This essay by Peter Bebergal is getting some bloggy attention. Chad Orzel liked it. John Wilkins calls it “lovely, lyrical and wistful.” P.Z. is less impressed.

I’m with P.Z. Surprise!

The essay starts off strong with a condemnation of the Creation Museum. Hard to object to that!

Sadly, the essay quickly veers off into an all-too-familiar defense of the allegedly good sort of religion, as opposed to the simplistic kind represented by the fundamentalists. His message can be summed up as follows: “Sure, if you take religious claims seriously then of course you will think religion is pretty silly. But if you remove all of the supernatural stuff and take a going-through-the-motions approach to religious ceremonies and rituals, then you have something pretty good!”

Let’s consider some specifics:

Religious experience begins with an encounter, which is then given form by the imagination. We then turn this form into texts, prayers, rituals, and of course, myths. Communities gather around these stories and continue to use the religious imagination to keep them relevant. The very notion of being in communion with God, whether through prayer or ritual, in believing that a man died and was resurrected, or in eating unleavened bread for a week, is the least rational of endeavors. But this is where its power lies.

Skipping ahead a few sentences brings us to this:

Religion functions because we do and say the same things over and over again, not to prove them, but to keep them alive in a world that demands we respond rationally most of the time. Even the most fervent biblical literalist usually goes to the doctor when he or she gets sick, and is happy for the medicine offered, medicine that was discovered and developed with that old stick-in-the mud, science, the same discipline that helps us to understand our world in all its complexity. Prayer might make the ill feel less hopeless, but it’s reason that gets the healing chemical compounds into the bloodstream.

There is value in tradition, and if that is Bebergal’s point then I can go along with him, at least for a while. For example, sometimes I participate in Passover seders. I don’t really believe that God freed my ancestors from bondage in Egypt, and I definitely don’t believe that God sent ten plagues, or that the Jews fled so quickly there was no time for their bread to rise. I participate anyway. Partly this is because seders are fun; they are basically an excuse for having a big meal. But it is also because I see value in the fact that Jews have been participating in this ritual for centuries, and that by participating I am identifying myself as part of that community.

Of course, this has nothing to do with any desired release from the burden of rationality imposed on us by our day-to-day lives. I don’t know where Bebergal got that from. That notwithstanding, I suspect that a lot of religious people view their religion in precisely this way. The term “secular Jew” is almost as ubiquitous as “lapsed Catholic,” and it means roughly the same thing. For many people religious identity has far more to do with being part of a community than it does with getting right with God. I suspect this is a big part of the reason that religion thrives in small towns. There’s little else to do. If you are not active in the local church, you are likely to have almost no social life at all.

Here’s the thing, though. Religion as a basis for community and socialization only works if there are a substantial number of people within the community who actually believe the myths. It is one thing to have a few people participating in religious rituals without actually believing them, but if that is the dominant view within the community then the rituals will quickly come to seem rather silly. As Bebergal himself points out at the start of his essay, if the polling data is to be believed then a great many people take their religious myths and rituals very seriously indeed. It is for that reason that the question of their truth must be taken seriously as well.

Let us now consider the few sentences I left out between the two blockquotes above:

If the moments we commemorate through our rituals had simply occurred in history, there would be little possibility of giving them new meaning in the way, for example, the American slaves saw in the miraculous moments of the Jewish Exodus story a vision for their own liberation. When ritual is seen as the retelling of a mythological event, then its ability to function as a metaphor is enlivened each time. A purely historical event is static. While it might offer a moral lesson, there is nothing inherently symbolic about it. The mythologizing of events makes them part of our ritual and liturgy and allows us to reimagine them. But the religious imagination has been replaced by a need to rationalize religious faith. The motto of the Creation Museum is “Prepare to Believe,” but revelation is not the intent of the exhibits. The purpose of the museum is to prove that the Bible is truth, and to induce religious stupor it plays on an ignorance of science and what the doing of science really means.

This is mostly nonsense. A story does not lose its power to inspire simply because it is true. Quite the contrary. Why would the Jewish Exodus story be more powerful as a myth than as an actual historical event? The truth of a story does not stop you from seeing the parallels between what is described in the story and your own personal situation.

Bebergal puts great stock in the “religious imagination.” I don’t know what he means by this phrase. Since he sets the imagination in contrast with attempts to rationalize religion, I can only take him to mean that religion is more powerful when it is made up than it is when you come to believe the stories are true. I fail to see how this view of things is any improvement over the fundamentalists.

These quotes set the tone for the whole essay. Bebergal closes with:

The stories of giants, of heroes and angels, become metaphors for our relationship with the world, metaphors that point to its holiness. Whether tales are true or false is beside the point. And to try and make them true in the same way that archaeological evidence proves humans did not attach carts to lumbering brontosaurus is to maim–maybe even destroy–what their real value for us is.

The truth or falsity of the tales is beside the point only because they are false. If they were true their truth would not be beside the point. I take Bebergal to be saying here that religious stories have value even though they are false. But what is this “real value” of which he speaks? When I hear the story of God taking human form, living a sinless life, dying on a cross, and then being bodily resurrected three days later, the value of this story is to remind me that the world is holy? Seems a bizarre way of making the point.

Essays like this always leave me a bit conflicted. On the one hand the world be a better place if everyone viewed religion the way Bebergal views it. If more people started seeing their religious myths as stories designed to make a point as opposed to as the truth about our proper relationship with God, there would be a lot less conflict between rival religions.

But it really looks to me like Bebergal’s arguments are mere desperation. Religion used to provide cogent explanations of the world. Those explanations have been entirely superseded by science. We could either discard the old myths and find our inspiration in the vastly more impressive view of the world provided by science and reason, or we can desperately concoct an excuse for keeping religion around. I see little merit in the latter option.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    May 27, 2008

    A third option is to recognize myths for their historical and allegorical value, and especially as they demonstrate the evolution of culture, and not as the accumulation of wisdom supposedly bestowed by forces of the supernatural as a necessity for our survival.

  2. #2 Kevin
    May 27, 2008

    I think I agree with pretty much everything Bebergal says, if you just replace “religion” with “fiction” throughout the whole article.

    Yes, fiction is powerful stuff. My kids are fascinated by Narnia, Winnie the Pooh, and lots of others. And I love fiction too, and can learn a lot from it, and get inspiration from it, and it shapes and changes my life and my views and my beliefs. Myths, fiction, all of it is useful and powerful, despite it being false. It can tell us things about reality by helping give us new ways to think about things, by putting a personal narrative on impersonal facts. It can tell us something about human nature, if we can see ourselves and the people we know in the characters.

    But religion is fiction that people actually believe is true, i.e. believe is not fiction. Berbergal want’s to oppose the view of religion and say, no, no, religion can be useful despite (or because of?!?) the fact that it is fiction. How can he not realize that his “religion” is just the plain old definition of “fiction”? I think he still clings to the idea that it is more than fiction, that it is most powerful when we (pretend?) to believe it. Or maybe that’s when it works. Or something. Thats a weird and slippery slope though for him, I suspect — because religion becomes a placebo instead of fiction: it only works if you don’t realize what it really is.

  3. #3 Pseudonym
    May 27, 2008

    I didn’t interpret the essay this way at all. Maybe it’s because I know where Bebergal is coming from.

    This is mostly nonsense. A story does not lose its power to inspire simply because it is true.

    Actually, he’s making the converse point: A story doesn’t necessarily gain any power to inspire just because it’s true, either.

    There’s also a way in which mythology (and I use this term broadly; we’ll see why in a moment) differs from “true” stories: It’s the process by which they’ve been modified which makes them more powerful.

    Think of a time when all storytelling was oral. No story was reproduced perfectly; random mutations occurred in every retelling, like copying errors in DNA. But the versions of the stories that we retain over time are not random, because there’s also a natural selection pressure. Those which have more psychological “power” are the ones that tended to be retained, those which are less “powerful” tended to be discarded.

    That’s why mythology, folk tales and urban legends are, in a sense, more powerful than reality: They’ve been created by a process of evolution that makes them more powerful. That’s also why “whether tales are true or false is beside the point”. Michael Shermer made the same point in The God Who Wasn’t There when he said that to interpret biblical stories literally was to miss their point completely. (This was, IMO, the most well-reasoned statement in the whole film.)

    Joseph Campbell should be mandatory reading before you’re allowed to pick apart an essay like this. It helps if you actually understand what you’re criticising.

  4. #4 Pseudonym
    May 27, 2008

    Kevin:

    I think I agree with pretty much everything Bebergal says, if you just replace “religion” with “fiction” throughout the whole article.

    I agree with you, to the extent that good fiction, the stuff that really resonates with people, tends to mirror mythology. (Or, more accurately, they both mirror what human psychology wants.)

    But religion is fiction that people actually believe is true, i.e. believe is not fiction. Berbergal want’s to oppose the view of religion and say, no, no, religion can be useful despite (or because of?!?) the fact that it is fiction.

    I didn’t get that at all. Berbergal is arguing that religion has value as something that people do not as something that people believe. Moreover, most of the 20,000+ religions in the world are quite explicit about it these days. It’s only the few that you’re probably the most familiar with that are the exceptions.

  5. #5 Kevin
    May 27, 2008

    Pseudonym, here you are all talking about “storytelling”, “mythology”, “folk tales”, and “urban legends”. But I thought the essay, and this post, was about religion.

    Can you cite me a few major contemporary religions (*) that view their stories as “storytelling”, “mythology”, “folk tales”, or “urban legends”? Walk into any major church, synagogue, temple, mosque or whatever, and nowhere will you find anyone using words like those. Look in their books, in their teachings, in their official church writings, in Sunday school lessons, in the sermons. Nowhere again.

    Of course religious stories would still be useful even if everyone were to up and admit they are just fiction. And sure, I even concede the argument that stories can be more powerful when they are fiction. And there is nothing particular about religious stories here — the same can be said for lots of other fiction, too. Like gnomes and trolls, Santa Clause, greek mythology, and the smurfs. But religion is the elevation of fiction to belief, faith, and Truth. You are defending the value of fiction, while the rest of us are trying to discuss this thing called religion.

    (*) And yes, I know there are some, but they are irrelevant. I hear (and in my limited experience) that a lot of indian (native american) religion is mainly storytelling — obviously and admittedly false stories that are passed down and modified and taught, just like religion, but in such a way that even the adherents don’t pretend to believe them in the literal sense, but instead accept them for their lessons only.

  6. #6 Kevin
    May 28, 2008

    Pseudonym: Moreover, most of the 20,000+ religions in the world are quite explicit about it these days. It’s only the few that you’re probably the most familiar with that are the exceptions.

    (I think we are crossing messages, sorry bout that.)

    Sorry, sure, I’m uneducated and unworldly and only have my own experience — that of growing up in a pretty typical family in a typical upper-middle-class American town. I don’t know much of these 20,000+ religions.

    Speaking about the U.S. only — how many of those 20,000+ are relevant to a discussion here? Well, google tells me that some 80% of Americans are christian of some form or another. Throw in muslims and jews, then we get down to pretty small numbers. I think everything I said applies to these three religious groups.

    I spent some time in Senegal and Guinea, where the numbers for muslims go way up, and animism shows up as a big faction. But still I’m not seeing anything that invalidates my broad generalizations about the relevant religions here.

    I one visited England, but same story there. Yes, I’m missing out on a few continents. So enlighten me please? And hopefully tell me something that is relevant to religion in America. Or, at least, in “western” cultures. Or, at least, to the current “religious conflict” going on in the world. Or relevant to something I have heard of. Thanks.

  7. #7 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    Can you cite me a few major contemporary religions (*) that view their stories as “storytelling”, “mythology”, “folk tales”, or “urban legends”? Walk into any major church, synagogue, temple, mosque or whatever [...]

    I see you got stuck on this one too. I also couldn’t think of any non-Abrahamic examples off the top of my head. Three religions out of 20,000+ isn’t exactly a high proportion.

    Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism were the first examples that I could think of that emphasise doing rather than believing, and who see their stories mostly as a means to an end. Pretty much any “indigenous” religion that I could think of (you mentioned Native American religions, I also thought of Australian Aboriginal religions) was pretty much the same.

    And I don’t see this as the slightest bit “irrelevant”. The emphasis in Western Christianity on “belief” is a fairly modern occurrence, and the move away from this is actually a restoration rather than a weakening.

    The fact is, the problem of people trying to find science in their religion was only an issue after the development of science. This point was brought up in Bebergal’s essay, when he noted that to the Medieval mind, everything in the study of nature had a moral lesson attached to it. It seems quaint to us, but you have to get your mind thinking like that if you’re ever to understand the context in which most religions grew up.

  8. #8 caynazzo
    May 28, 2008

    Pseudo, when you say mythology is more powerful because it isn’t true for the reason you mention, why not simply replace more powerful with more efficient at triggering a few emotional responses in people and leave it at that? Why you want to imbue it with a sense of significance beyond the mundane I can’t imagine.

    And it’s not beside the point whether these just-so stories are true or false if the truth at all concerns you. Besides, the hand waving involved in dismissing their falsity as irrelevant is a disingenuous detachment from the reality of fundamentalist bigotry.

  9. #9 kevin
    May 28, 2008

    Oh, and glancing through the (ever informative, completely trustworthy) wikipedia entry on religion, I see that it is chock full of stuff about gods, godesses, the supernatural, faith, sacred truths, belief, and so on. Yea, and also a few things about how sociologists and anthropologists might define things a bit differently than everyone else.

  10. #10 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    Kevin: Sorry, yes, we are crossing. I’ll hold off for a moment to let others comment. But since you asked:

    So enlighten me please? And hopefully tell me something that is relevant to religion in America.

    I don’t live in America, so I can’t help you there.

    In the context of Bebergal’s essay, bear in mind that it is in a magazine on modern Jewish culture. As Jason would probably admit, there’s a very strong secular/cultural component in American Judaism which emphasises the storytelling aspect, and the practice aspect (e.g. Passover seders) rather than literal history.

    Jason says that “religion used to provide cogent explanations of the world”. I disagree in part. This was never the real point, and the pseudoscientific element is a modern development which crept in as a reaction to science. As you pointed out, Native American religion emphasises practice and storytelling. I argue that this is closer to what religion “in the wild” is like; indeed, the older and more primitive a religion is, the more like that it is. This is what Bebergal argues (and I agree with him) has always been what is most valuable in religion, and the modern pseudo-scientific elements are a corruption of it.

    This is about as far as “desperation” as it’s possible to get, and it’s not an “excuse for keeping religion around”. It’s restoring religion to the job that it evolved to do, which is an extremely noble thing IMO.

  11. #11 Kevin
    May 28, 2008

    Pseudo, yes sure I am avoiding talking about Hinduism and Buddhism and lots of others (even big ones — big outside the U.S. anyway) because I know little about them. But don’t be silly about numbers. Yes, 3 out of 20,000 is indeed a majority in the U.S., and probably even a majority in Europe too, and maybe even Africa, and some other continents.

    Can we please invent different english words for “religion where people actually believe the stories” and “religion where the stories are acknowledged to be fiction?” Because in the English speaking world, I’m willing to venture a guess that just plain “religion” means the former to everyone but the the very extremely small negligible number of (a) anthropologists, (b) sociologists, (c) other enlightened and worldly people. How about we get to keep “religion”, and you can call the latter a “way of life” or “mythology” or something. And do sociologists and anthropologists not care than “the exception” to their definition covers, like, pretty much everyone in the “western” world?

  12. #12 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    OK, one last comment then I really need to get some work done.

    canzo:

    Pseudo, when you say mythology is more powerful because it isn’t true for the reason you mention, why not simply replace more powerful with more efficient at triggering a few emotional responses in people and leave it at that? Why you want to imbue it with a sense of significance beyond the mundane I can’t imagine.

    This is why I think people should read Campbell and Jung. Jung’s argument was that mythology, other folk tales and religious practice reveals powerful insights into our psychology, and we need something like it to stay sane. Why else do we seem to want a festival of some sort to celebrate the birth of a child, or the coming of puberty? All cultures and religions have them. You seem to need something, and by closely studying the actual content of religions as a whole (not just noting their mere existence), you can find out what that is. That’s why I think there really is a “significance beyond the mundane”, and we do our species a disservice if we don’t try to find out what the psychological significance actually is.

    Yeah, you could replace it with something. I’m cool with that. Sam Harris argued for a kind of post-enlightenment Buddhism, which sounds fine to me if that floats your boat. Eric S. Raymond argued in favour of modern mysticism, too. Or you could restore religions to their original jobs. Probably a combination of both is in order.

    Besides, the hand waving involved in dismissing their falsity as irrelevant is a disingenuous detachment from the reality of fundamentalist bigotry.

    Sorry, I didn’t understand that. Are you suggesting that people like Bebergal are actually attached to fundamentalist bigotry in some way?

  13. #13 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    Uhm… I wrote this:

    [...] and we need something like it to stay sane.

    I didn’t quite mean that the way it came out. I didn’t mean to imply that you need a pseudo-religion to be sane.

    What I meant was that, for example, even the staunchest of atheists have celebrations on the birth of a child, or gatherings to remember someone’s life when they die, or celebrate other cultural festivals (e.g. Thanksgiving in the US). These things, which used to be dressed exclusively in religious clothing, are important to us, and they’re part of what makes us human.

  14. #14 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Pseudonym,

    Right. I write this while contemplating the graduation of a friend who is a long ways away and looking back on our friendship and other milestones. The point you’ve failed to make is what religion or myth brings to the marking of these events in the modern world.

  15. #15 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    sng:

    The point you’ve failed to make is what religion or myth brings to the marking of these events in the modern world.

    This was merely an illustration for easy comprehension. Sorry, probably should have made that a bit more explicit.

    I hope that my main point isn’t lost, which is essentially this: Religion, mythology, folk tales and so on evolved to fill a niche in our psychology. The details are tricky, and I don’t have a lot of time to go into them right now, but I can give you some pointers if you’re curious. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is probably the best “popular” book on this topic, though some people find it quite hard to read.

    What I am saying is that if religion has any value today, it’s precisely to do the job that it evolved to do: namely, to fill the niches in our psychology. This is also, pretty much, Bebergal’s main point. Jason, in his second-last paragraph, seems to agree that this would be a good thing too.

    Moreover, contrary to Jason’s last paragraph, this is not desperation. In fact, it’s the exact opposite: it’s a reversion to religion’s original purpose.

    What I’m not saying that these psychological niches can only be filled by religion.

    And, by the way, all this stuff isn’t new. The Freudians (e.g. Jung and Campbell) recognised the psychological role that mythology plaued, and believed that their psychoanalysis was the “truth” of which the mythologies of old were mere approximations. The dust hasn’t entirely settled on this argument, but it seems pretty clear to most people now that Freudian psychoanalysis, while a very important development on the road to modern psychology and psychiatry, was a kind of pseudo-religion in itself. (There’s a sense in which therapy was the religion of the 20th century for many people, if you know what I mean.)

    Sam Harris has said similar things. I also think this is something close to what David Brooks was trying to get at, although his piece was so confused that if he had a point at all, it got completely lost.

  16. #16 Mike
    May 28, 2008

    Pseudonym, to follow what sng wrote, I’d say that you’ve failed to demonstrate what religion — i.e., a collection of stories held by a community to be true either literally or figuratively — brings to the marking of modern events that other modes of marking do not. My friends and I manage to mark the events in our lives in quite profound, communitarian and lasting ways, all without the use of a package of stories.

    Similarly, I think reference to Campbell and Jung is somewhat misplaced. While they certainly excavated somewhat universal subtexts and contexts to religion, I don’t think their point extended to the idea that religious stories were necessary to the expression of these subtexts and contexts. In short, I don’t think Campbell and Jung can be read as saying only religion can provide insight into the ineffable mystery of human existence. (Maybe I’m wrong. I’m no expert on either man’s work.)

    I’m also quite dubious of anything Bebergal says because he strikes me as disingenuous. He writes:

    If the moments we commemorate through our rituals had simply occurred in history, there would be little possibility of giving them new meaning in the way, for example, the American slaves saw in the miraculous moments of the Jewish Exodus story a vision for their own liberation.

    Again, I stand open to correction, but I have never heard the slightest suggestion that the American slaves –17th-, 18th- and 19th-century men and women, mind you — understood the Exodus to be anything other than historical. Indeed, I’ve always understood that it was belief that god had, in literal fact, liberated the Jews from Egypt that permitted the slaves to hope that god would do the same for them.

    To the contray of Bebergal’s claim, it wasn’t “new meaning” the slaves wanted from the Exodus story. They wanted the same old meaning, only applied to them this time. They wanted god to do for them the same that he did for the Jews. In this sense, at least, their religion was quite definitely a means of explaining the literal world.

    Am I wrong about this? Is it somehow common knowledge, which I missed, that the slavery-era African-American church was so sophisticated that it took all Christian dogma as pure metaphor? If not, then it seems to me Bebergal needs to back up his examples with new historical research. Until he does, I’ll suspect that he really has nothing on which to base his ideas.

  17. #17 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    Mike, I hope I answered your first point in my latest response. In retrospect, it was probably a bad example, since you’re the second person to take exception to it.

    I haven’t thought too hard about this, but perhaps a better example is the mythology that we tell people that we know is mythology, such as telling kids about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. (Yes, yes, I know, not everyone tells their kids these stories. My point is that most people, probably including most atheists, do.) Why do we do this? It’s not because we believe it, but rather because on some gut level, we know that the stories have value, if only cultural value.

    I’m told that Americans still tell each other the myths of George Washington and the cherry tree, and the truly bizarre one that everyone except Columbus believed the Earth was flat. Neither story is true. Everyone knows that neither story is true. Yet there they are.

    As to your second point, I think you have a good point there. I don’t want to put words into Bebergal’s mouth, but the point I hope he was trying to make is a bit more subtle than what he said.

    The point I hope he was trying to make is this: Literal history, because it has not gone through the evolutionary process that mythology has, is not as useful for gleaning “new meaning” from.

    Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the story of the Exodus is very loosely based on some real event. (It probably is, after all.) I think> that his point is that if we had the real story of what happened, it would probably have no inspirational value whatsoever.

    Yes, there are some very inspirational events in history. But there are a lot of uninspirational events, too, that become more inspirational if you turn them into myth.

  18. #18 royniles
    May 28, 2008

    Apropos I hope to these comments in general, making reference to mythology as fiction because the events that the lessons were derived from were most likely fictional may do little to enhance the value of any such lessons. Because these lessons were predicated on the belief that the events depicted were true and therefor the lessons derived are to be valued accordingly.
    But fiction on the other hand recognizes that the lessons represent truth because the events involved are symbolic of those expected to result in consequences that the stories were meant to warn or advise us of.
    Mythology in many way fashions truth to fit some preconceived version of events, where fiction more often fashions events to represent the writer’s conception of truth.

  19. #19 FO
    May 28, 2008

    What I meant was that, for example, even the staunchest of atheists have celebrations on the birth of a child, or gatherings to remember someone’s life when they die, or celebrate other cultural festivals (e.g. Thanksgiving in the US). These things, which used to be dressed exclusively in religious clothing, are important to us, and they’re part of what makes us human.

    Bullshit. I don’t celebrate my birthday, don’t attend weddings, don’t celebrate new year, don’t give a fuck about thanksgiving, and so on. Does that mean I’m not human? You say “those things” are important? To whom? You?

    Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the story of the Exodus is very loosely based on some real event. (It probably is, after all.) I think> that his point is that if we had the real story of what happened, it would probably have no inspirational value whatsoever.

    People who need myths, fairytales and fuckwitted stories to inspire them need to grow up and get a life.

  20. #20 Sigmund
    May 28, 2008

    Why is it that these believers in sophisticated religion do not actually do something useful with their sophisticated beliefs. Why not take on the ignorant preachers that terrorize generation after generation with promises of eternal torture for merely questioning their lurid tales.
    Is it only non believers that think telling small children these sorts of stories amounts to child abuse?
    Are the sophisticated religious really happy to let it continue unchallenged (verbally challenged, I’m not advocating making it illegal)?
    The other thing I don’t get from the sophisticates is why they tend to limit themselves to one religion. If its all metaphor then why not use stories of Thor, Quetzalcoatl or Shiva in their discourse rather than sticking to a single tradition.
    Are we really supposed to believe that the bible was written with a particular purely metaphorical meaning which was very quickly misinterpreted as realistic depiction of events and natural phenomenon and only now have the sophisticates revealed its original true meaning?
    Is it not more parsimonious to suggest that it was written by peoples about things they seriously believed to be true (they didn’t have the modern knowledge about climate, geology, natural selection, astronomy – the idea of a God doing it all at his whim is a rather obvious explanation when you are without this advantage) and that modern sophisticated explanations are merely post hoc rationalizations which would work just as well with the stories of Thor and Odin as with Christianity. Its just that practically nobody alive today can take the Thor stories seriously because we have been brought to up believe them as purely myths.

  21. #21 JimV
    May 28, 2008

    Just to second a comment above, but more politely:

    I also don’t see the need for and never got the point of birthday parties, big weddings, Thanksgiving dinners, and so on. I would rather throw a frisbee or watch a ball game with a few of my friends and family then bump elbows with lots of them around a crowded dinner table. My uniformed guess is that good feasts used to be scarce and hard to come by and required long planning and preparation and travel, so it was useful to have them on periodic occasions known by all in advance. Now that we can call Domino’s and send emails I think they have largely outlived their usefulness, like a lot of ancient customs.

    I got a call from one of my brothers the other day. I was genuinely suprised when he opened with, “Happy Birthday!” I had not remembered that it was that day.

    When I write the constitution for my moon colony, I will reluctantly let people celebrate birthdays and get Christmas presents up to age 20, or thereabouts. After that, get a job and buy your own presents.

  22. #22 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    Value & Freedom
    —————

    This post raises a couple of serious questions.

    1. How can you have values (“value in tradition”) when there is no method for determining “value”? If we live in a matter-only universe then there is no value. But it seems that even the most serious atheist requires some values in order to live. One might call this empirical ontological evidence.

    2. Were you “free” to write this post? If the universe is only matter/energy then there is no freedom. Yet we know we are free, that we are not brains in alien jars being fed the illusion of reality. And we know that declaring freedom to be an illusion begs the question in the most serious fashion.

    A Godless universe does not work.

  23. #23 Blake Stacey
    May 28, 2008

    Collin Brendemuehl:

    Wrong on both counts.

    1. We don’t need a supernatural being to give us values; noticing that we don’t like to suffer and that other people are also human beings who suffer is a good start. And there are serious problems with deriving your morality from the supposed utterances of a hypothetical supernatural being; as Plato asked in the Euthyphro dialogue, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” And even if we desperately needed a source for our ethics, that doesn’t magically make a particular source real. (Imagine that John Doe is accused of murdering his wife, but there’s no evidence to support that accusation. Because convicting him and sending him to the electric chair would send a strong message to other men, thereby providing a “moral”, should we conclude that he really did murder his wife?) Maybe we’re just royally screwed.

    2. Why can’t there be freedom in a Universe made of matter and energy? And, again, if there isn’t, then that still isn’t a reason to conclude there exists something other than matter and energy. It just means we lack something we’d like to have.

  24. #24 Divalent
    May 28, 2008

    Doesn’t the truth or falsity of at least some religious beliefs matter alot? If you die killing nonbelievers, do you really go to paradise and get 72 virgins? Is slavery immoral? Homosexuality? Is the end of the world near? (and can someone explain the mythological value of the Book of Revelation?) Is it okay for a people to kill all of the male inhabitants of a nice fertile valley, rape the female inhabitants, and take over their land just because you think it would be a good place to settle down? If someone loses their faith, should you kill them? Should we punish children for the sins of their father? (grandfather?) Will it really make you happy if you dash a baby on the rocks?

  25. #25 sng
    May 28, 2008

    The problem with deriving your morality from religion is that we have no objective evidence for supernatural beings. We have a large number of people who believe in said beings behaving like the bad Christian from Mere Christianity on a wide social and political scale. To include trying to force their belief on others both by political and violent means. And, to my way of thinking, its not bringing anything to the table on the good side that cant be replaced with modern objective science and philosophy. Religion, Im happy to grant, has helped us get to where we are now. It was a very useful childish thing. But now its doing more harm than good. And thus needs to be discarded.

    Behaving well because of the promise of some reward or the threat of some punishment is a very childish way to approach the world. Well adjusted adults behave well and treat others well because its the right thing to do. Does any really sane and rational adult need more than Be excellent to each other to guide them? And if theyre not sane and rational maybe we should be solving the root problem instead of patching it over with a supernatural belief system.

    So we have a situation where a lot of harm is being done because of continued belief in this supernatural being and theres no real unique good coming from it. Or, to be more exact, no real unique good that cant be trivially replaced. So, really, why keep it around? To my way of thinking the cost/benefit analysis just doesnt work. Theres a huge downside and no real upside.

    So what is it that you think religion brings to the party?

  26. #26 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Pseudonym,

    “I’m told that Americans still tell each other the myths of George Washington and the cherry tree, and the truly bizarre one that everyone except Columbus believed the Earth was flat.”

    Don’t know who told you that but certainly not anybody educated in America in the last 37 years. You need sources who place less value in myth and more in facts.

  27. #27 MartinM
    May 28, 2008

    A Godless universe does not work.

    Assuming for the sake of argument that this were true, how would adding a God make it work? How would the presence of a God create values or freedom?

  28. #28 Coriolis
    May 28, 2008

    Look, let’s drop this BS about how nobody apparent from insane wacky preachers fully believes in god. There are plenty of statistics on this issue, like let’s say

    http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

    And the results are pretty obvious – alot of people in the developed western world (especially in the US), claim they “absolutely” believe in god. When even someone like Dawkins, would not claim to be absolutely certain god does not exist (with the caveats of teapots and pink unicorns of course).

    If people want to live in some fantasy world where religions have roughly speaking the same impact as star wars or lord of the rings, i.e. cool stories that alot of people love and make clubs/conventions over, that’s fine, but don’t pretend like you’re describing reality. Yes, there are people who’d say they are “jedi” when asked about their religion. No, they are not a majority.

    On the topic of the eastern religious traditions, it does appear true that at least on the surface they have far less “belief” and “literally true” emphasis then most monotheistic traditions (I don’t know enough to really say that’s true but it certainly seems so). Unfortunately, they are loosing ground quite quickly – in S. Korea for example more people claim they are christians then budhists already (the majority are non-religious however). It’s growing rapidly in China as well although obviously statistics are more lacking there. Japan is apparently one of the least religious countries in the world so not much can be said there (and of course shinto+buddhism is very connected to culture). Hinduism is still doing OK but I think support for it is solidified through the cultural (and real) war that’s been going on in India for a long time between muslims and hindus that finally resulted in Pakistan.

    So yes, there are many more “story-telling” religions that are somewhat more modest about their claims of being literally true. And by and large, they are loosing the fight against the monotheistic religions.

  29. #29 Mike
    May 28, 2008

    @ Collin Brendemuehl:

    A Godless universe does not work.

    And yet here we are. Sorry to rain on your parade, mate.

    @ Pseudonym: Yes, your reply to sng did answer my first point. I think you posted while I was writing, and I then saw your reply on after my post went through. :-)

    Yet I still disagree, even on your new formulation about the value of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. These have value precisely because their intended targets believe or once believed in their literal truth. Their enduring power (such as it is) arises from nostalgia, and the wish to give our children the small window of happiness allowed by belief that a mystical being gives a crap about their existence. I don’t know any child who from the get-go thought, “Ah, that Santa Claus is such an interesting archetype for the seasonal beneficence of the world,” or equivalent. At some level, the value of Santa is the belief in his literal existence, the moreso the younger the child.

    The point I hope [Bebergal] was trying to make is this: Literal history, because it has not gone through the evolutionary process that mythology has, is not as useful for gleaning “new meaning” from.

    I’m sorry, this strikes me as tautological at best, and nonsense otherwise. I can understand this notion of the evolution of concepts and stories into formulations most suited for fulfilling the psychological needs that religion fills. Ultimately, though, the sentence quoted above seems simply to say that because these evolutionarily successful religious formulations are fictional, fiction necessarily is better suited for religion than fact.

    This may correlate, but it does not show causation. It does not explain why these fictional stories were inspiring and successful as a matter of cultural evolution. It does not counter the common-sense and observable notion that these stories are successful, despite being fictional, because people believe them to be literally true.

    Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the story of the Exodus is very loosely based on some real event. (It probably is, after all.) I think> that [Bebergal's] point is that if we had the real story of what happened, it would probably have no inspirational value whatsoever.

    Yes, there are some very inspirational events in history. But there are a lot of uninspirational events, too, that become more inspirational if you turn them into myth.

    I dont’ think this is what Bebergal was saying at all. If it was, it’s unremarkable. I don’t see the great insight in recognizing that if a fictionalized account is more exciting and inspiring than the actual event, the fictionalized account is more inspiring.

    Again, this begs the question, which is “Why do people believe religious stories?” Neither you nor Bebergal nor anyone else on this thread has explained how belief in metaphor is more “inspiring” than belief in the sort of literal intervention of god in the world put forth in, for example, the Abrahamic religious stories. To go back to the Exodus, for example, no one has explained how the metaphor is more inspiring than a literal belief that god directly and violently intervened in human affairs to free the Jews. That literal belief allows for the further belief, or at least hope, that god might similarly intervene on the believer’s behalf.

    What does belief in a metaphor get one? At best, it seems, it gets one a hope in some sort of psychological or “spiritual” change. To a slave, I must imagine, the hope of literal intervention is much more inspiring, as is the very notion that a real god cares, “though He tarries.”

    I think this comes ’round to something Jason said about belief in religious stories as metaphor being something only for a small portion of the religious community, which depends on literal belief for its cohesion. There are no organized, driven religious communities built around Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, for example. Nor are there any such built around most of the old gods who’ve passed from literal belief.

  30. #30 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    Blake,
    1. You don’t want a supernatural being but at the same time you want a transcendent principle to take the place. You’re as religious as any church-goer.

    2. There can’t be freedom because there is no Free Will in a universe established by the interaction of matter and energy. You may wish to argue from your “lack”, but that’s not going to be very fruitful.

    sng,
    The problem with deriving your morality from religion is that we have no objective evidence for supernatural beings.
    Why are you still clinging to empiricism? Subjecting the non-physical to a physical test makes absolutely little sense. Even science today does not always employ empiricism.

    MartinM,
    Assuming for the sake of argument that this were true, how would adding a God make it work? How would the presence of a God create values or freedom?
    That would entail a lengthy discussion. Some Reformed theologians do take a somewhat deterministic approach, but most do not. Let’s just say briefly that the world (as we observe it today) is a open system and free will exists.

    Mike,
    Yes, here we are. We have Free Will in a determinstic universe. Nice paradox. You might consider finding a way to resolve it.

    Enjoy,

    Collin
    http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com/

  31. #31 Oran Kelley
    May 28, 2008

    What does it indicate when someone answers “Yes” to the question “Do you believe in God absolutely?”

    Does that mean that they believe in God’s existence as strongly as they believe in their own? I’m doubtful. What I absolutely believe it means is that they’ve answered Yes when posed that question.

    Everything beyond that is a matter of interpretation.

    If you’ve read the New Testament, you know for absolute certain that supposed biblical literalists aren’t really–in the USwe’d live in a very different country if biblical literalists took Christ’s teachings on property seriously. But they don’t, they find ways to prevaricate and mystify what’s there until–lo and behold–they come up with a system of religion which encourages precisely the sort of contented, self-righteous, close-minded, middle class, consumeristic life they’d like to lead (and probably would have led anyway).

    NOT to absolutely dismiss the influence of religion, but you have to think about religion and secular culture more as a dialectic. I’d wager that every few if any people believe absolutely in God, and the more thoughtful religious folks I’ve read–perhaps those who believed most strongly–acknowledge that faith is a constant struggle.

    So what does it mean when they say they do? One thing it means to me–because it is such a guilelessly arrogant thing to say–is that they in all likelihood don’t believe in God in the final instance. They believe that they ought to say they do. Absolutely.

    Things people say about religion tend to be absolutist and simplistic. The way religion actually works, seems to me is a lot more complicated.

  32. #32 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    there is no Free Will in a universe established by the interaction of matter and energy

    And how is there free will in a universe established by a supernatural being? How does positing some entity that already has free will solve the problem of its existence?

  33. #33 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Collin,

    Science is all about the data. It is nothing more and nothing less than a highly organized and very well established method for gathering and understanding data. How is that not empiricism?

    That and since the “non-physical” doesn’t exist you can’t really subject it to any kind of test. That’s kind of the whole reason for pointing out that there’s no evidence. If the number of people looking for evidence have been looking for evidence for as long as they have and have found nothing the smart money is on it not existing. Cause if it did it would leave evidence.

  34. #34 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    sng,
    No. Science is NOT about the data.
    – Science is defined by the theory structures. Those theory structures determine the character of the tests, models, or schemas used to assess the object or condition.
    – Science is also defined by the interpretive methodology used to interpret the results.
    It doesn’t matter whether you read Suppe, Seager, Gould, Mayr, or whomever. They all begin with a model, none of them begins with data.

    You say that the non-physical does not exist. Hmmm. Guess you’d better part with tachyon theory and all of the other theoretical systems.

    Oran,
    Even Ernst Mayr added his own metaphysical mystery in his discussion of evolution, and it relates directly to this thread:
    Many authors seem to have a problem in comprehending the virtually simultaneous actions of two seemingly opposing causations, chance and necessity. But this is precisely the power of the Darwinian process.
    What Evolution Is, p. 289

    Yet you still have a good question and a full answer would be quite lengthy. I suggest you read VanTil’s Christian Apologetics and Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belieffor a fuller answer to your question.

    Again, we (generally) don’t have this paradox.

  35. #35 MartinM
    May 28, 2008

    That would entail a lengthy discussion. Some Reformed theologians do take a somewhat deterministic approach, but most do not. Let’s just say briefly that the world (as we observe it today) is a open system and free will exists.

    Oh. Glad we cleared that up, then. In reply, I would say that a Godless Universe works just fine, but to show this would entail a lengthy discussion, so I’ll just baldly assert it instead.

  36. #36 MartinM
    May 28, 2008

    Oh, and:

    You say that the non-physical does not exist. Hmmm. Guess you’d better part with tachyon theory and all of the other theoretical systems.

    Tachyons, if they exist, are entirely physical. The fact that they fall under the heading of physics was your first clue.

  37. #37 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    MartinM,

    Tachyons are not known to exist and there is no evidence for their existence. Yet there is (what is generally accepted as) valid theory thus considered science. There is more evidence for God than for tachyons.

    And if you’re not free, if everything you do and say and type is determined by the collisions of atoms and energies, how did you make the decision to read this post? Your question has been answered by your self-referrential error. You predict no freedom but yet you claim it.

    A universe created as a moral expression includes free will to fulfill moral choice.

  38. #38 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    if you’re not free, if everything you do and say and type is determined by the collisions of atoms and energies

    If god is omniscient and omnipotent, everything you do and say and type was determined by his/her/its actions. How is that freedom?

  39. #39 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    Tulse,
    That depends upon your view if omnipotence and free will.
    Again, some have this paradox, but not all of us.

  40. #40 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    That depends upon your view if omnipotence and free will.

    That’s not an answer — I could say the same thing about materialism and free will. How about providing an argument?

  41. #41 royniles
    May 28, 2008

    A lengthy discussion that concerned the proposition that an omnipotent/omniscient being is required to posit the free will that could otherwise exist only if the beginning-less and endless interplay of atoms involved even the tiniest degree of randomness would have a measurement similar to that of this sentence.

  42. #42 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Collin,

    Tachyons, while not yet directly observed, are predicted by equations that have time and time again been proven to be correct where we have been able to prove the things they predict. Are there similar equations for god?

    Also they would be more of a hypothesis not really a theory. At least in my opinion. I’m just a netadmin so my understanding there might very well be off. And, yes, quantum physics along with string theory is pushing the bounds of what we can observe and prove. But nobody is saying that tachyons exist because there is no data. There are a lot of people saying that they might exist and looking for them but they’re all just as happy to be wrong cause either way they do cool stuff and learn about the nature of the Universe. And the big difference between tachyons and god is that nobody is going to say that they exist without cold hard data. Talking about things that may or may not exist and predicting that they might be there based on the math is very different from believing in something that has never been directly observed or predicted by any physical model or equations that have been proven to have predictive power.

  43. #43 Coriolis
    May 28, 2008

    I love how colin makes stuff up about physics and science, without even trying to adress Tulse’s point of how exactly putting god in the mix all of a sudden gives us free will. And let me guess the first simplistic answer: He gave it to us. Ok then, who gave it to him? He just had it? Well then why can’t we just have it? Same stupidity as thinking that saying “god made the universe” actually solves anything instead of pushing the question to who made god.

    A modern scientific worldview does sort of lead to determinism (not withstanding quantum mechanics of course, which pretty much destroys determinism, which almost everyone conveniently forgets about).

    However I’ve always liked the further point which is that even if someone else could calculate your future actions, there is no way for you to calculate it for yourself. Because of course when you do, and learn the answer, you can change your mind – and you enter an infinite loop of re-calculating it over and over again, with no end. So yes, the universe is deterministic for other people, but not for yourself. Even with perfect scientific knowledge in a completely material, deterministic world. Which makes the whole argument for whether free will is or isn’t a moot point to me.

    And for the love of god enough with the stupid mumbo jumbo about what science is. Here: You think about how stuff might work. Then you check if it does in fact work that way. That’s it.

    Oran, I don’t understand your point. So maybe there are some people who would say they absolutely believe in god, but really don’t. Does that mean that the proportion of people who believe that (some) stuff in the bible really, actually happen vs. those who think it’s all fiction the same as the people who really believe Lord of the rings happened and those who think it’s great fiction? There is a real difference there. We can split hairs all day on what the exact %’s are but I find it beside the point. We all understand that there is fiction, and there is religion, and the difference between them is people believe that at least some part of their religion, really happened, that’s all. And I find the attempts to hide that fact on the part of Christian apologetics really pathetic.

  44. #44 SC
    May 28, 2008

    The suggestion that myths persist primarily because they fill supposedly transcultural human psychological needs is highly problematic. (I read Campbell and Jung as a teenager, and found plenty about which to disagree with them then.) Myths develop in social systems, and the elements that survive and are emphasized are not only the more dramatic or powerful, but often those that serve the purposes of those with power and help them to maintain that power. (For a good example, look at the history of the production of the Bible.) Also, in the religious context, myths rely for their proper interpretation on priests, sages, or some other elite group that allegedly has a finer grasp of their meaning, and this also contributes to social hierarchies. And many of them and their so-called moral lessons are simply horrible, as someone pointed out above.

    I did take issue over at Pharyngula with the claim that several people were making that the Exodus story in the context of slavery had a tranquilizing rather than an inspirational effect, arguing that these beliefs and myths have often been central to social movements of oppressed people (though it’s a complex issue). But slaves, and many others at that time, had few cultural frameworks to work with other than what they were able to retain from African cultures and Christianity. Their creativity in using Christian mythology as a rallying cry for freedom is impressive. But the situation today is different. To suggest that religious myths are socially useful in the same way in this day and age, when they have many undesirable characteristics and when vastly preferable alternative frameworks exist, makes little sense.

    And by the way, the real people I study as a social scientist/historian never cease to inspire me. In fact, the more I know about their circumstances and the more I understand them as fallible people making difficult choices, the more inspired I am. I don’t need to mythologize them.

    (And there is no such thing as religion “in the wild.” Religion is a social construct, and has always been. This idea of a religious “state of nature” in which mythological belief was a minor element is, well, a myth.)

  45. #45 Lofcaudio
    May 28, 2008

    sng: It was a very useful childish thing. But now it�s doing more harm than good. And thus needs to be discarded.

    I disagree. This idea that religion is “doing more harm than good” seems to be the sentiment du jour, but the actual facts would suggest otherwise. The “more harm than good” stance which has been popularized by the Ds and Hs is nothing more than dishonest pandering as they allege that only bad things come from religion while failing to acknowledge all of the daily (hourly!) acts of charity which are being done in a religious context. If one is to be accurate in portraying something (such as religion), then both sides of the coin should be evaluated, not just those few things which fit nicely into the argument being made.

    sng: Behaving well because of the promise of some reward or the threat of some punishment is a very childish way to approach the world. Well adjusted adults behave well and treat others well because it�s the right thing to do.

    Hmmm….If that’s what well-adjusted adults do, then I would opine that no such adults exist. If people could act in such a selfless way, then I would be more inclined to believe that religion is worthless; however, I am utterly convinced that the human condition is broken and needs something outside of itself in order to be repaired.

    sng: Does any really sane and rational adult need more than �Be excellent to each other� to guide them?

    Even if such a statement still begs the question (What does being excellent mean?), I would submit all men and women, even those considered sane and rational, are not equipped with the ability to behave in a satisfactory way at all times. A cute motto may be a good starting point, but it does not control behavior.

    sng: And if they�re not sane and rational maybe we should be solving the root problem instead of patching it over with a supernatural belief system.

    What if the root problem cannot be solved?

    sng: So we have a situation where a lot of harm is being done because of continued belief in this supernatural being and there�s no real unique good coming from it. Or, to be more exact, no real unique good that can�t be trivially replaced.

    Saying this over and over again doesn’t make it any more true, but it appears you aren’t really interested in taking a reasonable look at religion. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be so nonchalant regarding its eradication and the replacing many of the numerous benefits that it provides.

    sng: So, really, why keep it around?

    Lenin and Stalin certainly had no use for it. So they did as you suggested and got rid of it through governmental control. Even then, they weren’t able to quench religion in the Soviet Union.

    sng: So what is it that you think religion brings to the party?

    In my opinion, religion brings hope to an otherwise hopeless race. It’s not just about rewards and skirting punishment, it’s about being a part of something greater than yourself. It’s about being moved to love those you wouldn’t normally love. It’s about finding a way to fix what has been broken.

  46. #46 Lofcaudio
    May 28, 2008

    EDIT: In my opinion, religion brings hope to an otherwise hopeless species.

  47. #47 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    If people could act in such a selfless way, then I would be more inclined to believe that religion is worthless; however, I am utterly convinced that the human condition is broken and needs something outside of itself in order to be repaired.

    It is fascinating to me how profoundly misanthropic the religious are.

  48. #48 JimV
    May 28, 2008

    I like Psuedonym’s idea that myths have evolved over time by a survival/reproduction of the fittest process. Very clever, but it occurs to me that parasites also evolve so as to make it harder for their hosts to get rid of them, yet most hosts would be better off without their parasites. I know I am.

    Having come back to this thread after a few hours, I see the discussion has moved on to the subject of “Free Will”. Free will to me just means a situation which is too complex for me to see in advance what the best action is, so I make a random guess and hope it comes out okay. It turns out such complexities can evolve in very simple, deterministic models (such as cellular automata). If there were no way for evolved creatures to make a decision under such circumstances, Evolution would have had to invent one – which it did. The need for any god in this escapes me.

  49. #49 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    sng,
    Now you’ve presented a practical conflict.
    On the one hand, science is presented as being about the data. But on the other hand, per tachyons, it is about the formula. That’s a convenient change of direction.

    Coriolis,
    So yes, the universe is deterministic for other people, but not for yourself.
    I just love postmodern science. ;)

    Mumbo jumbo? Sorry, but I’ve been reading the theorists that are not part of the special creation community.
    Among them are …
    The Structure of Scientific Theories, Frederick Suppe
    A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, W. H. Newton-Smith
    The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Gould
    What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr.
    It’s all there.
    The mumbo-jumbo is when you speak from ignorance.

    And which apologists have you read?

  50. #50 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Collin,

    The thing you’re ignoring is that nobody claims that tachyons exist. Some people think that they may and are looking for data to back that up. So the equations provide an interesting line of inquiry that is then followed up by a search for data.

  51. #51 MartinM
    May 28, 2008

    Tachyons are not known to exist and there is no evidence for their existence.

    Which has nothing whatsoever to do with your original claim, which was that tachyons are non-physical.

    A universe created as a moral expression includes free will to fulfill moral choice.

    How, exactly?

  52. #52 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    sng,
    That’s entirely beside the point.
    You’ve set up two alternative theories of science for the sake of convenience. Tachyon theory is considered valid, whether or not they exist. It’s the theory that count, according to “science”.

  53. #53 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Collin,

    No. Tachyon field theory is one competing model to explain the equations and observed data. It is currently being investigated to determine if it’s valid or not. If no data is found then the theory will be rejected in favor of a better one. One that the current investigation will lead us to. The point being that they are being searched for and whatever explains the data we have to date will be physical when we find it. The argument with god isn’t that we haven’t found it yet but rather that it can’t even be searched for. See the difference now?

  54. #54 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    Tachyon theory is considered valid, whether or not they exist.

    Nonsense. A theory is true only to the extent that it reliably describes reality. We don’t know if tachyons are real, therefore we don’t know if “tachyon theory” (whatever that is) is actually valid.

    (A better and less Star Trek-inspired example is string theory — this approach has many adherents, and solves many problems in cosmology, but it has been very difficult to develop empirical tests of it, and at this moment we don’t know whether this approach is “valid” or not.)

    As for what science “is”, it isn’t just data, or just theory — it is the continual refinement of models of reality. The models are essentially theories that are informed by observation.

  55. #55 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 28, 2008

    Tulse,
    A theory is valid because of its structure.
    A theory is proven becuase of its fruit.
    You are right that Models are a big part of science.

    sng,
    Have you read any apologetics? Do you understand the topic, or are you just repeating what you were told in HS & undergrad?

  56. #56 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    A theory is valid because of its structure.

    What is that supposed to mean? Are you using “valid” in the strict logical sense? If that’s the case, then at best the only theories that could be called “valid” belong to physics and other mathematized disciplines — the theory of natural selection, for example, could never be called “valid” by this criterion.

  57. #57 sng
    May 28, 2008

    Collin,

    Personal attacks, very nice. A more interesting approach would be to point out where I’m wrong. Are you denying that there’s a search of tachyons? Are you implying that somebody says they exist? Do you think that the search for them won’t either find them or find the thing that does account for the numbers and observations?

    There are physical tests being used to search for tachyons. What physical tests are being used to search for god? Oh, yeah, none. Cause it doesn’t exist. So what is it that I should be reading that you think will make your point?

  58. #58 mgarelick
    May 28, 2008

    Jason said:

    It is one thing to have a few people participating in religious rituals without actually believing them, but if that is the dominant view within the community then the rituals will quickly come to seem rather silly.

    A reasonable hypothesis, but I’m not at all sure it’s valid. My own experience is limited (it is, of course, my own experience), but I suspect that empirical study of the Jewish congregations I have known (mostly Modern Orthodox, but some very traditional — borderline hasidic or “yeshivish”) would not bear it out. Consider a modern orthodox congregation in Berkeley, California — what percentage of the congregants would you think actually believe that the gates of Heaven close at the conclusion of Yom Kippur? Yet the singing and chanting at those moments might lead you to a different answer than you would get in a survey.

    Consider also the practice of “eruv” — a ritual enclosure of a community to permit carrying on the Sabbath. I have heard an Orthodox rabbi gleefully characterize it as “fiction,” and go on to teach that its significance includes its fictional character.

  59. #59 bobyu
    May 28, 2008

    Collin, I read the apologetics and immediately apologized to the nearest chimpanzee. He was too busy to respond, having been temporarily engrossed in the Apostasy Now internet site.

  60. #60 FO
    May 28, 2008

    Yes, here we are. We have Free Will in a determinstic universe.

    *cough* Quantum Mechanics *cough*

    Retard.

  61. #61 Pseudonym
    May 28, 2008

    Looks like we’ve gone off-topic a bit. In particular, several people have said something similar to what Mike said:

    Again, this begs the question, which is “Why do people believe religious stories?”

    Please, everyone understand that this is off-topic. Bebergal is advocating restoring religion back to the point where “belief” isn’t important. Fundamentalism and literal belief are precisely what he isn’t advocating. If you want to talk about that, fine, but I won’t join in those subthreads, because we’re way past that.

    I shouldn’t have brought up the Tooth Fairy example without thinking about it a bit harder. Sorry about that.

    Let’s actually get a bit more in-depth, instead.

    I gave a link above to an essay by Eric S. Raymond. I suggest that everyone reads it. Read it all, and don’t skim. I should point out that I don’t agree with all of it, exactly, but it’s something that I think everyone here can appreciate. Once you’ve all done that, we can come back and have a slightly more informed discussion on what religion has to offer humanity.

    One last comment from Mike:

    This may correlate, but it does not show causation. It does not explain why these fictional stories were inspiring and successful as a matter of cultural evolution.

    Right, and to do that, we have to look further in depth as to what they say. This is a big area, and people have spent lifetimes studying it. Read some source material, like Campbell’s book mentioned earlier.

  62. #62 Mike
    May 28, 2008

    @ Pseudonym:

    “Why do people believe religious stories?”

    Please, everyone understand that this is off-topic. Bebergal is advocating restoring religion back to the point where “belief” isn’t important.

    Well, I’ll admit to an imprecise usage of “belief” here. I should have written “Why do people find value in religious stories?”

    I understood Bebergal to be answering that question with the assertion that (to oversimplify) people value the stories because they are inspiring, and the corollary that fictional stories known to be and accepted as fictional are more powerfully inspiring than stories accepted as literally true. Let’s call these variants “fiction-fiction” and “fiction-literal,” respectively.

    I understood Bebergal to claim that somehow fiction-fiction stories were more flexible and susceptible of new and inspiring interpretations and applications than were fiction-literal stories. Bebergal offered up the Exodus as a fiction-fiction story that was thereby more powerfully inspiring to African-American slaves than Exodus as fiction-literal would have been.

    It’s Bebergal’s corollary point and example that I take issue with. Now that religious stories are largely recognized to be fiction, he’s trying to say that they were understood to be fiction all along (fiction-fiction), and that’s why they were so powerful. His proof that they were fiction-fiction all along is that only fiction-fiction could possibly have the inspiring power these stories have demonstrated.

    But this is nonsense, both historically and logically. First, there’s no evidence presented that any significant group at any historical turn, let alone the African-American slaves, understood the stories to be fictional. Second, it’s painfully disingenuous to suggest that Exodus as fiction-fiction is more inspiring than Exodus as fiction-literal. What could possibly be more inspiring than the belief that an actual Supreme Being not only literally cares about you as his subject but has a history of actually liberating such subjects from bondage?

    Thus a key element of Bebergal’s “proof” is eliminated. Fiction-fiction is not more powerfully inspiring than belief that the story actually took place. Bebergal has no basis to assert that this is why the religious stories were so enduring.

    Therefore, when you write that

    Bebergal is advocating restoring religion back to the point where “belief” isn’t important[,]

    I take issue with your use of the word “restoring.” There’s not any golden age during which religious people generally understood their fiction to be fiction — at least not with the Abrahamic religions, and I seriously doubt with the other major religions. Bebergal seems to be applying post-modern understandings to modern and pre-modern eras, peoples and cultures.

    Bebergal’s claims beggar belief (pardon the pun) precisely because his corollary claim is false. Belief that fantastic religious stories actually occurred is far more inspiring (positively or negatively) than appreciation of fictional stories for their metaphorical value.

    @ Collin:

    There can’t be freedom because there is no Free Will in a universe established by the interaction of matter and energy. … Yes, here we are. We have Free Will in a determinstic universe. Nice paradox. You might consider finding a way to resolve it.

    There’s nothing to resolve because there’s little reason to accept your premises. Why, precisely, can there be no freedom or free will, etc. On what basis do you claim the universe is wholly and solely deterministic?

    I don’t see a paradox because I don’t see that your premises are philosophically or empirically (!) valid or accurate. Nor do I see, to echo what’s been said above, that your introduction of some Supreme Being would solve the problem, if the problem existed.

  63. #63 royniles
    May 29, 2008

    Many of these back and forths are just plain silly. Of course myths that are believed to be based on truth, and especially on sacred or revealed truths, will have more power than allegorical tales from, for example, Uncle Remus. And some myths are more believable than others, and some fables that have stood the test of time attain almost mythological status – Aesop’s fables for example. And the we have Confucious, and especially Buddha, each virtually mythological figures in their own right.
    But if you really want to have religious thought and its origins explained by a consummate professional, instead of reading some rather silly essay about modern mysticism, try reading Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer.

  64. #64 Pseudonym
    May 29, 2008

    It’s Bebergal’s corollary point and example that I take issue with. Now that religious stories are largely recognized to be fiction, he’s trying to say that they were understood to be fiction all along (fiction-fiction), and that’s why they were so powerful. His proof that they were fiction-fiction all along is that only fiction-fiction could possibly have the inspiring power these stories have demonstrated.

    I think that one place where there might be some confusion is the idea that “literal truth” and “fiction-fiction” are the only options or, indeed, that there’s a distinction at all.

    I mean, yeah, there is a distinction now, but not in the time or place where most mythology that we’re familiar with was written. In a sense, the idea of “literal truth” is quite an unusual concept, historically speaking.

    Taking the creation myth in Genesis as an example, would we say that the ancient Hebrews would have understood it as “literal truth”? Well, yes and no. Yes, because they had nothing else to compare their story too, apart from other cultures’ creation myths. No, because they actually had no need for “literal truth”. What good would it have done them to know where the stars really came from?

    It’s only in the post-enlighenment era (and isolated instances in the past, such as Classical Greece) that the distinction is actually important. So in a sense, the question isn’t really meaningful. Similarly, it’s not meaniful to ask whether or not these cultures “understood the stories to be fictional” either because, yet again, the distinction simply didn’t come up.

    Today, we can correctly say that Genesis isn’t a scientific explanation for anything, but that’s because we have a solid basis for comparison.

    I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well. Feel free to ask for clarification.

    Anyway, that’s what I mean by “restoration”. There’s a deep sense in which pretty much all religious mythology was never really about “literal truth”. When you’re a nomadic culture, in an era when writing is expensive and oral storytelling has a limited bandwidth, a story is only retold if it has some use. What actually happened in some historical event was next to useless. A lesson is useful.

    But if you want evidence, just look at any piece of mythology which was a) written over a long period, and b) references itself. The Bible will do: Look at how the New Testament references the Hebrew writings. Is it always literal, or is much of it figurative?

  65. #65 sng
    May 29, 2008

    Pseudonym,

    The ESR piece, which I first read about the time he published it, is pretty stupid. Basically it boils down to “I want to believe in something supernatural but don’t like Christianity. I’ll co-op Eastern belief systems that I don’t really understand and pretend it makes me smart.” But he doesn’t even pretend to not believe in the literal existence of the supernatural. In fact his entire argument is based on his belief that the supernatural exists. The sooner people stop clinging to that security blanket the sooner we can all start making some serious progress.

    You either have data and something exists or you don’t and it doesn’t. He doesn’t have data and yet very much believes in his mystical bullshit.

    Disclaimer:

    I’m not overly fond of -anything- having to do with ESR. Thus my rather strong reaction to him being held up as a good example of anything.

  66. #66 Mike
    May 29, 2008

    @ Pseudonym: your notion that the ancients had no concept of literal truth versus fiction is intriguing, and beyond my learning. I’d appreciate knowing where I could read more about research into this theory.

    That said, I doubt that a lack of science prevented the ancients from distinguishing truth and fiction. The concept of falsehoods and lies must have been known to them, if only on an interpersonal level (“did you sleep with my wife?”). So too the conflict between each tribes gods and stories and the next tribes. There’s seemingly little need to go to war against another tribe because its members fail to adequately appreciate your tribe’s spiritual metaphors! Indeed, the Old Testament is chockablock with murder, massacre and genocide on the grounds that the other tribe worshipped false gods.

    Speaking of the ol’ “Good” book, I think your nod to the New Testament is misplaced, as is your choice of the word “figurative.” Yes, passages in the Old and New Testaments are figurative, but many are still literal, not metaphorical. Take, for example, Mark’s reference to Jesus as the “stone that the builders rejected” that became “the cornerstone” of the new era, blah blah, as mentioned in Psalms. Mark did not mean that Jesus actually was a stone. He meant it figuratively, but he also meant to apply it literally. He believed (or, the text expresses the view) that the figurative language of the Psalms applied, and was meant to apply by the Psalmist, prophetically to a human messiah, namely, Jesus. That is, despite the figurative language of the Psalm, Mark saw it as a specific reference to an actual event in reality.

    @ royniles: remind me to never invite you out to the pub, ya killjoy! ;-) Thanks for the Boyer reference.

  67. #67 Pseudonym
    May 29, 2008

    sng:

    I take your point about having a strong reaction to ESR. I agree with you there. But I think that in your understandably strong negative reaction to the mere mention of him, you completely misunderstood what he was saying:

    “I want to believe in something supernatural but don’t like Christianity. I’ll co-op Eastern belief systems that I don’t really understand and pretend it makes me smart.”

    I don’t know how many times to say it: This isn’t about “belief”, not about “data” and it’s not about something “existing”. While I’m at it, this is the same glaring omission that Pascal Boyer made in his otherwise quite excellent book that royniles mentioned.

    In mystical religions in particular, though there’s a component of this in pretty much all religions, “belief” in something that “exists” is almost completely irrelevant. What is missing is experience.

    Yes, studying religion is about sociology, evolutionary psychology, archetypes, about all sorts of things which can be adequately explained using the tools of science, even if we haven’t completely explained them all yet.

    You can explain it, but that doesn’t help you to do it. No more than explaining the psychology and biology of sexual attraction will not help you to actually be in love.

  68. #68 royniles
    May 29, 2008

    The ancients distinguished the relative degrees of truth by the perceived nature of its source and their perception of that source’s power. Power and purpose added up to an immediacy of belief – based on such beliefs, one acted, or rather failed to act, at their peril. To hold that they had no conception of truth as we know it today is worse than silly, because they had no way of discerning truth to the degree that we think we can today. But they were damned afraid of ignoring the distinction between benign or malevolent purposes.
    Speaking of pubs, the silliness found there often has wisdom behind it – the “wisdom” here as often as not has had silliness behind it.

  69. #69 Pseudonym
    May 29, 2008

    Mike:

    That said, I doubt that a lack of science prevented the ancients from distinguishing truth and fiction.

    “Truth” is the opposite of “falsity”, and “non-fiction” is the opposite of “fiction”. They’re not the same thing at all.

    Satire, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is a good example of fiction that is true.

    Of course the ancients had a notion of lying and falsehood. That other nation’s mythology is “false” because it misleads people, and makes them do horrible things that our one true god considers an abomination, which adequately explains why we need to declare war on them.

    That is, despite the figurative language of the Psalm, Mark saw it as a specific reference to an actual event in reality.

    Look, perhaps. Admittedly, we can’t see into Mark’s (or whoever actually wrote that; I’ll call him Mark) brain.

    However: I doubt that Mark could have missed that in the psalm, it was a figurative reference to Israel being rejected by other nations. I therefore don’t see how he could possibly have thought that it was a specific reference to one actual event. There might even have been a subtext that in the psalm, it was Israel being rejected, but in the narrative he was writing, it was Israel doing the rejecting.

    So even in this case, I think it’s a largely figurative use or, at least, there’s no clean distinction between “literal” and “figurative”.

  70. #70 Pseudonym
    May 29, 2008

    Oh, one more thing. Mike:

    Your notion that the ancients had no concept of literal truth versus fiction is intriguing, and beyond my learning. I’d appreciate knowing where I could read more about research into this theory.

    I knew someone was going to ask that. Unfortunately, the answer is “literary theory”. Everyone may let out their collective groans now.

    If it helps, it’s no different in principle from other literary theorist ideas about how peoples’ writings are imbued by their unquestioned assumptions, such as how everything you’ve ever read is patriarchially sexist.

    If it helps more, bear in mind that this isn’t just true of texts that we conventionally think of as “religious”. We thought that the Trojan Wars were just stories until Troy was actually discovered. Some historians even believe that Snow White is loosely based on actual events.

  71. #71 Collin Brendemuehl
    May 29, 2008

    Mike,
    The paradox is recognized by the most significant of evolutionary thinkers. As I put in an earlier post ..
    Even Ernst Mayr added his own metaphysical mystery in his discussion of evolution, and it relates directly to this thread:
    Many authors seem to have a problem in comprehending the virtually simultaneous actions of two seemingly opposing causations, chance and necessity. But this is precisely the power of the Darwinian process.
    What Evolution Is, p. 289

    The better scientists are also philosophers. They understand why they do things as well as the implications. It is a matter of morality & ethics (again, empirical ontological evidence). The rest are technicians. No Nuremberg defense is tolerable, and none of us would accept it.

  72. #72 sng
    May 29, 2008

    Pseudonym,

    You can’t experience things that don’t exist. You can delude yourself that you do, you can not be happy with the Universe and then convince yourself that you need to experience something supernatural, you can search for the supernatural to try and experience it. But, by definition, you can’t experience something that doesn’t exist.

    I know, I know post-modernism claims that nothing exists yadda yadda yadda. But post-modernism is never going to build and troubleshoot a network, put probe on Mars, or cure a disease and it makes my head hurt. It also fails to pass the beauty test. It’s ugly and hard to read. Science and the scientific method do all those things. And it very much passes the beauty test. It’s wonderful and can be hard to read but in the mind expanding way not in the “please make the stupid stop” way post-modernism is.

    So if what your getting at is a sense of wonder I’ll take the beauty and sense of wonder of the Universe over something that doesn’t exist any day of the week and continue to maintain that anybody who feels the need to look for and cling to stuff that doesn’t exist for their fix of wonder isn’t entirely right in the head.

  73. #73 J.
    May 29, 2008
    >>sng: Behaving well because of the promise of some reward or the threat of some punishment is a very childish way to approach the world. Well adjusted adults behave well and treat others well because it’s the right thing to do.

    >Hmmm….If that’s what well-adjusted adults do, then I would opine that no such adults exist. If people could act in such a selfless way, then I would be more inclined to believe that religion is worthless; however, I am utterly convinced that the human condition is broken and needs something outside of itself in order to be repaired.

    Anecdote#1: There are people who do things because it’s the “right” thing to do.

    I don’t claim it isn’t selfish of me to help others, as I do have ulterior motives. I enjoy contributing to the wellbeing of others, not as any kind of achievement on my part, but as a gain on their part. I am as delighted to contribute to their wellbeing as seeing them gaining wellbeing by themselves or from others. However, I am quite aware of that unfortunate situations are an as valid part of life as good ones. It’s what we make of it that matters. Necessity is the mother of invention, and our ingenuity and creativity is an integral part of our species, and is partially why we’re in the powerful position we are as species (which we unfortunately have significantly and carelessly abused).

    Why do I want to lessen the suffering of others, and want them to have better lives? 1) Selfish: That would mean we all would get to live in a better world, though probably not anywhere near enough better in my lifetime, and I haven’t planned to (and might be unable to) contribute to the gene pool. Just because the world after I’ve gone is beyond me doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to me (nor to anyone else, for that matter – genetic contribution or not). 2) Because it’s rather pointless for people to suffer instead of doing whatever they can to use the experience to make themselves stronger, happier and wiser, and as no man is an island we need to help each other.

    I have seen too many broken people, people near me have been broken, and unfortunately I’ve had a lot of broken friends in my days. Religion, as I’ve seen it, is often like putting a bandaid on an artery wound, or the nerve death with severe frost-bites. It too often makes people accept and continue to stay in bad situations they need to whatever they can get out of. It helps people accept their bad situation and make it barely acceptable, instead of trying hard to come up with something to make it significantly better.

    >In my opinion, religion brings hope to an otherwise hopeless species.

    Anecdote#2: Funny. For me it’s been the other way around. Fundies terrify me, and people whose lives are so crippled that they’re dependent on religion as a crutch is pretty saddening, depressing and worrisome.

    I do not believe in any religion, yet that doesn’t scare me nor weaken me. In fact, it makes me excited and fascinated with our amazing world. It also makes me hopeful. The absence of a god or several means that we only hold responsibility to ourselves, what we do in this world and to it, rather than also to be the minions/underlings of some invisible “superior creature(s)” (which is how I see a lot of deities portrayed as, regardless of the “mysterious plans beyond our human comprehension!” excuse), that spends too much time mindfucking us.

    I do not oppose being fond of fiction, or mythology, as a way of enhancing one’s life. Stories and mythologies can be very useful, powerful tools, and educational subjects. But when people start to go into severe flame-wars over fiction… :-(
    When people exploit fiction to hold power over others, it’s really bad. It’s even worse when people start believing the fiction as reality…

  74. #74 Coriolis
    May 29, 2008

    Again Pseudonym, you keep claiming that “belief” is somehow unimportant for religion. Can you simply explain then, what is the qualitative difference between any book in which one finds some type of meaning, both for himself and socially by discussing it with friends, and a religious text? Since you make note of Orwell and I like his books too, we can take that as an example – certainly 1984 let’s say is a work of fiction that has value and meaning to alot of people, and yet no one would believe that it actually happened, and no one would claim that it’s a religious text either. So what is the critical difference between a religious text and 1984?

    And Colin, your “response” to my previous post was at least to me completely incoherent. I am a grad student in physics, science is what I happen to do. Amusingly enough, “science” as a term is rarely, if ever defined in actual scientific work or even textbooks, since people who do it by and large have figured out what it is, and in simple terms it’s what I said above. If you somehow disbelieve that, you can read almost any popular science exposition by Richard Feynman, hopefully a Nobel laureate in physics and probably one of the top 10 or so physicists ever is good enough for you.

    In physics we are becoming more and more skeptical of string theory, precisely because of the lack of experiments that could test any of it. Of course whenever people figure out new theories initially there is always sketchy evidence at best, but the burden of proof in figuring out experiments that can verify a theory are on its proponents. And string theory has largely failed on that point, for long enough that most people in physics consider it a failure at this point. Of course, if they came up with evidence then that would change everything.

  75. #75 windy
    May 29, 2008

    Even Ernst Mayr added his own metaphysical mystery in his discussion of evolution, and it relates directly to this thread: Many authors seem to have a problem in comprehending the virtually simultaneous actions of two seemingly opposing causations, chance and necessity

    That’s not a “metaphysical mystery”. From the POW of evolutionary biology, there is such a thing as “chance” affecting evolutionary outcomes, whether or not the physical events underlying evolutionary biology are deterministic.

  76. #76 Mike
    May 29, 2008

    @ Pseudonym: I’m having trouble with much of your most recent response:

    “Truth” is the opposite of “falsity”, and “non-fiction” is the opposite of “fiction”. They’re not the same thing at all.

    Well, I don’t see the point of this distinction here. Your claim was that the ancients did not distinguish between fact and fiction. A gloss to that is that the ancients did not do so because, among other things, they were concerned with spiritual and psychological truths rather than physical reality.

    As I said, I doubt this. If there was anything the ancients were concerned with, in that Hobbesian world of yore, it was physical reality. Moreover, to take the example of Animal Farm, your earlier comments seemed to indicate that you thought the ancients were unable to comprehend the difference between an actual farm rebellion and a fictional farm rebellion.

    It’s quite another thing to say that the ancients didn’t really care whether pigs had actually led a rebellion, because the ancients found value and metaphoric truth in the tale regardless. The latter point, which I understand you now to be making, rather begs the question, doesn’t it? I mean, this entire discussion is over the quite similar claim of Bebergal’s that religion always has been about metaphor and not fact. I don’t see what we gain by acknowledging that the ancients could have found metaphoric truth in Animal Farm. The question is whether, if a major world religion was founded on a Napoleon and Snowball, the adherents of that religion actually believed that Snowball and Napoleon were living, fleshly, tasty pigs in reality.

    Of course the ancients had a notion of lying and falsehood. That other nation’s mythology is “false” because it misleads people, and makes them do horrible things that our one true god considers an abomination, which adequately explains why we need to declare war on them.

    I fail to see how this gets around the questions of truth/falsity and fact/fiction. If the “one true god” you posit is but a metaphor, then “his” views on abomination are unlikely to be a reason to slaughter the next village over.

    Now maybe when the ancients and other religious folk say “one true god,” they refer merely to a metaphorical expression for personal and cultural revulsion at the “abominations.” This would, in fact, be the atheist’s position. But that’s not how these religions present it, it’s not how Bebergal presents it and I daresay it’s not how Collin would present it. To the contrary, the presentation is that “one true god” expresses something other than, greater than and truer than mere personal or cultural notions of propriety.

    That is, despite the figurative language of the Psalm, Mark saw it as a specific reference to an actual event in reality.

    Look, perhaps. Admittedly, we can’t see into Mark’s (or whoever actually wrote that; I’ll call him Mark) brain.

    Yet you seem quite willing to look into the brains of other ancients and declare that they didn’t understand the fact/fiction distinction or that between literal and metaphoric truth?

    However: I doubt that Mark could have missed that in the psalm, it was a figurative reference to Israel being rejected by other nations. I therefore don’t see how he could possibly have thought that it was a specific reference to one actual event. There might even have been a subtext that in the psalm, it was Israel being rejected, but in the narrative he was writing, it was Israel doing the rejecting.

    Well, Collin can correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of early Church thinking is that they believed Christ was the fullfillment of many Old Testament “prophesies,” some of which were rather obscure. So the Gospels and other writings draw parallels between Christ and Israel, Christ and David, Christ and various depictions of suffering and triumphant entities.

    Now, actually, from the little I know of early Church history, it’s instructive on this point. There are apparently a variety of early writings, only some of which advert to an actual, living Jesus, with others seeming to refer only to a metaphoric, spiritual Christ. As I understand it, the Church eventually consolidated dogma around the notion of an actual, living Christ, who was crucified and resurrected in reality. To the extent this is accurate, it quite contradicts Bebergal’s thesis. Now, maybe you want to refer to some ur-religion that relied solely on metaphor, but Christianity, at least, seems very much to have crystallized around belief in factual events.

    @ Collin:

    The paradox [between the apparent existence of free will and the notion that our universe is deterministic and there is no Free Will in a deterministic universe established by the interaction of matter and energy] is recognized by the most significant of evolutionary thinkers.

    I’m not sure who you mean by “the most signficant of evolutionary thinkers,” but taking you at your word, my response to them would still be: balderdash. Just because they are good at biology doesn’t mean they’re inerrant on physics or philosophy. Moreover, I note that in your eagerness to invoke Great Men, you have omitted to explain the bases on which you claim that the universe is deterministic, that matter/energy interaction requires it to be deterministic, that free will is incompatible with this and that introducing some sort of god solves the supposed problem.

    As I put in an earlier post ..
    Even Ernst Mayr added his own metaphysical mystery in his discussion of evolution, and it relates directly to this thread:
    Many authors seem to have a problem in comprehending the virtually simultaneous actions of two seemingly opposing causations, chance and necessity. But this is precisely the power of the Darwinian process.
    What Evolution Is, p. 289

    I suspect that Mayr was not endorsing the “problem in comprehending” suffered by these “many authors.” I believe he was preparing to clarify that it was not difficult at all, and that the “seemingly opposing causations” were not opposing at all.

    In any event, what’s that got to do with determinism and free will?

    No Nuremberg defense is tolerable, and none of us would accept it.

    What the devil are you on about? Is this one of those Evolution -> Naziism joyrides? If so, count me out, Jack.

  77. #77 conradg
    May 29, 2008

    I like this discussion about true and false stories. The point is well made that the consciousness of early man is quite different than it is today, in that there was no clear distinction between facts and fiction, and that religious myths were not constructed with historical or literal accuracy in mind, but were the communication through time of various cultural “lessons”, structures of thought, traditions, practices, etc., not limited merely to religious ritual.

    There seems to be a lot of conflict in this discussion over just how literal this difference between early man and modern man was. I would suggest that’s it’s pretty much a literal matter.

    Example one: cargo cults. Most people probably know how during WWII when the US began using remote pacific islands for airstrips, that native islanders began forming religious “cargo cults”, worshipping these strange flying beasts that brought them good from the sky. When the war ended, and the airstrips were abandoned, the islanders kept the cult going, and tried to “induce” the Gods to return by building replicas of cargo planes out of palm trees. This seemed eminently sensible to them. Why? Well, they were using a very different cognitive system. It’s not that their brains were any different from ours, but their cultural learning about how to think led them to engage in what anthropologists call “participation mystique”, which includes “mystic duplication” as a logical path towards problem-solving. I’m not suggesting this example explains story-telling directly, it just goes to show that pre-modern peoples can think very different than we do. The purpose of ancient story-telling, I would suggest, has a similar purpose to that of the cargo cult rituals – by repetition, to “invoke the Gods”.

    Ancient religious stories were told not as records of facts, but as methods of invocation. The purpose was to invoke and perpetuate the “reality” of the Gods. We can dispense for the moment with the question of whether the Gods were real or not to begin with – to these people the Gods truly were something real, more real than ordinary life. And that’s part of the huge difference between pre- and post-modern man. To the pre-modern man, God represents a true and higher reality, whereas ordinary life is not considered “as real”. So the whole notion of “fiction” and “non-fiction” isn’t the issue at all, not in the sense we now think of these categories. The stories and myths of ancient religion are not taken literally in the sense that a story about going hunting yesterday might be literal. They are meant to depict a higher reality. The Gods are more real than the simple facts. Thus, stories about the Gods are not limited to the simple facts.

    I don’t think pre-modern men were incapable of distinguishing between facts and falsehoods, truths or lies. That’s not the kind of thinking that’s represented in religious myths. Most religious traditions have strong taboos against telling lies. But telling the truth about the Gods involves going beyond mere facts, in their minds at least. By that I mean their minds were organized in a fashion which made this seem natural and true. To speak of the Gods and their actions was to speak of a truth that not only went beyond the literal, but which was superior to the literal. So in the case of talking about the Gods, the notion of “literal truth” was suspended. This suspension of disbelief, of judgment, is critical to the religious mind. I think both atheists and theists will agree on that point.

    Likewise, the suspension of disbelief is critical to story-telling altogether. I would suggest that the origins of “creative” story-telling of all kinds was a primarily religious mindset that had created a willing suspension of disbelief through the invention of “higher realities” in which the Gods dwelled, and in which “fantastic” things could happen. So I would in some sense disagree that people could not tell the difference between a true and false story, only that they had created a culture in which the suspension of that faculty in relation to the Gods, and to story-telling altogether, was so deeply rooted and valued as to remain inviolable from all criticism.

    One has to ask the question, why was this considered so valuable to these cultures? I’m sure there are many answers to that, but the main point is that it clearly was valuable, in that it was perpetuated and protected with great enthusiasm and force. Criticsm of these stories was often considered a form of heresy, and punishable by extreme measures. And clearly these myths were made the center of these cultures, put on a pedestal with the Gods themselves, and valued as the protectors of the culture itself.

    Eventually, as primitive cultures evolved into more modern civilizations, these story-telling traditions, and their methods, evolved as well. Great mythic stories evolved around heroes, not necessarily religious in nature, such as the Greek stories of ancient battles, finally written down by Homer as The Illiad and The Odyssey. OF course, these stories were mixed with tales of the Gods as well, yet in these cases the Gods were increasingly remote, and merely “behind the scenes”, rather than in the forefront as in most Greek myths. Finally, one gets to the stage of active theatrical recreation of these stories in ancient Greek drama, a literary form which evolved from both ancient religious ritual and ancient myth-telling.

    And here’s where I think it gets interesting. Somewhere around this time, from say 1000 BC to about 500 AD, the religious cultures of the Mediterranean began to develop a better sense of their own history, and a better sense of what “literalism” meant. Rather than creating a wholy new category of “non-fiction”, however, they used “literalism” as story-telling technique. Aristotle pointed this out in his Poetics, that one of the three most important factors in creating a powerful drama was “mimesis”, the creation of a fictional world which “mimicked” the real world to such a degree that it evoked the power of that reality within the story itself, adding to is power over the audience.

    Now, the Greeks and others were not so much interested in purely mimicking the physical world. They were not “photo-realists” who were trying to get the literal world down pat, as in some modern movie-making. Instead, they were trying to evoke multiple sense of the “real”. They would use both language and poetry and the structural backbones of “history”, and then combine this with mythic stories of the Gods that allowed for the powerful suspension of disbelief, and the consequent ability to powerfully identify with the hero and his situation. So now literature learns how to combine history with mythology to create a powerful and lasting religious experience.

    This is what went on with the Jews in Palestine around the same time. The Hebrew Bible was written during this period, purportedly to enshrine a real history, but also to enshrine myths about the Gods within their history, and also to create a new myth, that of the Jews as a conquering, warrior empire that had the most powerful of all the Gods on its side, and even the only legitimate, true God. It was during this period that monotheism was created, as a mythic story-telling technique aimed at strengthening the culture of the Jews against all opposition. And it proved remarkably successful at that task.

    The Christian Gospels took this literary method a step further. The Gospels read something like ancient newspaper accounts of actual events being objectively reported upon, which is why so many people tend to take them literally. I would suggest that this is simply another literary technique aimed at creating “mimesis”, the attractive force of a higher reality. Telling the story of a living God as if it were direct, day by day reporting of literal events, adds to its power and increases the suspension of disbelief to include the most everyday facts of life. Earlier myths were so fantastic as to always remain “elevated” above day to day literalism. But the story of the Gospels is of a God who becomes an ordinary man, who lives the ordinary life we all live, and the account of his life is meant to merge that everyday living with the most heroic of Godly ambitions – the salvation of the entire world. THe literary devices of the Gospels accomplish that goal with remarkable power, which is proven by their endurance over the centuries, and even into the post-modern era in which this whole history of literary development can be deconstructed and understood in less-than-heroic terms.

    The point being that very purpose of these modern, monotheistic mythic stories of Moses and Christ was to conflate the mythic and the ordinary, to create a hyper-reality in which the Gods act upon earth in the lives of ordinary men. It’s not just that some superior set of literary smart guys figured this out and used it to manipulate lesser humans. It’s that much of humanity really likes this whole way of thinking, and remains very much attached to it because it gives them great satisfaction and cultural meaning. People need the feeling generated by “hyper-reality”, which is evident even in all our secular entertainment industries. Even the most resolute atheists probably love well-done science fiction movies, or something else along those lines. Even our most intrepid reporters have to turn all data about the world into a “story”, which has to be “believable”. Even scientific theories like evolution only “work” for us to the degree that they tell us a story about ourselves. We seem, almost at the structural level of the brain itself, inclined to fit everything in our experience into a story-line. And we are inclined to embellish along the way, to delve into the fantastic, the surreal, the imaginative, in order to make things seem “more real” than ordinary life. This seems like a basic human fact of life, one we can’t assume is either “wrong” or “right” on the face of it.

  78. #78 royniles
    May 29, 2008

    The fact is that story telling is a form of passing on experience in a fashion that meets the “logical” requirements of our unconscious lizard brain processes. It was and is used for both truth telling and fiction telling, literally or figuratively – to persuade and to dissuade as the situation may require. To teach, to warn, to discourage, you name it.

    It didn’t come from Gods, myth makers, Greek dramatists or whatever. All these cultures used it according to their needs and purposes.

    You have old cut and paste conradg on board now, so good luck with that. I’m out of here.

  79. #79 Pseudonym
    May 29, 2008

    Thanks, conradg. That was a very good essay, which helped a lot.

    Coriolis:

    Again Pseudonym, you keep claiming that “belief” is somehow unimportant for religion.

    Not quite. I’m saying that religion comes from the pre-modern mind, and for the religion of the pre-modern mind, “belief” was not as important as practice. The insistence on “belief” is fairly new.

    Can you simply explain then, what is the qualitative difference between any book in which one finds some type of meaning, both for himself and socially by discussing it with friends, and a religious text?

    I’ve already said that, but I’ll try again: Consider the process by which mythology is made. Stories are retold with imperfect reproduction (e.g. orally). There is a random mutation element (stories change in the telling) and a selection pressure (some versions are more psychologically suitable/pleasing than others). So the effect is that these stories evolve to match our psychology.

    “Any book” doesn’t do that. Mythology does. Folk tales also do (which explains the reason why Grimm and Perrault are still popular). So do urban legends, which explains why these obviously fictional (or fictionalised, in some cases) stories get sent around as if they are newspaper reports. Also, many writers study the mythological archetypes and deliberately duplicate them, especially in fantasy and sci-fi.

    Orwell didn’t do that. He observed the politics of his day (which are quite similar to the politics of our day; he was a very observant man) to write his satires.

    As far as I know, there are no Animal Farm conventions where people dress up like the characters, but it does happen with Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Anne Rice vampire books, and even The Rocky Horror Show. Unlike Orwell, these works of fiction do follow (and feed off) human mythology and mythological archetypes quite closely. That’s no coincidence.

  80. #80 conradg
    May 29, 2008

    Like a purifying river of holy water, I seem to drive the demons out. Or at least the lizard brains.

  81. #81 bobyu
    May 29, 2008

    Ah, but nemeses remain. As will your own demons, who will now drive you and this thread straight to hell.

  82. #82 conradg
    May 30, 2008

    Hell is a choice the damned cannot resist. Can you?

  83. #83 bobyu
    May 30, 2008

    Spoken like a damned fool as usual.

  84. #84 conradg
    May 30, 2008

    Amazing how shining a little light brings all the creepy little bugs out into the open.

  85. #85 conradg
    May 30, 2008

    Amazing how shining a little light brings all the creepy little bugs out into the open.

  86. #86 bobyu
    May 30, 2008

    conradg saw this title and knew they were singing his song: “Religion is Sensible to the Extent That it is Vacuous”

  87. #87 conradg
    May 30, 2008

    Jeez, talk about vacuous! You guys really got nothing going but petty little snipes.

  88. #88 SLC
    May 30, 2008

    Re Collin Bremdemuehl

    Mr. Brendemuehl states that the theory of tachyons is a mathematically valid theory. So what? The Brans-Dicke theory of relativity is also a mathematically valid theory but has been falsified. In order for a mathematically valid theory to be a valid theory of physics, it must be possible to, at least in principal, develop testable hypothesis from it.

  89. #89 SLC
    May 30, 2008

    Re Collin Bremdemuehl

    Actually, physicists even sometimes ignore mathematical validity in physical theories. A perfect example is the theory of Relativistic Quantum Electrodynamics, which, in its handling of infinite quantities is totally mathematically preposterous. And yet it is accepted as at least a valid computational approach because it give results that agree with experimental observations to 10 significant digits. As the late Richard Feynman once put it, Quantum Electrodynamics gives results that are equivalent to measuring the distance between the top of the Empire State Building in New York City and the top of City Hall in Los Angeles, Ca. to the nearest foot!

  90. #90 Coriolis
    May 30, 2008

    Right Pseudonym, and indeed lord of the rings/star wars were other books I though of putting up against any religious text, precisely for the reasons you listed. The difference between Orwell’s books and religious texts is indeed that they are not mythological. But people find meaning/value in both.

    However, there is also a difference between LotR/star wars and a religious text, in the sense that no one believes that they are true, and even people who love them rarely (if ever) consider them to have a moral message for how to live our lives or organize our society (unlike religious texts or Orwell’s books). And let’s face it, no one in modern times (other then perhaps atheists) would call LotR/SW fans a religion, as anything other then a joke.

    For a book/philosophy to be a basis of religion (certainly in modern times), it does need to have some type of ideas on what one should do with his/her life and/or how society should be organized, together with mythology. And if people believe the message as far as the personal/social commands of the book, they tend to believe the mythology as well.

  91. #91 Lofcaudio
    May 30, 2008

    J.: Because it’s rather pointless for people to suffer instead of doing whatever they can to use the experience to make themselves stronger, happier and wiser…

    Then why is there suffering? If people have the means to simply do whatever they can to end suffering, why does it persistently plague our species? You seem to suggest that it is ignorance that keeps us down as we have the power to rise above suffering. If I am misunderstanding you, I apologize, but this seems an awfully naive view of life and humanity.

    J.: I have seen too many broken people, people near me have been broken, and unfortunately I’ve had a lot of broken friends in my days…[Religion] too often makes people accept and continue to stay in bad situations they need to whatever they can get out of. It helps people accept their bad situation and make it barely acceptable, instead of trying hard to come up with something to make it significantly better.

    Philosophically, this just doesn’t work. If people get themselves into “bad situations” (as you call them), then how in the world are these same people going to all of a sudden figure out a solution to get out of (and stay out of) such lousy circumstances? I will agree that we all learn from our mistakes, but the fact is: We will always be making mistakes. Thus, suffering will continue.

    Do I revel in this fact? Absolutely not! But I think my view is a sound one in that humanity has yet to prove that it can function in a utopian state. On the contrary, ignorance still abounds around the world as does pain, suffering and grief. You seem hopeful that these things are temporary and will soon come to end because we have found (or are in the process of finding) a solution to these problems.

    I happen to agree that there is a solution, but such a solution is not respected in these parts.

    J.: Fundies terrify me

    Me too.

    J.: people whose lives are so crippled that they’re dependent on religion as a crutch is pretty saddening, depressing and worrisome.

    Why? Do you see a crutch and think “what a weakling!” or do you see it as a helpful tool in a time of need?

    J.: When people exploit fiction to hold power over others, it’s really bad.

    I agree.

    J.: It’s even worse when people start believing the fiction as reality.

    While I agree with your statement on its face, I disagree with what you mean by those words–that the basis for any and all religion is fiction. Based upon the gist of your comments, you are ignorant when it comes to religion, so your “religion is fiction” view needs some support before it can be respected, in my opinion.

  92. #92 bobyu
    May 30, 2008

    The use of the word fiction or its derivatives, such as fictional or fictitious, implies that any lack of truth in the material at hand was or is intentional. But mythologies, which would include all established religions, were (and are) not necessarily intended to represent untruths.
    So calling religions fiction, or fictitious – with exceptions being made for the likes of scientology – can be incorrect and certainly misleading, especially when the topic at hand involved distinguishing the true from the false separately from the consideration of their purposes.

  93. #93 Buggy
    June 1, 2008

    More about the storytelling facilities of our brains can be found in Ian Stewart’s, Jack Cohen’s and Terry Pratchett’s Science of Discworld series. Rather a good read in my opinion, but as a rabid Discworld fan I may be biased.

  94. #94 Tim B.
    June 3, 2008

    Collin,

    My question to you is not designed to be combative but sincere. Perhaps you have a solution to a problem that has flummoxed me for some time. Has to do with free will and dual agency. Whether God is a transcendent theistic entity who caused the world by letting loose general laws (or by a more tinkering method) or a kind of transcendent/immanent process entity, how might an Agent cleanly “hand off” free will to an agent?

    Wouldn’t there always be invisible strings attached? And wouldn’t whatever act the agent chose carry with it an implicit entanglement with the will-generating Agent? Isn’t it logically impossible for free will to be manufactured? I think I’d be more disposed to believing in a special creation of humans from dust in one day than believing free will could be purely independent of something that supposedly fashioned it. God making/granting free will seems like a Just Story, doesn’t it?

    Just strikes me as an irresolvable logic problem. Wonder if Aquinas or other philosopher/theologians ever addressed this paradox?

  95. #95 izmr evden eve
    August 8, 2008

    Thank you for sharing…

  96. #96 Peter Szabo
    August 8, 2008

    A lengthy discussion that concerned the proposition that an omnipotent/omniscient being is required to posit the free will that could otherwise exist only if the beginning-less and endless interplay of atoms involved even the tiniest degree of randomness would have a measurement similar to that of this sentence.