Gene Expression

Chris at Mixing Memory has a post up, Respecting the Religious (or the A-Religious), pointing to a Simon Blackburn working paper, Respect and Religion. I enjoyed Blackburn’s Think, but the chapter on God left me a bit cold. Blackburn is a philosopher, and his thoughts reflect that training. If I believed that religiosity was grounded in the sorts of arguments presented in Summa Theologica, I would take more interest in philosophical deconstructions of theism. As it is, I doubt that this is the case, a reality which Summa Theologica‘s author, St. Thomas Aquinas, acknowledges as well. Philosophical reflection is for those who have the ability, will and marginal time. A few thoughts about the whole Religion thing….

Truth: Some of the New Atheists strike a pose for truth. They dare not live by lies. The problem I have with this is that the New Atheists tend to less inclined to accept truths when it diminishes the value of their polemics; specifically, the idea that religion is not about truth on any fundamental level, but a bundle of various elements bracketed together. More generally, that their polemics will not convince. I suspect that the reality is that the New Atheist program is not to witness truth to the masses, but to raise consciousness, awareness and identity. I have no issue with that, but bringing it to such a human level would I think make it incumbent upon some of the New Atheists to forthrightly acknowledge the naturalness of religion. As Chris notes, some of the New Atheists show a profound lack of interest in the details of what religion is and are content to reduce the phenomenon to a book or a set of laws.

Phenomenon: Religion is a phenomenon. It is a term with many faces and manifestations. Religion is belief is in supernatural entities, the dimension of psychology. Religion is group identity, the dimension of sociology. Religion is about institutions, the dimension of politics. Religion is about ethics, the dimension of philosophy. Religion is about cultural memory, the dimension of history. And so forth.

Importance: Religion is important. It is important to those who believe. It is important to those of us who do not believe in societies where most do believe. If I worked at an office and asked that I be excused from work three times a day to relax and reflect people might look at me strangely. Contrastingly, if I asked to be excused from work three times a day to pray as required by my religion the request would be acknowledged as possibly having merit or being worthy of consideration, even if it was denied. Whether atheists respect or care about religion, it cares about us. People die in the name of gods, and have for thousands of years. If it is worth killing over, it is worth noting, observing and acknowledging.

Intuition: I recall reading an autobiography by Anwar Shaikh a few years back. The author was raised a Muslim and he killed two Sikhs during communal violence during partition. Later, during the 1950s, he was reading a translation of the Koran and came upon a passage which absolved the Prophet Muhammad of the injunctions which had previous held to all others. Shaikh had a flashing thought, “Muhammad interpolated that into the text!” And the rest is history.

I bring this up to note that leaving religion is often not a process which is driven by rational reflection; it can emerge almost as an epiphany or from a moment of intense stress. More commonly people can be socialized toward irreligion. I had a friend who was a moderate liberal Catholic during the beginning of college who eventually became an atheist after her period of immersion in radical Left politics. It was pretty clear that her disavowal of her religious background was made easier by the fact that she had a new identity which could replace her previous affiliations. The analogy here to religious converts is pretty clear. Scholarship by researchers such as William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark suggest in the United States conversions to sects and cults generally happen through personal contacts and peer groups. Post facto individuals may offer a rationale for why they converted that has nothing to do with exogenous factors, but generally these do not hold up to closer inspection. As an example, I once had a discussion with a woman who was a convert to Christianity from Buddhism. She explained that her reason for changing religions was that Buddhism was just superstition, most Buddhists didn’t even know what they really believed. At this point I asked her a few pointed questions about Trinitarian theology and soteriology; she looked at me blankly. The point is not that I would have expected any Christian to describe in detail the finer points of their faith’s philosophy, only that critique is applied very selectively (this can be expanded outside of religion to outlooks, world-views and ideologies more generally).

Material consequences: Thomas Jefferson once said “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This is true as far as it goes, but religion is more than a psychological phenomenon; it has communal and institutional dimensions. Like it or not, religions which are thick on the ground will make their presence felt and demand accommodation. The gods which your neighbors worship are relevant because those gods often demand practices which impinge upon your own life, they may be jealous, and they certainly warrant attention. For the religious they may also feel that the belief of their neighbor is critical for their salvation, and so they must intervene for their own good. The idea that gods exist within the confines of the mind is what economists would term a “stylized fact.”

To conclude, my general suspicion of the New Atheists echoes Chris’ in some ways, I find many of them sloppy and rather uninterested in constructing an accurate model of the world. They are polemicists, first & foremost. That is all fine and well, but to the gods of rhetoric I offer few sacrifices. To those of knowledge I would give my firstborn. Those who would join us as we sail into the unknown need not declare to which gods they render their homage, none or twenty, it makes little difference. Someone whose religious views do reflect deeply held values and sincere cogitation would no doubt be absolutely uninterested in whether I respect them or not.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan
    March 12, 2008

    On the first one – truth – I think it’s arguable whether that your description of the New Atheists applies to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. But Dennett, who I count among the New Atheists, clearly describes religion as a natural phenomenon (he wrote a book about it, afterall).

    On Importance – no doubt that it is an important psychological factor in warfare, but I think most progressive atheists (myself, anyway) think that killing and dying in the name of gods are not socially productive. So in addition to noting, observing and acknowledging, I would add that we should counter this important aspect of religion.

    Lastly, on the New Atheist polemicists – Again, no argument that there is an element of this. Nonetheless, as noted under “Importance,” there are very sensible reasons for countering detrimental aspects of religion, and creating an atheist community to support a more rational society.

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who I believe was founder of American Atheists, said “An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated.”

    I hardly believe that that is polemics, even if it takes a bit of discussion of sensitive topics.

  2. #2 razib
    March 12, 2008

    On the first one – truth – I think it’s arguable whether that your description of the New Atheists applies to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. But Dennett, who I count among the New Atheists, clearly describes religion as a natural phenomenon (he wrote a book about it, afterall).

    dawkins spends a part of the god delusion on religion as a natural phenomenon. he knows about it, and seems to have read the literature. the analogy i would make though is someone who knows and acknowledges newtonian mechanics, but fails to utilize those insights for the artillery because of the extra mathematical education which might be necessitated for officers. dennett does a better job, but he seems not to have a very good mapping to span the norms which he avows, which are basically as ‘militant’ as dawkins, the truths he acknowledges. e.g., if religion is a virus of the mind like the cold, too many of the new atheists seem intent on blood letting so as to have a psychological affect instead of focusing on prevention and future vaccinations.

    hitchens, and to a lesser extent harris, are pure polemicists. i don’t expect them to do any heavy lifting when it comes to generating a pragmatic course of action to forward their normative prescriptions contingent upon their descriptions of the world.

    think that killing and dying in the name of gods are not socially productive.

    point taken. but what about someone like john brown, who killed and died to free slaves? isn’t the issue not that people kill and die for gods, but that these acts so often are at counter-purposes to the norms we (theists & atheists) share? (some in john brown’s coterie, including his son, were free thinkers, so they weren’t religious fundamentalists as much as idealists spurred on by various grounds of being)

    there are very sensible reasons for countering detrimental aspects of religion, and creating an atheist community to support a more rational society.

    of course. i’ve been involved in the free thought community as an atheist. most of my friends and acquaintances are probably atheists. that being said, what does atheism have to do with rationalism? ;-) i would say that perhaps atheism is just a byproduct or indicator of a strong commitment to rational analysis and deconstruction of the world around us and our values. some people might take rationality in other directions. in any case, my point to quibble here is that quite often atheism is conflated with other values, norms and ends. e.g., rationalism, socialism, liberalism, etc.

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who I believe was founder of American Atheists, said “An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated.”

    this point is fair enough. but i think we need to approach it with a little bit of subtly. it is an empirical fact that hospices and medical care were often associated with religious institutions, dating back to 2,000+ years. this is not just christianity, but sufi orders and buddhist temples. i do admit that theists have expressed a fatalistic streak, and certainly science has done more to banish death and disease than religion ever has, but it seems important to note the reality that religious institutions and medical establishments have a major connection even today. that is, religionists are humanists just as atheists are humanists. and, some religionists are not humanists, just as some atheists are not humanists. i would say that we tend to call religious non-humanists ascetes and irreligious non-humanists nihilists, but they’re two sides of the same coin IMO.

    here’s a somewhat banal but important plea: what victory is it if we replace one simple doctrine with another? the emphasis here is on simple; i believe religion is exceedingly complex, and its confounded interconnectedness with human societies makes it hard to separate the good from the bad, the fundamentally religious from the coincidentally religious. concomitantly atheism is at the core simply a lack of belief in god. in reality there are other traits accreted to it, but i suspect that that is a function of non-comformism and deviation from social mores in general (as i noted before, a disproportionate number of white supremacists are atheists compared to the general public).

  3. #3 razib
    March 12, 2008

    p.s. just to be clear, i’m not responding in a polemical-i-must-convince-you fashion. rather, i think that there are many open-ended and subtle questions of the shape of reality and our norms which have to be addressed and worked out.

  4. #4 Caledonian
    March 12, 2008

    isn’t the issue not that people kill and die for gods, but that these acts so often are at counter-purposes to the norms we (theists & atheists) share?

    No, the norms are irrelevant. We don’t want to abolish the old systems only to raise new ones in their place.

    The problem is not so much that people will kill and die for their belief systems, but that their belief systems are ridiculous. Even worse, humans are consequentialists, a critical failure of thinking that requires a great deal of effort to rise above. Religions short-circuit that process.

  5. #5 Dan
    March 12, 2008

    dennett does a better job, but he seems not to have a very good mapping to span the norms which he avows, which are basically as ‘militant’ as dawkins, the truths he acknowledges. e.g., if religion is a virus of the mind like the cold, too many of the new atheists seem intent on blood letting so as to have a psychological affect instead of focusing on prevention and future vaccinations.

    Aside from the exaggeration (bloodletting?), I partly agree. Discussing only the aspects of religion as a mindless meme misses much of the socially functional aspects of religion. For me, I tend to think that you cannot effectively discuss religion without first reading Atran and Boyer.

    but what about someone like john brown, who killed and died to free slaves? isn’t the issue not that people kill and die for gods, but that these acts so often are at counter-purposes to the norms we (theists & atheists) share?

    Point taken in return. Also, point taken on atheism and religion vis-a-vis.

    but i think we need to approach it with a little bit of subtly. it is an empirical fact that hospices and medical care were often associated with religious institutions, dating back to 2,000+ years.

    Yes, which is why secular alternatives to such care centers would be a fantastic development. You also say that “that is, religionists are humanists just as atheists are humanists” – on the religionists, this is not universally the case. You allude to this by mentioning the fatalist tendency of religionists, which I would argue falls outside the spectrum of humanist ideas. However, religionist care at care centers does usually focus on the quality of patient care, which is a good thing that secularists in general and atheists specifically tend to overlook, I’ll admit.

    And I don’t know about “replacing one simple idea with another.” For me, replacing irrational (albeit socially-functional) logic with rational and socially functional logic is definitely not a simple task.

    Cheers.

  6. #6 B.B
    March 12, 2008

    concomitantly atheism is at the core simply a lack of belief in god. in reality there are other traits accreted to it, but i suspect that that is a function of non-comformism and deviation from social mores in general (as i noted before, a disproportionate number of white supremacists are atheists compared to the general public).

    Classifying the religious beliefs of racial separatist movements is somewhat complicated. Organizations like the Church of the Creator are atheistic, but still consider themselves religious and also panentheistic tendencies such as the Cosmotheism of William Luther Pierce, which generally don’t fit the traditional definition of what would be considered theism or atheism. Non-literalistic neo-paganism is also very common, whereby.

    I get the feeling that if you surveyed Creator, Cosmotheist and Neo-Pagan white separatists on whether they believe in God, you would probably would get mixed answers from all the groups.

  7. #7 Tulse
    March 12, 2008

    religion is not about truth on any fundamental level, but a bundle of various elements bracketed together.

    Unless I misunderstand you, that statement is essentially a variant on the NOMA approach, and if that were in fact true, and understood as true by religious adherent, there wouldn’t be any problem. The point of contention is that various religions do make very specific truth claims about the physical world (e.g., that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that humans did not evolve from other organisms, or that the Big Bang didn’t happen, or that the world was entirely flooded a few thousand years ago, etc. etc. etc.), not to mention “truth” claims about morality (e.g., “God hates fags”). For most New Atheists, this is the main issue at stake. If religion were content to leave the physical world to science, there would be almost no need for the New Atheists.

  8. #8 Dan
    March 12, 2008

    religion is not about truth on any fundamental level, but a bundle of various elements bracketed together.
    I read that slightly differently, thinking that Razib may have been describing Pascal Boyer’s argument that religion is about a bundle of various *cognitive* elements. Moreover, religion actually works !better! when working with counterintuitive and self-contradictory statements. Thus the difference between truth (i.e. fact) and Truth (i.e. superstitious claims that are not be questioned).

    In this way of reading what Razib wrote, he wasn’t talking about what religion is to the believer, but the ways in which religion actually works, from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology and cultural anthropology.

    Razib – Is that about right? (Can you tell that I’m fascinated by the topic, and how we can be so well adapted to religion and it can be so absurd at the same time!)

  9. #9 razib
    March 12, 2008

    Discussing only the aspects of religion as a mindless meme misses much of the socially functional aspects of religion. For me, I tend to think that you cannot effectively discuss religion without first reading Atran and Boyer.

    in the god delusion dawkins makes reference to both atran and boyer. but the second half of the book doesn’t integrate this framework, or signal any appropriate relevance for these data. why? dennett also profiles boyer & atran’s work in his breaking the spell. they are making some attempts toward addressing these issues (the atheist identity and what not), but most of the time they focus on the same diatribes which our kind have been engaging in for thousands of years to no effect aside from salving our conscious that we are speaking truth to superstition.

    You also say that “that is, religionists are humanists just as atheists are humanists” – on the religionists, this is not universally the case. You allude to this by mentioning the fatalist tendency of religionists, which I would argue falls outside the spectrum of humanist ideas. However, religionist care at care centers does usually focus on the quality of patient care, which is a good thing that secularists in general and atheists specifically tend to overlook, I’ll admit.

    it’s a complicated issue. to give an example of fatalism, i was talking to my mother (who is a muslim) about her health. she told me that ultimately as a muslim it is all allah’s will anyway, so there’s no point to struggling against fate. to which i asked, so why do you go to the hospital and have check ups? she laughed and said nothing.

    And I don’t know about “replacing one simple idea with another.” For me, replacing irrational (albeit socially-functional) logic with rational and socially functional logic is definitely not a simple task.

    what do you mean by irrational and rational? too often we use logic as some catchall, but really it’s derived from axioms, right? if religion was rational it would be positively terrifying. i think radical fundamentalists to some extent engage in this rationalization; in the name of god all is permissible to further his worship. i think religion, more or less, is arational. to a large extent the norms & values of atheists are too. i can’t tell you the thousandth time i’ve had to demur when a bunch of atheists talk about “us liberals,” as if atheism by definition implies a social democratic or liberal outlook.

    I get the feeling that if you surveyed Creator, Cosmotheist and Neo-Pagan white separatists on whether they believe in God, you would probably would get mixed answers from all the groups.

    i’m not even talking about these groups. if you look at the literature many white racialists abandon religion without finding or creating a new one. e.g., tom metzger. look at american renaissance‘s survey of readers re: religion.

    Unless I misunderstand you, that statement is essentially a variant on the NOMA approach, and if that were in fact true, and understood as true by religious adherent,

    no, i don’t agree with NOMA. i don’t privilege any definition of religion, it is what it is as an empirical matter. “religion” describes correlations of traits in parameter space and is fuzzily bounded.

    For most New Atheists, this is the main issue at stake. If religion were content to leave the physical world to science, there would be almost no need for the New Atheists.

    i think this has an element of truth, and dawkins to this in ‘the god delusion’ as to why he focuses on xtianity as opposed to buddhism. that being said, one refrain of the new atheists is that it is fundamentally about truth, on some deontological nonconsequentialist level. this might be rhetorical cant, or it might be sincere, or a mix, but the details need to be smoked out. the question is: do the lies in the minds of your fellow man terrify you? people differ in their response.

    Razib – Is that about right? (Can you tell that I’m fascinated by the topic, and how we can be so well adapted to religion and it can be so absurd at the same time!)

    you’re close enough. and, i would say that religion is well adapted to us, not the other way around ;-)

    i would say that it is important to keep in mind two things as non-retards:

    1) most people are disjoint from the subset of non-retards and religion is most efficiently approached from the anthropological perspective

    2 but those non-retards who take religion seriously need to be addressed to some extent on their own ground as well. most people are mathematical tards but a minority enjoy discoursing on analysis, they are no less real for their rarity.

    what we have are dozens of concurrent parallel discussions which also on occasion interlink with each other. the key perhaps is not to confuse the battle for the war.

  10. #10 Tulse
    March 12, 2008

    one refrain of the new atheists is that it is fundamentally about truth, on some deontological nonconsequentialist level. this might be rhetorical cant, or it might be sincere, or a mix, but the details need to be smoked out. the question is: do the lies in the minds of your fellow man terrify you?

    Only if they have an impact on public policy, and I think that, generally speaking, this is pretty much the position of most “New Atheists”. The rise in “New Atheism” is in direct response to the rise in fundamentalist religions and their insistence that the social order must adhere to their beliefs, including those about the physical world that are demonstrably false. If all the religious folks were just sitting around holding hands and singing Kumbaya, it might be annoying, but I doubt most atheists would get too heated up over it. It is when religion intrudes into decisions around public education, and public funding for research, and public policy in general, that I and others get pissed off.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    March 12, 2008

    The key point is that the New Atheists aren’t trying to spawn a religious movement of their own. They’re trying to demonstrate that the resurgent fundamentalism is incompatible with the shreds of the Enlightenment that are vitally necessary for the survival of our societies.

    ‘New Atheism’ isn’t meant to be a competitor of religious faith. Its purpose is to appeal to people’s sense of rationality and get them to recognize that religion is irrational. The reasons irrationality is appealing to people aren’t really relevant to this purpose!

  12. #12 razib
    March 12, 2008

    If all the religious folks were just sitting around holding hands and singing Kumbaya, it might be annoying, but I doubt most atheists would get too heated up over it. It is when religion intrudes into decisions around public education, and public funding for research, and public policy in general, that I and others get pissed off.

    two points

    1) sam harris is the most vocal in chiding religious moderates and liberals who hold to a relatively anodyne doctrine and practice as opening the door toward legitimizing the fundamentalists. IOW, i don’t think that the new atheists necessarily restrict their critique to anti-modern fundamentalists as a matter of principle despite their operational focus. richard dawkins has in print opined that to some extent fundamentalists are at least respectable adversaries because they adhere more faithfully to their axioms (though other times he has offered that catholics accept evolution and so it is necessarily in conflict with religion, though this was on the radio and not in print).

    2) this is important because what i’m getting to is that some new atheists switch between a deontological stance and a consequentialist one. i.e., is it about Truth at the heart of it, or is it about opening up a free space for dissenters from ‘orthodox’ religious dispensations? if it is the latter then there is a major point of contention with secularist circles about the tactics to pragmatically achieve these aims, but at this point some of the new atheists switch to the principled assertion that their brief is against superstition because of its falsity and not material consequences. if it is a principled rejection then tactical objections fall flat.

  13. #13 Dan
    March 13, 2008

    On Sam Harris’ and Dawkins’ positions on criticizing religious moderates, I think that they’re on solid ground in voicing their criticism – the problem is that most of us can’t do that on a daily basis. We just have no choice but to find the common ground with religious moderates, which is indeed a substantial common ground. That is, while becoming a critic may not be an effective strategy for the rest of us, the critic is a necessary player.

    this is important because what i’m getting to is that some new atheists switch between a deontological stance and a consequentialist one. i.e., is it about Truth at the heart of it, or is it about opening up a free space for dissenters from ‘orthodox’ religious dispensations?

    Why does it have to be an either-or? I tend to think that the convergence of multiple perspectives makes for a *stronger* argument, not a weaker one.

  14. #14 Tulse
    March 13, 2008

    sam harris is the most vocal in chiding religious moderates and liberals who hold to a relatively anodyne doctrine and practice as opening the door toward legitimizing the fundamentalists. IOW, i don’t think that the new atheists necessarily restrict their critique to anti-modern fundamentalists as a matter of principle despite their operational focus.

    I think you refute yourself in the first sentence quoted above — Harris chides moderates for “opening the door toward legitimizing the fundamentalists”. The problem isn’t the moderates themselves, but that they implicitly allow and support the more radical believers that want to order society according to their beliefs. If the only religions around were live-and-let-live, NOMA-compatible groups like Unitarians, Harris (and all other “New Atheists”) would be out a job. The only reason that this whole area is under discussion is because of the significant intrusion of religion into the sphere of public policy.

    Yes, the problem is ultimately that large groups of people have irrational and false beliefs about the physical world. But that describes lots of belief systems outside of religion as well (such as sports fanatics).
    As a practical matter that wouldn’t be a problem if those people were content to only apply those beliefs to themselves, and not insist that others adhere to them.

    But in reality, when it comes to many religions, they aren’t content with just holding those beliefs themselves — religions have arguably become more and more insistent in the US and Muslim world that society be ordered according to their religious doctrines. And it seems, to many atheists, that fighting the fundamentalists on specific points is a losing battle, a whack-a-mole approach that will never ultimately be successful. And moderate believers have generally been little to no help, refusing to actively fight against this intrusion of religion into the public sphere. As a result, many atheists have argued that we will only be rid of fundamentalism if the root irrationality itself is addressed, and that means that moderates get caught as collateral damage. In other words, it appears that the only way to “open up a free space for dissenters” is essentially to assert deontological claims, and attack superstitious belief as a whole.

    As an aside, it is also very important to note that this isn’t just about religion — Dawkins complains just as readily about homeopathy, and therapeutic touch, and various other “New Age” beliefs just as much as organized religion. And his attack is again due to the impact that these beliefs have in the public arena (such as publicly funded hospitals of homeopathy in the UK).

  15. #15 razib
    March 13, 2008

    On Sam Harris’ and Dawkins’ positions on criticizing religious moderates, I think that they’re on solid ground in voicing their criticism – the problem is that most of us can’t do that on a daily basis.

    on occasion it seems that they find moderates more objectionable because they’re not consistent or principled. they have a model of what religion is which they want to privilege, and that model dovetails well with fundamentalist conceptions (they simply think that the model if fallacious). i think atheists need to be cautious about this tack.

    Why does it have to be an either-or? I tend to think that the convergence of multiple perspectives makes for a *stronger* argument, not a weaker one.

    …in different people. note that i’m not putting much emphasis on chris hitchens here. he’s a plain polemicist. i’m a little peeved at dawkins because he played a two-faced game; on the one hand he engaged in description, and then switched to switched to prescription without being informed by the description. there’s a role of militant atheism, the problem is when some of them, such as dawkins and harris, also try and inject some scholarly patina (i.e., harris’ book notes he studies neuroscience).


    As a practical matter that wouldn’t be a problem if those people were content to only apply those beliefs to themselves, and not insist that others adhere to them.

    agreed.

    But in reality, when it comes to many religions, they aren’t content with just holding those beliefs themselves — religions have arguably become more and more insistent in the US and Muslim world that society be ordered according to their religious doctrines.

    props to harris, and a far lesser lesser extent dawkins, for not excusing the primitive beliefs of muslims from the scythe of critique.

    As a result, many atheists have argued that we will only be rid of fundamentalism if the root irrationality itself is addressed, and that means that moderates get caught as collateral damage. In other words, it appears that the only way to “open up a free space for dissenters” is essentially to assert deontological claims, and attack superstitious belief as a whole.

    right. the main issue is that i think most humans are retarded anyway. perhaps dawkins et. al. have a more sophisticated plan (i think they really are more about identity than argumentation in their aims), but i suspect some acolytes are getting confused as to the viability of banishing irrationality.

  16. #16 Oran Kelley
    March 13, 2008

    About NOMA: Gould’s writings on this ought to be read before criticizing the notion of non-overlapping magesteria. Gould, of course, knew all about aggressive fundamentalists interfering in scientific matters. In writing about NOMA, Gould talks about them. NOMA in no way denies that religious extremists try to poach on science’s turf.

    NOMA essentially says that science and religion, properly considered, have distinct orientations and roles: one governing the moral and spiritual realms, one the empirical.

    Frankly it seems like a hard position to argue against from a scientific point of view.

  17. #17 pconroy
    March 13, 2008

    Raz,

    Right – arguments against the supernatural are just not amenable to most people, and so unless one is preaching to the choir, it’s a waste of one’s time IMO.

  18. #18 pconroy
    March 13, 2008

    Oran Kelley,

    Morality has got little to do with Religion…

  19. #19 Oran Kelley
    March 13, 2008

    Oran Kelley,

    Morality has got little to do with Religion…

    Care to demonstrate that religion has little to say about moral questions and is little concerned with them?

    Not that religion is immoral or that you don’t agree with it’s moral judgments, but that religion has little to do with “the moral realm” (questions of ought).

    Go for it, tiger.

  20. #20 Tulse
    March 13, 2008

    arguments against the supernatural are just not amenable to most people, and so unless one is preaching to the choir, it’s a waste of one’s time IMO

    So rationalists should just sit idly by while fundamentalists attempt to push their reality-opposing beliefs on the populace? Yeah, that’s a strategy…

  21. #21 Caledonian
    March 13, 2008

    NOMA essentially says that science and religion, properly considered, have distinct orientations and roles: one governing the moral and spiritual realms, one the empirical.

    Frankly it seems like a hard position to argue against from a scientific point of view.

    Not really. From the scientific point of view, the ‘moral’ and ‘spiritual’ are part of the empirical world. So the NOMA is ridiculous.

  22. #22 razib
    March 13, 2008

    NOMA essentially says that science and religion, properly considered, have distinct orientations and roles: one governing the moral and spiritual realms, one the empirical.

    who the hell made you & stepehen jay gould gods so you can define what religious “properly considered” is? religion is many things, and always has been many things. instead of trying to define it into a box just deal with the reality.

    that’s the problem with a lot of secular attempts to grapple with the “problem.” they refuse to wrestle with the empirical distribution but just try to redefine the phenomenon to make it more tractable. so sam harris reads the bible and that to him is the sum of what christianity is. stephen jay gould says that it is all about morals. all nice and simple if religious people would get with the program, but it’s not happening.

    Care to demonstrate that religion has little to say about moral questions and is little concerned with them?

    he said it had little to do with morality, not that it has little to say about it. that’s a very important difference. that being said, i do think that broadly construed religion and morality have had a lot to do with each other, but, religion and morality are not necessarily connected, and it seems anthropologically that a moral sense preexisted any sort of formalized religion. IOW, the 10 commandments were were attached to the jewish religion, but the general thrust of them were not novel nor were they truly the product of religious genius. the genius of religion is that it assimilates a great deal under its rubric.

    So rationalists should just sit idly by while fundamentalists attempt to push their reality-opposing beliefs on the populace? Yeah, that’s a strategy…

    not, but preaching might not be the best tack. perhaps lying, manipulating and dissembling might be more optimal in terms of strategy.

  23. #23 Clark
    March 14, 2008

    I agree completely. This idea that science and religion “properly defined” are non-overlapping is just silly. It doesn’t explain religion as practiced and is basically a way to create ones own religion. Fine if one wants it that way but perhaps uninteresting.

  24. #24 Dan
    March 14, 2008

    Care to demonstrate that religion has little to say about moral questions and is little concerned with them?

    he said it had little to do with morality, not that it has little to say about it. that’s a very important difference. that being said, i do think that broadly construed religion and morality have had a lot to do with each other, but, religion and morality are not necessarily connected, and it seems anthropologically that a moral sense preexisted any sort of formalized religion.

    I would add to that a bit – organized religion is an authoritarian mindset in its social structure. There’s a decent amount of research done in the past 50 years documenting that authoritarian followers will happily do things that they would otherwise consider morally reprehensible, if an authority from within their belief system tells them it’s okay. This is true for both religious and political authoritarianism.

    Bottom line is that people will commit atrocities if an authority that they trust orders it – yet another reason why strong religious inclinations should be confronted.

  25. #25 razib
    March 14, 2008

    organized religion is an authoritarian mindset in its social structure. There’s a decent amount of research done in the past 50 years documenting that authoritarian followers will happily do things that they would otherwise consider morally reprehensible, if an authority from within their belief system tells them it’s okay. This is true for both religious and political authoritarianism.

    do you think this characterization adds any value re: religion? in other words, “x is an authoritarian mindset” applies to almost any ideological movement with communitarian aspirations or biases as you imply above. i suppose that does add value if you are arguing with a religionist who views religion as sui generis….

    (i think that a qualification or exploration of this issue is important because i have made the case that religious identity increase the amplitude of variance of action, but not the net effect. ie, perhaps religionists, whether pro-slavery or anti-slavery, had the most certitude about their stance because of their tendency toward certitude in general?)

  26. #26 Dan
    March 14, 2008

    No, I don’t think that authoritarianism is an exclusive or defining attribute to religion, but it does represent the structure of religion as a sociological phenomenon, right?

    What you suggest about religion enhancing certitude is a different albeit related topic to what I’m suggesting. i.e., certitude, or strength of conviction without regard to evidence or credibility of that evidence, is a defining attribute of faith itself, not the social structure of the faith or the (im)morality of various actions.

  27. #27 Oran Kelley
    March 14, 2008

    who the hell made you & stepehen jay gould gods so you can define what religious “properly considered” is? religion is many things, and always has been many things. instead of trying to define it into a box just deal with the reality.

    that’s the problem with a lot of secular attempts to grapple with the “problem.” they refuse to wrestle with the empirical distribution but just try to redefine the phenomenon to make it more tractable. so sam harris reads the bible and that to him is the sum of what christianity is. stephen jay gould says that it is all about morals. all nice and simple if religious people would get with the program, but it’s not happening.

    Razib, read your own words closely. Have you never claimed that there is a proper way to consider something and an improper way to do so? Were you a god at the time?

    And why do you think there IS so much strugle over definitions if they don’t matter, Mr. Let’s Look At the “Empirical Distribution”? Isn’t a great deal of the struggle precisely over defining terms? Too many people, including yourself, write as if NOMA were conceived in some sort of blithe ignorance of the fact that fundamental Christianity isn’t going along. But that’s precisely the situation it was devised to address.

    In fact, I think it is you who aren’t looking at the “empirical distribution.” Gould’s NOMA is a political stratagem. The response he encourages to religious extremism is to seize the middle ground with this very moderate sounding position, that essentially brackets science as a non-political undertaking.

    It has absolutely nothing to do with the rewriting of religion that Harris et al. engage in. Gould says science should be polite, tip its hat to what it’s not concerned with anyway, and seize the middle ground.

    Care to demonstrate that religion has little to say about moral questions and is little concerned with them?

    he said it had little to do with morality, not that it has little to say about it. that’s a very important difference. that being said, i do think that broadly construed religion and morality have had a lot to do with each other, but, religion and morality are not necessarily connected, and it seems anthropologically that a moral sense preexisted any sort of formalized religion. IOW, the 10 commandments were were attached to the jewish religion, but the general thrust of them were not novel nor were they truly the product of religious genius. the genius of religion is that it assimilates a great deal under its rubric.

    I think this is called “distinction without a difference.” Saying a whole lot about morality is distinct from “having to do” with morality. But as it happens religion does, in fact, have a lot to do with morality.

    What the exact relationship is between religion and morality is an open question to me. To say that they have nothing to do with one another is nothing but wishful thinking.

  28. #28 Oran Kelley
    March 14, 2008

    Not really. From the scientific point of view, the ‘moral’ and ‘spiritual’ are part of the empirical world. So the NOMA is ridiculous.

    Right now, how does science answer moral/spiritual sorts of questions?

    Like, should I divorce my wife? Or, should I vote for the candidate calling for an immediate pullout from Iraq? Or, should I volunteer to serve in the peace corps? Or how do I reconcile myself with the death of my mother?

    And NOMA is all about right now and negotiating the political situation we have RIGHT NOW.

    If you think the position science ought to take right now is “we’ve got the answer to everything–your moral questions, your psychological questions, questions of is and questions of ought–everything” than your political sense is rather lacking. That’s a sure-lose strategy.

    Gould says just cede what we don’t have answers to anyway and keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t think anyone thinks the Gould’s division means Frans de Waal would have to find a new job.

  29. #29 razib
    March 14, 2008

    And NOMA is all about right now and negotiating the political situation we have RIGHT NOW.

    NOMA doesn’t smell like a practical calculation. we already beat back on religion constantly when it pushes into the consequential realm (unless it’s muslims killing their daughters, in which case it’s just their savage culture). NOMA is another neo-haeckelian attempt by gould to condescendingly redefine in a way that most religionists who don’t already accede to it will find condescending and offensive.

  30. #30 Clark
    March 14, 2008

    No, I don’t think that authoritarianism is an exclusive or defining attribute to religion, but it does represent the structure of religion as a sociological phenomenon, right?

    I’m not sure this is fair. Certainly it applies to some groups: Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons and maybe even Anglicans, Methodists and the like. However most fundamentalist Christians aren’t members of those groups but are members of very loosely aligned “non-denomenational” groups which switch allegiances rather quickly. To the degree there is ‘authority’ it is primarily by persuasion not authoritarianism.

    Now one could, of course, say they are still authoritarian but to a text from 2000+ years ago. But that seems to be such a broad sense of authority that I think it is unhelpful.

    Then you have to throw in the other religions. Consider Islam and Judaism which aren’t centralized but one could argue have influential rabbis or clerics who function to subgroups in an authoritarian way. Then there are the various forms of Buddhism, New Age religions, and Hinduism. (I know next to nothing about Hinduism society so I can’t say anything there)

    The point being that painting with these broad brushes towards religion based upon the history of dominate forms Christianity seems mistaken.

  31. #31 windy
    March 14, 2008

    NOMA seems to argue by elimination, that since the proper role of religion appears not to be acting as an arbiter of facts, then its role should be as an arbiter of morals. The problem is that the latter part does not follow. Gould does not tell us whether the “teaching authority” of religion over morals is in his opinion equivalent to the authority of science over facts, but the NOMA proposal could certainly be understood that way.

    To take one of Oran’s questions as an example:

    Right now, how does science answer moral/spiritual sorts of questions? Like, should I divorce my wife?

    Problem is that many people don’t seem content with the answer their religion gives them, if it happens to be “no” and they want to get divorced anyway. In these cases, what does it mean, in practice, to have religion as the ultimate arbiter or magister of morality?

  32. #32 Caledonian
    March 14, 2008

    If morality isn’t a matter of facts, why should we care about it? What makes a particular moral claim different than the opposite claim, or a claim made up at random? And why should our actions be constrained or mandated by things that aren’t facts?

    It seems to me that religions make lots and lots of factual claims – then use faith as their justification for them and argue that you should accept them on those grounds.

    Science is not compatible with that.

  33. #33 Dan
    March 15, 2008

    However most fundamentalist Christians aren’t members of those groups but are members of very loosely aligned “non-denomenational” groups which switch allegiances rather quickly. To the degree there is ‘authority’ it is primarily by persuasion not authoritarianism.

    “Rabbis,” “clerics,” and “pastors” most certainly do fit the bill for authority figures in the non-denominational Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups that you mention. Even religions not of the Judeo-Christian mold have spiritual leaders at the center of their community. The only exception is folk religion (non-organized or tribal religion), and even that is debatable. So yes, the authoritarian social structure of organized religions is quite solid.

    It seems to me that religions make lots and lots of factual claims – then use faith as their justification for them and argue that you should accept them on those grounds. Science is not compatible with that.

    Indeed.

  34. #34 razib
    March 15, 2008

    i don’t think you can really map authoritarianism based denominational organization. e.g., i doubt assemblies of god are less authoritarian than episcopalians….

  35. #35 Oran Kelley
    March 17, 2008

    Problem is that many people don’t seem content with the answer their religion gives them, if it happens to be “no” and they want to get divorced anyway. In these cases, what does it mean, in practice, to have religion as the ultimate arbiter or magister of morality?

    Well, I don’t know the answer but that does seem like an interesting question.

    I think one of the things that made Gould comfortable with his division of the faculties was that religion would not be an ultimate arbiter of morality, but would rather provide vocabulary/context to talk about moral issues, determine shared values, conflicts between principle and desire etc., etc.

    On authoritarianism: I think that this issue really transcends religion. Also, though religions may be structured in a very hierarchal way, what we see quite typically in the West these days is that people end up behaving as windy notes above–as they like. And then they create some sort of quasi-religious rationalization for their actions later.

    And even in more “old time religion” places and times, one has to question how much “top down” exercise of religious authority is more “bottom up.” Authority validating/organizing the already existing will & tendency of the people, rather than the imposition of will from on high.

    Even textualists can be highly selective in what bits of text they apply. That the operative text coincidentally tends to confirm their already existing preferences.

    In short, religion plays some role in activating social movements, but I’m not sure it’s the primum mobile some would make it.

  36. #36 TGGP
    March 17, 2008

    humans are consequentialists, a critical failure of thinking that requires a great deal of effort to rise above
    What’s wrong with it?

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