Pharyngula

Carroll steps up to the plate…

The physicist Sean Carroll takes on Eagleton, and also makes a few comments on The God Delusion—key point, I think: Dawkins took on too many issues at once in the book, and opened himself up to criticisms on the weaker parts that are used to dismiss the stronger parts. I agree.

Most of the discussion takes up a weakness in theology, and it parallels the weakness in Dawkins’ book: the confusion between different concepts of this god-thingie. Theologians play that one like a harp, though, turning it into a useful strategem. Toss the attractive, personal, loving or vengeful anthropomorphic tribal god to the hoi-polloi to keep them happy, no matter how ridiculous the idea is and how quickly it fails on casual inspection, while holding the abstract, useless, lofty god in reserve to lob at the uppity atheists when they dare to raise questions. When we complain that the god literally described in the Old Testament is awfully petty and hey, doesn’t this business of a trinity and an immortal god being born as a human and dying (sorta) sound silly, they can just retort that our theology is so unsophisticated—Christians don’t really believe in that stuff.

It gets annoying. We need two names for these two concepts, I think. How about just plain “God” for the personal, loving, being that most Christians believe in, and “Oom” for the bloodless, fuzzy, impersonal abstraction of the theologians? Not that the theologians will ever go along with it—the last thing they want made obvious is the fact that they’re studying a completely different god from the creature most of the culture is worshipping.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    October 30, 2006

    Trouble is that there’s no clear distinction between these two apparently different conceptions. Some Oomists are at least partly Godists, and all Godists who aren’t unable to deal with reality in the slightest are at least partly Oomists. And untilt hat is understood, the arguments – all well presented and discussed by Dawkins – against Godism will failt o hit the mark. I said in my blog that he overgeneralises. He does here too. To an extent he thinks that he has dealt with Oomism and hybrids by dealing with blind Godism, but it’s a case of a real strawman. Sure, fundamentalism and extremism in religion are abhorrent, and they are a substantial portion of religious theism. But that won’t dispose of Oomism, nor of hybrid forms of religious belief.

    And it is also a strawman to say that Oomism is bloodless and impersonal. I know Oomists who have a very personalised view of Oom (just not as a humanlike agent). Beware strawmen. They have a tendency to catch fire from time to time.

  2. #2 reason
    October 30, 2006

    Something is wrong with this whole discussion. Find me just two believers who taken seperately and thoroughly questioned believe exactly the same thing. We can only really argue either against the lowest common denominator or against each specific deity in turn. We should be arguing against credulity (belief itself) not against God.

    And as for theologians – what exactly DO they study? As I have said before, it seems to me (excluding Bible study) to be a branch of mathematics, logic based on unprovable axioms. In other words, only useful coincidently. Why should we take them seriously at all. Surely, they need to justify their importance first.

  3. #4 G. Tingey
    October 30, 2006

    The beleivers surely can’t have it both ways, can they?

    Because that is what they are trying to do.

    As pointed out by PZ, there’s the primitive OT “god” and the sphisticated theologians’ “god”…
    But the two are completely incompatible.
    And the theologians know this.
    Therfore, they must be asked – “Which “god” do you want?”

    And THEN proceed to rtubbish the idea, anyway, since even the lofty, mystical theologians’ “god” is another load of old codswallop.

    Except, in the USA, and distressingly, here as well, the primitive sort seems to be re-gaining ground.
    The muslims, of course, have not helped in this matter.

  4. #5 Caledonian
    October 30, 2006

    Since neither god is rationally supportable, what does it matter? I don’t need to present a different list of reasons why Zeus doesn’t exist than Thor or Zipactonal.

  5. #6 Acteon
    October 30, 2006

    “Find me just two believers who taken seperately and thoroughly questioned believe exactly the same thing.”

    That is exactly the point. Before you can debate the existence of any God you first have to establish what God is. Since most people believe something but are not sure what, there is debate to be had. Until there is a workable hypothesis as to what God is you can talk as much as you want… It all comes down to the old personal incredulity.

    With regard to the argument that all religion is bad, well, I think you have to be pragmatic. I know many people who are to some degree religious and they are great. I also know some atheists that I would gladly see move to Mongolia…

  6. #7 Kapitano
    October 30, 2006

    And as for theologians – what exactly DO they study?

    I am an ex-theology student, and an atheist. Most of the time, theologins don’t study or talk about God – they interpret holy texts.

    For instance, there is a long running argument about the virginity of Mary. Now, most of the New Testament was written in Greek – usually Koine Greek, the equivalent of Business English, so most the various writers were writing in a second language. However, there is disagreement about which writers write as though they are writing in this way. Mark obviously was, John maybe, Matthew probably was but with much greater fluency.

    There is also much dispute over exactly who wrote which gospels – there are five main contenders for authorship of the Gospel of Mark, for instance, plus the possibility that it was written by someone unknown. All that’s certain is it wasn’t written by the disciple Mark.

    Mary is described as a Parthenos (“Virgin”). However, if the writers were thinking in Hebrew, or they were using Hebrew source texts – such as ancient prophecies being used to reconstruct the life of Christ 30 – 70 years after his death – they may have meant the Hebrew word Betulah, which is literally an unmarried young woman, but colloquially a virgin (which such a woman was expected to be).

    Now, some theologins point to the 17 occurances of Betulah in the Hebrew Old Testament, when it was clearly being used to mean “Virgin”. Others dispute that it’s clear at all.

    When theology strays outside of linguistic and historical analysis into philosophy, it’s to ask questions about whether Christ has human passions and weaknesses, or whether he was a robot controlled by the holy spirit.

    There’s the famous Arian debate, over how Christ could address his father from the cross when he was “the same person” as his father. And the trinitarian heresies about the exact role played by the holy spirit. And the conflict between hell concieved as the Greek Hades, and the “burning refuse pile” in 2-Kings.

    It’s years since I studied all this, and there’s probably others reading who know it better than me. But this is the stuff of theological debate – not the logical flaws in Anselm’s ontological argument, or the psychology of belief, or indeed the existence of God.

    If you want to know about linguistics and history, theologins are admirable in their expertise. If you want to know about God, forget it.

  7. #8 Grady
    October 30, 2006

    Actually the sweeping generalization about the Old Testament and theology in general smell a lot like bigoty on Dawkins part.

    And do I detect a little anti semitism?

  8. #9 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    I see playing the anti-semitism card now has uses for brain-dead conservatroids that go well beyond browbeating anyone who doesn’t cotton to neocon origin policy. Fascinating. Now go crawl back into your hole. And perhaps while you’re there, actually read the Old Testament instead of just paying attention to the carefully selected bits your preacher feeds you on Sunday.

  9. #10 Derick Ovenall
    October 30, 2006

    I agree with reason’s post that theology resembles an obscure branch of mathematics. The one difference I see is that even those branches of mathematics such as non-euclidean geometry and number theory, which, at the time they are created seem to be totally divorced from applications in the physical world, sooner or later turn out to useful. Unless one considers that providing justification for at worse, torturing, burning, and otherwise killing people, and at best holding up progress in practically every field of human endeavour, are useful, then theology is totally useless.

  10. #11 King Aardvark
    October 30, 2006

    Thanks Kapitano, I, like many others around here, always wondered what it is that theologians actually do. I guess not much. The original assumption that what theologians is studying is true, ie. God of the bible exists, is never challenged and rarely thought of.

    So, if that’s the case, I have to agree with Reason: Why should we take them seriously at all? They understand what the bible says, but have no greater understanding of what it actually means.

  11. #12 Arun
    October 30, 2006

    While you’re at it you may want to propose solutions:
    http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_2_when_islam.html

    Specifically,
    One sign of the increasing weakness of Islam’s hold over its nominal adherents in Britain–of which militancy is itself but another sign–is the throng of young Muslim men in prison. They will soon overtake the young men of Jamaican origin in their numbers and in the extent of their criminality. By contrast, young Sikhs and Hindus are almost completely absent from prison, so racism is not the explanation for such Muslim overrepresentation.

    Confounding expectations, these prisoners display no interest in Islam whatsoever; they are entirely secularized. True, they still adhere to Muslim marriage customs, but only for the obvious personal advantage of having a domestic slave at home. Many of them also dot the city with their concubines–sluttish white working-class girls or exploitable young Muslims who have fled forced marriages and do not know that their young men are married. This is not religion, but having one’s cake and eating it.

    The young Muslim men in prison do not pray; they do not demand halal meat. They do not read the Qu’ran. They do not ask to see the visiting imam. They wear no visible signs of piety: their main badge of allegiance is a gold front tooth, which proclaims them members of the city’s criminal subculture–a badge (of honor, they think) that they share with young Jamaicans, though their relations with the Jamaicans are otherwise fraught with hostility. The young Muslim men want wives at home to cook and clean for them, concubines elsewhere, and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. As for Muslim proselytism in the prison–and Muslim literature has been insinuated into nooks and crannies there far more thoroughly than any Christian literature–it is directed mainly at the Jamaican prisoners. It answers their need for an excuse to go straight, while not at the same time surrendering to the morality of a society they believe has wronged them deeply. Indeed, conversion to Islam is their revenge upon that society, for they sense that their newfound religion is fundamentally opposed to it. By conversion, therefore, they kill two birds with one stone.

    But Islam has no improving or inhibiting effect upon the behavior of my city’s young Muslim men, who, in astonishing numbers, have taken to heroin, a habit almost unknown among their Sikh and Hindu contemporaries. The young Muslims not only take heroin but deal in it, and have adopted all the criminality attendant on the trade.

    What I think these young Muslim prisoners demonstrate is that the rigidity of the traditional code by which their parents live, with its universalist pretensions and emphasis on outward conformity to them, is all or nothing; when it dissolves, it dissolves completely and leaves nothing in its place. The young Muslims then have little defense against the egotistical licentiousness they see about them and that they all too understandably take to be the summum bonum of Western life.

  12. #13 SusanC
    October 30, 2006

    A couple of thoughts on this:

    1. Beware of straw-man arguments

    You sometimes see atheists arguing against positions that basically no-one – neither the theologians nor the laity – actually believes in.

    e.g. Over at The Valve we had Adam Roberts arguing that transubstantiation is empirically falsifiable:
    http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/terry_eagletons_traditional_theology_and_a_new_version_of_pascals_wager/

    But as a claim it is easily falsified; the bread does not become flesh.

    But the official Catholic doctrine is that the empirically measurable properties of the bread do not change:
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05573a.htm
    .. and a typical Catholic will know full well (from personal experience) that the communion wafer does not have the phyically measurable properties of flesh.

    Sure, you can say that transubstantiation isn’t science, because it’s not empirically testable, but that’s a different argument.

    2. Popular understanding of science

    The typical lay-person’s understanding of scientific theories is often wrong. But I think we have to argue that for a scientific theory this doesnt matter – otherwise we’ll have to defend popular misconceptions about natural selection. The obvious question is why should theology be held to a different standard.

  13. #14 Denis C
    October 30, 2006

    Instead of Oom perhaps Gob or Goab equally empty terms for
    Ground of Being or Ground of all Being a la Tillich.
    I agree with Richard D Show me the evidence. No evidence –
    end of discussion.

  14. #15 RickD
    October 30, 2006

    Suggest we use Yahweh/Jehovah for the OT god, and “the Watchmaker” for the abstract deistic god.

    Then there are the Football Gods, who reward the fans who pray the hardest with victory. Apparently the Football Gods are intervening in New Jersey, since Rutgers is 8-0.

  15. #16 PZ Myers
    October 30, 2006

    I do not believe that theologians do absolutely nothing. I think the kind of cultural history they study represents real scholarship.

    The problem is that some also provide cover for dingbat religion by not openly disavowing that they study the nature of a Supreme Being. They are not doing scholarly study of any god, they are doing scholarly study of people’s belief in gods, which is a huge difference.

  16. #17 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Well, the people who do the real scholarship are more likely to be called “Bible scholars” or “church historians” than “theologians”. These disciplines are modern inventions. The true medieval / philosophical enterprise of theology as such remains very much what it has always been, a tale of the blind men and the (nonexistent) elephant.

  17. #18 Andrew Brown
    October 30, 2006

    PZ, the distinction you want is known in the theology business as the one between “the god of the believers” and the “The god of the philosophers”. Your names may be catchier, I agree.

    But this kind of distinction is everywhere. I could write an elegant post on the difference between the atheism of the unbelievers and the atheism of the philosophers. The whole point — the thing that makes religion difficult either to study or to dismiss — is that “religious” statements can function both as a description of the world and as social markers.

    Oh, and before you jump on me for claiming that a statement about God can count as a true description of the world, how about “God does not interfere”?

  18. #19 Blake Stacey
    October 30, 2006

    ‘Tis hardly a statement about God to say “God does not interfere”. In the crudest, apophatic sense, perhaps — but that’s really a theology for a Philadelphia lawyer. I could say with equal validity, “Osiris does not interfere,” “The evil red Lectroids do not interfere,” “Hamlet does not interfere” and so forth. Such a statement can only have meaning if we attach more knowledge to the subject; otherwise, it collapses down to the being which does not interfere does not interfere, a formula which has no merit at all.

  19. #20 "Q" the Enchanter
    October 30, 2006

    Here was my humble post on Eagleton’s article when it was first published:

    Eagleton’s Caliginesis

    Shorter Terry Eagleton:

    Richard Dawkins’ critique of popular religious belief fails because he does not take seriously certain obscure conceptions of God that only a vanishingly small minority of religious believers themselves take seriously.

  20. #21 Jud
    October 30, 2006

    Sean Carroll: “But Dawkins has a strategy that is very common among atheist polemicists, and with which I tend to disagree. That’s to simultaneously tackle three very different issues:
    “1. Does God exist? Are the claims of religion true, as statements about the fundamental nature of the universe?
    “2. Is religious belief helpful or harmful? Does it do more bad than good, or vice-versa?
    “3. Why are people religious? Is there some evolutionary-psychological or neurological basis for why religion is so prevalent?”

    Carroll’s opinion is that the first issue is pretty much a slam-dunk “No,” while the other two are more complex and perhaps need not to be taken on by Dawkins or others arguing for an atheist point of view; PZ’s comments indicate he agrees.

    My personal view is that the first issue is also one that need not be taken on in the name of science, though of course one would certainly want to take it on if arguing in favor of atheism or atheists.

    It seems to me that in a universe that (as Haldane said) is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we *can* imagine, we cannot yet conclude with any confidence that no intelligence generally meeting the description of “supreme being” exists. Of course I realize how vanishingly unlikely any such thing seems. But I find it impossible to see how a hypothesis worthy of being called scientific can be derived on the subject, when after all, we don’t know how much we don’t know about the universe and its origins (though I strongly suspect the answer to the question “How much don’t we know?” is on the order of “A whole shitload.”)

    I’ve seen PZ refer to parsimony, but I think the best use of that principle is to choose between alternatives where one knows a fair amount about them. Use of parsimony in a relative vacuum of knowledge can easily lead to wrong answers. Before quantum mechanics and a more sophisticated knowledge of particle physics, what need was there of quarks? Wouldn’t mere parsimony have indicated we could stop at protons and neutrons?

    Yes, I realize my position can easily be reduced to a “God of the gaps” argument. I can only say in defense that I am not trying to use whatever real gaps may exist in our knowledge (in contrast to, e.g., the “no intermediate forms” claptrap of creationists and ID adherents) to argue for the existence of a being powerful enough to be thought of as “supreme.” Rather, I am saying (1) a proper humility in the face of what we don’t know argues against calling atheism a scientific hypothesis at this point (however strongly what we do know may point in that direction), and (2) it’s not an argument that needs to be taken on in order to stand up for science against charlatans.

  21. #22 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Yes, I realize my position can easily be reduced to a “God of the gaps” argument.

    It’s not just reducible to that, it IS that. And it’s a hopeless position and has been so for a long time.

  22. #23 jeffw
    October 30, 2006

    So… God will keep mutating until we choose the one we want, via (artificial) selection? Oom or Shmoom, or whatever? Isn’t this called “moving the goalposts”? (Creationists/ID’ers are quite good at that).

  23. #24 "Q" the Enchanter
    October 30, 2006

    “If you want to know about linguistics and history, theologins are admirable in their expertise.”

    I wonder why such aspects of religious texts wouldn’t better be attended to by classics scholars?

  24. #25 Warren
    October 30, 2006

    The Mormon answer is that the OT god is Jesus Christ. Apparently he was getting his training wheels, trying out Papa God’s tall chair. Hence the flood, the irrationality, etc. God’s child, not God Himself.

    Really. They sincerely honestly believe this shit.

  25. #26 Jud
    October 30, 2006

    Re Steve LaBonne’s statement that I was making a “God of the gaps” argument –

    Read (more) carefully. I am not arguing for the existence of God. I’m saying we don’t know enough about the universe to call atheism a scientific hypothesis/principle; we certainly don’t know enough, i.e., have actual evidence, to call any religious belief a scientific hypothesis/principle.

    IOW: Atheism seems more consistent with the current state of human knowledge, but the state of that knowledge hasn’t reached the point yet where we can call arguing for atheism (or religion) “doing science.”

  26. #27 GH
    October 30, 2006

    SusanC

    You sometimes see atheists arguing against positions that basically no-one – neither the theologians nor the laity – actually believes in.

    e.g. Over at The Valve we had Adam Roberts arguing that transubstantiation is empirically falsifiable:
    http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/terry_eagletons_traditional_theology_and_a_new_version_of_pascals_wager/

    But as a claim it is easily falsified; the bread does not become flesh.
    But the official Catholic doctrine is that the empirically measurable properties of the bread do not change:
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05573a.htm
    .. and a typical Catholic will know full well (from personal experience) that the communion wafer does not have the phyically measurable properties of flesh

    The link you provided should provide any rational human with alot of comedy. The wafer to most catholics transforms after it is taken and that is not a strawman argument. Your doing the exact thing PZ is speaking about, everyone believes something different. But none have any stronger arguments.

  27. #28 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    As long as you refuse to acknowledge the perfectly obvious but not-spoken-in-polite-society fact that gods are no more compatible with current scientific knowledge than are Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapots (despite the existence of neither being formally disprovable), you are indeed putting forth a flabby agnostic version of the god-of-the-gaps argument. Why bother? If you think this is a viable tactic for appeasing the religiously deluded then I am afraid I think you are very much mistaken. Their emotional attachment is to Big Daddy in the sky, not to “the God of the philosophers”.

  28. #29 junk science
    October 30, 2006

    we don’t know enough about the universe to call atheism a scientific hypothesis/principle

    Lucky, then, that it’s not a scientific hypothesis or principle, just the refusal to accept a hypothesis unsupported by evidence.

  29. #30 Larry Moran
    October 30, 2006

    Let’s not lose sight of the forest. This is a war between superstition and rationalism.

    The belief in supernatural beings is only one form of superstition but it’s the one that Dawkins deals with in his book. It doesn’t matter whether your favorite God is kind, ethereal and adopts a hands-off policy with respect to the existing natural world or whether he is mean, corporal, and interferes frequently. Both types of God are delusions.

    Dawkins defines the God Hypothesis as,

    … there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.

    I challenge every “religious” person who rejects this God to stand up and be counted. Instead of beating around the bush and whining about different kinds of personal gods, why not just come out and admit that you don’t believe in a supernatural being who created the universe? If you can’t bring yourself to deny that kind of God then you’re on the side of superstition.

    We’ll deal with other kinds of deist and pantheist Gods later. For now, I’d be happy to live in a world that rejected the straightforward version of God that Dawkins describes. This is the God that Ted Haggart believes in and it’s the God that’s worshiped by the leaders of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

  30. #31 Derick Ovenall
    October 30, 2006

    I thank Susan C for setting us straight on the question of transubstantiation: I haven’t heard such a good piece of sophistry in a long time, and it confirms my opinion of theology. If theologians do also study reality, as PZ asserts, perhaps they should call these studies something else, such as “historio-theology”. Apparently, catholics can have their cake and eat it when they attend Mass. How conveniently unfalsifiable.

  31. #32 Peter Lund
    October 30, 2006

    stratagem, not strategem.

  32. #33 Kristine
    October 30, 2006

    Before you can debate the existence of any God you first have to establish what God is.

    I think that humanity has failed to do that after thousands of years of talking about it, because God is actually defined in terms of the negative (not of the world, not physical, not this and not that). Being a mere negation of what exists, no one will ever establish what God “is,” and that’s what theologians call the “mystery” of God. It’s no mystery. They just call the empty glass “full” of something else.

    I just read God Delusion in a marathon session yesterday and need to go over it again (I must say that debating religion is interesting, as debating politics is, but thinking about God himself as a living entity–something I still can’t get my head around–makes me claustrophobic). But what weak parts are we talking about? Those who say that Dawkins’ book is “weak” have only themselves to blame, for he is refuting their arguments, after all.

  33. #34 Jud
    October 30, 2006

    Re Steve LaBonne’s reply-to-my-response:

    Oh, indeed I do acknowledge that it is “perfectly obvious” that gods are not compatible with our current knowledge (though in comparison with Russell’s teapots, I suppose I’d want to know what the NSA, et al., know about orbiting objects – they may in fact be able to disprove the orbiting teapot hypothesis to a level of reasonable scientific certainty:).

    I’m not at all proposing to “appeas[e] the religiously deluded.” I am proposing to provoke the religious and the atheists equally by telling them that neither group can claim a level of supporting evidence that we would think necessary before calling a hypothesis “scientific” in other contexts (e.g., cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology).

    I am also questioning whether it is worthwhile to expend scientific (as opposed to say, philosophical) energy/discussion/inquiry on this God business, or whether there aren’t much more fruitful things about which to seek scientific knowledge.

  34. #35 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Strawman alert: Who is spending scientific effort on “this God business”? Certainly not Dawkins, who long ago ceased to be a practicing scientist. Scientists are busy with their research, and a majority of them find atheism so obvious as to be hardly worth discussing.

  35. #36 Jud
    October 30, 2006

    Steve LaBonne: “Who is spending *scientific* effort on ‘this God business?’ Certainly not Dawkins, who long ago ceased to be a practicing scientist.”

    Well, that’s actually a bit disappointing. I was wondering whether I might want to read TGD, but I am much less interested in “this God business” than I am in good science writing.

    Those who’ve read Dawkins’ latest: Any opinions on which of his books (TGD included) might best reward someone interested in good science writing?

  36. #37 MJ Memphis
    October 30, 2006

    Larry Moran:
    “We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God”
    -point 3 from the “Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and Mahayana”, World Buddhist Sangha Council

    So, it sounds like there are a few hundred million that would meet your challenge right there.

  37. #38 bob koepp
    October 30, 2006

    I don’t think anybody is expending _scientific_ effort on this the questio of god’s existence, for reasons alluded to by Jud (among others). That doesn’t prevent evangelists, whether of theistic or athesitic stripe, from expending a lot of effort on the question. And of course, there are a few who make an effort to be clear about the epistemic context of all sides of the exchange (it rarely rises to the level of debate).

  38. #39 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Dawkins is a very good science popularizer (pace Larry Moran!) which is what Oxford pays him for. Any of his books would be worth reading.

  39. #40 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    “Atheistic evangelists” my ass. The closest approach- i.e., not close at all- you’ll see to that among working scientists is someone like PZ, and his blog has plenty of scientific content along with the discussions about atheism. And in the US, the reason why a biologist might come to feel called upon to publicly oppose the influence of religion is rather obvious, and is left as an exercise for the reader.

  40. #41 George
    October 30, 2006

    Bazillions of words have to be wasted because of one simple fact:

    Somebody long ago came up with a dumb idea about a fantasy God.

    What a fucking joke. It’s just going to go on and on and on and on like that dumb Energizer bunny because people get wrapped up in amazingly complex details about nothing.

    Dawkins is refreshing because he understands that the very idea of a fantasy god is just a load of horse hockey invented to make someone feel good a long time ago. His answer? RIDICULE.

    I never cease to marvel at the human ingenuity for making arguments one way or the other about absolutely nothing.

    Jeebus, I am sick of this!

  41. #42 Jim Harrison
    October 30, 2006

    If the various theological notions could really be boiled down to Oom and God, we’d have a chance. Unfortunately, neither term of the proposed dichotomy is univocal. On the Oom side, for example, the sum total of existant things is clearly not the same as the condition of the possibility of existence, the prime mover, man helping man, being qua being, ultimate concern, necessary being, or any one of the umpteen other ideas that have been floated over the centuries. A comprehensive account of theologies would be like a field guide to the beetles of North America except that we have some notion of what counts as a beetle, whereas anything that any somebody thinks is a theological concept is a theological concept. One can imagine a sort of meta-theology (or meta-atheism) that ordered these notions, perhaps by their psychological or sociological roles, and responded to them all. It is apparently impossible to be either a theist or an atheist simpliciter.

  42. #43 lockean
    October 30, 2006

    Kristine,

    The weakness of the argument made by Dawkins in The God Delusion are less in the area of factual truth (though Dawkins makes errors here and there as does any author), but in the area of effectiveness.

    I have no problem with Dawkins’ cursory, cover-the-ground approach to relgious arguments. He gets the gist and manages to convey the basics in a few sentences or paragraphs. I don’t mind the inevitable minor inaccuracies, muddle and skating this method introduces. But the fact is, it pisses off too many other people who take pride in their exacting, sophisticated knowledge of various specialities, and for what?

    As PZ pointed out in a previous post and as many comments in the threads attest, theology is irrelevant to modern religion anyway. Dawkins could write a 10,000 page book disproving every argument with exacting precision, but that would reinforce the notion that those arguments are legitimate and worthy of such treatment. Plus few sane people would waste their time reading 10,000 pages of metaphysical bullshit. As Sean Carroll points out in the link theology’s rational arguments–cosmological and design–have already been disproven.

    So what do we do?

    What Dawkins proved to me is that proof isn’t enough. Sensing as I read that this approach won’t fly, it just won’t work, and having that confirmed by the reviews, made it a valuable book to me. From David Hume to Bertand Russell to Dawkins, atheists have been demonstrating the rational flaws of religion. Meanwhile religion has (IMO) gotten more dangerous not less so. Atheists aren’t at fault, but there might be better strategies we haven’t yet arrived at. At least it’s worth thinking about.

  43. #44 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    A statement that I imagine many of us could agree on is that Dennett’s book is considerably better than Dawkins’s.

  44. #45 AJ Milne
    October 30, 2006

    I, for one, find the philosopher’s gods every bit as ridiculous as their
    Aunt Mildred’s magical sky daddy.

    Yeah, gods. Because there *are* several. Which one is advanced, again, depends on who’s speaking–the only real constant is the indignant rejoinder to the critic that no, that’s not *my* view of god you’re dismantling–or not the view of the ‘sophisticated’…

    And the speaker so protesting, inevitably, is of course a member of the sophisticated. You can tell because they say so.

    But it’s woo, wishful thinking, bizarrely disjointed reasoning and intellectual inertia all the way to the bottom, whichever concoction they then bring forward–in the unlikely event they can even be coerced to say anything halfway concrete about their notions. You get either a brilliantly neo*-Deist construction in which the presence or absence of the entity has utterly no consequence whatsoever for the universe we can observe (let’s call it the orbiting teapot god, for short; the illustration seems to have legs), or vague notions about a ‘god’ that somehow lives in all of us, with or without confused Jungian ideas (and note that it’s pretty much redundant to take anything Jungian and confuse it further) of a collective unconsciousness, thrown in for good measure.

    All in all, the only difference between a philosopher’s notion that there are plausible gods and a child’s belief in the tooth fairy is the number of footnotes that may be involved.

    * My term. Fair distinction from the original Deists, I’d think, as they, at least, actually argued that studying nature might lead to knowledge of their deity. As opposed to the contemporary practice of carefully redefining the deity so no observation could ever exclude its existence.

  45. #46 QrazyQat
    October 30, 2006

    This part of religion resembles — surprise! — pseudoscience. Even less pseudo and more fringe things like the “aquatic ape” idea have this (in my critiques of that I refer to this as ZING!ability) as the creature ZINGS! off to whatever corner/version of the idea that offers refuge from the particular criticism at hand.

  46. #47 Stephen Frug
    October 30, 2006

    This is a manual track-back (since blogger doesn’t do track-backs) Sean’s post inspired a long one of my own, in the course of which I discuss some of what P.Z. says here — my ultimate point is sort of a variation on P.Z.’s comment earlier in this thread, although I think I have a different spin on it. As a teaser, the Bible gets compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you’re interested, you can read it here:
    http://stephenfrug.blogspot.com/2006/10/fruitful-inconsistencies.html

    Thanks for linking to Sean, P.Z. — a fascinating read.

  47. #48 quork
    October 30, 2006

    I am not arguing for the existence of God. I’m saying we don’t know enough about the universe to call atheism a scientific hypothesis/principle;

    You are playing word games with yourself. No one here wants to play your game with you.

  48. #49 quork
    October 30, 2006

    But this kind of distinction is everywhere. I could write an elegant post on the difference between the atheism of the unbelievers and the atheism of the philosophers.

    Neither of which would bear any noticable resemblance to the atheist of the theists. You know, the one who disbelieves in god(s) so he/she can engage in immoral activity without fear of punishment, or who is atheist because he/she is angry at god(s). the kind who is portrayed in productions like this:

    Film Star Chris Pine Set for Off-Broadway’s The Atheist

    By: Michael Portantiere

    Film star Chris Pine will star in the Off-Broadway premiere of Ronan Noone’s solo play The Atheist at Center Stage, November 24-December 23. The show, which will be directed by David Sullivan, will open officially on November 29.

    Described as a dark comedy about a rising-star journalist’s relentless quest for fame, The Atheist was previously seen in the Breaking Ground Festival at Boston’s Huntington Theater, starring Campbell Scott…

  49. #50 Kristine
    October 30, 2006

    Lockean, that’s interesting. I agree that the book pisses people off. The question is (and this is not as obvious as it may seem) why?

    After all, I came away with a sense of how deeply Dawkins cares about human beings, and it really astonishes me that human beings should get angry that another human being would esteem human beings above gods. It reminds me of the women during the suffragette movement who resented the suffragettes. What were they angry about?

    What I discovered while reading The God Delusion is that I didn’t enjoy it as much as his other books, because while I enjoy Dawkins’ voice I didn’t enjoy the subject matter (God, as opposed to religion). That made me realize something about myself, which is that I have a visceral response to the idea of God that borders on my reaction to being in a small confined space, and I don’t choose that at all, whereas religious believers enjoy believing in God, apparently. I say “apparently” because–and I am someone really in touch with her feelings, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get gal–the whole thing gives me a stomach-ache.

    So the believer and I are irrevocably estranged, and I don’t know how anyone can “argue” around that. Believers tell me to “open my heart,” which is condescending, because I’m out there all the time–I’m a terrible liar and I’m terrible at hiding my feelings, and I need to “open my heart?” Damn, it’s open already. My heart’s open, the believer’s heart is (I trust) open, and we don’t like the same thing, and that’s it. I mean, why are some people fans of Michael Landon? Dr. Phil? Bleh! It’s the same thing.

    Not only do I not believe in God, I wouldn’t want him to exist. What a killjoy! I don’t get this sense of comfort that God provides. So maybe people will never be persuaded by atheists as long as they have this need to be told what to do. As long as I’m not thinking about God, I’m happy.

    I have yet to read Dennett’s book but he’s next.

  50. #51 George
    October 30, 2006

    There needs to be a Richard Dawkins Halloween mask.

    Aaaaaaahhhhhhh! Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! Richard Dawkins! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh!

    In his next book, I hope he really lets loose on the nuts. He’s really being too nice in God Delusion.

    A great book could be made of the great comments posted here and elsewhere that revel in and reveal the sheer absurdity of god belief.

    Politeness be damned.

  51. #52 Scott Hatfield
    October 30, 2006

    Steve LeBonne:

    The true state of affairs is not that the majority of scientists find atheism obvious, but that all workers who are actually doing science correctly regard supernatural claims as irrelevant to their practice. Scientists, by definition, are involved in an atheistic enterprise.

    The difference matters, I think. Sure, I’m a theist, but one could as a personal matter radically committed to non-belief and yet not wish to conflate atheism per se with science. You are correct to note that Dawkins is not a practiciing scientist; however, unlike his previous books, ‘The God Delusion’ is not primarily concerned with popularizing science or with debating constructs within evolutionary theory. Rather, it’s purpose is philosophical and I fear his ambition leads him to incautiously blur the distinction between what science can support and what it can’t. Despite the disclaimer implied in this article’s title, for example, most readers are likely to receive the impression that he thinks that science can be used to ‘prove’ his philosophical position:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-dawkins/why-there-almost-certainl_b_32164.html

    Read it for yourself. The implication in this extract is pitiable. Even if Christianity is just another ‘delusion’, it’s naive to think that the construct could be falsified by testing the DNA of an alleged ‘Jesus’, or that in fact the doctrine of the Virgin Birth actually has any testable consequences. Respectfully submitted…SH

  52. #53 Terry
    October 30, 2006

    Theologians remind me af an engineer building a bridge across a gorge. He estimates the distance across and guesses the strength of materials and then calculates to ten decimal points all the next calculations for the design

  53. #54 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Scott- I remember seeing polling results indicating that the majority of scientists are actual, not just facultative, unbelievers. I certainly agree with you that this is not necessary for doing good science; one can point to quite a few examples showing that.

    Yes Dawkins is making philosophical points. They are points wth which I agree and which for a number of reasons I think need to be made forcefully, publically and repeatedly. Your mileage of course varies. I can certainly live with agreeing to disagree about that.

  54. #55 MOMUS
    October 30, 2006

    Sorry PZ Meyer isn’t a working scientist (when precisely was the last scientific paper he published? – before anyone asks I have published this year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society series B – Biological Sciences).

    PZ is a overblown blowhard of a science teacher with delusions of his own grandeur and intellectual competency* and very little knowledge of the philosophy of science, epistemology or ontological issues with regard to truth and knowledge if he is to maintain that science proves ‘God’ doesn’t exist with a truth value of P=1. Unless Meyer’s is himself both omnicompetent and omniscient and understands/comprehends ontologically objective reality – perhaps he could let in on the ultimate truth of everything (he ‘knows’ all and only makes statements with a truth-value of P=1).

    Strong atheism does not so much go against any evidence but simply beyond it. We all have foundational beliefs that we hope are true and which go beyond the available evidence. I personally agree with Hume – it’s either nothing or a something that we seemingly can know nothing about. I don’t lie awake at night worrying about the issue. And religion isn’t going to go away because you scream ‘IDIOT’ in people’s faces or use the mad/bad/stupid trope.

    *actually more like delusions of adequacy.

  55. #56 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Those of us who wish to actively oppose theism, MOMUS, generally do so because of its noxious socio-political effects. I for one am not inclined waste energy bothering about other people’s filthy intellectual habits as long as they don’t have such public consequences. Such unfortunately is not true of religion.

    (Be careful how you cite Hume on atheism, becaue HE had to be careful how he expressed himself in public lest he find himself imprisoned or worse.)

  56. #57 Steve_C
    October 30, 2006

    Talk about pompous….

    “Sorry PZ Meyer isn’t a working scientist (when precisely was the last scientific paper he published? – before anyone asks I have published this year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society series B – Biological Sciences).”

    Oooooo. It’s ROYAL even. Provide a link wankahhh.

    And it’s MYERS not Meyer.

    Here’s his resume you blow hard. Last published in 2002. Unless PZ has some updating to do.

  57. #58 Scott Hatfield
    October 30, 2006

    Steve LeBonne:

    Well-said, I concur…Sh

  58. #59 Aaron Baker
    October 30, 2006

    “PZ is a overblown blowhard of a science teacher with delusions of his own grandeur and intellectual competency* and very little knowledge of the philosophy of science, epistemology or ontological issues with regard to truth and knowledge if he is to maintain that science proves ‘God’ doesn’t exist with a truth value of P=1. ”

    Where, MOMUS, has Myers maintained that science proves God doesn’t exist? He can be pretty grating from time to time, but I haven’t noticed any delusions of grandeur; actually I think he has a pretty good handle on both his expertise (formidable and then some in biology) and his limits. I think you’re the blowhard here.

  59. #60 Aaron Baker
    October 30, 2006

    I’ll add that, good scientist that he is, Myers has said more than once that “proof” is for mathematicians. He deals in probabilities, and strong atheism is pretty Goddamned probable.

  60. #61 Steve_C
    October 30, 2006

    Here’s on intersting post on Religion and politics.

    “On the other hand, the evangelical view of this matter is, in fact, completely absurd. And not just absurd in a virgin birth, water-into-wine, I-believe-an-angel-watches-over-me kind of way. On this view, a person who led an entirely exemplary life in terms of his impact on the world (would an example help? Gandhi, maybe?) but who didn’t accept Jesus as his personal savior would be subjected to a life of eternal torment after his death and we’re supposed to understand that as a right and just outcome. That, I think, is seriously messed up.”

    http://www.matthewyglesias.com/archives/2006/10/message_discipline/

  61. #62 Scott Hatfield
    October 30, 2006

    MOMUS:

    One dedicated, tireless popularizer of science with a breadth of education and wide-ranging interests is worth a thousand degreed, technically skilled workers in some esoteric field who are poorly cultured.

    Was Carl Sagan an expert on every field in which he opined, and did he do a lot of meaningful original scientific work following the first broadcast of Cosmos?
    By no means.

    Did Sagan had a positive influence on a generation of scientists far greater than many contemporary Nobelists? Doubtless.

    Therefore I suggest, MOMUS, that you broaden your horizons in evaluating the worth of science popularizers, be they Dawkins, PZ or others. Chidingly….SH

  62. #63 George
    October 30, 2006

    “And religion isn’t going to go away because you scream ‘IDIOT’ in people’s faces or use the mad/bad/stupid trope.”

    How do you know? People spend hour upon hour upon hour in church being yelled at and it seems to have some effect.

  63. #64 MikeM
    October 30, 2006

    When it gets to the point where one group of superstitious people is debating a second group of superstitious people, I just sort of throw up my hands at that point.

    If the debate is whether the earth is balanced atop a giant turtle or a giant mushroom, and you’re considered unwashed if you don’t join one group or the other, well, I guess I need a shower.

  64. #65 Joel Sax
    October 30, 2006

    >Theologians play that one like a harp, though, turning it into a useful strategem. Toss the attractive, personal, loving or vengeful anthropomorphic tribal god to the hoi-polloi to keep them happy, no matter how ridiculous the idea is and how quickly it fails on casual inspection, while holding the abstract, useless, lofty god in reserve to lob at the uppity atheists when they dare to raise questions.

    Could you perhaps dedicate an article to naming specifically which theologians do this so we can examine their works for ourselves and critique them accordingly? References would also help.

    Otherwise, I shall be forced to reducing biological scientists to giving us a two step when it comes to eugenics.

  65. #66 Gerard Harbison
    October 30, 2006

    before anyone asks I have published this year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society series B – Biological Sciences

    Whoop de doo. Just one paper this year?

  66. #67 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 30, 2006

    This year it is going to be Dawkoween for a change. (‘Oh no! Atheists aren’t satisfied with stealing Xmas!’) Let us see who makes the scariest effigy.

    “Oom”

    ???

    Wikipedia:
    “OOM may mean:

    * Oom is the Afrikaans word for “uncle””.
    (But also: “Out Of Memory, a pathological state of computer operation”. 🙂

    “Beware strawmen. They have a tendency to catch fire from time to time.”
    Wow – is that close to a strawman of a strawman?

    Kristine:
    Your feelings mirrors mine and that is why I like to mention the straitjacket of religion. It feels constricting, but also nonrational.

  67. #68 Kristine
    October 30, 2006

    Thank you, Torbjörn, “straitjacket” (and, for the GOP lately, “straightjacket”) about describes it.

    There needs to be a Richard Dawkins Halloween mask. Aaaaaaahhhhhhh! Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! Richard Dawkins! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! In his next book, I hope he really lets loose on the nuts. He’s really being too nice in God Delusion.

    George. I can’t stop laughing! But I hope that Dawkins settles down to write a memoir someday; he’s had an interesting life.

  68. #69 reason
    October 31, 2006

    Kristine

    It reminds me of the women during the suffragette movement who resented the suffragettes. What were they angry about?

    Isn’t it obvious? Misery needs company. If you have rationalised your suffering, you don’t want somewhat telling you that you were just an idiot all along. It is the women in repression social structures who do most of the repression.

  69. #70 Keith Douglas
    October 31, 2006

    reason: I’m remidned of a joke I saw once – mathematics is the only religion that can demonstrate that it is one. (A silly interpretation of the incompleteness theorems.)

    Another joke I saw once related to our theme is that professors of theology still believe; religious studies professors don’t.

    SusanC: Transubstantiation is indirectly falsifiable, by the process called “consilience”. Namely, we have learned that the pseudoAristotlean notion that properties of things can be moved around at will on top of a “prime matter” is false, and so …

  70. #71 john c. halasz
    October 31, 2006

    At the risk of stepping into the deep doo-doo here, as to why some, (myself included), find Dawkins’ polemics against religion objectionable, inspite of broadly agreeing with both his atheism and his valuation of natural science, it’s the sheer bumptiousness with which he conducts them, which borders on,- dare I say it,- philistinism, a narrow and reductive understanding/approach to the cultural and philosophical issues involved, which he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on. I myself am an atheist/indifferentist: it’s the same world and the same human existence for believers and unbelievers alike, such that nobody gets a leg up through privileging their own particular beliefs/rationality/egotism. What I object to in “militant” atheism is that it mirrors the very sort of chauvinism that it takes objection to in religious believers and adopts a simplistic and reductive,- dare I say “fundamentalist”?- approach to the complex web of beliefs comprising persons and societies, which gives rise to something all too like evangenlical zeal, as if the resolution of all the world’s problems would turn upon this issue. And that accomplishes little by way of understanding and elucidation of the issues that might be involved other than baiting his red meat supporters into frenzied assertions of their own complete and total “rationality” and the idiocy/duplicity of “irrational” others. Most of all it leads on to unreflective affirmations of “metaphysical naturalism”, without noticing the oxymoron. Why “metaphysical”? Isn’t just plain naturalism a perfectly adequate framework for investigating and resolving questions in its purview, without any need to extend that framework beyond its competency? Bluntly put, the modern world, (natural science included), is for the most part not natural, but rather a built environment, i.e. artificial. So is there a purely naturalistic explanation, i.e. in terms of efficient causality alone, for that artificiality? Questions about human fate in a world that exceeds the human are not self-evidently scientific ones, and suppressing that topos in the name of a dubious identification of scientific progress with human progress is scarcely a “scientific” procedure. Still less “scientific” is the effort to reduce religious conceptions to intra-worldly empirical “objects”, while ignoring the socio-cultural complexion of the framework from which they arise.

    But probably that saddest part and worst fault of Dawkins’ style of polemic, whereby all religion is reduced to religious fundamentalism in the name of a “scientific” “Enlightenment fundamentalism”, (see Ian Buruma),- and all believers are viewed as inherently irrational, stupid, or self-serving, regardless of what their own reasonings and self-conceptions might be, is that it misrecognizes the “enemy”, socio-politically speaking, which is not religion per se, but rather the functionalization of religion in a political-ideological deployment on behalf of dominant vested interests. Contemporary right-wing Christian fundamentalism is not just some sudden and inexplicable outburst of irrationality and ignorance, whatever its historical antecedents, but rather a deliberately crafted and manipulated phalangist movement. Attacking religious belief per se, rather than the distortions and instrumentalizations of its normative contents, which are less about the cognitive understanding of the natural world than the social ordering of ethical relations with respect to collective fate, not only badly misses the point interpretively, but serves to re-enforce what it ostensibly opposes, precisely by blocking off any communicative understanding and deliberation, any search for, broadly speaking, rational common ground. But that would involve normative considerations and judgments about the political economy of the United States that are clearly not for the “scientifically” minded.

  71. #72 Steve LaBonne
    October 31, 2006

    a narrow and reductive understanding/approach to the cultural and philosophical issues involved, which he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on.

    This can politely be described as “tendentious”, and suggests to me that you haven’t given a very attentive reading to the book. Dawkins is a cultured man, has very appreciative things to say in his book about religion’s past contributions to culture, and actually recommends MORE STUDY of religion in schools, and in particular of the King James Bible, which as he rightly says is essential to anyone who would appreciate English literature (as well as for the Old Testament brutality which ought to open the eyes of many believers who aren’t as well-versed in the Good Book as they imagine they are). What he objects to is indoctrination in the dogmas of a particular religion- I should hope you don’t have a problem with that objection. (PZ gets all this correct in his Seed review, the only reviewer to do so as far as I am aware.)

    And he is on very firm philosophical ground indeed in saying that credulity in general, not merely its most fundamentalist varieties, is a bad thing. Do you wish to argue against that proposition?

    Having said that, I will repeat that I think Dennett has written a better book, a more serious contribution to the study of religion as a social and evolutionary phenomenon. But what is old-hat to me in Dawkins’s book may well be eye-opening to some readers who still in the grip of their childhood religious indoctrination and who have had little exposure to self-confident unbelief.

  72. #73 truth machine
    October 31, 2006

    Contemporary right-wing Christian fundamentalism is not just some sudden and inexplicable outburst of irrationality and ignorance, whatever its historical antecedents, but rather a deliberately crafted and manipulated phalangist movement.

    You’re right, but it’s ridiculous to say that such political considerations aren’t for the “scientifically” minded; Chomsky does a fine job of explaining why American intelligentsia as a whole fail in this regard. And of course it isn’t just Christian fundamentalism — Islamic fundamentalism too is treated as something like a genetic disease rather than a political consequence, notably by Sam Harris.

  73. #74 kid bitzer
    November 1, 2006

    “We need two names for these two concepts, I think”

    philosophers of religion need to talk about a distinction rather like the one you mention, and often use two terms employed by Pascal:

    the “god of the geometers” for the abstract, non-personal, bloodless one
    vs.
    “god of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob” for the personal, crotchety white-bearded dude.

    Of course, Pascal was using the divide to campaign for his irrationalist, personal come-to-Jesus conception, against the more abstract, ontological-argument god of natural theology. (“Geometers” because the quasi-logical proofs of god in Anselm & Aquinas reminded him of geometry proofs).

    Anyhow–your “Oom” is usually called “the god of the geometers”.

  74. #75 Terry
    November 2, 2006

    Why should a theologian know more about God than Dawkins or me for that matter? When I was a christian I had an image of god that I was certainly unable to explain. More a feeling I suppose. I heard a story of a person who was blind an then had sight restored by an operation. She saw a tea pot on the table and asked what it was,only when she picked it up and handeled it did she recognise it.So you could recognise god with perhaps one of your senses and not by the others. Well maybe only your six sense whatever that is and then try to explain it to someone using their five senses. I think the two gods we talk about, the philosophical god and the christian god are the same god, only the christian god has had all the humnan characteristics attached to her,good and bad. For thirty years I have tried to understand why my friends who are fairly intellegent stilll believe in a loving personal god when I moved on. The only reason I can think of is that I went to University and studied biological science in the 1950’s while they studied law or accountancy an I have had a life long interest in science even though I am not a professional scientist, just a farmer. In the 1950’s we didn’t even know about DNA,and Darwin and evolution were not even mentioned. I have had to make an effort to study these things, especially DNA to know what is going on and not just take a casuall interest in them. So maybe its not so difficult to understand why people won’t accept evolution. However even my cleaning lady said to me , its much more reasonable to accept evolution than creationism as an explanation of life so maybe she is more intellegent than my friends.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.