In his post on atheism and civil rights, Ed Brayton takes me to task for my assertion that books like those written by Dawkins and Hitchens are not the cause of the public image problem faced by atheists. I had written:

Atheists don’t face a public image problem because of the books of Dawkins and Hitchens. They face a public image problem because of the bigotry and ignorance of so many religious people. Not all religious people, certainly, as the strawman version of their arguments would have you believe. But a much higher percentage than people like Matthew care to admit.

Ed replies:

The real nuts will hate atheists without such rhetoric. They hate and fear all non-Christians as a matter of presumption and there is likely nothing that could persuade them otherwise. But for a more moderate, reasonable Christian who just doesn’t understand why anyone would be an atheist, likely because they’ve never known any, seeing militant pronouncements like that is certainly going to reinforce their fears of atheists rather than help reduce them. I think Jason is flat wrong to say that such rhetoric is not part of the “public image problem” of atheists. Such statements are amplified through the megaphone of the religious right’s media outlets specifically for the purpose of damaging that public image – and it works.

Neither Ed, nor Matt Nisbet before him, has provided a shred of evidence to back up the assertion that Dawkins and Hitchens are hurting the cause. Their conclusion seems to be based on nothing more than their own distaste for some of the rhetoric used by those gentlemen. Ed asks us to imagine a hypothetical Christian who, gosh darn it, just can’t imagine why anyone would be an atheist. How will that person react, Ed wonders.

Against all of this hypothesizing I would mention a few facts. Christopher Hitchens’ book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks. It is number four this week, up from number seven last week. Richard Dawkins, almost a year after the publication of his book, is still on the list at number 34. The combined sales of their books, along with those of Harris and Dennett, number in the millions. If all they are doing is radicalizing the base, I’d say the base is far larger than anyone imagined.

And, as I discussed in my earlier post, the state of affairs in which atheists are openly discriminated against in child custody cases, in which more than half the country would not vote for an atheist in his own party, and in which anyone (atheist or otherwise) filing suit in a church/state case can look forward to hate mail and harrassment from the faithful, is the one that existed before Dawkins and the rest arrived on the scene. In other words, all through the nineties and early 2000′s, when atheists were mostly silent and religion (as evidenced by the Republican takeover of the government) was ascendant, was also the time when hostility towards atheists reached a fever pitch. Are we really supposed to fret that a few snide remarks from a handful of writers is making things worse?

The pre-Dawkins/Hitchens world was one in which atheists were invisible and hated nonetheless. The post-Doawkins/Hitchens world is one in which atheism has a visible place in the culture, and in which every major media outlet has engaged in serious discussions of the issue. What fantasy world do Ed and Matt inhabit that that can be viewed as a step backward for atheists?

But let’s suppose Ed is right. Suppose there are large numbers of reasonable Christians so incurious and so uncritical of their own religious beliefs that they just can’t fathom why someone would dissent from their religious opinions. This person hears a snide remark from Dawkins or Hitchens amplified through the religious right propaganda machine and concludes as a result that atheists are contemptible and fear-worthy. Explain to me please how this is a counterexample to my claim that it is bigotry and ignorance, as opposed to Dawkins and Hitchens, that is to blame for the public image problem of atheists.

Ed has one more card to play:

To make an analogy to the struggle for civil rights for blacks, the most militant elements of the black community did not achieve much of anything for that struggle. Those who were calling for “death to whitey” were not the ones who helped affect change; indeed, I would argue that they undermined that struggle by giving ammunition to those in opposition and reinforcing the fears of those moderates on the other side who might have been swayed by more reasonable engagement.

This, alas, is a terrible analogy. First, the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle were genuine militants. They were calling for actual violence. There is absolutely nothing comparable between “death to whitey” on the one hand and anything the New Atheists are saying on the other.

Next, Ed has no basis for his assertions about who achieved what in the civil rights struggle. People like Malcolm X, who frequently used violent rhetoric in his speeches, certainly had a big role to play in the eventual success of the movement. The elementary school version of the civil rights struggle, in which Martin Luther King made a few speeches, led a few non-violent marches and suddenly everyone saw the error of their ways is rather simplistic.

What led to the successes in the civil right movement was the fact that Black people refused to be invisible any longer. And that visibility was the result of the efforts of a great many leaders using a variety of different tactics. Some of them militant, some of them not. All of it made a contribution.

And let us not forget that even Martin Luther King was regarded by many of his time as too conrontational and impatient. Read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail if you are confused on that point. The fact is that every time a despised minority starts standing up for itself there are always people lecturing from their armchairs about the need for patience and the ineffectiveness of anger and confrontation. The argument is always code for, “I find you distasteful and vaguely menacing. Please go away.”

Ed worries about moderates of the day being scared into bigotry by the inflamed rhetoric of certain elements of the civil rights struggle. For heaven’s sake, these folks lived in a time when blacks were denied many of the most fundamental of civil rights. The national guard had to be brought out to integrate the schools. Blacks and whites had to use different water fountains. (How does such an idea even occur to otherwise civilized people?) “Whites only” signs were ubiquitous. And Ed thinks the problem was a large number of White people who just needed to have it explained to them, politely and reasonably, that this was wrong? Obvious nonsense. The problem was that large numbers of White people had no particular antipathy towards Blacks, but were perfectly happy to ignore them and their plight. The leaders of the civil rights movement made it so that it was impossible to ignore them any longer.

And so it is with atheists. Those moderate Christians Ed worries about, the ones who run screaming when they are told that Dawkins or Hitchens made a snide remark, do not need to have it explained to them that atheism is a reasonable world view. They need to have their ignorance confronted and challenged, preferably by people ticked off by the fact that such outreach is necessary at all. It is visibility and a just cause that leads to social progress, not calm, patient argumentation.

If Dawkins and all the rest stripped every snide remark out of their books, that would not stop the right wing noise machine from painting them as dangerous extremists. The mere fact that they are endorsing atheism and having some success is enough for that. On the other hand, such a move would surely hurt their sales and lead to less media attention as a result. Flashy rhetoric attracts attention.

A number of years ago a talented philosopher named J. L. Mackie wrote a book called The Miracle of Theism. In this book he scrutinized, with patience and restraint, every argument for the existence of God then on record. He showed, with page after page of impeccable logic, that all were badly flawed. It was a marvellous book, and I’m sure the two dozen people who read it were enriched by the experience. But his book did not sell, was extremely boring, and had precisely no effect on the culture at large.

And let’s not overlook one last point. The snideness of Dawkins and Hitchens is directed at people and ideas who richly deserve such treatment. PR tactics are certainly important, but telling it like it is ought to count for something too.

This, I think, is what it really comes down to. Ed and Matt think that Dawkins and the like are casting their nets too widely to include religion generally, as opposed to just extremist religion. The rest of this, complaining about their tone, worrying that significant numbers of potential supporters are being scared away, or making fatuous comparisons to the wrong aspects of past civil rights struggles is nothing but bluff and baloney.

Comments

  1. #1 The Ridger
    July 2, 2007

    Say it, brother!

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 2, 2007

    It was a marvellous book, and I’m sure the two dozen people who read it were enriched by the experience.

    Golden.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 2, 2007

    Also:

    If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that decent, understated religion is numerically negligible. Most believers echo Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men. The world needs to face them, and my book does so.

    — Richard Dawkins

  4. #4 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 2, 2007

    It amazes me that so much criticism of public atheism comes from public atheists themselves, such as Ed Brayton and Chris Clarke.

    I read through both Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books and nowhere did I see any call to violent action. Dawkins in fact stated that the purpose of his book was to publicly discuss his vews of religion in the same fervor that one would make a political argument or even a sports argument. Are the Red Sox any better or worse if they have loud fans? The Yankees? Do Yankee fans tell other Yankee fans to sit down and shut up?

    Now, a case can be made that moderate Democrats are guilty of the same patronizing attitude towards progressives, even my own brother has told me that we can only move in tiny steps towards universal healthcare, etc, and if the progressives keep pushing for full coverage then they will make the whole country conservative….

    In any case, I see little to be gained in freedom to be athest from accommodating moderates’ desire that we be less strident. I think we need to continue to push and push until they say “Okay, you have earned our respect.”

  5. #5 Paul Schofield
    July 2, 2007

    Sidenote, the book mentioned is available online here, with a similar book, The Ghost in the Universe found here.

  6. #6 Aerik
    July 2, 2007

    Sigh. The fact that the vast majority of people in the USA are christians implies that it’s mostly Christians who are loving Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris and putting them on the best-seller’s list. It’s so obvious, why not to Ed?

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 2, 2007

    Mike-

    Actually, I believe Ed describes himself as a deist.

  8. #8 Heathen Dan
    July 2, 2007

    Good point! The pre-neoatheist world was just as hostile to the faithless as it is now. The difference is that the “new atheists” movement is getting publicity and exposing the rest of the world that we nonbelievers exist.

    I remember in highschool, one of our teachers was scaring us about the evils of secular humanism. She was regurgitating all the lies the right wing press was making against this “godless commie” movement and how it’s all Satan’s doing. Given all this, you’d think Paul Kurtz and the gang were writing Dawkins-style diatribes against the faithful. Instead, you would read boringly dense tomes like the Philosophy of Humanism by Corliss Lamont. Kurtz’s own book, The Transcendental Temptation, was hard hitting but still pretty dry and scholarly. I doubt they’re more read than Mackie’s excellent book.

    I love reading Ed’s posts and find myself agreeing with him a lot of times, but his knee-jerk reaction against outspoken nonbelief is starting to wear thin.

  9. #9 Matt
    July 2, 2007

    I’d like to back Jason’s comment about J.L. Mackie’s book, “The Miracle of Theism.” It is a great book, contains some subtle humor, like the title, and is probably incredibly slow-going and dull for anyone not either a “militant” atheist or a philosophy major – both of which I, thankfully, happen to have been while reading the text.

    While I loved Mackie’s work (I also like reading Hume’s philosophy so one can tell I have odd tastes), Jason is correct that to gain the attention needed, strong rhetoric is one of the only effective tools.

    I’m also glad to see him criticize Ed’s use of the term “militant” when no one, especially PZ Myers, is calling for the violent eradication of religion. Ed states that PZ hopes for the “obliteration” of religion and that opponents of atheism will use this strong language to harm the cause; however, Ed knows that theists, when quoting this language, are dishonestly taking it out of context. The fault then lies with the lying theist who intentionally misquotes PZ and not with PZ’s choice of language.

    Also, I believe Jason is correct, Ed describes himself as a deist.

    Thank you for the great writing Jason, I always enjoy reading your blog.

  10. #10 Leni
    July 2, 2007

    Actually, I’ve seen Ed say on more than one occasion that he is not a theist, but a deist.

    I’ve never understood why he thinks deists aren’t theists, but oh well. It wasn’t important, it’s just always struck me as odd thing to say.

    Great post again. Although I would only point out that Ed often remarks that Dawkins’ and PZ’s rhetoric about religion hurt the cause of science education/evolution, which is a different cause than atheism. I don’t know that this is what he meant, it’s just something he says often enough that I think he may have had that at least partially in mind.

  11. #11 kemibe
    July 2, 2007

    Jason wrote:

    “Actually, I believe Ed describes himself as a deist.”

    For the record, last November he wrote, “For all practical purposes, I am an atheist myself (since I’m only a nominal deist and don’t believe that has anything to do with our lives at all).”

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    July 2, 2007

    I don’t wanna get too involved in this fight over here, since I have a few dozen of my own readers arguing with me over it on my blog. I just want to correct a couple of misconceptions. First, my objection is not to “public atheism” or “public atheists”; not even close, in fact. My objection is to the extremist rhetoric that sometimes accompanies it and that is particularly common among certain people. Second, I do not ask Jason to imagine a “hypothetical moderate Christian.” There is no need to imagine them. I’ve dealt with hundreds of them over the last 20 years and found that extremist rhetoric really does push them away and make them less receptive to an alternative viewpoint, just as extreme rhetoric from the other side, publicized widely and gleefully by us all in order, is effectively used to impeach their credibility. When the other side demonizes us and uses outrageous rhetoric, calling us “Stalinists” or “jackbooted thugs”, we reprint those words on every blog because we know it makes them look unhinged and loony. When those on our side talk about breaking out the brass knuckles and wanting to obliterate religion and accuse them of abusing their children by teaching them the tenets of their faith, they do exactly the same thing to make us look bad and to help insulate their followers from the influence of “them.” Stopping that sort of rhetoric won’t stop the really hardcore folks on the other side from believing what they believe, but I see no reason to supply them with the ammunition. And I frankly get really tired of having to explain away such rhetoric in order to get the door to someone’s mind to open a bit and let me in. I don’t think this is an unreasonable position at all. Lastly, let me make clear that I do not believe that such rhetoric is the cause of anti-atheist sentiment; I just think it helps reinforce it and does nothing for our side except undermine our ability to influence those who might otherwise be persuaded to examine their presumptions.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 2, 2007

    Ed-

    Your experiences apparently differ from mine. The people I know who are hostile to atheism do not base their views on a disgust with Richard Dawkins. But granting for the moment that Christians such as you describe exist, the ones who might have been receptive to a different viewpoint but were pushed away because mean old Richard Dawkins wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to their religion, I would appreciate some acknowledgement of the fact that this reflects very badly on them. You are effectively saying that these are folks who can not reasonably be expected to assess novel ideas and arguments, but instead get hung up on personalities.

    You mention the hundreds of people you have met who fall into this category. Against those hundred I give you the hundreds of thousands who have bought the books by Dawkins and Hitchens and the countless others who have been exposed to their ideas as a result of their success. This success is partly due to their colorful and passionate writing and to the breadth of their critique. I’m afraid you still have given no reason to believe that Dawkins and Hitchens hurt the cause.

    Moving on, when the other side uses terms like “Stalinists” or “jackbooted thugs” the outrage is not their choice of terminology. Rather, the outrage is that their use of these terms is, in nearly all cases, based on a preposterous misapprehension of the facts. If the facts of, say, the Sternberg or Gonzalez cases really were what the other side says they are, their use of those terms would be entirely justified. You remind me of people who criticize Ann Coulter for being mean and nasty. The problem, of course, is not her tone, but the fact that you can go pages at a time in her books without encountering anything that is true.

    From the other direction, you will have to show me which atheist accused religious people of abusing their children by teaching them the tenets of their faith. Certainly Richard Dawkins said no such thing. He was talking about religious indoctrination, not education. He was talking about people who brainwash their kids at an early age to believe that any deviation from the parent’s religious beliefs will lead to an eternity in hell. As for the bit about the brass knuckles, that was from P.Z. Myers, as you well know. And since he was so obviously speaking metaphorically and since his point, again obviously, was to encourage atheists to be more vocal and outspoken, I’d say you have a lot of nerve offering it as counterpoint to the extreme rhetoric of the other side.

    I’m glad you clarified the part about whether Dawkins and Hitchens are causing anti-atheist sentiment. Readers of some of your earlier posts could easily have gotten the impression that you thought they were, indeed, the cause, at least in part, of such sentiment. There’s a big difference between making new bigots, and providing old bigots with a new peg to hang their coat on.

    In the end, though I am less worried about those people than you are. And you are mistaken in claiming that their rhetoric does nothing for our side. It does a great deal, for the reasons I have mentioned. They would accomplish a lot less if they wrote the bland, milquetoast books you seem to want from them.

  14. #14 Graham
    July 2, 2007

    As an agnostic, and someone who is interested in science AND philosophy, I can wholeheartedly agree that Dawkins and Hitchins ARE hurting the cause. Both of them are dogmatic. They may make interesting and important points, but they also do it in a way that brokers no room for disagreement.

    I enjoyed The God Delusion, but it was full of logic that could quite easily be contested – quite the opposite of Dawkins steadfast insistence that his way is the only way, and those who don’t agree are deluded.

  15. #15 Pseudonym
    July 3, 2007

    By the way… this is slightly off the track, but since it was brought up:

    “The melancholy truth is that decent, understated religion is numerically negligible.”

    Neither Dawkins nor anyone else has provided any evidence whatsoever for this assertion. The “numerically negligible” claim requires numbers to back them up, not anecdotes.

  16. #16 Collin
    July 3, 2007

    Can someone please give a good definition of what a militant atheist is? Militant religious fundamentalist I get…blow yourself up, blow up a clinic you don’t like, protest that soldiers are dying cause there are gay people in America and on and on. But militant atheists…do what? Write books with well argued points and explain themselves over and over again to a public that, for the most part, disregards them at best or is openly hostile to them at worst? Scary militant atheists indeed.

  17. #17 Graham
    July 3, 2007

    Colin:

    Admittedly it’s a silly term.

    But here’s the problem and the danger. Religion divides. Dawkins argues that competently and more than adequately. The facts are staring everybody in the face. It’s kind of hard to argue aginst. Now I have no problem with Dawkins’ attacks on organised religion – for the most part it deserves it. He takes it further though, and claims there is no solid basis for a belief in God, so therefore no one should believe in one. This kind of aggressive ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ – quite aside from the fact that it can be convincingly counter-argued – does nothing but divide. All it does is create another ideology – this one based on non-belief instead of belief. So while atheists aren’t blowing themselves up at the moment, this kind of ‘militant’ aggression could very well reach those proportions. And that’s the danger of dogma. Dawkins is encouraging a mentality that he himself reproaches religion for.

    Having said that there does need to be more assertive and organised political and public representation by atheists. I just don’t think essentially creating another religion is addressing the problems of religion.

  18. #18 Leni
    July 3, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    As an agnostic, and someone who is interested in science AND philosophy, I can wholeheartedly agree that Dawkins and Hitchins ARE hurting the cause.

    LOL. How’s that, Graham? Are they pushing you further and further away from having no knowledge on the matter?

  19. #19 Ed Brayton
    July 3, 2007

    Jason wrote:

    I’m glad you clarified the part about whether Dawkins and Hitchens are causing anti-atheist sentiment. Readers of some of your earlier posts could easily have gotten the impression that you thought they were, indeed, the cause, at least in part, of such sentiment. There’s a big difference between making new bigots, and providing old bigots with a new peg to hang their coat on.

    See, I don’t think most of them are really bigots. That’s why I made a distinction in my post between the really hardcore anti-atheists and what I think is probably a much larger group of people for whom their distrust and dislike of atheists is just an unexamined assumption that has never been dislodged because they’ve not had positive experiences with real atheists. I think there are many parallels to the earlier civil rights struggle for blacks and the current one for gays and lesbians. We’ve made remarkable progress in what is really a short period of time in both of those areas, precisely because for most of those who harbor such bigotries, they run very shallow and are based primarily on ignorance.

    40 years ago last month the Supreme Court handed down the extremely controversial Loving decision that overturned laws against interracial marriage. There were howls of outrage and surveys showed that a massive majority of Americans were repulsed by the idea of interracial marriage. Take a similar poll today and you’d find very little of that sentiment left, only among the really hardcore racists. The same is rapidly becoming true for gays and lesbians. As more and more of them come out of the closet, people find out that they’ve known gay people all along – and they like them. Those kinds of personal interactions, even if they are as distant and shallow as finding Ellen Degeneres funny, make an enormous difference in people’s perceptions and negative feelings toward all gays and lesbians. That’s why survey after survey finds that younger people, who are used to seeing gays and lesbians on TV and used to being around them in everyday life, are much more accepting of equality for gays.

    I think the same thing will prove true for atheists. I do think it’s important for atheists to engage in the same kind of “out and proud” behavior that gays have done for the last few decades. I absolutely do not want atheists to hide their atheism or pretend to be something they’re not. And I do think that’s where prominent atheist spokesmen like Dawkins and Dennett and Harris being out there, on TV and in the media, is a very good thing. A few celebrities coming out as atheists would be even better and would do a lot of good. As more atheists come out, that large group of mushy but not thought out anti-atheists will undergo the same kind of transformation that those who harbored a shallow, unconsidered bigotry toward gays and blacks have undergone. They’ll find out that they knew atheists all along, they’ve worked with them, played softball with them, etc, and they like them. That’s when those negative attitudes break down, as they always have with previous groups seeking to overcome negative cultural attitudes.

    You see those surveys where some astonishing percentage of people wouldn’t want their daughter to marry an atheist or wouldn’t vote for an atheist and I’d wager that 2/3 of them hold a bigotry that is shallow in the sense I stated above. Given time to get used to the idea, given personal interaction with someone they come to hold in some regard, their negative image of atheists will fade into nothing. And I think those are exactly the people we should be reaching for one obvious reason – they’re the ones we can reach. The hardcore bigots, there’s nothing to be done to change their mind and it’s not worth trying. But that large “mushy middle” is reachable and I still maintain that it becomes harder to reach them when we engage in the kind of extreme rhetoric I’ve been talking about. It does not create their negativity, but it does reinforce it. I’ve talked to so many people like this over the last 20 years and I base my views largely on those experiences.

  20. #20 Ebonmuse
    July 3, 2007

    The fact is that every time a despised minority starts standing up for itself there are always people lecturing from their armchairs about the need for patience and the ineffectiveness of anger and confrontation. The argument is always code for, ?I find you distasteful and vaguely menacing. Please go away.?

    For the record, this is sheer brilliance. Well spoken, Jason!

  21. #21 Another Jason
    July 3, 2007

    pseudo,

    Neither Dawkins nor anyone else has provided any evidence whatsoever for this assertion.

    Piffle. The evidence is the doctrines, traditions and practises of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and the other major world religions. Those doctrines and traditions and practises are full of “indecent” ethics and values, from the systematic subjugation of women to the murder of homosexuals.

  22. #22 Koray
    July 3, 2007

    Graham, if you think The God Delusion can be contested by logic in many places, you should at least provide some examples instead of merely asserting. I haven’t read the book.

  23. #23 Ricky Barnes
    July 3, 2007

    Opponents of Dawkins and Hitchens and their ilk can say what they like – of course – about whether those efforts are “harmful to the cause” because, ultimately, there is no cause. I like to think that what “atheism” – if there is even such a thing – is about is what is true. The truth doesn’t need defense despite the belief by many that it does. I happen to believe that those who value atheism far too much in that it becomes a “cause” to defend value the truth far too little. Their focus ought to be in discovering the truth, not defending it. It is a form of arrogance to think the truth requires your assistance. What is true cares not what it is you or anyone else believes. The truth simply is. You either acknowledge the truth or you do not. That is YOUR issue, not that of the truth. I am claimed by many to be a so-called “atheist”, however, what I in fact am is a human being who values what is true over what is not. I don’t give a damn what label that makes me in the eyes or minds of others. I don’t happen to believe truth to be a cause nor do I believe truth can be harmed. What I DO believe is that I and others can be harmed if the truth is ignored. If my saying so disturbs some, I try to make their feelings on the subject as inconsequential to me as I’m able. I know their feelings are already inconsequential to the truth itself. I personally applaud the efforts of Dawkins and Hitchens and others for revealing a bit more of what is true versus what is not to those who may need that enlightenment. If you find yourself hating their methods, that is more likely YOUR issue than it is theirs. You are clinging to something other than truth as the ultimate value.

  24. #24 Pseudonym
    July 3, 2007

    Another Jason:

    Piffle. The evidence is the doctrines, traditions and practises of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and the other major world religions.

    You have to squint very, very hard to see any resemblance between Hinduism and Pat Robertson. Moreover, I suspect you’re using a different definition of “decent, understated” than Dawkins is.

  25. #25 Graham
    July 3, 2007

    Leni: To say that Dawkins or anyone else for that matter has a greater knowledge of the origin and nature of existence than anyone else is a little arrogant and ridiculous, considering we can essentially prove nothing regarding it. Having said that it’s interesting to think about and to read about, and I enjoy the way Dawkins does that. However, he essentially preaches a closed minded perspective as well, a problem he goes at great lengths to accuse religion of. The overall logic of the book – and perhaps this answers your question Koray – is that scientifically speaking there is little evidence to suggest a God exists – so therefore we should assume it doesn’t. It’s the classic scientific perspective. I don’t have to prove something doesn’t exist, you have to prove that it does, and if you can’t then we can assume it doesn’t. And that is generally an objective and useful approach to things. I generally lean towards atheism myself for this reason. But I am not quite so arrogant as to suggest that I’m 99 per cent sure a God doesn’t exist so anyone who thinks it does is wrong. We have no idea whether the system we exist in is the only one, or one of thousands, or even have a complete understanding of how this one works! To say that existence just ‘is’ and always has been is as mind boggling as to say it was ‘created’. It throws up the same difficulties of logic. Because if existence just ‘is’ and always has been, maybe God just ‘is’ and always has been.

  26. #26 Heleen
    July 3, 2007

    As to some evidence for the effect of some books by Dawkins:

    In the Netherlands a retired reformed professor of technical physics read the introduction to The Blind Watchmaker (and perhaps all of it). He infected a young brilliant nanophysicist (Dekker), of evangelical persuasion. Dekker went on an pro-ID crusade (without ever bothering to read biology). Dekker is pretty influential, and we got some creationist surge. Before that, creationsist were negligeable.

    So: nobody can say this ID campaign would not have happened anyway, but the actual initiation of the campaign lay in distaste generated by Dawkins, in an environment where biologists had agreed not to get into quarrels involving religion.

  27. #27 Callandor
    July 3, 2007

    “in which every major media outlet has engaged in serious discussions of the issue.”

    Heh, except Fox News of course. If you said “news” outlet, I would’ve passed my comment ;).

  28. #28 valhar2000
    July 3, 2007

    I wonder is the value of modern atheistic literature may not be that fact that it “preaches to the choir”? The choir being, of course, atheists who live surrounded by religiosity, and who feign religiosity themselves out of apprehension. In other words, atheistic literature may be valuable to these people in that it encourages them to think that they are not alone, and that it is a good thing to think what they think and be who they are.

    With regard to people of the kind that Ed talks about, atheistic literature is probably irrelevant (and maybe even counterproductive). These people would, indeed, have to be reached through other means. In particular, since acceptance of religion is mostly an emotional phenomenon, they must be reached by another emotional phenomenon, for the most part.

    This is where the tactic that Ed advocates (informing theist we know of our atheism so that they can see that religious characterizations of atheists are false) would be effective, and, indeed, Ed is far form being the only one who does. Ebonmuse, who has commented here, advocates it very often in terms similar to those used by Ed, and anyone who reads atheist blogs must have read exhortations to atheists to “come out of the closet”.

    For these reasons, I think both strategies are valuable, even if they hinder each other somewhat. I would say that the best thing to do is to push forward with both of them as much as possible, since, even though that reciprocal hindrance will be greater, that total beneficial effect of each will be greater as well.

  29. #29 h3nry
    July 3, 2007

    What a piece of forceful and convincing writing!

    They need to have their ignorance confronted and challenged, preferably by people ticked off by the fact that such outreach is necessary at all. It is visibility and a just cause that leads to social progress, not calm, patient argumentation.

    This is exactly what we need, and this is why the Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ are doing good.

  30. #30 Jud
    July 3, 2007

    heleen attributed a surge of ID (sounds painful!) in the Netherlands to Dawkins, “in an environment where biologists had agreed not to get into quarrels involving religion.”

    Was this agreement not to get into quarrels a signed contract? How did they have room for the signatures of all the biologists in the Netherlands?

  31. #31 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    So much for not attacking people “on the same side”. It’s good that you’ve acknowledged that you’re on the side of correct arguments.

  32. #32 SmellyTerror
    July 3, 2007

    Graham: a rock does not believe god exists. Does it hold a philosophical position? No. Its lack of belief does not require reason.

    YES you need to provide a reason for someone to begin believing something – otherwise they wouldn’t! And YES, until you provide that reason the person will continue not-believing it.

    The argument, then, is whether the “reasons” people believe in god are good enough to justify that belief when those reasons are put under scrutiny. And since those reasons apparently boil down to dogma and wishful thinking – which equally can generate a belief in almost anything among the less critical of thinkers – some of us tend to think it reasonable to conclude that the belief is not justified.

    This seems like a pretty reasonable position to me. I certainly can’t see how it’s dogmatic.

  33. #33 MartinM
    July 3, 2007

    ..in an environment where biologists had agreed not to get into quarrels involving religion.

    And I suppose the religious had agreed not to get into quarrels involving biology too, right?

  34. #34 Sobex
    July 3, 2007

    Now I have no problem with Dawkins’ attacks on organised religion – for the most part it deserves it. He takes it further though, and claims there is no solid basis for a belief in God, so therefore no one should believe in one. This kind of aggressive “I’m right, you’re wrong” – quite aside from the fact that it can be convincingly counter-argued – does nothing but divide.

    This view by Dawkins is seen as “aggressive”? How, exactly? He’s merely stating that there is no solid basis (verifiable, replicatable, testable evidence) for a belief in god. This is not “aggressive”, this is stating the obvious. And PLEASE, show us how this can be “convincingly counter-argued”, you might make yourself eligible for a Nobel Prize.

  35. #35 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 3, 2007

    There is such a multitude of “liberal, moderate christians” out there that the revised pledge of allegiance, with its explicit religious reference, is still in use after half a century. There is such a multitude of liberal, moderate christians out there that “In God We Trust” is still on our money after half a century. There is such a multitude of liberal, moderate christians out there that the indignant response to “faith-based initiatives” has been muted and ineffectual, and cannot even get a fair hearing in a court.

  36. #36 llewelly
    July 3, 2007

    … the base is far larger than anyone imagined.

    This explanation requires the fewest assumptions.
    It requires only that one assume the previous estimates of the number of atheists were under-estimates.
    It is widely agreed that many people won’t admit to being atheist if asked, but seldom if ever participate in religious activities. How many of these people are secretly atheist?

    I think TGD (Hitchen’s book I haven’t read) is a great book, and I suspect it has appeal to a substantial minority of religious people – but that suspicion requires several assumptions about human behavior.

  37. #37 MaxPolun
    July 3, 2007

    As to some evidence for the effect of some books by Dawkins:

    In the Netherlands a retired reformed professor of technical physics read the introduction to The Blind Watchmaker (and perhaps all of it). He infected a young brilliant nanophysicist (Dekker), of evangelical persuasion. Dekker went on an pro-ID crusade (without ever bothering to read biology). Dekker is pretty influential, and we got some creationist surge. Before that, creationist were negligeable.

    Sorry, but I don’t see what this has to do with the atheism debate since _The Blind Watchmaker_ talks about evolution, not the existence of god. The only reason it’s relevant is that Dawkins wrote it, but any other popular account of evolution would probably have the same effect on an evangelical. I’m actually reading it now, and Dawkins doesn’t mention god at all.

    Also, am I the only one who doesn’t see where all these inflammatory things that the “new atheists” are supposed to say are? I can’t seem to find Dawkins or Myers calling all theists idiots or crazy or anything else like that (I haven’t heard Hitchens say it, but I’m less sure about him), they just seem to be saying that theists are wrong. I don’t know how any argument for atheism is supposed to be made without saying that theists are wrong about whether god exists.

  38. #38 kamenin
    July 3, 2007

    in an environment where biologists had agreed not to get into quarrels involving religion.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the debate will form in Germany when it gets some further grip over here. The translation of Dawkins’ book will appear in September, Hitchen’s in August. Right now we’re at the same point where everybody just keeps his mouth shut and everybody does as if there’s no difference or at least no problem.

    What is changing (aside 9/11 and aftermath) are the widening restrictions for science (stem cell research – actually, for the very most part, verboten), the media turning to hysteria about the German pope, and politicians using more religious rhetorics than in a long time. Also, ID is swapping slowly into the country, and moderate Christians are actually looking forward to it.

    So, I’m looking forward to any discussion Dawkins may incite over here. Atheism is definitely not a civil rights issue at the moment in Germany but religion is still seen as the default position and the media gets dumber and more uncritical of it every day.

  39. #39 Matt Penfold
    July 3, 2007

    Max,

    Dawkins has said some theists are idiots, a fact that a good many theists would no doubt agree with. It is hard to argue that the likes of Kent Hovind are anything but idiots.

    He has also said there are theists who are anything but idiots. He cites the the Archbishop of Canterbury as example. The ABC may be mistaken about a god but he is not a stupid man.

  40. #40 BrianMc
    July 3, 2007

    Ed Brayton – I see you keep making analogies, comparing bigotry towards atheists to bigotry towards other “groups”, like homosexuals and black people.

    If this bigotry were equivalent, then I would readily agree with your sentiments – however, I believe these forms of bigotry are different in at least one important way – and that this difference may falsify the analogy.

    A person’s race and/or sexual “preference” are genetic/physiological attributes that are beyond an individual’s control – they have no choice in the matter.

    Whether or not you believe in a deity, however, is a choice that almost everyone makes. So when people are bigoted against another person’s beliefs, the bigotry takes place on a level of intellectual competition.

    People cannot change their race, or the fact that they are gay (despite what a small minority may think) – so bigotry towards these people is a dead end – and in an age of equality and human rights, this bigotry is objectively invalid.

    However – people can and do change their minds on religion – and so, this form of bigotry actually has room to play, even when equality and human rights are upheld to their utmost.

    When black people fight for their cause – they are not making an assertion that “being black is correct”, and “being white is false”.

    However – when atheists fight for their cause, their intentions actually are to say “atheism is right”, and “theism is wrong” – these are literal truth-claims that apply to the whole universe… not just to contingencies of the individual. These two competing entities are mutually exclusive on an intellectual level – different people can hold each belief – but only ONE can be correct – and the other is an aberration.

    And [some] atheists actually want to change other people into atheists! Whereas all black and gay people (or most, I hope) are not trying to make everyone else just like them in these respects.

    Maybe some atheists are perfectly happy to keep their beliefs to themselves – and have no intentions, whatsoever, to ‘convert’ others. But there are many quite reasonable reasons why others should want and hope that others would embrace their viewpoint… and to become atheists, just like them.

    So to this end – it may indeed be that atheists need to undertake tactics quite different from those against bigotry of things people cannot change.

  41. #41 Science Avenger
    July 3, 2007

    Graham said: …[Dawkins] claims there is no solid basis for a belief in God, so therefore no one should believe in one. This kind of aggressive ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ – quite aside from the fact that it can be convincingly counter-argued – does nothing but divide.

    But as others here have rightly pointed out, it CAN’T be convincingly counterargued. That’s why there are so many unbelievers in the first place! It’s not “I’m right”, it’s “the evidence, or lack thereof, is right”. Dawkins is merely treating the god hypothesis as he would any other that lacked evidence, and arguing that we all should. Counter that, if you can.

    All it does is create another ideology – this one based on non-belief instead of belief.

    Straw man. The ideology, if you would like to call it one, is that one should not believe without evidence. Atheism is the result of that ideology, not an ideology onto itself.

    You are using the exact same relativism the creationists toss out. There’s arguments on both sides, so who are you scientists to tell the YECs they are wrong!

    So while atheists aren’t blowing themselves up at the moment, this kind of ‘militant’ aggression could very well reach those proportions.

    Give me a semi-fucking break. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but its religious wackos that are so fond of blowing themselves up. Those of us who don’t believe there is a better life after this one are pretty motivated not to do so.

    And that’s the danger of dogma. Dawkins is encouraging a mentality that he himself reproaches religion for.

    Bullshit. There is nothing the slightest bit dogmatic about what Dawkins says here. This is just another of the many many examples of people who basically make shit up because they can’t deal with the substance of what Dawkins says. Of course, to some of us, that’s no big surprise.

  42. #42 Ed Brayton
    July 3, 2007

    BrianMc-

    I used the analogy to previous struggles to overcome negative cultural perceptions in a very specific way. Of course there are differences between these forms of prejudice, but the differences you point out aren’t at all relevant to the argument I’m making. Religion is not an immutable trait, of course, but that does not change the truth of my statement about most people holding such prejudices in a shallow, not terribly committed manner just as most people didn’t hold prior biases toward blacks and gays in a deep and unalterable manner.

    And [some] atheists actually want to change other people into atheists! Whereas all black and gay people (or most, I hope) are not trying to make everyone else just like them in these respects.

    Maybe some atheists are perfectly happy to keep their beliefs to themselves – and have no intentions, whatsoever, to ‘convert’ others. But there are many quite reasonable reasons why others should want and hope that others would embrace their viewpoint… and to become atheists, just like them.

    And as I’ve made clear over and over again, not only do I not think that atheists should be quiet about their atheism, I think the coming out of atheists in this society is a very good thing in a myriad of ways. I said it repeatedly in the comment that you are responding to. I want atheists to stand up and be counted, so to speak; I think that is the single most effective thing to be done to overcome the cultural biases people have against them (us, since to the average Christian I am just as much an infidel as Dawkins is). Not only do I not want atheists to be quiet about their atheism, I want them to be more vocal about it. That’s why I work with and speak to freethought groups every chance I get, because I think what they do is important. The only thing I’m objecting to is the use of extremist rhetoric, rhetoric that declares all religious people to be stupid or deluded or that uses metaphors of violence. That kind of rhetoric, I maintain, not only does not serve the goal of overcoming such prejudices, it reinforces those prejudices. It does us no good and I think it needs to be stopped.

  43. #43 jba
    July 3, 2007

    BrianMc: “Whether or not you believe in a deity, however, is a choice that almost everyone makes”

    I have to disagree here. Just because beliefs change doesnt mean you *choose* to change them. I never made a choice to not believe in a god. I dont think you choose what you believe any more than you choose if you like sushi. I would get more in depth, but am at work, so in short: bullshit. No more a choice than taste.

  44. #44 BrianMc
    July 3, 2007

    To jba – “choice” may be a relative word… but in relation to your race and sexual “preference”, you must admit that religion should indeed be called a choice.

    I understand that people are essentially programmed with their religious beliefs by their parents… but in our society – we regard adults as being able to make up their “own mind” in these matters – so irrespective of their environmental influences – our intellectual frameworks deem this a choice made by the person – even if they do not actively consider the decision. If they know that it is at least possible to not believe in god – then by continuing to believe in god, this is still a “choice” – no matter how far below the surface it may lie.

    Of course… there may be a few people who have been brainwashed so badly that they cannot even CONCEIVE of the possibility of not believing in god… and yeah – for them, I would agree… it really isn’t a choice at all.

    To Ed Brayton – thanks for your additional explanation. Some parts of my comments were just there for context – and were not intended to contradict you. I think I understand where you are coming from, so in those areas that we agree, please don’t take my comments as my misunderstandings.

    The only area I disagree is still regarding the analogy between these different kinds of prejudice. I’m saying that since the analogy fails in the respect I describe, I don’t think you can necessarily discount the tactics of Dawkins et al. While rhetoric may be counter-productive in areas of equality and human rights – it may actually be useful in intellectual disagreements, such as atheism/theism.

    I understand you are saying atheists should be vocal – but I just don’t agree to using human rights causes as precedence for which tactics to use or not use.

  45. #45 llewelly
    July 3, 2007

    It amazes me that so much criticism of public atheism comes from public atheists themselves, such as Ed Brayton and Chris Clarke.

    Not at all amazing. It is entirely normal for a person who is publicly a member of a category to wish that category to have a particular image. Thus, they find it necessary to criticize others in that category in order to convince them to conform to a particular image of that category.
    Chris and Ed want Christians to view atheists as friendly, respectful of Christians, polite, and reasonable. (However, unlike Chris, Ed is quite eager to mock foolish or unpalatable beliefs, even while tip-toeing around those who hold them.) Dawkins – much more due to what other say about him than what he has said himself – has the reputation of a rude atheist. (And that contributes to the sale of his books. If you’ve ever consumed any comedy, you know people who are excited and entertained by rudeness outnumber those who are offended by it. ) They criticize Dawkins because because his image, is unlike the image they wish atheists to have.

  46. #46 Kevin
    July 3, 2007

    First, Ed, until you read his book, could you please stop saying that Dawkins calls all religious people stupid and deluded? I know, you read the title and think you have it all figured out, but to be fair to Dawkins, his book is more then 3 words long, and the actual substance of the book has many nuances that your simplistic take on it don’t pick up (and you’ve been corrected about this many times now, but you still ignore it and seem to think that you are right).

    And again, a simple reading of what PZ actually said makes his message more then clear. So why do you keep arguing against half of what he said, the part that looks inflammatory? Sorry, but if someone wants to take what he said out of context, then that person is at fault, not him. And that you continue to act as if he does favour some extreme violent overthrow of religion shows more about your dislike for Prof Myers then anything else.

    The fact is Ed, your way, the way where you go around like Cane from Kung Fu, from town to town convincing one Christian at a time over tea and biscuits over decades of time hasn’t done anything, and will continue to do nothing. On the other hand, the books of Dawkins, Harris, etc, have put the debate in the public spotlight. These men have been on TV where they’ve been able to get their message out to an even larger audience. And far from coming off as an extremist, Dawkins comes off as an eloquent scholar.

  47. #47 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 3, 2007

    Ed-

    Okay. Thanks for the comments. In the interest of allowing us both to move on to other things, I’ll let you have the last word.

  48. #48 BrianMc
    July 3, 2007

    To jba – I gave your comment a little more thought… and I think it’s a complex topic – and I recognize that under certain definitions, you could think of beliefs as being outside the scope of choice.

    With taste, we are conditioned from our childhood to like certain things – and of course, genetics may play a complex role in this as well. And while we can choose to eat foods that taste bad to us, the “sense of taste” itself (in some platonistic sense) is not something we can change at any given point in time.

    However – the choices we make in how we behave forms a feedback loop with things such as taste. So – for example, if you choose to eat some food, even though you dislike the taste – you may eventually start liking the food – and so, a choice you have made has affected your taste, even though you could not instantaneously change your sense of taste.

    And so it is with religion… At any given point in time, our knowledge, and the way our brain is wired, largely decides what we believe – but the choices we make also form a feedback loop, which determines the knowledge we gain, how we internalize it, and then eventually it affects our beliefs. So if I’m religious, for example, but I choose to go out and learn about evolution… then my choices affecting my behavior have lead me to change my beliefs.

    So I agree – that there is an element to our beliefs that we simply do not choose – and there appears to be a complex interplay and feedback-loop concerning our choices and environmental programming. Of course – in a larger sense, even our “choices” are determined environmentally – so if we want to retain any identity of “self”, we do eventually have to draw the line somewhere – even if it is arbitrary.

    And so it is with our ontology and our laws, that we need to drive a stake into the ground whenever we want to strictly define abstract concepts such as choice – but generally, we seem to get along with with fuzzy delineations of such concepts… as long as we readily recognize when our disagreements are only a result of shifting definitions – and that the underlying meaning is not made a slave to these shifts.

  49. #49 Matt Penfold
    July 3, 2007

    Kevin has made an important point. The fact of the matter is that Brayton has not read “The God Delusion”, and in fact seems to be making a point of not reading it. So we have it from the horse’s mouth as it were that Brayton is ignorant about the position Dawkins takes. I know Dawkins has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles that cover his position on religion but these are no substitute for reading the book. At best they cover only a small part of the larger argument he makes in the book, and yet Brayton in his arogance, and personal animus towards Dawkins, thinks this is enough.

    We would not tolerate such dishonesty from a creationist, why do we tolerate it from someone who claims to be fighting against creationism and the worst excesses of religion ?

  50. #50 les
    July 3, 2007

    Ed: “The only thing I’m objecting to is the use of extremist rhetoric, rhetoric that declares all religious people to be stupid or deluded or that uses metaphors of violence. That kind of rhetoric, I maintain, not only does not serve the goal of overcoming such prejudices, it reinforces those prejudices. It does us no good and I think it needs to be stopped.”

    With the exception of PZ Myers reference to brass knuckles, which in context was in no way a call to violence, and was a metaphor limited to publication in a blog, the “extremism” you decry amounts mostly to people saying religious indoctrination should be stopped. In other words, about as extreme and violent as your own rhetoric.

  51. #51 Kevin
    July 3, 2007

    Going further, when Behe or Dembski writes a book, we don’t see the science blogs community just casually dismiss it. PZ and others go chapter by chapter dissecting the tripe put out by the ID side. And I for one am glad. I already know that what they write is utter tripe, as do the people who critically dissect the books. But unless one actually does the reading. But at least these people have the intellectual honesty to actually read the book before finding fault with it. That way, instead of attacking straw man versions of the book, they actually attack the substance of it, something Ed doesn’t seem willing to do with Dawkins book.

  52. #52 Matt Penfold
    July 3, 2007

    Kevin,

    I had the very same thought. The way PZ, Dawkins et al have dealt with Behe’s latest book contrasts greatly with how Brayton has dealt with Dawkins’.

  53. #53 jba
    July 3, 2007

    BrianMc:

    First, I would like to apologize for being so curt initialy. The boss doesnt approve of me blogging.. heh. But I agree that choosing to educate yourself can definatly change your beliefs, but I think the choice is in the education not the beliefs. I would be surprised if many people start to study and have changing their religious belief be the end result that they have in mind. Im sure some do, but I think what they learn determines what they believe. If what you learn is convincing, then you the you believe it, if not then you dont. Thank you for the response, it made me do some thinking. Which I appreciate.

  54. #54 Conrad Goehausen
    July 3, 2007

    Responding to Ed,

    For the record, I’m what you might call a “religious moderate”. However, I’m not in the least bit offended by Hitchens or Dawkins books. I’m not at all prejudiced against athiests of any stripe. I don’t agree with everything Hitchens or Dawkins say, but I think much of their criticism of religion is well-founded and needs to be said. I’m at least as critical of much of religion as they are, and the aspects of religion I embrace are not threatened by their arguments, no matter how strongly worded.

    However, I think you are kidding yourself if you think general acceptance of atheism will grow along the same lines as racial or sexual-orientation acceptance. The key difference is that race and sexual orientation are seen as simply part of one’s born condition, whereas atheism is clearly a choice some make. Therefore, it flies in the face of the choices others have made to be religious. Most people who are religious do not see atheism as a valid choice, and see it as a sign of a defect in the individual. Dawkins and Hitchen’s argument is fairly similar – religious belief is itself a defect that must be corrected. I’m not offended by the atheist position simply because I see defects in both positions.

    My own views is that there are serious defects in certain ways of thinking and cognizing reality, which are evident in both religious people and atheists. However, for the most part, I think this defect is more evident, and to a far more serious degree, in religious people. I criticize atheists for attributing defective forms of thinking and cognition only to religious people, and not recognizing it in either themselves or other atheists, or in areas of life that have little to do with religious issues per se.

    The problem with expecting people to accept athiests is that it requires that they change their whole way of thinking about religious and philosophical matters, rather than the fairly superficial corrections that racism or sexism involves. It certainly will not happen merely by sitting back and expecting people to be reasonable, since the problem is itself due to a core defect in reason itself that finds not only support in religion, but its reason for being. I think the aggressive stance of Dawkins and Hitchens is quite good for athiests, in that at least they get some respect for standing up for what they believe. Those “moderate religious” friends of yours who take offense and wish to continue their bigotries against atheists on that basis are simply not “moderates” at all. They are simply bigots who speak nicely. Screw ‘em, is my advice.

  55. #55 Matt Penfold
    July 3, 2007

    If Brayton is right and Dawkins drives away “moderate” theists why is it that Anglican Bishop of Oxford recently agreed to be interviewed by Dawkins ? How come when, a year or so ago, there was a furore in the UK about a state funded school having a headteacher and head of science who endorsed creationism Dawkins was a signatory of an open letter to the government calling for the government to ensure ID/Creationism was not taught in state schools ? He was not the only signatory. There were other scientists. There was also a number of Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and Reformed Jewish leader who signed the letter. Why would the church leaders associate themselves with Dawkins if he is so divisive ? And why would Dawkins associate himself with church leaders if he thought them so stupid ?

    The simple fact is that Dawkins is NOT the devisive force Brayton makes him out to be.

  56. #56 Science Avenger
    July 3, 2007

    Conrad said: The key difference is that race and sexual orientation are seen as simply part of one’s born condition, whereas atheism is clearly a choice some make.

    Please instruct me as to how to believe I’m going to heaven when I die to spend eternity in bliss with my loved ones. Really, I WANT to believe that. But I can’t. I’m an atheist, not by choice, but by the invountary conclusions of my mind. There was never a point in my life as I went from deist to atheist where I said to myself “I decide now to be an atheist”. It just happened, just like my lack of belief in Santa, or my inevitable presidency, just happened, and very much against my will.

    Now, I can choose to be public with my atheism, I can choose to read this or that book, I can choose to educate myself, etc. In this way I think the comparison to homosexuals is very apt. They can choose who they have sex with, but they cannot choose to whom they are attracted. Likewise, I can choose what I SAY I believe, but I can’t choose what I believe.

  57. #57 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    July 3, 2007

    Sounds to me like we have a consensus here.

    Sorry Ed, until a good number of your offended moderate religionist acquaintances step forward with their views, I think you are a victim of confirmation bias.

    Things are going better now for atheists than at any previous time in history. Our challenge now is to prevent theists from causing the fall of the American Empire, the way they did to the Romans. Their first step was to make it the Holy Roman Empire.

  58. #58 DuWayne
    July 3, 2007

    Science Avenger -

    Likewise, I can choose what I SAY I believe, but I can’t choose what I believe.

    I have to say that I really appreciate this sentiment, as it is exactly how I feel about my own beliefs. I would add to it that it is not for a lack of challenging my beliefs, listening to those who challenge my beliefs or reading a lot of books that challenge my beliefs, that I believe what I do. Indeed, I am voracious in my reading the works of those who are kind enough to try to sway me from my “delusions.” While my reading material has in fact affected my beliefs, at the end of the day, I cannot help but believe what I do.

    This puts me into a rather interesting position. While I am a theist, I am voracious in the fight against dominionists, bigots and pseudo-science. In the interest of those fights, I find myself allied to people who have categorically stated goals of seeing an end to all religion and spiritual belief, including my own. Not only that, but I see their statements as important aspects of those fights, thus I must support the statements of people like Hitchens and Dawkins, indeed, I am very fond of Dawkins’ writings on the subject.

    I think that the world would be a much better place, if more theists were to read what they have to say and instead of dismissing it, decided to seriously explore where such sentiments come from. It would be great if more theists decided to really take a look at what they believe and why, to really examine the dogma they hold so dear – reading Dawkins and taking him seriously would force them to do so.

    Ultimately, as it relates to the civil struggle that atheists face, I think the approaches of both moderate non-theists and more hard hitting non-theists are essential. If it were not for the “in your face,” rather militant elements of the gay pride movement, most of my friends would probably still be in the closet. Likewise, if that was all their was to the pride movement, most of my friends would still be in the closet. It takes all of you to foment change, from moderates to the more militant and everyone in between.

    All in all, I think one of the biggest problems, is the fighting between the two positions. Unity is an important aspect of any struggle for equality. Bashing each other over the head, about the methods you wish to employ in making our society more open and accepting of non-theists, is a waste of time, energy and righteous indignation. I should think that if I, a theist, can happily embrace folks like Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, as allies in my own battles, non-theists could learn to get along a whole lot better.

  59. #59 Leni
    July 3, 2007

    I can’t help but get the feeling that the argument is “come out loud and proud… as long as I think you’re acceptable”.

    Should only gay men who don’t re-inforce the negative stereotype of effemenite fairy come out? Should we accuse them of “hurting the cause” when they do? Every group has it’s negative stereotypes, and every group has members that will fit those stereotypes. There are going to be rude atheists. So what? There are also going to be nice ones.

    The only way it would have been different is if they’d (Dawkins/PZ etc) censored themselves. But why should they censor themselves or behave in ways they would otherwise not? Just “for the team”? That is not acceptable to me in any way shape or form. I think they should be unapologetic about who they are and what they think because that’s how it is for everyone else. I don’t want or need Dawkins to be a simpering fool so people don’t think I’m evil.

    That said, all of this rests on the fact that I do not think Dawkins or PZ are extremists. If I thought they were advocating anything like the popular characatures of them suggest, I’d be as firmly against them as everyone else seems to be. But the truth of the matter is that PZ doesn’t revel in violent rhetoric and Dawkins doesn’t think all religious people are stupid or deluded.

  60. #60 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    The Archbishop of Canterbury might not be a stupid man, but he has some very stupid ideas. We can respect the man as an individual with worthy traits, but his ideas are silly and should be mocked.

    Suggesting that the respect he is due ought to act as an umbrella that shelters what he believes and argues is both offensive and absurd.

  61. #61 John Farrell
    July 3, 2007

    While I think some moderates may indeed be turned off by Dawkins, in the end I can’t help thinking his approach is well chosen for what he wants to accomplish. To cite a literary parallel, the southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, when asked once why she wrote such dark stories of murderous and vengeful characters in the Bible country down south, replied to this effect, ‘when you’re talking to people who are going deaf, sometimes you have to shout.’

  62. #62 Leni
    July 3, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    To say that Dawkins or anyone else for that matter has a greater knowledge of the origin and nature of existence than anyone else is a little arrogant and ridiculous, considering we can essentially prove nothing regarding it.

    I imagine it is. So it’s a good thing no one actually said that, isn’t it?

    Having said that it’s interesting to think about and to read about, and I enjoy the way Dawkins does that. However, he essentially preaches a closed minded perspective as well, a problem he goes at great lengths to accuse religion of.

    He doesn’t accuse religion of being “close-minded”. The most basic thing he accuses it of is being unsupported by evidence.

    You are forgetting the very nature of being receptive to evidence is open-mindedness. You must be willing to change your mind; admit you are wrong when the evidence shows it and move on. Scientific progress would be impossible without that kind of receptiveness to change.

    The overall logic of the book – and perhaps this answers your question Koray – is that scientifically speaking there is little evidence to suggest a God exists – so therefore we should assume it doesn’t. It’s the classic scientific perspective. I don’t have to prove something doesn’t exist, you have to prove that it does, and if you can’t then we can assume it doesn’t.

    Graham honey, you’ve really messed this one up.

    If someone claims that something exists, then it is their charge to demonstrate that it does if they want others to take them seriously. I don’t put false information on my resume and then balk and fingerpoint when a prospective employer asks me to back my claims up by providing documents or references.

    I just provide the evidence. If I don’t have it, I go find it.

    It isn’t that this is a “scientific perpective” so much as it is a necessary first step in any sensible conversation involving a positive claim such as “God exists”.

    But I am not quite so arrogant as to suggest that I’m 99 per cent sure a God doesn’t exist so anyone who thinks it does is wrong.

    Somehow I doubt Dawkins would have needed to write an entire book just to say that.

  63. #63 Pseudonym
    July 3, 2007

    Sobex:

    He’s merely stating that there is no solid basis (verifiable, replicatable, testable evidence) for a belief in god. This is not “aggressive”, this is stating the obvious. And PLEASE, show us how this can be “convincingly counter-argued”, you might make yourself eligible for a Nobel Prize.

    I don’t think that a statement of that alone is “aggressive”. But when he claims that most believers echo Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, that is most definitely aggressive. In fact, it’s downright insulting.

    It’s not a mere statement of the obvious (on the contrary, unless you live in the US Bible Belt, it almost certainly describes almost no “believers” that you know). And as I noted earlier, the “numerically negligible” claim was stated without any numbers to back it up whatsoever.

    However, I do think that the claim that you say can be convincingly counter-argued very simply: Just because something is not verifiable, replicable and testable does not mean that there is no solid basis to believe it.

    An obvious counter-example is moral philosophy. There is no double-blind controlled test you could employ to determine whether or not murder is wrong. And yet, only the truly obtuse (or wicked) would claim that there’s no solid basis to believe it.

    I understand exactly what Dawkins is doing, and it’s ingenious. The Haggards of this world want you to believe that the existence of their deity is a scientific fact. (Just look at how wrong evolution is!) Dawkins has shown, quite convincingly, that if you believe that the question of the existence of deities is a scientific question, then the evidence is overwhelmingly against “The God Hypothesis”.

    What infuriates the philosophical crowd (and it’s annoying that they can’t seem to explain this to the scientific crowd) is that Dawkins has effectively accepted the premise of the anti-scientists. To a philosopher, the existence of deities is obviously not a scientific question, except to the extent that it rules out certain kinds of deity.

    Especially infuriating is that this mistake plays right into the IDiots’ hand. They want you to believe that “Darwinism” and “naturalism” are inherently amoral. And if you believe that only that which is scientifically testable is valid, then whether or murder is wrong or not is nothing more than a social convention or a preference.

    No atheist that I know believes that, though some scienceblog comment trolls (not mentioning any names) seem to play one on TV.

  64. #64 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    To a philosopher, the existence of deities is obviously not a scientific question, except to the extent that it rules out certain kinds of deity.

    Yes, the existing kind.

  65. #65 Pseudonym
    July 3, 2007

    Caledonian, I know that you’re being silly, but I just can’t help myself…

    Consider an idol. An idol is a cult image (let’s say a statue, for the sake of argument) which people worship as a god.

    Idols obviously exist. In fact, any scientific test of existence that you care to name is satisfied by a physical idol.

    So no, the “existing” kind of deity is not ruled out by science.

  66. #66 PZ Myers
    July 3, 2007

    I have to make one clarification of an amusing misinterpretation by the milquetoasts: that comment about “brass knuckles” etc. said nothing about religion, and was not directed at theists, but was actually a call to respond more aggressively to creationists in our schools. It’s funny how it has been transmogrified into a suggestion that we should beat up every Christian.

    I’m not going to worry about censoring myself because it doesn’t matter what we say — we will get quotemined. Neither the creationists nor Brayton are going to quote this post or this one or this one; they’re going to go far whatever they can manipulate to meet their preconceptions.

  67. #67 Graham
    July 3, 2007

    Leni:
    “He doesn’t accuse religion of being “close-minded”. The most basic thing he accuses it of is being unsupported by evidence.”

    And accuses them of not being able to see the other side. He accuses them of dogmatism and does it in a dogmatic way.

    “You must be willing to change your mind; admit you are wrong when the evidence shows it and move on. Scientific progress would be impossible without that kind of receptiveness to change.”

    Absolutely. My point is that at the moment there can be no comprehensive evidence regarding the nature of existence. We’re not even close and maybe never will be. Dawkins admits it himself, there is a possibility God exists. In the next breathe he asserts that because it can’t be proven or demonstrated, everyone should agree not to give the possibility any credibility. And I agree scientific progress would be impossible without an open mind, but the problem here is that science cannot prove or disprove the nature of existence or reality with any claim at absolute truth. It simply can’t. So claiming that everyone needs to take a scientific approach to questions it is currently incapable of handling is closed-minded and arrogant. Again, at its simplest form it comes down to two competing forms of logic. Existence just is and always has been – or God just is and always has been. So demonstrate to me that existence just is and always has been, because essentially this is a positive claim.

    Considering NEITHER can be adequately proven, I think it’s arrogant and closed-minded to be fiercely defending either one as an absolute. And for my money, Dawkins falls into the same problems as organized religion.

    “Somehow I doubt Dawkins would have needed to write an entire book just to say that.”

    No, he spends much of the book highlighting the evils and dogmatism of organized religion, which is an inherently worthy cause in my opinion.

  68. #68 Conrad Goehausen
    July 3, 2007

    Science Avenger wrote:

    Please instruct me as to how to believe I’m going to heaven when I die to spend eternity in bliss with my loved ones. Really, I WANT to believe that. But I can’t. I’m an atheist, not by choice, but by the invountary conclusions of my mind. There was never a point in my life as I went from deist to atheist where I said to myself “I decide now to be an atheist”. It just happened, just like my lack of belief in Santa, or my inevitable presidency, just happened, and very much against my will.

    In the first place, I don’t believe that when people die they will go to heaven for eternity with their loved ones. What I do believe about such matters is quite different, and while perhaps equally if not more preposterous to some, it is the result of a choice on my part.

    In your case, I would also say you have chosen atheism, despite your protests to the contrary. While you may not have sat down and decided to “become” an athiest, you chose to follow certain lines of thought which inevitably led you to athiesm. Likewise, others chose to follow certain lines of thought which lead to religious views and beliefs of one kind or another. My own religious views likewise seem “natural” to me, but that is only because I have chosen to travel down particular paths that most others have not. The very idea that our ideas about religion, atheist, or deist, are “natural” to us, rather than chosen, is itself an example of the kind of false thinking that I am describing in both religious people and atheists. If you cannot recognize that in yourself, well then, I think you should examine the plank in your own eye before shouting about the motes in others’ eyes.

  69. #69 Conrad Goehausen
    July 3, 2007

    Sorry, my last post doesn’t obey my html tags. Here is the correction:

    Science Avenger wrote:

    Please instruct me as to how to believe I’m going to heaven when I die to spend eternity in bliss with my loved ones. Really, I WANT to believe that. But I can’t. I’m an atheist, not by choice, but by the invountary conclusions of my mind. There was never a point in my life as I went from deist to atheist where I said to myself “I decide now to be an atheist”. It just happened, just like my lack of belief in Santa, or my inevitable presidency, just happened, and very much against my will.

    In the first place, I don’t believe that when people die they will go to heaven for eternity with their loved ones. What I do believe about such matters is quite different, and while perhaps equally if not more preposterous to some, it is the result of a choice on my part.

    In your case, I would also say you have chosen atheism, despite your protests to the contrary. While you may not have sat down and decided to “become” an athiest, you chose to follow certain lines of thought which inevitably led you to athiesm. Likewise, others chose to follow certain lines of thought which lead to religious views and beliefs of one kind or another. My own religious views likewise seem “natural” to me, but that is only because I have chosen to travel down particular paths that most others have not. The very idea that our ideas about religion, atheist, or deist, are “natural” to us, rather than chosen, is itself an example of the kind of false thinking that I am describing in both religious people and atheists. If you cannot recognize that in yourself, well then, I think you should examine the plank in your own eye before shouting about the motes in others’ eyes.

  70. #70 Graham
    July 3, 2007

    Graham: a rock does not believe god exists. Does it hold a philosophical position? No. Its lack of belief does not require reason.

    A rock does not care/know either way. It makes no claim to truth.


    The argument, then, is whether the “reasons” people believe in god are good enough to justify that belief when those reasons are put under scrutiny.

    SmellyTerror:

    Like it or not, there is a certain logic to the idea that existence has been created and controlled by some greater form, which is probably why it remains a popular one and has been throughout history. This is rooted in the idea of cause and effect. We need a cause for there to be an effect. We struggle with the idea that something can come from nothing. Of course the argument suffers from the same problem in dealing with the cause of the cause.

    What are the reasons you believe in existence as just ‘being’, without any cause? How can you justify this belief and demonstrate it to me? To do so would violate some of the most fundamental laws of our system. It is impossible to do.

    It becomes dogmatic when this point of view makes a claim to truth that it has no right to make and when it insists other claims to be irreconcilably flawed, and this is what Dawkins does. You can frame the debate by saying ‘Ah but you must prove he DOES exist’, and yes I understand the logic of requiring this. But then conversely, to believe the other side of the coin, that existence just ‘is’, surely this positive assertion must also be proven for someone like me – convinced of neither side – to be satisfied? Why do we need to make a claim at truth? Why divide when we really have no idea? This is fundamentally why I believe Dawkins is hurting the cause, because he is not preaching an open mind – he is calling for the rejection of a very plausible possibility because it doesn’t meet the same scientific standards that his own assertion cannot meet.

  71. #71 Science Avenger
    July 4, 2007

    DuWayne said: Ultimately, as it relates to the civil struggle that atheists face, I think the approaches of both moderate non-theists and more hard hitting non-theists are essential. If it were not for the “in your face,” rather militant elements of the gay pride movement, most of my friends would probably still be in the closet. Likewise, if that was all their was to the pride movement, most of my friends would still be in the closet. It takes all of you to foment change, from moderates to the more militant and everyone in between.

    Duwayne, we are of one mind despite standing on opposite sides of the deism line. Your comments above especially reflect my views. I seem a minority among the militant atheists in considering the guided evolutionists and the “Neville Chamberlain” atheists worthy allies in the fight against irrationality. Not only are my differences with them minor compared to my differences with Ken Ham, but the fact is that our target audience is heterogeneous, so why not have a heterogeneous approach? Some need to have their current views treated with kid gloves. Others need a swift kick in the intellectual pants, or a blow to the ego to let loose their sloppy thinking (and for the hypersensitive out there, those are not veiled suggestions to violence).

    We need Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

  72. #72 Science Avenger
    July 4, 2007

    Conrad said: In the first place, I don’t believe that when people die they will go to heaven for eternity with their loved ones. What I do believe about such matters is quite different, and while perhaps equally if not more preposterous to some, it is the result of a choice on my part.

    You are moving the goalposts. The comment you made that I was responding to was:

    The key difference is that race and sexual orientation are seen as simply part of one’s born condition, whereas atheism is clearly a choice some make.

    You didn’t say “the result of a choice”, you said “is clearly a choice”. Not the same at all. Eating 50 donuts was the choice. Getting fat was the result of a choice. Likewise, studying epistemology was my choice. Not accepting claims except those with supporting evidence, and becoming an atheist, was the result of my choice. It was not a choice in and of itself, any more than getting fat was.

    Or are you going so far as to argue that fat people don’t deserve protection against discrimination because it is a result of their choices?

  73. #73 Pseudonym
    July 4, 2007

    Science Avenger:

    We need Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

    We also need more people like you.

  74. #74 Leni
    July 4, 2007

    Pseudonym wrote:

    Just because something is not verifiable, replicable and testable does not mean that there is no solid basis to believe it.

    No of course not. It just means there is no evidence for it.

    That isn’t the only argument, though. It isn’t even the only one Dawkins makes.

    What infuriates the philosophical crowd (and it’s annoying that they can’t seem to explain this to the scientific crowd) is that Dawkins has effectively accepted the premise of the anti-scientists. To a philosopher, the existence of deities is obviously not a scientific question, except to the extent that it rules out certain kinds of deity.

    I can’t imagine why the philosophy crowd should be “infuriated” that Dawkins recognizes that a God who intervenes in our affairs and causes miracles is a God who should leave an evidential wake.

    I should think the philosphers would be aware of that and would understand why Dawkins chose it as a response. This is the creature that is relevent to his audience. The philosophical arguments may change for different species of deity, but it’s obvious that the evidential one never does.

    It’s the great euqalizer of gods, in a way. Plus, it has the advantage of being really easy to explain to people with no backgrounds in science or philosophy.

  75. #75 Leni
    July 4, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    And accuses them of not being able to see the other side. He accuses them of dogmatism and does it in a dogmatic way.

    That’s a valid observation of the way some people are. Of course he is going to say that people who reject evolution and attack scientific endeavors for stupid reasons are dogmatic: they are.

    That is the precisely the opposite of being open to evidence and willing to change your opinion if the evidence shows you are wrong.

    Absolutely. My point is that at the moment there can be no comprehensive evidence regarding the nature of existence. We’re not even close and maybe never will be. Dawkins admits it himself, there is a possibility God exists. In the next breathe he asserts that because it can’t be proven or demonstrated, everyone should agree not to give the possibility any credibility. And I agree scientific progress would be impossible without an open mind, but the problem here is that science cannot prove or disprove the nature of existence or reality with any claim at absolute truth. It simply can’t. So claiming that everyone needs to take a scientific approach to questions it is currently incapable of handling is closed-minded and arrogant.

    Not surprisingly, science is only incapable of determining what god does and how he does it when you ask believers to pony up with evidence. There is no shortage of claims about god’s handiwork, and the existance of miracles.

    These events are supposedly happening here on Earth. If it happened and people noticed it, then it is a matter of scientific inquiry.

    That isnt arrogant, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask “how” when people say things like “God made that flood happen”. The answer is always “magic”.

    Again, at its simplest form it comes down to two competing forms of logic. Existence just is and always has been – or God just is and always has been. So demonstrate to me that existence just is and always has been, because essentially this is a positive claim.

    You are conflating the claim that “existence just is” with “I don’t believe in gods”. That said, the origin of the universe (if that’s what you mean) clearly is a matter for scientific inquiry. I don’t have to prove that “existence always was” in order to make that observation or to disbelieve ideas that I find unconvincing.

    In any case, it still wouldn’t disprove the possibility of gods who exist, but did not create the universe. Not only would your excercise be unnecessary, but it wouldn’t be an effective tool for achieving the goal of ruling out the possibility that god exists and always did. Not to mention it sounds even more droll than staying up way too late to post on the internets.

    Aside from all this, I don’t accept your either/or scenario. If anything is possible, it could just as easily be that there exists a god who made the universe appear to have the property of existance having always been. It would be an excercize in absolute futility, in my opinion.

  76. #76 Conrad Goehausen
    July 4, 2007

    Scientific Avenger wrote:

    You didn’t say “the result of a choice”, you said “is clearly a choice”. Not the same at all. Eating 50 donuts was the choice. Getting fat was the result of a choice. Likewise, studying epistemology was my choice. Not accepting claims except those with supporting evidence, and becoming an atheist, was the result of my choice. It was not a choice in and of itself, any more than getting fat was.

    This is a distinction without a difference. If someone eats 50 donuts, they can’t say afterwards that they didn’t choose to become fat. Unless of course they claim some genetic/metabolic compulsion forced them to eat the donuts. In your case, you clearly choose to study epistemology and logic and the sorts of things which led you down your path. At every step along the way, you chose to follow certain pathways and not others. No one forced you into it. It wasn’t your genetics, and it wasn’t your biology that decided these things for you, as is the case with race, skin color, or sexual orientation. You decided to go down this path. Undoubtedly along the way you learned that you had made mistakes and chose a different path, backtracking or side-tracking or maybe even reversing yourself. So it’s not as if you were forced to accept even your own conclusions if they seemed wrong to you. When you became an athiest, you chose to take that path, and remain on it, rather than backtracking or reversing yourself. Others would have responded differently.

    What you are trying to do is equate logical inevitability with biological and genetic inevitability. This is an example of the kind of false logic that human beings are prey to, regardless of whether they are religious or not. You think that you conclusions were beyond your control, that you had no power to accept or reject them, as if nature itself, or God Himself, had handed you this revelation with no choice of your own, as if atheism were as inevitable as 2+2=4 once one accepts mathematical reasoning. Well, not. As all atheists will admit, there is no proof of the non-existence of God.

    I find it utterly amusing that you, an avowed atheist who I presume would argue that people should think for themselves and evaluate life on the basis of their own intelligence rather than received wisdom would argue that he himself has no choice in these matters and cannot and did not choose atheism, but had it foisted upon him by some outside force. Are you attributing your atheism to God, perhaps?

    Or are you going so far as to argue that fat people don’t deserve protection against discrimination because it is a result of their choices?

    I think that atheists should of course never be discriminated against for employment, housing, or other basic human rights, as with race and sex. But this discussion is not about the legal rights of athiests, it’s about their public acceptance in the sphere of ideas. No one is forced to respect atheism or atheists. I do, but I’m in the minority. Legal discrimination on the basis of religion is already outlawed, I support those laws, even for atheists, however obnoxious and poorly reasoned their arguments.

    Just as no one is required to marry a fat person, no one is required to love athiests. So yes, I think it is fine to discriminate against fat people (in one’s personal life that is) in a way that I would not discriminate against black people. I’d marry a pretty black girl, for example, but not a fat one. As for marrying an atheist, that would depend on the individual.

  77. #77 windy
    July 4, 2007

    Again, at its simplest form it comes down to two competing forms of logic. Existence just is and always has been – or God just is and always has been. So demonstrate to me that existence just is and always has been, because essentially this is a positive claim.

    First demonstrate that there is such a thing as “always”.

  78. #78 Graham
    July 4, 2007

    Not surprisingly, science is only incapable of determining what god does and how he does it when you ask believers to pony up with evidence.

    But Dawkins doesn�t just claim that God doesn’t perform miracles, he claims God in its various forms – does not exist. He claims that a lack of evidence should rule out any desire to place belief in God. And I think that’s incorrect. I think it’s a plausible possibility.

    You are conflating the claim that “existence just is” with “I don’t believe in gods”.

    Right you are. But I’m doing that because these are essentially the only two options. So by asserting that one is incorrect, you must therefore claim the other to be true. ‘We know we exist – so we should assume we just exist until evidence suggests otherwise.’ Unless you have another option that I haven’t thought of? Existence was either created or has always been/appeared from nothing. And no, I’m not just talking about the birth of our Universe, because by no means is it clear that ours is the only one. And yes I couldn’t agree more that it is a matter for scientific inquiry. Everything should be.

    It would be an excercize in absolute futility, in my opinion.

    But that’s because you are driven by a need to believe in something, just like a religious person. And your belief is in the scientific method. You feel that there is a truth, and even if it can’t be proven you are willing to take what little knowledge we have (or believe we have) and run with assumptions relating to it by shutting out the other side completely. I can understand the need for this, but I think the parallels between both sides of the fence are definitely there. There is a need for certainty, and in clinging to that certainty a need to denounce the other side as incorrect.

    You might say you’re keeping an open mind to evidence, and I do believe you, but what if your method for seeking that evidence restricts your ability to find the truth? Like in your case of the God who created existence that seemed to have always existed (or likewise the Simulation Hypothesis), using the scientific method you could discover everything there is to possibly know about the nature of your existence – conclude that it had always just been…and be completely wrong. But your need for truth would facilitate a belief in the lie. You must understand that the reason both sides disagree with each other so violently is because of different mindsets and approaches to the problem. These approaches are both essentially valid in my opinion, but are dangerous and inhibitive when seen as absolutes. Really, scientists need to accept that while theirs is a way of thinking that can explain a lot about our system, by no means is it the only way of looking at the nature of reality and existence. Religion needs to do the same thing.

    Dawkins’ problem shouldn’t be with people who believe in God, because there are always reasons why this is a plausible concept – even if by scientific standards they may seem unlikely at that period in time. Dawkins main problem from what I can see, is, and should be, with the troubles belief in God causes due to dogmatism. And like I said, I think he’s just playing them at their own game. We know so little, and yet each generation assumes it knows so much. We had the big questions pretty much figured out over 200 years ago, and yet we keep ending up further down the rabbit hole. By no means am I suggesting people shouldn’t have their beliefs and shouldn’t seek to find proof for them, but I think it’s high time people stopped telling others they shouldn’t believe this or should believe that. It’s arrogant, dogmatic, and damaging the human race. I’m sorry I hadn’t meant this to be so long.

  79. #79 MartinM
    July 4, 2007

    ? Existence was either created or has always been/appeared from nothing. And no, I’m not just talking about the birth of our Universe, because by no means is it clear that ours is the only one.

    What you’re missing is that the question is whether or not God exists. The proposition “existence just is” is not an alternative to “God exists.” There are, in fact, no alternatives to “existence just is” at all.

  80. #80 Leni
    July 4, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    Right you are. But I’m doing that because these are essentially the only two options. So by asserting that one is incorrect, you must therefore claim the other to be true.

    This is nothing but a false dichotomy. I already gave you an example of a case where the two would not be mututally exclusive: Gods as a natural property or even result of a universe that has always existed. I’m sorry, but your attempt to make atheism into a positive claim isn’t going to work.

    Graham wrote:

    But that’s because you are driven by a need to believe in something, just like a religious person. And your belief is in the scientific method.

    I do not “believe” in the scientific method the way a religious person believes in god. It’s a tool we use to get answers and it works really, really well. I don’t have to believe in it, I know it works because the results speak for themselves.

    The two are most certainly not equivalent. A scientist who adheres to an idea in the face of evidence to the contrary would be dogmatic, but that isn’t the case here.

    I’m sorry, but possibility is not plausibility. It’s possible that evil leprechauns have possessed the worlds’ leaders and are using them to orchestrate evil as we speak. But that’s a stupid idea that has no basis in reality, isn’t plausible and doesn’t explain anything. Well actually, it would explain some things…

    Anyway, we have every right to reject ideas that are bad. It doesn’t mean there is no chance we are wrong, it just means there is no reason to believe them.

  81. #81 Leni
    July 4, 2007

    In any case, I do not really want to get into an argument about whether or not god exists. It’s not something I am terribly interested in, primarly because I think the argument that possibilty = plausibility of active belief is really, really lame.

    With regard to belief, Graham, agnostics who have no positive beliefs in god/s are atheists. They are without opinion, and they are without belief.

    Welcome to the dark side! I’d give you a complimetary coffee mug but I’m cheap that way.

  82. #82 Science Avenger
    July 4, 2007

    Conrad dissembled thusly: I find it utterly amusing that you, an avowed atheist who I presume would argue that people should think for themselves and evaluate life on the basis of their own intelligence rather than received wisdom would argue that he himself has no choice in these matters and cannot and did not choose atheism, but had it foisted upon him by some outside force. Are you attributing your atheism to God, perhaps?

    I sad nothing of the sort, as is clear from my post, but sadly is typical of the rest of your ill-conceived anti-atheist screed. Thank you for demonstrating yet another example of people who cant handle what atheists actually say: when the facts conflict with your theory, deny the facts, and make shit up.

  83. #83 Conrad Goehausen
    July 4, 2007

    Science Avenger, here’s what you DID say:

    Please instruct me as to how to believe I’m going to heaven when I die to spend eternity in bliss with my loved ones. Really, I WANT to believe that. But I can’t. I’m an atheist, not by choice, but by the invountary conclusions of my mind. There was never a point in my life as I went from deist to atheist where I said to myself “I decide now to be an atheist”. It just happened, just like my lack of belief in Santa, or my inevitable presidency, just happened, and very much against my will.

    Now, I can choose to be public with my atheism, I can choose to read this or that book, I can choose to educate myself, etc. In this way I think the comparison to homosexuals is very apt. They can choose who they have sex with, but they cannot choose to whom they are attracted. Likewise, I can choose what I SAY I believe, but I can’t choose what I believe.

    Isn’t it clear from this original response of yours that you view your atheism as an involuntary viewpoint foisted upon you “by the conclusions of your own mind”, which means of course that you are not responsible for your own mind even? I joked about this meaning that God made you an atheist, but really, what’s the difference? Some power out of your control residing in your mind has involuntarily forced you to become an atheist against your own will and wishes? Isn’t this a sign of some kind of mental defect?

    Now, you accuse me of launching an anti-atheist screed, but I am not against atheism at all, I am merely against false forms of thinking, of which you are a perfect example. You are not representative of atheists in general, you are just an example of the false paths that some atheists travel down, just as Jerry Falwell is an example of the false paths that some religious people travel down. As I said before, I think well of atheism in general. I was an atheist myself at one time. I chose to travel along the atheist path for a time, and I chose to leave that path. Sure, in the subjective sense, it’s easy to fall into the illusion that these things just “happen” to us, but intelligent inspection reveals a different story. People choose religion, they choose atheism, and they can change their minds if they have the will to be responsible for their choices. Such views are not hard-wired into our system. The degeneration of your argument into profanity and ad hominem insult is your own choice as well. No one has forced you to argue this way.

  84. #84 windy
    July 4, 2007

    Isn’t it clear from this original response of yours that you view your atheism as an involuntary viewpoint foisted upon you “by the conclusions of your own mind”, which means of course that you are not responsible for your own mind even?

    There are four lights!!

    (if you are familiar with the reference, would you consider the statement a voluntary viewpoint?)

  85. #85 Science Avenger
    July 4, 2007

    Conrad said: The degeneration of your argument into profanity and ad hominem insult is your own choice as well.

    I have minimum standards of what I expect of people to engage in substantive discourse, and you sir, flunk badly. When confronted with blatant misrepresentation of one’s views (ie lying), and overt denial of reality (eg that I do not, in fact, choose my atheism, however much easier it makes it on you to pretend I did) there is little point in attempting said discourse. You argue in the same vein as people who tell me I’ll believe in Jesus if I just accept him into my heart, and upon being informed that I tried that, and it didn’t work, respond by denying the reality and playing equivocal No True Scotsman word games to try to salvage their worldview. Just like you did. Delude yourself into thinking I chose my atheism if it makes you feel better. It doesn’t change the reality, and it doesn’t make you worthy of anything more than insults.

  86. #86 Conrad Goehausen
    July 4, 2007

    Science Avenger,

    Whether or not you have chosen to be an athiest, my challenging your assertions is not a lie, because it would mean that your own assertion is true merely because you claim it to be true. Do you really think I have to accept your word that you have not chosen atheism, any more than you have to accept that Jesus Christ is someone’s personal savior because they assert it to be true? You are arguing on the basis of personal assertion rather than logic and evidence. You have given no real defense of your claim that you have not chosen atheism other than your own assertion that it is so, which is frankly just not believable. I have never met an atheist who felt as you do, so you are far from representative of the lot. I don’t know what your “minimum standards” are for debate, but they seem incredibly low, and highly personal. Someone has to basically take your word for such highly debateable matters as this or you won’t actually engage them. That’s not debate, that’s living in an echo chamber.

    It seems to me that the assertion that one has become an atheist involuntarily goes against the very notion of free will and intelligent choice that is at the heart of what I think is best in the atheist movement. You have managed to disassociate from what is good about atheism, and are left with only a very “religious” form of atheism that is out of your hands, and is only a “revealed” truth that you have no say in. No wonder guys like you get so little respect!

  87. #87 Conrad Goehausen
    July 4, 2007

    Windy,

    I’m not familiar with the “four lights” reference. Could you fill me in?

  88. #88 DuWayne
    July 4, 2007

    Conrad -

    The degeneration of your argument into profanity and ad hominem insult is your own choice as well.

    What ad hominem insults?

  89. #89 BrianMc
    July 4, 2007

    I still see some quibbling over semantics and the definition of “choice”.

    I think you can define choice in such a way that belief is not a choice, and that you can also define it so that belief is a choice – it all depends on how you define the “self”, and where you draw the line between where a “person” begins, and their environment ends.

    In an objective sense, a person is not really separated from their environment whatsoever (unless you belief in a soul) – so in that sense, people are probably virtually 100% determined by their environment – unless you subscribe to fundamentally-random interpretations of quantum mechanics – in which case there may be some effects that are drawn from the randomness inherent in the interactions between the matter and energy that make up our bodies, and in this sense, you could conceive of some separation between the ‘self’ and its environment… but anyhow – you can see how horribly complex you can draw out this definition.

    So as a pragmatic compromise, we need to regard those actions as choices for which there is no apparent coercion. Unfortunately, this definition does not include beliefs, because while beliefs may motivate actions, beliefs themselves are not observable (practically speaking, given present technology…) and do not have an appreciable impact on the external environment unless accompanied by the requisite action.

    Of course, beliefs at least have a statistically observable impact on our behavior and our actions – and generally represent a persistent state of augmentation to our provoked and unprovoked actions. But since we cannot currently know what people REALLY believe – and can only guess at their beliefs based on the collection of actions they perform, it seems reasonable to re-define religious belief in terms of the statically collective behaviors of a person, or group of people – and it is these behaviors that we observe which we regard as their choices. In this way, we can regard religious observance as a choice – and in only this way.

    At any given time, however, the internal state of a person’s minds would represent their set of beliefs as existing in some abstract platonistic sense, and these beliefs, as existing at that moment in time, are not a choice, but are solely determined by previous events, both internal and external to the self.

    And by the way… whenever I begin reading something that I think may challenge my beliefs – I really do actually consider the possibility that what I’m reading could literally change my mind, one way or another. I mentally brace myself, trying to recognize the walls my mind is putting up – resisting the acceptance of new ideas that may contradict what I presently belief – but it is my choice to recognize that natural coping mechanisms, and to attempt to override them, so that I may most objectively interpret and process a piece of information.

    If we want to promote atheism and critical thinking in an effective manner, we need to consider the way people actually process information, and how beliefs are formed in the brain, and use this information to mold the way we disseminate information, or the way we try to convince others to accept our ideas and information.

    Try to put yourself in the position of a creationist, and consider the things that go through their mind, every time they are confronted with things like evolution and atheism in general.

    I was a creationist myself, as a child – so I can remember some of the thought processes that occur when I would be presented with some new information. I think that many creationists could actually be convinced of the falsity of their position, merely through a concise and thorough discussion about their beliefs – and given the right time and conditions. But as we see here and elsewhere on the net, some people have conditioned their beliefs to become so strong – and with so many defensive fall-back positions – that nothing short of a emotionally shocking event will allow them to re-wire their minds.

    I can readily accept that when processing certain bits of information, and excluding others – that theism can certainly sound like a correct assessment of reality. And at the very least – I would ask that theists accept that the same can be said of atheism – and to accept the possibility that maybe they simply are not processing the information correctly in assuming their theistic assumption.

    I have absolutely no respect, however, for those who unabashedly assert that god necessarily exists, and convey absolute certainty of this – to the exclusion of even accepting the possibility that theism is invalid. I think that these kinds of people are simply living in environments that greatly encourage unquestioning belief – and that the only way to wake these people up is to transport them into a radically different environment, which would shock them emotionally, so that their brain could being processing information in new ways – and this may provide them at least the potential to re-asses their beliefs.

  90. #90 Conrad Goehausen
    July 4, 2007

    DuWayne,

    What ad hominem insults?

    That I am a dissembling, blatantingly misrepresenting, lying, anti-atheist screed writer, for starters. None of these accusations are backed up by evidence. SA does not refute my arguments, he merely insults them. Like everything else SA says, they are mere assertions. This is how I expect religious fundamentalists to respond to argumentation, not clear-minded atheists.

  91. #91 Conrad Goehausen
    July 4, 2007

    Brian,

    I like your attitude. I’m aware that the issue of choice and free will vs. environment is a complex one, and that people unconsciously form belief based on all kinds of factors that they are not consciously aware of. Then these unconscious beleif come to the fore as “natural” conclusions of one’s own mind, or of God’s voice speaking to one, or however one wishes to deal with subconscious and unconscious processes. I think one has to step up to the bat and take responsibility for them consciously, as a matter of choice, rather than taking the passive position of letting these things “happen to you”, or being involuntarily forced to belief or disbelieve various things.

    Cutting through the ambiguities, tell me just how seriously you would accept the argument of a man on trial for murdering his wife that he had no choice in the matter, that he was compelled to kill her by the conclusions of his own mind? As if one’s own mind is separate from one’s conscious choice and will. Even if one’s mind presents this option of “killing one’s wife”, one still has the choice to accept or reject it. Likewise, one has the choice to accept or reject the conclusion of the mind that God exists, or that God does not exist. One can evern re-examine all the factors and logic-paths that led to these conclusions, and alter them, and reach a different outcome. Or one can choose not to.

    Likewise, if one has been raised in a religious setting or family, one can choose to accept or reject that indoctrination. Many reject it. Many do not. In both cases, there is a choice involved in whether to go along with one’s environment, or not.

    Now, the argument began with Ed’s comparison of the prejudices against atheists with prejudices against racial or sexual-oreintation. I argued that this is a false comparison, that one chooses one’s religious views, whereas one does not choose one’s race or sexual orientation – these are not even environmentally determined that I can see, but purely a matter of biology. In fact, the protections in the constitution for freedom of religion (which would include the freedom to be an atheist) are there precisely to protect our ability to freely choose which beliefs we honor or do not honor, rather than to protect us because these beliefs are somehow involuntarily thrust upon us by our environment. The bill of rights does not even address that issue, nor does it protect against racial or sexual discrimination (not until the 14th amendment at least).

    SA’s argument that atheists should not be personally discriminated against because their beliefs are involuntary is absurd. If we applied this to religious people, atheists would have to admit that they cannot argue with religious people, because they have no choice but to be religious. In fact, all argument on all subjects would come to an end immediately, because it would be clear that if all beliefs are involuntary, there’s no sense in trying to consciously argue against any of them, or even to evaluate them, much less change anyone’s mind.

    That you take an attitude of openness and willingness to change is a result of a choice you made to be that way. Surely you were influenced to some extent, in that you’ve probably been exposed to free-thinking people in your life, but no one forced you to be free-thinking. You could have chosen the opposite, but you did not. This is to your credit. How odd it would be if being open-minded and free-thinking were actually something that was involuntarily forced upon us?

  92. #92 Kevin
    July 4, 2007

    Conrad,

    blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah and blah blah blah blah so blah blah blah blah blah
    and you are a blah blah blah blah so take blah blah and blah blah ha you stink!

    regards

    Kevin

  93. #93 Graham
    July 4, 2007

    primarly because I think the argument that possibilty = plausibility of active belief is really, really lame.

    Understandable. What I am trying to say is that when it comes down to it, in my opinion it is just as possible/plausible that existence was created by a higher form as it is that existence just came into being or always was. Both approaches to the nature of existence offer plausibility, but when taken to their absolutes suffer from the same collapse of logic. So based on that plausibility, the belief in a God is justified in my opinion, just like a lack of belief in God is justified.

    They are without opinion, and they are without belief.

    Agnostics are, yes. But atheism specifically denies the plausibility of a higher form, and like I’ve said I think it does so unfairly. You are basing your idea of plausibility on the scientific method, which like I’ve stated – I don’t believe is the only way of looking at the nature of existence or reality and obviously has its limitations. That’s why I suggested you’re placing your belief in the method, and in a sense dogmatically refusing any other approach because it doesn’t adhere to your method’s requirements. Which is fair enough, like Conrad has been talking about – that’s a choice. And I certainly sympathise with and lean more towards it myself.

    I would have once identified myself as an atheist :P More than happy to be welcomed by the dark side. Thanks for the discussion.

  94. #94 Caledonian
    July 4, 2007

    Windy,

    I’m not familiar with the “four lights” reference. Could you fill me in?

    ST:TNG “Chain of Command, Part II”

  95. #95 Leni
    July 4, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    But atheism specifically denies the plausibility of a higher form, and like I’ve said I think it does so unfairly.

    It can, in the strong version. Doesn’t have to, though. Either way, the lack of belief is a result of a lack of compelling evidence and/or argument. Or at least it can be and often is. It is not purely about a lack of evidence as you seem to think.

    If it were, you’d be right. But that would be a thing you would determine on a case by case basis, not a thing you would assert about each and every atheist.

    Here are some examples of non-emprical reasons to dismiss god claims: lack of internal consisitancy, or giving rise to paradoxes like the problem of evil or the rock problem.

    Lack of coherent descriptions. What is god? You’ll get as many different answers as people you ask, so the skeptic is in a really tough position. Which version are we talking about and is it coherent enought to discuss sensibly?

    Uselessness. I can believe in a deists’ god, but why bother? It doesn’t actually do anything, for me or in the world at large. I may as well believe in magic that doesn’t do anything magical. What really, is there to believe in?

    There are many more, these are just 3 very obvious ones. Dawkins would acknowledge these and probably has at some point. They are all old hat. You can dispute the quality of the arguments if you like, but they aren’t empirical and so do go against your claim that the only rejection of this idea isbased on the (total) lack of evidence. That simply isn’t true.

    … and in a sense dogmatically refusing any other approach because it doesn’t adhere to your method’s requirements.

    I think a multi-faceted rejection of unprovable claims is anything but dogmatic. There is no evidence nor have I yet to encounter a compelling logical argument establishing the existance of god, much less the plausibility of such a thing.

    In the absense of either of those things I am more than justified in not believing, and when the arguments are sufficiently bad I am justified in rejecting them outright, using the same or similar criteria of plausibility and rationality that we use for all other ideas.

    I recind my insincere coffee mug offer, Judas!

  96. #96 Conrad Goehausen
    July 5, 2007

    Windy,

    Thanks for filling in the reference. No, I would not consider the “four lights” issue to be relevant to this matter of choice vs. involuntary belief. Whether or not one believes in God is not akin to whether or not there are four or five lights. The one is a purely mechanical sensory input, the other is a complex philosophical issue that the senses are not even presumed to be able to answer. It would be relevant in a medieval context in which torture is employed against unbelievers, but that is not the context of this discussion. SA is arguing that in a free society without any serious outside coercion involved, that he is forced by his mind – not his senses – to be an atheist, even though he doesn’t want to be one. This is exactly how religious people describe their own religious beleives – as something that is imposed upon them from without. They simply attribute this involuntary belief to “the Grace of God”, while SA attributes it to some power within his own mind that he has no control over. I say that is baloney. He is merely shirking his own responsibility for his own choices in life.

    Now, as with Picard, one can refuse to state something one beleives to be false, and call that integrity, but one can also refuse to state something one believes to be false, but which is actually true. Religious martyrs do that all the time, in the view of athiests. They allow themselves to be tortured and even killed rather than renounce the God they believe in, even when such Gods don’t exist in their view. So is that integrity, or mere foolishness?

  97. #97 BrianMc
    July 5, 2007

    I agree that in the sense you are probably thinking, religious persons cannot choose to become atheists… but it is only by becoming more ‘educated’ that they can begin to acquire new information – and once they process and truly grasp that information, they may eventually become atheists.

    I find it very difficult to believe (pun intended) that someone who truly understands evolution and its interrelated areas of study, could still find theism a more satisfactory explanation for life.

    Furthermore… as humans gain a better understanding of how life forms, and the probabilities of these events taking place in abiotic contexts on earth, then we increasingly see that atheism is the more plausible assumption.

    Currently, die-hard philosophical theists seem to be retreating more-and-more to ideas such as irreducible complexity. The awesome thing about this, however, is that irreducible complexity is actually potentially disprovable. So that means for all those people like Michael Behe – we actually stand a chance to convince them that atheism is correct… assuming they are being truthful to their arguments, and that arguments like irreducible complexity are not just a veneer covering a much more dogmatic web of belief.

    So I find these arguments for god, such as irreducible complexity, as something relatively positive – because it at least shows the theists are thinking.

    I can accept theists who are taking the default position that god exists, and then claiming that the evidence just isn’t enough to pull them out of this default position… these people can hopefully be reasoned with, at least.

    I believe strongly that our scientific investigation will one day make obvious, how and under what specific conditions life may have emerged on earth… and then it will simply be a matter of assigning a probability as to how likely those conditions are to have existed. If the probability is somewhere up around 90% – then we can be extremely assured of our position… but even if the probability is as low as 5%… that margin of potentiality still bodes great promise for our position, given the reasonable tenet of the anthropic principle.

    So instead of just asking theists to “change their mind”… we need to realize that only education will make this possible. If the default position were atheism within our cultures, then this education wouldn’t be necessary… and instead, it would be on the theists shoulders to enact their own version of ‘education’ in order to win people over to their side… but given so many people are de facto theists in this world, we atheists really have our work cut out for us.

  98. #98 Graham
    July 5, 2007

    You can dispute the quality of the arguments if you like, but they aren’t empirical and so do go against your claim that the only rejection of this idea is based on the (total) lack of evidence.

    Yeah sure, and most of these are related to the specifics of the nature of the God in question. But non-belief also raises paradoxes that the believer would also say negates its plausibility. Again though, my point is that when both sides are followed to their end, they both suffer from the same ultimate problem – a lack of cause to the effect. Where did God come from? He just is. Or for the non believer, where did existence come from? It just is. Or even ‘We don’t know, but the concept of God is less likely than the concept of no God’. The atheist then uses the scientific view (or a lack of evidence) as a means of giving further credence to their position and essentially assigning more plausibility to the concept of no God. And again, I believe there are severe limitations in relying on this. In my opinion they’re both equally as plausible since they both collapse in the same way when reduced to their ultimate beginning.

    Atheism makes a claim to truth by claiming that non-belief is more plausible than belief. And there’s both no evidence for that, and at its essence, no logical reason why this is so. You might say there’s no evidence for God so why believe? But the believer will tell you to look around. Existence is the evidence. Existence ‘is’, so it must have been created. Something can’t come from nothing. There is structure and purpose, so there must have been a creator. And the atheist will obviously disagree and say it’s possible existence just is and until evidence is provided to prove otherwise, we should assume this is the most likely answer. The agnostic will admit they could both equally be right, and we either don’t know or can’t know.

    Your example of a God created by nature is an anomaly in the argument, but really doesn’t change the point. In that example existence would still just have to be, or have to have been created. Again, in my mind, putting the plausibility of God’s existence and God’s non-existence on an even footing.

    And I think that’s where agnosticism and atheism differ. And that’s why I think Dawkins is arrogant and dogmatic in his approach.

  99. #99 BrianMc
    July 5, 2007

    Hey Graham,

    Are you familiar with quantum mechanics? QM is one of a set of fundamentally mathematical theories, which potentially define all physical interactions/events. Indeed – all of our physical theories are based on mathematics. While this doesn’t provide an argument against the existence of god – it is true that if we can somehow prove that the physical laws necessarily emerge from fundamentally mathematical principles, then we have essentially defined existence from the ground up – so deeply that “god” would be irretrievably lost from the picture.

    Your argument for theism posits that god represents a fundamental nature to reality – my argument posits that so-called “abstract” mathematical relations represent the fundamental nature of reality.

    My assumption is that at its most fundamental level, reality relies on something so fundamentally simple and indivisible, that everything else necessarily emerges from it as a direct and unavoidable consequence. Your assumption is that the most fundamental nature of reality still has a fully-formed intelligence, and a personality, which themselves are fundamentally indivisible.

    To me… this is an obvious anthropomorphization – which is apparently a very common trait of human behavior.

    But in our experience as modern humans, we observe that intelligence only emerges and evolves from a complex systems… and not the other way around.

    When considering the question of “god versus math”, I am always struck with the question… “If god wanted to, could she change the value of PI?”

  100. #100 windy
    July 5, 2007

    There is structure and purpose, so there must have been a creator.

    Wouldn’t a creator have structure and purpose? If structure and purpose imply a creator, who created the creator?

    BTW, you are still repeating the claim that either god or the universe must have existed “always”. You have not demonstrated that this must be the case. We have no evidence that time transcends our universe.

  101. #101 BrianMc
    July 5, 2007

    There is structure and purpose, so there must have been a creator.

    ‘Structure’ can just as easily emerge from the necessary avoidance of paradoxes which emerges from any mathematical theory.

    ‘Purpose’ is an entirely subjective concept, which has no apparent objective meaning. That’s like saying “comedy necessitates a creator”… it is void of meaning in any objective sense.

    Subjective analysis of the world assumes, a priori, that entirely human notions have some direct correlate to the fundamental natures of reality. While humans apparently emerge from reality, like everything else… it appears that our subjective ‘meanings’ are so complexly derived that we cannot possibly hope to derive fundamental and objective meanings from them.

    Better to stick to the math, rather than things like “love” and “purpose” if you want to better understand the fundamental nature of reality.

    Mathematics still present a seemingly endless realm of possibilities, stretched out before us… and have already shown much promise with complex constructs, rich in information – and all of which emerge directly from math – no human intervention required.

    Just wait until quantum computing comes around… or the next exponential technology.

  102. #102 Conrad Goehausen
    July 5, 2007

    I think you are right that as science matures and finds more precise answers for evolutionary processes, that this will create a growing crisis in religion, and that some people will become atheists as a result. I wouldn’t hold my breath, however, nor would I expect huge numbers. More likely, religious people will simply modify their religious views to be less strikingly in conflict with scientific findings, as has already been the case for much of the modern west. You will see a serious rise in non-mainstream religion, perhaps to the point where it becomes mainstream.

    I’m probably an example of that. I started out my life as an atheist, having seen that mainstream religion in the US (Christianity) seemed like childish crap. I became religious at about 13 when I began to consider seriously issues of God and consciousness, but I never came to believe in a “creator God”. For a while I held out for some kind of “hand of God” involving itself in the evolutionary process, perhaps in the mutation stage, but over time the evidence seemed not to require any such involvement. My position now is that all the processes of manifest creation are purely the result of natural laws, but that the existence and nature of manifest creation, including those laws, is embedded in consciousness, which is its source, and thus is inherently “alive” and will create life of its own inevitably and by whatever processes spring from it.

    My views would be closest to those found in Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Kashmir Shaivism. The primary principle involved is that consciousness is primary to existence, and not secondary as some scientists would have it, that consciousness “dreams” the world, creating universes and bodies that it identifies with out of a pure “singularity” of light, which congeals into a seemingly solid form governed by its own laws and seems “real” because it is composed of the same reality that we actually are. In this view, “God”, if you want to call it that, resides in our very Self, as the pure Witness of attention, of objects and creation itself, and does not “interfere” so to speak, with itself, since it already has done so by creating the illusion of a universe objective to us. My views about reality are non-dual, therefore, which pretty well resolves everything, including the discoveries of science, into a single conscious reality.

    However, my views are also even more of a minority opinion in this country than atheism. I doubt many will go the route I have chosen. What I would expect from religious people is a crisis of faith for some that may end in atheism, but for most it will merely involve a modification of their religion, because most of religion is emotionally based, rather than logically based, and emotion can handle great contradictions in logic so long as the emotional payoff is still delivered. This is a point most atheists seem not to grasp. There are limits to this, however. Creationism may die out, but religious people will simply find other ways to be religious, and either ignore the facts, or find religious views that are not directly in conflict with scientific facts, such as I have done.

  103. #103 BrianMc
    July 5, 2007

    Ahhhh… the objectification of consciousness… [sigh]

    Well, Conrad… without knowing the specifics of your adherence to epiphenomenalism, I can’t offer up any specific conciliations… but I can offer the following questions…

    In the development of a human from a sperm and an egg – and up through its embryonic and fetal stages – at what point, if any, does consciousness “bind” with a human to become part of them?

    To what extent do you believe other animals have consciousness? Are humans the only ones that have it? Or do all animals have ‘it’ equally, but in different quantities, or in different qualities?

    Would you change your beliefs in the acausality of consciousness if humans one day had the technology to reverse engineer all the causal artifacts of a “conscious process”, and develop a “conscious entity” from the ground up – whether ‘biological’ or ‘abiotic’? Can the fragmentation of conscious be obtained outside of evolutionary biological developments?

    I apologize if these questions in any way mischaracterize your beliefs… they are only directed towards the general forms epiphenomenalism… and not necessarily towards yours.

    The questions are rhetorical, in a sense, and are mostly intended to draw out paradoxes or inconsistencies in the belief that consciousness is somehow independent from the physical processes that surround it.

  104. #104 Josh Rosenau
    July 5, 2007

    “Neither Ed, nor Matt Nisbet before him, has provided a shred of evidence to back up the assertion that Dawkins and Hitchens are hurting the cause.”

    But I did! Granted, the study in question can be interpreted in various ways, and I pointed out some ways in which their data could be artifactual. Still, the results suggest that, across multiple elections, evangelicals with lots of secular neighbors tend to be more politically conservative. This is in line with other studies showing that southern whites tended to be more conservative (segregationist) when they lived near more blacks. At the very least, it attaches some statistical rigor to Ed’s hypothetical anecdote, and gives us data to argue about. At best, it proves his point, and validates a strategy of encouraging evangelical (or at least religious) biologists to be the spokespeople in the evolution/creation battle.

    Continuing the (weak) analogy to the civil rights struggle, do you think Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X was more politically effective? Which do you think atheists should emulate? Malcolm X was abrasive and aggressive, King was friendly, polite and firm in his convictions. X claimed King had been “coopted” (his version of alleging someone was a Chamberlain).

  105. #105 windy
    July 5, 2007

    Um, Josh, unless that study includes evangelicals who live next door to Dawkins and Hitchens, how is it evidence that they are hurting the cause?

  106. #106 Science Avenger
    July 5, 2007

    An interesting study Josh. However, did any of us really need empirical validation that evangelicals would react badly to to Dawkins and Hitchens? They are a lost cause, and we all know it.

    The more important questions are:

    Do D&H and the attention they receive encourage more nonbelievers to “come out”, and in doing so help refute the inaccurate negative images of atheists as immoral monsters?

    Do D&H succesfully move the Overton window of political discourse so that the “Neville Chamberlain” atheists look that much more mainstream, as some would claim Malcolm X did for MLK?

    I argue that these effects have the potential to exceed the one that study is concerned about by orders of magnitude. After all, there are millions of atheists still “in the closet” and fairly politically inactive. OTOH, just how much more intolerant of atheists can evangelicals get?

    Ken Miller should be the lead in the evolution/creation dispute for the same reason the Republicans put tools like Ron Christy out there to represent them: to have a visible refutation of a negative argument used by the other side, ie, that evolution = atheism, or that Republican = white. It has little to do with how racists or evangelicals react to the rhetoric.

  107. #107 MartinM
    July 5, 2007

    Still, the results suggest that, across multiple elections, evangelicals with lots of secular neighbors tend to be more politically conservative. This is in line with other studies showing that southern whites tended to be more conservative (segregationist) when they lived near more blacks.

    Unless the study compared evangelicals with lots of ‘militant’ atheist neighbours to evangelicals with lots of ‘non-militant’ atheist neighbours it doesn’t prove a damn thing of relevance.

    At best, it proves his point, and validates a strategy of encouraging evangelical (or at least religious) biologists to be the spokespeople in the evolution/creation battle.

    Well, we’re not talking about the evolution/creation battle. We’re talking about the public image of atheists. So the evangelicals don’t like us. What are we supposed to do, pretend we don’t exist? This study’s a red herring.

  108. #108 Caliban
    July 5, 2007

    Graham wrote: “But non-belief also raises paradoxes that the believer would also say negates its plausibility. Again though, my point is that when both sides are followed to their end, they both suffer from the same ultimate problem – a lack of cause to the effect. Where did God come from? He just is. Or for the non believer, where did existence come from? It just is.”

    This is wrong. It is neither the “end” of both sides and even it was, they would in no way be equivalent. First, any invocation of a supernatural agent to explain natural phenomena has absolutely zero explanatory force without evidence of the proposed entity’s existence in the first place. “God” is not an explanation for existence anymore than “Blarthigon” is. This is the catch 22 the theist is forced into at this point. Without any evidence of a God, it cannot be meaningfully attributed to the creation or sustaining of anything. This would be begging the question. Unlike God, the universe has an abundence of evidence to support it’s existence.

    Second, the question as to weather or not existence is the natural state is an entirely open cosmological question. There is no reason to assume, for instance, that non-existence is the natural state of things. Obviously, the very fact that there is existence does not lend support to the conclusion that nonexistence is the natural state of things.

    Further, there are several cosmological models that offer very differant ways for the universe to go: the multiverse theory, the bubble universe theory, the cyclic universe theory, etc. None of these models requires at any point a supernatural agent for the creation of the universe. Stephen Hawking mused that it may be the case that to even ask “when did time begin?” may be a flawed question akin to asking “where does the earth start?”. Since the earth is a globe, it is the wrong question to ask. He then states that the begining of the universe may collapse into a spatial manifold that, like the sphere, has no begining or end.

    In summation, the mysteries of the origin of the universe are already being explored with solid math that provides possible answers without recouse to supernatural agencies.

    This is hardly equivalent to the propostion drawn out of thin air that an unknown being of unknown attributes with an unknown orgin at an unknown time created the universe using unknown methods for an unknown purpose without evidence for any of it. In what sense is this a satisfactory answer to anything?

  109. #109 J. J. Ramsey
    July 5, 2007

    windy and Martin M, both of you are missing the point of the study that Josh Rosenau mentioned, which is that evangelicals apparently tend to cling tighter to their identities as evangelicals when they perceive themselves as under threat. The presence of secular neighbors would be one such perceived threat. The rhetoric of Dawkins and Hitchens is another.

  110. #110 Graham
    July 5, 2007

    This is wrong. It is neither the “end” of both sides and even it was, they would in no way be equivalent. First, any invocation of a supernatural agent to explain natural phenomena has absolutely zero explanatory force without evidence of the proposed entity’s existence in the first place. “God” is not an explanation for existence anymore than “Blarthigon” is.

    Sorry Caliban but you’re missing the overall logic of my argument and making it for me at the same time. In your example “God” and “Blarthigon” are essentially the same thing – a higher force that created existence. Call it by any name you want, and people do, it still comes down to the same thing.

    Again, none of the mathematical models require a ‘supernatural’ force, but none of them can rule out the possibility that one exists either and the perceived ‘accuracy’ of the models in no way lessens that possibility because they still suffer from a collapse in logic at their origin.

    In what sense is this a satisfactory answer to anything?
    Again, it isn’t. But in what sense is a mathematical explanation satisfactory when taken to its ultimate conclusion? It isn’t. It suffers from the same lack of cause. Making it just as plausible. We’re still either trying to get something from nothing, or arguing that something has just always been or just ‘is’. Sure I’m fascinated by and see the plausibility of cyclical time, multiverse theory etc – but when Hawking says we may be asking the wrong question…well sure…but believers will say the same thing when people ask where God came from? Again, both claims end up at ‘it just is’.

  111. #111 Graham
    July 5, 2007

    BrianMC:

    Absolutely. All good arguments, and I’m not ignoring you but I think my other post explains my position and could serve as a response to yours. Again let me stress that I’m not trying to diminish the plausibility of a Godless existence, but am simply saying that by no means does that plausibility diminish the plausibility of the other side.

    Windy:

    I don’t feel the concept of time really has any baring on the ultimate assertion of my argument which is why I haven’t replied.

  112. #112 Leni
    July 5, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    Yeah sure, and most of these are related to the specifics of the nature of the God in question.

    No, they weren’t. 1) Internal consistency, 2) Lack of coherent descriptions , 3) Usefulness.

    (Totally off topic moment of pure spaz: Holy freaking crap! The new version of my browser just corrected my spelling! OMG! Praise Jesus, there is a god! His name is Firefox!

    I hate looking up words while posting.)

    But non-belief also raises paradoxes that the believer would also say negates its plausibility.

    Universal skepticism raises some issues, sure. Disbelief does not.

    Did you have some examples? Because otherwise it looks to me like you are arguing that disbelief in even patently absurd things like the tooth fairy or leprechauns is unjustified.

    To which I offer no argument, but instead point at you and laugh.

    Seriously. There are standards. We use them. God doesn’t get a “get out of jail free” card.

    Again though, my point is that when both sides are followed to their end, they both suffer from the same ultimate problem – a lack of cause to the effect.

    Er… What is “cause to the effect?”

    And again, I believe there are severe limitations in relying on this.

    That may be true in some cases, but as I already pointed out, pretty much no one relies solely on the fact that there is absolutely no evidence in support of this idea.

    We don’t have to. Most believers assign all kinds of contingencies and behaviors and traits to their gods that are inherently problematic.

    Atheism makes a claim to truth by claiming that non-belief is more plausible than belief. And there’s both no evidence for that, and at its essence, no logical reason why this is so.

    Graham, I think this really gets to the heart of your question. There is no evidence, of course- but there most definitely is a logical reason for why this should be so.

    Things that don’t exist can’t leave evidence.

    If it doesn’t exist, you won’t find an evidential wake for the simple fact that it could not have left one.

    The agnostic will admit they could both equally be right, and we either don’t know or can’t know.

    And there it is. Except you don’t actually believe anything, which technically makes you an atheist. A “weak” one, they’re called

    And I think that’s where agnosticism and atheism differ. And that’s why I think Dawkins is arrogant and dogmatic in his approach.

    And this is where I think you are in yours. Dawkins leaves a smidgen of possibility in there for the Gods. If they can exist outside of nature they can surely exist there.

    He’s essentially taken your side, with the exception that he acknowledges reality.

  113. #113 Caliban
    July 5, 2007

    Graham wrote: “n your example “God” and “Blarthigon” are essentially the same thing – a higher force that created existence. Call it by any name you want, and people do, it still comes down to the same thing.”

    The example of the nonsense word was not to identify an alternate word for God, but to illustrate that “Blarthigon”, in this case, signifies “X”; being anything anyone anywhere could possibly think of (tooth fairy, aliens, the turd in my toilet, etc).

    In short, you missed the point. What you are arguing is very similar to the approach creationists use to argue for their beliefs. That is, they try to find a gap in our knowledge and proclaim that “God” somehow results as the automatic default to answer the question. You have used the exact same approach except on a cosmic scale.

    You presume that the plausibility of God-belief is rescued in the gap of ignorance that lies at the creation of the universe. A very obvious problem with this is that an admission of ignorance concerning a specific scientific detail does not mean that any and all possible hypothesis then have equal plausibility. The “God did it” hypothesis is no more likely to be true than “Santa did it”.

    Further, the models i listed earlier are theories that do not require any creator and are reconcilable with everything science has shown us so far, the same cannot be said for the Goddidit hypothesis. Thus, a natural cause, whatever it is, is the more rational stance given the absolute uniformity of the history of science consisting entirely of (without exception) natural phenomena. If one wishes to disagree with this, they must also explain why one should not also withhold disbelief on the existence of unicorns and every single other creature ever imagined.

  114. #114 Graham
    July 5, 2007

    Caliban this isn’t just a ‘hole in your knowledge’ this is the fundamental building block to your entire claim. Unfortunately not having a solution to it throws the entire thing into uncertainty.

    I am not claiming that ‘everything is plausible’. Clearly within the system that we are in we can test claims using the rules of that system and make value judgements based on the results. But using those rules to test this problem is a limited approach, because it restricts us TO that system. The rules are incapable of describing or accounting for anything that acts outside of it. Those rules also can’t explain their own origin. Considering this system had to either come from somewhere, or has always just been, it is my belief that the God problem boils down to the same difficulties of logic. God had to have come from somewhere or has always just been.

    I feel like I’m travelling over the same ground here and probably articulating myself particularly badly, so I’ll bow out gracefully and admit we agnostics are much too weak to involve ourselves in ‘rational’ discussion. :P Of course the idea of rationality is based entirely on the laws of our system – so perhaps I should view that as a backhanded compliment.

  115. #115 Conrad Goehausen
    July 6, 2007

    BrianMc,

    I don’t mind being picked apart for inconsistencies, as long as it is done with a sense of humor and a non-patronizing attitude. I will even just try to answer your queries straight, but warn you that the context of non-dualism is what is important. If you are not familiar with those schools of religion, you may easily come to mistaken conclusions or inferences. But so be it.

    Epiphenomenalism is not a good way of characterizing my metaphysical views, so don’t go down that road. I’m not at all averse to the findings of neuroscience, and don’t find that they contradict my views. In other words, I concede fully that thoughts and sensations are all processed in the physical brain, regardless of their origin. My view is that even the physical brain and body is the “product” of consciousness, that the body is “dreamed” into existence, along with the whole universe, in a primal conscious process that is for the most part deeply unconscious, and by deeply unconscious, I mean prior to the physical brain’s coming into being.

    In the development of a human from a sperm and an egg – and up through its embryonic and fetal stages – at what point, if any, does consciousness “bind” with a human to become part of them?

    This is all quite speculative, but my basic view on this is that the conscious individual who is to be born exist prior to even conception. You could call this the “reincarnate persona”, and it is distinct from any born body-person. The reincarnate persona associates itself with a fetus at some point during gestation, but this varies from individual to individual. Those who are most fearful and attached, become fully associated fairly early on in the gestation period, within about three months or so. More mature and less fearful personas remain only very loosely associated with the fetus until much later on, anywhere from 6 months to just shortly before birth. Some don’t even become fully associated until well after physical birth.

    The thing is, the word “bind” is very good, because it is very much of a strong bond that subsumes the awareness of the reincarnate persona in the experience of the physical body. However, at no point does the reincarnate persona actually become the physical body, or even the physical body’s persona. There remains a distinction, even in the midst of the bodily life, between the reincarnate persona and the born body. We are not fully conscious of this distinction, but we do feel and experience it as a kind of separation from life, in our ability to simply sit back and observe and feel life without being totally a part of it.

    To what extent do you believe other animals have consciousness? Are humans the only ones that have it? Or do all animals have ‘it’ equally, but in different quantities, or in different qualities?

    This depends on what you mean by “consciousness”. I certainly think that all animals, even plants, are “aware” in some crude sense of the term, but the functional quality of their awareness in life is determined by their brain and nervous system. Since they experience the objectification of consciousness through that brain and nervous system, they will experience the world differently than we do. We in fact experience the world differently depending on our own brains and nervous systems. Human beings are not exactly the same, as is especially the case in those who have disturbed or “broken” brains and nervous systems, or who have taken drugs, say.

    At the root, however, I would say that all things are conscious, in that consciousness is the source of all things, and all things are composed of consciousness thereby. However, I would dispute the notion that any “things” truly exist at all, if one is really discriminating about the use of that term, and investigates it thoroughly. But that is a deeper level of conversation.

    Would you change your beliefs in the acausality of consciousness if humans one day had the technology to reverse engineer all the causal artifacts of a “conscious process”, and develop a “conscious entity” from the ground up – whether ‘biological’ or ‘abiotic’? Can the fragmentation of conscious be obtained outside of evolutionary biological developments?

    Funny, I was just talking about this with my sons, who are physics majors at UC. It would certainly be fascinating to see what an AI intelligence would be like. I don’t see any theoretical reason, spiritually or otherwise, why such things shouldn’t exist, or why humans shouldn’t be able to design and build them. I think life can be formed in all kinds of wierd ways. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if life existed on, say Jupiter, in some form we couldn’t comprehend, and maybe not even be able to recognize as “life”. A machine with a soul? Why not, I ask? It’s not as if organic carbon is the only conscious process in the universe.

    But I don’t see how that effects my view of consciousness. After all, the vehicles of consciousness are all different, and yet all are founded in consciousness itself. So whether the vehicle of consciousness is silicon or carbon based, hardly matters. We create babies every day, and that doesn’t seem to change my views. Why should creating intelligent robots be any different?

    I apologize if these questions in any way mischaracterize your beliefs… they are only directed towards the general forms epiphenomenalism… and not necessarily towards yours.

    No problem, but epiphenomenalism isn’t what I subscribe to.

    I don’t mind your pointing out any inconsistencies either. Please feel free to.

  116. #116 Caliban
    July 6, 2007

    Graham, If you are not claiming that “everything is possible” than what are you claiming? That only the things that you prefer to be possible are possible?

    That’s the beauty of the scientific method. It operates and self corrects regardless of what one’s wishes are. Everything we have learned from special relativity and relativity and quantum mechanics has not come about because someone wanted it to be so. It has come about because that’s where the evidence has lead.

    If you abandon evidence, you abandon the possibility of truth. The reason why the scientific method came about was because we needed an objective method divorced from our biases to discern and what is real and what isn’t. If God exists in any meaningful sense, it would not contradict everything an impartial analysis of the evidence provided.

    Hell, I used to be “born again Christian”. What is true is not determined by what we want to be, but by what is. And what “is” is determined by a method that operates without respect to our biases. Can belief in God make the same claim?

  117. #117 windy
    July 6, 2007

    windy and Martin M, both of you are missing the point of the study that Josh Rosenau mentioned, which is that evangelicals apparently tend to cling tighter to their identities as evangelicals when they perceive themselves as under threat. The presence of secular neighbors would be one such perceived threat. The rhetoric of Dawkins and Hitchens is another.

    You are still not offering evidence that the latter “threat” has such an effect. Could be either way, but this study was not on all types of “threats”, it was a study on the effects of geographic proximity, and it is misleading to offer it as evidence of the effects of rhetoric.

    Besides, if merely existing is perceived as threatening, striving not to be a threat may not be the best strategy either.

  118. #118 windy
    July 6, 2007

    Graham wrote:

    I don’t feel the concept of time really has any baring on the ultimate assertion of my argument which is why I haven’t replied.

    The concept of time has no bearing on whether something has always existed? Okay…

  119. #119 Graham
    July 6, 2007

    Windy: Like I said several times, ‘always existed’ or ‘just is’. The nature of time is irrelevant to the established premise that existence is.

    Caliban, quite a large portion of my argument has been devoted to attempting to explain that the scientific method is incapable of dealing with anything that may exist outside the system it seeks to explain. Like the example of our existence being a simulation created by some higher form, we could use the rules of that system to determine ‘truth’ – and find out everything there is to know about the nature of that system and still be wrong about its origin.

    I think we’re all going over old ground here now :) It’s obviously a philosophical debate that the world has been having for a long time, and more than likely will continue to have for a lot longer to come.

  120. #120 MartinM
    July 6, 2007

    windy and Martin M, both of you are missing the point of the study that Josh Rosenau mentioned, which is that evangelicals apparently tend to cling tighter to their identities as evangelicals when they perceive themselves as under threat.

    Yeah, I got that. But I was under the impression that Dawkins and Hitchens spouting rhetoric was supposed to be more of a threat than Dawkins and Hitchens simply existing. Does the study establish that?

    And as Windy said:

    …if merely existing is perceived as threatening, striving not to be a threat may not be the best strategy either.

  121. #121 windy
    July 6, 2007

    Like I said several times, ‘always existed’ or ‘just is’. The nature of time is irrelevant to the established premise that existence is.

    So disregarding the temporal dimension, your argument boils down to “either God is, or existence is”. Since it seems very probable that existence indeed exists, does it make any sense to frame this as an either-or proposition? God, if he existed, would be a part of existence. They are not alternatives.

    You are still thinking in terms of “which one was there first?” There isn’t necessarily any first thing. And even if there was, positing an antropomorphic conscious spirit as the first existing entity makes about as much sense as a turtle bearing the universe on its back.

  122. #122 Caledonian
    July 6, 2007

    Caliban, quite a large portion of my argument has been devoted to attempting to explain that the scientific method is incapable of dealing with anything that may exist outside the system it seeks to explain.

    The system that science seeks to explain is called ‘reality’. Unsurprisingly, science isn’t particularly useful in generating explanations for unreal things.

  123. #123 BrianMc
    July 6, 2007

    Graham – thanks for your honest responses.

    Aside from your ideas about the “binding” of consciousness, I find your other rationalizations reasonable enough – and I respect your willingness to at least try to explain and defend your beliefs. thanks…

  124. #124 Conrad Goehausen
    July 6, 2007

    Regarding the discussion of the studies about evangelicals becoming more conservative when surrounded by secularists, is there really a policy lesson here? Does this mean that athiests should shut up and stop talking about atheism anymore because it makes evangelicals more hostile to them, and drives them to even greater extremes? Doesn’t this seem utterly bizarre as a prescription for dealing with beleivers? In other words, why not just pretend to be believers, and then evangelicals will feel completely unthreatened?

    I think what is missing from this discussion is an understanding of the phenomena of cognitive dissonance. In studies of cognitive dissonance, it is clear that the tension created between what people want to believe, and what is true, is magnified by contradictory evidence, which is releived by strengthening one’s beliefs. Hence, evangelicals, when confronted with evidence that their creationist, anti-evolutionary beliefs are false, respond by intensifying those beliefs, rather than abandoning them. But this can only go so far. At some point, the internal tension becomes unbearable, and the whole system collapses. The benefit of people like Hitchens and Dawkins is precisely that they are not letting up, they are pressing the point further and further, increasing the tension, so that it reaches an unbearable limit, leading to the collapse of reified mythical Christianity. If I were an atheist, the policy I would be pursuing is precisely that – ratcheting up the pressure by every legitimate means possible until the tension required to remain a mythic believer is simply unbearable, and the whole system collapses of its own internal force.

    In many respects, this is precisely how communism collapsed. Mythic religion is just more deeply entrenched, but clearly, in much of the modern world it is already in deep retreat for these very reasons.

  125. #125 BrianMc
    July 6, 2007

    Oops – sorry, Conrad – I actually meant to thank yourself, for your comments, and not Graham – sorry… I kept seeing Graham’s name all over the place, and got confused.

  126. #126 Alan B.
    July 6, 2007

    Jason,

    I’m sorry that I came to this discussion so late, but as someone who is old enough to remember the civil rights era, I feel the need to comment on its history. The main reason for its success in the 60′s (when most of the important Federal legislation was written) was largely because it was framed as primarily a Southern problem. After seeing Bull Connor’s dogs on the evening news, moderate Northern whites felt comfortable joining in an “Us against Them” battle. Moderate Southern whites, on the other hand (in my memory of events) largely went into defensive, protect-the-culture mode. There are lots of moderate and liberal Christians who would be glad to join in an “Us against the Fundies” if you don’t alienate them. The problem is not calling people like Ann Coulter or Jerry Falwell names. The moderates and liberals already know that they are crazy/evil. The problem is when you say that “religion” is the problem rather than dogmatism and bigotry.

  127. #127 Conradg
    July 6, 2007

    Aside from your ideas about the “binding” of consciousness, I find your other rationalizations reasonable enough – and I respect your willingness to at least try to explain and defend your beliefs. thanks…

    Thanks, BrianMc.

    I’m curious as to your side of the story. How do you explain the neumonal experience of consciousness and awareness without falling into a solipsistic tautology?

  128. #128 BrianMc
    July 6, 2007

    I’m curious as to your side of the story. How do you explain the neumonal experience of consciousness and awareness without falling into a solipsistic tautology?

    I simply see consciousness as a process, or a function, which executes within the bounds of physics, just like any other so-called “mechanical” process – albeit, with much more complexity than we can presently comprehend.

    I find that most philosophizing about consciousness, from the anti-reductionist camp, tries to squeeze it into a black box – a singularity, which permits no further analysis. But I think that consciousness can indeed be iteratively broken down into simpler and simpler functions – and eventually to physical processes which are quite well understood – such as electromagnetic forces.

    I simply see consciousness as an emergent function, or behaviour, of a complex system of physical counterparts.

    I believe that the “specialness” of consciousness, which is apparent to us, is a red herring of subjective philosophy. I don’t think it is really so special at all.

    Epiphenomenalists, for example, seem to regard consciousness as existing as a first-rate object – something which has a collection of properties and inherent functionality which can be said to “exist” at any given moment in time, or even independent of time – as a platonistic ideal – existing independently of any physical counterparts.

    But I believe that consciousness only emerges as a statistically apparent phenomenon via the interactions of a vast number of physical properties, and “exists” only within sub-ranges of the physical properties spread across the space/time dimensions of physical reality. For example – just as you can say that your physical body only exists within a certain range of points in the spatial dimensions, you can say the same of consciousness within the dimension of time as well… There was a time, before your consciousness emerged – and there will be a time in the future at which point your consciousness will cease to exist – as the organization of matter and energy that make up your brain disintegrates and evaporates as so much entropy.

    I think the best way to learn more about human consciousness, is to try to reverse-engineer the brain – but I believe our current methods are crude, at best. Before we can learn a much more about the minute details of consciousness, I think we first need to develop devices which can both capture and process information globally within the brain, and at least at the level of individual neurons.

    By using our subjective experience to analyze consciousness, we are having a horribly biased starting-point. I also don’t think it is presently worthwhile to try to analyze consciousness holistically – since I believe we are simply not capable of dealing with the complexity.

    I think that an alternative approach to studying consciousness is in working with computers and artificial intelligence. While the human brain is far too complex to reverse engineer – it may be more reasonable, presently, to come from the other end – by attempting to develop rudimentary forms of intelligence, which may lead to “consciousness” via computationally induced natural selection methods. Once quantum-computers, or some other such exponential technology is developed – I think this will become a possibility – if not a reality. The idea is that if we can develop a program which at least provides the potential for emerged complexity – then we can rely on the mathematical properties of natural selection to actually derive and generate the complexity for us… because we simply are not intelligent enough to design and develop consciousness on our own – only via natural selection, and a great deal of processing as well as memory capabilities. In other words… we only have to be smart enough to be able to create the basic conditions for consciousness – and then natural selection may be able to do the hard work for us… provided we have enough processing power.

    I think that if you could somehow divorce yourself from your senses – such as by a sensory-deprivation tank, or meditation, you can begin to subjectively analyze consciousness (albiet – with the etreme bias I mentioned earlier…). Our senses – particularly sight – seem to contribute an overwhelming sense of “self” – and yet, we know and understand most of our senses by their chemical and mechanical, PHYSICAL counter-parts. Once you remove all of these, and try to focus on the parts of consciousness that seem to “exist” independently of our senses, then at least in my experience – consciousness begins to look less and less mysterious. To me, it is simply evident as a processing unit, with multiple threads, and an eclectic set of input devices. Maybe it’s the programmer in me that causes me to think this way… but I just don’t see how anyone can think there is anything so “special” about consciousness, that couldn’t be understood as emergent physical processes.

    I think all this “noumenal” philosophizing is simply a red herring, and is a narcissistic attempt to assign a uniqueness to the human experience, where there is none.

    On a tangent… I might also add that I believe all of physical reality itself emerges solely from the complexity that is an inherent property of fundamental relations… and that to find the roots of all this complex emergent potentiality that is reality… we need look no further than Fibonacci. IF reality can be said to “exist” as a direct consequence of abstract mathematical constructs, then we no more need to explain the existence of reality than we need to explain why PI exists, or the fact that 1+1=2. But this is my own personal philosophy… and is really not based on a scientific rationale… just a desire to have an answer for everything :)

  129. #129 Jo5ef
    July 7, 2007

    Brayton suggests above that discrimination against athiests can’t be compared to that against gays, as one is a matter of choice and the other is hardwired. However homosexuality may be considered a lifestyle choice at least, and the scientific case for a genetic inheritance of same is by no means complete. Add to this recent studies indicating that faith may have a genetic basis and the distinction appears dubious to me.
    (for the record i dont support discrimination against homosexuals, regardless of the root cause)

  130. #130 J. J. Ramsey
    July 7, 2007

    Conrad Goehausen: “In studies of cognitive dissonance, it is clear that the tension created between what people want to believe, and what is true, is magnified by contradictory evidence, which is releived by strengthening one’s beliefs. Hence, evangelicals, when confronted with evidence that their creationist, anti-evolutionary beliefs are false, respond by intensifying those beliefs, rather than abandoning them. But this can only go so far. At some point, the internal tension becomes unbearable, and the whole system collapses. The benefit of people like Hitchens and Dawkins is precisely that they are not letting up, they are pressing the point further and further, increasing the tension, so that it reaches an unbearable limit, leading to the collapse of reified mythical Christianity.”

    The problem is that Dawkins and Hitchens aren’t that good at ratcheting up the cognitive dissonance. From afar, they look like stereotypical arrogant atheists, which feeds into evangelical beliefs rather than running against them. Up close, Dawkins at least provides enough vulnerabilities that he can be taken down by a good apologist. For example, it would be trivial to use his non-argument argument against the Trinity in TGD to give the (not entirely untrue) impression that Dawkins’ case against God is based on rhetoric rather than reason. If Hitchens really did throw in the anti-Semitic canard about Jews having sex through a sheet in his book, that would indicate that he is similarly vulnerable. Dawkins’ saving grace is that in short bursts, he tends to focus on the more reasonable parts of his message–but that limits him to short bursts. Dawkins and Hitchens are just not that hard for an evangelical to dismiss, and that limits the cognitive dissonance that they can make.

    We need the public face of atheism to break stereotypes, not feed them.

  131. #131 Leni
    July 7, 2007

    Alan B wrote:

    The problem is when you say that “religion” is the problem rather than dogmatism and bigotry.

    Some of us do believe that religion is the problem, or at least a very big part of the problem. So it isn’t how we say that, it’s that we say it at all.

    See, it’s taboo to criticize religion. Instead, we’re supposed to point fingers at the religious people we can all agree are wackos without ever appraising their actual beliefs. Because, presumably, belief has no effect on behavior and dogmatism is nothing more than a moral failing; the result of an obvious character flaw. It’s definitely not, you know, something encouraged by (and in some cases demanded) the religion.

  132. #132 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    But as others here have rightly pointed out, it CAN’T be convincingly counterargued.

    Pseudoscience Avenger:

    Pull the other leg.

  133. #133 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    The system that science seeks to explain is called ‘reality’. Unsurprisingly, science isn’t particularly useful in generating explanations for unreal things.

    Empiricism seeks to explain the physical universe, Caleduncian. It cannot apprehend God or Mathematics because it is inadequate to the task.

  134. #134 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    To a philosopher, the existence of deities is obviously not a scientific question, except to the extent that it rules out certain kinds of deity.

    Yes, the existing kind.

    In which alternate reality does that hold, Caleduncian? The one where Spock has a goatee?

  135. #135 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    …[C]ould you please stop saying that Dawkins calls all religious people stupid and deluded? I know, you read the title and think you have it all figured out, but to be fair to Dawkins, his book is more then 3 words long, and the actual substance of the book has many nuances that your simplistic take on it don’t [sic] pick up…

    As is conveyed by Dawkins’ frequent use of “faith-heads.”

  136. #136 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 7, 2007

    Robert-

    Please post one longer comment instead of several shorter comments. It’s irritating to see several consecutive comments from one person over in the “Recent Comments” bar.

    And as far as I know Dawkins used the term “faith-head” precisely once, and he was plainly not referring to all religious people when he did so. He was referring to the extremists who refuse to even consider his arguments.

  137. #137 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    Our challenge now is to prevent theists from causing the fall of the American Empire, the way they did to the Romans.

    That is false. I suggest you read some books on the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. (Or, more appropriately, have them read to you.)

  138. #138 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    Robert-

    Please post one longer comment instead of several shorter comments. It’s irritating to see several consecutive comments from one person over in the “Recent Comments” bar.

    Jason:

    As you wish.

  139. #139 Caledonian
    July 7, 2007

    One of the problems here is that “moderate” theists want to appear reasonable, but don’t want to let go of their unreasonable comfort blanket of faith. Reason rules out transcendent deities, and skepticism rules out the possible but unsupported-by-evidence remainder.

    If they continue to treat faith as untouchable, protecting their own cherished beliefs in the process, they will also be unable to attack other people’s beliefs that are shielded by their faith. They have to make a choice – and we have to hammer them until they make it.

  140. #140 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    Reason rules out transcendent deities…

    Not in this universe.

  141. #141 SmellyTerror
    July 7, 2007

    From Graham, about a thousand years ago:

    My bit: a rock does not believe god exists. Does it hold a philosophical position? No. Its lack of belief does not require reason.

    Graham’s bit: A rock does not care/know either way. It makes no claim to truth.

    …but that, right there, is my point. Lack-of-belief requires no decision, no reason, no cognition at all. Lack-of-beleif is the default position.

    You presently have a lack-of-belief in any number of number of things. You don’t-yet-believe in things you’ve never heard of, or thought of. You do not begin to believe a thing until you have a reason to do so.

    So let’s get beyond the rock, and get to the point where a thing is suggested to you. At what point do you have sufficient reason to begin believing? Is just being made aware of a possibility enough to convince you?

    Try this: I am, in fact, God, and you only go to heaven if, every morning from now on, you say “I am a naughty chicken, for I have not laid an egg”. (That goes for the rest of you, too!)

    Right, you now have a proposition before you. You cannot disprove it – God could write a blog comment if he wanted to, and cover his tracks. But do you believe it? Of course not! I haven’t given you sufficient cause to believe it. But do you see that you don’t actually need a reason to not-believe it, beyond it’s insufficiency to convince you?

    Is that dogma? Of course not. Until a good enough reason is given to make you start believing something, you don’t. Simple. There is a chance that god exists, as most atheiests would agree, but until sufficient reason comes along to make us believe, we will continue to not. It’s not a decision, it’s a lack of a decision.

  142. #142 J. J. Ramsey
    July 7, 2007

    Jason Rosenhouse: “And as far as I know Dawkins used the term ‘faith-head’ precisely once, and he was plainly not referring to all religious people when he did so. He was referring to the extremists who refuse to even consider his arguments.”

    This is how he used “faith-head” in TGD:

    “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature … But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.”

    This looks more a reference to the bulk of adherents of mainstream religions, which would have been around for centuries and had an opportunity to refine methods for that long, rather than members of extremist movements that come and go. At best, Dawkins is ambiguous.

  143. #143 Caledonian
    July 7, 2007

    Reason rules out transcendent deities…

    Not in this universe.

    Precisely. They’re not in this universe.

  144. #144 Leni
    July 7, 2007

    JJ Ramsey wrote:

    This looks more a reference to the bulk of adherents of mainstream religions, which would have been around for centuries and had an opportunity to refine methods for that long, rather than members of extremist movements that come and go.

    The sort of religion that has been around for the bulk of history (at least in our culture) is exactly the sort of religion that would look extremist today. Martin Luther’s horrendous screeds against Jews? Not exactly the paragon of moderation. (And this was supposed to be an improvement!)

    Witch-burning, Crusades, The Inquisition? Again, not exactly the sort of things we’d call “moderate” today.

    In any case, right after Dawkins says that, he contrasts these “dyed -in-the-wool, impervious to reason” types with the more liberal people who, for whatever reason, aren’t as far gone as the people he’s deemed “faith-heads”. I’m sorry but Jason is right- it it abundantly clear that Dawkins is referring to the more severe species of believer. If you want to argue that is the “bulk” then go right ahead.

    I am really, really getting tired of these feeble and asinine attempts to paint Dawkins as some big meanie. Even if he is a meanie- is he wrong? I guess we’ll never know, since hardly anyone seems to respond to what the man actually says.

    If Dawkins came out and said his favorite dessert was peach pie, someone out there (probably JJ) would argue that “peaches” was really a thinly veiled euphemism for Christian babies. Such that the phrase “peach pie”, when steeped in the rhetoric of violence, becomes understandably misinterpreted by the simple yet well-meaning folk of the Christian majority as “imprison Christians and cannibalize their babies.”

    I am just so tired of hearing these idiotic, melodramatic, deliberate misinterpretations of Dawkins being trotted out, day after day, by the same few people. For the sole purpose of making it appear as if the reason for criticizing religion is really just meanness and bigotry. Wholly undeserved by the Christian majority who, despite being angels of tolerance and decency, could never actually bring themselves to vote for an atheist.

    Bull. Shit.

  145. #145 Tyler DiPietro
    July 7, 2007

    “If Dawkins came out and said his favorite dessert was peach pie, someone out there (probably JJ) would argue that “peaches” was really a thinly veiled euphemism for Christian babies.”

    Instant. Classic.

    These are the kinds of quotes that make me wish we could make .sig files or something similar for our posts on SciBlogs.

  146. #146 DuWayne
    July 7, 2007

    JJ Ramsey -

    I think you’re way off base with that one. While I am occasionally critical of the things that Dawkins says, his comment about “faith-heads” is dead on. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s criticizing anyone unjustly here. If people do in fact, allow dogmatic faith to counter facts, when they are slapped in the face with them, then, yes, they deserve some disdain.

    The simple fact is, that many mainstream religionists, are exactly what Dawkins is describing. There are plenty of them in my own church. I run into them every day. People who think that a reasonable response to anything factual, that runs contrary to what the bible has to say, respond with absolute conviction; “that’s not what the bible says.” They don’t feel the need to qualify it, to support it with anything else, including direct observation. If it is contrary to “the word of God” then it is automatically wrong. I daresay, if that includes the majority of religionists in this country, then the majority of religionists deserve that descriptive.

    I do not see that particular comment as all inclusive. While Dawkins has no quams about attacking all religion and superstition, he does recognize and make distinctions. He does in fact, distinguish between belief such as mine and belief that is dogmatically focused. That he would like to see even belief such as mine, disappear, it is of little consequence to me. I have my disagreements with him, but in many regards, we share a lot of similar goals.

    When he starts supporting real anti-religious legislation or actually starts eating the babies of religionist families he’s killed off, I’ll take issue with him. Until then, I’ll have a fond appreciation for reading his writing. Unlike some religionists, I not only enjoy having my faith challenged, I think it’s incredibly healthy. It has certainly been an all important aspect of my personal development.

    Leni -

    I’ll second Tyler, that is a great line.

  147. #147 J. J. Ramsey
    July 7, 2007

    Leni: “The sort of religion that has been around for the bulk of history (at least in our culture) is exactly the sort of religion that would look extremist today. … [conclusion about what Dawkins meant] … If you want to argue that is the “bulk” then go right ahead.”

    By your “logic,” someone who is a member of an organization that long ago had a checkered and bloody history but long since left the blatant ugliness behind would still be an extremist.

    Leni: “I am just so tired of hearing these idiotic, melodramatic, deliberate misinterpretations of Dawkins being trotted out, day after day, by the same few people. For the sole purpose of making it appear as if the reason for criticizing religion is really just meanness and bigotry.”

    Right, so when Orac argues that Dawkins’ Chamberlain analogy is a veiled argumentum ad Naziium, he’s only doing it because he wants to say that “the reason for criticizing religion is really just meanness and bigotry”? Please. Indeed, much of the criticism of Dawkins has come from atheists and agnostics who find that he just gets sloppy.

  148. #148 J. J. Ramsey
    July 7, 2007

    DuWayne: “The simple fact is, that many mainstream religionists, are exactly what Dawkins is describing. There are plenty of them in my own church. I run into them every day.”

    I suspect that these people are better described as resistant than totally immune to argument. Most people have a lot of inertia to changing long-held beliefs, especially ones that are integral to their identities. Also, calling such people “extremists” is misleading, which would make Jason Rosenhouse’s interpretation (but not your own) of Dawkins’ statement wrong.

    DuWayne: “Until then, I’ll have a fond appreciation for reading his writing. Unlike some religionists, I not only enjoy having my faith challenged, I think it’s incredibly healthy”

    Well, I’m not a religionist, and I come at Dawkins from the perspective of someone whose path out of faith was partly blocked because of other atheists’ bad arguments.

    DuWayne: “Leni – I’ll second Tyler, that is a great line.”

    But where is the evidence for it? There is a huge difference between agreeing with Orac on the Chamberlain analogy, and making up an interpretation of “peaches” out of thin air.

  149. #149 Robert O'Brien
    July 7, 2007

    Precisely. They’re not in this universe.

    Apparently, reading comprehension is not a requirement of your program.

  150. #150 Leni
    July 7, 2007

    JJ wrote:

    But where is the evidence for it?

    You are the evidence for it.

    Peaches didn’t come out of thin air. It came out of watching you assholes.

  151. #151 J. J. Ramsey
    July 7, 2007

    Leni: “You are the evidence for it. Peaches didn’t come out of thin air. It came out of watching you assholes.”

    Argument by insult works as well for you, Leni, as it does for Robert O’Brien.

  152. #152 Leni
    July 7, 2007

    Hmm.

    At least as well as argument by crapola worked for you, JJ.

  153. #153 DuWayne
    July 8, 2007

    JJ Ramsey -

    I suspect that these people are better described as resistant than totally immune to argument.

    I wish they were. Many of them are my very close friends, hell, my mother os one of them. Many of the ones that I know are wonderful people for the most part. But yes, they are entirely immune to arguments based on facts and evidence. If something contradicts the bible, specifically their interpretation of the bible, it doesn’t matter how much evidence you put in front of them, they will not accept it.

    Also, calling such people “extremists” is misleading, which would make Jason Rosenhouse’s interpretation (but not your own) of Dawkins’ statement wrong.

    I am not sure that I wouldn’t call them extremists, they are certainly fundamentalists. That they wouldn’t go out and commit acts of terrorism, or even picket gay pride events, screaming at the homosexuals, that they are going to burn in hell, doesn’t mean that they being open minded. It simply means that they interpret the bible considerably differently than the folks that do. That their interpretation of the bible lends itself to them being more loving and kind (which most of the ones that I spend any time with are), doesn’t make them any less extreme in their absolute acceptance of it.

    Well, I’m not a religionist, and I come at Dawkins from the perspective of someone whose path out of faith was partly blocked because of other atheists’ bad arguments.

    This is a place where we will fundamentally differ. My goal is not to see everyone in the world, reject their religious or spiritual beliefs. What I want to see, is for religionists to leave secular society to it’s own devices, rather than feeling compelled to force their dogma on everyone with the force of law. While I don’t think Dawkins is particularly effective at converting religionists to atheism, he definately is effective at helping people who are on the fringes, accept that religion may not be necessary.

    Short of that, he writes the sort of material that, if not rejected outright, can have an affect on people like myself. Ed (who is my brother) had a pretty strong effect on me, after his rejection of faith. At the time, he was a complete and utter asshole about it. I was alternately terrified that he was going to burn in hell, to hoping it would happen sooner than later. Ultimately, it had the effect of making me think, after time soothed some of the hard feelings that developed. I am not trying to say it was all him. I think the most profound impact came from Joseph Campbell and Carl Sagan, but always floating around the back of my head, was my brother’s rejection of faith and where it came from.

    I would suspect, that while your own conversion was “partly blocked” by similar attitudes, they were nonetheless tossing around in the back of your mind. The human mind is rather funny that way. Whether we want them to or not, whether we consciously accept them or not, ideas tend to hang out and nag at us. Especially when we are getting other influences that support the notions that are rolling around in there.

    But where is the evidence for it? There is a huge difference between agreeing with Orac on the Chamberlain analogy, and making up an interpretation of “peaches” out of thin air.

    Actually, I wasn’t even thinking of it in conjunction with you. I probably should have been clear that I really don’t think it applied that reasonably to you. It does however apply quite nicely to a few people I have come across, not the least being one who goes by Raging Bee.

    Too, I should be clear, that I don’t agree with a lot of things Dawkins says. Nor do I think that all of his statements are all that reasonable. What I like about him, is that he is uber challenging, while always being (seemingly) genuinely gracious. I like Daniel Dennett even more for the same reasons, as well as his seeming quite like many of the loving, compassionate Christians I know, in his desire to bring people “out of the darkness” of their faith. As well as being a person of faith, I am also a strong secular humanist, one who believes that belief in God is not a prerequisite to living ideals of loving compassion. Dennett seems to exemplify that.

    I should add, that by what I’ve read of your comments on various blogs, I would guess that you do to.

  154. #154 J. J. Ramsey
    July 8, 2007

    DuWayne: “I would suspect, that while your own conversion was ‘partly blocked’ by similar attitudes, they were nonetheless tossing around in the back of your mind.”

    Probably, but if I look at the influences that come to mind on my road to “unfaith,” the Ship-of-Fools and Robin Lane Fox’s book The Unauthorized Version are the biggies. Ship-of-Fools was helpful because, although it is nominally a Christian forum, it has a healthy minority of atheists and agnostics, and generally, they don’t act like they’ve been in the zienite mines too long. Robin Lane Fox’s book was a breath of fresh air because it tried and largely succeeded in playing fair, even as it pulled no punches. Indeed, the Shipmates considered it a good book for just that reason. Fogelin’s defense of Hume’s treatment of miracles was also really helpful. This stuff was in sharp contrast to the question-begging arguments against miracles, contorted Biblical interpretation, and kludgy and often pseudohistorical Jesus-myther arguments that I’ve seen from the more usual suspects like the Secular Web. It’s very frustrating when the people who supposedly are standing up for rationality do such a poor job at exemplifying it.

  155. #155 Caledonian
    July 8, 2007

    Yes, yes, you’ve told us about your obsession with the miraculous many times.

    Pity that a person who so frequently claims to be upholding rationality can’t understand why science is unexcited by the concept of ‘miracle’.

  156. #156 J. J. Ramsey
    July 8, 2007

    Caledonian: “Pity that a person who so frequently claims to be upholding rationality can’t understand why science is unexcited by the concept of ‘miracle’.”

    I understand well enough, thankyouverymuch. As I pointed out:

    If miracles were real, one might expect that they be distributed more randomly, or perhaps be more concentrated in places that are more devout, regardless of the level of communication and education of an area. For them to be as they are, stories from a friend of a friend that are just out of reach of scrutiny, is suspicious.

    But hey, if you want to do your usual gambit of playing semantic legerdemain with the words “natural” and “supernatural,” be my guest.

  157. #157 Caledonian
    July 8, 2007

    Let me know when you find an example of an observable phenomenon science recognizes as ‘supernatural’.

    While we’re waiting for that to happen, we might want to return to the original topic: whether or not trying to avoid cultural conflict with religious believers is helpful to the promulgation of science.

  158. #158 J. J. Ramsey
    July 8, 2007

    Caledonian: “Let me know when you find an example of an observable phenomenon science recognizes as ‘supernatural’.”

    Considering that you must have read the paragraph that indicates that I do not believe that miracles have actually happened, I presume that you must be asking me for a hypothetical example of an observable phenomenon. I suggest that you go look at attempts to win James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge for such examples. Alternately, you may want to lurk on the JREF forum thread “Is the supernatural unobservable by definition?” I will leave it at that.

    Caledonian: “While we’re waiting for that to happen, we might want to return to the original topic: whether or not trying to avoid cultural conflict with religious believers is helpful to the promulgation of science.”

    Good idea.

    I’d say that it is largely a risk vs. reward problem. If you could actually get most people in the U.S. to drop their theistic beliefs, then that would largely solve the problem of creationism, blocking stem-cell research, and so on. However, that is a much more difficult task than getting the religious to just give up a subset of their beliefs–itself no small task–and has a higher risk of backfiring. There is also the matter that treating evolution and atheism as a package deal is not even entirely accurate.

  159. #159 DuWayne
    July 8, 2007

    J.J. Ramsey -

    There is also the matter that treating evolution and atheism as a package deal is not even entirely accurate.

    There you hit on the crux of one of the most serious problems, though not just involving evolution. And this is where I think that we run into the most serious error that I think many atheist writers make and where they perpetuate the worse cultural conflict. There are plenty of religious leaders out there, who proclaim loudly that not just evolution, but secular humanism as well, are atheistic propositions, incompatible with religious belief. That is hard enough to battle. When prominent atheists make the same claims, they are doing nothing but shoring up anti-scientific sentiment and anti-humanist sentiment.

    Not only that, but rather than trying to enlighten the “deluded,” they are trying to define, to box in the delusion. Rather than trying to perpetuate the notion that religion causes the problems (which in many cases it does, to be sure), it makes far more sense to focus on the problems being reinforced by religion. While it may not drive everyone, or even very many, from religion, it will be far more effective at solving the problems. Too, for some it will in fact drive them from religion, or at the least, more dogmatically oriented faith.

  160. #160 Caledonian
    July 8, 2007

    There is also the matter that treating evolution and atheism as a package deal is not even entirely accurate.

    “Not entirely accurate”? No, that’s completely wrong. It’s the scientific method of inquiry that requires atheism – evolution is merely a finding of science.

  161. #161 DuWayne
    July 8, 2007

    Caledonian -

    It’s the scientific method of inquiry that requires atheism…

    Shit, I get it now. Of course your right. All those loony theists that claim to be scientists, are just pretending really. You know, I think you should really extend that to people who use science too, because their methods would be just as suspect as the theist playing scientist.

    Damn, that means every bit of engineering that I’ve put into construction projects, which depends heavily on physics principles. You know, I think pretty well everything us bloody theists do should be suspect. The enlightened ones, should really just double check everything that theists produce, to make sure that any scientific principles involved, haven’t been contaminated by fuzzy thinking.

  162. #162 Robert O'Brien
    July 8, 2007

    Caledonian is a wannabe scientist. I believe he is studying philosophy of science or some other such fluff.

  163. #163 Duae Quartunciae
    July 9, 2007

    I’m coming late to this; sorry. I was struck by a comment from Jason himself, on July 2, 11:13pm:

    Your experiences apparently differ from mine. The people I know who are hostile to atheism do not base their views on a disgust with Richard Dawkins. But granting for the moment that Christians such as you describe exist, the ones who might have been receptive to a different viewpoint but were pushed away because mean old Richard Dawkins wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to their religion, I would appreciate some acknowledgment of the fact that this reflects very badly on them. You are effectively saying that these are folks who can not reasonably be expected to assess novel ideas and arguments, but instead get hung up on personalities.

    This strikes me as odd. Ed has been, I think, pretty clear that hostility to atheism is not founded on disgust with Richard Dawkins, but on the bigotry of the individuals themselves. The problem with aggressive rhetoric is that it gets picked up and cited by people who are already committed to rejecting atheism, and used by them as a way to make rhetorical hay against atheism with other folks who may not have heard much about Dawkins (or whoever is selected) at all. We do this too, by the way, and rightly so. We look for particularly bad quotes from creationists, without feeling at all constrained to select only from their “substantive” arguments. We use also words showing their intolerance. And then we use those in descriptions of those creationists for others.

    Aggressive rhetoric would be okay if there was some payoff; Ed’s claim is that there is not. Here is my Duae Quartunciae on the matter:

    First, it actually does not really reflect all that badly on people to be put off by the aggressive rhetoric. By Ed’s model, we are speaking of people who know effectively nothing about Dawkins, and get their first introduction to him from another Christian. Let “A” be the Christian, already opposed to atheism, who latches gleefully onto the aggressive comments and uses them to discredit Dawkins. Let “B” be the Christian, reading “A”s blog, as their first introduction to Dawkins. The limited information “B” has available puts them off.

    I don’t go and look up all the writings of every person I see being criticised in print. I also take up a initial tentative impression from second hand reviews, and then perhaps judge whether I want to look further. This is pragmatic. I don’t think it is reasonable to be critical of “B”, who forms a critical initial impression by reading “A”s blog. And I don’t think it is reasonable to be critical of “A” for writing a blog in which he chooses to highlight particular aspects of Dawkins writing that he find best for making his point. Best we can do is look and learn, and avoid giving free ammunition to our own critics.

    Second, I don’t actually think Dawkins is really that bad at all. I think he is painted much worse than he really is. Every time I have read his books, or seen him speak, he strikes me as very much a proper English gentleman, hard hitting but not aggressive. There are a couple of slip ups, but mostly he’s admirably polite even while been disdainful. I’m what Dawkins might call a “Neville Chamberlain” atheist; but I still admire Dawkins’ basic style, and think his reputation as an ogre is absurd. PZ is a better example of someone who needs to take more caution; and recently, I think he has.

    Third, I think Ed is incorrect to say there is no payoff in being aggressive. It does help make you newsworthy and give you prominence. In the case of “B”, above… at least he hears that Dawkins exists; while I remain a nonentity. That’s a plus.

    My suggestion… as someone who has been actively engaged for some years in continuous friendly debate and discussion with Christians and creationists. Forget about trying to disparage Dawkins for being too aggressive, or me for being too mild. That kind of infighting is destructive. Focus on the positives of your own approach; and take advantage of any positives in the approach of others. Dawkins is great for me. He makes atheism topical; this is a lever I can use.

    My major experience is in discussion at the Theology Web forum. The example of a friendly atheist, up close, is every bit as impressive for the fence sitters as an angry one. The Christians who interact with me DO see that atheism is open and proud and yet friendly and not out to eat their babies. The aggressive remarks of Dawkins and others absolutely does have a negative impression on the general crowd who are not going to study him in detail, and absolutely does give effective leverage to those who are out to attack atheism. Ed’s perfectly correct about that, as far as I can see from my long term engagement on the Christian discussion forums. But what is BY FAR the best counter is not to attack Dawkins, but to simply demonstrate yourself a diversity of approach. USE Dawkins’ visiblity to make atheism more visible; he is great at that. And if you disagree with Dawkins aggressive style, then use your own friendly style to show that atheists are as diverse as any other large group.

    In my estimation — not backed up by any study — the positive effects of someone engaging firmly but friendly is plenty to counter any negative effects of aggression from others. It establishes that people are different, and that atheism does not imply either congeniality or aggression; merely disbelief in God, which can be considered on its own merits, or left aside if you want to talk about books or girls or politics.

    Just my — Duae Quartunciae

  164. #164 Caledonian
    July 9, 2007

    All those loony theists that claim to be scientists, are just pretending really.

    This was intended to be facetious, but it’s essentially accurate.

    You talk about engineering you’ve put into practice on various projects. Very well – surely you had stringent and high standards for the designs you made and structures you built, because it’s very important to get it right.

    Why do you suddenly abandon those standards when dealing with a subject that’s even more important?

  165. #165 Conradg
    July 9, 2007

    BrianMc,

    Thanks for your lengthy reply to my question about how you see consciousness. Sorry I haven’t been able to reply sooner. Family things, and I thought you deserved something substantial.

    For me, the question of consciousness is the point I step away from atheism. Literally, when I was about 13, having been an atheist pretty much my whole life up to that point, I thought I should more seriously consider the question of God. I read the Bible, and a few other things, and none of it seemed terribly convincing except on a moral level. So I simply sat down and figured that if there was a God, it ought to be readily apparent. So I considered what I actually knew, and the first and only thing I realized that I knew was that I was conscious, I was aware. So I considered my own awareness, my own consciousness, and shortly thereafter, it’s hard to explain how, it became simply obvious to me that consciousness was primary, that I was consciousness, I always had been, always would be, and that everything else was a function of consciousness. I knew that I could never die as consciousness, never be anything else, because consciousness was the “set of all sets”, you could say mathematically (I take it that’s your background), and that set can never be anything other than what it is.

    Okay, this doesn’t sound very impressive coming from a thirteen year old, but that was pretty much the stepping off point. I began to read religion, and took lots of strange tangents there, but it always comes back to this same centrality of consciousness. I have come to see all of religious experience as simply a modification or interpretation of the more expansive qualities and functions of consciousness, and the highest religious experience and understanding is that of knowing consciousness directly as oneself, free of all conditional impositions and interpretations. The spiritual paths I am most drawn to, therefore, are those of modern Advaita Vedanta, such as are found in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, who advocates an approach of total non-belief, and instead simply enquiring of oneself “Who am I?”. The kinds of issues I addressed in our last exchange are peripheral matters of speculation, but not central to this matter of consciousness.

    Now, in your reply, you stated:

    I simply see consciousness as a process, or a function, which executes within the bounds of physics, just like any other so-called “mechanical” process – albeit, with much more complexity than we can presently comprehend.

    I want to clarify what I mean by “consciousness” first, because I think we are using different referents. When you talk about the mechanical process and function of consciousness, I believe you are talking about the body, the brain, the senses, the nervous system, etc., and how these determine our awarenss of the world around us, and even of ourselves. I have no quarrel at all with considering these as mechanical systems that can be fairly well comprehended by scientific methods. Maybe not perfectly, but good enough to feel we have a grasp on how they work.

    However, when I speak of consciousness, I am speaking of our essential awareness itself, not merely through the body, brain, sense, and nervous system, but of of even these. In other words, I am speaking of our own undeniable feeling of being alive, of being conscious, of being the observer of everything in and around us. This primal awareness cannot adequately be explained by the body/brain, because even the body and brain are contained within our awareness of them. We can only verify that we have bodies and brains through the very awareness that is supposedly being generated by the body and brain. Thus, any “proof” that consciousness is derived from body and brain requires an a priori consciousness that can make observations of the functioning of the body and brain, and determine that it is derived from them, which is a complete logical and empirical contradiction. If consciousness is a priori to the body and and brain, it cannot be derived from them.

    Another way of looking at this is to see the body/brain as a Turing Machine. I’m sure you know that the definition of a Turing Machine is a machine that, if we didn’t know it was a machine, could pass as a living human being by every possible testing program. In other words, a machine that we would assume was simply an unconscious machine mimicking the behavior of a conscious, living human being. Let’s presume for the sake of argument that such a machine has been built (and I think ones will be within at least the next century). Now, would such a machine be “conscious”, by which I mean, exhibit the kind of living self-awareness we experience in every moment? Since this machines is a mere “robot”, why one earth should we presume it to be consciously self-aware? What process in its programming and construct would create such a thing as self-awareness? I don’t merely mean the capacity to take in sensory data of all kinds, process it, and respond accordingly in every sensible way. I mean creating this self-numinous awareness that we have of ourselves and our bodies. Not only would there be no reason to presume such an awareness in the robot, but it would serve no purpose whatsoever.

    Now, the same is true of our own body-brain. Evolution has no mechanical need for this intrinsic self-awareness we have. Of course it has a need for the functions of the sense and the processing of that information in the brain, but all those mechanical processes do not require conscious self-awareness as we experience it. It’s mechanically meaningless, and yet universally the case in every human being, and probably in every living thing. And who knows, maybe all things are conscious in some way, since it can’t be traced to an actual mechanical process.

    Now, maybe you are right that consciousness-awareness can be reduced to mechanical processes. You kind of wanted to ask me what it would take for me to accept atheism, and this is what it gets down to. Science operates by direct observation. The problem is, how can any scientist observe his own observation of anything?Where is observation itself rooted? How can consciousness itself be directly observed? We can observe the brain and the body, and even observe how the brain regulates bodily awareness, but how can we actually observe that awareness? Well, we can’t. We can observe electricity and break it down to it’s constituent particles and forces, electrons and protons and the laws of electro-magnetism and quantum mechanics, but we can’t do the same thing with consciousness. “Consciousness Studies” is a misnomer. Scientists do not study consciousness, they only study the body and brain and senses. They have yet to actual observe consciousness. And really, how could they? How can they get past the solipsistic tautology that the objectivity of science imposes upon any consideration of consciousness?

    I find that most philosophizing about consciousness, from the anti-reductionist camp, tries to squeeze it into a black box – a singularity, which permits no further analysis.

    Except that this “black box singularity” is the most obvious and primary feature of our very existence! One can’t call it a “black box” if it is the primal awareness we have in every moment of every day. Even in deep sleep it is there without objects or disturbance. So this isn’t a question of philosophy, it’s a question of who we actually are right now, in this and every moment of experience. That is a question that needs to be answered, and bypassing it can’t be laid aside forever.

    But I think that consciousness can indeed be iteratively broken down into simpler and simpler functions – and eventually to physical processes which are quite well understood – such as electromagnetic forces.

    The functions of the body/brain can be broken down iteratively, but how can consciousness itself be thus broken down. Right now, we are observing everything. Where is that “place” of awareness? Is it in the head? Or is the head inside it? If you study this honestly, I think you will see that everything we experience is occurring inside consciousness, and not the other way around. Thus, even the physical, mechanical processes of the body and brain are in reality “conscious processes”, and the laws of science are simply laws of “material consciousness”. This makes science itself a subset of consciousness, rather than the other way around.

    I believe that the “specialness” of consciousness, which is apparent to us, is a red herring of subjective philosophy. I don’t think it is really so special at all.

    Noted. But is this the result of actually directly investigating your own experience of consciousness, or is it merely the result a materialistic viewpoint. The problem with the materialistic viewpoint of consciousness is that consciousness is always in the subject position. We are always in the subject position, observing material objects. So the materialistic interpretation of consciousness really boils down to identifying consciousness, which is the subject, with its own objects, which clearly cannot be the case. To observe anything, the observer must be separate from the object being observed. This is a basic principle of both science and ordinary experience. One must “stand back” to make an observation. Where does one stand when one does so? At some distance from the object being observed. So consciousness cannot be anything that it observes. If it observes it, it must be separate from that which it observes. And since it can observe the body, the brain, and the entire physical world, even its own thoughts, it must be separate from them.

    Epiphenomenalists, for example, seem to regard consciousness as existing as a first-rate object – something which has a collection of properties and inherent functionality which can be said to “exist” at any given moment in time, or even independent of time – as a platonistic ideal – existing independently of any physical counterparts.

    This is why I am not an epiphenomenalist. They consider consciousness to be an object. I consider this contrary to all of our experience, which is that consciousness is the subject of experience, and is never an object of experience. Its independence of all physical identity is a function of its being the subject of physical experience. Consciousness can identify with physical objects, as we identify with our own bodies, but it can never actually become them.

    …just as you can say that your physical body only exists within a certain range of points in the spatial dimensions, you can say the same of consciousness within the dimension of time as well… There was a time, before your consciousness emerged – and there will be a time in the future at which point your consciousness will cease to exist – as the organization of matter and energy that make up your brain disintegrates and evaporates as so much entropy.

    This is of course speculation. Consciousness has not itself been observed scientifically, so science cannot say much of anything about it per se, or predict its life or death. Personally, I think my brain and body will die and turn to goo, but my consciousness will not, and cannot. It is as indestructible as mass-energy. It will simply no longer identify with this particular body-brain. It will identify with something else instead. God knows what or who.

    I think the best way to learn more about human consciousness, is to try to reverse-engineer the brain – but I believe our current methods are crude, at best. Before we can learn a much more about the minute details of consciousness, I think we first need to develop devices which can both capture and process information globally within the brain, and at least at the level of individual neurons.

    I think this is an interesting project. Kurzweil’s ideas have validity. But I feel pretty confident that this will not answer the question of consciousness, but only make its solipsisms more evident.

    By using our subjective experience to analyze consciousness, we are having a horribly biased starting-point. I also don’t think it is presently worthwhile to try to analyze consciousness holistically – since I believe we are simply not capable of dealing with the complexity.

    I’m not sure specifically what you mean here.

    I think that if you could somehow divorce yourself from your senses – such as by a sensory-deprivation tank, or meditation, you can begin to subjectively analyze consciousness (albiet – with the etreme bias I mentioned earlier…). /

    It’s not necessary to divorce ourselves form our senses. We are already not our senses. We are observing our senses, our thoughts, our bodily sensations, our every moment of experience. We are already in the position of the subject, and we are never in the position of any object. So divorce is both unnecessary and futile. Our connection to experience is through observation, and nothing else. By which I mean “feeling”.

    Our senses – particularly sight – seem to contribute an overwhelming sense of “self” – and yet, we know and understand most of our senses by their chemical and mechanical, PHYSICAL counter-parts. Once you remove all of these, and try to focus on the parts of consciousness that seem to “exist” independently of our senses, then at least in my experience – consciousness begins to look less and less mysterious.

    I agree that the senses and the body altogether contribute a strong sense of self, without which we would be “lost”, so to speak. But this is the illusion that the body creates for us, the illusion of being a “self” as the body, which is like identifying with a character in a movie we are watching. When the movie comes to an end, we lose that “self”, and have to get another self, pop another movie in the VCR and watch something new. All this until we actually begin to examine the process of our own identity, and see what we have been up to, and begin to identify not with the objects of our awareness, but with awareness itself, consciousness itself. That’s how we begin to know ourselves as we actually are. Religion is actually a simple process of gradually learning to do that, despite what some seem to think and advocate.

    I think all this “noumenal” philosophizing is simply a red herring, and is a narcissistic attempt to assign a uniqueness to the human experience, where there is none.

    Fine, then disprove it. Examine your own noumena without philosophical interpretation. Examine yourself, in other words. I don’t think that is narcissism. Narcissism is identifying with a self-image, rather than with what we truly are. Identifying with the body is what narcissism is about. The body is just a self-image, not who we truly are. We are consciousness, after all, however you want to understand that.

    On a tangent… I might also add that I believe all of physical reality itself emerges solely from the complexity that is an inherent property of fundamental relations… and that to find the roots of all this complex emergent potentiality that is reality… we need look no further than Fibonacci. IF reality can be said to “exist” as a direct consequence of abstract mathematical constructs, then we no more need to explain the existence of reality than we need to explain why PI exists, or the fact that 1+1=2. But this is my own personal philosophy… and is really not based on a scientific rationale… just a desire to have an answer for everything :)

    The existence of mathematics has always fascinated me, even the mere fact that numbers themselves do not exist in nature, but only in the mind, and yet nature seems to obey mathematical laws. It suggests that nature is itself a phenomena of the mind.

    Good chatting with you.

  166. #166 DuWayne
    July 9, 2007

    Caledonian -

    This was intended to be facetious, but it’s essentially accurate.

    So nothing that scientists, who happen to be theists do, can be trusted, or even considered legitimate science? Seriously?

    I have a friend who is both a theist and a chemical engineer. Before leaving the field of chemistry, for better money in online system security, he worked for a company, developing binary compound polymers. Previous to that, while in grad school, he headed a research team that was attempting to genetically modify certain enzymes to break down the toxicity of certain synthetic polymers. Are you seriously going to try to claim that he isn’t (or wasn’t) a scientist?

    Why do you suddenly abandon those standards when dealing with a subject that’s even more important?

    I don’t. Though I would question how much more important my faith is, than ensuring the safety and viability of structures that I have constructed, I am a bad example of theism all around. But in discussing the thinking that led me to believe as I do, my situation is a valid example.

    Far above, in this thread, Science Avenger made a very interesting point. His atheism is a natural product of his life experience and thinking. I.e. he can’t help but accept that there is no God, there is no soul. Likewise, my experience in life and my critical examination of what I believe and why I believe, have led me to where I am today.

    I have had a lot of experiences that cannot be explained, other than to attribute them to either a level of coincidence that I just can’t accept, or some sort of divine, or extra-physical intervention. While I have rejected any sort of revealed religion and accept that the “divine” agency that caused those experiences, may well be myself, many theists who don’t, including my chemist friend, follow a very similar path to their beliefs.

    Whether the theories we come up with are right or wrong, they are the result of accepting evidence based in our life experience. The theory may be wrong. For other people, similar experiences may lead them to very different theories. Without a subjective method to test the theories we have come up with to explain those experiences, we accept our theories, until such methods are available to us. Or until someone or we ourselves, find other evidence to support a different theory. To be sure, my own beliefs are dramatically different now, than they were when I was a child, or even from what they were just a few years ago. They have evolved and changed as I have grown, changed and been exposed to more information.

    While many theists end up static, or their beliefs end up static, many others never do. I would think this is especially true of theists who are scientists. People who as a rule, are constantly looking to disprove the status quo, to further examine the natural world and it’s function, tend to be the sort of people who do the same thing in their personal lives. Not just in the realms of faith, but in every aspect of their lives. From interpersonal relationships to childrearing to personal tastes on food and entertainment. They want to constantly test, examine and reexamine, to make sure that they are right. I daresay that most of them do the same with their faith, if they have faith, for whatever reason.

  167. #167 Leni
    July 9, 2007

    Duae Quartunciae said:

    Second, I don’t actually think Dawkins is really that bad at all. I think he is painted much worse than he really is.

    Well, that’s part of the reason why I get so irritable about it.

    Here we have a guy who is so often lied about by cretinous morons, and we’re supposed to blame him for giving ammunition to the very same lying cretinous morons? I just… I have a problem with that. And as Jason pointed out, it’s as if we don’t expect anything more from *some* people. But I do! I expect them to be honest, dammit!

    It isn’t that I don’t think there are valid criticisms of Dawkins’ positions- I do. But these are too often not criticisms of his position but of his perceived tone (notice I didn’t say “actual” tone).

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t let that slide, especially when I see it repeated day in and day out in a fever pitch of downright masturbatory persecution complex hysteria. Sometimes coupled with positively idiotic freak outs about how the atheists (presumably under the evil influence of our dark overlord Professor Dawkins) are preparing to haul Christians off to the death camps.

    And for all the complaints about Dawkins I see, the magnitude of the response is rarely commensurate with the offense. (Of course they aren’t all that bad, I was just having some fun- but you get the idea..)

    That said, I did mostly appreciate your post. As one of those stereotypically “angry” atheists, you have my permission to use me as “bad cop”.

  168. #168 Conradg
    July 9, 2007

    J.J. Ramsey wrote:

    The problem is that Dawkins and Hitchens aren’t that good at ratcheting up the cognitive dissonance. From afar, they look like stereotypical arrogant atheists, which feeds into evangelical beliefs rather than running against them. Up close, Dawkins at least provides enough vulnerabilities that he can be taken down by a good apologist.

    I agree that there are problems with Hitchens and Dawkins. Their arguments have weaknesses, and betray a lack of appreciation for more sophisticated religious minds. But that does not mean their aggressive stance is wrong, it merely means they need to be more clear-headed about it. They also need to be a little less ambitious, in imagining that they can destroy all of religion with a few well-crafted arguments. I would suggest that they simply try to destroy a few key pillars in the religious mind, and let the rest fall of its own weight. By attacking the whole ediface, they weaken their case, whereas if they simply attack what is easily attacked, they can make greater inroads.

    This is where Sam Harris goes wrong in attacking all religious moderates as, essentially, enablers of the fundamentalists. It’s not that he offends people who might be sympathetic to part of his cause, it’s that he needs to force religious moderates to retreat from positions that are untenable, by leaving some aspects of religion free from assault. By attacking everything about religion, he leaves no place for moderates to retreat to. He misses the point that it’s important to put these people on the run, into retreat mode, whereas if you corner them and give them no place to go, they will stand and fight you to the death.

    Once these people are on the run, it’s important to keep up the pressure, but never go all out – always give them a place to retreat to, a place where they feel safe, even if in the next go around even that is taken away. Eventually they have to give up what simply does not make sense or work. But they can’t be asked to give up everything in one fell swoop.

    We need the public face of atheism to break stereotypes, not feed them.

    I’m not so concerned about the stereotypes. Being aggressive is not a bad strategy at all. It gains respect if nothing else. And in this media age, it gains attention as well. Being nice and reasonable and quiet will get you a review in some obscure journal for the hopelessly out of touch. Going on the attack gets headlines and TV time. Hitchens knows this quite well, and is doing a good job on that end. He just goes overboard on his attacks, as does Sam Harris. I read his debate with Andrew Sullivan, and I thought he won hands down, but the reason it didn’t go anywhere is that he gave Andrew nowhere to go but total and complete capitulation, and that’s not going to fly with anyone with any self-respect. It only reinforced Andrew’s liberal form of Catholicism.

    It’s not as if religious moderates have shown an unwillingness to retreat when the evidence forces them to. That’s how they became moderates in the first place. Many if not most of them accept science and evolution, etc. They simply haven’t looked closely enough at the facts to see how many specific tenets they hold are actually untenable. But let’s also be honest, not all of religious is untenable, and to pretend it is, is to overreach on both the philosophical and scientific evidence. This has to be acknowledged as well, and it helps to do so, because it gives religious people a safe haven to retreat to.

  169. #169 BrianMc
    July 9, 2007

    Hey Conrad,

    I am now even more certain that I know exactly where you’re coming from – but in my earlier comments, I actually WAS addressing what you just now described… and I was not missing your point, even though it may have seemed that I was.

    It is EXACTLY this “intrinsic self-awareness” ITSELF that I am arguing is existing as a physical process.

    I’m arguing that “the thing that does the thinking” is NOT separate from its environment – but is merely an evolving sub-process within the environment – and is completely subsidiary to it.

    I’m asking you to consider that your feeling of “being the observer of everything in and around us” is actually just a physical process, which has been programmed by your environment, and which is executing on the hardware that is your brain.

    There is no duality or solipsism necessary! It is simply a matter of re-defining the terms, so that they are all consistent with one another.

    I don’t know how else to say it… but I’m just asking you to consider the possibility that this elusive ‘thing’ you think you have, which seems so non-physical, is actually just a trick your mind plays on you, to get you to think of yourself as a cohesive being… think of it as an evolved mechanism for self-preservation… by creating a rift between the “self” and the rest of the environment – which only makes it seem as though you are somehow distinct from everything else – even though you are not. Just consider this…

    So what I’m arguing is that the apparent “self-awareness” is really juts a process that emerges from physical events over time. Consciousness would simply be a high-level emergent property of the matter itself. And yes – you could even, theoretically, quite literally “observe” your own consciousness without any of the paradoxes you allude to – because doing so would simply be like a software program processing its own code – which, as we know, is very possible, and even quite reasonable in some cases. And this “observation” would of course be subject to physical limits – such as relatively. But even more-so, it would be limited by our information processing ability. Since our “self-awareness” would emerge as an extremely complex interplay of physical events – we would no doubt be functionally incapable of actually “seeing” our thoughts – since our brains would not be powerful enough to compute this information in real-time. Indeed – it could even take us YEARS to comprehend the information that is input and processed during a simple thought. This topic is a complex one… but could probably be concretely understood in the context of information theory – at least as far as defining the limits of our ability to self-reflect and understand our own physical processes.

    —————–

    On the subject of evolution, and consciousness… you try to argue that evolution would have no need for “self-awareness” – but alongside my argument that consciousness and “self-awareness” are actually PROCESSES – it is my argument that consciousness has EVOLVED alongside all of our other mental faculties, and is inextricable from them. You sound as though you advocate the “p-zombie” hypothesis – that an alternate universe could exist which is identical to ours, in every way – but without consciousness (fyi – I believe this is an epiphenomenalist conjecture). I’m trying to suggest that this is IMPOSSIBLE – that consciousness DOES play a very functional role in our physical universe – and that any part you may regard as “non-functional” simply does not exist! I’m arguing that this aspect of consciousness which you claim to be “self-aware” is a vital aspect of our physical existence, and that without it, we would not function in the same manner – but moreover, that the “self-awareness” itself is merely the firing of neurons within a certain pattern, so that you feel as though you are somehow separate from the thing you are observing… even though you aren’t!

    Imagine a hierarchy of processes – all executing asynchronously with one another… some processes could include those such as visual cortex processing… others may be processing touch stimuli – and then there are other physical processes which are layered ON TOP of these processes – and these other higher-level processes actually process the information that is being synthesized in the lower-level processes – such as generating 3-dimension abstractions from our visual cortex – or by bringing up memories of past experiences in an attempt to guess what object is brushing up against our neck…

    NEXT – I’m arguing that “self-awareness” (aka consciousness), is another HIGH-LEVEL process, which uses in the information gathered in lower-level mental processes, and thereby synthesizes a further abstract universe inside our brains, which is intended to reflect complex relationships in the physical world.

    I’m saying that WITHOUT SELF-AWARENES, we could not function the way we do – because we would be missing a critical element of our mental abilities, which allow us to behave in such incredibly complex manners.

    And besides this physical processing of information – I am arguing that there is simply NOTHING beyond this processing which exists – and that any apparent existence of something beyond this processing, is actually manufactured by our brain itself! So indeed – our brain could be manufacturing these inflated self-perceptions, such as “self-awareness” as a non-physical property… and that this very feature of our mental abilities has evolved via natural selection, as the best way to cope with the complex situations that our civilizations have exposed us to.

    Where was your consciousness before you were born? Do you remember anything that happened before you even 6 months old? Do you think your consciousness will persist after you die? What evidence do you have for this?

    All our evidence shows that our consciousness is ancillary to our physical senses… and our physical senses have been shown to be just that – physical. You cannot CHOOSE to separate yourself from your senses – and your continuous processing through your senses moulds the very fabric of your mind.

    I’m asking you to consider that your abstract notion of “self-awareness” is not independent of all these things. If you had ALL of your senses taken away – what would you then be? Would you just be a dialog inside your brain?

    What if I took a human child from birth, and kept them in a sensory-deprivation tank all of their life – keeping them alive on life support – and then took them out when they were 18 yrs old. Do you think they would still have “self-awareness”? Even if they did… how could you ever know this? Since the person would be a complete vegetable… unable to communicate or emote in anyway…

    Anyways… thank you so much for your comments – I really do enjoy reading them… I just love to talk about this kind of stuff.

    PS… if you ever want to talk some time, feel free to e-mail me… my e-mail addr is the word “rava” and followed by “jungle”, and the domain is h0tmai1,c0m

    Feel free to reply to me… but I’m going to refrain from further replying on this posting… since I don’t want to even FURTHER hi-jack Jason’s topic.

  170. #170 Caledonian
    July 10, 2007

    So nothing that scientists, who happen to be theists do, can be trusted, or even considered legitimate science? Seriously?

    Would you trust the work of a scientist who had demonstrably committed fraud?

    What about ‘scientists’ who believe that crop circles are caused by alien visitations?

  171. #171 Conradg
    July 10, 2007

    BrainMc,

    Thanks for clarifying your views. I do think the conjectures you are presenting are serious ones, and I have taken them seriously over the years. However, I think even you will have to admit that they are conjectures, and not much supported by either scientific evidence or empirical reasoning. In other words, this “intrinsic awareness” that we both agree we somehow possess, cannot itself be scientifically detected, and therefore it cannot actually be scientifically studied, nor can scientific conclusions be made about it. Yet, at least. Maybe some day scientists will indeed find some way to detect or measure “intrinsic awareness”, but at present this is merely a magical thought.

    As I said, if there were some kind of force or particle that could be found to be the “content” of conscious awareness, that was itself an actual physical process, then you would of course be proven right. Your conjecture that intrinsic conscious awareness is the product of a physical process implies that awareness itself is a physical process, and thus it should be physically detectable and measurable in and of itself, and not merely indirectly through subjective inferences. If it is not detectable, then what is it? You end up in the curious position of implying that a physical process in the brain can create an undetectable physical process – which is really the same for all intents and purposes as a magical, supernatural belief in a God-like being no one can ever actually see or verify – the very position that atheism rejects.

    So your notion that consciousness is a physical phenomena is just that – a notion. It has no scientific basis as yet. It takes what we know about science and turns it into theology for all intents and purposes, which I don’t think is what an atheist should be doing. As a notion I think it is a respectable notion to some extent, but that’s as far as it goes. And it does indeed fall prey to the solipsisms I have pointed out. Yes, those solipsisms would collapse if you could prove your case, but without such proof, you can’t rely on such a collapse. And there’s nothing in brain-mind research which actually suggests that such a materialistic explanation exists.

    The reason I said that there is no evolutionary explanation for intrinsic awarensss is that there is none. You have not provided any. All evolutionary process that can be selected for, can be perfectly functional without any intrinsic awareness existing. The notion of a “p-zombie” universe is useful as a rhetorical tool – there is nothing such a world would lack, functionally and evolutionarily speaking, that a purely materialistic world in which intrinsic awareness existed as a purely material event would possess. So there is no demonstrable “advantage” of intrinsic awareness.

    Nor is there any reason to presume that physical processes would create “intrinsic awareness”, except if we posit some magical process occurring in organic chemistry that somehow just magically pops out this sense of “intrinsic awareness”. The notion that awareness is a by-product of such chemical reactions bypasses the question of what such awareness actually is, and how this could possibly occur. Again, just because the brain processes a great deal of information does not mean that it automatically becomes intrinsically self-aware. What magical process produces such self-awareness, and why? Will computers which pass some threshold of processing power suddenly become conscious? Why should we presume such a thing?

    So no, I can’t see the merits of this approach. The simpler explanation is the best, and the simplest explanation is that consciousness comes first and primary, and everything else comes as a modification of consciousness, not the other way around. I agree with you that the apparent duality of mind and objects is an illusion, but it is not a dualism that is resolved by seeing consciousness as a purely physical event. It is resolved by seeing the physical world as a conscious event. That is how we naturally see the world, is it not? I mean, when we “see” the world, it appears to us in our minds, does it not? All our sensory “proof” of the world’s existence is processed in our mind, and that is the only place in which we “see” it. So how do we know it is “out there” except by resorting to the mind? Well, we can’t. All we can actually know is our own minds and their content. Sensory experience creates a solipsism all its own that again reverts to the primary position of conscious awareness. So even the proposition that consciousness is a material event only reverts back to the very consciousness that is aware of material events in the mind itself, which is the only place we can actually observe them. We cannot observe material events and processes apart from the subjective mind in which they are sensed and processed.

    So any way you analyze it, you come back to intrinsic self-awareness residing at the core of our experience, even of material events. You haven’t actually said anything which contradicts this. Even your conjecture of consciousness as a material process doesn’t evade the fact that the material world appears within the mind, and cannot be shown to exist independently of the mind, as an actual “outside”, objective event. So basically, consciousness is King.

    Now, as for such conjectures as life after death, I do have a number of personal experiences which suggest to me the reality of this. And scientifically speaking, there’s quite a lot of literature on reincarnation that is highly suggestive of the same. It’s literature that the scientific community pretty much just ignores, not because it is lacking in rigor, but because it can’t be studied in a laboratory or “proven” objectively, or given the kind of physical explanation that science is able to provide. But it’s out there if you are interested in it.

    Anyway, I enjoy this too, but I agree that we are going off-topic for this thread. If you would like to continue, just email me at conradg@gmail.com.

    Thanks for listening.

  172. #172 John Farrell
    July 10, 2007

    Good questions. In the first case (trusting a scientist who had committed fraud), I would say no. The second case, however, I think is more complicated. Kepler, for example, practiced astrology, and Newton applied numerology (if I recall correctly) to the Old Testament to attain secret knowledge. Both of these I consider whacko.

    Here’s a more recent case: Tom Van Flandern, an astronomer with a PhD from Yale, believes there’s a face on Mars created by aliens. But… what makes me distrust anything else he offers is that he has made demonstrably fraudulent claims about Einstein and general relativity. So he’s category one.

    On the other hand, the late Petr Beckmann, also believed Einstein was wrong, constructed a strange electrodynamic alternative featuring a sort of ghost field to explain the constancy of the velocity of light and maintain absolute space; but was otherwise an impeccable professor of electrical engineering (and wrote a Brief History of Pi).

  173. #173 John Farrell
    July 10, 2007

    Sorry–I should have said I was referring at the outset to Caledonia’s questions.

  174. #174 DuWayne
    July 10, 2007

    Caledonian -

    Would you trust the work of a scientist who had demonstrably committed fraud?

    No. I generally don’t trust anyone who has committed fraud, though I don’t believe that people are static, so it is possible that someone who has committed fraud could earn my trust.

    What about ‘scientists’ who believe that crop circles are caused by alien visitations?

    As long as they weren’t trying to claim that said belief is science, I don’t see why not.

    But that does not answer my question. My friend the polymer researcher, never, not once committed fraud. He did however, while maintaining theistic belief, manage to produce very good research. Research that was entirely legitimate science. When he was in grad school, neither the professor overseeing the project he was on, nor any of the people on his team, questioned his ability to do good science. Presumably his subsequent employer also trusted his ability to produce good scientific research.

    So, please explain how you can justify claiming that he is not a legitimate scientist, but only pretending to be?

  175. #175 Caledonian
    July 10, 2007

    As long as they weren’t trying to claim that said belief is science, I don’t see why not.

    How can you believe that a deity is real, and simultaneously believe the deity isn’t real?

  176. #176 DuWayne
    July 10, 2007

    Caledonian -

    What? You were asking about aliens making crop circles.

    If you want to transpose that to the spiritual, it’s not a matter of believing that the spiritual is not real. It’s understanding that their is no quantitative evidence to prove or disprove it. At the same time, accepting the evidence of one’s personal experience as enough to support the belief until such a time as such evidence becomes available.

    Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for you to explain why my aforementioned friend was really just pretending to be a scientist and why the work he did, really wasn’t science.

  177. #177 Another Jason
    July 10, 2007

    DuWayne,

    At the same time, accepting the evidence of one’s personal experience as enough to support the belief until such a time as such evidence becomes available.

    “Personal experience” meaning, of course, wishful thinking on your part.

    Reading your comments here and elswhere I’ve concluded that your “spirituality” is so abstract and vacuous that it amounts to nothing at all. You’re a typical example of wolly-headed liberal apologists for religion who more-or-less realize that religion is nonsense but who also, for reasons of emotion or nostalgia, can’t quite bring themselves to let go of it entirely, and the result is the kind of utterly vacuous “spirituality” you’re pushing.

  178. #178 DuWayne
    July 10, 2007

    Another Jason -

    Sorry, but you couldn’t be more completely full of shit, if you ate a barrel of apples.

    First, I am the last person to ever push any kind of spirituality, much less my own. I believe what I believe and I am quite happy with it.

    Second, just because it is rather abstract, does not mean that it is meaningless to me or nonsense. I believe in an interventionist God. I believe that said God has had a profound effect on my life. I just don’t believe that said God instigates any sort of revealed religion and believe it’s quite possible that said God is nothing more than myself.

    Nor am I an apologist for all religion. There is much in the realm of religious belief that I find absolutely reprehensible. I spend a good portion of my time speaking out against attitudes that I believe to be dangerous, religiously motivated or not. I fight hard with religious people who believe that they have a right to restrict the rights of others, in the name of their faith. I also fight hard against people who use religion as an excuse to weaken education, especially in the realms of science and sex ed.

    Where I do get an attitude, is when people want to lump all religious people together and speak out against them as though they all believe the same thing and have the same attitudes. This is moronic and shortsighted. While there are certainly assertions that can be made, that apply to all religious, spiritual and superstitious notions, there are many more that do not. Trying to lump all of us together, against every claim that can be made against this, or that religious sentiment, is dismissive of a lot of good people and good allies in a variety of struggles.

    Lastly, right or wrong, real or false, religion is anything but nonsense. To dismiss it as such, is to cede all ground in the fight against religious extremism. Indeed, to lump it all into a neat little package, is to cede ground to religious extremists. So have at it. Meanwhile, I’ll be fighting dominionism, ignorance and bigotry.

  179. #179 David D.G.
    July 10, 2007

    I believe in an interventionist God. … I just don’t believe that said God instigates any sort of revealed religion and believe it’s quite possible that said God is nothing more than myself.

    DuWayne,

    I have no intention of getting into a major confrontation with you (or anyone else) on the issue here, but I would like to know how you reconcile the two sentences quoted above. The two sentiments seem mutually exclusive. Can you clarify, please, how you entertain them both simultaneously?

    ~David D.G.

  180. #180 Another Jason
    July 10, 2007

    David D.G.

    It’s quite simple. He believes in an interventionist God that doesn’t intervene. And that is also himself. Or something. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s……religion.

  181. #181 DuWayne
    July 10, 2007

    David D.G. -

    Certainly. First, I do not believe in revealed religion. Put simply, I seriously doubt that any sort of higher power (God) would feel the need to tell one particular species (a very young one at that) how to live their lives.

    I also believe in a God that intervenes in my life. I.e. a God that affects me and my environment, in a non-physical fashion. In a way that cannot be quantified by tools we currently have available to us.

    Finally, I also believe in duality, that we are both physical and spiritual beings. In effect, I believe in the divinity of man, indeed of all creatures. Thus I accept that that which I perceive as actions of God, may well be the actions of my spiritual self.

    This is really where I presume that people perceive my beliefs to “amount to nothing at all.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I just make no claims to have pinned down God. That doesn’t make my experience any less meaningful than that of most theists, it just means that I don’t claim to know or define God. To me it is just as likely that my perception of God, is me, as it is that God is an entirely external agency. Indeed, I accept that God may be nothing more than an advanced alien race, ala Arthur C. Clarke’s space odyssey.

    Anyhow, if you want any further clarification, I would ask you click on my name and e-mail me. I really enjoy commenting here and would prefer not to piss Jason off any further, by going so far afield. That is, if I haven’t already.

  182. #182 Another Jason
    July 10, 2007

    DuWayne,

    I don’t think you “all believe the same thing and have the same attitudes.” But when it comes to religious moderates, I’m with Sam Harris. You’re enablers and helpers of the fanatics, even though you claim not to be. When you encourage people to believe that they are justified in holding strong beliefs about truth and morals on the basis of religious faith, revelation, sacred writings, experiences attributed to encounters with God, and other such nonsense, you cannot deny responsibility when they do just that….and manifest those beliefs through acts like hijacking planes and flying them into buildings.

  183. #183 J. J. Ramsey
    July 10, 2007

    Conradg: “I’m not so concerned about the stereotypes. Being aggressive is not a bad strategy at all.”

    But it’s not the aggressiveness that is the stereotype, but the arrogance, and that is not the same thing. Arrogance goes hand-in-hand with sloppiness. Aggressiveness doesn’t.

  184. #184 DuWayne
    July 10, 2007

    Another Jason -

    Of course your right. It is my fault that people do insane things in the name of religious faith. From shooting doctors who perform abortions, to suicide bombings, I am responsible. It doesn’t matter how strongly I fight people like that, how voraciously I fight against dominionism and religious violence, it’s all my fault.

    Yay, you win!

  185. #185 Another Jason
    July 10, 2007

    No, DuWayne, not “all” your fault, but partly your fault. As long as you encourage people to believe they are having “divine encounters” or that they can learn the Will of God by reading ancient books (or in any other way) you’re part of the problem. You’re an enabler. If you think liberal Christians are justified in believing that God wants them to love gay people or feed the hungry or whatever else it might be, you’re not in a position to criticize men like the 9/11 hijackers for believing that God wants them to kill the infidels.

  186. #186 Conradg
    July 12, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey:

    But it’s not the aggressiveness that is the stereotype, but the arrogance, and that is not the same thing. Arrogance goes hand-in-hand with sloppiness. Aggressiveness doesn’t.

    Yes, if by arrogance you mean thick-headed intolerance, I’d agree. Unfortunately, that stereotype happens to be a true representation of a significant portion of the athiest community, as this very forum demonstrates. So I’m not sure stereotype is the right word. Guys like Hitchens and Dawkins definitely due represent a certain constituency among athiests, and I think you just have to accept that and make the best of it, rather than try to hide such people behind a kinder, gentler facade. I suppose one could compare him to the raging queens who helped push gay rights out into public view a few decades ago. They may have offended many mainstream people, but they at least got people talking about gay rights. Other voices need to emerge, but that doesn’t mean the more visibly extreme representatives of atheism don’t do a valuable service to the general movement.

    In general, most of the points Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris stress are valid ones. If they present their ideas sloppily and aggressively, even intolerantly, that is a shame, but at least they are pushing an agenda rather than fading into the woodwork as most athiests do.

  187. #187 Robert O'Brien
    July 12, 2007

    I don’t think you “all believe the same thing and have the same attitudes.” But when it comes to religious moderates, I’m with Sam Harris. You’re enablers and helpers of the fanatics, even though you claim not to be. When you encourage people to believe that they are justified in holding strong beliefs about truth and morals on the basis of religious faith, revelation, sacred writings, experiences attributed to encounters with God, and other such nonsense, you cannot deny responsibility when they do just that….and manifest those beliefs through acts like hijacking planes and flying them into buildings.

    Non sequitur award.

  188. #188 J. J. Ramsey
    July 12, 2007

    Conradg: “Unfortunately, that stereotype happens to be a true representation of a significant portion of the athiest community, as this very forum demonstrates. So I’m not sure stereotype is the right word.”

    It’s a stereotype because arrogance is often presumed to be a trait of atheists in general. As with most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth.

    Conradg: “I suppose one could compare him to the raging queens who helped push gay rights out into public view a few decades ago.”

    The problem with this analogy is that there is nothing wrong with being a raging queen, but there is definitely something wrong with being arrogant and having sloppy arguments.

  189. #189 DuWayne
    July 12, 2007

    Conradg (and J.J. Ramsey)-

    Unfortunately, that stereotype happens to be a true representation of a significant portion of the athiest community, as this very forum demonstrates. So I’m not sure stereotype is the right word.

    I think that this is just as presumptuous as saying that fundamentalist religionists, who support a dominionist agenda, or promote religious violence are a true representation of a significant portion of the religious community.

    While it may be true that a number of religionists fall into those two categories, it is also true that for some, that is a stereotype they wish to paint all or most religionists with. So I think that stereotype is an appropriate word in both situations.

    But this indeed leads to a decent analogy, that J.J. Ramsey might find more acceptable. One need simply look at the last few years in the U.S. to see the effectiveness of sloppy arguments and arrogance, when perpetuated by dominionists. (Though I think that the analogy using the raging queens is apt, it is not necessary that the arguments be entirely accurate, to be effective. While the analogy may be imperfect for that reason, doesn’t make it entirely off.)

    I do think that my analogy is more apt for another reason. We are discussing nothing less than a war of ideas. While there are many more than two positions to take, only two get the major media play; The dominionists on one side, atheists such as Hitchens and Harris on the other. Everyone else, including theists who accept science and evolution, religious moderates and accomadationist atheists, are lucky to get a human interest story on page twelve. Does this mean that these positions are any less relevant or realistic? Certainly not, indeed I imagine that most people fall into these positions. However, it is obvious that for pushing ideas into the limelight, the Hitchens and Harris rhetoric, is more effective than the rhetoric of Tyson or Ed Brayton.

    While I wish it wasn’t so, that is the reality of mass media. Conflict and controversy sells. Non-extreme rhetoric just doesn’t make it into the news. Be they religionists or atheists, it’s the extremists that get the coverage. Coming back to the raging queen analogy, were it not for them, most every gay person would still be in the closet. Likewise, were it not for your normal, average gay people, people who aren’t your stereotypical queers, most of my friends would still be in the closet. It took both people to catapult gay rights into the limelight to bring more gays out of the closet. It also took those gays that were brought out, those gays who are your neighbors, co-workers and friends, to foment acceptance of GLTs and equality.

  190. #190 Conradg
    July 12, 2007

    DuWayne:

    I think that this is just as presumptuous as saying that fundamentalist religionists, who support a dominionist agenda, or promote religious violence are a true representation of a significant portion of the religious community.

    But religious fundamentalists are a significant portion of the religious community. Hitchens and Dawkins are right about that. And they are also right that even the moderate religious stance tends to legitimize the fundamentalists, though not perhaps their most extreme views and actions.

    While it may be true that a number of religionists fall into those two categories, it is also true that for some, that is a stereotype they wish to paint all or most religionists with. So I think that stereotype is an appropriate word in both situations.

    Yes, you are right that it becomes a stereotype when all religious people are painted with one brush. But Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris specifically make a distinction between moderates and fundamentalists. They simply criticize both. Now, it’s also true that religious people tend to paint all atheists with the same brush, and if they use Hitchens and Dawkins’ faults to dismiss the whole of the atheist argument, then they are only betraying the very tendencies that Hitchens and Dawkins have pointed out.

    Now, one can certainly argue against religion without resorting to stereotypes, and one can argue against atheism in the same way. But one can’t argue that the stereotypes aren’t based on a genuine sampling from each group, and represent internal problems within each.

    I think that the analogy using the raging queens is apt, it is not necessary that the arguments be entirely accurate, to be effective. While the analogy may be imperfect for that reason, doesn’t make it entirely off.

    Let me point out problems in my own analogy. It works in making the point that exhibitionism and aggressive self-promotion has its place in getting an issue out in the open that has been ignored for too long. But while Hitchens and Dawkins are indeed exhibitionists, they are not outrageous and extreme, I think. They are not perfect geniuses either, but they are not the direct equivalent of raging queens. They are intelligent, thoughtful, and oding something more than merely promoting themselves and their right to express themselves in an unconventional manner. They have an agenda that hardly anyone in the gay movement ever endorsed. They do not merely want to make atheism respectable, they want to stigmatize and make religion itself disrespectable. Even raging queens didn’t want to make heterosexuality disrespectable, only its homophobic pathologies. Whereas Hitchens and Dawkins are basically arguing that religion itself is for the most part a pathology, and atheism is not only the cure, but the healthy state of nature that humans should both respect and aspire to.

    This is a different agenda than the moderate atheist who merely wants to get along with religious people, are at least not be bothered by them or discriminated against. And while I don’t agree entirely with it, being a religious person myself, I agree with at least 90% of their criticism of religion in general, and even specifically.

    As stated before, I think they fall short of the mark by failing to see that it is not religion per se that is false and pathological, but it is certain ways of thinking and acting that are. It’s just that this pathological way of thinking has a powerful and safe home in religion, and always has. But religion is not the only home for such thinking. Almost anything can support pathological ways of thinking and acting, including atheism itself. I think they should sharpen their aim, and try to take away the safety net that religion provides for human pathologies. But they should also take aim at other systematic sanctuaries for pathology. They have to some degree, equating even communism and fascism with secularized forms of religion, but they tend to point to religion itself as the source of these pathologies, rather than merely as a victim of them.

    ANd that’s the more serious problem. There are pathological, viral forms of thinking and acting that use religion as a host, and bend religion to pathological ends quite easily. This does indeed suggest a weakness in religion’s immmune system that needs to be addressed. Rather than strengthening that immune system, Hitchens and Dawkins wish to destroy the host itself. But the host is not religion per se, it is the human mind. Take religion away, and the virus can mutate and manifest in secualar forms as well.

    I do think that my analogy is more apt for another reason. We are discussing nothing less than a war of ideas. While there are many more than two positions to take, only two get the major media play; The dominionists on one side, atheists such as Hitchens and Harris on the other. Everyone else, including theists who accept science and evolution, religious moderates and accomadationist atheists, are lucky to get a human interest story on page twelve.

    Yes, the media is simplistic, and likes to pit to warring camps of exhibitionists against one another. That basic dynamic can’t easily be changed. But at least Hitchens and Dawkins are taking the fight into the fundamentalists’ camp, rather than playing defense. I still think that is a good strategy overall.

    Coming back to the raging queen analogy, were it not for them, most every gay person would still be in the closet. Likewise, were it not for your normal, average gay people, people who aren’t your stereotypical queers, most of my friends would still be in the closet. It took both people to catapult gay rights into the limelight to bring more gays out of the closet.

    Yes, this is an important point. But the raging exhibitionist queens were essential to the gay rights movement, just as Dawkins and Hitchens are. Calmer, more nuanced voices need to emerge, but they still owe a great debt to these exhibitionists, just as the gay rights movement will always owe a debt to its raging queens.

    But you still have to remember that the agenda of some atheists, even many atheists, is not merely to stand on an equal footing with religion, but to bring religion to an end. This was Freud’s agenda, for example, and he’s probably been the most influential athiest in history – even if he ended up turning psychoanalysis into a quasi-religious movement of its own. If there is no God, how can one really accept religion as a legitimate approach to life? So atheism simply is not compatible with most forms of religion, except perhaps those that are not theistic in orientation.

  191. #191 Another Jason
    July 12, 2007

    I really don’t give a flying frack about forming political alliances with moderate Christians to battle the evil “fundamentalists” over evolution or gay rights or whatever else it might be. What I care about is standing up for the truth as I see it. That’s what really matters. As Dawkins says, evolution vs. creationism is just a skirmish or battle. The real war is between reason and faith, between naturalism and supernaturalism, between scientific thinking and magical thinking.

    Even if there is a God, nobody knows how he feels about anything or what he wants. The idea that the beliefs of religious moderates about the nature and will of God deserve any more respect than the beliefs of “fundamentalists,” including the beliefs of suicidal Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, is absurd. There’s no good religious faith vs. bad religious faith. It’s all bad. It’s all nonsense. That’s the basic truth that needs to be said, and I am extremely glad that people like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens are standing up and saying it, loudly and clearly.

  192. #192 DuWayne
    July 12, 2007

    Conradg -

    I can’t tell you how amusing I find the irony of you and I, both religious, are arguing in support of atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, against an atheist.

    As stated before, I think they fall short of the mark by failing to see that it is not religion per se that is false and pathological, but it is certain ways of thinking and acting that are. It’s just that this pathological way of thinking has a powerful and safe home in religion, and always has. But religion is not the only home for such thinking. Almost anything can support pathological ways of thinking and acting, including atheism itself. I think they should sharpen their aim, and try to take away the safety net that religion provides for human pathologies. But they should also take aim at other systematic sanctuaries for pathology. They have to some degree, equating even communism and fascism with secularized forms of religion, but they tend to point to religion itself as the source of these pathologies, rather than merely as a victim of them.

    This is the hardest point to get across to people. The reaction that I generally get, is claims that atheism isn’t dogmatic, the way that religions are. What people fail to grasp, is that it is all about power and ideology – to be clear, I mean secular power. In the not so distant past, in most parts of the world, religious power and secular power were so intertwined, as to be virtually indistinguishable. I think this is shown well today, the more religion and governance are shaken apart, the less dogmatic religion in general becomes over all. And what dogma is left, becomes more palatable, more acceptable. Not that dogma and dominionism aren’t alive and well in the 21 century, but they are certainly less of a power and less demeaning, than they were just 200 years ago, hell just 50 years ago.

    At the same time, there are still a lot of problems to be faced. It’s just that rather than being strictly religious in nature, they are expressed in other forms. Such as fascisitic nationalism and communist philosphies. In many parts of the world, including some of the most secular parts, repression still exists, though it expresses itself in different ways. Too, there is ample evidence of nations moving inexorably in oppressive directions, from seemingly altruistic beginnings. Venezuela is a perfect example of that.

    But you still have to remember that the agenda of some atheists, even many atheists, is not merely to stand on an equal footing with religion, but to bring religion to an end.

    Honestly, this concerns me more than a little, but only as it is applied through force of law. I have no more issues with atheists wishing for more “converts,” than I do with religious people who wish the same. Which is to say that I think there are healthy ways to go about it and there are very dangerous directions that proselytizing can go. When it is healthy, it is nothing more than believing that one’s beliefs are good and wishing for others to share in the joy or enlightenment they bring. Really nothing more than altruism. It is when repression of anything that is contrary to those beliefs is used, whether through violence or laws, that it becomes very dangerous and should be fought by all, regardless of creed.

    So atheism simply is not compatible with most forms of religion…

    Neither are most religions, compatible with other religions. Except perhaps those that are less dogmatic in orientation.

  193. #193 DuWayne
    July 12, 2007

    Another Jason -

    Thankfully, even the most anti-theistic people I know, accept people of faith as allies in the battles for gay rights, or more broadly, the battles against dominionism, bigotry and ignorance. Were it not for theistic allies, gays would still be repressed, there would be prayers in public schools, people of other races would still be oppressed in the worst way and creationism would still be taught in public schools, across the country. Oh, and atheists wouldn’t, even nominally, have the law to protect them from discrimination.

    Even PZ Myers, hardly a religious accommodationist, accepts alliances with delusional, unenlightened people, such as myself. Just as I, hardly one to support the elimination of religion, accept people like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, as allies in the political battles against dominionism, bigotry and ignorance. Most of us recognize that without fighting together and even working together, the dominionists, bigots and ignorant win the war and will repress the rights of everyone else. Considering that the dominionists and fundamentalists are, overall a minority, it would be really sad and absolutely ridiculous if they won the day. Indeed, it would be a sad end for human civilization.

    None of us are asking you not to stand for what you believe, to say it loud and proud. Indeed, I think every religionist that has been involved in this thread, has agreed that your voice is just as important as more accommodating voices. I would just ask you to consider that the political battles are also vital and that you cannot win them without us. Not that it really matters what you think about it. We will continue to fight, whether you approve or not, whether you want to work with us or not. Thankfully, that is not for you to decide.

  194. #194 Another Jason
    July 12, 2007

    DuWayne,

    Sure, like PZ I’ll “accept” your support for political causes we share. But also like PZ (and Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens), I’m not going to pretend that I think religious beliefs of any kind are reasonable or harmless or deserve respect, and I’m not going to stop criticizing religion in all its forms just because some adherents of religion happen to agree with me on other matters.

    But I know this will probably have no effect, and the next round of “Stop alienating your allies!” bitching from Ed Brayton and his ilk is just around the corner.

  195. #195 Caledonian
    July 13, 2007

    I’d love to learn why JJRamsey, who is so concerened about “sloppy arguments”, has said nothing about DuWayne’s recent comments.

  196. #196 DuWayne
    July 13, 2007

    Caledonian -

    Pick them apart yourself then.

  197. #197 J. J. Ramsey
    July 13, 2007

    Caledonian: “Pick them apart yourself then.”

    Presumably, he already has, since he claims that they are faulty. It is curious that he has provided no examples, though.

    I do have my doubts that Dawkins is as instrumental as the raging queens were, but I want to let my thoughts simmer a bit before further commenting.

  198. #198 Another Jason
    July 13, 2007

    Okay, here’s an example of DuWayne’s sloppy arguments:

    I have had a lot of experiences that cannot be explained, other than to attribute them to either a level of coincidence that I just can’t accept, or some sort of divine, or extra-physical intervention.

    There is abundant evidence from cognitive psychology that people are very bad at calculating probabilities, and are thus vulnerable to the belief that many ordinary events and circumstances are “too unlikely to just be a coincidence” when in fact the event is not improbable at all. This is a rather more plausible explanation of DuWayne’s “experiences” than that they were the result of some “extra-physical intervention” for which there is no evidence.

    But maybe I’m being too hard on DuWayne. Mostly, his posts amount to various ways of saying “Can’t we all just get along and agree to fight the fundamentalists together?” I am willing to do that, but not at the expense of denying that moderate religion helps to nurture and sustain fundamentalist religion, and is also part of the problem.

  199. #199 Caledonian
    July 14, 2007

    I’d also love to find out precisely what “extra-physical intervention” means, since the phrase isn’t meaningful in the scientific perspective.

  200. #200 Science Avenger
    July 14, 2007

    As an actuary, I’ll second Another Jason’s comment. Our instincts are very bad at probabilities, and consistently perceive low probability events to happen more often than they should. Our memory has a selection bias that causes us to remember hits, and forget misses. We also have an amazing capacity to revise our prediction in our heads to match reality. To test this, get into a habit of writing down the contents of your dream or whatever it is that is supposedly coincidental. Watch the effect dissapear.

    Bottom line: whatever your gut tells you the probablity of an event is, ther reality is higher.

  201. #201 DuWayne
    July 14, 2007

    Another Jason -

    Your response is rather sloppy in and of itself. It makes the assumption that I am unaware of this aspect of cognitive psychology. I am not. It also assumes that I have not sought alternative explanations for the experiences I am referring to. I most certainly have and in so doing, have a pretty good idea just how likely they are.

    Too, your response is rather sloppy, because it fails to address what I was responding to. If you had simply said that the response I made to Caledonian’s question, failed to explain clearly the rigor by which I have investigated and questioned my beliefs, you might have a point. That is not what you claimed. Quite honestly, the only way your explanation of my sloppy answer would make it a sloppy answer, is if I were attempting to respond to the question; “Why should I believe what you believe?”

    Finally, I am not asking you to deny anything that you believe to be true. Obviously you believe that any religion enables extremists. Not only do I not wish you would deny it, I sincerely and genuinely support your right (in the face of criticism from other atheists and non-theists). I should hope by now, that it is obvious that I believe it is not only your right, but important that you do so.

    Caledonian -

    I’m sorry, I don’t particularly feel that my spiritual beliefs are particularly scientific. Too, I am not a scientist, just someone with a profound fascination with a lot of science disciplines. Quite often I use phrases that have no meaning in from a science perspective. Finally, if you can’t figure out what I meant, both by context and the self explanatory nature of the phrase itself, you are far less intelligent than I have given you credit for.

    Science Avenger -

    Indeed that is true. Having a fair interest in cognitive function and psychology in general, I am well aware of how very easy it is for our instincts to be wrong. Thus, I have a profound mistrust of my gut instincts, as it were.

  202. #202 DuWayne
    July 14, 2007

    Oh, and Caledonian -

    I am still wondering how you can justify the notion that the friend I mentioned a while back, is, or was not a scientist, by mere virtue of being a theist. Been waiting a while for that one.

    Sloppy, selective responses from someone keen on pointing out my slop, oh wait, you didn’t point out any of my slop, just alleged that it exists.

  203. #203 Greg Byshenk
    July 14, 2007

    I am still wondering how you can justify the notion that the friend I mentioned a whi
    le back, is, or was not a scientist, by mere virtue of being a theist. Been waiting a while for that
    one.

    I would submit that what Caledonian wrote is at least arguably correct — but
    also that it does not entail what you seem to think it does. Note that Caledonian wrote

    It’s the scientific method of inquiry that requires atheism [...]

    …which is not equivalent to the claim that “to be a scientist requires that one be an
    atheist.”

    Indeed, there is nothing in principle that prevents one from being a theist and also
    practicing science. The point here is that one cannot engage in the practice of science
    (or “the scientific method of inquiry”, if you will) as a theist. The practice of
    science is based upon reasoning from the evidence, and testing one’s claims against the
    evidence, and not on appeals to the magical or “supernatural”. Thus, while one
    can be a theist and also a scientist, one must do so by “compartmentalizing” one’s theism
    and engaging in the practice of science atheistically — or in a manner that is equivalent
    to that of an atheist or as if one were an atheist.

    One can well believe (as does someone of my acquaintance) that genomics research is
    “uncovering the secrets of God’s creation”, but that belief can have no bearing on the
    practice of that research.

    But this is not restricted to the practice of science. Indeed (going a bit out on a
    limb), I would submit that such is equally true of all “reality-based” activities for
    almost all believers.

  204. #204 Caledonian
    July 14, 2007

    A person might put the methodoloy of science into practice in a limited field (say, biology) while simultaneously insisting that the Earth is both hollow (and filled with UFO-flying Greys), and carried on the back of a giant turtle.

    I don’t think such a person could be accurately called a scientist, or that we could say they were practicing science.

    No one of worth expects human beings to be rational without ceasing, or with complete consistency. But one cannot grossly violate rationality and continue to be called rational. In the same way, one cannot grossly violate the scientific method and be called scientific, or a scientist.

    Theism violates the scientific method; at present, depending upon which formulation we’re discussing, it either violates basic principles of logic, or is utterly unsupported by the evidence. One cannot be a theist and be said to practice science at the same time.

  205. #205 J. J. Ramsey
    July 14, 2007

    Another Jason: “Okay, here’s an example of DuWayne’s sloppy arguments: ‘I have had a lot of experiences that cannot be explained, other than to attribute them to either a level of coincidence that I just can’t accept, or some sort of divine, or extra-physical intervention.’”

    Which he then followed up shortly with “I … accept that the ‘divine’ agency that caused those experiences, may well be myself.” He’s already conceded that he may be wrong about his interpretation of his experiences, so what do I have to add?

    BTW, on what DuWayne said about extreme rhetoric: He is right that conflict and controversy sells, at least as far as it gets people to at least briefly pay attention. However, one does not have to demonize the opposition to make conflict. Indeed, demonizing often limits the effectiveness. Martin Luther King was extreme. So, however, was Robert Ingersoll, and though he has his place in the history of freethought, he is a footnote for most people. An even more, um, extreme case would be Ann Coulter. At some point, being more extreme has diminishing returns. I suspect that if an atheist came out who was uncompromising on the incorrectness of theism, uncompromising on facts and reason, and made clear that he/she did not believe the religious were stupid and deluded, such an atheist would become a “man bites dog” story pretty quick, and would still feed the conflict frame enough to get a hearing. A dose of self-deprecating humor would help, too. One of the frustrating things about Dawkins is that he almost accomplishes this, except that he does compromise on facts and reason and can’t quite avoid digs at believers. Maybe we need a mad scientist to create a composite of Dawkins, Hemant Mehta, and Julia Sweeney.

  206. #206 Greg Byshenk
    July 14, 2007

    Caledonian, in your example, I submit that the biologist is indeed
    practicing science when s/he is doing biology, regardless of any nutty beliefs s/he
    may have when not doing so. Indeed, if s/he is able to put those nutty beliefs aside
    when doing biology, s/he may be able to do fully adequate, or even exemplary, biology.
    And if s/he is able to do exemplary biology, then I can see no reason to suggest that
    s/he is not practicing science when doing so.

    Of course, when our biologist is not doing biology, then s/he may very well
    not be practicing science. But that is pretty much tautologically true, and no doubt
    applies to all scientists at various times.

  207. #207 Caledonian
    July 14, 2007

    A person who restricts the use of the scientific method to their professional endeavors, and abhors it in other conditions, is not practicing science. The method is not an arbitrary set of rules for an amusing pastime that we pick up and set down as we please. It describes the process for producing understanding of the nature of things. Those who eschew it are not seeking understanding – they seek something else.

  208. #208 David D.G.
    July 14, 2007

    Caledonian,

    A person might put the methodoloy of science into practice in a limited field (say, biology) while simultaneously insisting that the Earth is both hollow (and filled with UFO-flying Greys), and carried on the back of a giant turtle.

    I don’t think such a person could be accurately called a scientist, or that we could say they were practicing science.

    Sure he could. To what do you think the term mad scientist applies, if not this?

    ;^D

    Seriously, however, I would very much like to agree with the following:

    A person who restricts the use of the scientific method to their professional endeavors, and abhors it in other conditions, is not practicing science. The method is not an arbitrary set of rules for an amusing pastime that we pick up and set down as we please. It describes the process for producing understanding of the nature of things. Those who eschew it are not seeking understanding – they seek something else.

    However, something about it doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s that I keep seeing this as stating that no true scientist fails to wear a kilt under his lab coat.

    If there is another way to put this so that it doesn’t seem to be invoking fallacious reasoning, I’d very much like to agree that there should be at least a minimum threshold of generally applied rationality to which those who would be called “scientists” should be held. But I think that this may be expecting too much — unfortunately.

    ~David D.G.

  209. #209 DuWayne
    July 14, 2007

    Caledonian -

    Ok, so we’ll take two people working in science, one a theist, one who is not. They are both working together on the same project, doing the same research. What really defines the scientist in the pair, is not the work he is doing, it is his lack of theistic belief. While the person who is doing the exact same thing, but also happens to be a theist, is only pretending to be a scientist.

    Got it now. It’s not the education you recieve. It’s not the work you do. It’s not the peer reviewed papers you write. It is not the breakthroughs you are involved in. It is the lack of religious belief, that makes one a scientist.

    Makes perfect sense.

  210. #210 Another Jason
    July 14, 2007

    DuWayne,

    You may be aware of your vulnerability to the kind of cognitive problems I described, but to be aware of them is not to be immune to them. Without more information about your “experiences” we can’t reach any confident conclusions, but the cognitive error explanation is far more plausible than your “extra-physical intervention” one.

    Like Caledonian, I’m rather mystified by the term “extra-physical intervention.” Do you mean supernatural intervention? If it “intervenes” to produce observable effects in the natural world, it is necessarily subject to investigation using the methods of science.

    J.J.Ramsey,

    A sloppy argument is not fixed by the mere admission that you might be wrong. I am sure that many theists would concede that their belief in God may be false, but that doesn’t make their theism rational or justified.

  211. #211 DuWayne
    July 14, 2007

    Another Jason -

    As this conversation seems to come up fairly regularly, I am going to write a blog to explain the experiences that led me where I am. It is just too long to reasonably post in someone’s comments. If you actually want more information about them, click on my name and e-mail me. When I have time to do so, I would be happy to provide a lot more detail.

    In short, I have had way too many near death experiences. I have taken huge overdoes of various hallucinogenic plants, that are extremely toxic. I have discussed the exact circumstances and dosages of substances I have taken, with toxicologists, who have indeed given me odds on anyone, much less myself, surviving them. This is taking my body weight, my metabolism and immunities that I built up to (i.e. taking lower doses, working up to larger ones), into account. The consensus, I should be dead. While every one is clear that it is (obviously) not impossible to survive them, it is certainly highly unlikely.

    Too, I have had shared extra-physical experiences. Not all of them while under the influence of psychedelics, though that is a somewhat misleading statement, as we were attempting to bring ourselves into a hallucinogenic state, without the use of drugs or physical stimuli. If one has had as many different hallucinogenic experiences as I have, it is quite possible (not even all that hard really) to induce such states without drugs or physical stimuli.

    There is much more to it than that, but that is a big part of the basis for my beliefs. There have been a few other near death experiences and others that have nothing to do with death or maiming, that contribute, but the crux of it is, I should not be alive today. As one of the toxicologists put it, I could win the lottery twice, on the odds of my surviving what I have done to my body. And not only am I alive, but I have a reasonably healthy liver and kidneys (though I was pissing blood for a while after the worse I did to myself).

    Finally, no I do not mean supernatural, though I mean what most people mean when they use that term. The problem that I have with that, is that if those mechanisms are real, then they are not supernatural at all and indeed there is the potential that the methods of science could indeed develop the tools to observe them. Certainly, I do not think that they should be “protected” or “set aside” from being investigated by science, or using the scientific method. If they are in fact real, then they are perfectly natural.

  212. #212 J. J. Ramsey
    July 14, 2007

    Another Jason: “A sloppy argument is not fixed by the mere admission that you might be wrong.”

    True, but in DuWayne’s case, he already conceded whatever points could be brought against him from cognitive psychology, etc. Like I said, nothing more to add.

    BTW, I take far less issue with someone who gives doubtful warrant for their beliefs and readily concedes the doubtfulness, and someone who gets on a high horse about being rational while trumpeting bad arguments as certain truths.

  213. #213 Caledonian
    July 14, 2007

    The point would be stronger if you’d ever correctly identified a bad argument.

    You spend most of your time here loudly denigrating perfectly sound arguments whose conclusions you don’t like.

  214. #214 Science Avenger
    July 14, 2007

    Another Jason said: I am sure that many theists would concede that their belief in God may be false

    I suggest you test that hypothesis. My experience has been that an alarming number of theists will sputter and spurt and dance madly, even to the point of publicly embarrasing themselves, rather than admit the mere possibility that their faith is incorrect.

    It is my favorite tactic in public discussions on the existence of gods to pose this question after happily volunteering that it is possible my atheism is mistaken. Their reaction usually destroys any claims to objectivity they have.

  215. #215 Greg Byshenk
    July 15, 2007

    Caledonian:

    A person who restricts the use of the scientific method to their professional endeavors, and abhors it in other conditions, is not practicing science.

    This seems to me to betray a sort of reification of ‘science’. As already suggested
    by the previous discussion, ‘science’ is not some sort of state of being, but a particular
    form of practice. Someone who is engaging in scientific practice in their professional
    endeavors is — tautologically — practicing science in those endeavors. Of course, when
    such a person is engaging in some other endeavor and not engaged in scientific practices,
    then s/he is not practicing science — again, tautologically.

    But the fact that someone might not be doing some X at some time does not preclude
    them from doing X at some other time. Indeed, I submit that the vast majority (indeed,
    very close to a universality) of scientists spend some part of their waking lives doing
    things other than practicing science (when having sex, enjoying a fine meal, listening
    to their favorite music, etc.). But this in no way nullifies their very real practice
    of science when they are engaged in the practice of science.

  216. #216 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    But if the practice of science is a process that cannot be applied to one thing and not appplied to another – if it can only be applied consistently – then in your example, the person is never practicing science.

    Science is just systematic honesty. If a barrel is mostly full of wholesome water, and we add a small amount of raw sewage, can we say that the fluid in the barrel is wholesome? No. If a person tells the truth part of the time, and is deceptive part of the time, can we say that they are honest? No.

    If a person exempts part of their attempt to understand the world from systematic honesty, can we say that they practice science?

  217. #217 DuWayne
    July 15, 2007

    Caledonian -

    Then what is it exactly they are doing, if not science? You know, when they’re in the lab or writing the soon to be peer reviewed paper, just like the “real” scientist they’re working with.

  218. #218 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    Then what is it exactly they are doing, if not science?

    That which a technician does.

  219. #219 DuWayne
    July 15, 2007

    Then how is that which is identical to what they are doing, but performed by an atheist, any different?

  220. #220 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    Not at all. If an atheist did what they’re doing, it would still be that which a technician does.

  221. #221 J. J. Ramsey
    July 15, 2007

    Caledonian: “The point would be stronger if you’d ever correctly identified a bad argument.”

    Nice accusation. Any evidence?

  222. #222 Robert O'Brien
    July 15, 2007

    Once again, Caleduncian is in no position to decide who is a scientist and who is not; when it comes to science, he is completely worthless.

  223. #223 Robert O'Brien
    July 15, 2007

    Theism violates the scientific method; at present, depending upon which formulation we’re discussing, it either violates basic principles of logic, or is utterly unsupported by the evidence. One cannot be a theist and be said to practice science at the same time.

    That is, of course, a false assertion.

  224. #224 Greg Byshenk
    July 15, 2007

    Caledonian:

    But if the practice of science is a process that cannot be applied to one thing
    and not applied to another – if it can only be applied consistently – then in your example,
    the person is never practicing science.

    If the above is true, then no one practices science (for reasons already given) — which
    I take to be a demonstration that your idea about “consistently” doing science is mistaken.

    If a barrel is mostly full of wholesome water, and we add a small amount of raw
    sewage, can we say that the fluid in the barrel is wholesome? No. If a person tells the truth
    part of the time, and is deceptive part of the time, can we say that they are honest? No.

    But if a person tells the truth part of the time, then they are being truthful when they
    tell the truth. And the current wholesomeness of pure water is not altered now by its
    being made unwholesome at some point in the future.

  225. #225 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    If the above is true, then no one practices science (for reasons already given)

    Those reasons are incorrect. It is entirely possible to approach all analysis scientifically.

    But if a person tells the truth part of the time, then they are being truthful when they tell the truth.

    But they are not truthful, because that state doesn’t refer to particular instances but timeless states (in the ideal sense) or overarching behavior patterns. Someone who lies almost constantly may act truthfully on a matter, but they are not truthful.

    The scientific method is necessary to seek true understanding. If you abandon it and still seek understanding, you’re rejecting it as the sole guide to reliable knowledge, and therefore rejecting its fundamental nature.

  226. #226 Greg Byshenk
    July 16, 2007

    me

    If the above [that science can only be practiced universlly] is true, then no
    one practices science (for reasons already given)

    Caledonian

    Those reasons are incorrect. It is entirely possible to approach all analysis
    scientifically.

    I submit that this claim is false, unless one is using idiosyncratic (and possibly
    perverse) definitions of ‘science’ and ‘analysis’, but even if we accept it as true, it is
    beside the point, since my assertion was empirical, not logical. That is, I did not say
    that engaging is the practice of science at all times was impossible, but that no one
    – including those recognized as paradigmatic cases of ‘scientist’ — actually does so.

    Congratulations! You have succeeded in demonstrating that theists don’t practice science.
    Unfortunately, you have done so by redefining ‘practice science’ in such a way that no one
    else does so, either. Rather a Pyrrhic victory, in my view.

  227. #227 DuWayne
    July 16, 2007

    Caledonian -

    I find it very interesting how well you prove my theory that extremists in polar opposition, for the most part find themselves in such fundamental agreement, in so many regards.

  228. #228 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    That is, I did not say that engaging is the practice of science at all times was impossible, but that no one — including those recognized as paradigmatic cases of ‘scientist’ — actually does so.

    Empiricism doesn’t work well with universals, particularly universal negatives.

    Try again.

  229. #229 Greg Byshenk
    July 17, 2007

    Sorry, Caledonian. I began this by attempting to defend what seemed to be a nutty claim of yours by showing that, with a small amount of charity, it could be interpreted as sensible. But you seem to want to insist on the nutty interpretation, so you are welcome to it.

    As for the rest of your word games, I don’t find them terribly interesting.

  230. #230 Leni
    July 19, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    If a person exempts part of their attempt to understand the world from systematic honesty, can we say that they practice science?

    I think we can, although perhaps not with regard to their theism. Science is a process or a method that even children can use, at least in an informal way. It’s obvious that theists can do science for the simple fact that they do it. It’s really undeniable.

    I wouldn’t call you an extrmemist (or a fundie or whatever it was that DuWayne called you), but I do think you’ve pretty much painted yourself into a corner with this argument.

    While I think you’re taking this entirely too far, I do think that the way the method is selectively applied does sometimes give the appearance of an unwillingness to use it, at the very least. Especially when there is no clear reason not not do so. (Of course, “God is supernatural” is not a clear reason. If it has effect on the natural world then it is available for scrutiny.)

    It may even be an inability to use it in that instance, depending on the person. I think it’s fair to say that you are right with respect to the scientists theism, but extending this to the general is a sort of poisoning the well, (especially considering how many very good theist scientists there are and have been) and in a way reduces the force of the argument that god-claims are not necessarily inscrutable.

  231. #231 Caledonian
    July 19, 2007

    It’s obvious that theists can do science for the simple fact that they do it.

    But the defining feature of their category is that they don’t apply it to at least one aspect of reality.

    My argument is that science does not permit itself to be applied to some parts of reality and not others – it’s all or nothing. No one can justify the exclusion of certain claims about reality from scientific analysis and inquiry. But that’s precisely what theists do.

    Therefore, they do not practice science. They practice something that, under certain conditions, appears superficially similar to science, but in fact is profoundly different from it.

  232. #232 David D.G.
    July 19, 2007

    In other words, Caledonian, no true scientist would fail to wear a kilt under his lab coat?

    ~David D.G.

  233. #233 DuWayne
    July 19, 2007

    Caledonian -

    How can you take two people, one a theist, one who isn’t, who work in the same field, on the same research, doing exactly the same thing professionally, and say that one is practicing science while the other is merely a technician. If the work is exactly the same, the only distinction being that one has religious beliefs, beliefs that have absolutely no impact on their work and the other does not, they are both practicing science. I’ll give that the theist does not apply science to his personal life. I’ll even give that their is some serious compartmentalizing going on to facilitate it. But if the work the atheist is doing, is considered science and the atheist is a scientist, then so is the theist who’s doing the exact same thing.

    I hope you take a certain pride in the fact, that your belief is in exact accord with the most insane and extreme fundamentalist religionists. In polar opposition, you are no different than they.

  234. #234 Leni
    July 20, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    My argument is that science does not permit itself to be applied to some parts of reality and not others – it’s all or nothing.

    Well, but it does. Science doesn’t happen unless we do it. So by definition some areas of reality get neglected for the simple fact that we don’t know all of them and couldn’t get to them all even if we did.

    We aren’t really talking about neglect though. We’re talking about deliberately withholding inquiry for bad reasons. It doesn’t make us unscientific necessarily. It makes us something more like dishonest or mistaken.

    I know what you mean though, There is something egregiously wrong with a scientist forbidding scientific inquiry into a subject for what amounts to emotional reasons. If it were manslaughter charge it would be of the type resulting from gross negligence. So bad some people could call it murder and not be entirely wrong.

    This doesn’t preclude them from being scientific in other ways though. When it suits them.

    No one can justify the exclusion of certain claims about reality from scientific analysis and inquiry. But that’s precisely what theists do.

    I think you’re right about that. I just don’t agree that this makes them unscientific. At worst, I think that makes them dishonest. At best, wrong.

    If they were pathologically the way Ken Ham is, I might agree that “unscientific” would be more generally applicable.

  235. #235 Caledonian
    July 20, 2007

    We’re talking about deliberately withholding inquiry for bad reasons. It doesn’t make us unscientific necessarily. It makes us something more like dishonest or mistaken.

    Science requires rigorous honesty to function. If people are being dishonest, they are not practicing science.

    It doesn’t invoke the No True Scotsman fallacy to establish a definition for a concept and apply it to categoric sorting. No person who is confronted with a dishonesty in their reasoning who fails to correct it is a scientist. The demonstrations that religious thought contains dishonesties are legion – and no one smart enough to understand the scientific method is too dumb to realize that religion indulges in behaviors science proscribes if they think about it even a little.

  236. #236 Leni
    July 21, 2007

    It doesn’t invoke the No True Scotsman fallacy to establish a definition for a concept and apply it to categoric sorting.

    Maybe not, but it does invoke the fallacy if you don’t establish a necessary, exclusionary link between being a scientist and (in this case) being a theist. All you’ve said is that theists are dishonest. That may be true (I don’t think it is), but so is everyone else.

    You’ve effectively defined scientist as an empty set, which is to say that that not only is your “No true scientist is a theist” fallacious, but it’s also meaninglessness, given that it’s true for everyone.

    So, you invoke the fallacy by saying “No true scientist can be a theist” without adequately explaining why this is so, not by “category sorting”. I’m sorry, but I do not find your redefinition of theists who do science as “technician” convincing. It seems contrived, senseless, and arbitrary to me.

    And further, facts are facts whether or not you agree with the person who discovered or articulated them. I happen to think most republicans are retarded assholes. I also work with some republicans who are nevertheless rigourously honest about their science even though they are complete jackasses when it comes to things like believing Bill O’Reilly.

    I’m not about to redefine “scientist’ so I can disclude people who do things I don’t like or believe things I think are demonstrably fasle. Frankly, I think the precedent is dangerous and more than a little creepy.

    The demonstrations that religious thought contains dishonesties are legion

    Yes, but it’s not special or distinct from other kinds of dishonesty or self-deception.

  237. #237 Caledonian
    July 21, 2007

    Maybe not, but it does invoke the fallacy if you don’t establish a necessary, exclusionary link between being a scientist and (in this case) being a theist.

    It’s trivial – the scientific method leads to rejection of the theistic hypothesis. You cannot accept that hypothesis AND apply the scientific method to it simultaneously.

    That’s not a ‘redefinition’, it’s applying the already-existing definition.

  238. #238 Robert O'Brien
    July 22, 2007

    It’s trivial – the scientific method leads to rejection of the theistic hypothesis.

    No, wannabe scientist, it does not.

  239. #239 Leni
    July 24, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    It’s trivial – the scientific method leads to rejection of the theistic hypothesis.

    I agree, mostly. Still, this answer does not explain how a failure in this instance prevents theists from being scientists in all instances.

  240. #240 Caledonian
    July 25, 2007

    Well, but it does. Science doesn’t happen unless we do it. So by definition some areas of reality get neglected for the simple fact that we don’t know all of them and couldn’t get to them all even if we did.

    This is absurd – not having the ability to access all data about the universe doesn’t imply that we’re failed to apply the scientific method, either in general or to any particular thing.

    Not using the method when reasoning about something is what’s being discussed.

    I agree, mostly. Still, this answer does not explain how a failure in this instance prevents theists from being scientists in all instances.

    How does having sex once prevent someone from being a virgin in all further instances? How does rejecting some of the basic aspects of science lead to rejecting science itself? These are not difficult questions.

  241. #241 Leni
    July 25, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    This is absurd – not having the ability to access all data about the universe doesn’t imply that we’re failed to apply the scientific method, either in general or to any particular thing.

    It means, at least in some cases, that we didn’t apply the method even though we could have. Which in your construct means we can’t be scientists.

    It is absurd, I agree.

    How does having sex once prevent someone from being a virgin in all further instances? How does rejecting some of the basic aspects of science lead to rejecting science itself? These are not difficult questions.

    They also, incidentally, aren’t answers to the statement I actually made, which was “Still, this answer does not explain how a failure in this instance prevents theists from being scientists in all instances.

    Not “further” instances. Which is a nice new goalpost you have there, I might add. (Doesn’t help your argument any though. The implications are still absurd. All I came up with was that the same person performing the same experiment is a scientist in one instance and a technician in the other, lol.)

    In any case, the definition of virgin is what precludes virginity in someone who does not meet the requirement/s for being a virgin. Your redefinition of scientist doesn’t have the luxury of being that sensible, and your insistence that it leads to a rejection of all science is irrational in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Namely, perfectly good science done by theists. And since people who do science are called scientists….

    What have you offered so far to the contrary? You’ve offered only descriptions of what scientists need in order to do science, while they are doing science. And you’ve made no compelling argument for why we should accept that doing science, i.e. being a scientist, depends on what one believes with regard to unrelated subjects.

    Further, you have not addressed any of the problematic issues this leads to, nor have you explained why the quality of the science done should be effected in any general way. All you’ve done is say we ought to rename theists who do science as “technicians” which I find gross and insulting to all scientists, as it undermines the very idea that facts are what matters.

    Again, dangerous precedent. Your utter failure to notice that strikes me as totally dishonest. Hope you weren’t planning a career as a scientist, by the way.

    Anyway, might I suggest a new term instead? How about “scientician”? It’ll be a fresh slate and you can make it mean whatever you like and you needn’t try to single-handedly redefine scientist to mean something it clearly does not.

  242. #242 Leni
    July 25, 2007

    I forgot to address this:

    That’s not a ‘redefinition’, it’s applying the already-existing definition.

    Yes, it is. It happened when you insisted that some people who do science, even in a professional capacity, are not scientists. And tried to justify it with hyperbole and the inexplicable “category sorting” argument.

  243. #243 Collin Merenoff
    August 29, 2011

    I cannot see how Dawkins can publish a book called “The Blind Watchmaker” and expect it to be hailed as a secular book.

    As an example, take the word “electronegativity”. I have a vague idea that it’s something about chemical bonds, and I could easily find out more about it by looking through chemistry books.

    Now imagine if instead of “electronegativity” it had been named “phlagiston”. I would be justified in assuming it had nothing to do with science, because the word comes from an unscientific vocabulary.

    Similarly, the phrase “Blind Watchmaker” suggests something like a blindfolded man with pieces of clockwork in his lap. This is not a result of misunderstanding a prior definition. It is the title of the book, the very first words one sees. And it seriously begs the question of what Dawkins hoped to achieve with this title.

    So the typical argument that “if you read the book you’d know what the words mean” sounds much more like Dianetics than like any honest attempt at coining a technical term.

  244. #244 Kel
    August 29, 2011

    Colin, I see you’re a graduate of the Mary Midgley school of literary criticism. Next we’ll hear that selfish genes aren’t really selfish, there’s no mountain named improbable to climb, rainbows cannot be unweaved, there is no devil to be a chaplain to, ancestors cannot tell tales, and there’s no-one watching evolution. ;)

  245. #245 hoary puccoon
    August 29, 2011

    Collin @ 243–

    Publishers have veto power over book titles, you know. “Random Mutations and the Evolution of Complex Organisms” is not going to hit the NYT best seller lists, now, is it?

  246. #246 Wow
    August 30, 2011

    “Dawkins – much more due to what other say about him than what he has said himself – has the reputation of a rude atheist”

    And can you or anyone quote what he says that deserves this reputation?

    Or is it that his rudeness is in that he doesn’t hide his atheism? You know, like all those gays kissing in public that scare the shit literally out of some xtians?

  247. #247 Wow
    August 30, 2011

    “But Dawkins doesn�t just claim that God doesn’t perform miracles, he claims God in its various forms – does not exist. He claims that a lack of evidence should rule out any desire to place belief in God. And I think that’s incorrect. I think it’s a plausible possibility.”

    It is no more plausible than the FSM.

    What, in fact, are you placing your faith IN? There’s no evidence for it, so what, exactly, are you hoping to have happen?

  248. #248 Wow
    August 30, 2011

    “evangelicals apparently tend to cling tighter to their identities as evangelicals when they perceive themselves as under threat.”

    However, ALL religions thrive when they’re being persecuted.

    In the absence of actual persecution, they’ll pretend it exists every time their wishes and demands fail to gain way.

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