Evolving Thoughts

Disagreeing with PZ

I count PZ Myers as a friend. After all, he drove 1000 miles to come visit me when I was in Toronto two years ago (breaking his car in the process and having to spend time in some isolated Canadian wasteland). But friends can disagree about basic issues, and this time I do.

Elaine Pagels is the leading scholar on the Gnostic Christians. These guys were effectively Buddhists in Christian garb – the real world is not real, Jesus did not die, the point is to look within for salvation, etc. All in all, a very Platonic, dare one say, philosophical – god and theology.

Pagels made a comment that PZ objected to:

What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don’t there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn’t this become a question for science?

Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.

Paul’s response is to pull up someone who thinks precisely that. My response to Paul is to say, so?

Of course there are people who have a simplistic and literal view of God and religion. That is not at issue and never has been. But what Pagels is saying is something that the uppity atheists always seem to slide over – that there is a more sophisticated view of God that is not so easily knocked down as the idea that God has a backside. And what is more, there always has been (which is the point of studying the Gnostics).

Pagels doesn’t find it unlikely that there are such religious believers, she finds the very same concept PZ finds unlikely, unlikely. And Paul must know this. His response is evasive and I think ultimately a rhetorical trick.

Let’s look at a parallel case. There are people who think that evolution happened. The experts think it happened in one of a number of ways that are disputed or accepted consensually in the discipline of biology; the laity have a range of views that are more or less acceptable. Some even think it happened in such a way that not only humans, but Europeans, were an inevitable outcome.

So, if I say that evolution happened, and give a report of the sophisticated ideas of population genetics, macroevolutionary studies, ecology, and so on, and a creationist responds, as they do, that no, evolutionists believe that Europeans were inevitable, therefore evolutionary theory is simple minded and false, should we accept that argument? Of course we shouldn’t. It’s a fallacious argument.

This is what I reject about the Dawkins/Moran/PZ aggressive atheism – it takes the most stupid version of religion, argues against it, and then claims to have given reasons for not being religious. At best (and here I concur) they have given reasons not to be stupid theists. But a good argument takes on the best of the opposing view, not the worst.

Take, for example, “God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist” (Victor J Stenger). Stenger is pretty careful to say that he is attacking the popular view of religion with science, and he does so successfully. All the things that the populist god is called into explain are better explained by science, and therefore one can conclude that the populist god does not exist. He has a handwave in the first chapter to philosophical arguments against the philosophical god, which may or may not work (I think the problem of Evil is a knockdown against the tri-omni deity, but if you relax that constraint, there are no knockdown arguments against gods as such), but he does not try to claim that his arguments from science even affect the philosophical god.

So Pagels has a better view of God than the usual run of theists – is this problematic? All cultural traditions have those who understand them better than the majority. Few know how to play Jazz trumpet right. Few know how to paint portraits. Few can program word processors correctly (and they do not work at Microsoft, I’m here to tell you). The existence of the stupid or incompetent is not an argument against the best in those traditions (or else I singlehandedly disprove guitar playing).

So Paul (and Larry) engage with Pagel’s views, and take them seriously. We know that popular religion is pretty ignorant. So, as has been noted lately, is popular science. But if you take on the best that your opposition has to offer (and it isn’t Francis Collins), we might all learn something from the attempt.

Comments

  1. #1 TDC
    April 5, 2007

    Thank you.

  2. #2 chezjake
    April 5, 2007

    Well said. I think you’ve made a good case for *some* believers in a god to be taken seriously, especially if those believers take science seriously.

  3. #3 coturnix
    April 5, 2007

    Among people who believe in some form of evolution, those who believe that Europeans are inevitable are a tiny minority. The only one I am aware of is Dan Dennett. And those people have no effect on the way evolutionary biology is studied.

    On the other hand, theists who believe in some kind of “philosophical” God are also a tiny minority and also have no influence on what most believrs believe.

    Thus, your analogy is not symmetrical at all. The wishy-washy theologians are totally irrelevant in this debate. They are a smokescreen put up every time religion is attacked, not something most people really believe. The battle against religion is a battle against the popular (or what you call ‘populist’) version of God – one whose existence is testable by science, and has tested negative every time so far.

  4. #4 Rob Cozzens
    April 5, 2007

    That’s a very good point. I know I get annoyed when creationists keep attacking strawmen versions of evolution. It makes sense that a lot of the arguments against God really just attack a strawman god.

  5. #5 coturnix
    April 5, 2007

    Yes, the theologian’s God is a strawman God. But the strawman is put up by the theists as a defleciton shield against legitimate attacks on God that everyone else believes in.

  6. #6 Bob O'H
    April 6, 2007

    So, in his Good Friday sermon, John crucifies PZ. I guess we’ll have to wait 3 days for the response.

    Bob

  7. #7 justawriter
    April 6, 2007

    He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize.

    What she doesn’t say is that most of the people she studies perished by sword and fire at the very latest in the fifth or sixth centuries C.E. Their manuscripts may have survived in garbage heaps to be rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, but their practices did not. It should also be noted that the people she studies are still considered heretics by any church that accepts either the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed, ie Roman Catholic, Orthodox and nearly all Protestant churches.

    Arguing that PZ needs to engage Pagel’s extinct gnostics seems to me to be saying that no microbiology paper can be considered valid without a discussion of Pasteur’s disproof of spontaneous generation. It’s just dead people arguing dead issues. Interesting history, yes, valid subject for debate, not so much. (This is not to imply that the philosophy, theology and sociology of the gnostics is not an important field of study. They ran much of North Africa for a couple hundred years, after all. However, their place in modern debates on religion and morality are similar to Archimedes’ place is modern discussions of hydrostatics: one naked “Eureka” moment and then we move on.)

  8. #8 Jim Harrison
    April 6, 2007

    The relationship between popular faith and philosophically interpreted religion is a perpetual problem in all four of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Marxism). When St. Augustine anguishes as to whether his beliefs are congruent with the rather homespun faith of his mother, he sounds an awful lot like some French intellectual of the 50s who finds himself apologizing to some party boss for not being a really authentic proletarian. The Jews worried about the same sort of problem in relation to guys like Mamonides whose rigorous and austere theology seemed out of touch with the beliefs and capacities of just plain folks. And there’s a huge Muslim literature on the same split. What is the real continuity between the gnostic speculations of the elite and the gross superstitions of the many?

    My point is that it’s hard not to tar the learned defenders of religion with the crudity or mere absurdity of the faith of the laity because these advanced thinkers generally can’t or won’t disavow the majority view themselves. I know they have their reasons, and the issues aren’t easy to resolve since they involve the emotional identification of thinkers with the communities in which they were born and, more generally, with mankind as a whole. On the other hand, non believers are not responsible for identifying the Prime Mover or ultimate concern or the Ground of Being with some desert sky god or plaster saint.

  9. #9 ronald
    April 6, 2007

    But what if the noises made by a person who knew absolutely nothing about playing the guitar were revered and cherished and considered a great art form by the vast majority of people? meanwhile Jimmy Hendrix was considered talentless or just ignored. At some point we would be dealing not with 2 different levels of the same skill, but with 2 completely separate “skills”, one of which is fundamentally flawed as a concept because randomly and ignorantly plucking the strings is considered a great artistic achievement. We might superficially call the revered amateurs and Jimmy Hendrix “Guitarists” but they are working under different criteria and different assumptions.
    These sophisticated religions and Fundamentalist Christianity are different points on the scale of reason, not religion. Some of the very things considered bad religion by the smarter religionists are considered the absolute best parts of faith by fundamentalist christians. That kind of profound disparity doesn’t exist when you’re talking about a single skill like painting portraits, no one thinks their stick figures are as good as if not better than the Mona Lisa, but almost all religionists think populist religion is just as good if not better than sophisticated stuff.

    So when almost everyone in society thinks that stick figures are the greatest art in the world as opposed to the works of the old masters, challenging the assumptions of these popular bad drawings is a huge issue all by itself, and art criticism of the Mona Lisa would be A COMPLETELY SEPERATE ENDEAVOR. And perhaps on closer inspection its not quite the Mona Lisa but is in fact the work of a high school kid with some natural talent but still lots of mistakes, or perhaps not, but that would definitely be irrelevant in the broader context of things.

    So Dawkins and his ilk are dealing with the only socially and politically relevant form of religion for a popular audience, they never claimed to be writing academic theological dissertations, which deal with fundamentally different ideas superficially called the same thing as tent show miracle healings.

  10. #10 hiero5ant
    April 6, 2007

    How are you operationalizing the concept of “more sophisticated” here? For instance, there is a sense in which ID is “more sophisticated” than old-school YEC. It is more sophisticated in the rhetorical art of making fewer testable claims, and thereby surviving longer in the language game of argument. It is even true that any given argument knocking down YEC will not necessarily knock down IDC. But I don’t see how this kind of rhetorical sophistication in the art of being willfully evasive deserves the moniker of being either more philosophically or scientifically sophisticated, in the specifically normative sense of the word “sophisticated” which your post (perhaps unintentionally) connotes. I think believers like Pagels thrive on exploiting this equivocation between the descriptive and normative connotations they use to distinguish themselves from literalists, like “simplistic”, “crude”, “unsophisticated”, etc.

    With the caveat that I know very little of the specific content of Ms. Pagels’ faith, even just going by the cited article, she most certainly does hold religious beliefs with genuine cognitive and empirical content. Embedded in several minutes of hedging and twisting about “metaphors” (and, shockingly for an historian, the claim that history and biology in principle cannot speak to the plausibility of a corpse returning to life) we get this:

    “I don’t dismiss all supernatural miracles, like a healing that can’t be explained. Those do happen sometimes.”

    There you have it: a genuine empirical claim about causal relations among states of affairs in the universe. Her God does have a cognitive backside, and it does occasionally poke out through the holes in his trousers of metaphor.

  11. #11 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize.

    Well there’s the rub, no? Specifically what is it that the people she studies would recognize? Why should it be called a god when what most people call a god would not be so recognized by the people she studies? And lastly, assuming that we good answers to the first two questions — which would give us a well defined subject that we can call a god for some good reason — why should we believe that such a thing exists?

    I am not an atheist because I can go around playing whack-a-mole with god-concepts, knocking each down as it comes up (though I may for my own reasons;) I am an atheist because I see no good reason to accept any of the god concepts I’ve come across. You may come up with something that avoids direct refutation, but that is not a reason to believe it to be correct (or to even call it by the same name that most people use for something that is directly refutable.)

  12. #12 John Wilkins
    April 6, 2007

    Pagels is in fact pretty orthodox, as it happens. Her work on the Gnostics is a counterpoint to her orthodoxy, so far as I know. But she is not, I think, the one with a threadbare deity with his arse hanging out.

    However, that would not matter if her view that there is something intelligent to religion was based on Gnosticism or not (it is not). And if the complaint were simply, as it is with Stenger’s book, that popular religion is untenable, then fine. I think it is. But the generalisation to all religion is what concerns me.

    As to the difference between sophisticated and populist religious traditions, I will employ the standards of philosophical discourse. Some ideas are more defensible and elaborated than others.

  13. #13 PZ Myers
    April 6, 2007

    Of course there are people who have a simplistic and literal view of God and religion. That is not at issue and never has been. But what Pagels is saying is something that the uppity atheists always seem to slide over – that there is a more sophisticated view of God that is not so easily knocked down as the idea that God has a backside. And what is more, there always has been (which is the point of studying the Gnostics).

    Not only do we not slide over it, we acknowledge it over and over again. The whole first chapter of The God Delusion is an acknowledgment that there are other god-beliefs out there that he is not addressing.

    But what you and Pagels are sliding over is that there is a religion that is a real problem, that “simplistic and literal view”, and it is the dominant form of religious belief. And what do you guys do? ‘Pssht, it’s not my religion, therefore it is not a serious problem—let’s go kick some atheists.’ I know that you and Pagels sensibly find that stupid religion is stupid. Unfortunately, you’d both rather dismiss the “village atheists” and avoid challenging stupid religion than actually engage it.

    Also, I did not “pull up someone who thinks precisely that” as a “rhetorical trick”…unless you think pointing at over half the US population, including most of our political leaders, is some kind of tricksy ploy to fool everyone.

  14. #14 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    E.J. Dionne has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post on this subject:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/05/AR2007040501790.html?referrer=emailarticle

  15. #15 writerdd
    April 6, 2007

    Of course there are more sophisticated ideas of god that theologians adhere to. Dawkins knows, however, that the simplistic view of god is what most lay people–and even ministers in most evangelical and fundamentalist churches–believe in. In fact, Dawkins also states outright that these more nuanced views of god are not what he is talking about in his book.

    Geez, why do people keep criticizing this book in a way that shows they clearly have not actually read it?

  16. #16 Steve Greene
    April 6, 2007

    If making your religious beliefs and contentions so vague and abstract that it’s just rhetorical mumbo-jumbo that has no actual connection to reality is the “best” and most intelligent of religious belief, this is supposed to be an improvement???

  17. #17 John Wilkins
    April 6, 2007

    I can’t go with Dionne on this – if there is anything of value in orthodox Christianity, it is shared by any and every reasonable worldview, so why, apart from cultural reasons, should it be given the kind of consideration he gives it?

    Paul – you know I don’t slide over the view that folksy religion is a real problem in society. We’ve had that debate often enough for you to know my opinion there. But you want to say that to distinguish between the populist and elaborate versions of religion is to dismiss atheism? That I avoid challenging stupid religion?

  18. #18 MartinC
    April 6, 2007

    Serious question John, is there any consensus for this sophisticated religious view that we keep hearing about ?
    I don’t think you mean the naturalistic pantheism of Einstein or Spinoza, something that can be defined in such a way that most atheists would have not problem with – the old ‘God is everything’ argument that Dawkins didn’t actually try to attack.
    I get the impression myself that there are as many sophisticated religious worldviews as there are sophisticated religious thinkers. They cant all be right, can they ?
    And it not, how do we tell which one to take seriously ?

  19. #19 windy
    April 6, 2007

    coturnix wrote: Among people who believe in some form of evolution, those who believe that Europeans are inevitable are a tiny minority. The only one I am aware of is Dan Dennett. And those people have no effect on the way evolutionary biology is studied.

    Where does Dennett say that Europeans were inevitable? I thought that was Conway Morris…

  20. #20 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    But you want to say that to distinguish between the populist and elaborate versions of religion is to dismiss atheism? That I avoid challenging stupid religion?

    The problem that I see is one of equivocation. The object of study for many sophisticated theologians is different in kind than the object of belief of the majority of theists (at least in the US) and yet the theologians use a term that comes with a whole host of baggage. I’d say the problem is not that people distinguish between the populist and elaborate versions of theology[*], but that they don’t do so sufficiently.

    [*] I am intentionally limiting my comment to theology because I feel that religion is more than theology.

  21. #21 John Farrell
    April 6, 2007

    I remember Conway Morris suggesting humans or humanoids were inevitable…but Europeans?

  22. #22 Timothy Chase
    April 6, 2007

    The problem that I see is one of equivocation. The object of study for many sophisticated theologians is different in kind than the object of belief of the majority of theists (at least in the US) and yet the theologians use a term that comes with a whole host of baggage. I’d say the problem is not that people distinguish between the populist and elaborate versions of theology[*], but that they don’t do so sufficiently.

    Religious belief in the United States is a spectrum. The majority of churches do not recognize a conflict between their religious views and evolutionary biology. Among their congregations, this is nevertheless a minority view, but it is a substantial minority – not limited to theologians. There are many Christians (for example) who believe that rationality itself is a gift from God which they should choose to exercise. They see no conflict between their religious beliefs and the scientific enterprise.

    Moreover, among a fair number of ordinary but somewhat educated people, I have found that the piece resonates quite well:

    Religion and Science
    http://bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/ForClergy/ReligionAndScience

    I wrote it. I am a quasi-Spinozist, but I am more or less able to understand their views and express my own from within the light of their religious perspective.

    I understand that PZ and Dawkins are able to distinguish between the god of the leity and the god of the theologian. However, by treating the difference as a difference in kind, they treate a large spectrum of religious belief as nonexistent. Moreover, unintentionally or not, they those who are far less restrained, those who are in the grips of an us vs. them mentality almost as profound as the fundamentalists themselves.

  23. #23 Timothy Chase
    April 6, 2007

    CORRECTION:

    The problem that I see is one of equivocation. The object of study for many sophisticated theologians is different in kind than the object of belief of the majority of theists (at least in the US) and yet the theologians use a term that comes with a whole host of baggage. I’d say the problem is not that people distinguish between the populist and elaborate versions of theology[*], but that they don’t do so sufficiently.

    Religious belief in the United States is a spectrum. The majority of churches do not recognize a conflict between their religious views and evolutionary biology. Among their congregations, this is nevertheless a minority view, but it is a substantial minority – not limited to theologians. There are many Christians (for example) who believe that rationality itself is a gift from God which they should choose to exercise. They see no conflict between their religious beliefs and the scientific enterprise.

    Moreover, among a fair number of ordinary but somewhat educated people, I have found that the piece resonates quite well:

    Religion and Science
    http://bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/ForClergy/ReligionAndScience

    I wrote it. I am a quasi-Spinozist, but I am more or less able to understand their views and express my own from within the light of their religious perspective.

    I understand that PZ and Dawkins are able to distinguish between the god of the leity and the god of the theologian. However, by treating the difference as a difference in kind, they treate a large spectrum of religious belief as nonexistent. Moreover, unintentionally or not, they those who are far less restrained, those who are in the grips of an us vs. them mentality almost as profound as the fundamentalists themselves.

  24. #24 coturnix
    April 6, 2007

    Dennett is careful what he writes. In person, after a glass of wine, the absolute determinism comes out. Not just Europeans: French, Brits, Nazis…

  25. #25 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 6, 2007

    What He said
    A. E. Harvey

    Richard Bauckham
    JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES
    The Gospels as eyewitness testimony
    538pp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. $32.
    978 0 80283162 0

    http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25349-2633034,00.html

    The Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — present a conundrum that is probably unique in the annals of literary research. On the one hand they display similarities which are sometimes so close that it has been thought impossible they should have occurred had not the author of one had access to at least one of the others (and the reigning but not the only possible hypothesis is that Matthew and Luke both made use of Mark). On the other hand they have differences, mainly of verbal expression but sometimes also of content and arrangement, which generations of scholars, brought up in the tradition of historical criticism, have assumed is due to the use of different sources — so much so that the notion of ‘source’ (Quelle in German) has given rise to the reconstruction of a document (‘Q’) that is assumed to be the ‘source’ of material that appears in similar form in Matthew and Luke but is absent in Mark. The consequence is that a Gospel writer must be imagined, no longer as a serene recipient of inspiration from on high (as envisaged in so many ancient works of art) but as a sometimes puzzled, sometimes creative, editor, using scissors and paste to weave together several different narratives or ‘sources’, and (according to more recent scholarship) compounding the complexity of his task by introducing theological interpretations of his own….

  26. #26 Decline and Fall
    April 6, 2007

    Of course there are more sophisticated ideas of god that theologians adhere to. Dawkins knows, however, that the simplistic view of god is what most lay people–and even ministers in most evangelical and fundamentalist churches–believe in. In fact, Dawkins also states outright that these more nuanced views of god are not what he is talking about in his book.

    Geez, why do people keep criticizing this book in a way that shows they clearly have not actually read it?

    The criticism is based on the jump that Dawkins, PZ and others make when they attack all belief in the supernatural, i.e., “Belief in god is irrational.” This is a very broad statement that encompasses much more than what Dawkins, et al. spend their time arguing against. The Gnostic god is fundamentally different than the Catholic or Shi’a god, but it is still a god. Gnostics may not be the majority, but that doesn’t mean that when arguing against the majority, it is acceptable, logically, to include Gnostics where their inclusion isn’t warranted.

  27. #27 steppen wolf
    April 6, 2007

    I find it quite funny how most people on scienceblogs really think that “most” people “everywhere” believe in a God that acts, makes miracle, and what not. That might be true in absolute terms (i.e. actual number of people in this world), but believe me, if you travel just a bit you will find many that share the “wishy-washy” views often taken by philosophers of the past, or current theologians, that God is not anthropomorphic, does not act in people’s lives, etc.

    Many jam churches during Christmas and Easter because the ceremonies are beautiful, and because that is part of how they were raised, or simply part of their culture. Most of these people have a higher education, but believe me, they are not few (not even in absolute terms). And I am not talking about North America alone – you’ll find some of these people in all continents. And you’ll find quite a bit in Europe.

    If you keep that in mind, then it becomes simply idiotic to exclude these people as insignificant, a minority, or even an extinct group. They are alive and well, there are tons in scientific departments – they just do not voice their beliefs as openly because, in fact, they live their life with the assumption that God will never intervene in their (or anybody else’s) life.

  28. #28 steppen wolf
    April 6, 2007

    That said: can you please give an example of times when conservative Christians/Muslims/etc. ever use the arguments of the “wishy-washy” theologians to justify their views? Maybe they do, but that would really surprise me. It would not quite make sense for them to, because the two usually despise each other, and their audiences are different.

    One audience believes that God will punish humans with hurricanes and tsunami because of gay people, the others would laugh out loud just hearing something like this.

  29. #29 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    That said: can you please give an example of times when conservative Christians/Muslims/etc. ever use the arguments of the “wishy-washy” theologians to justify their views?

    Here’s one example of an apology that I’ve come across frequently:

    http://patriot.net/~bmcgin/pearl-einsteinbelievedingod.html

    The Theologian’s gods are used more as clubs to fend off the atheist criticisms than as a positive argument for traditional belief.

  30. #30 386sx
    April 6, 2007

    Not only do we not slide over it, we acknowledge it over and over again. The whole first chapter of The God Delusion is an acknowledgment that there are other god-beliefs out there that he is not addressing.

    Yeah, the god-beliefs that are beliefs in gods that are not supernatural. In other words, gods that aren’t really gods. I could call a pile of rocks a god, but if I didn’t believe that they are supernatural then I don’t think anybody would call me a theist with a more sophisticated view of god. Heck, I don’t think they would even call me a theist at all. Dawkins is addressing all supernatural gods, period. Go ahead and ask him!

  31. #31 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    I find it quite funny how most people on scienceblogs really think that “most” people “everywhere” believe in a God that acts, makes miracle, and what not. That might be true in absolute terms (i.e. actual number of people in this world), but believe me, if you travel just a bit you will find many that share the “wishy-washy” views often taken by philosophers of the past, or current theologians, that God is not anthropomorphic, does not act in people’s lives, etc.

    Yes, there exist a non-trivial minority of people whose believe in a theologian’s god. I’ve lived in CA, CT, HI, LA, TX, RI and VA and found a mix of theological positions in all of those places. None the less, in my experience, most people believe in some form of anthropomorphic god. A smaller majority believe in an anthropomorphic god who intervenes in the world.

    If you keep that in mind, then it becomes simply idiotic to exclude these people as insignificant, a minority, or even an extinct group.

    But they are a minority. And they are at the moment a mostly silent minority in the general population. And while, IMO, they’re at least less wrong than the believers in anthropomorphic gods, I see no reason to consider their beliefs justified.

  32. #32 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    The Gnostic god is fundamentally different than the Catholic or Shi’a god, but it is still a god.

    In what ways is it different? What makes it still a god? Why is a belief in its existence rational? At least give us an actual mole to whack. I’m not going to play the “guess which attributes that god has” game.

  33. #33 Decline and Fall
    April 6, 2007

    In what ways is it different? What makes it still a god? Why is a belief in its existence rational? At least give us an actual mole to whack. I’m not going to play the “guess which attributes that god has” game.

    I’m not defending belief in any god, gnostic or otherwise. What I was trying to say was that arguing against all forms of belief in the supernatural while only using examples from one particularly irrational subset is the very picture of a strawman. So when PZ attacked Pagels by making an argument against those with whom those in her tradition disagree, it simply wasn’t valid.

    Please, by all means have a whack at gnosticism, but make some attempt to be intellectually honest about it. It doesn’t do the atheist side any good to run around yelling “you guys are irrational” while invoking the most transparent informal fallacies. To borrow an analogy from that classic book of myths, we need to be more cognizant of the beams in our own eyes.

  34. #34 roystgnr
    April 6, 2007

    This “philosophical” God – has He published His own Bible yet? The last time I checked, most of the believers in Him hadn’t yet picked up a copy, so instead they just passed around this book about a genocidal demon calling itself “The Lord”, occasionally adding a few verbal warnings that you should pay attention to the parts where The Lord says to love thy neighbor but skip over the parts where The Lord orders Moses to murder Canaanites down to the last man, woman, child, and animal.

    That’s really a problem that you guys ought to straighten out sometime soon. It’s simply heartbreaking when parents try to teach their kids to worship a kind, forgiving Philosophical God but end up with someone who follows The Lord instead.

  35. #35 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    However, by treating the difference as a difference in kind, they treate a large spectrum of religious belief as nonexistent.

    But the difference between a personal god and an impersonal god is a difference in kind. The former is a convenient canvas onto which one may paint his desires and prejudices and which then may be used as an authority in argument. The latter does not lend itself well to such abuse.

    It is true that there is (many dimensioned) spectrum of beliefs about the supernatural. I’ve not come across any that I’m inclined to consider rational, and the majority I consider irrational. I do consider the distinction between irrational (i.e. I consider there to be positive reasons to believe the assertion false) and merely not rational (i.e. I consider there to be no positive reason to consider the assertion true) to be fundamental — that is to say, it is a recognition of a difference in kind.

  36. #36 Craig Pennington
    April 6, 2007

    It doesn’t do the atheist side any good to run around yelling “you guys are irrational” while invoking the most transparent informal fallacies.

    I’ll refrain from calling all god belief irrational, but I’ve yet to come across an example of a god belief that is justified as such. To be specific: I am not an atheist because I believe specific gods don’t exist, but because I don’t see any reason to believe any gods do exist. I really have no problem with another person’s belief in any gods provided they don’t assert that such is objectively justifiable (or alternately, provide the justification.)

  37. #37 386sx
    April 6, 2007

    I notice that Pagels doesn’t answer the question. She answers a question about a dirt making god, but the question was about a god that intervenes in the physical world.

    Here’s the question: “What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don’t there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn’t this become a question for science?”

    She ain’t answering the question. She’s answering a strawman Richard Dawkins, not a real Richard Dawkins. Who’s the strawman now, baby!

  38. #38 Antonio Manetti
    April 6, 2007

    I really have no problem with another person’s belief in any gods provided they don’t assert that such is objectively justifiable (or alternately, provide the justification.)

    Or who try to coerce others by passing laws whose sole justification rests on religious dogma.

  39. #39 Torbjrn Larsson
    April 6, 2007

    So Paul (and Larry) engage with Pagel’s views, and take them seriously.

    That would have been a powerful argument, if not for two facts:
    - Pagel herself used the courtiers reply against Dawkins views instead of engaging them seriously.
    - Dawkins argument is the best her opposition has to offer.

    the philosophical god

    Doing a reductionist analysis, it is easiest to discuss and debunk interventionist gods. Interventionism is also the basis for the usual arguments against secular society, for suppressing minorities and for pseudoscience. When you do an analysis in science, or when you clean up a mess, you start with the easy parts.

    A reduced philosophical concept is weak, therefore the argument against it is weaker. Which is the whole point of that exercise, of course. Simulated worlds and solipsism are similar concepts, but they have the property of being scientifically interesting. That may be the reason they are more often considered.

    Philosophy and science are diametrically opposed methods. While science tries to discern which facts are correct and which theories are wrong, philosophy can seldom abandon concepts. That could explain why such old, weak and non-supported ideas as non-interventionist gods are still discussed.

    A proactive use for philosophy would be to explore new possibilities and guide research. To muck about with old, heavily constrained and mostly debunked concepts doesn’t strike me as useful or philosophically interesting as I as a layman understand the possibilities of philosophy.

    Dawkins and Stenger may be exploring new grounds. It would be interesting to see philosophers join them in that exploration. Theistic evolution in all its variants would be a ripe target.

  40. #40 Torbjrn Larsson
    April 6, 2007

    “Dawkins argument is the best her opposition has to offer.” – Dawkins argument may the best her opposition has to offer. (Slip of keyboard. :-)

  41. #41 Tyler DiPietro
    April 6, 2007

    Unfortunately this thread is yet another demonstration of basic dilemma religion faces in it’s race against itself: it either conflicts entirely with observable reality or renders itself entirely vacuous.

    I second completely hiero5ant’s analysis here, when people talk about the “sophistication” of Pagel’s god, they are really only talking about the conceptual evasiveness that allows that particular set of god-concepts to dodge empirical investigation. I see no reason why such things “being harder to strike down” confers upon them any conceptual superiority, it’s really nothing but sophistry.

  42. #42 Timothy Chase
    April 6, 2007

    Craig wrote:

    But the difference between a personal god and an impersonal god is a difference in kind. The former is a convenient canvas onto which one may paint his desires and prejudices and which then may be used as an authority in argument. The latter does not lend itself well to such abuse.

    At one level, I would agree that one can make that sort of distinction. In fact, from my own perspective, they are making what is called a category mistake.

    However, I believe that nearly all religious people who believe in a personal god would admit that the god that they believe in is not of the same nature as what they would normally refer to as a “person” even though they believe in a “personal god.” The question then becomes, “How far removed is their conception of a god from what they would normally refer to as a person?” Are they unsure as to whether they should even be thinking in terms of a “person”? Do they think that in some ways they are speaking metaphorically, for example, when they speak of the “Will of God”?

    If they think of Jesus as the son of God, in what way does that make him different from other people? Is he literally the son of God, or is he the son of God in a more symbolic sense? Does it refer to some form of moral insight which he had into what it means to be human?

    Even when it comes to what may seem a difference in kind, there is actually a great deal of difference in terms of degree.

    *

    Regarding the difference between the rational and the irrational…

    I think you would normally argue that someone whose legs are broken cannot walk. However, if they have crutches, then in at least some sense of the term, they may very well be able to walk. When someone understands something metaphorically, a story which tells a moral lesson of one kind or another, it may offer them a form of moral insight. In much the same way, a more literal understanding of the same story may offer much the same insight and guidance. Now if someone must lean on such a literal understanding of a story which should only be taken metaphorically, one might regard this as irrational. But at the same time, it may be more rational than the alternative – and it may be irrational of you to expect or demand that they throw it away.

    One of the important dimensions to human existence is our need for stories. These are stories of who we are as individuals and stories of the world. I, for example, may get a certain degree of guidance in terms of how I view my relation to the world from my understanding of the history of World War II, or from my favorite novel, or from Babylon 5. I can certainly understand that history is history and fiction is fiction. Nevertheless, if a given fictional story deals with certain fundamental issues of human existence, I would be willing to argue that there can be a great deal of truth in it – and recognizing such truth – if it exists – is rational.

    However, if you maintain that the distinction between an impersonal and personal conception of god is necessarily a difference in kind – such that it is completely meaningless to apply the same term to both conceptions, then I ask, how is it possible for me to understand the beliefs of someone who believes in a personal god and communicate with them elements of my own view in a way that I know they will understand and be able to accept?

    Religion and Science
    http://bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/ForClergy/ReligionAndScience

  43. #43 windy
    April 6, 2007

    I notice that Pagels doesn’t answer the question. She answers a question about a dirt making god, but the question was about a god that intervenes in the physical world.

    Exactly!

    And about that god, steppen wolf wrote:

    I find it quite funny how most people on scienceblogs really think that “most” people “everywhere” believe in a God that acts, makes miracle, and what not.

    As opposed to what? Crom?

    Even the fuzzy-wuzzy god or “greater power” popular among Europeans ‘acts’ or at least ‘acted’, otherwise what’s the point? Even if the only effect of the god-force is to sometimes generate vague good vibes inside people’s heads, it still has to ‘act’ upon the physical universe to do so.

  44. #44 386sx
    April 6, 2007

    Exactly!

    Right, she accuses Dawkins of debunking the wrong god, but in fact she’s really debunking the wrong Dawkins. Oh the irony.

  45. #45 John Wilkins
    April 6, 2007

    I posted this on Larry’s blog, so I thought I’d add it here:

    I should never post on religion during holidays when I have family commitments…

    My argument is not that there are convincing arguments for the existence of God – if there were, I would be a theist, nu? Nor is my argument that Pagels gave the right answer. My argument is that attacks upon religion that are based on taking the simpleminded forms are not sufficient to eliminate all religious believers as irrational.

    I think rational people can hold a range of views so long as they are self-consistent, and I think a theist can be self-consistent (and can also accept science). That is not compelling to a nonbeliever because to find theism compelling you need to be inside that particular hermeneutic bubble, but all I argue is that we can, as nonbelievers, allow that theists can be rational in their own way. It’s a simple plea for tolerance and respect. Why this is problematic eludes me.

  46. #46 Caledonian
    April 6, 2007

    But the ‘existence’ she’s describing isn’t your vernacular, common, vulgar concept of ‘existence’. It’s higher, purer, and more ineffable than mere causality. It also has the advantage of being absolute nonsense so completely that you can dismiss any criticism of it by saying the critic doesn’t understand.

  47. #47 John Pieret
    April 6, 2007

    I thought you had given up poking at anthills just to see ‘em swarm.

    Have a happy holiday!

  48. #48 Timothy Chase
    April 6, 2007

    John Wilkins

    I think rational people can hold a range of views so long as they are self-consistent, and I think a theist can be self-consistent (and can also accept science). That is not compelling to a nonbeliever because to find theism compelling you need to be inside that particular hermeneutic bubble, but all I argue is that we can, as nonbelievers, allow that theists can be rational in their own way. It’s a simple plea for tolerance and respect. Why this is problematic eludes me.

    What makes religious individuals dangerous is when they understand their religious views as the basis for an us vs. them view of the world. It is grounded in an ancient, primitive form of tribalism. However, religion is capable of forming the basis for a different sort of tribal view, one which is inclusive, such that one sees the whole of humanity as one’s tribe and members of humanity as members of one’s tribe. Such a view stresses the bonds between us, what we have in common, and it permits us to see beyond our differences.

    However, a tribe is not necessarily united simply by means of its religious views, but often by means of its common history or political ideology. As such, it is possible for one to act tribalistically, raising one’s tribe above all others or viewing all other tribes as the enemy, without any religious beliefs at all.

  49. #49 Eamon Knight
    April 6, 2007

    I think rational people can hold a range of views so long as they are self-consistent, and I think a theist can be self-consistent (and can also accept science). That is not compelling to a nonbeliever because to find theism compelling you need to be inside that particular hermeneutic bubble, but all I argue is that we can, as nonbelievers, allow that theists can be rational in their own way. It’s a simple plea for tolerance and respect. Why this is problematic eludes me.

    Thank you; I keep needing to be reminded that I was a theist less than 10 years ago, and I don’t think I am any “smarter” now than I was then (perhaps I should swear off reading Pharyngula for a while, just to regain some balance). I can look back on my fundamentalist period with some embarassment (“What the hell was I thinking?”), but on my liberal period with more equanimity — I now think I was wrong about a lot of stuff (and holding things like the Problem Of Evil in the category of “Issues To Be Resolved Some Day”), but at least not trying to maintain manifest absurdity in the face of evidence. Which is probably why I not now passionate about atheism per se, only about opposing certain manifestations of religion (those that try to intrude on public policy, tell outrageous lies about science, or exploit the laity for the sake of enriching the clergy).

    You’re right of course about the “hermeneutic bubble” — once it bursts, there’s no putting it back together.

  50. #50 dagome
    April 7, 2007

    My argument is not that there are convincing arguments for the existence of God – if there were, I would be a theist, nu? Nor is my argument that Pagels gave the right answer. My argument is that attacks upon religion that are based on taking the simpleminded forms are not sufficient to eliminate all religious believers as irrational.

    Pagel announced herself as irrational in the interview. When asked “Has your scholarly work deepened your own faith?” She answered, “yes.” When asked, “Does faith necessarily involve some leap into mystery, into something that can’t be explained?” she replied, “I think it does.” She further remarked, “there’s a lot that history can’t answer and that science can’t answer.” She seems to be talking about miracles. That makes her comment useless, since if there are things that “science cannot answer,” it is impossible to know what separate them from those things that just haven’t been explained, yet. I had respect for up to this part of the interview, but given these comments I don’t see how anyone can mount a serious defense.

    It doesn’t matter how “sophisticated” Pagel’s is, she’s building on rot (i.e., faith). Self-consistent nonsense is easy to achieve, just pick your axioms approrpiately. The problem is that sophisticated theology are still picking random axioms that are not supported by evidence. Self-consistency is just not a sufficient virtue to merit study or serious consideration.

    What makes me (an) angry (athiest) is being told that I am “irrational” or “shrill” for not respecting logical hogwash such as “faith” that can and is used to justify anything.

  51. #51 Alan Kellogg
    April 7, 2007

    Our problem with our understanding of God is really that we don’t know what we’re talking about. We think we do, but everything we’ve written about Him is all stuff we’ve pulled out of our ass. We can guess as to His nature and His reasons, purposes, and rationales for doing what He does or doesn’t do, but even the best realized thinking is naught but speculation. Claiming that God gives us dictation is nothing but ego.

    Our first step in true religious growth would be to do this one thing; to accept and act upon the fact that evil is of our doing, either through action or inaction. That it is our responsibility and it is we who must deal with it. We are solely responsible for our condition, and no one else can take the credit or the blame for it. When we do that is when our faiths will start to substantially change.

  52. #52 Timothy Chase
    April 7, 2007

    dagome,

    Speaking for myself and myself alone…

    What I would ask is that you treate individuals as individuals, not as symbols which stand-in for someone or something else. The religious beliefs are aspects of an individual’s beliefs, of how they view the world – supported both by their “faith” and their powers of reason. In some cases, taking the time to understand the views of some may help you to understand their views more deeply than they themselves do, or even your own views more deeply than you have before, and may otherwise illuminate things you might otherwise not have seen. But in any case, you will see the individual for what he is.

    However, if you treate religious individuals not as individuals, but merely as a fully interchangeable symbols for someone or something else, then this does not suggest that you are acting rationally, but rather, that you yourself are imprisoned in something which you do not fully understand and which distorts your perception of reality. It suggests that you are in the grips of a worldview which divides humanity without regard for individuality into two diametrically opposing camps, much like the worst of those whom you now oppose.

  53. #53 J. J. Ramsey
    April 7, 2007

    steppen wolf: “can you please give an example of times when conservative Christians/Muslims/etc. ever use the arguments of the “wishy-washy” theologians to justify their views?”

    Craig Pennington: “Here’s one example of an apology that I’ve come across frequently:

    http://patriot.net/~bmcgin/pearl-einsteinbelievedingod.html

    And if you look at the source of that apology, it comes from Rev. Bill McGinnis, and if you poke around, you’ll find that he believes that the Bible isn’t perfectly fallible and that everyone will eventually be saved and no one is tortured for all eternity. So that isn’t the best source for the claim that conservatives use wishy-washy liberal views to justify their own claims.

    Even when conservatives do use Einstein, they either hide that his God is that of Spinoza’s, or they say something, “At least he god as far as believing in a God,” or a bit of both. I have yet to see a real bait-and-switch of the kind that PZ Myers describes.

  54. #54 Scott Belyea
    April 7, 2007

    But if you take on the best that your opposition has to offer …

    I agree with most of Wilkin’s append, but I suggest that there’s a puzzle piece missing which is illuminated by the above statement.

    I read much of the debate with bemusement; I can’t think of any of my relatives or friends (probably 50% religious, 50% not) who I can identify either in the crude “Sky Daddy” religious stereotypes or in the equally crude atheist demands to “prove to me that God exists.” (I’d make the same comment about the equally crude stereotypes perpetrated by the US religous right fringe, of course.)

    I’m talking about “religious” people whose beliefs certainly inform their view of the world, but who would never demand that public policy be shaped to “what God wants.” (They would not state any certainty as to “what God wants.”) And they are certainly involved in “good works,” but not out of fear of being posthumously punished (as has been asserted ad nauseam on various blogs). They get benefits of “community” which in some cases, I envy.

    I’m talking about non-believers who feel no desire to get “in the face” of believers and screech at them about the lack of evidence for any beliefs based on some scrolls written by “ignorant bronze-age roaming goatherders” (another bit of silliness of which I’m thoroughly tired). And this leaves aside the irony which escapes the screechers that goatherds undoubtedly couldn’t write in the first place!

    Both groups I’m describing are people who are trying to live good and productive lives, informed by a broad range of beliefs and attitudes, of which religion is included for some of them. Neither group has much (if any) interest in “taking on” anyone in some unanswerable intellectual quest.

    Note that the question of science hasn’t come up yet. It’s just not relevant. The only 2 working scientists of my reasonably close acquaintance are in the “religious” category, and each would be baffled at any notion that there religious beliefs might affect how they would do science.

    Protest against bad public policy? Absolutely. Refuse to accept as logic that “God wants it this way”? Of course. But slagging “the other side” in increasingly strident tones doesn’t seem to be doing much good that I can see … other than turning off some in the “unheard middle” categories that I described.

    I’ll admit to being fortunate in not having to deal directly with some of what the US (most notably) is putting up with these days. But even there, I can’t see that increasing the decibel level is helping.

    In summary, I’m concerned that the “debate” (particularly on ScienceBlogs) is increasingly being conducted on the fringes, and I don’t see that this is productive. I think there’s a sizable “middle” that’s being ignored, and I suspect that’s part of the point that Wilkins was making. Go after the religious “lunatic fringe” by all means. But don’t mistake religion as the target. It shouldn’t be.

  55. #55 dagome
    April 7, 2007

    Timothy Chase –

    I thought I was talking about arguments not individuals. Perhaps I should have spoken about “Pagels’ theology,” rather than “Pagels”. I am sure I could learn a lot from Pagels and would probably even enjoy her works. There are many people who I think are foolish but nevertheless “better” than myself: kinder, more compasionate, better educated, and even smarter. If my post used Pagels as a symbol, I think it is because Dr. Wilkins did so when he used her as an example of someone who has “a better view of God than the usual run of theists.”

    I do not understand why you are concerned that I — or anyone in this discussion, including PZ Myers — believe that one should treat “religious individuals not as individuals, but merely as fully interchangeable symbols for someone or something else.” Or that we want to divide humanity. The original topic was arguments for the existence of God. On that topic, all arguments that are built on faith are ultimately, “fully interchangeable.” Dr. Wilkins offering Pagels as someone with a “stronger” argument for God can be summarily dismissed.

    “Taking the time to understand the views” may cause growth and lead to insight. There may be clever rhetoric or concepts to admire. It is conceivable that “assuming for argument’s sake” that there is a God might be a handy trick for getting ideas about (say) thorny moral issues (even if you need to go back and clean up any insights with non-theistic arguments). But “taking the time” to think about just about anything can lead to new insights. And arguing for the secondary benefits of considering an argument does nothing to butress its central thesis.

  56. #56 Timothy Chase
    April 7, 2007

    dagome,

    You write:

    I do not understand why you are concerned that I — or anyone in this discussion, including PZ Myers — believe that one should treat “religious individuals not as individuals, but merely as fully interchangeable symbols for someone or something else.” Or that we want to divide humanity.

    I was not implying that this is what you were doing. I honestly don’t know. However, I have seen it often enough to recognize it as a possibility. Moreover, intentional or not, I believe that PZ and Dawkins sometimes encourage this in those who look up to them, who view them as people to emulate.

    You write:

    The original topic was arguments for the existence of God.

    However, when you write that Dr. Wilkins is suggesting that Pagel has a stronger argument for the existence of God. On the contrary, he has stated that he is offering Pagel as a different view of God. This doesn’t imply that he thinks she has a good argument, or a stronger argument, or even any argument at all. Simply a different view, one that the criticisms of Dawkins and PZ does not address, and one that isn’t so uncommon that we should regard it as irrelevant when we consider the nature of religion. Something which isn’t limited to theologians. Moreover, he has argued that it may provide a different framework, one which is not necessarily better or worse, through which an individual may exercise their rationality.

    I accept Dr. Wilkins’ view in this matter, but take in one step further, arguing that the two views of God lie along a continueem. Moreover, while at an abstract level, it makes sense to distinguish, for example, between personal and impersonal views of God, I would argue that they lie along a continueem. This view that one ascribes to the theologian of believing in an impersonal God may be arbitrarily close to the impersonal view of God entertained by Spinoza, Einstein or Hawking, or it may be something more personal, or in between. Likewise, I would argue that even the common religious individual may lie anywhere along this spectrum.

    Now for myself, God consists of nothing more nor less that the unitary, lawful nature of existence. This conception is an aid for me in understanding the world and myself in relation to that world. It is an aid for me in focusing my mind, in realizing that the world is something which can be rationally understood, and it is an aid in recognizing that the world is something which ought to be understood, that this normativity is something which is more fundamental and takes precedence over any other form of normativity, over any perceived value or personal desire. However, at a certain level, this is perhaps nothing more than a metaphor, or perhaps it is simply a different perspective on the same world we know. But in any case, this normativity is primarily cognitive, one in I am able to view my attempt to understand the world as being the highest form of worship and the greatest offering I have to offer God.

    However, I am also able to understand that at a certain level, people can understand what it is to be moral best through those who exemplify moral action, through heroes and through the narratives which describe them and how they have acted. Such understanding isn’t primarily a knowledge of what things are, but a knowledge of how to act, similar at a certain level to the knowledge that one has of how to ride a bicycle or how to dance. Phenomenologically, it has an immediacy to it which is certainly something which can be studied by means of science, but the study of it isn’t the same thing as living it or of experiencing it through art or through religion. It might explain how such a thing evolved, it might explain its biological basis, but it cannot justify a given moral vision of the individual and how the individual ought to exist in relation to others and in relation to the world.

    Empirical science can tell you what a thing is, but it cannot tell you what to do, for empirical science science must be testable, and there is no way to empirically test for the morality or immorality of a given action or of a given way of living one’s life. It cannot tell you that you should act morally, or provide you with the courage with which to do so, or even the desire to be rational. From the perspective of the individual who must choose how to live one’s life, these things are more basic than science itself.

    You no doubt have an ethical framework of some sort and recognize the necessity of having one – for you and for others, even though it needn’t necessarily be understood by all in the same terms. I myself would argue that if such a justification is to be sought, then one must look for it elsewhere, whether it be in philosophy or religion.

    As I understand things, our capacity for metaphor is more basic than reason itself, for it is our ability to view something as something else which makes possible our ability to conceptualize the world. For example, we can see that one thing is above another, visually and concretely. But we can also understand that one level of knowledge is higher than another. We can speak of the foundation of a house. But we can also speak of the foundations of knowledge. We can see one event occuring before another, but we can also think of one premise coming before another in a logical argument. We can speak of the growth of a plant, or we can speak of the growth and development of an individual’s views, personality, or of civilization itself. We can speak of the organic nature of life, or of the organic nature of human knowledge or society. Metaphors provide us with the opportunity to see things from different perspectives. Once we are able to see things from different perspectives, we can think about them in different ways. However, it is possible for someone to mistake what is best understood as metaphor for a literal description of the thing itself.

    From my perspective, this is what religious views do to varying degrees. Nevertheless, just as a story may contain certain important truths, essential insights into what it means to be human, I would argue that religious views may contain important truths deserving of a degree of respect. Moreover, I would argue that if you can see that someone finds it easier on a personal level to grasp these truths through metaphor without understanding the metaphorical nature of their understanding, then it is reasonable for you as an individual to let them do so.

  57. #57 Timothy Chase
    April 7, 2007

    When I wrote “Religion and Science” (the link is in a couple of posts earlier in this thread), I wrote it specifically with a religious audience in mind, seeking to explain to them what the problem with intelligent design and more broadly creationism is. But to do so, I first had to explain to them in terms that they would understand what it is that they gain (or at least main gain) from religion is.

    I wrote:

    In the existential realm, religion properly provides the individual with the moral courage to act despite the possibility of failure, where failure can sometimes mean the possibility of actual death, and the fear of failure itself can often be experienced as such. Likewise, the fear of being mistaken — where being mistaken may threaten our beliefs about who we are — is at times experienced as a threat much like death itself. Here, too, there is need for moral courage, although of a somewhat different kind. Properly, religion encourages in its own way the view that while recognizing one’s mistakes may be experienced prospectively as a form of death, the act itself brings a form of rebirth and self-transcendence, giving one the courage to revise one’s beliefs when confronted with new evidence.

    Then against this I contrasted what it is is that creationism encourages in those who accept it.

    I wrote:

    … the proper religious stance becomes transformed, and the proper intellectual courage to revise one’s beliefs when confronted with new evidence is transmuted into its polar opposite. Intellectual “courage” becomes the will and the power to challenge, doubt and deny any body of empirical evidence or knowledge whenever it comes into conflict with their religious or political beliefs. At this point, one of the most fundamental ethical virtues — honesty — has itself become undermined, and with it all the virtues which would normally be encouraged and taught through the moral guidance of religion. Properly, religious leaders who understand what is at stake will oppose “empirical” faith both for the contradiction which it embodies and as the antithesis of the true faith they seek to protect and nourish.

    But what do I mean by “proper religious stance” or for that matter “true faith”? In essence, a stance or faith which encourages the proper normative approach with respect to others and reality. This is something which may be understood in metaphorical terms or more philosophically. Likewise, it is something which may be understood in metaphorical terms without they individual who is doing so being self-consciously aware of the fact that they are doing so. From my perspective, being self-consciously aware of how it is that they come to this normativity is secondary.

    What is of primary concern to me is the acceptance of the normativity itself, of the fact that this is how they ought to live their lives. Moreover, if I am able to express this view in a form that they are able to understand and do so without challenging their literal understanding of the metaphor itself, I can encourage them to live in this way without making them feel like their understanding of the world is being undermined, or making them feel as if I am in some way attacking them. In this way, I am more likely to encourage them to live in the way that I believe individuals ought to live – whether they are religious or not.

    Perhaps at some point the religious may take what I regard as a more enlightened approach, being self-consciously aware of the role of metaphor in their understanding, or perhaps even discarding the metaphor altogether in favor of an explicit, more philosophical view. If so, encouraging the proper normative approach within a non-philosophical framework may be a step along that path for them. But that is something which I personally will leave to them – as they will be in the best position to know whether they are ready to take such a step in terms of their development.

  58. #58 dagome
    April 7, 2007

    Timothy Chase –

    I think we’re doomed to talk past one another. (Maybe because I’d rather do something else with my weekend than talk about this.) You seem to want to talk about people, where as I thought we were talking about ideas. I hear both you and Dr. Wilkins implying that Reasoning is sufficient, as opposed to merely necessary for reaching truth.

    You say that Wilkins “has argued that it may provide a different framework, one which is not necessarily better or worse, through which an individual may exercise their rationality.” Fine. Obvious. And not the point. The point is some frameworks are better and wore than others, and any framework that rests on “faith” is worthless. Period. Full stop. It doesn’t matter how sublime, sophisticated, or wonderful the reasoning is on top of “faith.”

    When I read your comments, I feel like you’re arguing that people may come to correct conclusions even if they start with faulty premises. Sure, but so what? How are we to separate which of their conclusions are correct and which are faulty, unless we just start over, without the unjustified premises? The problem is the assumed axioms, not the inference system. Not metaphorical ways of understanding. How are we to separate true from false when drawing conclusions based on metaphor, when metaphors are necessarily imperfect?

    Anyways, I should probably stop cluttering Dr. Wilkins’ comments section.

    Your patience is to be admired. Maybe you will have better luck cutting through magical thinking than I would.

    Best wishes,
    dagome

  59. #59 Timothy Chase
    April 7, 2007

    dagome,

    Hey, no worries. I don’t think that our agreeing on things is really necessary – although it is good if we can see a little from each other’s perspectives, gain what insights we might. But ultimately what is most important for the individual is the clarity of his or her own thought and the virtue which makes that possible – not whether or not anyone agrees.

    But yes, although John Wilkins has been exceedingly patient, it will probably be best if we don’t overstay our welcome. Perhaps we can chat later…

    Take care, my friend.

    -Tim

  60. #60 John Wilkins
    April 7, 2007

    Neither of you are cluttering anything up. Feel free to use this as a forum if you like – this is exactly the civil sort of discourse I most appreciate.

  61. #61 Timothy Chase
    April 7, 2007

    All good things must come to an end, but there will be other times.

    Besides my aim wasn’t to convince anyone of anything, but simply to make it possible for people to look at things in new ways. I am not sure that anyone can ever convince someone else of anything. Perhaps this is something which the individual can only for himself — and perhaps this is as it should be.

    In any case, you have a couple new posts, I might like to look up some of the material on etiobiogy, and I will probably be checking out Moran, PZ and others to see if there have been new discoveries.

    Thank you again…

    TDC

  62. #62 arensb
    April 8, 2007

    Your post reminds me a bit of a character in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (unless it was Zodiac or some other book): a Catholic who felt called to witness to “the intelligent athiests of the world”. She specialized in people who had figured out that 99% of religion was BS, and from that assumed that the remaining 1% was BS as well.

    You’re quite right, though, that attacks on stupid models of God are arguments against stupid theism. The problem as I see it is that any god compatible with the evidence is indistinguishable from a noninterventionist god, which is indistinguishable from a nonexistent god.

  63. #63 dhonig
    April 9, 2007

    The argument would be more persuasive if one of the great fights of this generation were not against those who really DO believe “there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt,” and demand that we either believe it too or at least give it complete deference. The fight is not between those who think there is not God and those who think there might be some “force” they choose to call “God,” but without the perfect dogma. No, the fight is between those who choose to think and those who demand that we believe- that we teach creationism in our public schools, that our children pray to their “God,” that birth control become illegal, that homosexuality in recriminalized, and ultimately, that as a nation we “there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt.”

    Those who apologize for the most extreme, or who even claim to be with them but further down the spectrum, ultimately are choosing to side with evangelical zealots, either overtly or simply by demanding that we give them and their ideas undue deference.

  64. #64 Timothy Chase
    April 9, 2007

    I notice that PZ is starting up this “debate” once again, so I will make a few last points as a means of expanding upon my own views, but do so here as I would like to keep them all in one place. However, this should not be considered a response to anyone although someone may choose to respond to it.

    For you as an individual, the purpose of reasoning ought to be primarily to determine the truth of a matter, afterwhich one may determine a course of action.

    However, both dialogue and debate are already a form of action in which one is dealing with another individual, and at that point one must bring in other considerations than simply the truth of particular premises. For example, what should you discuss? What is the other individual willing to discuss? What is the other individual willing to consider a point of debate? And, if I insist upon debating a particular point, will the other individual be willing to continue the discussion?

    As I see it, there are those who insist upon debating the existence of God and there are those who believe in God, but are unwilling to consider it a point for debate. For the latter, this is what it means to regard the existence of God an article of faith. In such a context, the insistence upon debating the existence of God will end the discussion. At this point, the individual who insisted upon debating the existence of God may conclude that the other individual is simply being irrational – and take some comfort in this, particularly since it casts him in a good light – as the one who is rational. Assuming this was the objective of the discussion, then this is the appropriate approach.

    However, a discussion may have other objectives. For example, one may wish to communicate with the other individual, letting that individual know what your views are on other subjects. You may wish to discover what their views are on various subjects. You may wish to discover points of agreement which serve as the basis for further agreement. You may wish to discover whether cooperation towards a particular end is possible. Or you may even wish to discover the role which their belief in God serves in their life – which may serve other ends, including that of discovering points of agreement and whether cooperation with respect to particular ends is possible.

    Any of these objectives may be considered rational within one context or another. However, if one concludes too quickly that the other individual is being irrational and therefore that it is pointless to engage in any discussion, then one precludes all other possible objectives of discussion. At this point I believe that one has embraced an us vs. them approach in dealing with others, and given the fact that we live in a world where there will always be people who will disagree with us on various points, I would not consider such an approach particularly practical or rational in any meaningful sense.

  65. #65 Russ
    April 9, 2007

    Mr. Wilkins,

    In reading your post I am drawn to the conclusion that you are being blatantly dishonest when you say �So Paul (and Larry) engage with Pagel’s views, and take them seriously.� In posts elsewhere (EvolutionBlog) you say, �I do not want to argue that religion is valid or justified – if I thought that I’d argue for it, and be a theist myself.� Clearly, you are not sufficiently impressed by her �sophisticated� god that you will adopt her theism. Here you are admitting that you yourself do not take Pagels seriously, and, yet you feel compelled to demand that others should.

    Later you say, �I think the problem of Evil is a knockdown against the tri-omni deity, but if you relax that constraint, there are no knockdown arguments against gods as such.� If, as you say, this is a knockdown argument against the tri-omni deity, do you actually have the gall to suggest that a more sophisticated rendering of this deity would dissolve this knockdown argument? That is, does Pagels have such an enlightened conception of god(s) that it will actually alter the argument from evil? If you are not convinced, why do think any other thinking person would be, even by taking Pagels� work seriously? Your implicit dismissing of her writings should be no inducement for anyone else to waste their time digging into them.

    From your introductory remarks, you implied that you have read the Gnostic Gospels when you said, �These guys were effectively Buddhists in Christian garb – the real world is not real, Jesus did not die, the point is to look within for salvation, etc. All in all, a very Platonic, dare one say, philosophical – god and theology.� If this is the source of Pagels� god standard, as you suggest, you could do your readers the honor of clearly laying out how it is that PZ, Dawkins, and, evidently, you too, just miss the point. I�ve read her work and while she cloaks her ideas in linguistic constructs befitting Ivy League academia, nowhere does she detail a new and improved variation on the idea of god. Maybe one attributes the divine to oneself, but that is hardly a widely held Christian idea. Self-divinity makes the argument from evil all the more potent. For my money, Pagels� �Origin of Satan� was a far more enjoyable read, and it supports the idea that Satan — just like all other supernaturalism — is the product of vivid human imaginations.

    You end your post saying, �But if you take on the best that your opposition has to offer (and it isn’t Francis Collins), we might all learn something from the attempt.� If PZ or Dawkins (or me for that matter) decided to earnestly delve into these more sophisticated twists on The God Hypothesis (to borrow from Stenger and others), all we could hope to learn would be that there are ever more creative, but alas otherwise meritless, twists on the god idea. Will they negate evil for instance? Will they propose real hard evidence for the existence of a deity? Let�s be honest – NO!

    At one point, speaking of Dawkins, you note, �He has a handwave in the first chapter to philosophical arguments against the philosophical god, which may or may not work.� What exactly are we to make of �which may or may not work�? Did you not assess them before you dismissed them? Are you not holding others to a standard you dare not hold yourself to since you wouldn�t put in the effort?

    When addressing the argument from evil you said, �I think the problem of Evil is a knockdown against the tri-omni deity, but if you relax that constraint, there are no knockdown arguments against gods as such.� Well, if Evil is a knockdown argument, so is perfection. In Christianity, the perfect god screwed up so badly, it had to kill all but eight adults and start over. Is that perfection? Apologists revel in the asinine blather about free will and the like, but the bottom line is that, PERFECT god screwed up – that is, had an imperfect outcome. Read the Bible for manifest imperfection. I have yet to read an exhaustive list of Biblical errors but there are thousands, although, one is enough to reject �perfect,� and thus, to reject a perfect god.

    Mr. Wilkins, earlier I alluded to the purveyors of more sophisticated ideas of god providing evidence. For more than forty years I have dug into religious matters from hundreds of traditions. Some have been more intellectually rudimentary; some have been less intellectually rudimentary. But they all share one trait: I have yet to have one, even one, provide any evidence for a deity. What they call evidence is always, and I repeat always, a product of ignorance: ignorance of the natural world, ignorance of probability, coincidence, statistics, indeed, ignorance of anything that leads to magical or superstitious thinking. Their arguments degenerate to arguments from ignorance, arguments from personal comfort, or arguments from fear of not knowing, among others, with nothing backing them up. Even their plausibility arguments are implausible.

    Supernatural religious matters – gods, ghosts, witches, miracles, demons, devils, for instance – at their core are complete fictions, and in matters of fiction, the extent of the intellectual content has nothing to do with veracity: fiction by a serious scholar is still fiction. So your suggestion to �take on the best that your opposition has to offer� cannot resolve anything unless they can demonstrate the truthfulness of their propositions. If they cannot demonstrate truth, we may as well debate excerpts from Harry Potter: which is worse, detention with Snape or imprisonment in Azkaban? Which is better the Christian God that sends you to Hell or the Christian God that doesn’t send you to Hell?

    In one paragraph you say, �This is what I reject about the Dawkins/Moran/PZ aggressive atheism – it takes the most stupid version of religion, argues against it, and then claims to have given reasons for not being religious. At best (and here I concur) they have given reasons not to be stupid theists. But a good argument takes on the best of the opposing view, not the worst.� This implies that you somehow have the capacity to distinguish between stupid and non-stupid religious practices and/or deities. How, I ask, is one fabricated notion of the supernatural any more or less stupid than any other? They may shroud their ideas in slicker language, but, at the core, they are made up ideas, being sold as reality. That is stupid no matter how many PhD�s in obscurantism one has piled up.

    Think about this Mr. Wilkins. Nothing stops you from just making up your own religion from scratch, complete with doctrine, dogma and theology. Joseph Smith made up Mormonism; Mary Baker Eddy made up Christian Science; David Koresh made up Branch Davidians; L. Ron Hubbard made up Scientology; there are hundreds more of new extant religions just since the year 2000. This being the case, how would taking Pagels seriously be of any benefit?

    On EvolutionBlog, you said, �Of course, if you want to engage in a debate with the best of the tradition, I will be interested and involved. Then, if we come to some resolution, I can have confidence that there is a reason for the result. Having reasons is what rational people do to justify their claims.� As an educated person, you must understand that debate does not have the intention of arriving at, or even supporting, a truth claim. Debate is an intellectual competition, with an adjudicated winner. For a debate about evolution, in a house stacked with Creationists, if the audience determines the winner, a Duane Gish will win against a Richard Dawkins, even if Gish doesn�t show up, it�s a foregone conclusion. Does a Gish debate victory mean that the Creationists have successfully overturned the mountain of data supporting evolutionary theory? No. And, debating advocates of any of the more than 1000 extant gods that are currently actively worshipped around the world would have no greater impact.

    So, as I see it, you are being blatantly dishonest in suggesting such a debate would benefit anyone.

  66. #66 J. J. Ramsey
    April 9, 2007

    Russ: “Clearly, you are not sufficiently impressed by her ‘sophisticated’ god that you will adopt her theism. Here you are admitting that you yourself do not take Pagels seriously, and, yet you feel compelled to demand that others should.”

    Russ, you are confusing two very different things:

    * Not agreeing with a view
    * Not taking a view seriously

    One can take a view seriously by trying to understand it and do one’s best to debate it honestly. This does not entail endorsing the view.

  67. #67 John Wilkins
    April 9, 2007

    Thank you J. J. – this is exactly my point.

    Yes, I have read the Gnostics. I studied theology as an undergraduate and came to have a special fondness for them. They were not stupid. As to Pagels, I know very little of her theology, and my argument doesn’t rest on a detailed knowledge of it. I have heard her speak on the Gnostics, and she has a nuanced understanding of them – I suspect she is as fond of them as I am, but for different reasons.

    I am not convinced that theism works, no. This is, by the way, very different from being convinced that it doesn’t work (logically – NOT (Cx) ≠ C(NOT x)). Neither, though, am I convinced that all of those who believe in theisms are ignorant, stupid or foolish. I have known a good many religious intellectuals in my time – professional theologians, philosophers of theistic bent, clergy who have PhDs in physics, philosophy and theology, and my overall impression of them is they are no more or less confused than any intellectual atheist or agnostic.

    It is a fact of human nature that people are not entirely rational, and it is a fact of human nature that they are mostly rational most of the time. This is not something that divides neatly down the theism/atheism divide. There are irrational theists and irrational atheists, and were it to be the case that most people were brought up as atheists, as seems to be happening on the UK and Australia if the polls indicate anything (which I doubt), the frequency of ignorance and foolishness would not necessarily change all that much.

    The panacea against ignorance is not a metaphysical commitment to or against religion or deities. It is purely and simply good education. Then people can be foolish on the basis of some agreed information at least.

  68. #68 Russ
    April 10, 2007

    Mr. Wilkins, J. J.,

    Thanks for the responses.

    Simply considering an argument does not mean that the argument is being taken “seriously.”

    Mr. Wilkins has a “knockdown” argument against theism — the argument from evil. Advocates for a god, claim it to be omnipotent. As far as I know ‘omnipotent’ is as good as it gets. That is, all other claims about their god are necessarily encompassed by ‘omnipotent’. Showing the impossibility of the omnipotence, shows the impossibility of the existence of god. Existing evil refutes omnipotence, and thus refutes the existence of god. The argument from evil is a “knockdown” argument against theism. Given that no god can be conceived that can nullify the argument from evil, I see it as intellectually dishonest for Mr. Wilkins to contend that he himself takes seriously the claims of the Gnostics or any other theists. As I see it, the “knockdown” argument from evil turns the claimed “seriousness” into little more than condescension: OK, I’ll play your little game, but know going in that I can’t be swayed.

    I have two brothers both of whom have PhD’s in Philosophy of Religion, and both of whom became atheists as a result of “seriously” considering arguments for theism in light of the argument from evil. They become fully absorbed in the minutia of the argumentation; they both love the deep mental focus. But, they also view theological arguments in the same way that I do: you can reason from faulty premises to get the desired, yet faulty, result, or you can use faulty reasoning on any premises to get the desired, yet faulty, result. Then, regardless of the outcome of your intellectual machinations, you can always apply the argument from evil to discount the whole enterprise. Both are well-compensated academics who consider their working life to be just an endless stream of puzzles differing from sudoku or crosswords in form only.

    Mr. Wilkins said, “The panacea against ignorance is not a metaphysical commitment to or against religion or deities. It is purely and simply good education.” I agree most wholeheartedly, and I am asking for Mr. Wilkins to help me become better educated. You make the tacit claim that you can discern between stupid and non-stupid religion. I ask you directly, if I have two religions, one stupid and one non-stupid, both of which are dismissable using the argument from evil, can I honestly make the claim that one is less stupid? Can I make the claim that one should be taken more seriously since each can be outright rejected? Does rhetorical eloquence in presenting the case for theism make the argument less stupid?

    I am not mocking you, Mr. Wilkins; I would truly like to know these things. A cursory glimpse at religion shows it doesn’t work(you, Mr. Wilkins, acknowledge that yourself); the claims it makes are observably false; yet, we are urged to take them seriously. Why? It seems to me that you’re saying, “This doesn’t work; take it seriously.” Is it simply that you would be entertained by a public discussion? Would it be more rewarding than a night of watching the Simpsons?

    I am not overlooking the distinction between “not agreeing with a view” and “not taking a view seriously,” here. Mr. Wilkins’ claim here is that there exists a superior argument for theism, an argument possessing clearly greater merit which nevertheless, like all other arguments for theism, should be rejected. Indeed, Mr. Wilkins seems to be saying: Pagels more sophisticated argument for theism does not convince me, but you guys, Myers and Dawkins, should take it seriously. That is: PZ and Richard should commit time and resources into grasping this more sophisticated argument that I find interesting, but which I myself ultimately do not endorse. If Mr. Wilkins could stand up and say that Pagels’ ideas would lead us all to theism – along the lines of the Collins’ Waterfall conversion – then he might be justified in suggesting that all of us, not just Myers and Dawkins, should give it serious consideration. From my perspective Mr. Wilkins is being dishonest.

    Mr. Wilkins asserts his atheism which inherently carries with it the idea that all arguments for theism are wrong, but, then, he goes on to suggest that among all those invalid arguments for theism, some, like Pagels, are better than others: this wrong argument is superior than that wrong argument. To me this is blatantly dishonest.

    How many blind alleys should we run down at the urging of the likes of Mr. Wilkins? Isn’t thousands of years of unearned and undeserved respect for theism more than enough? After so many millennia of dashed hopes, false claims, and unfulfilled promises, don’t we have the right to demand that theists “put up” or “shut up?” Don’t we have the right to demand that theists and those heaping undue respect on theism stop being dishonest?

  69. #69 Angus Lander
    April 10, 2007

    Myers does reject Paglia’s brand of theism; he calls it “vacuous nonsense, air and fluff.” And it is pretty easy to see why. Paglia contends that there “really aren’t words to describe God…[but] that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.” In other words, she’s asking us to accept that there exists something that we can never observe or reason about. That’s like asking me to accept that there are little green unobservable creatures called “troubhs.” Occam’s razor calls on me to reject these superfluous propositions.

    At least with the more traditional conception of God — an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient moral agent — we can reason about His existence. (In fact, there is a large body of literature on the subject).

    PZ is right to criticize Paglia, whose academic credentials lend an undue plausibility to her beliefs.

  70. #70 Steven Sullivan
    April 10, 2007

    Elaine Pagels != Camille Paglia

    ;>

  71. #71 Kevin Miller
    April 18, 2007

    Wow, John, I can’t tell you what a breath of fresh air this piece is. Having spent a bit of time attempting to engage aggressive atheists on PZ Myers’ blog, I’d almost given up hope that people could both disagree and yet continue to strive toward constructive dialogue on this issue.

    Your comment about how atheists often go after the worst of theism rather than the best is right on the money. Unfortunately, theists often do the same thing to atheists, because the dumb–and usually vocal–guys are the soft targets. The real danger in this–and I’m not immune from this temptation–is that we become more concerned with scoring points than actually seeking truth. Because no matter where we fall along the religious/non-religious spectrum, I think we can all agree that truth is what matters most.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!