Coulter on a World of Wonders

That’s Michael Coulter, production editor for The Sunday Age. Commenter mrcreosote left a link to a magnificent essay by Coulter in in my post of two days ago. It’s so good I felt it deserved a post of its own. Let’s have a look.

MOST weeks I read The Sunday Age’s Faith column, out of professional duty. Most weeks I am left perplexed, unable to reconcile what I am reading with anything I see around me.

What I see is a world slowly tearing itself apart for the sake of one faith or another. A world where an extreme faction of Islam wishes to put me and mine to the sword for my unbelief, and to shackle half the world for the crime of being born female. A world where an extreme faction of Christianity wants to throw away science for the sake of millenniums-old superstitions, and is prepared to kill in the name of life. A world where an extreme faction of Hinduism wishes to religiously purify India. A world where people are unashamedly trying to fulfil the biblical conditions for Armageddon.

Moderates say that these factions are perversions of faith, but that too jars with what I know of the past: that it took until the 20th century for humans to devise a secular philosophy, in the form of communism, to rival faith’s destructive power. From the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites to Nero lighting the streets with burning Christians, from the slaughter of the Crusades to the bloodbath of India’s Partition, violence and religion have always gone hand in hand. And the record of societies governed by religious law, from the Aztecs to the Taliban, tells us that theocracy is a synonym for barbarity.

Exactly right!

Science/religion discussions look a lot different depending on whether they are held inside or outside of academe. I don’t recognize religion as it is so often presented by humanities professors. The world in which science and religion coexist peacefully, where religious faith has nothing to do with empirical claims about the world, and where God is an abstract concept as opposed to the actual creator of the universe, is not the world I experience in my day-to-day life. It’s not the world I read about in the newspaper or hear about on television. It’s not the world described to me by my religious friends and acquaintances when I ask them about their faith.

But people like Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong act like they’re the ones who really understand what religion is all about, while amateurs like Dawkins and Hitchens are flogging dead horses and straw men. I think Coulter does a nice job of skewering this view.

It’s a puzzling thing about religion that its words, which generally urge us to bolster our better natures and remedy our faults, so rarely match its actions. It seems to me that while an individual’s faith can be a profound personal journey that might even make them a better person, a society’s faith is akin to mass psychosis. History suggests that the killers were always the truest believers, and that notions of tolerance, peace and enlightenment come from those who question the orthodoxy.

Paragraph after paragraph of this! Great stuff. Here’s one more excerpt:

Because make no mistake, we live in a world of wonders. The sound of a wave breaking on a beach, the green of a forest, that we can see and hear and appreciate these things … these are all true marvels, and no less so for the fact we can now understand how it happens. As someone wise once said, the garden is quite good enough without having to invent fairies at the bottom of it.

The question I can’t escape is why so many people clearly prefer the realm of faith, the realm of the Inquisition and of violent jihad, to the realm of thought. What does faith provide them with that reality does not? If it is the comfort of a benevolent power guiding and protecting them, how do they square that with the horror and squalor that still infest the world? Or if it’s a desire for mystery, isn’t the contemplation of the natural forces that conspired to put us here enough?

I wish I had written his essay. Go read the rest of it.

Comments

  1. #1 msn nickleri
    May 7, 2009

    dddddddd

  2. #2 Sigmund
    May 7, 2009

    It’s a very good piece overall but using the ‘Egyptians enslaving the Israelites’ as an example seems a little out of place amongst a list of well proven historical events. I’ve just finished Hitchen’s ‘God is not great’ where he makes the point that the biblical Exodus story is almost certainly mythical and doesn’t seem to be based on any factual data.

  3. #3 GregK
    May 7, 2009

    You ought to read The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day so you can temper your enthusiasm a little.

  4. #4 Lofcaudio
    May 7, 2009

    Moderates say that these factions are perversions of faith, but that too jars with what I know of the past: that it took until the 20th century for humans to devise a secular philosophy, in the form of communism, to rival faith’s destructive power.

    And what a refreshing antidote communism has turned out to be!

    It’s a puzzling thing about religion that its words, which generally urge us to bolster our better natures and remedy our faults, so rarely match its actions.

    Precisely! In fact, it is this very truth that makes religion so compelling, in my opinion. It is this flawed state which drives flawed people to religion. Pointing out that religious people have issues does not disprove the claims of such a religion, but rather logically supports a religion such as Christianity which provides that all people, religious or not, are flawed and in need of some help. However, it is logically unsound to argue that mankind is generally good and then turn around and point out the evil practices of certain people (e.g., Republicans, Christians, you-name-it).

    The question I can’t escape is why so many people clearly prefer the realm of faith, the realm of the Inquisition and of violent jihad, to the realm of thought. What does faith provide them with that reality does not?

    Ah…the always popular Argument from Incredulity in rhetorical question form with a dash of False Dilemma thrown in for good measure. While this may be effective rhetoric when it is being “preached to the choir,” there really is nothing of substance being offered here. Perhaps the fact that some people do find that faith meshes with reality is evidence that there is something beneficial being provided that has nothing to do with any Inquisition or violent jihad, despite Coulter’s utter astonishment that any reasonable person could come to such a conclusion.

  5. #5 Anton Mates
    May 7, 2009

    And what a refreshing antidote communism has turned out to be!

    What? Coulter never said communism was the “antidote” to anything. He merely said that communism was unprecedently similar to faith in its destructive power; that’s hardly an endorsement!

    Pointing out that religious people have issues does not disprove the claims of such a religion, but rather logically supports a religion such as Christianity which provides that all people, religious or not, are flawed and in need of some help.

    This misrepresents both Coulter and Christianity. A religion like Christianity doesn’t just claim that everybody needs help, it claims (usually) that everybody can get the help they need from that religion. And Coulter isn’t just saying that religious people have issues, he’s saying that strongly religious people often have more issues than the rest of us.

    Neither Coulter nor the faiths he critiques are claiming that religious people ought to be perfect. But the faiths in question often claim to improve the individuals and societies that practice them. Coulter is saying that the opposite seems to be true.

    However, it is logically unsound to argue that mankind is generally good and then turn around and point out the evil practices of certain people (e.g., Republicans, Christians, you-name-it).

    Who’s arguing that mankind is generally good? Coulter professes a faith–admittedly irrational–that mankind can get better over time, but he makes no claim that we’re angels right now (or ever will be).

    The question I can’t escape is why so many people clearly prefer the realm of faith, the realm of the Inquisition and of violent jihad, to the realm of thought. What does faith provide them with that reality does not?

    Ah…the always popular Argument from Incredulity in rhetorical question form with a dash of False Dilemma thrown in for good measure.

    You could make a case for a false dilemma, but there’s no argument from incredulity there. Coulter is asking why many people prefer faith; he’s not denying that they do.

  6. #6 T.R. Walters
    May 7, 2009

    Advise. Never go full idiot. You never come back, Anton Mates.

  7. #7 repl67
    May 7, 2009

    “What does faith provide them with that reality does not?”

    Religion provides an answer to the question of death. What happens when we die? And is death the end?

    As someone who is currently struggling with a life-threatening illness, I think about those questions a lot. Just about everybody who lives long enough gets to mull over such questions eventually.

    So far, I don’t believe the answers that Christianity or Islam provides. But it would make my struggle a lot easier if I did.

  8. #8 Jr
    May 8, 2009

    “From the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites to Nero lighting the streets with burning Christians, from the slaughter of the Crusades to the bloodbath of India’s Partition, violence and religion have always gone hand in hand. ”

    Well it is far from certain that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites and if they did it is not clear that their motivation had anything to do with religion. (Though we don’t know that it didn’t happen either. The strongest evidence for the historicity of the Exodus is probably all the Egyptian names like Mose and Aaron. Even the narrator doesn’t appear aware that Mose is a Egyptian name, make it unlikely that it was invented to give the story plausibility. The strongest evidence against is its complete lack of support in the archeological evidence and in Egyptian sources.)

    The Nero story seems also a dubious inclusion. Assuming Nero really had Christians serve as lamp posts (the Roman historians were not above exaggerating) his motive was probably not religious.

  9. #9 Tony
    May 8, 2009

    Good stuff. I wonder why our (secular) foreign policy chooses sides in support of theocracies?

  10. #10 Jim Harrison
    May 8, 2009

    Most atheists laugh at the idea that people have an immortal soul, but lots of ‘em seem to think that Christianity has one and that it features an unchanging, malevolent essence. The version of history retailed in these posts is about as credible as the plot of a Marvel comic about Skeletor vs Beastman. You guys are in Michelle Bachman territory and not just because you perpetually screw up the chronology of events. We’re all ignorant about many things–it’s the common human predicament–but why be so damned proud about it and insist that your absence of knowledge about a huge part of human experience is somehow virtuous?

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 8, 2009

    Jim Harrison –

    Would you care to be more specific? It’s news to me that I think Christianity features an unchanging, malevolent essence, whatever that means. Can you point to an instance of an incorrect chronology, or a Michelle Bachmann style error, in any of my recent posts?

    Incidentally, Skeletor and Beastman were not Marvel comics characters, and they were not enemies. Beastman was actually Skeletor’s enforcer.

  12. #12 Jim Harrison
    May 8, 2009

    You quote Michael Coulter, who writes “From the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites to Nero lighting the streets with burning Christians, from the slaughter of the Crusades to the bloodbath of India’s Partition, violence and religion have always gone hand in hand.” Which is pretty much the same as saying, “From Jeffrey Dahmer to the Zodiac killer to Dexter, America and serial killing have always gone hand in hand.” Obviously any conclusion about history can be made if you get to pick all the data points.

    The new atheism, which is pretty much just the old atheism, has the tendency of other Enlightenment-era fossils of promoting extremely schematic historical narratives that leave out any real engagement with the people, ideas, and images of the past in order to come up with a blunt club with which to pummel their contemporary enemies. The approach may or not be effective; it is certainly unfair; but what bothers me is that it pretty obviously false: it does not happen to be the case that Christianity or religiosity in general is the root of all evil.

    Sorry about the error about Marvel comics. I can’t claim to match your detailed knowledge of comic books, acquired, no doubt, by thousands of hours of close study.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 8, 2009

    Jim Harrison -

    How do you go from the statement that violence and religion have always gone hand in hand to the statement that Christianity is the root of all evil? And do you honestly think that establishing a historical connection between religion and violence is just a mater of selectively choosing a few arbitrary data points?

    If you could stop admiring your own self-righteousness for a minute you would see the irony in lambasting others for making errors in subjects you claim they know nothing about while committing precisely that sin yourself.

  14. #14 Jim Harrison
    May 9, 2009

    I’m willing to make offhand comments about comic books. I wouldn’t presume to give you advise about the validity of the Riemann hypothesis. Anyhow, whatever the state of my soul, the fact remains that the village atheist version of history is a childish cartoon. Somebody has to point that out from time to time.

    Since human history has a heck of a lot of violence in it, it is trivially true that religion and violence often go hand in hand. You can also make a pretty good case that agriculture and violence go hand and hand, not to mention bowling and violence, etc.

    Obviously there have been eras where religion was involved with dreadful wars and oppression. There have also been eras when there was plenty of violence, but religion had little or nothing to do with it–the ancient Greeks managed to do a pretty good job of killing one another, yet classical paganism didn’t go in for pograms or thought control. It would also be quite a stretch to explain the Napoleonic Wars or WWI or WWII as religious wars.

    Jason, you are too smart a guy to go in for this drawing in crayon.

  15. #15 seksi
    May 9, 2009

    Good stuff. I wonder why our (secular) foreign policy chooses sides in support of theocracies?

  16. #16 Bill
    May 9, 2009

    Blind faith (not the group) fascinates me. How can belief, in anything, be so strong that you would be willing to kill, or even injure, someone in its name? Defending yourself against aggression is one thing, but to wage war against those who don’t agree with you is beyond my comprehension. Territorial wars I can understand, being a biologist. Religious wars, though, must be driven by something in our nature we haven’t yet been able to clearly define. Is rationality normally distributed, or bimodal?

  17. #17 Tony
    May 10, 2009

    Jim Harrison’s point is a good one. The Egyptians may have enslaved the Israeilites “because” of religion, but I doubt it. Did the US cavalry commit genocide on the Native Americans because of their godlessness? Did Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin use theology to justify their slaughters?

    Coulter says “violence and religion have always gone hand in hand.” I would say nature has always been violent and has nothing to do with religion. Communism is just an example of a post-religious ideology being used to justify the same old violence that used to be justified by religion.

    Humans are violent. Period. All animals are violent and will kill without hesitation to achieve their goals of nourishment or mating, or whatever. Humans are more complex and we may devise more complex rationales for our conquests, but the basic cause is probably much more simple.

    Religion does not cause violence. Nature is violent… by its very nature. And humans are part of nature.

    I, too, find it odd that humans choose to believe in fantasies to explain natural occurrences and would concur with repl67 upthread that our preparation for death is tantamount. The Buddha (a nontheist) recognized death as something for which we must spend our lives in preparation. Theistic religions likewise use death and an “afterlife” as a major motivation for paticipants to follow their dogmas.

    Powermongers may have co-opted religion for their ulterior purposes (either consciously or not), but religion is not evil unto itself… at least no more evil than the secular. Even ratioanle leaders advocate murder and enslavement for “national interests.”

    Coulter is a good writer, but his causology does not comport with the facts and understanding of the natural world.

  18. #18 Caliban
    May 10, 2009

    “Religion does not cause violence. Nature is violent… by its very nature. And humans are part of nature.”

    To me, this looks as much a “crayon drawing” as anything else. It’s a gross oversimplification that denies the messy particulars of history. There are causes for violence. It does not occur mysteriously for inexplicable, unknown reasons.

    The point is not that some humans have always been violent, but rather, under what conditions is violence more or less prevalent?

    There are no shortage of examples of religiously inspired violence throughout history. To say that humans are violent and would have been violent anyway is an empty, unprovable sentiment without any explanatory power.

    Are you really suggesting that the Crusades would have occurred anyway without the Catholic Church, or that 9/11 would have occurred anyway without the concept of Islamic Jyhad?

    And are we to ignore the testimony of those who specifically invoked religion (or some other absolutist dogma) as their inspiration to commit specific, violent acts and declare that none of that matters because humans are all equally violent at all times throughout history? The actual data (see Pinker)is that humans have been killing each other a lot less today than we used to (even with both world wars).

    Religious dogma is one of the reasons people use to kill people. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a reason. Encouraging skepticism and other rational alternatives (or even liberal religious ones) to the blind adherence to dogma will result in fewer people getting killed. If you doubt this, compare modern day Europe with the Middle east.

  19. #19 Bill
    May 10, 2009

    Evil doesn’t exist without religion. Plenty of bad, stupid, sick, maladaptive, etc., but without gods and devils, the concept of evil has no meaning. Weinberg’s famous saying, though, applies: “Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for a good person to do bad things—that takes religion.”

  20. #20 Tony
    May 10, 2009

    Cailiban,
    The presumption is that if only we were non-religious then violence would decrease or disappear, ie, that religion causes violence, or makes it worse. This is difficult to prove one way or the other since humans have always been violent and humans have always been religious as far as we can interpret the archeological record.

    I’m not familiar with “Pinker’s data” regarding the rate of human killing, but even so, to append a cause and effect relationship between the waning of theism and a change in the murder rate breeches scientific and rational principles. Just ask David Hume. The Age of Enlightenment has seen enormous changes in mankind’s views of justice and enforcement and international government, etc, in addition to the changes in religious beliefs, so it’s impossible to put a direct cause onto why humans kill each other less (if in fact they do).

    Every so-called religious conquest or attack can be explained by something more fundamental to human existence: food, fear, f*#king… you know, the limbic system stuff. When the Saudi terrorists attacked NYC, they invoked religion, but al Qaeda also stated that a large (larger) part of the motivation was the US support for the Saudi family and Israel’s perceived pogrom on Palestine, ie, perceived threats to their personal or their tribal well-being. The US has a history of religious tolerance, unlike other nations that have not been attacked by al Qaeda, so it’s unlikely that religion was even the primary causation for the attacks. In other words, political and not religious reasons were primary.

    The Crusades were steeped in political reasons for conquest: the Pope and bishops were a bit nervous with all those armed knights milling about Europe, so they gave them a project to busy themselves and alleviate their violent tendencies… go kill somebody, how about those Muslims. Surely, the knights welcomed an opportunity to plunder some of the richest city-states in the world and rape some of the most beautiful virgins, and while they may have welcomed a religious justification, religion cannot be proven to be even a minor “cause.”. Religion did not “cause” the Crusades, and theism likely did not make them any more violent either.

    Some of the greatest military conquests that led to some of the greatest mayhem were not religious at all, not even for justification: Genghis Khan’s 20 yr assault on Asia, Alexander the Great’s world domination, The US’s Manifest Destiny genocide of Native Americans, Hitler’s attack on his neighbors, Stalin’s formation of the USSR and his rule by iron fist, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong il, etc, etc… all done for the professed desired for more land, natural resources, slaves, concubines, and/or plunder. Religion was not even remotely implicated.

    Even those conquests that invoke religion often are primarily political: Hutus vs. Tutsis, al Qada vs the West, Arabs vs Israelis, India vs Pakistan, Tibet vs China… all these conflicts are due to the desire for self-rule or land conflicts or fear of tribal annihilation.

    The fact is that humans are violent. And humans are religious. And humans are tribal. These are all mutually exclusive tendencies and no causation can be determined. Would humans be less violent if they were not religious? Proving a counterfactual is impossible, but the evidence says that even atheists are violent.

    Religion is designed to answer different questions than science. Science can answer a lot of questions about our known world and alleviate a lot of suffering, but it cannot answer the ultimate question: What happens after we die? And science has not conquered death. So this has left a niche for religion to prosper forever. Personally, I don’t think religion can answer this ultimate question either, nor can it conquer the ultimate battle against death, but I also do not think that religion is as bad as Matthew Coulter or Hitchens make it out to be.

    If religion could be expunged tomorrow, we’d still have our fears, our needs for food and land, our limited land mass, our growing population, our urge to F$#k and reproduce, our tribalism… and our violence, and I doubt it would be one iota less.

  21. #21 Caliban
    May 11, 2009

    “The fact is that humans are violent. And humans are religious. And humans are tribal. These are all mutually exclusive tendencies and no causation can be determined. Would humans be less violent if they were not religious? Proving a counterfactual is impossible, but the evidence says that even atheists are violent.”

    Then why are the least religious countries the safest ones to live in and the most religious countries the most dangerous ones to live in?

    And Tony, just out of curiosity, how many people have you killed? How many times have you had to kill someone for, as you say, “limbic stuff”? I guess it’s unavoidable huh? Nature is violent, therefore people are violent, therefore, Tony is violent?

  22. #22 Jim Harrison
    May 11, 2009

    If you attempt to make historical correlations between poorly defined terms such as “religion” and “violence” and, to boot, you have very little knowledge of history, the results are bound to be little more than ideological venting. In fact, as asked, the questions here are all loaded since they assume that religiosity not only has an essence but is the independent variable that explains the goodness or badness of human behavior to some important degree. “Know your enemy” is a fit motto for the propagandist, but not for the historian.

    It’s reasonable to suggest that particular forms of religion have had particular effects on particular societies at particular eras, but it would be quite surprising if the key to something as path dependent as human history could be explained by simple universal correlations. It’s as easy to come up with examples of times and places in which religious institutions apparently played a positive role as to roll at the usual suspects of the opposite. Of course if the only history you know is something you heard somewhere about the Inquisition or the Crusades, it may appear that the evidence all runs one way. It doesn’t.

    I know several people from Ulan Batur. They were excited when the new Mongolian movie about Gengis Khan came out, but they were also rather embarrassed by it because they regarded the conquests of their ancestors as a crime, not something to be proud of. That sort of behavior violated their religious scruples—recall that in the aftermath of the empire, the Mongolians converted to a Tibetan form of Buddhism. Now that you’ve heard this anecdote, are you going to decide that religion tends to combat violence?

  23. #23 Caliban
    May 11, 2009

    Blind adherence to dogma is historically proven to be dangerous. Religious beliefs that aren’t dogmatic are less dangerous, but still have the potential for harming life due to an enforced ignorance. (The recent post about the dead child whose parents refused to treat with medicine in favor of prayer is an example of how religion, even without a holy war, causes harm.)

    The point, is that religion always has the potential to become dogmatic and dangerous and that history is littered with examples of it doing so.

    Violence and ignorance are not preordained for humanity. Where religious dogmatism has been rejected by a culture, that culture thrives (see the Netherlands, Europe, Japan etc.) and conversely, those cultures ruled by dogmatic religions are places none of us would want to live. And here in the US, the forces of dogmatism cause all kinds of irrational problems for gays, stem-cell research, creationism in public schools, etc.

    Beliefs have consequences. Dogmatic beliefs have a greater potential to cause negative consequences and the lion’s share of dogmatic beliefs are religious.

  24. #24 Jim Harrison
    May 11, 2009

    Point of information: Just which religious individuals would admit to “blind adherence to dogma?” Or does adherence to doctrines you don’t accept automatically count as blind adherence because your pronouncements are infallible in matters of faith and morals? By the way, your notion that anything is historically proven is a tad problematic, especially since there is very little evidence that you or anybody else in these parts are actually weighing evidence.

  25. #25 Tony
    May 11, 2009

    Caliban asks, “And Tony, just out of curiosity, how many people have you killed?”

    Answer: I truly have no idea, but I can do a rough tally if you want. I was born in 1961, started paying taxes in 1978, which means that I helped support by (secular) tribe’s military during the Cold War with enforcement of the Truman Doctrine and overthrow of various pro-Soviet regimes in this hemisphere, killing thousands I’m sure. Limbic reason: fear

    Also, my tribe has supported despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, South America, Sudan, and other regions rich with natural resources so that we could enjoy the merits of fossil fuels. Those despotic regimes used our military assets to keep control of oil fields and subjugate their people with violence or the threat of violence. Death toll: tens of thousands. Limbic reason: food (fuel)

    Gulf War 1991. My tribe took it upon ourselves to forcibly free the Kuwaiti monarchy from another despot (who we had supported in the past) in order to keep the straits of Hormuz open. Death toll: few thousand. Limbic reason: food (fuel)

    Afghanistan war 2002: Hundreds of thousands dead, refugeed, maimed. Limbic reason: fear.

    Iraq war 2003: Hundreds of thousands dead, refugeed, maimed. Limbic reason: Cheney’s an asshole who wet his pants like a schoolgirl (ie, fear.)

    That’s just in my lifetime and just my (secular) tribe, and doesn’t include our support for Israel, Egypt and other theocratic allied regimes who rule with force. Previous to that we had committed genocide on the Native Americans, enslaved Africans, incinerated Japanese, slaughtered Europeans, and napalmed Viet Cong.

    I’m not saying all of these were unjustified, I’m just saying… we’re violent. And these were not religious wars.

  26. #26 Caliban
    May 11, 2009

    Tony, I didn’t ask what wars the US has been involved in. I asked how many people YOU have killed. Given your (apparent) belief that humans are all equally, irredeemably violent and can never be anything else, I was curious to see if your own life history mirrored your beliefs about humanity.

  27. #27 Caliban
    May 11, 2009

    Jim, I get that not all religous expression is overtly harmful. The point is that a lot of it is (or has been) and is worthy of criticism. I’ll leave the facts of history to stand as they are under the concensus of historians. I don’t need to endlessly split hairs.

    Do you deny that beleifs have consequences and that dogmaticly held beliefs are more likely to result in negative consequences?

  28. #28 Jim Harrison
    May 11, 2009

    I have no brief for any religion whatsoever. What I’m complaining about are abstract ideologies like Christian fundamentalism or village atheism that reduce human history to a cartoon struggle of the good guys vs the bad guys.

    Dogmatism is an interesting topic if you approach it sociologically since it appears that the literal application of theologies or social philosophies only occurs under particular circumstances and typically doesn’t go on for very long because the true believers eventually frighten everybody, especially the powers that be. In the early stages of Christianity, for example, fanaticism impressed the pagans who weren’t used to people getting so worked up about religion, but what was witness and glorious martyrdom became a pain in the ass for the established church as well as for the political authorities. As has been repeatedly pointed out, there isn’t a lot of psychological difference between a saint and a heretic; and it often seems to be have been a coin flip whether a particular enthusiast got himself canonized or burnt at the stake. Bouts of violent persecution and religious wars also tend to be self-limiting—not that that excuses them, of course. Getting everybody upset about the threat of the heretics, the witches, the Protestants, the Papists, or the Jews can be political useful to secular princes; but the consequences tend to get out of hand, at which point more tolerant practices begin to apply on a de facto if not a de jure basis. Beliefs matter, but how they matter depends on circumstances. Just because something is written in Leviticus doesn’t mean it will ever be acted upon just as the proposal to strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest was usually more a happy thought than an action plan.

  29. #29 Tony
    May 11, 2009

    Caliban asks, “Then why are the least religious countries the safest ones to live in and the most religious countries the most dangerous ones to live in?”

    Correlation does not equal causation. There are a multitude of variables between various nations and cultures that could contribute to the levels of violence: population density, wealth distribution, poverty levels, etc… Maybe omega-3 fish oils make people more docile, thus Swedes don’t fight wars. Caliban, you really need to review your philosophy of David Hume.

    As for my review of the US’ wars, we live in a society with an advanced division of labor whereby our violence is done by proxy, but it’s still violence. Ask those dead and maimed Iraqis if they feel less violated because they were mutilated by JDAM’s and “smart” bombs.

  30. #30 Tony
    May 11, 2009

    Caliban, on further reflection, I would add that you could propose that violence within a particular society causes religious fundamentalism to flourish, instead of the other way around. Why blame fundamentalism as the primary cause?

    While neither hypothesis is provable in a satisfactory way, both are equally plausible. By decreasing violence (by whatever means), one could hypothesize that this would very well lead to a decrease in religious fundamentalism.

    But my surmise is that violence is caused by multi factorial reasons basic to the human lizard brain. And irrational belief systems will persist as long as their are humans who sense their eventual death. They are mutually exclusive human conditions.

  31. #31 Caliban
    May 12, 2009

    Okay Tony and Jim, Is there any evidence (historical or otherwise) that would be capable of convincing you that people who subscribe to a religiously dogmatic, absolutist view is an impediment to progress?

    What would it take? Why do you feel compelled to make lame excuses for horrible behaviors that result in institutionalized expressions of misogyny, sectarianism and intolerance?

    What do you have to gain from defending ideologies that demand that people like you be tortured for eternity?

    My impression so far in this, albeit casual discourse, is that neither of you wants to entertain the notion that harmful, irrational beliefs (held by millions of people) could have negative consequences.

  32. #32 Caliban
    May 12, 2009

    I should add, that at this point in the intertubes debate, that my interest in wrestling over this with you is not a matter of relinquishing control to insults.

    The fact that I’ve even posted this many posts is a sign that i don’t think either or you are stupid or unthoughtful. From the responses you’ve given i do want you to know that i have found your responses interesting. Please don’t take my disagreement with you as an expression of disrespect. Okay, now carry on. :)

  33. #33 Tony
    May 12, 2009

    Caliban, dude, I feel your pain. I’m just about the most devout atheist you could imagine and I find nothing redeeming about man’s defective need to grasp fantasy over reality. And I do think that irrational beliefs stymie scientific progress.

    But I am just saying that all the bad stuff out there cannot be laid at the feet of religion. In fact, I would add that this is a cop out and casting blame on Islam for the results of our shitty secular foreign policy over the past 50 years of our oil addiction is not going to solve the problems we have, and if rational atheists cannot be the voice of reason, then who can?

    In his essay, Matthew Coulter says:

    From the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites to Nero lighting the streets with burning Christians, from the slaughter of the Crusades to the bloodbath of India’s Partition, violence and religion have always gone hand in hand. And the record of societies governed by religious law, from the Aztecs to the Taliban, tells us that theocracy is a synonym for barbarity.

    I’m just saying that societies governed by nonreligious law are just as barbarous. We may justify our barbarity by other means, but that doesn’t make it any less barbarous. You have contributed to more death via your tax dollars than the average Islamic Saudi peasant has.

    Coulter continues:

    History suggests that the killers were always the truest believers, and that notions of tolerance, peace and enlightenment come from those who question the orthodoxy.

    Again, I’ll refer to some of the most murderous occurrences in history: the World Wars, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Stalin’s 30 million dead, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Viet Nam, Cambodia… or previous centuries: again, Genghis Khan, Roman Empire, Sparta, etc, etc, etc. None were outright religious wars, and even those that had apparent religious motivations were actually largely fought for more basic (ie, limbic) reasons.

    Expunging religion from the human condition will never happen*… but even if you could remove theism, there is no evidence that doing so would change the equation of violence anyway. Look elsewhere for causes of barbarity if you must: social injustice, economic strife and lack of self-determination are obvious places to start. Blaming Islam and Evangelical Christianity are just unnecessarily distracting you from the real problems.

    *religion will always have a place because humans are self-aware and will seek answers to ultimate questions that can never be answered by science, ie,

    “What happens when we die?”

    The way to keep the smallest percentage of religious people from radicalizing and using their irrational beliefs to recruit more radicals is to pay more attention to injustices and assuage their limbic fears and urges. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Give them space to pro-create, live freely, grow food, feel safe… I cannot prove it, but I bet that would be more fruitful than complaining about religion.

    Good talking to you.

  34. #34 Jim Harrison
    May 12, 2009

    Caliban, you have got to be kidding. Nobody is defending intolerance or dogmatic religion. So far from defending dogma, I’m complaining about it when it takes the form of an absurdly abstract theory of history.

  35. #35 Lofcaudio
    May 12, 2009

    Okay Tony and Jim, Is there any evidence (historical or otherwise) that would be capable of convincing you that people who subscribe to a religiously dogmatic, absolutist view is an impediment to progress?

    Caliban, you have not yet offered any evidence other than perpetuating a revisionist view of history to support your absolute dogmatic position. It is ironic that you have responded so irrationally (see next statement) when others have pointed out the flaws in your stance.

    What would it take? Why do you feel compelled to make lame excuses for horrible behaviors that result in institutionalized expressions of misogyny, sectarianism and intolerance?

    Horrible behaviors such as the intolerance that you have exhibited in this very thread? Again, you seem to be missing the point that a number of us have been trying to make and that is that people behave horribly, whether they are religious or not. You continually want to attribute the horrors of mankind to religion when such causal link does not exist.

    Here is an example of a syllogism using your reasoning:

    1. Most people are religious.
    2. Most people exhibit horrible behaviors.
    3. Therefore, people exhibit horrible behaviors because they are religious.

    As Tony and Jim have pointed out, a more logical syllogism would be as follows:

    1. All people are selfish and behave horribly at times.
    2a. Religious people are people.
    3a. Therefore, religious people are selfish and behave horribly at times.
    LIKEWISE,
    2b. Non-religious people are people.
    3b. Therefore, non-religious people are selfish and behave horribly at times.

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