Mixing Memory

Religion and Science

You’ve probably all heard about the Beyond Belief series, in which scientists give talks about the conflict between science and religion, as well as the science of religion. I’ve only watched the cognitive scientists (and Dawkins, for reasons I’ll mention below), so far, and that’s probably all I’ll watch. If you’re looking for them, V.S. Ramachandran is in Session 4, Patricia Churchland is in Session 5, Elizabeth Loftus is in Session 6, Mahzarin Banaji and Scott Atran are in Session 7, Atran is in Session 8, Paul Churchland participates in the discussion in Session 9, and Ramachandran is in Session 10. Tellingly, perhaps, the only scientist on the list who actually studies religion is Scott Atran (there are a couple philosophers who study religion), and in the talks I’ve seen, it shows. I did like this quip from Banaji, when she was discussing surveys measuring the religiosity of various groups (the rest of the talk is about how we don’t always know where are beliefs come from):

I remember being somewhat surprised at the large number of believers in both the humanities and the physical scientists, and i thought to myself, “You know, so the humanists, when you read a beautiful poem or listen to great music you fall to your knees and believe; if you’re a physical scientist, you look at the cosmos and you fall to your knees and believe. But those of us who are social scientists, who deal with human beings… uh, when you do that, there is very little reason to see God.”

i-90425a81d211c6fe3ccf93e6ff486c3d-Dawkinsexample.JPGRichard Dawkins’ talk in Session 7, which is sandwiched between Banaji’s and Atran’s, is also interesting because it’s representative of the discussion currently taking place on ScienceBlogs and elsewhere in the blog world. In that talk Dawkins sounds, at times, like a 5-year old with the vocabulary and factual knowledge of a world-renowned scientist. Take, for example, his comparison of religion with economic beliefs. He argues that talking about the religion of young children is child abuse, and to make this point, he suggests we think about children in a photo as Monetarists, Keynesians, and Marxists, instead of Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians. Labeling the children by their economic theories is obviously absurd, so labeling them by their religious affiliations must be as well. If religions and economic theories were analogous in any interesting way, this would be a wonderful argument, but since they aren’t, it’s just silly.

I’ve tried several times to write posts about the post-God Delusion blog clustersomethingorother, with all the reviews of Dawkins, reviews of reviews of Dawkins, and reviews of reviews of reviews of Dawkins, along with the side debates that discussion has spawned, but each time the posts came out sounding really nasty, so this is all I’ll say about it. I find it hypocritcal and, as an atheist, more than a little embarrassing that these fundamentalist, Dawkinsian, scientistic, self-styled free thinking atheists, who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications. I can’t help but think that they feel they’re justified in this because they have a distinct sense of intellectual and, perhaps, moral superiority over the religious. This sense of superiority is reflected in the make up of the “Beyond Belief” panel, which is comprised, for the most part, of scientists who study things that are completely unrelated to religious doctrine and faith (except in superficial ways, such as the fact that modern cosmology and evolutionary biology rule out a literal interpretation of Genesis). If creationists had put together a panel of theologians to talk about the science of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology, these same atheists would write post after post about how ignorant and dishonest the whole thing was.

I firmly believe that science has absolutely nothing to say about the validity most theology, and most theology has absolutely nothing to say about the validity of science. Furthermore, I recognize, unlike Dawkins’ epigones, that “evidence” is not something that exists outside of an interpretive framework, and that it’s possible to rationally interpret the “facts” of the world as providing evidence for the existence of God or gods. The same is true when it comes to logical and moral arguments for and against the existence of God. Whether you buy those arguments generally depends on whether you accept their premises, and whether you except their premises generally depends on whether you’ve already accepted their conclusions. The only irrational position is to say that there is no other rational position other than your own, or no empirical evidence for any position but your own. That’s why I find it perfectly acceptable to call the atheists who adopt those positions “fundamentalists,” because their attitudes are indistinguishable, in form, from those of religious fundamentalists.

OK, one more thing, because I can’t resist. Banaji’s talk is about the fact that many of our beliefs, including our religious beliefs (though she doesn’t present any data about religious beliefs) are held for reasons of which we’re unaware. The implication of this is that the religious may hold their religious beliefs for reasons that have nothing to do with theological arguments or evidence, but are instead more due to more accidental causes (socialization, for example). When atheists think about this, I hope that they are well aware that the same thing applies to their own beliefs. Even when they’ve rationalized their atheism with arguments and interpretations of the evidence, chances are, unconscious motivations and biases are really to blame.

Comments

  1. #1 grigory
    November 26, 2006

    “…who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology…”

    That’s total BS… I’m sorry, but you were asking for it.

  2. #2 writerdd
    November 26, 2006

    Dawkins is right on when he speaks about fundamentalist religion. For your information, fundamentalists know even less about theology than Dawkins does. As a former xian funie, I know what I am talking about. Theology has nothing whatsoever to do with the way the average Christian in America (or Muslim in the Middle East, for that matter) sees the world and practices their religion. All this intellectual bs about theology is, frankly, besides the point. Sam Harris is precisely right when he observes that moderates in religion are providing cover to fundamentalists, and your comments are doing the same thing.

    I do agree with you that beleif is involuntary. But that doesn’t mean we should sit down and shut up. Maybe we don’t know what to do to rid the world of harmful and stupid beliefs, but if we dont’ talk about it, we’ll never figure it out.

  3. #3 writerdd
    November 26, 2006

    I have to add, that we do, indeed know how to rid the world of religious nonsense and that is through education. The fundamentalists know this, the Amish know this, the mormons know this, the legions of pious folks homeschooling their children know this. They are right, when you learn about the world, the universe, the human mind, history, and so forth, you will most likely abandon your religion, or at the very least switch to a much more moderate and liberal variation.

    If you have to enforce ignorance and, in extreme cases such as James Dobson, beat your children into submission and to break their spirit starting when they are under two years old, to keep them “in the faith”, then your religion is a farce and it deserves to be demolished by people who are rational and educated. We cannot continue support ignorance by our silence and faux respect. I speak from experience when I say that Dawkins is right that religion is child abuse, in so many ways, and it causes as much harm to the psyche as physical beatings or other forms of abuse, perhaps much more.

  4. #4 Eddy Nahmias
    November 26, 2006

    I agree that it’d be nice for the scientific critics of religion to know more about the history of religion, but I’m not sure why they cannot still offer significant criticisms of religion. For instance, one important point Dawkins makes in his overly polemical (but entertaining) book is that in our culture the expectation is that you back off asking religious people to offer reasons for their beliefs and practices. This protective bubble conflicts with the methods of science and philosophy (and education in general). People should be expected to offer reasons for their beliefs and practices. And if their reasons bottom out in faith, then that “reason” should be open to questioning as well.

    It is also appropriate to point out that, contrary to Gould’s silly claims, religion and science are not “non-overlapping mysteria.” Every religion makes significant ontological claims about the universe, its creation, human nature, and the norms that derive from human nature (religions tend to jump right over the is/ought gap to state that God created us *to be* a certain way and so we *should* be that way–sex was created for procreation so any non-procreative sex is wrong, etc.). Each of these many religious claims about the world and human nature should be open to scientific investigation, and most of them have been shown to be false.

    Finally, the fact that cognitive science is beginning to offer explanations for the evolution of religious belief and the cognitive mechanisms driving religious belief *is* relevant to the likely truth of religious belief. Any time you can offer an error theory for beliefs, you can at least show that their *source* offers no support for their truth. You don’t show the beliefs are false but you offer an explanation for why they can be so prevelant even if they are false. If there is no explanation (no error theory) to explain why thousands of people report witnessing an event, we have good reason to believe the event happened–the source (testimony by large numbers reliably perceiving an event) itself provides evidence for the claim. But if an error theory can be offered for the source, such as mass delusion by hypnosis or the like, then even though the event *may* have happened, the witness reports are no reason to believe it happened.

    God *may* have created the process by which our brains would evolve to be well suited to have religious beliefs and feelings (funny how diverse they turn out to be in that case), but that’s the somewhat ad hoc claim that may need to be advanced in response to evidence explaining the evolution and cognitive foundations for religious thinking and feeling.

  5. #5 Brandon
    November 26, 2006

    I’ve been looking at some of the clips on YouTube (there are several for Ramachandra). Scott Atran gives a sharp rap on everyone’s knuckles here, that I thought was quite good:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cn3CzIl4o4k

  6. #6 Corkscrew
    November 26, 2006

    If religions and economic theories were analogous in any interesting way, this would be a wonderful argument, but since they aren’t, it’s just silly.

    In what relevant way are they not alike? Dawkins’ point is that labelling children by the beliefs of their family and/or culture is daft because the kids have no real understanding of the beliefs in question, and counterproductive because it promotes artificial divisions from an early age. In what way is Dawkins’ economics reductio ad absurdum not a valid demonstration of these points?

    I recognize, unlike Dawkins’ epigones, that “evidence” is not something that exists outside of an interpretive framework, and that it’s possible to rationally interpret the “facts” of the world as providing evidence for the existence of God or gods.

    When determining whether an entity is part of objective reality, I generally take the approach of seeing whether said entity is part of a parsimonious, predictive model of the universe. As such, I’m unsure as to how one would interpret the facts of the world to provide evidence for the existence of God or gods. Would you enlighten me?

    The only irrational position is to say that there is no other rational position other than your own, or no empirical evidence for any position but your own.

    I’d say that that very much depends on whether or not someone has spent their time attempting to bring their position in line with rationality. If so, they’ve earned the right to say that their position is the most rational one – because, if adherents to any of these other stances were able to present positive evidence against said position, they’d switch in a heartbeat. The epistemological high ground has to be earned, but it does exist.

    As best I can tell, there is no high-quality empirical evidence for the various supernatural claims of religions. As such, I feel it is completely rational for Dawkins to take the more parsimonious approach of leaving God out of his model, and I honestly can’t see why it’s wrong for him to state this in public.

  7. #7 Brandon
    November 26, 2006

    It’s pretty clearly false to say that any time you offer an error theory for beliefs you have shown that the source offers no support for the truth of the belief. Any sufficiently elaborate domain-specific skepticism will be able to have an error theory for beliefs in that domain. For instance, idealists like Berkeley have a rather sophisticated (and even plausible) error theory accounting for belief in material objects. Far from problematizing the source of our belief in material objects, it simply raises questions for further inquiry; this is because an error theory can’t problematize anything unless you’ve actually shown it to be true. We’d need a contrastive result: that you’ve shown that rather than supporting the claim, the source of the belief actually tends to error. If you haven’t actually shown this, you haven’t done anything to show that the source is problematic, any more than the idealist has shown that our belief in material objects is problematic if they haven’t actually proven that we come to believe in material objects due to an error-tending source rather than to an acceptable source. Things are left pretty much as they were; the only real difference is that we now have more questions to investigate, namely, those raised by the purported error mechanism. And this is not surprising; we can offer an error theory for virtually any domain of belief. It’s just that these candidate explanations vary wildly in how well-supported they are. Mass hypnosis and the like is merely the stuff of conspiracy theorists and quacks unless you have a strong case for it. So the mere fact that you can offer one for a given domain doesn’t tell us anything about that domain. It’s only when we’ve shown that we have reasons to think an error theory rationally unavoidable for that domain that anything has really changed.

    Moreover, ‘religion’ and ‘religious beliefs’ are not a unitary kind that has one single source, or even one set of a very similar sources. Given that, it’s not really surprising that they are diverse (any more than it is surprising that people have had such diverse views of material objects across times and cultures); nor is an error-theoretical response adequate to deal with the complexity and diversity of sources involved.

  8. #8 buridan
    November 26, 2006

    I would guess (it’s only a guess) that if everyone would keep their mouths shut on topics in which they have no formal expertise, as you suggest for the Beyond Belief group, Dawkins would probably consider keeping his mouth shut as well or at least temper his tone. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not the case that the reasons why Dawkins speaks out on religion is because religionists can’t keep their mouths shut on topics about which they know absolutely nothing, namely, the biological sciences. If everyone actually followed your suggestion (let’s call it a maxim), Dawkins would be irrelevant and we’d all be wondering just what the hell he’s blabbering about.

    Indeed, let’s universalize your little suggestion about those “who know jack” about X, Y, or Z and not apply it simply to those with whom we may disagree. And by the way, I do have a background in the history of religion, philosophy, and theology and I have yet to find an example of Dawkins getting the relevant facts seriously wrong. The same cannot be said of his opponents. Quite the opposite in fact.

    Then again, I haven’t read everything Dawkins has written or heard every speech he has made so perhaps I’ve missed something. So please show me the errors that demonstrate Dawkins doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

    Ah, but getting the facts straight really isn’t the issue at hand here now is it. Dawkins’s well-informed opinions on religion don’t sit well with you and rather than engage in counter argument, you decide to question his credentials and legitimacy for having an opinion on a topic in which he lacks a formal degree. So why exactly are you chiming in?

    And since when does one need to be an expert on religion to make claims on the rationality of religion or any other belief system for that matter. Being a devotee in philosophy yourself, you ought to know better than that.

    God help us all if only theologians have the legitimate right to make proclamations on religion and religious belief.

  9. #9 Corkscrew
    November 26, 2006

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not the case that the reasons why Dawkins speaks out on religion is because religionists can’t keep their mouths shut on topics about which they know absolutely nothing, namely, the biological sciences.

    I’d actually tend to disagree with this. Whilst creationism may have been what raised Dawkins’ awareness of issues surrounding faith, his stance is primarily pro-rationality rather than anti-creationism. Hence the whole “brights” fiasco.

  10. #10 buridan
    November 26, 2006

    “his stance is primarily pro-rationality rather than anti-creationism.”

    And neither the two shall meet??? The later requires the former. Dawkins cut his public teeth on the creationism issue and continues to be recognized primarily in this regard. Are you suggesting that Dawkins’s public persona is more familiar to the general public as a someone advocating a pro-rationality stance than a pro-evolutionary stance? With few exceptions (his latest book notwithstanding), Dawkins primarily writes on issues of biology and its public interface not rationality.

  11. #11 Corkscrew
    November 26, 2006

    And neither the two shall meet??? The later requires the former.

    I would argue that theistic evolutionists and deists fall into the anti-creationism camp but not the pro-evolution camp.

    Are you suggesting that Dawkins’s public persona is more familiar to the general public as a someone advocating a pro-rationality stance than a pro-evolutionary stance?

    No, I’m saying that that’s more an accident of his training than an essential feature of his stance. If he’d trained as an astronomer, he’d be attacking astrology and cosmological ID with equal vigour. Even if he’d trained in a field where the crazies tended to keep their mouths shut, he’d probably still have ended up touting rationality.

  12. #12 chet snicker
    November 26, 2006

    i call takfir upon you for blaspheming the name of the messiah!

  13. #13 buridan
    November 26, 2006

    Well, I agree with your general point but that seems to me to be its Achilles heel. Anyone dealing with the type of pseudoscience you suggest could not do so without utilizing a rational approach; hence, pro-rationality. There’s really no other way to do it. So it’s difficult to see that as a distinguishing factor.

  14. #14 mtraven
    November 26, 2006

    Well said, although you may find yourself drawn into the clusterwhatever. I watched some of the Beyond Belief videos, and immediately saw through Dawkins’ gambit comparing religious beliefs to economic theories. I was hoping somebody from the audience would call him on it, but no. (BTW, Melvin Konner was another person there who as an anthropologist actually had some broader appreciation for the role of religion).

    The mistake (or deliberate distortion) that people like Dawkins and Harris make is to take religion too literally, as if the fundamentalist form was all there was to it. They treat it as if it was just a bad scientific theory, and hence miss almost everything significant about it.

  15. #15 writerdd
    November 26, 2006

    >the anti-creationism camp but not the pro-evolution camp

    What a load of crap. Talk about twisting words. It is better to be for something than against something, and evolution is the only scientific and rational explaination for the diversity of life on this planet.

  16. #16 Corkscrew
    November 26, 2006

    Anyone dealing with the type of pseudoscience you suggest could not do so without utilizing a rational approach; hence, pro-rationality. There’s really no other way to do it.

    But are they pro-rationality as far as a specific issue is concerned or pro-rationality in general? It’s entirely possible (albeit, in my personal opinion, not desirable) to subject only some areas of one’s life to any rational scrutiny. That’s why Behe is able to maintain his job at a respectable university despite being a hokum-peddling crank.

    It would appear to be the position of many Christians that rationalism, whilst damn good at dealing with physical entities, is not an appropriate approach to apply to God-related questions. These people are often anti-creationist, but I would challenge any attempt to label them pro-rationality without mentioning the limitations they place upon reason.

    I watched some of the Beyond Belief videos, and immediately saw through Dawkins’ gambit comparing religious beliefs to economic theories.

    Could you explain the issue to me? As I previously mentioned, I’m having trouble understanding what it is about this analogy that people feel is invalid.

    They treat it as if it was just a bad scientific theory, and hence miss almost everything significant about it.

    To the extent that religions make truth claims concerning the nature of the universe, why is it not acceptable to ask them to play on the appropriate (scientific) field?

    I would agree with you that religion does a heckuva lot more than simply make those truth claims, and that in many ways those truth claims are tangential to the core messages of most religion. I still can’t see why pointing out the shakiness of those truth claims is a bad thing.

  17. #17 Corkscrew
    November 26, 2006

    >the anti-creationism camp but not the pro-evolution camp

    What a load of crap.

    Dammit, yes, I meant to write “pro-rationality” camp. I apologise for the error, thanks for catching it.

  18. #18 mtraven
    November 26, 2006

    Corkscrew asked:

    I watched some of the Beyond Belief videos, and immediately saw through Dawkins’ gambit comparing religious beliefs to economic theories.

    Could you explain the issue to me? As I previously mentioned, I’m having trouble understanding what it is about this analogy that people feel is invalid.

    That’s a good and fair question so let me try to explain.

    Religion is only partly about belief. It is just as much, if not more, about ritual and community and a host of other things that are hard to name. So, a better analogy than keynesianism/marxism might be cultures. We don’t think it ridiculous to call a newborn baby “a little Italian” or “a little Inuit”. Even though they know nothing of the culture they have just been born into, they are part of it. Religion is more like that than it is like some intellectual ideology such as Marxism.

    Many religions make this explicit. I’m Jewish by virtue of my tribal origins, not because I adhere to any belief system. Catholics talk about the body of the church, Buddhists talk about the sangha (community). Even though you can choose your religion, it is going to be a matter of practice — showing up for the rituals along with the rest of the community — more than a matter of adopting some set of propositions or theoretical framework.

    They treat it as if it was just a bad scientific theory, and hence miss almost everything significant about it.

    To the extent that religions make truth claims concerning the nature of the universe, why is it not acceptable to ask them to play on the appropriate (scientific) field?

    I would agree with you that religion does a heckuva lot more than simply make those truth claims, and that in many ways those truth claims are tangential to the core messages of most religion. I still can’t see why pointing out the shakiness of those truth claims is a bad thing.

    I agree with you there. Where religions make scientifically testable claims, they have to yield if science proves them wrong.

    The problem with Dawkins and his ilk is that they don’t limit themselves to that. They focus in on the fundamentalist fringe of religion, and use them as a club against all religion.

    That makes for a good show (somehow these atheism wars remind me of pro wrestling) but I don’t think it’s very constructive tactic, assuming your goal is to let science proceed without interference. It would be much better to encourage non-fundamentalist models of religion, and allow people to have their religion and science too, which is probably what the majority of people want.

  19. #19 buridan
    November 26, 2006

    Corkscrew,

    If we’re talking about Dawkins, I imagine he doesn’t even take a dump without subjecting the event to a rational critique ;-) The only reason Behe is able to maintain his job is tenure, and rightly so.

    Regarding the issue of Christians and rationalism, I wouldn’t know the extent to which contemporary, rank and file, Christians approach their faith through a rational lens or explicitly reject rationality as a result. I do know that rationality (historical variants thereof) and its essential integration with religious belief has played a central role for philosophers and theologians ever since the Church Fathers. Their success or failure in these efforts is a different matter however.

    I wish I had more time to discuss but I gotta go.

  20. #20 writerdd
    November 26, 2006

    >>the anti-creationism camp but not the pro-evolution camp
    >What a load of crap.
    >Dammit, yes, I meant to write “pro-rationality” camp. I apologise for the error, thanks >for catching it

    Sorry for mouthing off, I guess i misread the post but this doesn’t make any more sense at all. What does it mean to be not “pro-rationality”? Is it better to make decisions based on superstition?

  21. #21 writerdd
    November 26, 2006

    >thereof) and its essential integration with religious belief has played a central role for >philosophers and theologians ever since the Church Fathe

    As I said above, regular church going people don’t know squat about theology, and they don’t give a crap what philosopher’s and theologians have to say. You are missing the point entirely.

  22. #22 Corkscrew
    November 26, 2006

    Religion is only partly about belief. It is just as much, if not more, about ritual and community and a host of other things that are hard to name.

    But that’s not a property of the belief itself – it’s a property of the community’s response to a belief. And some communities have in the past responded in this way to economic systems. Note how Dawkins’ example suddenly sounds a lot less innocent if we start thinking of kids as “little Communists”…

    I agree with you there. Where religions make scientifically testable claims, they have to yield if science proves them wrong.

    You’ll note that I carefully used the phrase “truth claims about the nature of the universe”, which has a slightly broader scope. At present the scientific method is the only metric that has any record of success whatsoever in this area, hence science represents the appropriate playing field to test these claims on.

    The problem with Dawkins and his ilk is that they don’t limit themselves to that. They focus in on the fundamentalist fringe of religion, and use them as a club against all religion.

    What constitutes “fringe religion”? One of my particular memories of Dawkins (I think it was from “The Root of all Evil”) is of him lambasting the Roman Catholic church for burning images of hellfire into little childrens’ brains. Is Catholicism fringe?

    I’d note that, if you’re attempting to demonstrate that religion has scary side-effects, it’s legitimate to focus on the examples of religion gone wrong. After all, if you wanted to demonstrate the problems with unhealthy eating, you’d focus on the coronary victims rather than those whose metabolisms can apparently handle the load. IIRC Dawkins sees moderate religion as “potato chips for the mind”, so this approach makes sense.

    That makes for a good show (somehow these atheism wars remind me of pro wrestling) but I don’t think it’s very constructive tactic, assuming your goal is to let science proceed without interference.

    What if your goal is to promote rationality and skepticism as a positive social movement, rather than simply playing Whack-A-Mole with idiot creationists? I think it could be legitimately argued that the former has better long-term prospects, especially since creationists are so good at creating and hijacking social movements of their own.

    Sorry for mouthing off, I guess i misread the post but this doesn’t make any more sense at all. What does it mean to be not “pro-rationality”? Is it better to make decisions based on superstition?

    The post as written was ludicrous, your mouthing off was fully justified.

    What I mean by “pro-rationality” is, um, complex. Maybe you’ve heard the term “reality-based community”? (Tell me if you haven’t and I’ll explain). Dawkins et al are pushing rationality and skepticism as a positive ethos in itself, rather than merely a weapon you pull out when the creationists are getting antsy. They’re promoting the scientific method as an approach with value beyond the laboratory. A component of this stance is parsimony, hence it currently excludes theistic evolutionists and all the other moderates.

    People who aren’t “pro-rationality” in this sense can often be anti-creationism, because they think the scientific method is a good tool as far as it goes. But, to quote Douglas Adams, they also demand rigorously-defined areas of doubt and uncertainty – in particular, they often tack unnecessary and untestable premises on to the rational core of their beliefs. It’s the view of Dawkins et al that these ad hoc additions are corrosive in the long term. I can see their point, but I personally think that’s something they need more evidence for.

    Bloody hell, that was lengthy :(

  23. #23 mtraven
    November 26, 2006

    Religion is only partly about belief. It is just as much, if not more, about ritual and community and a host of other things that are hard to name.

    that’s not a property of the belief itself – it’s a property of the community’s response to a belief. And some communities have in the past responded in this way to economic systems. Note how Dawkins’ example suddenly sounds a lot less innocent if we start thinking of kids as “little Communists”…

    I think you misunderstand what I am trying to say. My point was that a religion is not only or even primarily a belief system. Trying to understand religion in that way will lead to a naive and simplistic view of what is going on, as the people at the conference who study actual religions were trying to point out.

    The problem with Dawkins and his ilk is that they don’t limit themselves to that. They focus in on the fundamentalist fringe of religion, and use them as a club against all religion.

    What constitutes “fringe religion”? One of my particular memories of Dawkins (I think it was from “The Root of all Evil”) is of him lambasting the Roman Catholic church for burning images of hellfire into little childrens’ brains. Is Catholicism fringe?

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I don’t really mean “fringe religion” in the sense of UFO cults or the like. I meant that in general the core of religion is a complex social practice. Most religionous practioners, I maintain, don’t really take their beliefs as literally as the fundamentalist fringe. Most of them are willing to let science hold sway in describing physical reality.

    As for the Catholic Church, I’m not sure what your point is. If it’s that scaring little children is evil, maybe that is so, but beside the current point. If a Catholic believes that hell is a literal, physical place in the middle of the earth, then they are taking their religion too literally. If on the other hand they have a slightly more sophisticated picture of what hell means (say, that it is real but outside of the physical world), then they don’t really come into conflict with science. The Catholic Church has a history of going back-and-forth over this line, with Galelio being the most obvious instance of them going over the line. On the other hand their recent record with respect to Darwin and evolution is pretty good.

  24. #24 remixer1
    November 26, 2006

    ’tis a thoughtful post — only quibble, I hope that you are not making the mistake of assuming that the only way one has any authority on a topic is by taking graduate level seminars in it.

  25. #25 Koray
    November 26, 2006

    Dawkins could have spoken better, but I don’t understand your beef with the analogy between children’s religion and children’s understanding of economics and politics. The 4 year old children don’t know anything about marxism or capitalism just as they don’t know anything about why they’re branded muslim but not christian. And you claim this analogy is not “interesting”.

  26. #26 Luke Lea
    November 26, 2006

    Unintenioally funniest comment so far:

    “I have to add, that we do, indeed know how to rid the world of religious nonsense and that is through education.”

  27. #27 Luke Lea
    November 26, 2006

    Unintentionally funniest comment so far:

    “I have to add, that we do, indeed know how to rid the world of religious nonsense and that is through education.”

  28. #28 RBH
    November 26, 2006

    mtraven wrote

    The mistake (or deliberate distortion) that people like Dawkins and Harris make is to take religion too literally, as if the fundamentalist form was all there was to it. They treat it as if it was just a bad scientific theory, and hence miss almost everything significant about it.

    I don’t know about the ‘Belief’ series — I haven’t watched it all yet — but in The God Delusion Dawkins is quite specific about the particular form/variety of religion he is calling a delusion. On page 31, in the chapter titled “The God Hypothesis”, he writes

    Instead, I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (Italics original)

    Many (if not most) of his main arguments flow from that definition. For example, “deliberately designed .. the universe” implies that the intelligence has the cognitive capacity to represent the universe and everything in it — it has a mental model that’s just as complex as the universe. Add some cognitive processing mechanisms and manufacturing capability, and one has an entity substantially more complex than that which it allegedly explains.

    I strongly suggest that people read the book carefully before blathering on too much about what Dawkins allegedly did and did not say. As he noted about another book, The Selfish Gene, the book is an extended footnote to the title. It repays reading the footnote.

    His (and my) reservation about “moderate” theists is that they share with fundamentalists the view that belief, even subjective certainty, in the absence of evidence is not merely permitted, but is virtuous. That’s irrational. It requires no particular theological expertise to make that judgment.

  29. #29 Chris
    November 26, 2006

    First, let me say that I haven’t read The God Delusion, nor will I. My comments on Dawkins, in this post, are based on what he’s been saying for quite some time, along with what he says in Session 7.

    I’ll try to get to all of the points in these comments eventually, but for now I’ll just touch on three.

    1.) I’ve heard Dawkins say on several occasions that he makes a distinction between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Christians (Muslims, whatever), but after saying that he makes the distinction, he immediately stops making it. The photo analogy is a great example. He’s calling religion in general, not fundamentalism, child abuse.

    2.) And about that analogy, the problems are manifold. As I see it, you can think of the analogy in two ways. If we treat the economic theories as theories (consciously held, and acquired through education in economics), then there are good religious analogies. It would be silly to call children historicists, preterists, and futurists, because they’re eschatological theories that people develop through education. If, on the other hand, we changed Dawkins’ labels to capitalist, socialist, and communist, it would be perfectly reasonable to label the children by the socio-economic culture in which they’ve been raised, and socialized, just as it is reasonable to do so with religions. Adopting a culture, of which religion is an integral and, in most cases, inseparable part, is not a matter of education or consciously-adopted theorization.

    3.) On faith and belief. I’ve yet to meet a Christian who believes that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Put differently, I’ve yet to meet a Christian who believes that his or her faith is without evidence. The Christians I know do believe that God’s existence and nature cannot be known, from evidence, with certainty (though I’ve met some religious scholars who believe that it can, for logical reasons), and that’s where faith goes it alone. This is not unlike what scientists do when they make inductions (just ask David Hume or Nelson Goodman). When the Dawkinsians argue that religion is about belief without any evidence, they’re creating a straw man version of religion, and nothing more.

  30. #30 Joshua
    November 26, 2006

    “I meant that in general the core of religion is a complex social practice.”

    Well, yes. And I think one of the many primary goals of many vocal atheists is to point at precisely this fact and ask, “Why bother with all those probably-false beliefs, then?” Because if religion is mostly about building community, then you don’t need beliefs, you don’t need Hell and nirvana and 72 virgins waiting in Paradise, so why have them? Why have them when belief is used to justify evil things like mutilating the genitals of little girls and flying planes into buildings? Social communities can exist without belief, so you don’t need them for the good side of religion. At best, the beliefs are dead weight, at worst they result in horrible atrocities. So why bother?

  31. #31 Chris
    November 26, 2006

    Oh, I meant to add that I don’t think people need to have advanced degrees or formal training in theology to talk about religion. However, as soon as you hear someone say that religious people are irrational because they either believe without evidence or because there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, you can pretty much infer that they’ve no knowledge of serious philosophy or theology.

  32. #32 Flaky
    November 27, 2006

    Chris: [A]s soon as you hear someone say that religious people are irrational because they either believe without evidence or because there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, you can pretty much infer that they’ve no knowledge of serious philosophy or theology.

    I do not know if it was lifted out of context, but apparently Francis Collins in a book of his tells of his acceptance of Christianity upon seeing a three-pronged frozen waterfall. While that may be understood as evidence in a broad sense, it certainly falls short of the expectations of more scientifically minded individuals.

    Considering the prevalence of science in explaining the natural world and depth of human credulity as evidenced by several religions that are clearly made up (such as Scientology and Mormonism), the only conclusion I can draw from the lack of even a shred of scientific evidence in support of religious claims is that all of the religions that I am aware of are most likely make-believe.

    That some religious people have elaborate rationalizations for their beliefs does not in any way alleviate the fundamental disconnect that religious beliefs have with reality. It is one thing to (incorrectly) infer the existence of a god from apparent design in nature and a completely other thing to come to believe that God wants us to worship him, to cast spells on crackers to ‘spiritually’ turn them into His flesh and consume it, or do any number of other strange things or anything at all, without actually being able to interview Him.

    While I agree that understanding the nature of religion and religious beliefs requires studying them in detail, criticism of such beliefs at their face value does not.

  33. #33 Shalini
    November 27, 2006

    [However, as soon as you hear someone say that religious people are irrational because they either believe without evidence or because there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, you can pretty much infer that they've no knowledge of serious philosophy or theology.]

    Why would the above claim show ignorance when religious belief IS based on pure make-believe ‘evidence’ and theological word games?

  34. #34 buridan
    November 27, 2006

    “I’ve yet to meet a Christian who believes that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Put differently, I’ve yet to meet a Christian who believes that his or her faith is without evidence.”

    “When the Dawkinsians argue that religion is about belief without any evidence…”

    I’m pretty sure that the meaning of ‘evidence’ here is radically different between these two groups. What sense of ‘evidence’ are you using to make YOUR argument or are you content with the equivocation? You really can’t have it both ways.

  35. #35 buridan
    November 27, 2006

    And to invoke “interpretive frameworks” as you are so inclined to do, simply means the two “translation manuals” are incommensurable, which leaves you without an independent “framework” from which to critique or criticize us so-called Dawkinsians or anyone else for that matter.

  36. #36 Friend Fruit
    November 27, 2006

    I find it hypocritcal and, as an atheist, more than a little embarrassing that these fundamentalist, Dawkinsian, scientistic, self-styled free thinking atheists, who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications.

    Where’s the beef? Show me the money! By saying that Dawkins, et.al. don’t know jack about such things, you are implying that there is jack. What is the serious substance of theology or philosophy with regard to the existence of god(s) which Dawkins, et.al. are missing out on? And I want substance, not extensive dialogue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Sean Carroll makes the point well at Cosmic Variance.

  37. #37 Friend Fruit
    November 27, 2006

    Oh, I meant to add that I don’t think people need to have advanced degrees or formal training in theology to talk about religion. However, as soon as you hear someone say that religious people are irrational because they either believe without evidence or because there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, you can pretty much infer that they’ve no knowledge of serious philosophy or theology.

    I disagree with this completely and vigorously. And I ask again, Where’s the Beef?

  38. #38 mlb
    November 27, 2006

    “[However, as soon as you hear someone say that religious people are irrational because they either believe without evidence or because there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, you can pretty much infer that they've no knowledge of serious philosophy or theology.]

    Why would the above claim show ignorance when religious belief IS based on pure make-believe ‘evidence’ and theological word games?”

    Because it IS NOT. A serious study of religion would perhaps reveal to you this. The ´supernatural´side of religion is based on explorations of the inner world of man, whitch since it cannot be described in ordinary language is presented as myths, allegories etc.

  39. #39 Friend Fruit
    November 27, 2006

    Labeling the children by their economic theories is obviously absurd, so labeling them by their religious affiliations must be as well. If religions and economic theories were analogous in any interesting way, this would be a wonderful argument, but since they aren’t, it’s just silly.

    Perhaps instead of just labeling it “silly”, you could explain why it is silly. You agree that it is “obviously absurd” to label children by the economic theories of their parents. Why does the analogy not reach as far as Dawkins uses it? What does a literal 5-year-old know about theology? Sure, Catholics are baptized at a very young age, but do they actually understand what it means?

  40. #40 mtraven
    November 27, 2006

    Friend Fruit: your question has already been answered by Chris and myself above. If you don’t like the answers you should of course feel free to argue with them, but just repeating the same question over and over doesn’t advance the discussion.

  41. #41 grigory
    November 27, 2006

    To Chris:

    You admit (in your reply to my comment at gene expression) that you haven’t read the god delusion… so how can you conclude that Dawkins knows “jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology”? If you’re basing this conclusion on his public lectures, then you’re being unfair. Not everything can be on display in a lecture; they’re necessarily brief summaries, distillations, simplified for a general audience. You’re calling his hand based on one card only. Well, he’s played his hand elsewhere, and you’ll have to take the time to actually read his writings about religion before concluding that he’s uninformed. I have read The God Delusion, and you are wrong, wrong, wrong about him having a shallow understanding. It’s as if you watched Noam Chomsky give a brief talk about politics and said “this guy doesn’t know jack about politics… he’s just a linguist. I don’t need to read his writings to know that he hasn’t bothered to engage the subject matter”

  42. #42 Joshua
    November 27, 2006

    “The ´supernatural´side of religion is based on explorations of the inner world of man, whitch since it cannot be described in ordinary language is presented as myths, allegories etc.”

    If mainstream religion acknowledged this, there really wouldn’t be a problem. However, it doesn’t. Take a poll of Christians — sample across the sectarian lines or even specifically exclude the fundamentalist ones — and ask whether they believe that Christ was literally the Son of God, conceived and born of a virgin, who healed the sick and died to absolve our sins so we can go to a literal Heaven after we die… or whether they believe all of those things are a myth describing an idealised life of goodness and service to be a model for the rest of us. My prediction is that the vast majority, even if you exclude fundamentalist evangelicals, will affirm the former position. Yet atheists are not seriously engaging religion unless they respond to the latter position, which relatively few Christians accept? How does that make sense?

  43. #43 PZ Myers
    November 28, 2006

    Perhaps you will find Dennett’s opinion on this amusing:

    Both Dawkins and I have to deal with the frustrating problem of the game of intellectual hide-and-seek that “moderate” believers play to avoid being pinned down to the underlying absurdities of their traditions. “Don’t be so literal-minded!” they chortle, marveling at the philistinism of anyone who would attempt to take them at their word and ask them for their grounds for asserting that, for instance, God actually answers prayers (here, now, in the real world, by performing miracles). But then as soon you start playing the metaphor game with them, they abuse the poetic license you have granted them, and delight in dancing around the truth, getting away with all sorts of nonsense because they are indeed playing intellectual tennis without a net.

    I’m afraid your complaint falls in that same category. I hear it over and over again: “but you’re railing against crude fundamentalism, it has nothing to do with my sophisticated version of religion!” I don’t buy it. I was brought up in a religion, I’ve read widely on varying religions, I am confident that my knowledge of religious belief is far greater than the majority of Christians, and I have yet to find this depth and insight that everyone wants to claim is present. I’ve found some fancy tap-dancing and ten-dollar sophistry, sure, but ultimately, there’s nothing there.

  44. #44 Chris
    November 28, 2006

    PZ, in my experience, the most militant atheists generally know more about the Bible (especially Genesis) than most fundamentalist Christians. Still, that’s not really what I’m talking about when I talk about serious philosophy and theology. I’ve seen one SBer flat out say that there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, and as these comments show, he’s not alone in believing that. Yet, there are several rational arguments for the existence of God that have received the attention of both theistic and nontheistic philosophers for centuries. I don’t recall Dawkins ever addressing a single one of them. Does he, in the book?

    On the fundamentalist-nonfundamentalist point that Dennett is making (it echoes something Dawkins has said many times), I simply disagree. As Razib has pointed out on his blog, fundamentalism in the form to which Dennett and Dawkins refer is a.) very new, historically, and b.) on theological grounds, far less authentic.

  45. #45 Brandon
    November 28, 2006

    Yet, there are several rational arguments for the existence of God that have received the attention of both theistic and nontheistic philosophers for centuries. I don’t recall Dawkins ever addressing a single one of them. Does he, in the book?

    He does, but not very impressively. On Aquinas’s arguments, he gets muddled about infinite regress arguments, treating them as simply finite regresses rather than arguments about the type of regress possible, and ignores the fact that Aquinas does, in fact, provide arguments about the types of regress possible given the sort of causal relations he is discussing. His objection to Anselm’s ontological argument is simply taken over from responses to Cartesian ontological arguments, which is a very different family of arguments whose relation to Anselm’s argument is disputed. The particular objections he uses are 200-year-old objections that have since been addressed at least enough to show that they are very problematic (i.e., some of them might still be salvageable, but only with considerable development to address serious problems with their naive formulations). If I recall correctly (I don’t have the book present with me at the moment), he cites Malcolm, one of the twentieth century’s big defenders of the ontological argument, as if he were a critic of it, and he shows no awareness of any of the work done in medieval logic that shows how sophisticated Anselm’s argument actually is.

    Atheists who want to know what the intelligent refutations are to Aquinas’s arguments, at least as popularly understood, would do much better to read Kenny’s book on the Five Ways. There are problems with the arguments as popularly understood that Kenny doesn’t address (e.g., the arguments have never been understood this way by most Thomists), but Kenny does an excellent job of showing both how sophisticated the arguments, even as popularly understood, can be, and with showing the problems with them. Those who want to know the serious problems with Anselm’s argument should go to those who actually do work on medieval logic — I think Peter King has an online paper or two on the subject that would be worth perusing. People who want a more advanced study should start looking at the more sophisticated modern elaborations and defenses — Klima’s work on Anselm’s argument, or Dewan’s work on Aquinas’s Third Way, and such.

    I would even recommend a very elementary text by a serious philosopher, like Blackburn’s Think, over Dawkin’s muddle, which really isn’t any better as an argument than you’d get from a bright freshman in Philosophy 101 (albeit a bright freshman who writes better than most freshmen do).

  46. #46 Friend Fruit
    November 29, 2006

    I’ve seen one SBer flat out say that there are no rational arguments for the existence of God, and as these comments show, he’s not alone in believing that. Yet, there are several rational arguments for the existence of God that have received the attention of both theistic and nontheistic philosophers for centuries. I don’t recall Dawkins ever addressing a single one of them. Does he, in the book?

    He does, but not in depth. Not a single one of those arguments are considered to be convincing today, so it is more fascinating (to some) medieval arcana than something substantive that Dawkins has horrendously overlooked. Here’s how Daniel Dennett puts it:

    …But this is well nigh impossible when the arguments you wish to rebut are too flimsy. For one thing, you fear that hyper-patience will appear patronizing and simply drive other, swifter readers away. For another, we are dealing here with arguments that in most instances no longer have identifiable living exponents. Who stands by the Ontological Argument today? There are historians of philosophy and theology aplenty who will lovingly teach the argument (and its variants and rebuttals and the rebuttals of the rebuttals) but with few exceptions they don’t defend it. It is treated as a interesting historical example, a Worthy Attempt, a jewel in the treasure-house of religion and philosophy, but not as a consideration that demands a response in today’s arena of argument. That being so, giving the argument the Full Rapoport Treatment would be misplaced effort, comically earnest. Still, what are we to say to those who, not being experts on the arguments themselves, have often heard them spoken of highly, and may well feel entitled to a more patient account? I think I can imagine mustering the good will, the humor, and the pedagogical doggedness to satisfy them, but I certainly couldn’t find the strength to do it now, and on present showing, Dawkins couldn’t either.

  47. #47 Friend Fruit
    November 29, 2006

    I think that if there were a convincing logical argument for the existence of God(s), it would not be buried in dusty old philosophy books. It would be taught in every Sunday school, trumpeted on every broadcast channel and posted worldwide on billboards. Instead we see what we see.

  48. #48 Chris
    November 29, 2006

    I believe Brandon said a couple people who stand by the Ontological Argument today. Well, Norman Malcolm is dead, but that’s pretty close to today, and I can’t imagine that serious philosophical support for the argument died with him. I know that there are arguments about how to treat it logically (for example, I believe Malcolm argues for am modal interpretation, and though I haven’t read the paper through, I think Peter King, whom Brandon mentioned, argues for an intentional interpretation). Furthermore, the Ontological Argument ain’t the only one, and there are still people who take some of the older arguments quite seriously.

  49. #49 Brandon
    November 29, 2006

    I have no notion what you mean by ‘convincing’ here (or in your previous comment). Psychologically influential? Valid? Sound? Plausible? Demonstrative? Widely accepted by theists? Of the type that commonly converts atheists?

    The above comment is also a bit absurd given (1) that most of the arguments, or at least arguments in the same general families, are commonly found in Sunday School lessons and sermons around the world; it’s not surprising that people don’t do it all the time because they have lots of other things they think they need to trumpet in lessons and sermons; (2) that, regardless, it’s generally accepted that, whether they work or not, rigorous analysis of arguments for and against the existence of God provide some of the hardest logical and philosophical problems we deal with, and most people don’t have the logical resources to deal with the arguments in more than a merely superficial way, whether they be atheists or theists, so it’s utterly surprising that the arguments are disseminated as widely as they are rather than being primarily the domain of specialists.

    Of course, if a rational treatment of the argument really wasn’t in view, Dawkins should just have ignored it, as a reasonable person would, instead of doing a sloppy, shoddy job of it. When people go around defending sloppy rational work on the basis that it’s OK to be sloppy about rational arguments if they aren’t ‘convincing’ in some indeterminate sense, you know that there’s no real defense of the original sloppiness.

  50. #50 JJ Saenz
    November 29, 2006

    Chris, just a quick comment to say I broadly agree with your post and the comments here make me wonder why scientists are not taught at least a tiny wee bit of philosophy. Sometimes the epistemological naivete on display in the discussions of these matters is disheartening.

    And for the guy who wants to be “shown the beef”: I sympathize with your request, I wish I had the time to spell the problems out, even though I am far from being the person most fit to do so. Also, it is not so easy, as the nature of these subjects is such that they require a lot of words to explain if you don’t have a bit of background.

    In brief, though, I’d say: a) there is no way for an observer to ascertain an external, independent world. Believe me, it is impossible in principle. Go ask your local philosophy professor. b) The source of our experience and the reason for its coherence are a mystery. c) Given the mystery, people can propose anything as the source of the experienced world and the proposition cannot be confirmed or denied. d) The source of some of such propositions might be fanciful, but it could conceivably be based on a type of individual experience that cannot be confirmed or denied (as this would require the experience not to be individual).

    That’s more or less the space where theologicians reside. Of course, literal interpretations of the Bible and other “base level” religious views can be disproven with reference to our experience of the world, but the more abstract notions present in “intellectual” religion cannot.

    Get it? on the one hand, science doesn’t have anything to say at this problem level, and on the other “intellectual” or “theological” religion cannot be disproven.

  51. #51 MTran
    November 30, 2006

    Regarding theological or philosophical arguments, I’m fairly certain that the great majority of believers in any religion are rather unschooled in deep theology or apologetics. Dawkins, in his popular works, seems to be speaking to and about the great majority of believers who have not had rigorous training in philosophy or religion. I don’t agree that he should be addressing the theological arguments made by academics when that does not appear to be his audience.

    A few commentors have referred to a failure to distinguish between religious fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists in some of Dawkins’ writings. From what I recall of the introduction to The God Delusion (correct me if my memory is off here) Dawkins explicitly exempted from his criticisms those whose religion was essentially deist, or pantheist, or the “religion” of Einstein, where “god” and “nature” are conflated. But he characterized the many “moderate” believers as being enablers of fundamentalism.

  52. #52 Friend Fruit
    November 30, 2006

    Furthermore, the Ontological Argument ain’t the only one, and there are still people who take some of the older arguments quite seriously.

    One or two people? I can find you two people who support the geocentric model of the solar system, one of them with a degree in astrophysics.

    Get it? on the one hand, science doesn’t have anything to say at this problem level, and on the other “intellectual” or “theological” religion cannot be disproven.

    Yes, I “get it.” The existence of God(s) cannot be disproven. Neither can the existence of orbiting teapots, invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, etc. Since Dawkins freely acknowledges the impossibility of disproof, your comment is entirely misdirected.

  53. #53 JJ Saenz
    November 30, 2006

    OK Friend Fruit, then what is your point? you’d like religious people to abandon their beliefs? problematic, some of them cannot be disproven. (BTW, note the big problem created by bundling so many things under the term “religion”).

    You would like them to take up scientism instead? that would make no sense, because science has nothing to say at the level of interest in religious matters.

    Science is pretty cool, because it refers to shared experience and as such is a great tool for intercultural communication. Attempting to use it to “make religion go away” is disingenious. Unless, of course, you are aiming at the levels of religion which are amenable to that.

    Anyhow, I must recognize that if I lived in the U.S. surrounded by creationists, It’d probably not take me long to get “Dawkinsian rage”…

  54. #54 JJ Saenz
    November 30, 2006

    By the way, it seems to me that the treatment of this problem has been incorrectly framed in terms of science vs. religion (which makes no sense), when it is in fact a political problem, a problem about living together.

    What is the problem with anyone believing anything? the problem comes when *they* want *you* to do things you do not want to do, or viceversa.

    Thrashing religion itself is pointless. What’s more: it is even worse than pointless. Where does it lead? to forcing *them* to think like *us* using increasingly forceful methods.

  55. #55 Chris
    November 30, 2006

    Think about it like this, relative to Dawkins’ argument:

    A relatively small number of people know and understand the arguments behind scientific theories, yet, it is exptected, and in fact required, that children be taught the basics of those theories in school. A relatively small number of people know and understand the arguments behind major theological views. Why should that be an argument against parents teaching their children the basics of those views?

  56. #56 Iorwerth Thomas
    November 30, 2006

    “Dawkins, in his popular works, seems to be speaking to and about the great majority of believers who have not had rigorous training in philosophy or religion. I don’t agree that he should be addressing the theological arguments made by academics when that does not appear to be his audience.”

    That would be fine, were his argument restricted to ‘popular theology is wrong’ (where for ‘theology’ we read ‘pertaining to classical theism’). But he seems committed to the stronger ‘all theology is incorrect’, which just isn’t supported by his arguments.

    An analogy: if I were to refute the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as it appears in science fiction stories, and then take that as a refutation of the Many Worlds theory as it appears in scientific literature, I would be rightly getting very strange looks from my scientific colleagues. To any theist who’s even slightly interested in academic theology, what Dawkins is doing is pretty much that, which is why they keep giving him very strange looks.

    (One might say, ‘well, it’s obvious rubbish, so why go to such trouble in order to refute academic theology?’ To which one might compare the statement ‘well, it’s obvious rubbish, so why go to so much trouble in order to refute the Many Worlds interpretation?’ The thing is, though, while in both cases the incredulous stare of the instinctive sceptic is hard to argue against, if it remains nothing but an incredulous stare then there isn’t much else to be said for it, and the conversation on technical matters will pass the sceptic by, barely registering his existence.)

  57. #57 MTran
    November 30, 2006

    “…he seems committed to the stronger ‘all theology is incorrect’, which just isn’t supported by his arguments.”

    This may well be the crux of our different perspectives. It seems to me that Dawkins is opposing active governmental and societal support of superstition, especially ritualized superstition, more than he is making “theological” arguments. The privileged position of religion is certainly the target of many of his harshest criticisms.

    You may well be correct that his criticisms, or even understanding, of academic theological arguments is incorrect. I can’t say one way or the other with certainty since it’s been 30+ years since my last theology class.

    But the overwhelming number of believers do not make sophisticated theological analyses. They may claim to adopt the arguments of religious or theological experts but I haven’t seen any indication that they understand the concepts. Sort of like the New Agers who adopt the swill dished out by Deepak Chopra when he invokes quantum mechanics in his mystical insights. Deepak knows nothing about QM, neither do his adherents, but they all cling to it as validation of their beliefs. Validation is all that most of the believers I’ve observed want. And I’ve spent quite a few years teaching at church affiliated universities where the believers are probably more cognizant of these issues than the general public.

    It might be nice if Dawkins gave a more thorough critique of theology, but I don’t think that would make any difference to the great majority of believers.

  58. #58 Friend Fruit
    December 1, 2006

    OK Friend Fruit, then what is your point? you’d like religious people to…

    The goalposts are moving.

  59. #59 GrandpNate
    October 25, 2007

    Science and Religion are not as far apart as you think. Nearly all Religions believe that some God created Earth. Continental Driftists believe that some Intangible, Omnipotent God, Devil, that dwells inside the Earth is not only moving the Continents around over Our Earth like so many rafts in a hurricane but also periodically slowly drags one down into the fiery Depth of Hell to be devoured.
    Continental Drift is a myth. And I can prove it to any open minded person. go to above URL, and read it through.

  60. #60 GrandpaNate
    March 5, 2008

    The true story of Earth has only been written once.
    Do you believe in Continental Drift?
    You shouldn’t.
    The whole concept of Earth History, as presently being taught in our schools, is nothing more than an elaborate myth.
    And the site listed below, will prove it to any open-minded person.
    No fees ask or accepted.
    All I am trying to peddle is the truth.
    And no! I am not a religious zealot.
    See: http://PlanetEarthRevisited.blogspot.com/
    I DARE YOU TO READ IT.