheists cannot be bothered to read religion stories in the news or follow the religious press, and if atheists are thus unaware of all the confrontations resulting from these conflicts, then they need to do better research.”

    Of course we do, but you’re not listening to my arguments. Religious moderation still say, yes, it is ok to believe things are true without evidence and without possibility to revision. It is this source of unreason that is the foundation for fundamentalism. As long as this fact isn’t recognized fundamentalism will remain a mystery to many people.

    Again you propose that Christianity is the contributor to human rights, and this time even to the scientific method. This is quite a breathtaking statement. Are you seriously advancing the suggestion that the abolition of slavery and the women’s rights require a belief in a supernatural entity outside the natural world, yet also in the natural world (since e can do all kinds of magic)? Even worse, is this required because e commands you to do these good acts? This would be immorality supreme. The abolitionist and women’s movements are the result of human morality, moved by the development of the human social situation over a long time, not as a result of religion. It is true that King used religious rhetoric, but linger over the possible reasons for this. The most likely reason is that he had to face his most prominent opponents in this arena, they were the religious leaders from the south. Christopher Hitchens covers this in some detail in his “God is not great”.

    And only because the opportunity begs me to comment; isn’t it interesting how telling it is that USA, in spite of following the great (?) “Judeo-”Christian traditions, can have an almost none existing social security although it is one of the leading developed democratic nation.

    The claim that science would somehow be derived from monotheistic theology is quite an hilarious statement which require almost as much logical twisting as theology itself. The scientific method have been independently formulated and used in the ancient Greece, Egypt and the Muslim world. But you would object to any claim that science is derived from Greek mythology, wouldn’t you?

    Now, religion have done much to opposed scientific advance, just as you say. I offer to consider the possibility of us having this exchange each sitting under a protective dome on Mars, would it not have been for the dark age of the medieval era, an era under which Christianity were strong and worked to stagnate scientific advancement. At the same time science were advanced rapidly in the Islamic world only to stagnant with its later radicalization.

    “What religious obligations do you think we had to set aside to support Obama?”

    Don’t play silly, you know what I refer to. There is a large portion of the religious voters that would consider religious devotion and opinion in trivial matters more important than questions of peace and justice. This portion is not of trivial size, although it makes me glad to see it was not big enough to dictate the outcome of this election. And to make it explicit, I appreciate those religious voters who voted based on opinions on real and important issues, no matter which candidate they choose to support.

    You go on to state the New Atheist’s basis in an anti-pluralist philosophy of intolerance, and that a liberal civil society is based on tolerance. I agree with you that respect for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, proper rule of law and democracy are some of the crucial components to a modern civilization. But for these exact reasons arguments must not demand respect. You have asked what I mean by this and you are of course entitled an explanation.

    Easy comparisons can be made with most areas of interest. When discussing political opinions I assume you would agree there is no room to respect an argument which lack proper evidence and/or reasoning. If someone said “it is my strong personal conviction that we must raise the taxes”, would you be inclined to respect that if you disagreed? Would you respect a physicist’s claim that wind, air, water and fire are the basic elements of the world? We can, and should, respect our fellow human beings, but to attribute respect to arguments is a category error.

    When it comes to the so called “anti-pluralist philosophy of intolerance”, which I think is the core of this argument, again I think you’re adding a catalyst of your own narrow interpretation. None of “us” are damning persons holding religious beliefs as a whole. It’s just silly thinking that I would oppose anyone who builds a shelter for homeless, a hospital, or working for proper science teaching. But as I alluded to earlier, doing this primary, or only, because of a watching omnipotent entity makes it a bit questionable. What we are criticizing is the religious believes for which there is no reason to hold and which all to often have negative consequences. There are subtle (or obvious in my mind) differences in where your criticism is directed. There is no fallacy in approving to someones behavior in one category while objecting to another category. Not acknowledging this is akin to a totalitarian view of “we versus them”.

    Concerning mysticism, let us take notice of what Harris say in the sentence before your first reference: “Although we have no reason to be dogmatically attached to any one tradition of spiritual instruction, we should not imagine that they are all equally wise, or all equally sophisticated. They are not.” Now, you take this to mean “there is only one way”. I think it’s an unfortunate interpretation of what he tries to convey.

    For the benefit of other readers I will also spell out what you omitted in your second reference: “… The mystic have recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts, this is science, or it can be experienced free of concepts, this is mysticism …”

    Given the context of the two citations it seems to me that spiritualism and mysticism aim at investigating the experience of the self. This phenomenon is rooted in the materialistic situation we find ourself in as intellectual beings. Therefore I find myself agreeing with Harris on these topics.

    However, I do think religion can have certain effects if we allow the distinction between spiritualism and the feel of awe and wounder. Although they are related I consider these to be separate concepts. While religious imagery and rituals surely can invoke feelings of awe they give no insights into the condition of the self, and I have to say I think it is quite limiting to be restricted to only these kinds of inspiration in any case.

    It is also important to point out that this say nothing about the truth of religious belief. Harris points this out elegantly in a prior chapter. Imagine that I claim to have a diamond as big as a refrigerator buried in my garden. This gives me a great feeling of comfort, but my feelings gives no one support for actually believing my suggestion is true.

    I am satisfied with the change from a confrontational rhetoric to an approach of having a debate on our areas of disagreement. Unless you choose to advance your argument on Harris description of spiritualism and mysticism I will leave that subject. My points of interest are these. I would like an answer to what moral actions a theist could perform, which a non-theist could not, and why. Also, why demand such respect for religious opinion that to confuse it with a personal attack?

  6. Hi Roger,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I started to reply to your response, but it got to be such an unwieldy length that I’m afraid you guys are going to start charging me for bandwidth, so let me try this.

    Would it be fair to say that you hold the following:

    Religious people are required to hold certain beliefs (what you’re calling ‘tenets’).

    Religious beliefs are static.

    Religious beliefs work like propositional statements.

    The beliefs that religious people hold are based on the scriptures they follow.

    Religious scriptures are static.

    Religious faith means believing things to be true without evidence and without the possibility of revision.

    The Bible teaches that slavery is acceptable and that women are property, and no other interpretation is possible.

    The scientific method originated in the ancient world rather than the early modern West.

    We can tell good science from bad science (i.e. if a physicist makes a pseudoscientific claim we can know it), but we cannot tell good religion from bad religion, because all religion is by definition bad.

    A falsifiable truth claim about a physical object (i.e. whether or not I have a giant diamond buried in my yard) is analogous to nonscientific, nonfalsifiable truth claims (religious, philosophical, moral, aesthetic or political truth claims).

    Okay, I’m sure you’ll look at some or all of those and say, “Nope, Anna has misunderstood me.” So tell me where I’ve gotten it wrong. Or, for the sake of not creating a novel here, pick a couple that you really want to discuss. ;-)

    Let me expand on a couple of things here:

    You wrote: “And only because the opportunity begs me to comment; isn’t it interesting how telling it is that USA, in spite of following the great (?) “Judeo-”Christian traditions, can have an almost none existing social security although it is one of the leading developed democratic nation.”

    — Then you have to explain away the huge amount of time, money and manpower religious organizations in the U.S. contribute toward providing social work and medical care which in other countries are provided by the state. Actually we separated church from state in the 18th century. Sweden did that in 1999, right? Say . . . I wonder if THAT’S why you guys have more of a social safety net than we do — 200 more years of state-sponsored Lutheranism! (I’m a Lutheran . . . ) :-D And yes, that was a joke.

    The U.S. is a funny case because our history and political tradition and Constitution springs directly from debates around centralized versus decentralized power, which you can trace back to the arguments of the founders of the U.S. Read the Federalist Papers and the debates over how much control a federal (central) government should have. This is at the core of the American political tradition and goes back to our origins: how much power should we give to a central (federal) government, versus how much power should the states have? The founders were concerned about consolidation and centralization of power — they were always after checks and balances and generally favored local control over national. Basically that’s why we don’t have, say, a comprehensive national health plan or comprehensive academic standards. Much is left to the individual states. In a way I think it’s helpful to think of the U.S. as being a little more like the E.U., which also doesn’t have a unified healthcare system, common set of educational standards, etc.

    You wrote: “It is true that King used religious rhetoric, but linger over the possible reasons for this. The most likely reason is that he had to face his most prominent opponents in this arena, they were the religious leaders from the south. Christopher Hitchens covers this in some detail in his “God is not great”.”

    — Yep, I read Hitchens. MLK also addressed a whole bunch of religious allies, including thousands of members of black churches. MLK had grave doubts over the movement after children died in bombings wondered if he should quit, and prayed about it. He had a mystical experience in which he believed Jesus told him to continue. As we have a free press, Christopher Hitchens is certainly welcome to remake a preacher into an atheist, but I don’t have to think his account is more trustworthy than what movement historians or biographers say, or for that matter, what MLK said.

    And I don’t want to ignore your points of interest below:

    You wrote: “I am satisfied with the change from a confrontational rhetoric to an approach of having a debate on our areas of disagreement. Unless you choose to advance your argument on Harris description of spiritualism and mysticism I will leave that subject. My points of interest are these. I would like an answer to what moral actions a theist could perform, which a non-theist could not, and why.”

    Re what moral actions a theist could perform which a non-theist could not, reread what I wrote, because I agreed with you. There are none. I don’t think you have to be a theist to be moral. Since I agree with you, you will have to find another theist to argue that point with. ;-)

    “Also, why demand such respect for religious opinion that to confuse it with a personal attack?”

    — Here I think we have a misunderstanding. I’m not demanding any more or less respect for religious opinions than we give to political or philosophical opinions. I do think that the New Atheists portray theology, religion, religious thinking and religious people in ways which to me (as a religious person who knows a lot of other religious people) bear little resemblance to what I see . . . which is why I find them so unconvincing. I suspect we’ll have to agree to disagree about how correct the New Atheists are when it comes to their handling of religion.

    For the record, I agree with Jurgen Habermas that if religious people want to advance arguments based on their religious beliefs in the public square, they should use non-religious reasoning — they should put forth arguments in a secularized form.

    For example: a religious person could claim that euthanasia is wrong, but she shouldn’t — in a diverse and secular society — think it is enough to say that it should be illegal because and only because her religion says so. She would have to state that it’s wrong in terms that people who don’t share her religious beliefs could understand, i.e. she could say that insurance companies might withhold payment for expensive medical treatments if euthanasia is legalized, or that it devalues human life, or that there’s a slippery slope that might lead to euthanizing people who are not terminally ill but who are difficult and expensive to care for, etc.

    So in that case, when arguing for, say, a political view in the public square, I suspect we can agree that religious people are obliged to make arguments and to use reasoning that is accessible to non-religious people.

  7. Wow, you two have a great discussion going on here, I hope you don’t mind me nosing in. There’s really just two things I want to add or comment on. First, Roger, I’m so happy you pulled in the rest of that Harris quote. Especially this part:

    “The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts, this is science, or it can be experienced free of concepts, this is mysticism …”

    It seems to me that what the NAs (particularly Harris) are saying (and I suspect Roger and I agree) is that “religion” represents an alternate and competing conceptual framework for interpreting the world. The scientific conceptual framework has (at least “materially” been far more successful, and it has been far far far more predictive. That is to say, scientists can make better predictions about what will happen next given a set of data than a fortune teller or a priest (perhaps an argument can be made when it comes to social-psychological predictions, but keep in mind I do not mean only physicists when I say science. I am including social scientists, therapists, etc.). In any case, this is why the scientifically minded call science the “better” set of concepts.

    Here is what’s interesting to me. I suspect that Anna does not see “religion” as a competing framework (or maybe she does). I get the feeling she sees religion as situated more closely to the “roiling mystery” or able to provide unique insights to the mystery that science cannot. I suspect rather than religion and science being at the same level—with the roiling mystery below them—she sees perhaps a hierarchy or a non-aligned structure? But then I don’t want to speak for her… so…

    The other comment I have is based on the following point made by Anna:

    “For example: a religious person could claim that euthanasia is wrong, but she shouldn’t — in a diverse and secular society — think it is enough to say that it should be illegal because and only because her religion says so. She would have to state that it’s wrong in terms that people who don’t share her religious beliefs could understand.”

    I could not agree more, and I suspect that this statement is as surprising to Roger as it is to me! We are bombarded so much by religious people justifying their views based precisely and only on their faith, that such a rational and reasonable statements sounds foreign! Do you know many people who feel the same way, Anna?

  8. Tyson wrote: It seems to me that what the NAs (particularly Harris) are saying (and I suspect Roger and I agree) is that “religion” represents an alternate and competing conceptual framework for interpreting the world.

    — Right – I and millions of others disagree that it’s inherently in conflict, although many people (i.e. creationists and NAs) set it up as a conflict. And when it’s set up as a conflict, it does turn into competition. The religion scholar Karen Armstrong, who has written a lot about Islam and travels regularly through the Muslim world, said in a recent interview with Bill Moyers that the Koran said nothing about how God created the world and there was no worry about Darwin until very recently, but “now,” she says, “and I get to see it on the websites that I get, it’s headline news that British scientists sort of slang creation. And Darwin has now become an anathema as a result of that assault.”

    As someone who wants proper science taught in science classrooms, I think while creationists and NAs both say things like, “Well, evolution rules out God,” of course you’ve set up a competition. But a needless one, in my view (and certainly needless in the view of the mainline churches, which state in their boring policy documents over and over again that there is no conflict between evolution and religion). In a weird way because creationists and NAs share the same conflict model – and the same rigid style of theology (both groups affirming that XYZ is what religious people are ‘supposed to’ believe because that’s what the Bible/Koran ‘says’) – they work together to build what I see as a wall of mutual ignorance. Creationists and NAs who feed this conflict model are partners in the same dance.

    Tyson wrote: The scientific conceptual framework has (at least “materially” been far more successful, and it has been far far far more predictive. That is to say, scientists can make better predictions about what will happen next given a set of data than a fortune teller or a priest (perhaps an argument can be made when it comes to social-psychological predictions, but keep in mind I do not mean only physicists when I say science. I am including social scientists, therapists, etc.). In any case, this is why the scientifically minded call science the “better” set of concepts.

    — Loosely we could say that science deals with prediction (although with the social sciences that gets dicey because we correlate rather than predict, and with quantum physics things really get strange, and our predictions are in some cases severely limited). But yes, in general, we can say that through the sciences we can know with a high degree of probability that if we do X, then Y will occur; or in the case of the social sciences we know if we see X occurring we’ll probably be able to correlate it with the presence of variable Y.

    So, loosely, “science” deals with prediction. (Digression: And if you’re wondering why people so often seem to conflate materialism with a heartless brand of determinism, that association with prediction is a big reason why.)

    What “religion” (and I use that term loosely as well, to talk about a mode of processing without reference to particular religious forms) – what religion deals with is potential. Transformation. Transcendance. The opposite of determinism and prediction. Priests and prophets do not make predictions. (The theological model of prophecy bears little resemblance to the scientific model of prediction; that’s a whole ‘nother digression.) They assert and affirm potentials. Religion is about transformation: i.e. for theists the assertion that God creates something out of nothing and brings wildly improbable things to pass, things we specifically could not predict by straightforward observation. If a former junkie says something like, “I’m sober and I’ve got a job and a home now because Jesus saved me,” in strictly secular terms we can say:
    1) The odds were against this person, and
    2) this person found a psychological resource which allowed him or her to defy what we would have predicted about his or her future, given what we know about what usually happens to junkies.

    In other words: a transformation that defies prediction. Religion is about potentials, not predictions.

    Tyson wrote: Here is what’s interesting to me. I suspect that Anna does not see “religion” as a competing framework (or maybe she does). I get the feeling she sees religion as situated more closely to the “roiling mystery” or able to provide unique insights to the mystery that science cannot. I suspect rather than religion and science being at the same level—with the roiling mystery below them—she sees perhaps a hierarchy or a non-aligned structure? But then I don’t want to speak for her… so…

    — I don’t see them as competing. I see them as dealing with separate kinds of questions and issues. This doesn’t stop some people from trying to make a religion out of what they think science tells us (see naturalism.org) or some people from trying to make science out of what they think religion tells us (see the creationist museum). I see them as different modes through which we make different aspects of our experience of the world intelligible. Science is the tool we created to make the natural world intelligible. Religion is the tool we created to make value scales intelligible – and I’m not talking about morals here, I’m talking about hierarchies of value – what is ultimately important, what is ultimately lasting, what is worth making some kind of commitment to. And yes, ultimately I see them surrounded with the roiling mystery and often subverted by it . . . but that is what makes it so interesting.

    Tyson writes: The other comment I have is based on the following point made by Anna:

    “For example: a religious person could claim that euthanasia is wrong, but she shouldn’t — in a diverse and secular society — think it is enough to say that it should be illegal because and only because her religion says so. She would have to state that it’s wrong in terms that people who don’t share her religious beliefs could understand.”

    I could not agree more, and I suspect that this statement is as surprising to Roger as it is to me! We are bombarded so much by religious people justifying their views based precisely and only on their faith, that such a rational and reasonable statements sounds foreign!

    — The media image of religious people bears little resemblance to the actual religious people I’ve come to know.

    Tyson wrote: Do you know many people who feel the same way, Anna?

    — Religious people, you mean? Yes. If I were all that unusual, I wouldn’t be one.

  9. Anna said: So, loosely, “science” deals with prediction. (Digression: And if you’re wondering why people so often seem to conflate materialism with a heartless brand of determinism, that association with prediction is a big reason why.)

    Um, er… are you saying if science was worse at prediction, it would be less heartless? More believable?

    Anna said: Religion is the tool we created to make value scales intelligible – and I’m not talking about morals here, I’m talking about hierarchies of value – what is ultimately important, what is ultimately lasting, what is worth making some kind of commitment to.

    Do you see only religion being able to do this? Is there anything in this regard that is uniquely the realm of religion—or are there other ways in which transformation, transcendence and valuating is open to us?

  10. Tyson wrote: Anna said: So, loosely, “science” deals with prediction. (Digression: And if you’re wondering why people so often seem to conflate materialism with a heartless brand of determinism, that association with prediction is a big reason why.)

    Um, er… are you saying if science was worse at prediction, it would be less heartless? More believable?”

    — Not at all. I’m talking about perceived degrees of freedom within a popular understanding of science. It’s a free will/agency and “meaningfulness” problem. I think when people think of what science tells us, most people still picture a Newtonian model, a “billiard ball” universe where 1) cause leads to effect, and 2) we can successfully — or even potentially — identify causes and predict effects (let’s leave aside for the moment straightforward prediction confounders like chaos theory or quantum physics). Okay, so if you’re with me so far, if you buy the idea that science as popularly understood is understood to be (at least in potential) comprehensively cause-and-effect based and comprehensively predictive, then we start getting into issues around free will and meaning, and how much free will we actually have, and around how meaningful life actually is.

    The issues around meaning come because the processes of nature are assumed to be both comprehensive and mindless (and therefore, in and of themselves, inherently meaningless — you can’t have meaning without mind or intent; natural processes are not assumed to have conscious intent or to be meaningful in and of themselves.) So once you say that science shows us that we can predict things and the forces that move us are both comprehensive and mindless, then many people end up with the idea that, well, okay, we’re controlled by our selfish genes, we’re controlled by our environment, we’re controlled by our evolutionary heritage, we’re controlled by the laws of physics and chemistry; and our supposedly ‘free’ choices are really all the result of a confluence of great impersonal mindless forces which leaves little room for 1) a sense of true agency or 2) a sense of some greater purpose and meaning at work — even if the deterministic elements are too complex for us to make accurate predictions except in the aggregate or in potential. So even if we FEEL like we’re making choices and perceiving meaning . . . we’re actually not. In this model, we’re the potentially predictable outputs of impersonal mindless forces.

    I do think this conflation of the predictability afforded by (many) scientific observations and the sense that this leaches any room for personal choice or a greater meaning out of the picture is what accounts for all those New Agers seizing on chaos theory and quantum physics for philosophical loopholes which they claim allow for free will and meaning. But then even if you have randomness at work — even if we introduce indeterminacy through random chance through, say, some kind of chaotic or quantum process introducing more unpredictability into the system, we STILL have a problem around free will, because it doesn’t seem to be free if it’s all determined like billiard ball tracks ahead of time . . . but then it doesn’t seem particularly free either if it’s the product of random chance. So I’m either controlled by a chain of cause and effect or by a chance roll of the dice, but in either case I’m not really making free choices, am I? I’m still robbed of agency in a meaningful sense, right? Whatever I do is the product of predictable causes or random chance . . . but not of anything we could call my independent ‘will.’

    Does any of this make sense, or have I just made it more jumbled . . .?

    Tyson wrote — Anna said: Religion is the tool we created to make value scales intelligible – and I’m not talking about morals here, I’m talking about hierarchies of value – what is ultimately important, what is ultimately lasting, what is worth making some kind of commitment to.

    Do you see only religion being able to do this? Is there anything in this regard that is uniquely the realm of religion—or are there other ways in which transformation, transcendence and valuating is open to us?”

    — I would say any time we create a comprehensive system to deal with transformation, transcendence and value, we are working in a religious mode and at risk of creating a new religion. The key phrase here is ‘comprehensive system.’ If it’s not comprehensive or systematic, if it’s just bits and pieces through, say, a transcendant experience brought forth through experiencing nature or transformation found through working through the arts or through messing around with, say, a simple meditation practice or with transpersonal psychology, or creating a valuation system through philosophy (say, utilitarianism) then I think we are safe from founding a new religion . . . Religions are systems, cultures, ways of life. If we can stop short of creating an entire culture or a comprehensive Way, then I think we have successfully gotten away with enjoying religionless transcendance. :-D

  11. I understand you to say that feeling free isn’t enough? Living and acting free isn’t enough? We want to BE free (though our lives, as we live them are not affected by this “being”). Otherwise we are “robbed of agency in a meaningful sense”?

    How do you square this with what I find to be trust in “God’s plan,” a sentiment that I hear from an overwhelming number of religious people—God’s controlling had, God’s all-encompassing consciousness—I probably hear the phrase “everything happens for a reason” at least once per day. It seems to me, frankly, that it is precisely the freedom (or the impenetrable veneer of freedom) that so frightens and overwhelms believers when they think of a godless universe. Sartre says, “You are condemned to be free,” and the believers say, screw that—God is my pilot! People don’t want freedom, they want comfort, a path, a way—people are scared shitless to be on their own—they do not realize or trust in their selves, in their own power—in their freedom to choose.

    On another point, if religion is a culture, do you feel a cultural kinship with all other Christians? Do you feel you “come from the same place,” share the same core values, have been steeped in the same traditions? When I think of you juxtaposed to many other Christians (of all strips and intensities) that I’ve known through my life, you seem to be from an entirely different planet. It seems to me that religion is no more a culture than being white or black is—or maybe in just having dark hair.

  12. Tyson wrote: I understand you to say that feeling free isn’t enough? Living and acting free isn’t enough? We want to BE free (though our lives, as we live them are not affected by this “being”). Otherwise we are “robbed of agency in a meaningful sense”? How do you square this with what I find to be trust in “God’s plan,” a sentiment that I hear from an overwhelming number of religious people—God’s controlling had, God’s all-encompassing consciousness—I probably hear the phrase “everything happens for a reason” at least once per day.”

    — You rightfully point out that God as Micromanager is also a denial of freedom, and I wholeheartedly agree. (Luckily there are much more fun theologies out there to play with.)

    And I’m still going to hold out for free will, gods or no. Not only that, I don’t think it’s enough to say the feeling of free will is satisfactory. It may be that the feeling of freedom is all we can say we’ve got for sure, but as this is a blog headed by a quote from a philosopher, let’s go beyond what’s pragmatic to affirm.

    Robert Kane, in Through the Moral Maze, uses the thought experiment of Alan the painter to argue for ‘objective worth':

    Scenario one: Alan the painter is terminally ill and really depressed. His wealthy friend wants Alan to be happy, and the rich friend deceives Alan by secretly getting people to pose as critics and knowledgeable collectors to buy Alan’s paintings from the art gallery for big bucks. Alan never catches on and dies happy, believing that his worth as an artist has been recognized.

    Scenario two: Alan the painter is terminally ill and really depressed, but in this version, Alan really DOES get recognized as a great artist, his paintings really are valued highly and sell well to knowledgeable collectors and critics. He dies happy, believing that his worth as an artist has been recognized.

    In both scenarios, Alan is made equally happy. Kane writes:

    “We begin to understand what objective worth is all about when we ask whether it should make any difference to Alan which of these worlds he lives in, given that he believes he is a great artist in both and does not feel less happy subjectively in one world than in the other. To say that there is an important difference in value in the two worlds for Alan even though he would not know it and would feel equally happy in both, is to endorse a notion of objective worth. One of the consequences of this notion is that a person’s subjective (or felt) happiness cannot be the final measure of value, since Alan feels just as happy in both worlds. To understand what objective worth means to Alan, we would have to tell him the story of the two worlds and then ask him which one he would rather live in. And if he answers, as we might expect, that he would prefer to live in the second (undeceived) world, this will show that objective worth, rather than merely subjective happiness, means something to him as it does to most of us. ( . . . ) Notice that to make judgments about the objective worth of these worlds, Alan must step back from his immersion in them and view them objectively, from outside both. From inside the first and second worlds (that is, from his subjective point of view) things look pretty much the same to him, since he believes he is a great artist in both worlds and dies happily believing this in both. It is only when he takes what Thomas Nagel has called the “objective viewpoint,” imagining himself standing outside the worlds, viewing them as a whole and knowing that he was deceived in one but not the other, that he can judge their comparative objective worth.”

    So, no, I don’t think it is enough to just feel free. I don’t think feeling free without actually being free is satisfactory. If we are utterly controlled ultimately either by naturalistic forces or by a deity then we are puppets either way, aren’t we? And I do think that robs our lives of meaning, whether the puppet master is a selfish gene or a selfish deity. I think most of us would prefer to actually BE free, and that, yes, that is better than merely feeling free (which means, basically, being deluded). But feel free to disagree . . . ;-)

    Tyson wrote: It seems to me, frankly, that it is precisely the freedom (or the impenetrable veneer of freedom) that so frightens and overwhelms believers when they think of a godless universe. Sartre says, “You are condemned to be free,” and the believers say, screw that—God is my pilot! People don’t want freedom, they want comfort, a path, a way—people are scared shitless to be on their own—they do not realize or trust in their selves, in their own power—in their freedom to choose.”

    — I think it depends on which believers we’re talking about. They vary wildly. You have some who think it’s all predetermined in a plan and the Bible is a rule book, and some who are process theologians and/or open theists and think that not even God knows what’s going to happen next. I also think in some senses it’s easier and more comfortable to be on your own; that way there’s nothing else to consider. It’s the simplicity of a monologue in place of the hard work of a dialogue.

    Also, depending upon which believers and which atheists we’re talking about, I really don’t see much practical difference between trusting, say, the inner promptings of the “spirit” versus the inner promptings of the “self.” If free choice is what we make when we follow our inner promptings, then I don’t see much difference beyond language here.

    The NAs are very uncomfortable with freedom as well, it seems to me; they seem to me to have a shared and rather narrow idea of how one may think and what one may think if one is not to be considered an intellectual heretic (“irrational”). I see a fairly unified chorus there about topics like reason and science and religion. Nor do I see a lot of adventuresomeness with ethics among the NAs; I see shared values there as well. We have had lots of different moralities and moral systems in the world and throughout history; but basically to my mind most of the self-described atheists I’ve met seem to advocate the individualist middle class values of college educated folks from Seattle, Washington. Which is fine, I like Seattle, especially the coffee and the salmon, but why not more of a show of variety among free thinkers? Or perhaps they really are startlingly diverse in their thinking about what it means to be ‘rational’ and ‘ethical,’ and I just haven’t met enough yet.

    Tyson wrote: On another point, if religion is a culture, do you feel a cultural kinship with all other Christians? Do you feel you “come from the same place,” share the same core values, have been steeped in the same traditions? When I think of you juxtaposed to many other Christians (of all strips and intensities) that I’ve known through my life, you seem to be from an entirely different planet. It seems to me that religion is no more a culture than being white or black is—or maybe in just having dark hair.”

    — Religious cultures are much larger, older and more diverse than national ones. So let’s talk about a smaller culture than Christianity and extrapolate from there. Does it make sense to ask if you, as an American, feel a cultural kinship with all other Americans? Do you feel you ‘come from the same place,” share the same values and traditions as other Americans? I think the answer to that would be, which Americans? And which aspects of American culture? Which interpretations of our national stories? We can say that Americans share a history, that there are some commonly held ideas of what it means to be American — but then we all have differing interpretations of what that history and those ideas of “Americanness” means in terms of our identity, even if we do all recognize the Fourth of July.

    If I seem unusual to you, then it might be analogous to you meeting a great many Americans from the urban East Coast and then one day you meet someone who grew up on a ranch in West Texas. Is everybody in the room American? Yep. But do they have the same accent? Share the same politics? Share the same fashion sense? Listen to the same music? Share the same attitudes toward the federal government? Toward gun ownership? Probably not.

    The kinship I feel with other Christians is based on shared stories, shared practices and shared rituals. If you feel I am from an entirely different planet, all I can say is, well – I look around that planet, and it is fairly well populated . . . I certainly don’t feel alone . . .

  13. Time flies by and I have had much to do, but I will now return to the discussion since I have once again found some time to spend. And I can see this exchange have steadily wandered from the original subject with each comment. I will first comment on some of Anna’s arguments, and then advance the original subject. Lastly I will add my own comments to your more exotic inquiries.

    I have two corrections and one amendment to your list, but other than these your list is a quite fair summary of my arguments. The only reason other interpretations of the bible would be possible would be by picking the passages that suits a modern morality and modern understanding of the world. Advance any suggestion of moderation to a fundamentalist, especially one adhering to Islam, and you would receive damnation (not seldom by death) for not acknowledging the literal truth of the whole of the holy text. Any rationalization of a logical and tolerant interpretations of these texts comes from recognizing the absurdity of most of the statements and commandments in those texts. Now, if you advance me with a revised bible which only contain the sound moral and undogmatically statements, then a mutual agreement would be closer to hand.

    You miss the essence of the example of the diamond (not purposefully, I hope?). The property of falsifiability were not the main concern, replace the diamond with an arbitrary unfalsifiable claim. The focus is that subjectivity is not a valid way for knowing facts.

    Lastly, to be fair, revision to articles of faith and tenets are possible. However, the result of this almost exclusively result in a new religious denomination or the branching into another sect. These factions then goes on advocating conflicting factual claims.

    About the health care topic, I don’t know the exact year myself, but 1999 sounds reasonable. The USA is an interesting case in that its constitution separated church and state from the beginning. This is because it was authored by persons of the enlightenment. This was not the case for Sweden, and it is unfortunate that a similar separation only was implemented in recent years. However, let us not fail noticing that Sweden is, and have been, a very secular society for many many years, while the USA have been one of the most religious countries in the world over the same period of time. Also, let us not compare USA with EU. USA is one nation made up of states while EU is a collaboration between nations.

    Now, you say you don’t request special treatment of religious ideas and arguments. But then I can not avoid feeling all my attempts to get closer to understanding your objections are being dodged. There are two ways that may have caused this, as far as I can see. Either you don’t represent or adhere to the religion of what normally is understood as Christianity, in which case I wounder why you want to state you are a Christian, or that it is the case you believe in the Christian faith, in which case you fail to formulate to me what your objections are. In the later case I want to challenge you to be more detailed in your argument since our exchange this far have only made conclusions where we agree.

    Now for some comments on your and Tyson’s exchange. Rationality based on secular grounds is nothing that surprise me, rather it is something I assume. Then again, I live in a secular society. On the other hand all to many base their opinion only on religion, and we get things like suicide bombing, bombing of abortion clinics, parents that deny their child proper treatments.

    But it seems Anna want to invoke NOMA; “There is no conflict between science and religion. They address different things”. The problem is that religious text make factual claims about the world. You are free to discuss what claims are actually made, but if you say there are no such claims at all, then you are probably reading the wrong book. And scientists doesn’t do theology if only because they not only aspire to be right, they also aspire to be wrong. Contrast this to theology where you can’t even be wrong in many cases.

    Anna, I think your example with a former junkie is lacking. First, I think you’re confusing theoretical prediction with probability. I think prediction in this case is more like a statistic analysis, there is no explicit theory or law that predict the outcome of our junkie’s contemplations. In any case, what you call “potentials” sounds very much like “hope” to me. But hope only entail a desire or strive for positive outcomes and doesn’t need any supernatural connotation, even though it is often present in Christian theology. The example easily becomes trivial if we also count the junkies that doesn’t manage to improve their life. Religion, in this manner, is just as good as statistics.

    Also, I hope you don’t suggest we use the holy texts to form values and ethics. If not, then you’re using religion in some kind of abstract romanticized way. But values can only be based on what we know is existent, nothing supernatural is required. And to say such question is surrounded with roiling mystery only act to reserve them from rational inquiry. While all other areas of knowledge, such as mathematics, physics, medicine, economics, have made progress theology still teaches nothing more than it did a thousand years ago. Thus, it not likely that religion have helped us form our modern values.

    The argument about free will is an interesting one, I do admit. Personally I am not sure which “side” I am willing to put my vote on, but I don’t see how a creator would improve the situation. In the same lines as the creation problem, wouldn’t the problem of free will apply to the creator as well? Science is at this point neither for or against free will, but more importantly, if we are going to figure it out it is with the help of science.

    If it is the case that free will is a result of selfish genes, then you have at least the cause of free will already. It gave us an advantage given our environment and social situation. Of course that doesn’t say if it really is free will to begin with. But something we easily miss is that the definition of what we mean by free will is important. There might be a third option for what free will is which satisfy all problems. Whatever the case of free will is, there is no reason to consider anything else than naturalistic causes.

    I would be surprised if there is not diversity between anti-theists. But there is nothing virtues in diversity of opinion. It’s clear that not everything can be true and eventually opinions converge as our discourse progress. And here I feel a demonizing tone again. Everyone is of course entitled to propose any arguments one like, but there is nothing insulting in demanding intellectual honesty and cohering reasoning. And no one of the NAs tries to censor someone if good arguments are presented.

  14. Roger, it was kind of you to take the time to reply.

    Roger wrote: I have two corrections and one amendment to your list, but other than these your list is a quite fair summary of my arguments.

    — Okay, good.

    Roger wrote: The only reason other interpretations of the bible would be possible would be by picking the passages that suits a modern morality and modern understanding of the world.

    — No, the Bible has since ancient times, even as it was being assembled, been interpreted in multiple ways, including metaphorical and allegorical. To say that a literalist interpretation alone is usual or even traditional is incorrect. Also, religion and religious understanding evolves, and that includes scripture and scriptural interpretations.

    Roger wrote: Advance any suggestion of moderation to a fundamentalist, especially one adhering to Islam, and you would receive damnation (not seldom by death) for not acknowledging the literal truth of the whole of the holy text.

    — I’ve already been called a heretic and told I was damned by people who disagreed with me, but since it was in a free Western society, I am delighted to say I was not killed. But even if I were killed, would the fact that people violently disagreed with me prove anything about whose claims are right?

    Roger wrote: Any rationalization of a logical and tolerant interpretations of these texts comes from recognizing the absurdity of most of the statements and commandments in those texts. Now, if you advance me with a revised bible which only contain the sound moral and undogmatically statements, then a mutual agreement would be closer to hand.

    — Well, Thomas Jefferson cut out all the miracle bits in his editing of the New Testament. ;-) And clearly you and I differ about how religious texts ought to be interpreted.

    Roger wrote: You miss the essence of the example of the diamond (not purposefully, I hope?). The property of falsifiability were not the main concern, replace the diamond with an arbitrary unfalsifiable claim. The focus is that subjectivity is not a valid way for knowing facts.

    — Subjectivity is a valid way for knowing values. My point was that I thought you were comparing facts to values when we treat them very differently. Indeed, when it comes to values, the subjective is all we have. Without the subjective, value cannot be perceived. Religion is about value, and we cannot deal with value without the subjective. Even the value of diamonds ultimately rests on subjective (emotional, intuitive, culturally created, aesthetic) responses; there is no ‘factual, objective’ reason why people should find diamonds valuable. Factually, without any human subjective overlays on it at all, a giant diamond in my yard is just another rock. I have plenty of rocks in my yard already, no reason to value one more. Except for subjective reasons.

    Roger wrote; Lastly, to be fair, revision to articles of faith and tenets are possible. However, the result of this almost exclusively result in a new religious denomination or the branching into another sect. These factions then goes on advocating conflicting factual claims.

    — Well, we disagree that religion is about factual claims. Also, I’m not sure why it’s a problem that new religious forms appear. Religions, like any other cultural invention, evolve. That is why it is so hard to get rid of them.

    Roger wrote: About the health care topic, I don’t know the exact year myself, but 1999 sounds reasonable. The USA is an interesting case in that its constitution separated church and state from the beginning. This is because it was authored by persons of the enlightenment.

    — Separation of church and state in the U.S. was enthusiastically promoted and pursued by evangelicals, who wanted freedom from state-controlled religion. One of the reasons the U.S. is so religious is because of the separation of church and state: for over two hundred years, we have had — more or less, more so now — free market religion here. I recommend Steven Waldman’s “Founding Faith,” for a popular history on this, but what he says is no different from what I learned in (my big, secular, state-run) college classes on that subject. Evangelicals and enlightenment persons worked together on it, but to say religion was not a driving force in the establishment of separation of church and state here, is to ignore history. For a very quick overview, see Waldman’s post here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/04/the-evangelical-founding-fathe.html

    Roger wrote: This was not the case for Sweden, and it is unfortunate that a similar separation only was implemented in recent years. However, let us not fail noticing that Sweden is, and have been, a very secular society for many many years, while the USA have been one of the most religious countries in the world over the same period of time. Also, let us not compare USA with EU. USA is one nation made up of states while EU is a collaboration between nations.

    — My point about the E.U. and U.S. states is that U.S. states, like European nations, can set wildly varying standards legislatively (such as over health care, welfare, education policies, etc). I do understand that the European Union is not itself a nation. ;-)

    Roger wrote: Now, you say you don’t request special treatment of religious ideas and arguments. But then I can not avoid feeling all my attempts to get closer to understanding your objections are being dodged. There are two ways that may have caused this, as far as I can see. Either you don’t represent or adhere to the religion of what normally is understood as Christianity, in which case I wounder why you want to state you are a Christian, or that it is the case you believe in the Christian faith, in which case you fail to formulate to me what your objections are. In the later case I want to challenge you to be more detailed in your argument since our exchange this far have only made conclusions where we agree.

    — Well, admittedly you lost me here. First, I don’t think we agree on very much: the list that I asked you about above are all statements I disagree with, but I wanted a better understanding of your positions. My impression is that you have a very particular idea of what it means to be Christian. I am not a fundamentalist. But I am a Christian.

    Roger wrote: Now for some comments on your and Tyson’s exchange. Rationality based on secular grounds is nothing that surprise me, rather it is something I assume. Then again, I live in a secular society. On the other hand all to many base their opinion only on religion, and we get things like suicide bombing, bombing of abortion clinics, parents that deny their child proper treatments.

    — Are you saying that if we take away religion, all violence, ignorance and irrationality will end?

    But it seems Anna want to invoke NOMA; “There is no conflict between science and religion. They address different things”. The problem is that religious text make factual claims about the world. You are free to discuss what claims are actually made, but if you say there are no such claims at all, then you are probably reading the wrong book.

    — Can you give me, first, an example of such a factual claim from a religious text, and second, explain why it should be treated like a scientific proposition rather than a religious one?

    And scientists doesn’t do theology if only because they not only aspire to be right, they also aspire to be wrong. Contrast this to theology where you can’t even be wrong in many cases.

    — Can you expand on why one can’t be wrong in theology?

    Roger wrote: Anna, I think your example with a former junkie is lacking. First, I think you’re confusing theoretical prediction with probability. I think prediction in this case is more like a statistic analysis, there is no explicit theory or law that predict the outcome of our junkie’s contemplations. In any case, what you call “potentials” sounds very much like “hope” to me. But hope only entail a desire or strive for positive outcomes and doesn’t need any supernatural connotation, even though it is often present in Christian theology. The example easily becomes trivial if we also count the junkies that doesn’t manage to improve their life. Religion, in this manner, is just as good as statistics.

    — I think you missed my point, which is that if we looked at statistics — the aggregate, the probabilities — we would have predicted that the odds are, based on what we know about junkies as a group, that the junkie would fail to reform. The message of religion, its efficacy as a psychological tool, provides hope precisely because it makes claims for dramatic transformations that go against the odds. I also agree with you that one does not need a supernatural mechanism for hope; but one does need some kind of psychological mechanism that allows someone to say, “I can beat the odds.” For some persons, that psychological mechanism comes through religion.

    Roger wrote: Also, I hope you don’t suggest we use the holy texts to form values and ethics. If not, then you’re using religion in some kind of abstract romanticized way. But values can only be based on what we know is existent, nothing supernatural is required.

    — I think religions act partly as vehicles to impart values and ethics, and part of that is, yes, conveyed through scriptural writings and religious communities. I don’t see what is abstract or romanticized about using scriptural texts to talk about values, so I suspect I am missing your point here. But I also think values can be imparted without religion or belief in the supernatural (as I have said repeatedly). And values aren’t based on what actually exists. They are based on what we think SHOULD exist. Values are prescriptive, not descriptive.

    Roger wrote: And to say such question is surrounded with roiling mystery only act to reserve them from rational inquiry. While all other areas of knowledge, such as mathematics, physics, medicine, economics, have made progress theology still teaches nothing more than it did a thousand years ago.

    — Theology today is very different indeed from what it was a thousand years ago. I am not sure why you’re making this claim.

    Roger wrote: The argument about free will is an interesting one, I do admit. Personally I am not sure which “side” I am willing to put my vote on, but I don’t see how a creator would improve the situation. In the same lines as the creation problem, wouldn’t the problem of free will apply to the creator as well?

    — How so?

    Roger wrote: Science is at this point neither for or against free will, but more importantly, if we are going to figure it out it is with the help of science.

    — Oh, certainly with the help of science.

    Roger wrote: If it is the case that free will is a result of selfish genes, then you have at least the cause of free will already. It gave us an advantage given our environment and social situation. Of course that doesn’t say if it really is free will to begin with. But something we easily miss is that the definition of what we mean by free will is important. There might be a third option for what free will is which satisfy all problems. Whatever the case of free will is, there is no reason to consider anything else than naturalistic causes.

    — Well, your baseline assumption is metaphysical naturalism, and of course we can construct arguments that account for free will within that framework. But I’m a methodological naturalist, not a metaphysical naturalist; so I’m also going to be willing to entertain theological ideas about free will, which in my case, reasoning from my baseline assumptions, would be perfectly coherent. So it depends on what your baseline is . . .

    Roger wrote: I would be surprised if there is not diversity between anti-theists. But there is nothing virtues in diversity of opinion.

    — Diversity of opinion is what makes cultural change possible. Unless we think that culture as it exists right now is perfect, we’ll want diverse opinions to keep things moving and to be responsive to new conditions.

    Roger wrote: It’s clear that not everything can be true and eventually opinions converge as our discourse progress. And here I feel a demonizing tone again. Everyone is of course entitled to propose any arguments one like, but there is nothing insulting in demanding intellectual honesty and cohering reasoning. And no one of the NAs tries to censor someone if good arguments are presented.

    — I agree that intellectual honesty and cohering reasoning are essential, but since we tend to define ‘good reasoning’ by what follows from our baseline assumptions, it all gets circular, fast. If we assume there is no god and that naturalism is the way things are, then those who argue differently will appear to be reasoning poorly right from the starting gate, because the groups are working from different baseline assumptions.

    Thanks again for taking the time to reply.

  15. hmmm… i have a question about this:
    I agree that intellectual honesty and cohering reasoning are essential, but since we tend to define ‘good reasoning’ by what follows from our baseline assumptions, it all gets circular, fast. If we assume there is no god and that naturalism is the way things are, then those who argue differently will appear to be reasoning poorly right from the starting gate, because the groups are working from different baseline assumptions.

    Is it your contention that “science” can say nothing about metaphysics? Is that a category kind of thing for you? Because I do think that science can at least eliminate certain kinds of metaphysical realities, and perhaps that is the most it can do as well… In any case, my point is that if one is going to do an investigation of “what is,” is it really an “assumption” to start with what is demonstrably “real”? Is that really a bias (which is the way I read your circularity charge about ‘good reasoning’)? I mean, you have to start somewhere, and it seems to me one should start with the very absolutely most-least biases and assumptions one can… now if in one’s searching, unnatural “truths” begin to crop up then one must consider other metaphysics that are other than natural… but until that time, i don’t see why ‘good reasoning’ should be based on anything other what is in nature…

    Now, you may argue we are there already, that perhaps quantum mechanics are pointing us to something supernatural , and that as a result we should abandon metaphysical naturalism… but i think that is a different conversation…

  16. Tyson wrote: Is it your contention that “science” can say nothing about metaphysics? Is that a category kind of thing for you? Because I do think that science can at least eliminate certain kinds of metaphysical realities, and perhaps that is the most it can do as well…

    — If something is metaphysical, how can science — the study of the physical — eliminate it?

    Tyson wrote: In any case, my point is that if one is going to do an investigation of “what is,” is it really an “assumption” to start with what is demonstrably “real”?

    — Hmmmm. Well, what is ‘demonstrably real’? How is your noumenon? ;-) Could science detect the noumenon? Do philosophers agree on what is real? If philosophers disagree, is it because they are ignorant of science?

    Tyson wrote: Is that really a bias (which is the way I read your circularity charge about ‘good reasoning’)? I mean, you have to start somewhere, and it seems to me one should start with the very absolutely most-least biases and assumptions one can… now if in one’s searching, unnatural “truths” begin to crop up then one must consider other metaphysics that are other than natural… but until that time, i don’t see why ‘good reasoning’ should be based on anything other what is in nature…

    — How would you identify an unnatural truth if you assume from the start that everything must be natural?

    Now, you may argue we are there already, that perhaps quantum mechanics are pointing us to something supernatural , and that as a result we should abandon metaphysical naturalism… but i think that is a different conversation…

    — I think quantum mechanics are perfectly natural.

  17. – If something is metaphysical, how can science — the study of the physical — eliminate it?

    Yes, that is precisely what i meant by “category”… but do you not agree that if certain kinds of metaphysical realities were true, e.g. God commonly performs miraculous healings, etc… that it would be “detectable” in the “natural” world?

  18. Earlier I wrote: – If something is metaphysical, how can science — the study of the physical — eliminate it?

    Tyson replied: Yes, that is precisely what i meant by “category”… but do you not agree that if certain kinds of metaphysical realities were true, e.g. God commonly performs miraculous healings, etc… that it would be “detectable” in the “natural” world?


    Well again, I don’t see how metaphysical claims — which are cosmological, ontological or epistemic claims — can be investigated by science. How is science, for example, going to confirm or disconfirm claims like the following:

    The universe has a purpose.
    The universe does not have a purpose.

    When it comes to miracles, miracles are not detectable by science, because science automatically, by definition, by practice, rules out miraculous explanations. Miracles are disallowed!

    The baseline assumption, when doing science (with which I wholeheartedly agree) is to rule out divine intervention as a causal explanation in science. In part, that’s what makes science, science! One of my favorite ‘Far Side’ cartoons — often reproduced — is the one where the two scientists are standing in front of a chalkboard covered with equations and in parentheses it says: “And then a miracle occurred.”

    Now, that’s a total no-no in science, which is why the cartoon is funny; from the start we can’t ever say in science that “A miracle occurred,” or “God did it.” Miracles are ruled out as acceptable explanations from the get-go, whenever we are going to be scientific. Scientific investigations always assume natural causes. Always. Always. Always. Always. Otherwise, scientific investigation doesn’t work!!! :-D

    So how do scientists talk about miracles? Let’s say a healing occurs, and a religious person claims it is miraculous. But a scientist, speaking as a scientist, looking at the event in strictly scientific terms, can’t make the claim that it is miraculous.

    So the scientist renames it and reframes it, like this . . .

    The Event Gets Renamed and Reframed:

    Renaming: Weird events that appear to contradict current theories and data are called ‘anomalies’ in science. They are never properly called miracles within science, because of course science rules out explanations claiming divine intervention (otherwise you can’t do science).

    Reframing: Anomalies are presumed to have natural causes that we just don’t understand yet — or, they are presumed to be bad data (i.e. there was some error in data collection, witness accounts are questionable, there’s not enough information to determine scientifically whether the event was truly anomalous, etc). Let’s think about healings that are claimed to be miraculous. The Catholic church might investigate a claim of a miracle and determine that a certain healing was miraculous. But one of the things the Catholic church does before declaring something ‘miraculous’ is to rule out known scientific causes — so when the church declares a healing a ‘miracle,’ science declares that very same healing to be ‘anomalous.’ A priest and a scientist can agree that an event was weird or unexpected and that current science rules it out. But they will use different frames to refer to the weird event. In the case of a weird healing, a doctor — speaking strictly as a scientist — would not be able to say a miracle occurred. A doctor, speaking strictly as a scientist, would have to categorize an unexpected healing as a “medical anomaly.”

    Another issue with miracles and science is that miracles are by definition peculiar, unexpected, outlier events, while science is only equipped to investigate repeatable, predictable, reproducible events. So the scientist says . . .

    The Event Can’t Directly Be Tested Scientifically:

    Science is equipped to investigate observable, repeatable events, where you can set up reproducible test conditions and controls. Now, an anomalous healing is observable: we can have test results that show someone is likely terminal, and then we can have test results that confirm the person was later healed of something assumed to be terminal. But — such a healing is not reproducible: an anomalous healing is by definition an exception, not the rule. (And since miraculous explanations are explicitly ruled out by science from the get-go, scientists will properly call that an anomaly, not a miracle.)

    When it comes to investigation, miracles are like historical events; they are one-offs, exceptions . . . and history isn’t science. We can be analytical and methodical with investigating history, and historical researchers can use some scientific methodology to investigate things (i.e. is that newly discovered letter from Lincoln a forgery, or is it plausibly from Lincoln’s hand?), but ultimately we cannot go back personally to “replay” history, we cannot send investigators back in time to observe and confirm that Lincoln indeed wrote the letter, we cannot set up test conditions that would cause Lincoln to reappear and re-enact the event, we cannot repeatedly watch Lincoln writing the letter over and over with multiple observers until we are satisfied that Lincoln indeed wrote it. We cannot set up test conditions that would cause a historical or miraculous event to repeat itself, and we cannot otherwise freshly and repeatedly observe historical or miraculous events to learn more about them. Miracle claims, like historical events, are one-offs.

    So, by scientific investigation, no, miracles aren’t detectable in the natural world. They are categorically ruled out.

  19. Again my time have been of short supply since I’m finishing my master thesis as well as getting used to my new job. I will try to keep my response short and focused since this discussion could use a bit of pruning.

    I don’t know if you agree with me on the requirement to know facts, but I think you do given your answer. I’m willing to agree that values involve subjectivity, at least in the sense that it originate from experience of a self. However, it is unfortunate that you try to take my analogy out of context in the very next sentence, but I will not give that any further though. Now, this only return us to my previous arguments. What does religion have to do with moral and ethics? Is there some moral actions or statements that can’t be done without the presence of religion?

    I recognize that not all grades of religion is fundamental, but all dogma have this in common: the acceptance of arguments from authority. I am not saying that there will be no violence and irrationality if there is no dogma; I however think part of the longevity of dogma comes from ignorance. The more I listen to your arguments the more you appear as a religious apologist. It seems to me you have now reduced the role of religion to something people need; the junkie need religion for as mental support. This is just what I illustrate with my diamond example. It is not true just because it feels good, and given the negative baggage carried by religion we should rather look at other ways to enable people to improve. Maybe put more research in to cognitive treatment and medication?

    You say we can find value in scripture. Well sure, but since few today (I’d guess none) use Jefferson’s bible we must have some outside reference to pick out the good and sound moral, leaving the rest to the fundamentalists. This is still beside the point though, since it is yet another example of arguments from authority. Something isn’t true merely because it’s written down. Besides, I would really like to know how “religious understanding” have evolved? So called sophisticated theology might have more edges on their sword, but they haven’t become sharper.

    Ok, I’ll tuck in the references here. One (of many) examples of a factual claim would be “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1:1. In the event that you want to apply “interpretation” to this, then what would it mean? In my mind, any such attempt only serve to avoid the need to prove this statement. An example of an unfalsifiable theological proposition could be an argument from existence. Why do there exists anything at all in the first place? The next step is to postulate a creator outside the normal world, but such a claim is obviously unfalsifiable.

    Personally I’m not well versed in the philosophical terminology so I checked wikipedia and I’ve got news for you. If you say you’re an methodological naturalist you have to leave theology at the door. It say so right there, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalism_(philosophy)#Methodological_and_metaphysical_naturalism third paragraph. But leaving the technicalities aside, I think that the concept of miracles, the temporary suspension of normal physics, is a fallacy by definition.

    When you give an event the description of a miracle, even though you say it doesn’t adhere to the normal physical laws, you describe some way in which this world works, since it is in this world it happened. If you do this, science can investigate the event in theory, although it could be very hard in practice. Saying that an event have supernatural causes only means to say that it can not be given any description of how it works in this world. But this only means that you use a non-description as description to the event. In other words, either the event is natural, or it is non-existent.

  20. Good luck on your master’s thesis, and with your new job! As a gardener and an editor I approve of severe pruning. I suppose non-pruned discussions ought to go to the new forum, hmm? ;-)

    Roger wrote: . What does religion have to do with moral and ethics? Is there some moral actions or statements that can’t be done without the presence of religion?

    — As I said repeatedly above, I consider religion to be amoral, or morally neutral. It can be used to justify either moral or immoral acts. Religion is a tool. One can be moral without religion. People do not need religion to be moral. I am not sure why you keep bringing this up, as I feel I have already stated very clearly and repeatedly that I do not think religion has much to do with morality. I do not think we have a disagreement here, and I am not sure why you think we do.

    Roger wrote: I recognize that not all grades of religion is fundamental, but all dogma have this in common: the acceptance of arguments from authority.

    — Whose authority? Ultimately God’s, right? So how do we encounter God? Religions build conscience clauses into them, which allows for the rewriting or rejection of dogma, thus subverting human authority. This ‘conscience clause’ or ‘new revelation’ workaround is quite common. It is how new religions and denominations get their start, and how old ones update themselves.

    Roger wrote: I am not saying that there will be no violence and irrationality if there is no dogma; I however think part of the longevity of dogma comes from ignorance. The more I listen to your arguments the more you appear as a religious apologist. It seems to me you have now reduced the role of religion to something people need; the junkie need religion for as mental support. This is just what I illustrate with my diamond example. It is not true just because it feels good, and given the negative baggage carried by religion we should rather look at other ways to enable people to improve. Maybe put more research in to cognitive treatment and medication?

    — What about the positive baggage carried by religion, of which you make no mention? Cognitive treatment and medication are fine for mental illnesses, but religion deals with questions of ultimate value, as does some philosophy. This is out of the usual purview of mental health therapy.

    Roger wrote: You say we can find value in scripture. Well sure, but since few today (I’d guess none) use Jefferson’s bible we must have some outside reference to pick out the good and sound moral, leaving the rest to the fundamentalists.

    — And how or where would you fit in non-fundamentalist interpretations?

    Roger wrote: This is still beside the point though, since it is yet another example of arguments from authority. Something isn’t true merely because it’s written down. Besides, I would really like to know how “religious understanding” have evolved? So called sophisticated theology might have more edges on their sword, but they haven’t become sharper.

    — Quick example: The doctrine of the trinity did not appear until nearly four hundred years after the death of Jesus, and some Christians still reject it. The trinity isn’t in the Bible at all. A second quick example: Paul (who as a religious authority was well educated in traditional interpretations of Hebrew scripture) played very very fast and loose with conventional Jewish theology. He came up with bizarre interpretations of Hebrew scripture to defend the idea that Jesus was divine. He claimed that he could interpret the scripture differently because he was divinely guided to do so. Now, that’s a loophole you could drive a truck through. And it is not at all unusual. If you want much more detail on dramatic changes in religious understanding, read Karen Armstrong’s many books on the evolution of monotheistic ideas or Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God.”

    Roger wrote: Ok, I’ll tuck in the references here. One (of many) examples of a factual claim would be “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1:1. In the event that you want to apply “interpretation” to this, then what would it mean? In my mind, any such attempt only serve to avoid the need to prove this statement. An example of an unfalsifiable theological proposition could be an argument from existence. Why do there exists anything at all in the first place? The next step is to postulate a creator outside the normal world, but such a claim is obviously unfalsifiable.

    — All scripture is interpreted. All of it. There is no way around that. I and millions of other religious people see no conflict between the idea that God created all that exists, and that God ‘did it’ via natural laws and processes. What is the problem with Genesis 1:1? And why should it be falsifiable scientifically, when it is a religious statement? I also see no problem with religious statements being unfalsifiable. They are religious statements, not scientific ones. All values/judgment/standards statements — whether expressed as religious, political, epistemic, ethical, aesthetic or philosophical statements — are nonfalsifiable. So what?

    Roger wrote: I’m not well versed in the philosophical terminology so I checked wikipedia and I’ve got news for you. If you say you’re an methodological naturalist you have to leave theology at the door.

    — Roger, this is not news to me. ;-) I’m a retired scientist, and plenty of scientists are also religious. Methodological naturalism does not dismay me. It is the ONLY way to do science. I draw the line at metaphysical naturalism, which I consider a leap of faith. Science works wonderfully within its limited scope. But when people assume that the deliverances of science are the only road to all truths, well, in that case, they do make a metaphysical leap of faith.

    Roger wrote: It say so right there, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalism_(philosophy)#Methodological_and_metaphysical_naturalism third paragraph. But leaving the technicalities aside, I think that the concept of miracles, the temporary suspension of normal physics, is a fallacy by definition.

    — Are we very very sure that we comprehensively know all the laws of physics in all circumstances? Or can highly improbable things theoretically happen? (Remember that science doesn’t deal in absolutes, it deals in probabilities. Even Richard Dawkins doesn’t rule out God entirely. He just says that God is highly improbable.) Also, I think miracles can be both explained scientifically and understood religiously, more about that below.

    Roger wrote: When you give an event the description of a miracle, even though you say it doesn’t adhere to the normal physical laws, you describe some way in which this world works, since it is in this world it happened. If you do this, science can investigate the event in theory, although it could be very hard in practice. Saying that an event have supernatural causes only means to say that it can not be given any description of how it works in this world.

    — Not at all. Take a ‘miraculous’/’anomalous’ healing. It can absolutely be described by science. We can look at medical charts before, and medical charts afterwards, and say, “My goodness! We can scientifically verify that the tumor is gone!” We can absolutely scientifically measure the presence and then the improbable absence of, say, a cancerous tumor. And still, a religious person could claim that it was a ‘miraculous’ healing.

    Roger wrote: But this only means that you use a non-description as description to the event. In other words, either the event is natural, or it is non-existent.

    — I think you pose a false dichotomy here; your metaphysical naturalism is showing. :-)

    A miracle could also be understood as an utterly natural event, completely describable by science. Take the story of the parting of the Red Sea: even if a ‘perfectly natural’ wind rose up and dried a path for the Exodus to occur, and then the wind died down and their pursuers drowned and perished, it’s the timing that makes it miraculous. What matters with miracles is the idea of intent and the idea that an event is supposed to open the mind of the witness to the possibility of God. It doesn’t have to be ‘unnatural’ at all.

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