My Last Post on this Topic. Promise!

My first published piece of writing on evolution and creationism was a review of Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God for Skeptic magazine, published in 2000. In light of my recent posts at this blog, you might find it hard to believe that I actually wrote the following:

Like Miller, I deplore the rhetorical excesses of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who would blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Though I would quibble with a few of his specific examples, the chapter Miller devotes to these excesses is one of the best in the book.

Needless to say, I no longer believe this. So what changed?

Well, let’s see. As a little Jewish kid my parents insisted on sending me to Hebrew school. For them it was not about me getting right with God, but rather with learning a bit about my heritage and about what it meant to be Jewish. I fought them tooth and nail on this every week, partly because even as a kid all of the ceremonies, rituals, Torah readings and God talk struck me as rather silly, and partly because Hebrew school meant getting up early on Sunday morning. This all culminated with my Bar Mitzvah, which in retrospect I must begrudgingly admit was a good idea.

So my feelings towards religion have never been kind, but I never felt any particular urgency on the matter until recently. Virtually all of the religiously people I knew were of the entirely sane variety. Religious fundamentalism and extremism was something I heard about from time to time, but it was not something I ever encountered personally.

This state of affairs persisted through my graduate school years in the mid to late nineties. Somewhat unusually for an academic setting, my atheism put me decidedly in the minority of religious opinion among my fellow graduate students. Most of them took their Christianity very seriously indeed. Yet not a one of them (well, maybe Larry, on the off chance that he reads my blog) had any theocratic tendencies, and most of them were quite critical of fundamentalists.

A quick anecdote should give you the idea. At one point the famed, and decidedly crazy, evangelist Luis Palao arrived at Dartmouth to lead a good old fashoned revival in one of the large gymnasiums on campus. Never having been to a revival and being generally interested in religion, I wanted to attend. But I did not want to go alone. So I prevailed upon one of my best friends, a fellow who collected books on religion the same way I collected books on chess, to go with me. I though he would be happy to go. He wasn’t, though I eventually talked him into it anyway. He told me he was a not a big fan of Palao’s style of agressive evangelism and generally seemed a bit glum through the whole thing. (Alas, he now lives on the other side of the country in Seattle, just in case he reads my blog.)

So right up through the end of graduate school I found myself mystified by and uncomfortable with organized religion. I likewise could find nothing appealing in any sort of vaguely defined “spirituality.” But I never found such things menacing or worrisome. That all changed in 2000.

Two things happened that year to make me change the way I looked at this. First, I accepted a job at Kansas State University. And second, George W. Bush was (sort of) elected President.

Moving to Kansas was my introduction to the brain-dead sort of Christianity. I often browsed in the local evangelical bookstore (one time getting recognized by one of my students, who I’m sure was delighted to find that one of her professors was “of the body” and don’t you know that that little misunderstanding led to an interesting conversation that I won’t try to relate here) generally sticking to the apologetics and evolution sections. The books shelved there were wall-to-wall stupidity. They were in written in large print, were frequently ungrammatical, and showed not a hint of shame in peddling the most jaw-dropping sort of flapdoodle.

Needless to say, I couldn’t find the Christian bookstore that was promoting the moderate view of things.

Visit the local WaldenBooks and you found on the main table, the place where you are supposed to find books by Stephen King and John Grisham, books by James Dobson and Tim LaHaye. Turn on the local Christian radio station and you were treated to sermon after hectoring sermon delivering not only some of the most fatuous and ignorant arguments ever made in human history, but also to the most vicious invective you’ve ever encountered hurled towards atheists, Mormons, Catholics and other undesirables. I attended a home schooler’s convention at the Wichita Convention Center devoted to the promotion of Young Earth Creationism. Three guesses what those charming folks were teaching their kids. While there I looked at the list of forthcoming conferences to be hosted at the Center. All of them were religious in nature.

In short, idiotic, theocratic Christianity was everywhere, and there were enough such folks to have an immediately obvious and negative effect on the culture. Whole swathes of the country seemed in thrall to this nonsense. My sense of urgency increased.

Then George W. Bush got elected, largely through the support of the religious right. Leaving aside the shenanigans of the 2000 elections, how is it possible that fully half the country could compare Bush, an empty-headed, unaccomplished nonentity who never did anything in his life that wasn’t bought and paid for with his family’s wealth and connections, to Gore, a man of impeccable credentials and accomplishments, who was on the cutting edge of all the major issues of the day, and decide that Bush was the man they wanted? Religion was plainly a big part of the answer.

Mind you, it was not religious faith per se that people found appealing in Bush. After all, Gore’s religious faith was heartfelt and unimpeachable. But his was not the sort of simplistic, thoguhtless evangelical faith that Bush prattled about. It was that sort of faith people seemed to like.

Yes, yes, I know there were a lot of issues in the 2000 elections. But for me things were best summed up by Republican congressman turned TV pundit Joe Scarborough, who once remarked that while Gore plainly had the better resume and was clearly a more thoughtful and knowledgable candidate, a lot of people looked at Bush and said, “I trust this guy. He talks to me the way my pastor talks to me.”

So it stopped seeming plausible to me to say that it was the moderate folks who represented the mainstream of American religious thought. There were other things as well. Around this time I started following the evolution issue more closely. I would hear, for example, that Pope John Paul II had accepted evolution. Then I would go read what he actually said and find that it was nothing like the unambiguous endorsement people presented it as. I would hear that the “overwhelming majority” of Christian denominations had long ago made their peace with evolution. Then I would see polls saying that fully half the country accepted young-Earth creationism, and something like three fourths wanted some sort of creationism taught in schools. I would find that even many moderate religious folks of my acquiantance, people who had little use for fundamentalism, were nonetheless very sympathetic to the anti-science view on a great many issues.

In light of this, it struck me then and still strikes me today that it is the height of foolishness to think that Richard Dawkins is any significant part of the problem. Even more foolish is the idea that these sorts of religious beliefs are things to be pandered to, respected, and tiptoed around. Surely an essential part of any solution to the problem is loud and frequent public criticism of religious ideas that, let’s be honest, can not be defended on any rational basis.

The only thing I don’t understand is why that isn’t obvious to everyone.

Okay, enough. That’s my last post on this issue, regardless of the provocation. At least for a little while anyway. In the interest of moving on to other things I probably won’t respond in depth to comments here. Which shouldn’t be interpreted to mean I am uninterested in what people have to say. (Even people like J.J. Ramsey, who seems to have raising my blood pressure as his personal mission in life :)

Comments

  1. #1 Todd
    September 13, 2007

    When people talk about how religious belief is so much more sophisticated than what Dawkins and Harris make it out to be, they are referring to religious believers who are fewer in number than even atheists. The vast majority of Christians in America are not of the Ken Miller type, but of the James Dobson type.

  2. #2 Sastra
    September 13, 2007

    When atheists make their arguments against fundamentalist forms of God, the moderate believers both approve and disapprove. They agree with what they say, they can’t stand the extremists either, but of course there’s no reason for atheism as a reaction! Those people may be in the majority, but they don’t represent real Christianity at all. So atheists are seen as being just as extreme as the fundamentalists. No God on one side, Too Much God on the other — and then the sophisticated, reasonable, Just Enough God in the middle. Of course atheists focus only on the simple-minded forms of God: they’re an easy target!

    But atheists are not atheists in reaction to fundamentalism: it’s a matter of what they think is true. You didn’t become an atheist because you moved to Kansas. You simply became more outspoken, less complacent. Arguments for the existence of God from liberals are no better. Atheism is not some weird, over-reactive, extreme position. It’s reasonable.

    Yet when atheists follow the complaint about atheism “failing to engage with serious theology” and shift their attacks to a “harder” target, the cries go up. How dare you attack the moderates and liberals, when the real problem is fundamentalists! We’re political allies! You’re extremists!

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  3. #3 rmp
    September 13, 2007

    Sastra, consider yourself damned!!

  4. #4 Pseudonym
    September 13, 2007

    When people talk about how religious belief is so much more sophisticated than what Dawkins and Harris make it out to be, they are referring to religious believers who are fewer in number than even atheists. The vast majority of Christians in America are not of the Ken Miller type, but of the James Dobson type.

    Which is one of the reasons why I understand Dawkins less than Harris. Dawkins isn’t in America, and I’d wager that in the UK, it’s precisely the Dobson-type Christians who are fewer in number than atheists.

  5. #5 Pseudonym
    September 13, 2007

    By the way. Does anyone want to have a guess what the largest religious group in the US is? (Here’s a clue: They outnumber Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics.)

  6. #6 crf
    September 13, 2007

    Bush did do something notable before becoming president: he was governor of Texas. However even so, his accomplishments were less than Gore’s (and Kerry’s). But, in some people’s eyes, those who pretend that a leader of a country shouldn’t be the smartest and most accomplished person, he might have had sufficient accomplishments.

    The news media is partly to blame. They spend an inordinate amount of time questioning in great detail candidates’ religious views, and spend little time having them discuss their policies or their understandings of the country’s problems.

    Unlike most any other serious topics, newspeople and candidates (and the people consuming the news) can talk as intellectual equals about moral and religious topics, which appeals to newspeople’s (and perhaps politicians’) vanity. Also, you don’t necessarily need a lengthy amount of time to have “serious” religious discussions, unlike many other important topics. This makes religious and moral discussions good for TV and newspapers: they can fill any time slot or column-inches.

  7. #7 Elizabeth
    September 13, 2007

    This arrived in my google reader and this seemed a good place to paste it.

    http://www.kottke.org/remainder/07/09/14101.html

  8. #8 Daryl McCullough
    September 13, 2007

    Jason, I’m not convinced that religion is the cause for the things you find so distasteful about Bush and much of Kansas. As you said,

    Mind you, it was not religious faith per se that people found appealing in Bush. After all, Gore’s religious faith was heartfelt and unimpeachable. But his was not the sort of simplistic, thoguhtless evangelical faith that Bush prattled about. It was that sort of faith people seemed to like.

    To me, that is the problem: people desiring simplistic answers to difficult questions. I don’t think that religion is the cause of this desire; I think it’s the other way around: fundamentalist religion thrives because many people desire simplistic answers. If those people were atheists, I think they would latch onto different simplistic answers.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    September 13, 2007

    Just think what might have happened if Jason had landed a job in Dallas, Texas… :-O

  10. #10 Russell Blackford
    September 13, 2007

    Daryl is probably right that a need for simplistic answers underlies the success and persistence of fundamentalist religion. I suppose we have to realistic and accept that there will always be a market for simplistic answers.

    Still, one political problem that we face is that a particular set of simplistic answers, based on a medieval view of the world, currently holds so much sway. There is a risk that a charismatic leader could get people to adopt something even worse, but that doesn’t seem to have happened, so far, in the Scandinavian countries, so I’m not sticking with the devil I know. (I realise that Daryl is not arguing that I should.)

  11. #11 Pseudonym
    September 13, 2007

    Daryl is 100% correct, though I’ll add one more observation.

    Blindly blaming religion for all ills is also a kind of simplistic answer, though admittedly, if you’re an intelligent person living in Kansas, it’s a very easy mistake to make.

    I also note for the sake of fairness that Dawkins did not personally approve of the title “The Root of All Evil?” for the Channel Four TV show.

  12. #12 itchy
    September 13, 2007

    Very well put, Sastra.

    From the moderates, you get either:

    “The crazies you’re attacking are not part of any Christianity that I know” or “Hey, why are you attacking me? You should be going after the crazies.”

  13. #13 Russell Blackford
    September 13, 2007

    Over on Dawkins’ site there’s currently a discussion of the couhterintuitive nature of science and the intuitive nature of non-science. This is relevant to the “people want simplistic answers” idea. At the risk of being a pest, I’ll repost what I said there, where I try to pin down how I see that issue. I’ll then try to leave this debate alone for awhile:

    Science is counterintuitive. The world tends to appear one way – the so-called manifest image – to creatures of our size, capacities, habits, psychological dispositions, etc., that evolved on the savannas of Africa. It appears another way when we start scrutinising it by the means that science employs (observation with instruments that greatly magnify our senses, careful use of experiments, mathematical models, and so on).

    The scientific image of the world corrects the manifest image, but it is the latter that is intuitive. The longer the chains of reasoning that support aspects of the scientific image, the more difficult it will be to get people to abandon the manifest image where the two collide. Galileo didn’t have too much difficulty convincing people of his (often counterintuitive) telescopic observations, but the chain of reasoning to establish that telescopes work was short. Likewise the chain of reasoning to show how certain observations were, for example, observations of moons circling Jupiter. Although we don’t face heresy trials, as Galileo did, we are, in a sense, in a more difficult situation than he was.

    The connections between scientific conclusions and the observations and experiments that support them are now far more difficult for non-scientists to understand and confirm for themselves.

    Religions, alas, tend to build (in various ways) on the manifest image. Thus, the various religious images of the world are quite intuitive for most people. However, the image of the world in, say, the Abrahamic tradition, is in tension with science. After all, the scientific image is extremely difficult to reconcile with such ideas as libertarian free will, providence, explanation of phenomena in terms of agency and design, human exceptionalism within nature, the separability of ourselves (in some sense) from our bodies, the primacy of spirit over matter, and so on.

    The problem we face is that a certain religious image of the world is highly intuitive to many people in Western societies – it has adapted over the centuries in conformity with the manifest image, and it has accommodated those parts of science that are supported by relatively short and obviously incontrovertible chains of reasoning. In the past three decades, or so, it has even made a comeback in many academic philosophy departments.

    However, it is essentially false.

    At the same time, the scientific image is essentially true, but it is not intuitive except to people who are trained to understand chains of scientific inferences and to see why the evidence supports findings that our brains tend to reject. That’s what we’re up against folks. It’s why people who are not deranged can so easily be deluded in the sense of having persistent wrong ideas about such things as the existence of a providential deity.

    This is the sort of picture that seems to be emerging from the research of psychologists such as Paul Bloom. Just how we use it remains an open question, but it is valuable information to have. It gives some clue as to why religion is so persistent and what problems we face when we attempt to induce doubt in the minds of religious believers – or, at least, in the minds of true faith-heads dogmatists, who will argue from premises that many of us rationalist types find pre-scientific and bizarre.

  14. #14 Chris Hallquist
    September 14, 2007

    Hey Jason, I’m curious, how did you land a gig writing for Skeptic as a math guy with no previous experience writing on evolution/creationism?

  15. #15 csrster
    September 14, 2007

    Hi Jason, your experience (and even life history) mirrors mine in some ways. I became an atheist in my teens (post-barmitzvah) and was quite militant about it. Then I began to mellow during my college years because I started to wonder if my strident anti-religionism wasn’t just a bit of teenage rebellion that I ought to outgrow.

    The big shock for you was moving to Kansas. The big shock for me was the Rushdie affair. Not the fatwa, you understand, but the rush of supposedly “moderate” religious leaders to condemn Rushdie for daring to write a “blasphemous” book. I realised then that however much different religions might bicker about who really holds the keys to the Truth, they will always come together when there are atheists and secularists to attack. Even the most moderate of religious leaders seem to have a not-so-deeply-buried illiberal streak which rapidly comes to the fore whenever secularism and atheism are on the agenda.

  16. #16 Dan S.
    September 14, 2007

    The vast majority of Christians in America are not of the Ken Miller type, but of the James Dobson type.

    Is this actually true? Now, strictly in terms of sophistication, I would be surprised if it isn’t. However, I can’t help but also see (rightly or wrongly) an implicit liberal-moderate/conservative-rightwing fundy-theocrat comparison here, and I’m less sure the point still applies in that case.

    I’m certainly not arguing that the big-print theocrat wing isn’t influential, or that they don’t pose a genuine threat. But just as it’s important to realize that the sophisticated and/or liberal to moderate believers some of us may be most familiar with (writes the guy from New York now living in Philly down the street from a UU church) are far from the whole story, it’s probably good to keep on realizing the complex social nature of religious expressions. Some of the (sigh) ‘new atheist’ criticism and strategizing seems pretty uninformed; ignoring obscure and insubstantial doctrinal details is one thing, ignoring political and cultural realities another thing altogether.

    Take the Southern Baptists. Who here knew that in the last few decades moderate leaders were systematically purged and replaced with conservatives/fundamentalists? It’s not quite as simple as ‘crazy religionists are everywhere, and taking over!’ – there’s a history, a politics, a sociology, a psychology . . .

  17. #17 Paul Lurquin
    September 14, 2007

    For an interesting cross-section of religious beliefs in the US just check the following:

    http://boards.msn.com/Travelboards/thread.aspx?threadid=295704&boardsparam=Page%3D1

    Most opinions expressed there will sicken you but hey, that’s where we live!

  18. #18 Caledonian
    September 14, 2007

    What’s with all this talk about ‘moderate’ Christianity? The fallacy of the middle ground, that’s what.

    Finding ‘intelligent and sensible’ Christianity would seem to be a more important task – but it’s an impossible one.

  19. #19 Mark Walton
    September 14, 2007

    I share your distaste for the seemingly endless nonsense that comes out of the mouths of fundamentalists. However, I hope you still believe in the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. They ARE quite distinct and it is important for the average person to understand that. Blurring the distinction between those two forms of naturalism plays right into the hands of the very fundamentalists that frustrate us so much.

  20. #20 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 14, 2007

    Chris Hallquist-

    I read Miller’s book and had a strong reaction to it. Around the same time I had discovered Skeptic at a local bookstore. So on a whim I wrote to Michael Shermer
    (Skeptic‘s editor) and asked him if I could review the book for him. He told me to have a go at it. I guess he liked what I wrote, and the rest is history.

    Mark Walton-

    I do recognize the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism. When I write that science and religion are at odds, I don’t mean that science logically disproves religion. But I do think the conflict between the two is quite real, and is not something that can be swept under the rug. I think science promotes methods of inquiry that are hostile to the tenets of many faiths (such as sola scriptura), and I think that certain specific findings, especially evolution, make it next to impossible to see the world as the creation of a loving God.

  21. #21 Kristine
    September 14, 2007

    I, too, did not care very much about people’s religion in the past, did not identify myself as a strong atheist, and was recently galvanized to do so by the right-wing conservative and intelligent design movements. I grew up in a largely creationist atmosphere but it was also blue-collar and I figured that the white-collar, academic world would be a haven against superstition. Wrong.

    One thing that also concerns me is the simplistic acceptance of evolution, etc., by humanities people who don’t know why they know evolution is true. This nation is looking for simplistic answers all around. One cannot with absolute certainty say that global climate change was responsible for Hurricane Katrina, etc. Feng Shuei, astrology, and morning dew “therapy” is embraced by some of my nonreligious colleagues. There is a lot of sloppy thinking on all sides, and women in particular are expected to buy into that stuff. Women’s magazines are rife with it. Bleeech!

  22. #22 Caledonian
    September 14, 2007

    However, I hope you still believe in the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.

    But this is incorrect. If you believe that there are things outside of ‘nature’ that can affect things inside, you cannot properly study how the natural world operates.

    Logic most certainly does demonstrate why believing things without justification is wrong.

  23. #23 Sastra
    September 14, 2007

    Kristine is upset. Ok ladies, let’s all send out some positive energy her way…

  24. #24 David Banner
    September 14, 2007

    So, you went to a foreign place and had culture shock. You didn’t like the local practices; you were in fact repulsed by them. You didn’t understand how the people couldn’t realize how blasted stupid they were acting.

    Why didn’t they like your man Gore? He was so witty, so knowledgeable. He didn’t get any advantages or perks from his family connections or Senator father. He was on the correct side of everything — man, don’t we wish we had that lock box now? He even foresaw the coming global catastrophe. And yet, the local people favored this ignoramus Bush, who couldn’t even run a baseball team.

    But somehow, the local people didn’t want to hear how unenlightened they were. They actually thought that their obscure rituals and large print books were worth something! And they were trying to teach their children to follow in their ignorant footsteps! Clearly, we need to assert some authority over these people. They can’t go on living this way! They must be brought to heel! How can they be given six electoral votes in this nation where California and New York have a mere 86? The nerve of these people and their cultist beliefs!

  25. #25 hoary puccoon
    September 15, 2007

    I have three problems with a lot of the atheist rhetoric I’ve seen on various scienceblog sites.

    1) Everybody agrees that there are no actual, scientific disproofs of god. So why ‘atheist’ instead of ‘agnostic?’ Agnostic is what I’d call myself, even though the existence of the intercessionary, biblical god has been disproven to my satisfaction. (If there really were a god responding to human prayers, the laws of physics wouldn’t work reliably. But they do.) And when I say satisfaction, I mean satisfaction. I am very happy with not having some nasty, guilt-trippy old man constantly peering over my shoulder. I am a MUCH HAPPIER and, I think, better, person without belief. So I’m not leaving the door open, hoping. I’m just not jumping beyond the evidence.

    2) Jason may not have had ‘spiritual’ experiences, but certain techniques of meditation do lead fairly reliably to alpha-brain wave states, which people describe as spiritual. (There seems to be no particular connection, incidentally, between experiencing these states and believing in a supreme being.) Slamming people who have experienced these states as practicing ‘woo’ doesn’t accomplish anything but putting their backs up. In general, telling people their emotions are wrong is a stupid argument.

    3) The bible is an ancient and complicated mixture of myth, philosophy, and history. Taking the attitude that the bible is all fiction becomes as much a faith-based mantra as claiming it is inerrant. Take, for one example, the harrassment of Christian missionaries in the theater at Ephesus, Turkey described in the Book of Acts. Why should people believe it’s ‘just a myth’ when the theater at Ephesus is still there? (Turn right at the library. You can’t miss it.) Looking at the bible more realistically as a collection of ancient writings, many of which have some factual basis, makes the biblical literalists look extreme and unreasonable. Claiming it’s all fiction makes the people who might be interested in looking at it in a de-mystified way shrug and turn away.

    None of this is intended to say that religion should get a free pass, as Matt Nisbet seems to be saying. I think respecting other people’s religion has been taken advantage of long enough by fundamentalists who clearly don’t intend to practice that themselves. What I’m strictly talking about is how to best accomplish turning people away from irrational, and especially, judgmental, dictatorial beliefs. I don’t think being judgmental in return is the way to do it.

  26. #26 Kristjan Wager
    September 15, 2007

    Everybody agrees that there are no actual, scientific disproofs of god. So why ‘atheist’ instead of ‘agnostic?’

    Because you are leaving out part of the equation – there is absolutely no evidence/proof for a god, or any other kind of supernatural force/being. This is the case, even though people have looked for such evidence for millenniums.

    The default position in such cases shouldn’t be “I don’t know” (agnostic), but rather “I don’t believe, until any kind of evidence is provided” (atheist).

    Of course, people I respect greatly (like John Wilkins) disagree with me.

  27. #27 hoary puccoon
    September 15, 2007

    I’m aware, Kristjan, that there’s no evidence for a god, either. I even suspect it would be impossible in practice to come up with scientific proof of a supernatural being. If, say, a superintelligent being were found on a planet circling Alpha Centauri, people wouldn’t say, “Aha, a god!” They’d say, “Gee, those Alpha Centaurians are smart folks.”

    My preference for agnostic over atheist is strictly about not stepping beyond the available data.

  28. #28 MK
    September 15, 2007

    What would you call someone who simply says, “I do not believe in god.”?

  29. #29 Richard Wein
    September 15, 2007

    “My preference for agnostic over atheist is strictly about not stepping beyond the available data.”

    I take it then that you are also agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Personally, I think we are rationally justified in disbelieving in the existence of any entity for which there is no evidence, whether it’s Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or God.

  30. #30 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    By definition, we cannot find evidence of a supernatural being. If we discover evidence that we cannot explain or account by our previous understanding of the natural world, we declare that we’ve found a new phenomenon – and we expand our understanding of ‘natural’ to include the new finding.

    If it exists, it’s natural. If it CAN exist, whether it actually does or not, it’s natural.

    Nothing supernatural exists, and nothing supernatural can exist, because ‘supernatural’ quite literally means ‘not part of the existing world’.

  31. #31 hoary puccoon
    September 15, 2007

    Richard Wein,
    As I said in my first post–
    “the existence of the intercessionary, biblical god has been disproven to my satisfaction.” Along with the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. (St. Nicholas, however, was apparently a real person. That isn’t a statement of faith, just of history.)

    MK– I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure what “believe” means in that context, but I certainly wouldn’t find that sentiment offensive. If the person wanted to call him/herself an atheist, agnostic, free thinker, non-theist, or secular humanist, I’d respect his/her wishes.

  32. #32 Sastra
    September 15, 2007

    hoary puccoon wrote:

    1) Everybody agrees that there are no actual, scientific disproofs of god. So why ‘atheist’ instead of ‘agnostic?’

    Most atheists are also agnostic: the theism — atheism axis has to do with belief; the gnostic — agnostic axis has to do with epistemic certainty. Is there a God? I don’t claim to know with 100% certainty, and could be wrong (agnostic). Do I believe there is? No (atheist). I choose to identify myself as “atheist” because the other term is usually translated as “I’m right on the cusp of changing over” rather than “I can imagine my view being false.”

    2) Jason may not have had ‘spiritual’ experiences, but certain techniques of meditation do lead fairly reliably to alpha-brain wave states, which people describe as spiritual.

    Now we’re getting into another semantic problem, on what the term “spiritual” means. If it’s restricted to meaning experiencing a deep sense of wonder, bliss, or connection with the universe, no problem here, and Jason and most other atheists would probably agree. But in practice the term is usually attached to believing in “higher realms,” where the Cosmos is somehow either sentient, magic, or both. I find that the actual meaning of the word “spiritual” tends to drift back and forth between the reasonable sense and the supernatural one, so I’m personally hesitant about using it.

    3) The bible is an ancient and complicated mixture of myth, philosophy, and history. Taking the attitude that the bible is all fiction becomes as much a faith-based mantra as claiming it is inerrant.

    I agree, and don’t know any atheists who wouldn’t. If the rhetoric is sometimes stepped up to a heated “it’s all myth,” I suspect that’s usually a bit of hyperbole employed to emphasize that the parts of the Bible which are specifically supernatural — the real points of contention — are myth.

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian: “Nothing supernatural exists, and nothing supernatural can exist, because ‘supernatural’ quite literally means ‘not part of the existing world’.”

    “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”

    – Lewis Carroll

    And for something completely different …

    Richard Wein: “I take it then that you are also agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Personally, I think we are rationally justified in disbelieving in the existence of any entity for which there is no evidence, whether it’s Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or God.”

    If Bertrand Russell can say, “in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic,” then it is hardly silly to refer to oneself as agnostic with regard to the Tooth Fairy. Of course, Russell would agree with Sastra in the post just above as well:

    http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell8.htm

  34. #34 Pseudonym
    September 15, 2007

    I take it then that you are also agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

    I believe they both exist. And in my house, they’re both me.

    Mickey Mouse doesn’t “exist” in one sense, but in another sense, I would have no problem going to Disneyland with my kids, pointing to a guy in a suit and saying: “Look, there’s Mickey Mouse!”

  35. #35 plover
    September 15, 2007

    the theism — atheism axis has to do with belief; the gnostic — agnostic axis has to do with epistemic certainty

    I have often seen people say this as if it were authoritative, but in my experience, there is no real consensus on this. It is always necessary to be careful with what people mean by these words.

    While philosophers and atheists have come up with a cartload of terminology for describing the various positions taken by unbelievers, the common, everyday vocabulary about such things is quite impoverished, and thus all the commonly known words end up being forced into multiple meanings and uses. Trying to force a word like “atheism” into a single, universal definition strikes me as a struggle against the overall mechanisms of human linguistics.

    I take it then that you are also agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Personally, I think we are rationally justified in disbelieving in the existence of any entity for which there is no evidence, whether it’s Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or God.

    The phenomena which Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy purport to explain (to children), i.e. the appearance of presents and money under specific circumstances, do not have a mysterious provenance for those in on the scam. There aren’t any parents out there wondering who is responsible for those presents. Thus while on some purely ideal level the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy can not be disproved, there are no phenomena that their existence is posited to explain.

    On the other hand, the universe as a whole — why it exists, or perhaps better: what the existence of an entity such as the universe depends on — is a phenomenon for which no sufficient explanation exists. A deity of some sort is one proposed hypothesis.

    Yes, many of the forms of that hypothesis are incoherent, contradictory, or silly. And yes, there is no meaningful evidence in favor of the more or less consistent versions of that hypothesis, but then there’s no meaningful evidence in favor of any other hypothesis either — including the null hypothesis, i.e. “the universe doesn’t depend on anything, it’s just there”. Indeed, it’s not even clear what such evidence would look like.

    Without evidence, the null hypothesis will likely be the most satisfying default position for most who accept a consistent and generally positivist approach to knowledge. Like hoary puccoon, I find the evidence against most traditional ideas of God persuasive, and I too am much happier without them. (I also agree with hoary puccoon regarding religion getting a free pass).

    I call myself “agnostic” as an acknowledgment that there is no particular evidence for any hypothesis about the nature of reality. For me, this choice represents an unwillingness to go beyond the evidence and serves as a statement of the value of doubt in scientific thinking.

  36. #36 windy
    September 15, 2007

    Everybody agrees that there are no actual, scientific disproofs of god. So why ‘atheist’ instead of ‘agnostic?’

    What god? The problem with this is that gods tend to mess with the physical world by definition. If any such existed, they would be in the purview of science or potentially discoverable in the future. In what sense is a god that never interacts with us or the universe even a god?

    The problem with attempting to make a truce with believers by saying “science can’t disprove god” is that you might be thinking, “…if by god, you mean a demiurge that created the universe and walked away”, and believers hear this and think “…therefore Jesus!”

    And about the demiurge hypothesis (plover):

    On the other hand, the universe as a whole — why it exists, or perhaps better: what the existence of an entity such as the universe depends on — is a phenomenon for which no sufficient explanation exists. A deity of some sort is one proposed hypothesis

    So what does the existence of the deity depend on? How does adding a middle man solve anything?

    Besides, cosmologists are not exactly sitting with their thumbs up their asses when it comes to this question, although it is a mistake to assume that it must have an answer.

  37. #37 Pierce R. Butler
    September 15, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey: If Bertrand Russell can say, “in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic,” then it is hardly silly to refer to oneself as agnostic with regard to the Tooth Fairy.

    Aw c’mon. IANA set theorist, but doesn’t that depend on the degree to which the sets of pure philosophy and silliness intersect, and where the audience set overlaps with either?

  38. #38 Kristjan Wager
    September 16, 2007

    Jason, I bet you have a hard time with not writing a new post over the new bru-ha between PZ and Nisbet.

  39. #39 hoary puccoon
    September 16, 2007

    plover says, “I call myself “agnostic” as an acknowledgment that there is no particular evidence for any hypothesis about the nature of reality. For me, this choice represents an unwillingness to go beyond the evidence and serves as a statement of the value of doubt in scientific thinking.”

    Bingo. That’s exactly what I was trying to express.

    Sastra says about the bible, “If the rhetoric is sometimes stepped up to a heated “it’s all myth,” I suspect that’s usually a bit of hyperbole employed to emphasize that the parts of the Bible which are specifically supernatural — the real points of contention — are myth.”

    Well, okay. But I think it’s a very counterproductive “bit of hyperbole.” One example. There is evidence that men who are supposed, in Jewish tradition, to be descended from Moses’s brother Aaron do generally share the same Y chromosome.
    Now, anti-biblical-literalists argue against Noah and his sons being the only male, human survivors of a world-wide flood, based on Y chromosome evidence. (Noah & Sons presumably had one Y chromosome between them; 4 at most, even if Mrs. Noah was the ultimate party girl.)
    The argument about Noah is easy to pass off if the believers can just argue, “Well, things were different back then.” But how can you argue that “things were different back then” for Noah– when the Y chromosome analysis works beautifully for the presumed descendants of Aaron?
    If you claim (as someone did recently on PT) that Moses and Aaron are “fictional characters” you are not only throwing away a strong argument, you are also turning off fence-sitters who might enjoy studying the bible from a rational perspective.
    Is that what you really want to do?

  40. #40 Richard Wein
    September 16, 2007

    Plover:

    The phenomena which Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy purport to explain (to children), i.e. the appearance of presents and money under specific circumstances, do not have a mysterious provenance for those in on the scam. There aren’t any parents out there wondering who is responsible for those presents. Thus while on some purely ideal level the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy can not be disproved, there are no phenomena that their existence is posited to explain.

    On the other hand, the universe as a whole — why it exists, or perhaps better: what the existence of an entity such as the universe depends on — is a phenomenon for which no sufficient explanation exists. A deity of some sort is one proposed hypothesis.

    Yes, many of the forms of that hypothesis are incoherent, contradictory, or silly. And yes, there is no meaningful evidence in favor of the more or less consistent versions of that hypothesis, but then there’s no meaningful evidence in favor of any other hypothesis either — including the null hypothesis, i.e. “the universe doesn’t depend on anything, it’s just there”. Indeed, it’s not even clear what such evidence would look like.

    Without evidence, the null hypothesis will likely be the most satisfying default position for most who accept a consistent and generally positivist approach to knowledge. Like hoary puccoon, I find the evidence against most traditional ideas of God persuasive, and I too am much happier without them. (I also agree with hoary puccoon regarding religion getting a free pass).

    I agree that we don’t have a good explanation for the existence of the Universe. But I think it’s still reasonable to reject bad explanations.

    The god hypothesis is bad because it has no explanatory power. It leaves the existence of god unexplained, and explaining God’s existence is at least as problematical as explaining the existence of the Universe (and arguably more so). This god is an unnecessary (and even counterproductive) middleman.

    The reason I suggest that god’s existence is even more problematic to explain than that of the Universe is that god is a conscious being, and consciousness appears to require great complexity. On the other hand, the universe was appearently reatively simple at the time of the big bang (though great complexity has arisen since then). I would suggest that a complex entity is more difficult to explain than a simple one.

    I call myself “agnostic” as an acknowledgment that there is no particular evidence for any hypothesis about the nature of reality. For me, this choice represents an unwillingness to go beyond the evidence and serves as a statement of the value of doubt in scientific thinking.

    I don’t think doubt is relevant here. To say that one is an atheist is only to say that one disbelirves in the existence of god (or believes that god does not exist). It is not a statement of certainty. All claims about reality should in principle contain an elemenmt of doubt (however small). After all, it is possible in principle that the whole universe as I know it (including you) is merely a figment of my imagination. ;)

  41. #41 windy
    September 16, 2007

    …when the Y chromosome analysis works beautifully for the presumed descendants of Aaron?

    Excuse me, do you have Aaron’s remains and his DNA? Noticing that members of a patrilineal caste tend to carry the same Y chromosome does not mean that their particular legendary ancestor was a real person, given that most legendary heroes may be based on a small grain of truth. I’d say that King Arthur is a fictional character regardless of whether the legend is based on a real person, they are so far diverged.

    Sure there may be a lot of historical fact in the bible: there was in Forrest Gump, too. It’s still a work of fiction.

  42. #42 Sastra
    September 16, 2007

    plover wrote:

    Trying to force a word like “atheism” into a single, universal definition strikes me as a struggle against the overall mechanisms of human linguistics.

    Yes, it’s a struggle. You put it very well, there is a “cartload of terminology for describing the various positions of unbelievers” — and believers. Try to pin down the various definitions of “God” and “spiritual.” It sometimes seems as if everyone means something different, which makes communication and understanding difficult.

    Which is why it’s best to ask what people mean, and to try to be as clear as possible in explaining what you mean yourself. Hoary Puccoon asked “why atheist instead of agnostic?” I realize the double-axis explanation is not definitive: but it’s what I, personally, use to keep track of the meanings of “atheist” and “agnostic.” It tells him where I’m coming from.

    I call myself “agnostic” as an acknowledgment that there is no particular evidence for any hypothesis about the nature of reality. For me, this choice represents an unwillingness to go beyond the evidence and serves as a statement of the value of doubt in scientific thinking.

    I respect that, but choose instead to call myself an “atheist” as an acknowledgment that the hypothesis of Naturalism has shown itself to be a more reliable working theory than the alternatives. My choice of term represents a recognition that the value of doubt in scientific thinking is balanced by the value of ontological conservatism: one should weigh the view with the preponderance of evidence as more likely to be true than the views with less. Lack of certainty doesn’t entail that all beliefs come down to taste.

    Someone recently pointed out that Christians agree with each other on the terms, but argue vehemently over beliefs: atheists agree with each other on what they believe, but instead argue passionately over the terms. That’s not strictly correct, of course, but probably close enough in this case. ;)

  43. #43 hoary puccoon
    September 17, 2007

    The more I look at this atheist vs. agnostic discussion, the more I wish I hadn’t brought it up.

    Do you guys really care, if at some future time we (or our descendants) discover the laws of physics were originally designed by some intelligent creature who could, if you don’t think about it too hard, bear some vague resemblance to some people’s hazy ideas of a Supreme Being? Assuming this intelligent being proceeded ahead with its current laissez-faire policy, how would this affect humanity? (If it suddenly decided to become interventionist, of course, we would all find out about it in short order, so there’d be no more debate, anyway.)

    I don’t think such a being actually exists. But if it does exist, it’s not paying any attention to us. That’s exactly why I don’t see any point in making any definitive statements about it at all.

    The point is, nobody here is arguing in favor of the biblical god, or any other intercessionary god. There is overwhelming evidence that the laws of physics continue to function no matter how many prayers are said, in whatever form. Fiddling around with atheist vs. agnostic vs. ‘I’m spiritual rather than religious’ makes me feel like I’m back in Greece, trying to remember whether the Catholics cross left to right and the Orthodox right to left, or the other way around.

    I think I’ll invent a new term. I’m an, ahem, acaritas. It means I simply don’t care. Shall we argue over that for a while?

  44. #44 heddle
    September 17, 2007

    Caledonian

    If you believe that there are things outside of ‘nature’ that can affect things inside, you cannot properly study how the natural world operates.

    Beyond history demonstrating that your comment is Jerry-Falwell dumb, I offer a test for your theory:

    Read some articles in the peer reviewed literature in, say, physics. Identify the believers by identifying how their beliefs did not allow them to properly study how the natural world operates, as you assert.

    If that is too hard, I’ll even suggest a test that isn’t blind. I know some world class physicists who are believers–I bet you cannot, even knowing they are believers, demonstrate how their studies are in any manner “improper.”

    If I am right, how would your neat, tidy, and childishly simplistic theory respond?

    If you are just going to engage in question begging (they are believers, therefore cognitive dissonance, therefore blah, blah, blah) then don’t bother. I want you to tell me how you can examine the fruits of their studies, their published research, and demonstrate from their final product that their studies were performed improperly.

    If you think you can do that, I’ll provide a list of current, first-rate papers reporting research performed by believers. You can respond here, or on my blog in a guest post, about how their studies were done improperly, and what results they demonstrated are now, as a consequence, suspect.

  45. #45 Caledonian
    September 17, 2007

    Read some articles in the peer reviewed literature in, say, physics. Identify the believers by identifying how their beliefs did not allow them to properly study how the natural world operates, as you assert.

    Show me where the believers took account for divine influence in their experiments. Even better, show me where they instituted control procedures for divine influence.

    There are no theists in scientific journals. At most, there are compartmentalists who have temporarily suspended their supposedly-genuine beliefs in religion long enough to meet the logical standards for journal writing.

    If you want an example of people writing articles that acknowledge their religious beliefs, I suggest you try talking to the Discovery Institute.

  46. #46 Caledonian
    September 17, 2007

    Do you guys really care, if at some future time we (or our descendants) discover the laws of physics were originally designed by some intelligent creature who could, if you don’t think about it too hard, bear some vague resemblance to some people’s hazy ideas of a Supreme Being?

    Since that outcome is logically impossible, yes, I would care very much if we ‘discovered’ that.

  47. #47 rmp
    September 17, 2007

    heddle, are you saying that you can identify research papers that indicate that something outside of ‘nature’ affected things inside?

    Or are you saying that some people believe in God but don’t let that belief get in the way of the scientific method when doing research?

  48. #48 heddle
    September 17, 2007

    Caledonian,

    If you want an example of people writing articles that acknowledge their religious beliefs, I suggest you try talking to the Discovery Institute.

    Funny you should mention that, because your writing reminds me of what is found on the DI’s site. All sorts of claims are made, but what asked: how do you test it? the response, behind the obfuscation, is deafening silence.

    Your claim was:

    If you believe that there are things outside of ‘nature’ that can affect things inside, you cannot properly study how the natural world operates.

    Every believing scientist believes in the supernatural, since by definition God is supernatural. And as long as they believe that God can do/has done at least one thing, if nothing more than setting the initial conditions, then they believe that there are things outside of nature that can affect things inside. And your conclusion was that such a person cannot properly study how the natural world operates. You did not (originally) demand “show me where the believers took into account for divine influence.” Indeed, that is asking me to do your work for you, since you claim that simply as believers they cannot conduct a proper study–so it is actually your job, should you wish to prove your point, to demonstrate how their research was flawed, presumably because it was tainted by their belief in the divine.

    Rmp,

    heddle, are you saying that you can identify research papers that indicate that something outside of ‘nature’ affected things inside?
    Or are you saying that some people believe in God but don’t let that belief get in the way of the scientific method when doing research?

    I’m saying the latter, in contrast to Caledonian’s universal claim, which he offered to dispute that there is a distinction between PN and MN. I’m saying I can provide many examples of people who are MN but not PN, and I defy anyone to demonstrate how their scientific studies are improper. Saying that they compartmentalize is actually admitting that yes, they can perform proper legitimate scientific research.

  49. #49 Caledonian
    September 17, 2007

    If it can affect things inside of nature, it’s part of nature. If that violates our previous assumptions about what sorts of interactions are possible, so be it – science makes progress by finding the things we don’t understand and trying to understand them.

  50. #50 plover
    September 17, 2007

    Richard Wein:

    The argument you make is basically Dawkins’s “Ultimate 747″ argument which was crafted as a counter to the argument from design, and in that context, is largely a good response (though I think Dawkins underestimates the degree to which assumptions about time and the source of complexity have to be thrown out when discussing an entity that potentially exists outside the universe).

    The position I outlined above, however, is based on an ontological argument. At the level of fundamental ontology, we don’t really have enough information to assign any kind of probabilities to various hypotheses. We know so little that the null hypothesis is about the only one that can even be made coherent, though we accept it largely because it is possible to work with and does not require extra assumptions rather than out of any estimate of the chance it has of being true.

    From my perspective, it is a mistake to see agnosticism as some halfway compromise between theism and atheism. As I see it, the “I don’t know” of agnosticism is not aimed at whether or not some theistic God exists, but rather at the overall question of fundamental ontology (and the epistemological difficulties of even addressing it).

    While I have only offered a sketchy version of the ontological argument, my original purpose was not to justify an agnosticism vs atheism distinction but rather to show why I think that arguments about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don’t correspond well to arguments about god (broadly conceived).

  51. #51 rmp
    September 17, 2007

    plover, I’m comfortable telling people that I’m very skeptical about there being a god. If that’s not a ‘pure enough’ atheism, then so be it. Perhaps that’s considered to be too accommodating but come on, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

  52. #52 plover
    September 17, 2007

    Sastra:

    Yes, I agree that the trick to these discussions is often clarifying what each person means by their terms.

    The concern I tend to have over the definitions of “atheism” and “agnosticism” used by many who call themselves atheists is that the definitions do not really describe, the groups of people who call themselves atheists or agnostics.

    “Atheism” defined simply as “lack of god belief” constitutes the group “atheists” more or less as the logical complement of “theists”. That’s a useful category to have a word for, but it’s not the same as the group of people that call themselves “atheists”, and it dragoons people into that category who have their differences (however amicable) with those who identify as atheists.

    It is also somewhat of an offront for those who identify as agnostics to be told that the term “agnostic” does not have the meaning they identify with.

    The terminology you mentioned is tidy and is likely more formally rigorous than the more common usages, but it seems to me to completely ignore the human dynamics of the situation. This often seems to lead to some of the more fruitless arguments between atheists and agnostics, arguments which distract from the more pressing issues of how to live in a world full of theists.

    Lack of certainty doesn’t entail that all beliefs come down to taste.

    Yes, this is true. However, as I noted above, from my perspective, the “I don’t know” of agnosticism is not really directed at the question of the theistic god as such. In a sense, agnosticism might, in part, be characterised as an acknowledgment that the question of ontology is not exhausted by the existence or non-existence of god. This is not to say that atheists do consider that question completely definitive, but it does seem that they choose their emphasis differently.

  53. #53 plover
    September 18, 2007

    rmp:

    I’m comfortable telling people that I’m very skeptical about there being a god. If that’s not a ‘pure enough’ atheism, then so be it. Perhaps that’s considered to be too accommodating but come on, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at here or what you think I meant. About the last thing I would want is to suggest any kind of “purity” standard.

  54. #54 windy
    September 18, 2007

    Do you guys really care, if at some future time we (or our descendants) discover the laws of physics were originally designed by some intelligent creature who could, if you don’t think about it too hard, bear some vague resemblance to some people’s hazy ideas of a Supreme Being?

    How ever are we going to discover something that substantial if we don’t “think about it too hard”? Or do you mean that some people get to think hard, and the rest just turn their brains off and fantasize about a supreme being? (so what else is new?)

  55. #55 rmp
    September 18, 2007

    plover, with the benefit of sleep, I have to admit that I’m not sure what exactly I was going for ;) I fear that everyone post was starting to blend together and I should have just gone to bed.

  56. #56 hoary puccoon
    September 19, 2007

    windy–
    I meant that it would be one heck of a coincidence if some powerful being exists who matches up to any of the gods invented on earth. But people are good at seeing patterns even when none actually exists. And since they are now earnestly arguing that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth fulfilled the prophesy that an aristocrat’s son from Bethlehem would be the Messiah, I have every confidence they will be able to find a fulfilled prophesy whatever turns up.

  57. #57 Thumpalumpacus
    September 21, 2007

    “Everybody agrees that there are no actual, scientific disproofs of god. So why ‘atheist’ instead of ‘agnostic?’” — hoary puccoon

    I am an atheist not an agnostic in the sense that I live my life without god(s). It is not a statement on the [non]existence of god(s). I may well wake up tomorrow and find on the news that we have indeed discovered god. Very well. I bow to reality.

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