Over at BeliefNet, Gregg Easterbrook writes the following:

Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other by the hundreds in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Hindus and Muslims are slaughtering each other in India, herding neighbors into house or trains then setting them afire. Catholics and Protestants continue to kill each other in Northern Ireland. Sunnis and Shias have their arms wrapped around each other’s throats throughout the Islamic world. And of course, on Sept. 11, 19 Muslims were so determined to murder helpless Christians and Jews that they were willing to die to shed the blood of other religions.

Not a terribly good reflection on faith, is it? If religion makes people want to murder each other, maybe religion is bad for the world.

Hard to argue with that. Remarkably, however, this is the beginning of a column claiming to defend religion.

Easterbrook continues:

Religion has certainly been bad for history. In recent decades alone, Hindus and Sikhs have been slaughtering each other, blowing up airliners and firing artillery shells into temples. In the fighting over Sri Lanka, Tamil Hindus have fired machine guns at school buses full of Sinhalese Buddhist children, and the Buddhists in turn have firebombed Hindu schools. Thousands of Chinese grew up as orphans because their Buddhist parents were murdered during World War II at the urging of Shinto priests.

Paragraph after paragraph of this! You have to go to page two before Easterbrook attempts to turn the tide:

Killing in the name of God or belief, which shames every religion, ought to give the person of faith pause. But should it cause us to abandon faith? Would the world be better off if religion disappeared?

Some people would say yes, and since it’s impossible to conduct this experiment, as faith is definitely not going away, we can’t be sure. But when we observe the horror of religiously motivated violence or hatred, maybe the correct question is, Without religion would it be even worse? (Emphasis in original).

Before moving on we really must address the idea that killing in the name of God shames every religion. This is factually incorrect. As Easterbrook’s list of religion-inspired atrocities shows, there are many religions, and many religious people, who think killing in the name of God is the most wonderful thing there is.

What Easterbrook meant to say was that killing in the name of God shames moderate religious people. But, and here’s the catch, religious moderates are the ones who do not learn their morality from holy books or religious dogma. What differentiates radical from moderate Islam, for example, is the willingness of the radicals to take seriously what the Koran has to say regarding the proper treatment of infidels. The radicals, after all, say it is the moderates who act shamefully in not defending their faith with the requisite vigor.

It is not as if there is a correct and an incorrect way to practice a particular religion. In fact, there is no religion at all outside of how it is practiced.

So how is Easterbrook going to persuade us of a yes answer to his italicized question?

What’s really underlying many “religious” disputes is ethnicity, money, and national distinctions, factors that would exist regardless of whether anyone had ever heard the word “God.” The fighting in Israel today, for example, is not primarily about religion–Jews, Muslims and Christians have coexisted fairly peacefully in that area for most of the last 1,300 years. Until recently, the Holy Land fighting was mainly about land, and whom it’s been promised to. Palestinians hated Israelis because they viewed them as oppressors, not because they were Jews–although that hatred has turned lately to anti-Semitism. Israelis hated Palestinians because they viewed them as terrorists, not because they were Muslims–although, lately the hatred has turned anti-Muslim. If the land dispute could be resolved, the religious dispute would rapidly fade to secondary or tertiary status–though ethnic tensions pitting Ashkenazim and Sephardim against Arabs might drone on.

This is foolish for at least two reasons.

First, arguing that religion is not the only source of tension between people is hardly argument for why things would be worse were religion eliminated. Easterbrook can talk about ethnicity, money and nationalism all he wants. The act remains that religion itself is a major source of tension among people. The point isn’t that eliminating religion would lead to peace and harmony all over the globe. It is merely that eliminating religion would eliminate one major source of tension.

Second, in the context of Israel this argument is especially inapt. They’re fighting over land, Easterbrook tells us. Indeed they are, but one reason the fight is so acrimonious is that both sides believe they have a divine right to the land in dispute. It is the cornerstone of Judaism, after all, that God made a covenant with His chosen people in which Jews agree to live by certain laws and are given the land of Israel in return. The land is no less sacred to the Muslims. You can’t argue the dispute is about land while ignoring the religious reasons for finding that particular bit of land so important.

This, however, is Easterbrook’s only argument. After repeating his point in the context of the dispute in Northern Ireland, he unloads this:

Similar ethnic, class, and nationalistic disputes underlie pretty much every fight that looks on the surface to be about religion. Suppose the Christian and Islamic faiths vanished. Sept. 11 might still have happened. Within the Arab world, where many resent the West, violent fanatics might have vowed to kill themselves solely on secular grounds. Indeed, it can be argued that since the mass murderers of Sept. 11 openly violated the Quranic prohibition against killing the innocent, they weren’t true Muslims anyway. What they were was terrorist fanatics. And a certain number of people like this would exist in the world whether religious faith existed or not.

Sure, maybe 9/11 would have happened anyway. The fact remains that the way things actually unfolded it did happen and religious faith was at the heart of it. And, again, this was supposed to be an argument for why things would be worse without religion, not for why it is possible that things would be as bad.

As for Easterbrook’s comment about Quranic prohibitions, the fanatics would reply simply that the people in the towers that day were not innocents. They were infidels. But even so, let’s concede Easterbrook’s point that the 9/11 hijakcers were not true Muslims. They are, nonetheless, true somethings, and that something has religious faith at its core.

Easterbrook concludes with:

Men and women of all faiths must feel deeply chastened about the continuing violence in the name of religion. We ought to feel the very worst about violence, or hatred, perpetrated by those who say they believe what we believe. But this does not mean we should give up those beliefs. Rather, we must work to make belief sincere. Only then is there a chance the violence will stop.

Right. Because the problem with the 9/11 hijackers was a lack of sincerity.

This is why I’ll never understand people like Easterbrook. He provides an admirable list of the horrors done in the name of religion. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion, that it is not a good thing to have large numbers of people running around basing their lives on fairy tales, he argues instead that the bad folks don’t believe the right fairy tales, or that they have drawn the wrong conclusions from the fairy tales they do believe.

I don’t know if the world would be better without religion. The question is too hypothetical, and the word “religion” too vague to really provide an answer. But what I think we can say with absolute confidence is that the world would be a better place if more people were willing to base their morality on a basic sense of simple human dignity than on the teachings of ancient holy books. Or if people were more willing to adopt a live and let live attitude towards the practices of other people. The trouble is, religion as it is actually practiced is the premiere impediment to such attitudes.

Comments

  1. #1 Greco
    May 21, 2007

    The “it’s not about religion” line has been around for a very long time, used by all kinds of apologists. Easterbrook isn’t even original.

  2. #2 Chris Bell
    May 21, 2007

    Jason,

    You nicely captured something I was trying to explain to my religious friend the other day. He and I were going back and forth on the detriment/value of religion, but I was also trying to explain that the tie breaker was the fact that religion just isn’t true. People shouldn’t base their lives on falsehoods because they lack an anchor. (And people say atheism destroys moral absolutes!)

    I really liked the ending of your post, and I sent it to him as an example of what I was trying to say. Because if religion is a fairy tale – which it is – it does have that arbitrary quality to it. The sentence “You believe the wrong fairy tales” is absurd on its face; how can any fairy tale be more right than another? That’s what I hear in my head when moderate religious people try to distance themselves from the wackos. The problem is that people shouldn’t believe in fairy tales. The moderates cause harm because they say that it’s OK to believe in fairy tales, as long as you believe in the right ones. Moderate religion inevitable paves the way for the dregs of belief.

    Thanks for helping me articulate what I meant.

  3. #3 Koray
    May 21, 2007

    Fantastic. Have there been atrocities in the name of religion? No problem. Just change your definition of the offending religion. Those who committed the atrocities were obviously practicing it wrong.

    By the way, if you’re a christian, both moderate and radical islam are wrong (who is this Mohammad person?), so how do you know the right way to practice a wrong religion? And what if there was no moderate islam?

  4. #5 PC2
    May 21, 2007

    I don’t like the pain and suffering in this world any more than you do but all I know is that I have seen true blue miracles. Miracles that can only be explained if there truly is a sovereign Lord. I know it is pointless to try to convince you of the validity of these numerous miraculous experiences I’ve seen. You may even call me a Nut. I probably would if I were in your shoes. Yet to all that I hold sacred I tell you they were truly real.

  5. #6 eric
    May 21, 2007

    PC2: I would be truly interested in hearing about any miracles you have witnessed. The word miracle gets sloshed around pretty freely to apply to things as mundane as childbirth and unexpected recoveries from illnesses. But if you’ve got one that could only have happened because it was orchestrated by a “sovreign Lord” … You may contact me at farouet@comcast.net. Best.

  6. #7 tomh
    May 22, 2007

    eric wrote: I would be truly interested in hearing about any miracles you have witnessed … … You may contact me at …

    Hey! We all want to hear about “true blue miracles”.

  7. #8 Pseudonym
    May 22, 2007

    Yeah, I’m with you and Dinesh D’Souza on that. Of course, it wasn’t religion he blamed, but freedom.

    They attack us, because they hate our freedom. We attack their neighbour on the pretext of preserving our enduring freedom. The conclusion should be obvious: Remove our freedom, and that’s one less thing to fight about, right?

  8. #9 Koray
    May 22, 2007

    PC2: You know what? Mohammad also saw miracles and explained them just like you did. Are you a muslim? Why not?

  9. #10 Carolina
    May 22, 2007

    Too much belief in anything is generally harmful. Radicals bypass all reason and only see what supports their belief. Religion is just one thing, among many, that people can have an extreme attitude about. Everyone should stop once in a while and think: “But maybe I’m (it’s) wrong.”

  10. #11 Chris Ho-Stuart
    May 22, 2007

    Jason says:

    I don’t know if the world would be better without religion. The question is too hypothetical, and the word �religion� too vague to really provide an answer. But what I think we can say with absolute confidence is that the world would be a better place if more people were willing to base their morality on a basic sense of simple human dignity than on the teachings of ancient holy books. Or if people were more willing to adopt a live and let live attitude towards the practices of other people. The trouble is, religion as it is actually practiced is the premiere impediment to such attitudes.

    I really like this closing. I especially like it that you say something positive. It’s something that some of the religious moderates would support.

    I suspect that the staying power of religion is in the more extreme forms; and moderation will tend to erode religion; but that’s just a personal hypothesis. I try to apply the same moderation myself, with a basic willingness to get along with religious friends and colleagues, and work side by side with them on issues where we have the same basic objectives.

  11. #12 Tommy Paquette
    May 22, 2007

    Men and women of all faiths must feel deeply chastened about the continuing violence in the name of religion. We ought to feel the very worst about violence, or hatred, perpetrated by those who say they believe what we believe. But this does not mean we should give up those beliefs. Rather, we must work to make belief sincere. Only then is there a chance the violence will stop.

    Right. Because the problem with the 9/11 hijackers was a lack of sincerity.

    … this made me laugh so hard. If only religious apologists would ask themselves such honest questions!

  12. #13 snafu
    May 22, 2007

    What a great piece of writing. Thanks J.

  13. #14 David D.G.
    May 22, 2007

    EXCELLENT piece here, Jason! I’m sure I’ll be quoting it soon!

    ~David D.G.

  14. #15 Eric
    May 22, 2007

    Jason

    I have to take issue with your characterization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as rooted in religious belief. The first Zionists were completely agnostic. What drove their attempts to resettle Jews to Israel was not belief that God promised it but rather that it was the historical ancestral homeland of the Jews. It would be the same if the Apaches held together as a distinct entity for 2000 years and then got the opportunity to return to Texas and have self determination, independent of any claims made by native religion.

    The ardent religous Jews actually opposed the formation of the Jewish state because it was through secular means and not from the arrival of the messiah. And even current polling suggest that the majority of Israelis would give up Judea and Samaria for peace–and that land was part of the deal with God. So I think Easterbrook, at least in his analysis of this situation, is closer to the truth.

  15. #16 Greta Christina
    May 22, 2007

    “But even so, let’s concede Easterbrook’s point that the 9/11 hijackers were not true Muslims. They are, nonetheless, true somethings, and that something has religious faith at its core.”

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    This is the thing that’s starting to really bug me about moderate religious believers. So many of them say that the violent, extremist practitioners of their religion aren’t practicing the true faith: aren’t true Christians, or Muslims, or whatever.

    But of course, the violent extremists say exactly the same thing about the moderates.

    And of course, there’s Scripture to back up both positions. (There’s Scripture to back up almost any position you can think of.)

    So on what basis can you argue that the moderate, loving, tolerant, ecumenical version of your religion is more “true” than the violent, intolerant, hateful, imperialist one?

    It’s a perfect example of “heads I win, tails don’t count.” Martin Luther King Jr. is on our side; Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps aren’t real Christians. And we’ll completely ignore the fact of how many people there are in the world who practice our faith in ways we don’t like. They still don’t count.

  16. #17 Greta Christina
    May 22, 2007

    “I don’t know if the world would be better without religion. The question is too hypothetical…”

    Actually, I don’t think this question is 100% hypothetical. Look at Europe, including England: they have far more secular societies, and a higher percentage of atheists in their populations, than anywhere else in the world. And they seem to do pretty well. Far from perfect, of course, but better in many ways than America and the Middle East and other largely religious societies.

    Now, you could argue — and in fact I would argue — that correlation doesn’t prove causation. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that both Europe’s relative peaceableness and its secularism/high rate of atheism both come from the same cause — prosperity and good education — rather than one being caused by the other. (I’ve said this before in response to the “look at how much crime and divorce there are in highly religious red states than there is in more secular blue states” arguments.)

    So Europe by itself doesn’t prove that a world without religion would be a better world.

    But it sure is compelling evidence that a world without religion isn’t worse.

  17. #18 Ginger Yellow
    May 22, 2007

    I’d love to take the recent progressiveness and peacefulness of Europe as a recommendation of atheism (as a UK dwelling atheist), but it’s far too early to draw that sort of conclusion. Both secularism and “peaceableness” are very modern phenomena in Europe and there’s no way of telling how it’s going to pan out.

  18. #19 Gray Lensman
    May 22, 2007

    I agree with Ginger Yellow. I say let’s wait until natural resources like water, etc. start to run out in Europe because of global warming. When each of the progressive, peaceful societies try to corner the market in whatever they don’t have, watch out.

  19. #20 Chris Ho-Stuart
    May 22, 2007

    An interesting couterpoint to this essay is the recent essay by Jonathan Rowe over at Positive Liberty: While Europe Slept. He argues that the Founding Fathers of the USA were deliberately seeking to make religion kinder, gentler, more sober and rational; and he proposes that we should do the same for Islam.

    Putting it really bluntly and in rather cynical terms: even if we are not followers of the religion ourselves, it is still a good idea to try and sell the “authentic” form of that religion as the most tolerant peaceful version we can conceive. Rowe says:

    Whenever I criticize the more extreme elements of Islam, I always stress that most Muslims say this doesn’t represent the authentic version of their faith. Now, in truth, I have no idea whether I’m right and may well be engaging in a Straussian lie. But, if Islam, as a faith, isn’t going away — and I don’t think it is — Muslims must be convinced that a more liberal, sober and rational understanding of their faith is the authentic one. This is exactly what Madison tried to do with Christians in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

    I recognize myself in that quote. That’s pretty much what I do; and one thing I liked about Rowe’s essay is that it helped me see where my view could become cynical or hypocritical. I don’t think it is; but I need to maintain a critical scrutiny of my own approach to religion.

    I suspect Easterbrook might be doing something like this as well, but from the inside. It is a premise of his own position that there is a God, and I think he may be pitching his spiel, for the most part, at others who continue to believe in God, or want to believe in God, even while recognizing all the negative things that are going on with religion. The solution for Easterbrook is to single out the tolerant position as the authentic religion, most truly reflecting the reality of God; and to run down the bad guys as not authentic. He missed the mark when he spoke of “sincerity”. He’d have been better (I think) to speak of “authenticity”.

    With “sincerity” he’s making a remark about psychology in the real world, and ends up being plainly false. With “authenticty” he can remove the semantics of the remark off to where it’s not so directly falsifiable, and still saleable as a way of distinguishing “bad” religion from “good” religion.

  20. #21 Another Jason
    May 23, 2007

    Chris Ho-Stuart,

    What reason is there to think that revisionist/moderate religion is more “authentic” than traditional/conservative religion?

    Moderate religion is self-defeating. Its truth claims tend to be either trivial or meaningless. The more a religion is reconciled to science and reason, the less reason there is for it to exist at all.

  21. #22 Science Avenger
    May 23, 2007

    With “sincerity” he’s making a remark about psychology in the real world, and ends up being plainly false. With “authenticty” he can remove the semantics of the remark off to where it’s not so directly falsifiable, and still saleable as a way of distinguishing “bad” religion from “good” religion.

    Change the words used to describe religion, or their meanings, so that they don’t refer to the real world, but instead are nonfalsifiable? In other words, reduce religion to basically meaningless happy talk?

    Sadly, that is, for the most part, how I’d describe most nonfundamentalist religious views that I’ve had explained in detail. It’s just a comfortable rhetorical weave. It’s also why what you suggest won’t work. The kinds of mindsets that are attracted to fundamentalist thinking don’t want to live in peace with everyone else. They want to control everyone else, the religion is just the tool chosen. What is prayer, after all, but a means of exerting control in a way that has nothing to do with the real world?

    Anne Coulter and Osama Bin Laden are not obsessed with controlling other people, right down to who puts whose pee-pee where and when, because they are religious nuts. They are religious nuts because they want to control people.

  22. #23 Chris Ho-Stuart
    May 24, 2007

    Jason asks me some key questions.

    What reason is there to think that revisionist/moderate religion is more “authentic” than traditional/conservative religion?

    Moderate religion is self-defeating. Its truth claims tend to be either trivial or meaningless. The more a religion is reconciled to science and reason, the less reason there is for it to exist at all.

    I don’t think there is any reason to think moderate religion is more authentic. But I can understand that a moderate religious believer might put it in such terms.

    For my part, I think religion is basically bunk. What there is of value in religion can be retained when the religion is discarded.

    On the other hand, I would like to encourage religion to adopt more moderate forms. I think moderate religion is more consistent with basic ethics.

    I do not agree that moderate religion is self defeating or that its claims are meaningless. It is no more or less self defeating than extreme religion, and the claims that might be made by moderate believers range from absurd to sensible. But I do agree that the more it becomes consistent with science the less reason it has to exist at all.

    I think that people who shift from extreme religion to moderate religion often keep shifing and lose their faith altogether. I think that moderate religion is moving into territory where it competes at a major disadvantage with more rational humanistic perspectives. I think the shift to moderate religion is correlated with a shift away from religion altogether.

    Cheers — Chris

  23. #24 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    May 24, 2007

    You may want to have a look at this: Chris Hedges: I Don�t Believe in Atheists
    Hedges vs. Harris
    At least he’s not as bone-stupid as Easterbrook.

  24. #25 Another Jason
    May 24, 2007

    Chris Ho-Stuart,

    I don’t think we’re that far apart, but some of your statements are pretty odd. You say you don’t think moderate religion is self-defeating, but you agree that the more it is reconciled to science the less reason it has to exist.

    A religion that preaches that it is but one of many equally valid choices (including the choice of no religion at all) isn’t likely to attract or retain many converts. A religion that denies that it makes exclusive claims of truth, that says things like “There are many paths to God” or “All religions are basically true” or somesuch (i.e., the typical platitudes of religious moderates) doesn’t have much of a sales pitch. If your basic message is “Join us if you like. Or not. Whatever works for you. It’s all good.” you’re not exactly giving people a compelling reason to join your church. It makes your religion into something more like a social club or special interest group.

    Similarly, the God of moderate religion seems to be so abstract and distant and inscrutable and unknowable he doesn’t seem likely to provide the kind of emotional support that seems to be necessary to sustain serious religious belief. When religious moderates attempt to explain their conception of God, the result is usually some version of the rarefied God of Spinoza or Tillich, rather than anything like the theism of traditional religion. God is equated with love, or the universe, or the feeling of awe or mystery, or something of that sort. It’s all so vacuous and distant there’s nothing to hold on to.

    If the choice is between believing in a God who acts in the world in a way that is completely invisible and undetectable, as if he didn’t exist at all, and not believing in God at all, I think more and more people are likely to shift from the former position to the latter one. The ones who believe God’s existence is visible and detectable are more likely to stick with traditional religion.

    This is the way in which moderate religion is self-defeating.

  25. #26 Chris Ho-Stuart
    May 24, 2007

    Talking with Another Jason:

    You say you don’t think moderate religion is self-defeating, but you agree that the more it is reconciled to science the less reason it has to exist.

    That’s right. We seem to agree on much more than we disagree. Perhaps we just read different connotations into “self-defeating”. I take that to mean “inconsistent”; having within itself its own refutation. You seem to have taken it to mean “ineffective”; lacking within itself the tools for its own propagation.

    My point was that moderate religion is (or can be) internally self-consistent. Same for extreme fundamentalist religion; being “self-consistent” is not the same as being correct!

    For retaining adherents, moderate and extreme forms of religion have their particular weak points.

    Extreme religion is (IMHO) brittle. Adherents often declare an absolute and total certainty in the most absurd of propositions, and nothing whatever can shift them. But once someone does shift, even a little bit, this kind of faith is particularly prone to shatter completely. There are many atheists and skeptics around who point to a previous history as a fundamentalist.

    The problem for moderate religion is a bit different. Moderate religion attempts to reconcile belief with what is known of the world by other means independent of their religion… like science, for example. It also adopts ideals of ethical pluralism and tolerance, which are recognized as ethical virtues right across the board, again independent of religion.

    This position is consistent, but it’s no longer quite so clear why one would bother. What do they offer that is any different? Well, quite a bit actually; depending on the religion. But the different bits are the bits that don’t get picked up by all the rest of us. It might be a belief in an afterlife of some kind, or in some form of divine reconciliation mediated somehow by Jesus’ death, or a confidence in some notion of intrinsic meaning that arises from being loved by the creator of the universe, or whatever.

    The problem is not that this fails to make meaningful claims. It is that they no longer have an effective basis for arguing their claims over anyone else’s. When you have claims with no empirical support, you can’t really argue for them empirically. The best you can do is shout loudly and confidently and pound the pulpit with great energy and vigour, and also demonize anyone who thinks different. The fundamentalists do that quite well, and (incredibly) it works; but the moderates don’t have that psychological tool available to them.

    Moderates would usually prefer to use the tools of reason that science has managed with such enormous success; but here they run into a problem. Their claims aren’t actually real. The tools of reason turn in your hand when applied to something that does not in fact have any solid basis. Some moderates accept this, and simply declare themselves to hold a position by faith alone. It’s not impressive for those of us who don’t already share that faith; moderate tend to make poor evangelists.

    Cheers — Chris

  26. #27 Another Jason
    May 24, 2007

    Chris Ho-Stuart,

    It’s more a matter that moderate religion is pointless and substanceless than that it is “inconsistent.” You don’t really address the reasons I described for this, or the utter vacuity of liberal and moderate “theology.” A religion that embraces pluralism and diversity, that eschews exclusivity, that says it doesn’t really matter which religion you belong to, or whether you even have a religion at all, is not likely to attract or retain many followers. A religion that teaches that God is so distant and removed from human affairs that he is completely invisible and that the universe operates in such a way as to make it appear that he doesn’t exist at all is not very appealing either emotionally or intellectually. What’s the point of it? Why not take the obvious next step and just abandon belief in him altogether? That is in fact what happens. Moderate religion is staid and formalized, all ritual and sentiment. Its members are leaving in droves. The moderate and liberal “mainline” Christian denominations are all shrinking and aging. All the passion and vitality is in conservative and traditional religion. That is what gets people fired up. That is what engages them and gives them a sense of purpose and belonging. That is what gets them to evangelize and recruit. A religion that is little more than science and secularism dressed up in a bit of religious terminology is destined for oblivion.

  27. #28 Another Jason
    May 24, 2007

    What do they offer that is any different? Well, quite a bit actually; depending on the religion. But the different bits are the bits that don’t get picked up by all the rest of us. It might be a belief in an afterlife of some kind, or in some form of divine reconciliation mediated somehow by Jesus’ death, or a confidence in some notion of intrinsic meaning that arises from being loved by the creator of the universe, or whatever.

    One does not need to belong to a religion to believe in an afterlife of some kind or in “some notion of intrinsic meaning” (whatever that’s supposed to mean. I think it’s a pretty good example of the kind of moderate religious platitude that is so vague and murky it’s basically meaningless). A religion is attractive only if it offers something more, some serious reason to belong to it rather than to some other religion or just not belong to any of them. If there is no such thing as salvation vs. damnation, or if everyone is saved, or if belonging to one religion rather than another doesn’t increase your chances of salvation (typical moderate religious positions), then again, what’s the attraction?

    Some of your comments suggest that you are aware of the vacuity of moderate religion, that you understand the reasons why it’s unlikely to retain a hold over large numbers of people. But then you keep trying to defend it as something emotionally satisfying and intellectually respectable, a legitimate third alternative to secularism and traditional religion. But there really is no third way. It’s a mirage.

  28. #29 Chris Ho-Stuart
    May 25, 2007

    Part of what you are seeing in my posts is a consequence of the fact that I don’t treat moderate religion as a single monolithic belief system.

    For example, you note that “some notion of intrinsic meaning” is vague… that is because I am referring to a range of different perspectives rather than defining any one perspective in high detail.

    I could try giving a more concrete model; but in doing so I would be describing just one variant of belief, and one which I don’t share in any case. Not much point to that. There is also a problem with scientifically minded types that they dismiss any description that fails to measure up as a detailed model of carefully identified causes and effects with measures and evidence that can be used to argue its validity. But one common view in moderate religion is that science is about how things occur and theology is about why they occur. For a more concrete account of personal meaning by a theist who accepts what we have learned by the application of science, you could try reading (for example) John Polkinghorne. If you can’t put yourself in the mindset of a theist it still won’t make a lot of sense to you; but at least by looking at one instance you get something less “vague”.

    I’m not aware of having described religion as emotionally satisfying. I don’t find it so.

    The word “satisfying” is subjective; what satisfies one person will fail to satisfy another. Fundamentalist religion can be extremely emotionally satisfying for fundamentalists. I’m not “defending” fundamentalism to point that out. Moderate religion satisfies others who find comfort in theism but who are uncomfortable with the extreme emotion and rank anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists. That’s not a defense of the religion, but a comment on what is satisfying to people who adopt that style of belief.

    I guess the single major difference between me and those atheists who are critical of my position is that I disagree with your last paragraph. You say:

    Some of your comments suggest that you are aware of the vacuity of moderate religion, that you understand the reasons why it’s unlikely to retain a hold over large numbers of people. But then you keep trying to defend it as something emotionally satisfying and intellectually respectable, a legitimate third alternative to secularism and traditional religion. But there really is no third way. It’s a mirage.

    I disagree with this. On the other hand, I am a strong atheist, who is quite positive that God does not exist. I do not merely lack belief in God; I think there are good arguments for concluding that God definitely does not exist.

    Where I come across as adopting what some have called “Neville Chamberlain” atheism is that I recognize smart people may (strange as it may seem) fail to be convinced by arguments that serve to convince me.

    I don’t think there is a scientific proof that God is non-existent. I do think there are internally consistent reconciliations of religion with science. And I respect the intellectual integrity and scholarship of some people who still retain a belief in God. It IS a third way. I agree it is a “mirage” in the sense that I think it is false to reality. But I don’t think that can be proved in such a way that will convince every rational person. I’ll be taking up this topic eventually on my own blog, where everyone will be welcome to point out the weaknesses in my position there.

  29. #30 Caledonian
    May 25, 2007

    Everyone’s welcome to point out the weaknesses in your position right here.

    I’m struck by how closely your posts match a pre-existing template. You constantly emphasize how much other people agree with you, always smoothing over criticism and jagged verbal edges, and you spend far more time doing this than actually making arguments with content.

    Can you guess the template I’m thinking of?

  30. #31 Science Avenger
    May 26, 2007

    Chris Ho-Stuart said: Where I come across as adopting what some have called “Neville Chamberlain” atheism is that I recognize smart people may (strange as it may seem) fail to be convinced by arguments that serve to convince me.

    You think we militant atheists don’t recognize that?

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