Pharyngula

A little more on Eagleton

I’ve seen an email that cites that crappy Eagleton review of The God Delusion that seems to think this quote is somehow a significant rebuttal of the book, rather than an indictment of the reviewer’s ability to comprehend the book without inserting his own biases against atheism into it.

Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history—and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.

If you actually open The God Delusion to pages 340-345 and read, you will find a substantial section in which Dawkins defends the Bible as a literary and historical source, deplores the lack of knowledge of the book by its most ardent defenders, and even argues that religious rituals like those for marriages and funerals are a good thing. It begins this way:

I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was. Or maybe it isn’t a decade thing. As long ago as 1954, according to Robert Hinde in his thoughtful book Why Gods Persist, a Gallup poll in the United States of America found the following. Three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two-thirds didn’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought that Moses was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. That, to repeat, was in the United States, which is dramatically more religious than other parts of the developed world.

The King James Bible of 1611 — the Authorized Version — in English includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right, for example the Song of Songs, and the sublime Ecclesiastes (which I am told is pretty good in the Hebrew too). But the main reason the Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture.

I will speak for Dawkins when I say that the the real bigotry and the crime against history is when the religious take acts of human selflessness and credit them to a nonexistent phantasm rather than their true source…people. I think it’s particularly galling when those paragons of virtue, the Christians who claim their goodness devolves from their religion, in general have such a deficient knowledge of their purported source of morality. Perhaps the reason Christians are such bad examples is that they don’t know their religion as well as we atheists do?

Comments

  1. #1 MikeM
    October 24, 2006

    Did anyone else catch the Dawkins’ interview on “The World” yesterday? I really commend the interviewer for not just lobbing softballs.

    http://www.theworld.org/

  2. #2 coturnix
    October 24, 2006

    Nothing changed since 1954.

  3. #3 Martin Christensen
    October 24, 2006

    This certainly rings true. From time to time I get into a debate with my (otherwise highly intelligent) sister-in-law, who is a devout Christian. Lately I’ve been trying to get her to be at least somewhat critical of the Bible as a source of knowledge etc., though with little luck. In these discussions, it’s become very apparent that her knowledge of especially the Old Testament is appalling. She is of the opinion that only very little of it ‘counts’ today as it supposedly did in its days of origin. She also has some strange ideas about what parts of the Bible are supposed to be read in which way (historical note, moral story, direct commandment etc.); the only way she can put it into words is that she’s guided by her faith. Some might call that cherrypicking…

    Martin

  4. #4 Adam
    October 24, 2006

    I read the book. Great book. PZ, I’m not seeing the connection between Eagleton’s paragraph and yours.

  5. #5 Stanton
    October 24, 2006

    Adam, Eagleton is essentially saying “Dawkins is a bigoted hypocrite because he hates all religions and all religious people as being useless chaff,” whereas in the paragraph that Prof. Myers is quoting, Dawkins begins to discuss some of the things that Dawkins appreciates about religion, like the beauty of biblical passages read in the original Hebrew.

  6. #6 Grady
    October 24, 2006

    I am certainly glad that no atheist would try to force his beliefs on anyone.

    Of course there have been aberrations, like Trotsky but lets not get picky a about a few million dead.

  7. #7 Phila
    October 24, 2006

    indictment of the reviewer’s ability to comprehend the book without inserting his own biases against atheism into it.

    Having read several of Eagleton’s books, I wouldn’t say that he has a bias against atheism. I do think he has a scholar’s bias against what he perceives, for better or worse, as shoddy scholarship.

    And I don’t think that conceding the Bible’s literary sublimity is quite the same thing as conceding the influence of religion on what Eagleton, as a Marxist, would call praxis.

    I thought Eagleton’s review was fair, by and large…particularly the last paragraph. I hasten to add that atheism obviously doesn’t stand or fall with Dawkins (and I personally think PZ is a better and more engaging writer on that topic anyway).

  8. #8 Phila
    October 24, 2006

    indictment of the reviewer’s ability to comprehend the book without inserting his own biases against atheism into it.

    Having read several of Eagleton’s books, I wouldn’t say that he has a bias against atheism. I do think he has a scholar’s bias against what he perceives, for better or worse, as shoddy scholarship.

    And I don’t think that conceding the Bible’s literary sublimity is quite the same thing as conceding the positive influence of religion on what Eagleton, as a Marxist, would call praxis.

    I thought Eagleton’s review was fair, by and large…particularly the last paragraph. I hasten to add that atheism obviously doesn’t stand or fall with Dawkins (and I personally think PZ is a better and more engaging writer on that topic anyway).

  9. #9 Kristine
    October 24, 2006

    Oh, some atheist tried to “force” something on you, Grady? What did that person do, force you at gunpoint to visit this site? Type your posts for you? Tie you up with your face aimed at your computer screen? Get over yourself.

    What is happening is that Dawkins is pointing a finger at all of the waste–sheer waste–of human effort in the service of something that does not exist (and often to the detriment of other human beings, which we should favor over any deity, any time). Naturally that will piss people off, because people are inclined to continue to rationalize their efforts (“stay the course”) rather than pull back and say, “Hey, this is nonsense, let’s not do it anymore.”

    Of course, many followers of each religion claim that every single adherent of any other religion than theirs are 1) wasting their time and efforts, and 2) at best, misled; at worst, expendable. I guess that it is perfectly acceptable to Eagleton to allow religious people to continue to accuse each other of being heretics on their way straight to hell. That’s “tolerance” to him, I guess.

  10. #10 King Aardvark
    October 24, 2006

    I’d agree with how incredible the lack of knowledge about the Bible and about their religion most Christians have. My wife is a devout Christian, and up until this year, she hadn’t read any significant portions of the bible, and knows absolutely nothing about religious history. She gets most of her Christian knowledge from recent books like the Purpose Driven Life and other fluffy stuff like that.

  11. #11 oldhippie
    October 24, 2006

    Maybe reading the bible leads to Athiesm. I remember reading the old testament and thinking – if this is god, he’s a really nasty shit, I want nothing to do with him.

  12. #12 Bronze Dog
    October 24, 2006

    Of course there have been aberrations, like Trotsky but lets not get picky a about a few million dead.

    Someone here doesn’t seem to know the difference between a cult of personality and a simple null hypothesis.

  13. #13 Warren
    October 24, 2006

    It’s astonishingly easy to blow theists out of the water if one is even remotely educated in religion. I think most atheists are extremely well-informed about what it is they’re rejecting, which is one of the reasons they reject it.

    As for ignorance of the Bible: Many, many “christians” are unaware that the four gospels were not written in Jesus’s lifetime and do not constitute verbatim, first-hand eyewitness accounts.

    Any time I pass along that little bit of data, I get responses that range from shocked disbelief to disbelieving shock, as well as the occasional wide-eyed stunned silence, usually followed by a weak, lame sputter such as, “Well, that doesn’t mean they’re not true…”

    Which isn’t the point. The point, of course, is that most believers simply don’t know shit about the Bible, which is supposedly the foundation of their beliefs.

  14. #14 QrazyQat
    October 24, 2006

    Over at Internet Infidels I see posts from a number of former Christians turned atheist who got there because they sat down and read the Bible. And the ignorance of the thumpers who show up there is astonishing — one guy, for instance, was arguing for/against in the usual way and when someone asked him about some aspect of the cruxafition he begged off, saying that he “hadn’t read that part”. Now this was a guy who beliveed that exact adherence to the Bible’s teachings were a requirement to stay out of an everlasting hell. If I believed that I’d sure as hell know the book; I mean folks, that has to be the biggest darned final test (it determines the entire grade, supposedly) and I’d want to make sure I passed. That guy? not so much.

  15. #15 Graculus
    October 24, 2006

    Of course there have been aberrations, like Trotsky but lets not get picky a about a few million dead.

    Not only is it’s argument logically falicious, but it can’t even get it’s mass murderers straight.

    Let’s hear it for trolls, the internet equivalent of distilled weasel vomit.

  16. #16 lytefoot
    October 24, 2006

    Maybe reading the bible leads to Athiesm. I remember reading the old testament and thinking – if this is god, he’s a really nasty shit, I want nothing to do with him.

    I know reading the bible has been a significant contributor to my paganism… Who wants to worship the “abusive father” deity of the Old Testament? Anyway, there is clear evidence in the old testament that the creation story in Genesis was itself originally polythestic. Indeed, the old testament frequently admits the existance of other gods (e.g. the first commandment).

    Xianity is founded on the layman’s ignorance of scripture, though. Paul’s Xianity is based entirely on acts of faith, on participation in ritual; Paul’s Cristianity is explicite in stating that Xians do not need to keep the Hebrew law (i.e. the commandments laid down in the Old Testament). Of course, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have, at the same time, be ignorant of the Old Testament and cherry-pick laws from Leviticus to back up your absurd prejudices…

    Of course, the bible is very explicite in saying that the laws of the Old Testament are part of a covanent between Yaweh and the Isrealites. If you aren’t an Isrealite–if your mother isn’t Jewish and you haven’t been adopted into the tribe–those rules simply don’t apply to you. Christ never expanded that covanent to the Gentiles. Instead, he brought a new covanent. If Xians knew the bible better, they’d know they don’t need to worry about the Old Testament laws…

    In many ways, Fundimentalist Xianity is a cult of ignorance. Your faith cannot be a rational decision; rather, it must result from an irrational faith-event, when the Holy Ghost comes into you and you are born again. While this sounds mystical, it is not. A true mystical experience partakes of the rational, merely not of the physical. The Xian rebirth, on the other hand, partakes of the physical, but not of the rational. It has its roots in the early reaction against Gnosticism, the herasy that holds as one of its tenants that one must know the truth of God; there is no need for faith.

    Still, it’s hedeously embarressing to be the only non-Xian in the room, and also the only person who knows what the bible has to say on an issue. I suspect the reason so many Xians advocate posting the ten commandments in public places is that none of them can remember what they are. (Ever been called on to recite them by a street preacher? Arguing with fanatics is fun.)

    By the way… I once had an elementary school teacher try to explain to me where the X in Xmas and Xian comes from (public school… in the middle of nowhere… we had readings from Luke in our “winter concert” one year…). she had much the same story as the War on Christmas idiots have today… yet another malapropism brought on by the lack of a classical education. For $500 and a chance at the new car, can anyone give me the first initial for “Christos” in Greek?

  17. #17 Stanton
    October 24, 2006

    That would be the letter Chi, or “X”

  18. #18 commissarjs
    October 24, 2006

    Wow Grady, you sure got us there! Everyone here is totally a communist. I mean obviously you can lump every sing atheist in with Trotsky, Stalin, Lenin, or Mao. Yup, that’s obviously not a straw man reminiscent of Joe McCarty.

    But as long as we’re tossing out straw men I’d love to join in! Of course it will take me… well… seconds to look up when any religion was spread by force. The muslim conquest of the North African kingdoms or Greece for example. The Thirty Years war in which protestants and catholics fought each other, make sure to check out the super-keen massacre of Madgeburg. The massacre of the waldensians. The Spanish Inquisition’s murder of thousands. Or well heck you can even look in the bible and see how the ancient Israelites conquered, massacred, enslaved, and raped their neighbors.

    Should I Godwin myself and pull out quotes from ol’ Adolf about how his catholic faith helped to shape… nah that would be reaching.

  19. #19 Steven Sullivan
    October 24, 2006

    I’m in the middle of reading The God Delusion., In a similar vein to PZ’s post, anyone who claims Dawkins is ignorant of theology seems not to have read the chapter in TGD where he discusses the views of Swinburne and some other modern theologians, and recounts his participation in a Templeton Foundation clusterfuck of theologians and science journalists, where there certainly seems to have been an airing of views on both sides. So I’d be very surprised if Dawkins hasn’t at least been exposed to the ‘rarified’ views of God expressed in modern theology.
    I think he just has no more use for them, logically speaking, than he does for the vernacular theology of Falwell, Dobson, and other religious demagogues.

  20. #20 Scott Hatfield
    October 24, 2006

    It’s not so much that atheists ‘know’ a believer’s religion better than they do: it’s clear to me that many of you simply don’t ‘get’ the experiential aspect of belief. What atheists *are* often likely to know more about is the actual Bible. Many Christians don’t read the Bible much for themselves, much less think critically about its claims, and so they actually base their worldview on how authority is vested through their leadership. It’s a recipe for exploitation….SH

  21. #21 Caledonian
    October 24, 2006

    It’s not so much that atheists ‘know’ a believer’s religion better than they do: it’s clear to me that many of you simply don’t ‘get’ the experiential aspect of belief.

    Sure we do. But there are still only four lights.

  22. #22 Jim Harrison
    October 24, 2006

    It’s pretty ironic for somebody to defend Eagleton, who comes out of the Marxist tradition, by claiming that Trotsky is a good argument against atheism. In fact, a great many scholars, including Leszek Kolakowski, a famous Polish anti-communist, trace the Communist ideology to its roots in Christianity. But even ignoring the intellectual history angle, it’s pretty clear to any reader of the New Testament that Jesus and his followers were radical lefties–very clever of right wingers to embrace the greatest red of them all and claim that he was actually a chamber-of-commerce motivatiional speaker in sandals.

  23. #23 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 24, 2006

    I must say I wouldn’t be too sure about what counts as abrahamic prophets either, though I know some of three different christian churces. It is the protestant and free churces concentration on the new texts and cherrypicking. (They prefer if you don’t study the old stuff – not because it leads to many questions but to ‘few anwers’. :-) I would try Abraham (of course) and Moses, and then start guessing any name I know. OTOH I know about the sermon.

    “Maybe reading the bible leads to Athiesm.”

    Well, it was provoking to read descriptions of demon expelling. (Fooling it to change place into a heard of goats and drive them over a cliff; forgot the ref.) Too much woo to explain away. Don’t know why they keep the braineating stuff, they have had several years to cut the crap. ;-)

    “the four gospels were not written in Jesus’s lifetime”
    That was another woo moment.

    For my last two exhibits of why christianity and ‘godma’ is its own worst enemy I choose when I heard that the golden rule, explained to me as the one unique general christian morality, was stolen from earlier cultures, and when a comparative religion teacher said in a discussion against normal descriptions and logic that “atheism is a religion” – he was a devout christian of course. The last one was so telling about the corruption of mindsets (‘I’m religious and everyone must think like me’) that I decided for certain then and there.

  24. #24 Stogoe
    October 24, 2006

    Caledonian, I’m ashamed to say I first think of Star Trek when I hear ‘There are four lights!’

  25. #25 Joel Sax
    October 24, 2006

    It is in this very section that Dawkins makes his most pathetic attempt to undermine religion by declaring that when the Bible says “Love thy neighbor” it means only people like you. If he had read the Bible for himself instead of letting his pal do it for him, he might have saved himself the embarassment of finding out that the Bible meant “anyone”. Refer to Leviticus 19:33-34 and Luke 19:18 for definitions of neighbor. Remember that Samaritans were not Jews.

    I’m not buying Dawkin’s lip service. The chief problem is that he repeatedly goes after the worst of religion and does not own the worst of Science which includes eugenics, the building of the atomic bomb, and the making of those instruments of war now in use in Iraq. This is not to condemn Science as all bad — it is a remarkably fruitful truthseeking exercise that for its examination of the natural world outstrips the accomplishments of religion in that sector — but insist on fairness and truthfulness. No religious zealot has accomplished destruction unaided by the Science of his day. This should put a heavy cowl of modesty and responsibility upon scientists, not propel them to blaming others for the products of their researches.

  26. #26 Steve LaBonne
    October 24, 2006

    …very clever of right wingers to embrace the greatest red of them all and claim that he was actually a chamber-of-commerce motivatiional speaker in sandals.

    That ship really sailed way back in the time of Constantine- flouting of authority suddenly becomes a whole lot less attractive when you ARE the authority.

  27. #27 Steve LaBonne
    October 24, 2006

    I doubt that Dawkins entertains any hope of convincing semi-literate mouth breathers such as your good self, Joel. Relax, you’re not part of his target audience.

  28. #28 Mong H Tan, PhD
    October 24, 2006

    Hello, Pharyngula Readers, Everybody, Mind, and Spirit! :)

    I will speak for Dawkins when I say that the real bigotry and the crime against history is when the religious take acts of human selflessness and credit them to a nonexistent phantasm rather than their true source…people. I think it’s particularly galling when those paragons of virtue, the Christians who claim their goodness devolves from their religion, in general have such a deficient knowledge of their purported source of morality. Perhaps the reason Christians are such bad examples is that they don’t know their religion as well as we atheists do?

    This sounds like one of the typical Dawkinsian ibots–intellectual robots–saying, those emotionless, mindless ibots, just like Dawkins himself, who have had lost their own holistic and critical thinkings, scientific and spiritual!

    What Dawkins has done in The God Delusion is indefensible–especially epistemologically or otherwise–it is a personal vendetta against the alleged creationists who had had once (in the mid or late 1990s) tricked Dawkins into a “battle of wits” interview; wherein he couldn’t even answer or philosophize a life-origin question, while the camera was let running for minutes during his stunning silence!

    I recalled this account with a creationist-philosopher here, Natural selection is recursive (PhysOrgEU; September 10). Since then, as expected, Dawkins’ pseudo-Darwinian scholarship has had been increasingly becoming anti-Religionism as his new found messianic calling–or a bigoted atheist without conscience, as Eagleton and other book critics have had been trying to characterize him above and elsewhere.

    By the way, has anyone had a chance of reading the American philosopher Thomas Nagel’s review (The Fear of Religion) of The God Delusion as “the book is a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument”?!

    Furthermore, in the recent Dawkins vs. Quinn debate, Dawkins was again silent on the epistemological questions of “matter-origin” and “free-will”–in a big time!

    Thank you all for your kind attention and cooperation in this matter–just a food for thought, from a self-introspective Darwinist evolutionist perspective. Happy reading, thinking, scrutinizing, and enlightening! :)

    Best wishes, Mong 10/24/6usct2:17p; author Gods, Genes, Conscience and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now; a cyberspace hermit-philosopher of Modern Mind, whose works are based on the current advances in interdisciplinary science and integrative psychology of Science and Religion worldwide; ethically, morally; metacognitively, and objectively.

  29. #29 lytefoot
    October 24, 2006

    I doubt that Dawkins entertains any hope of convincing semi-literate mouth breathers such as your good self, Joel. Relax, you’re not part of his target audience.

    While I agree with you wholeheartedly, I’m innexorably reminded of this.

  30. #30 Stanton
    October 24, 2006

    Dr Mong Tan, would it be possible for you to not post a long essay that is, for all intents and purposes, an advertisement for your latest published work?

  31. #31 postblogger
    October 24, 2006

    >Dr Mong Tan, would it be possible for you to not post a long essay that is, for all intents and purposes, an advertisement for your latest published work?

    That’s Mong Tan, PhD to you…

  32. #32 wintermute
    October 24, 2006

    Caledonian, I’m ashamed to say I first think of Star Trek when I hear ‘There are four lights!’

    There’s another source?

  33. #33 Steve LaBonne
    October 24, 2006

    In his case it very definitely does seem to stand for “piled higher and deeper”.

  34. #34 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 24, 2006

    “originally polythestic”

    Yes, I forgot that – so many reasons. Another good reason to stay away from such woo – the concept of trinity means it is still polytheistic AFAIK.

    “many of you simply don’t ‘get’ the experiential aspect of belief”

    I think this may be wrong. These feelings seem for some (most?) to translate fairly straight into similar aspects of spiritual or sexual experiences when they leave a religious life. Which Dawkins presumably did, so he should be able to tell.

    A fanatical experiential aspect of belief is probably something else though.

  35. #35 lytefoot
    October 24, 2006

    Trinity doesn’t represent polythesim, for two reasons.

    First, the classical polythestic mindset is inclusionary. To say that Thor, Woden, and Loki are gods is not to say that Zeus is not a god. Many Xians use the tendancy of polytheistic religions to integrate the beliefs of their neighbors as a sign of their falsity, because they don’t understand this idea.

    Second, Trinity is not a notion of multiple deities as such. It’s a notion of a single deity with three aspects, which are also seperate entities. The idea is in itself contradictory, which is why it’s so difficult for rational people to grasp. I’ll admit to not understanding it myself–my closest brush with Xianity was in being raised Unitarian, a sect that has diverged far from its heretical roots. The Gnostics I’ve spoken with seem to understand it, but of course Gnostics are helpless to explain what I know… most other Xians simply accept the contradiction as part of the dogma.

  36. #36 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 24, 2006

    Mong:

    “I will speak for Dawkins”

    As if.

    “What Dawkins has done in The God Delusion is indefensible”

    As if. Dawkins become silent because he suddenly realised that he was interviewed by creos under false flag. Wouldn’t you think before deciding how to throw several people out of your house? “I paused for a long time, trying to decide whether to throw them out, and, I have to admit, struggling not to lose my temper.” ( http://www.skeptics.com.au/journal/1998/3_crexpose.htm )

    That you spread the lie covering up the deception is indefensible, however. Now I understand why you are a selprofessed hermit.

  37. #37 Warren
    October 24, 2006

    Scott:

    It’s not so much that atheists ‘know’ a believer’s religion better than they do: it’s clear to me that many of you simply don’t ‘get’ the experiential aspect of belief.

    Some may not, but I did. I turned way from religion because/in spite of the experience of belief. It’s way too long to relate here. Eventually I’ll put it up on TI for those who care to read it.

    The synoptic version would be that I couldn’t reconcile my belief in some kind of accepting, loving creator entity with the knowledge that certain aspects of my personality were unacceptable to that entity.

    That got me looking at what other religions — and faiths — taught, and when I saw the more or less universal nature of their core values, it left me with one of two conclusions: Either they were all basically right, which was impossible, since they don’t agree no details; or they were drawing from something deeper and, therefore, innate in human behavior to reach their ethical conclusions.

    The second option points not to any kind of god, but precisely the opposite. If ethics can be innate (and I think it is), there is no need to posit a god to formalize the rules into a morality.

    The point, though, is that I for one do get the experience of belief. And that’s why I can reject it with such certainty.

  38. #38 Leon
    October 24, 2006

    Funny that, about the Bible. I decided to start reading the Bible because, much as I dislike Christianity and all, it really would be more fair of me to learn what’s in the Bible. I had a nervous suspicion that reading the book would actually show me it’s more sensible than I expected.

    Little did I know how wrong I was on that point; Christianity makes even less sense than I had thought–both as a religion itself and as something anyone could place their faith in. The contradictions, the false statements about things in the natural world, the nonsensical pronouncements, and above all the utter cruelties and injustices wrought by God himself and by his explicit instruction are a stronger condemnation of this book than I could have made myself.

  39. #39 Phila
    October 24, 2006

    Well, this thread seems to have been hijacked by lunatics, so nitpicking the comments of sane people is probably a waste of time. But:

    I guess that it is perfectly acceptable to Eagleton to allow religious people to continue to accuse each other of being heretics on their way straight to hell. That’s “tolerance” to him, I guess.

    The problem here comes with the word “allow,” the alternative to which would seem to be “forbid.” How would one go about doing that, exactly?

    Also, Eagleton’s written extensively to the effect that “tolerance” in its postmodern guise is destructive in part it makes people unable or unwilling to speak out against – let alone combat – religious extremism. In fact, he pretty much says as much in his Dawkins review.

    I think it’s difficult to understand Eagleton’s review without some grasp of his politics relative to Dawkins’, as well as the somewhat different terms of academic debate in the UK. Just my opinion, of course.

    Sorry about the double post above, BTW.

  40. #40 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 24, 2006

    lytefoot:
    I don’t see that your first point take you anywhere. (Which is a strawman btw, since we are discussing a religion and not a practiser.)

    Trinity describes explicitly different entities, as you say, since the profet Jesus is identified as being a godly “son”. Claiming that it this is a contradiction doesn’t make it so – claiming that “aspects” is a welldefined simultaneous description is the contradiction.

  41. #41 DingoDave
    October 24, 2006

    Joel Sax wrote:
    “If he had read the Bible for himself instead of letting his pal do it for him, he might have saved himself the embarassment of finding out that the Bible meant “anyone”. Refer to Leviticus 19:33-34 and Luke 19:18 for definitions of neighbor. Remember that Samaritans were not Jews.”

    Leviticus 19:33-34
    “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

    Joel should have kept reading through Leviticus rather than just cherry picking the verse that best suited his agenda. Compare the verse he quoted with what is written just a few chapters later in Leviticus chapter 25

    Leviticus 25:44-46
    As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you.
    You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property.
    You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

    Or how about Deuteronomy 14:21
    “You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to the alien who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a people holy to the LORD your God.”

    That sure is some neighborly love isn’t it? I’m just glad that they’re not my neighbors.

  42. #42 Mena
    October 24, 2006

    commissarjs, you forgot about what those fine upstanding christians did when they finally set foot in Jerusalem during the first crusade. Those crazy proto-islamofascists never did the same thing…

  43. #43 Stogoe
    October 24, 2006

    Wintermute, Next Gen directly ripped ‘Four Lights’ off from the end of 1984. At least they could have gone with ‘There are Four Isolinear Couplings in the Primary Aft Jeffries Junction!’ or some other such treknobabble.

  44. #44 commissarjs
    October 24, 2006

    Joel you are constructing a straw man. Science wasn’t to blame for eugenics, racism was. Darwin’s work was turned on its’ ear to serve the vanity of egocentric men.

    A thousand years ago there was no dichotomy between religion and science. Because of the monopoly on knowledge of the dominant religions of the day. Francis Bacon received his education from religions institutions.

    The same technology employed to make weapons is invariably also used in other more peaceful pursuits. Furthermore the construction of weapons as “evil” is a matter for debate. A gun itself is an inanimate object. It is not alive. It does not choose who to shoot. That’s left to the wielder of the gun. The same is true for any weapon.

  45. #45 lockean
    October 24, 2006

    I think PZ’s title to this post ought to be ‘A little too much on Eagleton.’

    As in, ‘Beating a dead horse.’

    “The two most deadly texts on the planet,” says Eagleton in the concluding paragraph of his review, “are the Bible and the Koran[.] [Dawkins] has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism…. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas… The book is full of vivid vignettes of the sheer horrors of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise…”

    That’s pretty positive as reviews go. That expresses most of what I took to be the strengths of The God Delusion, many of the strengths mentioned in these discussion threads, and much (as I remember) of what PZ took to be the strengths of the book in his review in Seed.

    Then Eagleton goes on:

    “But Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate.”

    Eagleton is being appallingly bitchy himself here, and the phrase ‘theologically illterate’ reeks of snobbery and turf-guarding, but Eagleton’s overall criticism is not unreasonable: if believing in god differs radically from Dawkins’ conception–either in the nature of the god or in how believing works– then the book misses its mark. It misunderstands or misidentifies forces that must be understood if they are to be contained, and must be contained if they are as dangerous as both Eagleton and Dawkins claim.

  46. #46 Harold Henderson
    October 24, 2006

    I’m reluctant to post in a forum where it’s apparently considered OK to refer to other posters as “mouth-breathers,” but I am curious why Eagleton’s review is hashed over endlessly in these and nearby quarters, whereas Thomas Nagel’s more sophisticated critique in the New Republic is barely mentioned.

  47. #47 Kristine
    October 24, 2006

    Mong, don’t you even dare to accuse anyone of dualistic or compartmentalized “ibot” thinking. You know perfectly well that that footage is heavily edited. Dawkins has replied to those dorks who weaseled their little crackpot selves into his house. The footage to which you refer shows him, during the seconds, not “minutes,” of his silence, contemplating and rejecting throwing these lowlives out of his house.

  48. #48 Scott Hatfield
    October 24, 2006

    Caledonian, Warren:

    If you ‘get it’ (because you’ve had that sort of experience), that’s great. I hope you guys understand that I’m not claiming that any sort of subjective experience validates any particular religious claim, either. I made my comments by way of comparing subjective experience (which you can’t really directly test, even if you ‘get it’) with what can be objectively considered, the actual text.

    And it is obvious that whether an atheist ‘gets’ religion or not, they are often far more knowledgeable about what the Bible actually says that many who claim to be believers….SH

  49. #49 Kristine
    October 24, 2006

    …whereas Thomas Nagel’s more sophisticated critique in the New Republic is barely mentioned.

    This review is oh-so-eloquently entitled The Fear of Religion by Thomas Nagel.

    If anyone subscribes, please post your thoughts. I’m on a subscription diet.

  50. #50 Steve LaBonne
    October 24, 2006

    Unfortunately I’m one of the hordes of ex-subscribers to Joe Liebermsn Weekly so I haven’t seen Nagel’s piece. Are there actually any subscribers left?

  51. #51 Scott Hatfield
    October 24, 2006

    Mong: This believer similarly has no use for your misleading comments regarding Dr. Dawkins. ‘Alleged’ creationists, my eye! The film crew was working for Answers In Genesis, a fact which they concealed from Dr. Dawkins. AIG is THE creationist outfit operating in North America at the present time, and it would be difficult to imagine a more anti-scientific and dogmatic group of religious bigots than Ken Ham’s group.

    You should be ashamed of yourself for even offering such an ill-informed comment. I guarantee you that Nagel, who you also cite, would never make that sort of blunder.

    My personal testimony is this: when I approached Dr. Dawkins for permission to use extracts of his work for a seminar I was offering at my church, he not only gave permission but offered a few paragraphs of free advice on what parts of his work would be most apropos. Dr. Dawkins knew full well that I was a believer. Does this generous and supportive communication lend any credence to the notion that Dr. Dawkins has a personal animus against belief, or believers of any ilk? I think not. He simply cares about what is true, and has different views on what is true than I do. Perhaps, Mong, you should be similarly gracious in your evaluation of his thought, rather than repeat long-discredited creationist canards at his expense!

    Angrily….SH

  52. #52 PZ Myers
    October 24, 2006

    Why aren’t we commenting on a review locked up behind a subscribers-only firewall at a journal I have little interest in reading?

    Gosh, I don’t know.

  53. #53 JJP
    October 24, 2006

    So PZ you’re not really interested in the views of one the most respected philosophers alive in the USA on the topic of religion? A little narrow minded don’t you think?

  54. #54 PZ Myers
    October 24, 2006

    I wouldn’t mind reading the review. I’m not interested in subscribing to TNR.

  55. #55 John Farrell
    October 24, 2006

    I’m with PZ on this one. TNR is obnoxious not to allow readings of individual articles–the way Salon and other journals do–by only asking to you to watch an ad or two. But no, you have to %#$@in subscribe.

    TNR can take their firewall and shove it.

  56. #56 Steve LaBonne
    October 24, 2006

    If I have time for a cup of coffee at Borders this week I’ll read it there, if it’s in the issue currently on newsstands. I do very much respect Nagel, but find some of his views, eg. his mysterianism with respect to consciousness, highly unconvincing. I expect that same streak of irrationalism shows through in his response to Dawkins.

  57. #57 CCP
    October 24, 2006

    “many of you simply don’t ‘get’ the experiential aspect of belief.”

    A friend of mine once was unwaveringly certain that Jerry Garcia had played the entire second set wearing a space helmet. Is that close?

  58. #58 CCP
    October 24, 2006

    “many of you simply don’t ‘get’ the experiential aspect of belief.”

    A friend of mine once was unwaveringly certain that Jerry Garcia had played the entire second set wearing a space helmet. Is that close?

  59. #59 CCP
    October 24, 2006

    was was that that twice twice??

  60. #60 Brandon
    October 24, 2006

    PZ said: rather than an indictment of the reviewer’s ability to comprehend the book without inserting his own biases against atheism into it.

    Which would be utterly surprising since Eagleton is an atheist himself. You are forgetting how diverse atheists are. The review should be seen as what it is: the review of a far-left atheist (Marxist-leaning, in fact) who regards Dawkins as an instance of a very bourgeois (note that he even gestures at it more than once in the review, calling Dawkins a suburbanite as an insult, for instance) and, in his view, intellectually lightweight form of atheism that he can’t stand. It’s unlikely he would consider your defense by appeal to Dawkins’s comments about the literary and historical value of the Bible as anything more than yet another bourgeois failure to have good priorities — Eagleton’s far to the left of you, and would regard your defense just as he regards Dawkins’s original argument: far too socially conservative and ‘suburban’. That’s a very different sort of atheism; and it’s why Eagleton has more respect for Catholic critiques of capitalism, liberation theology, etc., than for Dawkins’s critiques of religion.

    Something similar can be said for Thomas Nagel’s recent attack on the book as well; Nagel’s an atheist whose atheism is predicated on a strong form of rationalism that he regards as incompatible with Dawkins’s argument — which he also regards as intellectually lightweight. Given how diverse atheists are, it’s not at all surprising that some of the critical reviews will be by atheists who think Dawkins’s approach is an inferior approach to their own.

    The utterly silly thing is to assume without inquiry or argument that anyone who disagrees with Dawkins must have ‘biases against atheism’.

  61. #61 windy
    October 24, 2006

    Wintermute, Next Gen directly ripped ‘Four Lights’ off from the end of 1984. At least they could have gone with ‘There are Four Isolinear Couplings in the Primary Aft Jeffries Junction!’ or some other such treknobabble.

    It’s “fingers” in 1984, so it’s reasonable to be reminded of ST by “lights”…

  62. #62 JJP
    October 24, 2006

    Perhaps someone could post the Nagel review? Anyway the point is that Dawkins hasn’t done all of the intellectual work required; his attempts at ‘philosophy’ are less than brilliant. And that people who are philosophers have pointed this out. Sorry but not all questions can be answered scientifically. Again philosophers should be respect of science and the power of its methodology without falling into the trap of scientism. For example the question of why there is something rather than nothing is a tough philosophical question. Check out Bede Rundle’s “Why there is Something rather than Nothing” which is a defence of naturalist/physicalist ontology that is very nuanced and sophisticated. In comparison, on the basis of “The God Delusion”, Dawkins wouldn’t survive an Oxford tutorial as a philosophy student for more than 5 nanoseconds. Now one of the benefits of learning about philosophy is that one realizes that there are very few ‘knockdown arguments’ and that the fragility of our ideas/concepts is very real. I happen to be a physicalist and embrace a naturalistic ontology but I’m not intellectually dishonest/illiterate enough not to acknowledge problems or weaknesses in that position – it’s just that in my view the other alternatives have bigger problems and more fundamental weaknesses. Again see John Searle’s defend of philosophical realism and the correspondence theory of truth in his “The Construction of Social Reality”. In my judgment Searle’s arguments are very good but they are hardly immune from any criticism or query. Actually Searle’s main task in that book is to ask how can things like money or pain be both subjective and objective features of the world and his answers, I think, have some promise in understanding religious feelings/experiences (but that’s for another discussion).

    Moreover anyone that thinks metaphorically shouting ‘IDIOT’ into someone’s face (as Dawkins does do) is a good way to get him or her to see your point of view isn’t a very astute observer of human psychology. Whilst the right to be rude, to satirize etc. is to be defended, right now in the US I do think we need to get religious moderates on board with the whole “can we please just teach science in our science courses” debate. Again Dawkins fails to address the issue of value pluralism – in a liberal society there will be different conception of what makes for a ‘good life’ how to we balance different and incompatible claims, how do we agree to disagree in a civil way? (See John Gray, “The Two Faces of Liberalism”). The difficulty is that liberalism contains two philosophies. In one, toleration is justified as a means to truth. In this view, toleration is an instrument of rational consensus, and a diversity of ways of life is endured in the faith that it is destined to disappear. In the other, toleration is valued as a condition of peace, and divergent ways of living are welcomed as marks of diversity in the good life. The first conception supports an ideal of ultimate convergence on values, the latter an ideal of modus vivendi. And these two aspects of liberalism are in conflict with each other.

    Oh incidentally Sam Harris – who is loved around these parts, almost as much as Dawkins is, thinks that torture is ok – not exactly my idea of upholding liberal ideas (see Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Norton, New York, 2004; Sam Harris, “In Defense of Torture”, The Huffington Post, 17th October 2005; Sam Harris, “Sam Harris on The Reality of Islam”, Truthdig, 7th February 2006; Sam Harris, “Head-in-the-Sand Liberals: Western civilization really is at risk from Muslim extremists”, Los Angeles Times, 18th September 2006).

  63. #63 commissarjs
    October 24, 2006

    I meant Roger Bacon not Francis Bacon, too many Bacons…

    mmmmmm…. bacon….

  64. #64 JJP
    October 24, 2006

    That’s right – Dawkins is something of an intellectual lightweight outside of his subject of biology (well on the basis of his philosophical ‘arguments’ in The God Delusion at least).

    And even with biology the notion of a ‘meme’ is absurd. And I’m an adaptionist if anyone is interested.

  65. #65 Steve LaBonne
    October 24, 2006

    The truth is, I also would say that The God Delusion is not a particularly good book- it’s just a rehashing of points that are boringly obvious to any freethinker, no new ground broken, no intellectual heavy lifting. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it (which didn’t take very long.) Dennett’s recent book is vastly superior. The thing is, the content of Dawkins’s book, while exceedingly old news to many of us, will not be so to a lot of people who have lived their whole lives inside the hothouse of their religious upbringings, and who might pick it up simply because it’s controversial and prominently shelved in bookstores. (As a former Unitarian I’ve met a fair number of “deconverts” from Xtianity so I feel I do have some insight into the psychology of their deconversions.) It’s very questionable whether the kind of TLC some would have preferred Dawkins to provide is really more salutary for these people than the shock treatment he actually does give them. I think an enounter with a supremely self-confident, take-no-prisoners atheist like Dawkins may be exactly the jolt some of them need. Anyway there’s quite a lot of the milk-and-water stuff about already, so there’s surely room for something a bit stronger.

  66. #66 George
    October 24, 2006

    In the other, toleration is valued as a condition of peace, and divergent ways of living are welcomed as marks of diversity in the good life. The first conception supports an ideal of ultimate convergence on values, the latter an ideal of modus vivendi. And these two aspects of liberalism are in conflict with each other.

    There’s no ulitmate convergence of values. There’s not some kind of pyramid with values harmony at the top that people climb. It’s dog eat dog. Dawkins realizes that. Religion and science are in coflict. Hopefully, his clashing style will move us further in the direction of common sense. Hopefully, as more people pick up the banner of atheism, the idiotic god ideas in people’s heads will be replaced by something better and wiser.

    Diversity is devoutly to be wished, but diversity can’t be about being nice to fundie nutcases who treat gays like shit, do everything they can to perpetuate intolerance, and create a fantasy being in their heads to justify their sense of superiority.

    A lot of philosophy is bullshit. That’s a massive generalization, I know, but it’s true. Philosophy has a lot of the same disadvatages as religion. Philosophers tend to make up a lot of crap whole cloth in their heads and no one without professional training ends up knowing what the heck the poor philosopher is talking about, because it’s so arcane.

    Dawkins is a refreshing, down-to-earth, rubbish-intolerant, bullshit-destroying force for good in a world addicted to a lot of really dumb ideas.

  67. #67 Caledonian
    October 24, 2006

    Indeed, there are some questions science cannot answer. But I have yet to see any other system produce answers for those questions – indeed, I have yet to see any other system produce any meaningful answers at all. Superstitions, handwaving, crippled explanations – by the bushel. Answers? Not at all.

  68. #68 Caledonian
    October 24, 2006

    Stogoe: Technically 1984 had four fingers. Four lights really was a change.

    If you ‘get it’ (because you’ve had that sort of experience), that’s great.

    No, it isn’t – there is nothing great about possessing experience of what it is like to delude oneself about anything, excepting possibly that it is an excellent teacher of how not to do it again. Some people never learn.

  69. #69 Phila
    October 24, 2006

    the phrase ‘theologically illterate’ reeks of snobbery and turf-guarding,

    But why is it snobbish to call someone theologically illiterate? You don’t have to be religious to be a Bible scholar or an expert on Medieval scholasticism; you just have to complete a certain amount of study and effort, according to the official requirements of that field (or their equivalent).

    Which brings me to this:

    A lot of philosophy is bullshit. That’s a massive generalization, I know, but it’s true.

    A lot of it is bullshit, perhaps. Nonetheless, if you’re going to tell a philosophy professor that, say, Charles S. Peirce’s “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” is bullshit, then she has a right to expect a closely reasoned, logical argument that shows real familiarity and engagement with the text and its arguments. Otherwise, she’ll probably consider you lazy at best and a blowhard at worst.

  70. #70 Caledonian
    October 24, 2006

    Um, no kidding. Fortunately we aren’t making a claim about any specific philosophical work, but about the philosophical justification for the assumptions inherent in theology – only a general familiarity with theology is needed, not exacting knowledge of later works building on that foundation.

  71. #71 JJP
    October 24, 2006

    So philosophy is mere superstition, handwaving and crippled explanations then? If so I guess that thinkers like Spinoza, Hume, Wittgenstein, Searle et al., can all be ignored as so much rubbish to be placed into the dustbin of history? Now much philosophy is muddled headed rubbish (post-modernism springs to mind) but one does have to be a quite extraordinarily egregious philistine to think that all philosophy is worthless junk. To paraphrase Eagleton such an outlook makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. Are all truths scientific truths? 2+2=4 a ‘scientific’ truth anyone??? Even if all scientific knowledge was discovered how would someone answer the question as to how to live a good life? What is the right ethical decision to make? What is justice? And so on.

    Another point worth pondering is how religion works in history as a social and political phenomenon. Yes it can be a disgustingly reactionary authoritarian ‘top-down’ affair, but it can also be a bottom-up process providing a language in which people can call for equality, compassion and dignity (google the term liberation theology if you don’t believe me). Dawkins take on history is the extraordinarily simplistic notion of some disembodied ‘zeitgeist’ that propels history forward. Does anyone want to try that in an Oxford tutorial as a history student? Zeitgeist of course means spirit of the age – perhaps Dawkins’ religion is of some form of historically inevitable ‘progress’ (The most barbaric century in human history has just passed so the progress of the ‘progressive zeitgeist’ is a little uneven to say the least.)

    And whilst we are all congratulate ourselves on how rational we non-believers are what do we think of system of global capitalism that leaves billions of people on $1 or $2 dollars a day – is that rational? A form of politics in which people think it’s a jolly good idea to invade other nations and are totally unconcerned as to the numbers of people killed and maimed by that action – is that rational? The richest nation in the world in which no one has the right to healthcare based on need rather than ability to pay – is that rational? An ethos that might destroy the basis for life either via nuclear armageddon or more generalized environmental destruction – is that rational? As the old questions go – who’s rationality, whose justice?

    Finally a note to PZ and others – it might do to actually read Eagleton’s article all the way to the end.

    To quote Eagleton:

    As far as such outrages go, however, The God Delusion does a very fine job indeed. The two most deadly texts on the planet, apart perhaps from Donald Rumsfeld’s emails, are the Bible and the Koran; and Dawkins, as one the best of liberals as well as one of the worst, has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s. In its admirably angry way, The God Delusion argues that the status of atheists in the US is nowadays about the same as that of gays fifty years ago. The book is full of vivid vignettes of the sheer horrors of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise.

    Hardly the words of someone that is biased against atheism in my view. Do really you think ‘Answers In Genesis’ will praise Dawkins for doing a fine, but limited, job? Or agree that religious texts are perhaps the most dangerous in history?

  72. #72 George
    October 24, 2006

    Charles S. Peirce’s “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities”

    Him I like.

    The last thing I tried to read was Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit. I didn’t understand it at all. I tried! I really did! I get a certain distance and then I’m completely lost in the technical jargon. “Demonstratives,” “deontic scorekeeping,”
    it’s so dense and specialized, it makes the brain hurt.

    Example (p.8):

    “Actions, which alter what is going on around us in response to propositionally contentful intentions, differ from performances that are merely behavior (and so not intelligible in terms of the propositionally contentful intentions that elicit them) in that reasons cn be given for them; they can appear as the conclusions of practical inferences.”

    I have no idea what that means.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0674543300/ref=sib_dp_pt/104-2263142-9291163#reader-link

  73. #73 JJP
    October 24, 2006

    So philosophy is mere superstition, handwaving and crippled explanations then? If so I guess that thinkers like Spinoza, Hume, Wittgenstein, Searle et al., can all be ignored as so much rubbish to be placed into the dustbin of history? Now much philosophy is muddled headed rubbish (post-modernism springs to mind) but one does have to be a quite extraordinarily egregious philistine to think that all philosophy is worthless junk. To paraphrase Eagleton such an outlook makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. Are all truths scientific truths? 2+2=4 a ‘scientific’ truth anyone??? Even if all scientific knowledge was discovered how would someone answer the question as to how to live a good life? What is the right ethical decision to make? What is justice? And so on.

    Another point worth pondering is how religion works in history as a social and political phenomenon. Yes it can be a disgustingly reactionary authoritarian ‘top-down’ affair, but it can also be a bottom-up process providing a language in which people can call for equality, compassion and dignity (google the term liberation theology if you don’t believe me). Dawkins take on history is the extraordinarily simplistic notion of some disembodied ‘zeitgeist’ that propels history forward. Does anyone want to try that in an Oxford tutorial as a history student? Zeitgeist of course means spirit of the age – perhaps Dawkins’ religion is of some form of historically inevitable ‘progress’ (The most barbaric century in human history has just passed so the progress of the ‘progressive zeitgeist’ is a little uneven to say the least.)

    And whilst we are all congratulate ourselves on how rational we non-believers are what do we think of system of global capitalism that leaves billions of people on $1 or $2 dollars a day – is that rational? A form of politics in which people think it’s a jolly good idea to invade other nations and are totally unconcerned as to the numbers of people killed and maimed by that action – is that rational? The richest nation in the world in which no one has the right to healthcare based on need rather than ability to pay – is that rational? An ethos that might destroy the basis for life either via nuclear armageddon or more generalized environmental destruction – is that rational? As the old questions go – who’s rationality, whose justice?

    Finally a note to PZ and others – it might do to actually read Eagleton’s article all the way to the end.

    To quote Eagleton:

    As far as such outrages go, however, The God Delusion does a very fine job indeed. The two most deadly texts on the planet, apart perhaps from Donald Rumsfeld’s emails, are the Bible and the Koran; and Dawkins, as one the best of liberals as well as one of the worst, has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s. In its admirably angry way, The God Delusion argues that the status of atheists in the US is nowadays about the same as that of gays fifty years ago. The book is full of vivid vignettes of the sheer horrors of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise.

    Hardly the words of someone that is biased against atheism in my view. Do really you think ‘Answers In Genesis’ will praise Dawkins for doing a fine, but limited, job? Or agree that religious texts are perhaps the most dangerous in history?

  74. #74 JJP
    October 24, 2006

    Sorry for the double post!

  75. #75 llewelly
    October 25, 2006

    And even with biology the notion of a ‘meme’ is absurd.

    You Fool!

    Don’t you know that’s how Dangerous Parasitic Memes hide their very existence from us!

    Fool!

    (only half joking …)

  76. #76 George
    October 25, 2006

    Dawkins take on history is the extraordinarily simplistic notion of some disembodied ‘zeitgeist’ that propels history forward.

    Simplistic, yes, but not nearly as simplistic as the notions of “Rapture” and “Apocalyse” that cause Christians to wet their pants with glee at the prospect of my becoming a piece of toast for all eternity.

    Aim your canon in the other direction!

  77. #77 False Prophet
    October 25, 2006

    Maybe reading the bible leads to Athiesm. I remember reading the old testament and thinking – if this is god, he’s a really nasty shit, I want nothing to do with him.

    Posted by: oldhippie | October 24, 2006 01:08 PM

    Wasn’t that Asimov’s line? “Properly read, the Bible is the strongest force for atheism there is.” J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5 and Jeremiah) said he read the Bible through twice before deciding he was an atheist. I don’t know that the Bible is what made me an atheist, but it sure hasn’t convinced me to reconsider.

    Now this was a guy who beliveed that exact adherence to the Bible’s teachings were a requirement to stay out of an everlasting hell. If I believed that I’d sure as hell know the book; I mean folks, that has to be the biggest darned final test (it determines the entire grade, supposedly) and I’d want to make sure I passed. That guy? not so much.

    Posted by: QrazyQat | October 24, 2006 01:26 PM

    The thing is, a lot of Muslims and Orthodox Jews do read through their scriptures all the way through, memorizing long passages, and most of them still swallow their respective faiths’ BS. What does that say?

    In fact, a great many scholars, including Leszek Kolakowski, a famous Polish anti-communist, trace the Communist ideology to its roots in Christianity.

    That’s because Communism is secular Christianity. Xianity promises eternal life and bliss after death. Communism promises freedom after the revolution. Both expect you to deny yourself and struggle in this life, often in the service of elites who exploit you (the clergy or the communist vanguard).

    commissarjs, you forgot about what those fine upstanding christians did when they finally set foot in Jerusalem during the first crusade. Those crazy proto-islamofascists never did the same thing…

    Posted by: Mena | October 24, 2006 04:29 PM

    The hell they didn’t. Raping nuns and altarboys on the pews of the Hagia Sophia isn’t exactly a softball game.

    Anyway, I don’t like condemning the Crusades because I don’t see the use of criticizing Christianity for what was the standard practice of the age, especially when we have more than enough contemporary sins to hang it with.

    As a historical footnote, Europe was the target of imperialist conquerers for over 2000 years, from the Persian invasion of Greece, to the Romans’ conquests, to the spread of Islam in the sixth through ninth centuries, to the Mongols, to the Ottomans. The Crusades were just European civilization’s strike back (and not particularly successful, either).

  78. #78 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    Sorry about the typos etc., in my previous posts. As for the Roman Empire please do tell us at what point Rome was not a city in Europe?

    Of course notions like the ‘Rapture’ because of its self-evident imbecility cannot be taken seriously; but on the other hand why should we accept such intellectually lazy and vacuous notions such as a ‘progressive zeitgeist’?

  79. #79 George
    October 25, 2006

    why should we accept such intellectually lazy and vacuous notions such as a ‘progressive zeitgeist’?

    I’m only on page 68, but God Delusion has “Moral Zeitgeist” listed in the index.

    On page 265 it says:

    “In any society, there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan-word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times).

    His examples of the shifting zeitgeist include acceptance of female suffrage and changing attitudes towards race.

    Getting rid of discrimination against women, slavery, and racism constitutes progress. He goes on to say that progress of this nature has nothing to do with religion. His whole point seems to be that morals can exist in the absence of religion, so getting rid of God will not lead to moral chaos.

    I’m okay with that.

  80. #80 Scott Hatfield
    October 25, 2006

    Caledonian, with respect to the possibility of the experiential knowledge of belief being ‘great’, wrote:

    “No, it isn’t – there is nothing great about possessing experience of what it is like to delude oneself about anything, excepting possibly that it is an excellent teacher of how not to do it again. Some people never learn.”

    Hmm. You seem determined to focus on a passing remark in a deadly serious way. You do that quite a bit, you know. For the record, ‘great’ was not evaluative, just a jocular way of conceding that some of you folk may ‘get’ the experiential aspect of religion. I believe Warren ‘gets’ it, for example, and I believe he implied that having that experience gives him greater confidence in his own views.

    If you ‘get it’ as well, you might also understand that ‘getting it’ would be more than a question of learning from past mistakes, or a feeling of certainty. You might also develop a sense of empathy for those who don’t share your convictions…..SH

  81. #81 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    Forgive me but I for one do not find Dawkins’ appeal to a ‘mysterious’ consensus to be a very compelling explanation for the historical change in societal norms. But then I’m a scientist that would like something akin to evidence or a logically tight and coherent argument (not simple-minded hand-waving aka Dawkins’ wonderfully inadequate theory of history).

    As for progress would you care to consider that the 20th century was the most violent in human history and that the 21st isn’t off to the best start either; or do an estimated 650000 Iraqi deaths, as the result of the invasion, constitute a ‘minor’ blip or non-event in your worldview?

    Perhaps you should read the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” by Horkheimer & Adorno or “The American Ideology” by Andrew Levine?

    Perhaps the really dangerous fundamentalism of today is that the ‘free market’ will, if left to it’s own devices (i.e. run entirely in the interests of the global elite) provide a utopian global society (The end of history etc.), instead of ever more wars over limited resources, billions in poverty and a carefree attitude to the destruction of the environment – but so long as people stop reading the Bible a new age of reason will be forthcoming!

    Now I would like people not to be religious but there is a difference between anti-clericism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-clericism) and being anti-religious (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antireligion) – although such subtle distinctions isn’t apparently what this blog is about. The really important issue in the USA today is to win the anti-clerical battle IMHO.

  82. #82 Damien
    October 25, 2006

    (grr, blog is now forgetting who I am)

    “the 20th century was the most violent in human history” — by what criterion? Number of deaths, yes. But there were more people alive to be killed in the first place. I’d want to see proportions or rates, before doing a violence ranking. I don’t have numbers myself but I’ve seen claims that the 20th century looks quite good looked at properly. When you start with billions of people, even tens of millions are a blip in the bucket.

    I’d venture a lot of the moral progress — or not — is linked to technological progress. Greater wealth made it easier to indulge basic discomfort with chattel slavery. Growing important of technology and literacy, and growing economic specialization in cities and people leaving the farm, means more female education and emancipation as they go to urban jobs. Growing wealth and communications expand the virtual family of people to Not Kill, but also make it easier to kill larger numbers of people not in one’s virtual family. And of course there are more people to kill thanks to more technology.

  83. #83 johnc
    October 25, 2006

    @Damien
    I am sure I’m not alone in finding the sentence “when you start with billions of people, even tens of millions are a blip in the bucket” more than a little chilling.

    What this overlooks, among other things, is that the Nazi’s cold-blooded extermination of millions has no parallel. Comparable numbers have died in wars. Comparable numbers died in the famines and purges of Mao and Stalin, but there is no moral equivalence (whatever the arithmetic) with the systematic, pre-meditated murder by the Nazi regime. It should not be forgotten that Germany was no backwater. Unlike Russia and China, Germany was one of the most culturally and scientifically advanced nations in the world.

    So linking technological and moral progress is a radically problematic affair, both by definition (not least because it is deeply unclear what “progress” might mean when applied to the moral sphere) and as a historical reality.

  84. #84 pseudonymous in nc
    October 25, 2006

    My suspicion is that there might be a bit of an cross-faculty ‘past’ between Eagleton and Dawkins. When English faculty address questions of science, it’s often from a historical perspective, and they tread rather lightly; whereas RD tends to stride across the quad, telling the porters to fuck off when they complain.

    From my own perspective — as an Oxford EngLit graduate who remembers RD gleefully slapping down opponents at Union debates — I can understand Eagleton’s line of argument. When Dawkins says he admires the artistic products of religious faith — the Gothic cathedrals towering over medieval towns, the literature bound up with devotion — there’s always a gut sense that it’s lip-service, or that he’s aesthetically cold. When he says something’s ‘sublime’, you can’t quite imagine he’s had the Burkean gobsmack experience. Eagleton’s responding to that, and also nodding to the Catholic tradition in which he (like myself) was raised, in which theological wrangling takes backstage, and in which rituals and beliefs have their own social value.

    [My Catholicism finally collapsed after reading Hume's Dialogues concerning natural religion, which, to quote Dawkins' friend Douglas Adams, could have been entitled 'Well, That About Wraps It Up for God'. But I retain what might be called a Catholic sensibility.]

  85. #85 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    What this overlooks, among other things, is that the Nazi’s cold-blooded extermination of millions has no parallel.

    Dear God, you’re an ignorant twit. The Nazi’s cold-blooded extermination of millions was directly inspired by the United States’ cold-blooded extermination of the Native Americans. Russia wasn’t a backwater – nor was China.

    The reason why the Nazi atrocities have become a byword is quite simple: it’s the mass slaughter that involved the Jews. There is a reason why so many people think the Holocaust was the death of six million, not ten-and-a-half million, people. The Nazis have gotten more publicity.

  86. #86 pseudonymous in nc
    October 25, 2006

    One other note:

    (I should point out that I use the term North Oxford in an ideological rather than geographical sense. Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don’t actually know where he lives.)

    Well, he’s right in both senses. I won’t give away the address, but it’s very Leafy North Oxford, and you can just see the silhouette of a fairground carousel horse in the front window as you pass by.

  87. #87 George
    October 25, 2006

    Perhaps the really dangerous fundamentalism of today is that the ‘free market’ will, if left to it’s own devices (i.e. run entirely in the interests of the global elite) provide a utopian global society (The end of history etc.), instead of ever more wars over limited resources, billions in poverty and a carefree attitude to the destruction of the environment – but so long as people stop reading the Bible a new age of reason will be forthcoming!

    JJP, I have a book for you: The Bougeous Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey. She argues that capitalism can be virtuous. I can’t say that I agree, but it is interesting to consider the notion.

    She sums up her “apologia” for capitalism here:

    http://www.cato.org/research/articles/cpr28n3-1.html

    “Your ancestors and mine were dirt-poor slaves, and ignorant. We should all make sure that people grasp that capitalism and freedom, not government “programs,” have made us rich.”

    Look on the bright side! (kidding)

  88. #88 Harold Henderson
    October 25, 2006

    Nagel’s review can be found at http://ded-maxim.livejournal.com/236039.html
    Have at it!

  89. #89 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    Thanks, Harold. I’m not impressed. Nagel’s entire objection really rests on this sentence:

    If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world.

    Which, I humbly submit, is meaningless drivel inspired by the usual wishful thinking of the religious “seeker”. Even prominent philosophers are not immune to such maladies…

  90. #90 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    To elaborate slightly: the “possibility” that Nagel raises is pure cartesianism of the most disreputable kind- implying the concept of “mind” as a sort of undifferentiated substance rather than as something that requires and exemplifies an extremely high degree of organized complexity, whose origin needs to be explained (the human brain is by a long distance the most complex object in the universe that we know of.) Nagel himsellf would never tolerate such unanalyzed conceptual sloppiness on any question in which his own wishful thinking did not blind him.

  91. #91 George
    October 25, 2006

    Silly me. Meant to type “Bourgeois Virtues” above.

    Damned French words!

  92. #92 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    (the human brain is by a long distance the most complex object in the universe that we know of.)

    Not exactly – it is the most sophisticated computational device in the known universe, but an aquarium full of algae is far more complex than any human brain. It’s much less interesting, but more complex.

    The problem with this discussion is that ‘complexity’ can have different meanings. In terms of the length of the smallest accurate description of a thing, brains are less complex than any everyday object with greater mass. In terms of the interesting minimum description, it’s more complex than any everyday object.

    Define your term, sir.

  93. #93 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    Hard to define such terms precisely, but I think the sense in which I’m using it should be pretty obvious. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that an algal cell has about the same degree of internal physical and chemical structure and organization- complexity, for short- as a human brain. Even if a tank held 100 billion algal cells (about the number of neurons in a brain), that tankfull is no more complex than a single one, any more than a stack of sheets of paper is more complex in any meaningful way than a single sheet. A brain, however, contains a large variety of different types of neurons, and even more significantly they are interconnected in an almost absurdly elaborate and definitely non-random way. That is a far higher degree of complexity than the tank of algae.

  94. #94 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    In that second sentence I of course should have written
    “same degree of internal physical and chemical structure and organization- complexity, for short- as a human NEURON”. Sorry.

  95. #95 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    In any “meaningful” way? Again, sir, define your term.

    One algal cell may be identical to another in terms of your interest in it, but in terms of the arrangement of its matter, it is very different. Describing in full a tank of even pure water whose mass is greater than a human brain necessarily requires a longer description than the brain because there’s more stuff to describe.

    If you limit the evaluation of complexity to things you find interesting, it becomes impossible to define complexity without knowing those standards. So, what aspects of human brains make them more complex than anything else in the known universe?

  96. #96 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    Precisely the elaborate and persistent “designoid” organization that does NOT follow simply from the laws of physics but requires higher-level explanations, very much unlike the momentary arrangement of water molecules in a tank of water. This is not a new, unfamiliar or recondite point.

  97. #97 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    Everything follows from the laws of physics, so the key concept is ‘simply’. What do you mean by that? You seem to have rejected one of the most basic definitions of “complexity” used in information theory. Are you using the other? We can’t tell, because you won’t say.

    You’re going around and around, unwilling or unable to state what properties you’re interested in, and thus your earlier contention cannot be evaluated as being meaningful.

  98. #98 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    What definition have I rejected? State it instead of speculatively attributing views to me.

  99. #99 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    (rolls eyebrows)

    Very well, I’ll bite. You seem to have rejected the “minimum accurate description” definition of complexity. To describe a sufficiently large tank of water so that the description refers to that particular tank requires more data than it takes to describe a brain in such a way to refer to that particular brain – by the definition I’m referring to, the tank is more complex.

    Your statements demonstrate that you reject that definition, instead relying on the definition that refers to specific properties. The brain has certain properties that you’re interested in that are far more complex than the tank’s manifestation of those properties. The ability to play a strong game of chess? Deep Blue wins over Jupiter in such a comparison, even though Jupiter is far more complex in the other definition.

    So: which properties are you interested in?

  100. #100 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    I thought that’s what you meant. Well, prove to me that an intact brain is no more Kolmogorov-complex than a disaggregated soup of the same number of neurons. Show your work.

  101. #101 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    At what level of analysis?

    That has been the question throughout this discussion. Will you finally answer it?

  102. #102 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    Specify what you mean by “what level of analysis”. I don’t see any way you can possibly analyze the problem such that the same amount of computation that is necessary to describe the disaggregated soup of neurons will also suffice to describe the same neurons PLUS their interconnenctions in a brain. Think I’m wrong? Demonstrate it, and show your work.

  103. #103 Chris
    October 25, 2006

    The “violent 20th century” claim also ignores the fact that everybody dies in some way or another, so when you reduce the proportion of deaths by disease and starvation, you’re automatically going to increase the proportion of deaths by violence, if nothing else changes. (And also by accident, and suicide, and any other cause.)

    Improvements in weapon technology also suggest themselves as a cause of increase in violence: they make it possible for a smaller number of murderers to commit a greater number of murders. The serial sniper wouldn’t have gotten very far with a longbow, and you can’t destroy large buildings by crashing horses into them.

    Per capita I suspect the 20th century comes out rather well, although I admit I haven’t done the statistics myself. When you compare it to the massacres of the Old Testament for example, or the way China’s population *shrank* by 1/3 in a couple generations of the Three Kingdoms period, the 20th century doesn’t look so bad.

  104. #104 Kristine
    October 25, 2006

    Herein lies the essential problem for me:

    Still, even this difference [that of a human inventor of a watch and a supernatural inventor or human beings] need not be fatal to the theistic argument, since science often concludes that what we observe is to be explained by causes that are not only unobservable, but totally different from anything that has ever been observed, and very difficult to grasp intuitively…. If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world.

    And this is why the God hypothesis makes no sense at all, because all arguments for God are, ultimately, negative arguments.

    God is not this and not that. Well then, what is he? Infinite, eternal, omnipotent, but what does that mean? Those are negations of the finite, temporal real world of checks and balances. This is the real issue for me: the unbelief in the real that makes belief in the unreal possible, the preference for black and white which are mere abstractions of grey.

    Why should we value, even if God were to exist, the infinite, the eternal, and the omnipotent over the real, fleeting, and provisional? Why trade knowledge for absolutes? Why trade our creativity for mindless worship? Why worship anyone and anything? Why not prefer each other, over God? (A sort of cosmic trade unionism!)

    What bothers believers, I think, is not so much losing their authority to whom they appeal, but no longer having anyone to blame. After all, atheists, not believing in God at all, have no locus for their anger when “shit happens.” People forget this.

    The truth is that God is the ultimate scapegoat. Forget everything that believers say about “loving” God, needing God–they say this because they know they must. From what I have seen growing up in the church, no one loves God; they fear him. And because they fear him, and also fear that he knows this, they try to fool themselves into thinking that they love him, and end up resenting him all the more–which gets channeled outward toward other human beings, to be made into the scapegoat that God truly is, in every believer’s heart.

    Naturally, believers react so strongly to Dawkins’ work. They aren’t really responding to his disbelief. They are responding to the fact that, being that he does not believe, he therefore cannot love God, and does not care that he does not love God. That is what has the believers up in arms–they cannot admit that they don’t love God and probably even hate him, for to do so is the ultimate terror for the believer (and was for me, until I walked away from it all, when I was nine years old).

  105. #105 johnc
    October 25, 2006

    @Caledonian
    I actually don’t understand why you would wilfully misread other people’s posts in order to support egregious personal insults. Surely you have better things to do.

    In any case, a couple of points for the record:
    1. I did not say China and Russia were backwaters, I said Germany was not. The point at issue was the alleged link between technical and moral progress. I might point out that I am by no means the only person who believes that the fact that a nation as “advanced” as Germany was responsible for the Holocaust is profoundly disturbing of our ideas of progress in any sense of the word.
    2. While not for a moment wanting to minimise the dreadful slaughters of human history, I stand by the fact that the Nazi death camps represent a qualitatively different kind of evil – not because of the numbers but because of the premeditated intentionality of the mass murder.
    3. I, and I hope most other readers of this thread, resoundingly reject the suggestion that the only reason the Holocaust is considered differently is because the majority of victims were Jews. The particularly appalling nature of that elaborate State death machine would not be changed one zot if it had been constructed by Jews to murder Gentiles.

    Finally, your post comes perilously close to implying that the Holocaust has been overblown because of the activity of some Jewish PR machine. I trust that was not your intention.

  106. #106 RP
    October 25, 2006

    To return to the original post…I have found it amusing how many times this atheist Jew has corrected Christians on points of doctrine (e.g., that it was Mary, not Jesus, who was Immaculately Conceived). I don’t even need to explain how most Christians think Judaism = Christianity – (Jesus + bacon) instead of a completely different religion with very little emphasis on the afterlife and a very different view of women and sex. And yeah, once I learned about how different all the major world religions are, I pretty much became an atheist instantly and begged off of my bat mitzvah.

    I also once blew the mind of a woman who was evangelizing me by saying that the one question I wanted God to answer (via her pastor) was to tell me the 3-dimensional distribution of galaxies in sparse galaxy groups. She wanted me to ask something about the question of evil or somesuch – that answer is easy to BS, while actually knowing whether galaxy groups are physical or superpositions is harder to do. She never did get back to me…and I’m sure she resolved to stop evangelizing in places where science grad students hang out! Too bad, because I have some cold dark matter vs. hot dark matter questions that I’d love to have answered by an omnipotent being….

  107. #107 Damien
    October 25, 2006

    “Describing in full a tank of even pure water whose mass is greater than a human brain necessarily requires a longer description than the brain because there’s more stuff to describe.”

    I don’t see how this is necessarily true. The accurate description of the water might well be highly compressible, giving it a minimum description length (MDL) less than that of the brain. I suppose it might be true of a sufficiently large body of water, but that might be quite a bit larger than the brain.

    I think it’d be possible to approach “interesting” without being too subjective, by considering lossy compression. Even gargantuan tanks of pure water should be easily describable as “water plus a random noise distribution”, so you’d lose some exact detail but it wouldn’t matter, like JPEG images. I imagine the brain would fare less well.

    I’ve seen attempts to define interestingness in terms of mutual information, or maybe a construct built on MI, but I’d have to look up the paper.

  108. #108 Damien
    October 25, 2006

    “I am sure I’m not alone in finding the sentence “when you start with billions of people, even tens of millions are a blip in the bucket” more than a little chilling.”

    *shrug* If you take a society which kills 10 people out of a 1000, and scaled it up to a billion people without changing anything, you’d expect 10 million people to be killed. That’s math.

    “the Nazi’s cold-blooded extermination of millions has no parallel”

    I’d mention the Armenian genocide, but that’s 20th century as well. But what of Tamurlane’s pyramids of skulls? Or various pogroms of Jews throughout Europe’s history?

    “Comparable numbers died in the famines and purges of Mao and Stalin, but there is no moral equivalence (whatever the arithmetic) with the systematic, pre-meditated murder by the Nazi regime.”

    My understanding is that Stalin sometimes used famine as a deliberate tool to reduce troublesome populations; I fail to see how that’s morally inequivalent to the Nazi holocaust. Mass murder is mass murder, whether you withhold food or shove people into gas chambers.

    All that said, nothing says progress has to be monotonic. The Nazi holocaust could be unmatched *and* the 20th century could be the least violent or most progressive in history, as proportionally fewer people die in wars, and far more people get education and rights.

    I think moral progress is quite a clear concept. Morality is functionally about getting along with your tribe, with other people, in society. The long term (but hardly monotonic) trend since agriculture has been to be able to get along with more and more people, with larger ‘tribes’ or societies. When the circle of Us grows relative to Them, by redefining Them as Us rather than killing Them — that’s moral progress.

  109. #109 Kristine
    October 25, 2006

    Don’t worry, RP, by the time your questions are answered, the believers will say that it was in the Bible all along. This is my prophesy!

  110. #110 Steve LaBonne
    October 25, 2006

    I think RP had a great idea, though. If only Francis Collins had thought of that, he could have asked God to give him a human genome sequence instead of having to organize all that work by so many people!

  111. #111 MikeM
    October 25, 2006

    Reading through about half these comments, and having experience with racism just about every day (no, not personally; just observing how some people treat other people), I’ve come to the conclusion that racism is a religion.

    Racism is a religion.

    Deal with it. Prejudice based on personal melanin content shows that some people feel superior to others because they’re darker/lighter/pinker. It shares another aspect with what we call religion, too: Irrationality.

    So, sure, people can say Trotsky was an atheist if they want, but if he also turns around and says “Group A is better than Group B,” this is a fundamentally flawed, irrational, bigoted, religious statement.

    Worded another way: Racism is a religion.

    Repeat after me: Racism is a religion.

    (Of the worst kind.)

  112. #112 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    There’s nothing wrong with claiming that Group A is better than Group B. What damns racism is that a) their criteria for grouping people are fairly arbitrary, and b) their criteria for grouping people have been shown to be wrong, as in invalid.

  113. #113 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    I, and I hope most other readers of this thread, resoundingly reject the suggestion that the only reason the Holocaust is considered differently is because the majority of victims were Jews.

    When stating why you thought the Holocaust was different from other genocidal atrocities, you pointed out that Germany wasn’t a backwater. Either you were highlighting a contrast, or you weren’t – if not, that was a non sequitur, and if so, you were mistaken.

    If there were large numbers of culturally Sudanese-minority people in our country, possibly the Sudan genocide would get more press (y’know, the one where people turned on their neighbors and hacked them to death with machetes because voices on the radio told them to, then pushed the [often still-living] bodies into trenches and covered them up). The reason it does not is because the victims of that atrocity have little influence. Jewish people have much greater influence over our culture. The ongoing sterilization of the Rom gets little attention, despite the fact that the Rom went through the same horrors in the Holocaust, because nobody in this country knows who the Rom are or were – and thus an ongoing genocide is ignored.

    Refusing to accept simple facts because they can potentially be twisted to further irrational bigotry is madness.

  114. #114 BMurray
    October 25, 2006

    Oh incidentally Sam Harris – who is loved around these parts, almost as much as Dawkins is, thinks that torture is ok…

    Harris *derives* that torture is occasionally justifiable from the rest of his work (and reading it would make this plain, as opposed to simply reading the work of his detractors). Personally I think he is incorrect as previously he notes a necessary connection between intent and ethics and in his derivation of the ethical use of torture he fails to take intent into account, but let’s be clear that he doesn’t merely hold an opinion that torture is okay. In fact he claims that every instinct he has says it’s not, but that the logic seems to indicate it.

    And most relevantly, Harris’ derivation of the ethics of torture is a side effect of his reasoning regarding faith. It is not in any way a part of the logic supporting either a logical rejection of faith (and its urgency) nor is it necessary as part of an argument to establish a rational basis in ethics.

    In point of fact, belabouring this particular dead-end branch of his reasoning smacks of misrepresentation or at least an attempt to discredit a work of logic based on emotional reaction. Neither do you credit.

  115. #115 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 25, 2006

    Steve:
    “the human brain is by a long distance the most complex object in the universe that we know of.”

    Yay.

    Your discussion with Caledonian may also take on complexity that is more suited to characterise networks than Kolmogorov. They seem to max out if there is order on all distances, ‘glasses’ between simpler crystalline or amorfous states or networks. Kolmogorov complexity prefer the later AFAIK.

    Mark Perakh discusses some such complexities critically ( http://www.talkreason.org/articles/complexity.pdf ). Though I believe another such complexity, neural complexity as defined by Tononi et al, is more suited for this discussion. ( http://www.striz.org/docs/tononi-complexity.pdf ) It relies on mutual information exchanged between all possible neural clusterings, as I see Damien also suggests.

  116. #116 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 25, 2006

    JJP:
    “For example the question of why there is something rather than nothing is a tough philosophical question.”

    That may be so, but it seems to have some very practical answers closer to science. The much debated anthropic principle is one. Without it, if there is cosmologies which are selfcontained (there are a number of them) the question may become the usual “why these laws”. Which is a less dramatic question.

    I haven’t read Rundle (or Dawkins), but I found a rather explicit review of the book you suggested. ( http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=2081 ) His central claim is agreeable and AFAIK it is common in scientific expositions too. This is what I personally argue in combination with the observation that some selfcontained cosmologies allow infinite age. Then the question shows itself to be undefineable in much the manner of Rundle’s more general argument.

    “So philosophy is mere superstition, handwaving and crippled explanations then?”

    I dunno. It is supposed to explore questions and give possible answers, but what use are these when we can’t purge some except by internal consistence. There must be a reason why formal methods like math can give reliable results, while philosophy can’t.

    OTOH, there seems to be applications for philosophy outside giving answers to folk psychology questions as the one above, namely study scientific methods and our gaps in established knowledge.

  117. #117 RP
    October 25, 2006

    Now that I’m remembering the incident, I realize that the funny thing about my response to the evangelist in grad school was that I was dead serious. I was at the point in my thesis that I really wanted to know the 3D structure of the nearest few cubic megaparsecs. If I was just trying to be a smartass, I would have come up with something boring like “make God manifest itself to me in person” or “periods – what the heck is up with them?” So sometimes utter sincerity combined with utter geekiness is the best strategy.

  118. #118 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    So maths is completely consistent is it? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell's_paradox
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorem

    etc.

    What precisely is the source for the ‘external’ validation of mathematical axioms?

  119. #119 Kristine
    October 25, 2006

    Well, I liked your question, RP.

    My boyfriend K-Oed a Jehovah’s Witness who came to the door recently while I was at class, with a lecture on the scientific method. The JW tried to argue that even scientists believe in God (a pretty corrupt argument for a Jehovah’s Witness to make, considering that until recently, JWs tried to dissuade kids from even graduating high school–they are lowest on the educational ladder, even below fundies, and certainly there are no JW scientists), whereas John countered that the top scientists didn’t believe at all.

    John is the nicest guy, and is never insulting or abusive to people, but he reduced the JW to silence. After that, the man just listened. Maybe John planted a seed. I am so proud!

  120. #120 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    Good grief the navel gazing is getting worse – silence from a JW half-wit is the triumph of universal rationality and reason – it is perhaps the mysterious world-spirit of the age at work before our eyes. Quick give Dickie Dawkins a call and I bet he will ‘come’ with excitement at the news.

    Onto more serious matters I’d really like for one of the moral imbeciles and buffoons on here to go and tell, face to face, 100 people living on less than a dollar a day that ‘progress’ moral or otherwise is ‘obvious’. I really cannot comprehend the mindset that thinks the 20th century was not a profoundly barbaric one. Industrialized cold-bloodied mass murder in one of the most ‘civilized’ nations on Earth does give anyone with an IQ above room temperature a very good reason to pause and think when words like ‘progress’ are bandied about. Let alone the implicit idea that the whole ‘fuss’ is overblown and a bit of clever PR? Of course it isn’t just the horrors of the Holocaust but also the horrors of the First World War (remember it was going to end all wars), Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Nixon’s bombing of around a million people into an early grave, the brutally of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, the famines in Africa – let alone the Rwandan genocide, death-squads in Latin America – the list could go on and on. Yes the 20th century what an unambiguously great time for everyone!

    Now someone mentioned Native Americans – perhaps Thanksgiving Day should be renamed “ThankFuckWe KilledThoseScumInTheNameReason&ProgressDay”? So for those of the religion of unproblematic progress please to tell us how many people is ok to kill, torture, maim, starve, etc. to achieve this progress? I think that it is safe bet that Dawkins and people from his socio-economic strata are unlikely to be the ones on the receiving end of the downside of progress. It’s a question of political justice. And it’s a really rather difficult issue. Unfortunately we cannot, as Leibniz suggested, sit down a do a bit of calculus to solve the problem. And the idea that we should judge people not as individuals but in groups so long as those doing the judging have convinced themselves that their criteria are ‘objective’ is repugnant- perhaps the people being judged might like a say?

    So long as someone accepts the board findings of modern science and is for equality, compassion and human dignity I’m with them even if they derive their views from within a religious framework. I do hate the psychopathology called fundamentalism with a passion and I am uncompromising in my anti-clericalism and defense of secularism, and I would prefer if people were not religious but what is so wrong about someone reading the Bible getting something from it and as a result working for the poor or becoming more compassionate etc. So long as they keep their beliefs to themselves and don’t push their views when they are not asked to then I find it really hard to get mad. In a liberal society people are allowed to disagree with each other you know (don’t take reasonable disagreement as some personal attack).

    I’m puzzled as to the smug, supercilious, and angry attitude towards anyone that dares to question Dawkins or that displays any interest in religion, in any regard (as Eagleton does in regard to it being a form of popular culture). For fuck’s sake grow up and stop behaving like teenagers rebelling against Daddy. If you had to live in grinding poverty in Africa you just might turn to religion for comfort. Let’s try to have a little imaginative sympathy and empathy towards other human beings shall we? Remember dehumanizing people (people being divided into “us -good and them – evil”) is the first step towards the gas chambers -and it is something all fundamentalists do IMHO.

    Now PZ can perhaps we have a skeptical post from you about the uses and abuses of instrumental rationality in modern society?

  121. #121 Damien
    October 25, 2006

    JJP — you complain about smug and supercilious attitudes after talking about “Dickie Dawkins”, “come with excitement”, and “rebelling against Daddy”?

    On to serious matters I’d really like for one of the moral imbeciles

    On to serious matters, but not to serious discussion.

    I really cannot comprehend the mindset that thinks the 20th century was not a profoundly barbaric one.

    I’m guessing you’re not a woman, with unprecedented powers of voting in most of the world, plus powers of self-determination, reproductive control, and property ownership. I’ll also guess you don’t like math, and haven’t thought about what proportion of people have been killed in this century vs. earlier ones, or how many people are *not* living on a dollar a day.

    Yes the 20th century what an unambiguously great time for everyone!

    Has anyone in this discussion said or suggested the 20th century was “an unambiguously great time for everyone” or are you arguing with a strawman? I at least explicitly said progress hadn’t been monotonic. As for cold-blooded mass murder, consider the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, with 50,000 Huguenots deliberately killed, in 1572. But it wasn’t industrialized, so I guess that makes it better for you.

    I’m puzzled as to the smug, supercilious, and angry attitude towards anyone that dares to question Dawkins

    Vs. the smug, supercilious, and angry attitude toward someone who dares to question religion in an uncompromising way.

  122. #122 AndyS
    October 25, 2006

    Well said — or rather, good rant — JJP.

  123. #123 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    Bmurray Sam Harris is a nasty right-wing buffoon with a thing about people with slighly darker skin that his. It’s funny how his fire is towards Islam (with minor rhetorical nods toward other religions) comes about at a time when the USA is looking for lots of excuses to invade nations that happen to be Muslim. In fact Harris could do a great job at the Whitehouse informing dumb American’s about the ‘clash of civilisations’.

    If you were more intellectually honest and better educated you might know that their aren’t very good ‘foundations’ to lots of our beliefs. For example look and see what Hume has to say about induction.

    More broadly ‘rationality’ is a difficult concept. Go on try to prove ‘rationality'; trouble is that there is a perfomative contradiction here. Any argument or proof of rationality already presupposes standards of rationality, because the applicability of those standards is constitutive of something’s being considered a valid argument or proof. In really simple terms you can’t prove rationality by arguments becuase arguments already presuppose some standard of rationality by which they are judged. Oh dear this little word called rationality seems to be a little more tricky than you image it to be?

    Afor the problems with foundationlism (I know by the light of pure reason etc.) read this – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-foundational/

    I rather like this analogy by Otto Neurath

    Neurath’s analogy which compares the holistic nature of language and consequently scientific verification with the construction of a boat which is already at sea:

    “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

    So perhaps a little bit of modesty and skeptism towards our own claims to ‘truth’ and ‘rationality’ might, just might be in order.

  124. #124 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 25, 2006

    “So maths is completely consistent is it?”

    Yes. Or at least the attempt is to keep it so, which Gödel’s incompleteness points out is the main task. They tell us that there are results that can’t be covered by any initial axiom set, but must be added as new axioms to go further. (Sometimes, this split off branches of math, see the parallel axiom.)

    “What precisely is the source for the ‘external’ validation of mathematical axioms?”

    Good question!

    First, note that I didn’t claim this, but noted that “there must be a reason why formal methods like math can give reliable results”.

    Second, in my view of math this is what can happen. An axiom set is often modelled on an observation, of use of counting integers for example, and vetted by mathematicians. This is of course what happens with every formalisation, one needs a model to confirm the validity of syntax and semantics.

    Also, math connects with observations indirectly by being used by science, and by being suggested by science such as theoretical physics. These nonrigorous developments are later cleaned up, but by then they have already shown their validity.

  125. #125 Caledonian
    October 25, 2006

    What validates mathematical axioms? Um, it’s a little thing we call “reality”. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry are both mathematically valid – it’s our observations of reality that demonstrate the non-Euclidean axioms to be valid and the Euclidean not. We do indeed live in a world where the interior angles of a triangle don’t necessarily add up to half a rotation.

  126. #126 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    Caledonian I’d really like to see your none-question begging the proof of ‘external reality’ and that maths corresponds to it. Go what is precisely is Hilbert Space in the real world? Or start with a simple one; what does the imaginary part of a complex number correspond with in ‘reality’?

  127. #127 JJP
    October 25, 2006

    Oh and my brother is completing a PhD in mathematics/theoretical physics took a philosophy of physics course. One of the essays questions was “What is the geometry of the Universe?” I’d love to hear what the ‘objective’ answer is and how that answer is validated by ‘reality’. So bring it on.

  128. #128 Kristine
    October 26, 2006

    Good grief the navel gazing is getting worse – silence from a JW half-wit is the triumph of universal rationality and reason

    Half-wit? Well, as long as you’re not dehumanizing anybody.

    My navel is literally a moving target by the way.

  129. #129 Keith Douglas
    October 26, 2006

    JJP: “For example the question of why there is something rather than nothing is a tough philosophical question” Leibniz of course meant “why does the world, as distinct from God, exist”, which is only a pseudoproblem in a naturalistic ontology as all science certainly supports the idea that the universe in the strict sense is self-perpetuating and eternal. (Taken literally, the question answers itself, of course, as Parmenides basically said so long ago.) /// As for mathematical axioms, in pure mathematics, axioms are justified by perspecutity, fertility, and other such virtues. If you’re a Platonist, well, you have problems, but in principle they could be adopted the same way axioms are selected in factual sciences like physics. (Assuming, of course, a Goedel-style platonism, of course, where perception is claimed to play a role.)

    False Prophet: I think part of the difference is that the “read it yourself” thing only works if one is on the fence already. There might also be an age thing, though I’m less sure of it. Also, some Muslims and Jews (and no doubt, many Christians) do not actually so much read their holy books as much as recite them. This no doubt especially common in Islam and amonst diaspora Jews, where Arabic and Hebrew aren’t first languages. What’s the difference, then? Perhaps the difference in fundamentalism in other respets.

    George: I would say that capitalism has some virtues, just as other macroeconomic policies have some others. The trick will be combining them all …

    MikeM: It can be turned into one, much as macroeconomic policies, political systems, sports, etc. can be. I’m not sure if it is by itself. Problem is characterizing religion precisely, which is hard to do. (Sociologists of religion seem to take a “if a person claims to be religious, they are”, which doesn’t work for other reasons.)

  130. #130 JJP
    October 26, 2006

    Kristine I was perhaps just getting down with the ‘spirit’ of this blog ;) maybe just maybe it was irony but Americans don’t do irony do they? – By for way for the massive intellects posting with the aid of universal reason and rationality please do explain Hilbert Space and it’s correspondent relationship to something in external reality – anyone…no I didn’t think so.

  131. #131 JJP
    October 26, 2006

    Kristine I was perhaps just getting down with the ‘spirit’ of this blog ;) maybe just maybe it was irony but Americans don’t do irony do they? – By for way for the massive intellects posting with the aid of universal reason and rationality please do explain Hilbert Space and it’s correspondent relationship to something in external reality – anyone…no I didn’t think so.

  132. #132 JJP
    October 26, 2006

    all science certainly supports the idea that the universe in the strict sense is self-perpetuating and eternal

    Really? Can we have some empirical evidence for that statement please as it’s passed me by- sound a little more like a metaphysical assertion rather than a scientific hypothesis that can be falsified to me? What on earth does the phrase ‘strict-sense’ mean? Do you wish to imply that the universe isn’t self-perpetuating in a loose sense? What do mean? By the way I’m a physicalist but I don’t bullshit to others or myself that there aren’t serious and unresolved issues with such a view.

    As for your defense of mathematical axioms – fine but we are moving away of some form of naive assertion that they come to us via a realm of unsullied universal reason/rationality (no doubt this is also the place that Dawkins’ self described mysterious “Spirit of the Age” resides).

  133. #133 Kristine
    October 26, 2006

    By for way for the massive intellects posting with the aid of universal reason and rationality please do explain Hilbert Space and it’s correspondent relationship to something in external reality – anyone…no I didn’t think so.

    [eye-roll] Well, give a lady a chance to answer, you gallant knight. Some of us have day jobs and night school.

    Did I bring up Hilbert Space in the first place? I don’t think so, and I think they were calling it unitary space back in my day. Well, anyway:

    If by “external reality” you mean real, I believe that the quadratic form of a Hermitian form is always real. That’s the only example I can think of, if I’m even correct. (I’m getting old, too.)

    Yes, I must confess to being out of my depth here, being that I have a humanities degree and, while I didn’t grow up in poverty in Africa, I am the first person in my family to get a four-year degree at all, and out of necessity am largely self-taught, and never even got a chance to master calculus, something that I’ve been working (when not working at work, or on Master’s stuff, or on my house, or at my committed relationship, etc.) to correct. I’m not up on my vectors, either.

    So sock it to me. Let me know what an ignorant loser I am. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.

    Maybe you want to consult the modern-day Isaac Newton instead. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics, and I never claimed to have one.

  134. #134 JJP
    October 26, 2006

    Kristine I really am on the side of science, secularism etc., (I’m also on the side of the poor, the weak, and all victims of injustice). I don’t think religion is in general as a good thing etc. But what I will not do is be talked down to by smug no-nothings that tell be ‘rationality’ is self-evident then make non-empirical, non-rational statements about the universe, mathematics etc. to try to get out of their particular form of bullshitting.

    Now I’m the first person in my family to go to university as well. But not that long ago in history certain powerful people in my society ‘rationally’ (to their own satisfaction) decided that to educate the ‘lower classes’ wasn’t a good idea.

    Maybe I suggest that you start with the wikipedia page on the concept of instrumental rationality and maybe follow some of the ideas and authors there. Habermas is neither anti-Enlightenment nor anti-science for a start but he does recognize that within our social discourse that what is or is not ‘rational’ is not a given self-evident thing.

    Furthermore we are all ignorant to some extent – in that no-one knows everything that why I get so angry at smug pricks declaring that everything that say is ipso facto ‘rational’ because they have a PhD, are anti-religious or whatever. Because if that’s the quality of the arguments on our side we are not doing well. So let us in the ethos of the first Enlightenment be skeptical about nature of our beliefs now and in doing so go on to achieve more radical and deeper second Enlightenment.

    For example, God or other universal or absolute ideas cannot offer answers to the question of the meaning of life, and thus any answer has to come from within human life, which is finite and capable of error. What kind of answer can that be? Well let’s not be too cocksure of our answers to that question or indeed the answer to any question (isn’t that the scientific ideal – our views are always subject to revision as the evidence changes – so we never can be fully sure we have the ‘final answer’ – we simply cannot check every swan to see if the are in fact all white). Some humility might go a long way.

    History and the present world are full of violence and unspeakable cruelty on one hand, and mass apathy with regard to the suffering of others on the other. If we make our own meanings (as there is no God), that means we are entirely free not to do so. Which also means that our connection to meaning–and to ethics–is minimal, fragile, and refutable. Is there reason to hope that good can emerge out of human affairs? Where is that hope of genuine justice and equality for all? The thought that if ‘only’ we got rid of religion these questions will go away is IMHO the height of philosophical and historical naivete.

  135. #135 Harold Henderson
    October 26, 2006

    Steve —

    “Nagel himself would never tolerate such unanalyzed conceptual sloppiness on any question in which his own wishful thinking did not blind him.”

    Leaving aside the substantive question for the moment: What’s he wishing for?

  136. #136 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 26, 2006

    “My navel is literally a moving target by the way.”

    Now, don’t try to distract us from the issue we discuss! ;-)

    JJP:
    “I’d really like to see your none-question begging the proof of ‘external reality’ and that maths corresponds to it. Go what is precisely is Hilbert Space in the real world?”

    Many mathematicians and theoretical physicists seem to be platonists since they seem to say that the mathematical structure is all they need.

    One such worldview is Max Tegmarks ensemble multiverse, with an intense reliance on occham’s razor:
    “As a way out of this philosophical conundrum, I have suggested (Tegmark 1998) that complete
    mathematical democracy holds: that mathematical existence and physical existence are equivalent, so
    that all mathematical structures exist physically as well. This is the Level IV multiverse.”
    ( http://www.wintersteel.com/files/ShanaArticles/multiverse.pdf )

    “What is the geometry of the Universe?”

    “”all science certainly supports the idea that the universe in the strict sense is self-perpetuating and eternal”
    Can we have some empirical evidence for that statement please as it’s passed me by- sound a little more like a metaphysical assertion rather than a scientific hypothesis that can be falsified to me?”

    Different questions, same answer. The large scale geometry is decided by the cosmology. The current cosmology of the observable universe, Lambda-CDM, is falsifiable and happens to give a self-perpetuating, eternal universe.

    Geometrically it is weakly open or flat. (Still too much uncertainty in the spatial curvature in the WMAP models – it is slightly negative at 1 sigma. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambda_CDM_model )

    If you leave validated models and speculate on a larger scale, you have two main geometries which also are self-perpetuating, eternal and falsifiably distinguishable. The multiverses are geometrically complicated.

    A perfectly flat universe is consistent with a simple infinite eternally expanding Lambda-CDM universe AFAIK.

    A weakly open universe is compatible with an eternal inflationary multiverse (EIM). Here there seems to be two main cosmologies remaining, semiclassical and quantum diamond. (Hartle-Hawkings no-boundary multiverse has some unsolved problems.) How to choose between them is an open question AFAIK.

    The semiclassical EIM embeds pocket universes with infinite open constant-time surfaces in the eternal inflationary universe. ( http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0602/0602264.pdf ) Initial geometry is the same as current with Linde’s pushing of the beginning towards infinity. ( http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0503/0503195.pdf )

    These EIM’s may all end locally by vacuum transition in bubbles from an energetically unstable open universe with positive cosmological constant (CC) to flat with zero CC or closed with negative CC, I believe. (The bubbles domain walls comes at speeds close to light so we will never see the end coming.)

  137. #137 JJP
    October 26, 2006

    According to your link

    Moreover, ΛCDM says nothing about the fundamental physical origin of dark matter, dark energy and the nearly scale-invariant spectrum of primordial curvature perturbations: in that sense, it is merely a useful parameterization of ignorance.

    Not quite Truth with a captial T then is it?

  138. #138 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 27, 2006

    As claimed many times, science is not about Truth, not even truth, but facts.

    You are pointing to gaps in knowledge. What has those gaps to do with what we know of geometry and selfperpetualness?

  139. #139 Keith Douglas
    October 27, 2006

    JJP: Conservation principles are not dated – hence the unverse is eternal. (Lucretius was right.) “Universe” in the strict sense is everything that exists – as opposed to the sometime physics usage of local hubble volume.

  140. #140 Scott Hatfield
    October 27, 2006

    JJP:

    You can learn a lot about a student’s religious background by simply pointing out that science is not in the ‘truth business’, but rather in the model-making business. Our claims are held provisionally; our theories are the best descriptions we have, not the best that anyone could ever have.

    Some people are dismayed by this. They want science to be able to ratify their worldview. Of these, some are religious, and some are very much anti-religious; never mind that, though, in my judgment both types are equally unsettled by the declaration.

    Others are comforted by the knowledge, and again I suspect their motivations differ. In any case, your allusion to truth with a capital ‘T’ is at best superfluous. It doesn’t have any bearing on what TL or Keith are discussing, as far as I can see. Cordially..>SH

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