Pharyngula

Steven Weinberg reviews The God Delusion. It’s almost entirely positive—one exception is that he takes Dawkins to task for being too even-handed and well-intentioned towards Islam. I particularly enjoyed his criticisms of the critics. Here’s a familiar argument:

The reviews of The God Delusion in the New York Times and the New Republic took Dawkins to task for his contemptuous rejection of the classic “proofs” of the existence of God. I agree with Dawkins in his rejection of these proofs, but I would have answered them a little differently. The “ontological proof” of St Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater. And what could this greatest actually existing thing be, but God? QED. From the monk Gaunilo in Anselm’s time to philosophers in our own such as J. L. Mackie and Alvin Plantinga, there is general agreement that Anselm’s proof is flawed, though they disagree about what the flaw is. My own view is that the proof is circular: it is not true that one can conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived unless one first assumes the existence of God. Anselm’s “proof” has reappeared and been refuted in many different forms, it is a little like an infectious disease that can be defeated by an antibiotic, but which then evolves so that it needs to be defeated all over again.

I’ve always felt that leap from a conception to reality was unwarranted and a cheat; but then, maybe that part isn’t in the modal logic version that gets touted now and then. I suspect that the modal logic business is like a variant coat protein to help the nonsense slip by the immune defenses.

He also jumps on the tired “amateur philosopher” line of attack.

I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.

Weinberg is a little more sanguine about the evangelical threat in America, but then he doesn’t quite have the full-throated assault on his discipline in the schools that we biologists face…yet. He sees a sign of weakness in the degree of tolerance exhibited by Christianity—it’s a good thing, I agree, but I also think it means we should be rising up to finish the beast of faith off, not that we should relax our exertions.

Comments

  1. #1 John McKay
    January 18, 2007

    If today is an example of what we can expect now that you’re posting less, I suppose I can live with that.

  2. #2 Randall
    January 18, 2007

    So, you have to be a philosopher or, better yet, a theologists to discuss the existence of God, but anyone (mathematicians, lawyers, philosophers, theologists) is allowed to discuss the evidence for evolution without any of these silly “they don’t know what they’re talking about” complaints? Actually, that’s perfectly in line with many ID-type folk.

    Also, I can conceive of the perfect cheeseburger, a cheeseburger in paradise, if you will. Now, this cheeseburger must clearly have both the properties of existence (since if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be perfect) and accessibility for me to eat (likewise). Somehow this argument doesn’t get me a tasty meal.

  3. #3 Randall
    January 18, 2007

    *theologist. My spellchecker apparently doesn’t think the singular form exists.

  4. #4 Aerik
    January 18, 2007

    Ontological argument (any form): God by definition exists. Therefore he exists.

    WRONG

    It’s so obviously a cheat. A teapot orbiting jupiter is by definition something that exists. Therefore there must be a teapot orbiting jupiter, right? Right? No.

  5. #5 John
    January 18, 2007

    The barber shaves all those who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the barber?

    God must shave the barber, and therefore the barber is God.

    QED

  6. #6 Ed Darrell
    January 18, 2007

    In the last biology textbook battle in Texas in the 20th century, it was Kenneth Miller who showed up at the last Texas State Board of Education hearing on the matter and dazzled the board with answers to each and every objection, and a tremendous lesson on evolution for the members. In 2003, it was the chemists, Andrew Ellington, and Stephen Weinberg who made the defense.

    Physics may not be under the same assault, but Weinberg recognizes the threat. Between Weinberg’s public testimony on the value of good science and especially evolution, and the behind-the-scenes pushing of the other Texas Nobelists, evolution in the textbooks was saved.

    I don’t think Weinberg is quite so sanguine as you might think, P.Z. In any case, this is another case where Ben Franklin’s quip is appropriate: We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately. Weinberg’s public support of evolution against the barbarian threat was crucial and timely. He knows.

  7. #7 justawriter
    January 18, 2007

    … Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater.

    Umm … what about the imagination that “conceived” or should we say say instead “created” that entity, QED man created God.

  8. #8 Fernando Magyar
    January 18, 2007

    Who shaves the barber? That’s easy, Occam’s razor, which is why he looks like Darwin.

  9. #9 Ed Darrell
    January 18, 2007

    By the way, Martha Heil at the American Institute for Physics, put Weinberg’s testimony in favor of evolution in textbooks into wider circulation, here:
    http://www.aip.org/isns/reports/2003/081.html.

    Thank you Martha, thank you physicists.

  10. #10 Alexander Vargas
    January 18, 2007

    The ontological argument sounds interesting but to me it seems to have more to do with the concept of universe, than with the inevitably anthropomorphous concept of god.

    Pointing to the amateur level of dawkins is NOT like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Is Weinberg silly enough to buy that?
    All people can express their views on politics, but if you want to learn about politics, you go for a political scientist. And don’t you whine.
    Dawkins can express himself all he likes about anything. He has earned himself the amateur label because of silly statements, half-baked or frivolous arguments, “anecdotism” etc. All these people are saying is: we are not impressed, we have seen better. There is much better ways out there in defense of atheism, that is just a fact. Quite simply, someone must warn that Mr Dawkins is not precisely the state of the art for atheism ( or science, for that matter).

  11. #11 John Graham
    January 18, 2007

    I find Dawkins, and indeed most of the people who speak on this issue, to be too narrow-minded in their focus on “God”. There are many religions outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islam triumvirate that are equally based on mythology, and most of them do not believe in one all-mighty unmovable mover. Maybe we have a problem dressing down the Dalai Lama, but he, in his theology, is just as deluded as the Pope.

  12. #12 Abbie
    January 18, 2007

    Graham- AFAIK Dawkins has said multiple times he focuses on the Judeo-Christian God because it is the one he is the most familiar with, and its one that’s the biggest thorn in our side. I think his arguments would apply to any deity. Disproving the one we’re most familiar with seems a no-brainer.

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    January 18, 2007

    Maybe we have a problem dressing down the Dalai Lama, but he, in his theology, is just as deluded as the Pope.

    I certainly agree that the theological claims of Buddhism are on par with Christianity in terms of their delusional nature, but I would put the Lama at least one notch above the Pope, or any Christian leader outside of maybe Spong and the UU’s. He has said, after all, that if science were to conclusively show any tenet of Buddhism to be wrong, then science would win hands down. I recall Pope John Paul II, after begrudgingly accepting the reality of evolution, drawing the line at science discovering an explanation for consciousness that didn’t involve some sort of supernatural element (it was “incompatible with the Truth about man”, as I recall).

  14. #14 Paul
    January 18, 2007

    As far as Nagel’s “amateur philosophy” comment goes, I think it’s entirely fair. I talk about it here:

    http://bajillion.blogspot.com/2007/01/dawkins-nagel-and-god-delusion.html

    Nagel, as a philosopher himself, maybe blows some of the philosophy problems out of proportion, but Dawkins definitely dismisses ontological dualism as though he doesn’t understand that there are versions of it that 1) are widely, though not unanimously, supported by professional philosophers and 2) have nothing to do with religion per se. He also throws out moral absolutism in a similarly sloppy manner. It’s not that he’s wrong, it’s that he doesn’t even seem aware of the very powerful arguments on the other side.

    That said, it’s a terrific book otherwise, and on the narrow questions of religion he does a pretty thorough job. The documentary’s good, too.

  15. #15 Peter Ellis
    January 18, 2007

    I love the ontological argument.

    What is the most wonderful, majestic, powerful, *greatest* thing I can conceive? Why, it must be God!

    Now, since anything that exists is constrained by the laws of the physical Universe, while things that do not exist are limited only by imagination, a God that does not exist is far greater than one that does.

    Therefore God does not exist.

  16. #16 G. Tingey
    January 18, 2007

    The Barber is FEMALE

    Oh, and its quite obvious that the religious apologists have never come across set theory – with the exception of John Barrow, but I don’t think we want to go there, right now.

  17. #17 bernarda
    January 18, 2007

    “theological training”? What the hell is that? What importance can it have? Theology is on par with things like astrology. There is nothing to be learned from theology because it is entirely arbitrary with no basis in the real world.

  18. #18 ChuckO
    January 18, 2007

    In purely logical terms, the ontological argument can be refuted with one sentence. Existence is not a predicate.

  19. #19 shanks
    January 18, 2007

    Being an atheist, this is a good review but the Islam religion fanaticism angle is incorrect.

    Islam has ‘evolved’ less than christianity (in that religious beliefs tend to wither over time) because of it’s history and place. From the Crusades on, people of the Islamic faith had only their religion to turn to under continual christian fascism on them. So, with 2 nutter religions, one slowly losing steam and the other mired in its own contradictions, it all seems so ‘backward’ of those folks not to have moved on.

    Beirut, Morrocco used to be liberal muslim places. After the Middle East implosion from 1900s, oppressed people have only their religion to turn to and will do whatever under the circumstances; hence the bombers and suicide killers. The few muslim friends I have are all normal, sane guys but hit their kids and family, you’re in a world of hurt. Wouldn’t you too if your land and family were threatened?

    The Tamil tigers do it exactly like the Palestinians. Pure tactical suicide bombing. No religious indoctrination, just a fanatical devotion to a Tamil state in Sri Lanka.
    Quite a lot of places where there are muslims, there has been political trouble, so naturally people cling to the stupidest thing first, their religion to rationalise and justify their deeds.

    Steven provides the answer himself; as in the West as there is prosperity and peace, the value of religion drops. Leave the muslims alone, they would overthrow their religion.

    They don’t need
    1. a white man’s burden solution
    2. Don’t insult their intelligence in figuring out how to do an end run on thier own fundies.
    3. help on the pace at which they do it.

    Islam is *no* different from any other retarded religions, it’s just that people don’t want you to dictate how they should act.

  20. #20 Alex
    January 18, 2007

    I *cannot* conceive of something so great nothing greater can be conceived. As long as we’re talking concepts, one can always conceive of something as great…and then add a pony. Call it the argumentum ex Belle Waring.

    More broadly, this may just be my limited perception (argumentum ex Fafblog, come to think of it), but I find all these proofs in theism somehow unsatisfying. Intellectual empty calories. They all seem to end up being either circular or dependent on highly tendentious assumptions.

    But so many serious people seem to accept, if not the arguments, then at least their status as Great Thoughts. Is this because I’m missing something, or is it pure scholasticism?

  21. #21 craig
    January 18, 2007

    “The “ontological proof” of St Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater.”

    I’m no rocket surgeon, but the argument just sounds like complete gibberish to me. Not even just illogical, but nonsensical. But maybe that’s just me.

  22. #22 Jonathan Badger
    January 18, 2007


    it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.

    There are three ways in which people “judge the validity of astrology” or any such subject.

    1) Gut feeling that it is true or false.
    2) Reliance on experts.
    3) Actually reading the literature, seeing whether it makes sense or contains internal inconsistencies, logically incorrect statements, and assertions inconsistent with more supported fields of research.

    In practice, lots of us only get to step 1. Certainly I haven’t read any books about astrology. But there’s a problem there — while one’s own “goofy meter” is often a good guide, there are lots of non-intuitive things like quantum mechanics which can seem goofy to those not educated on the subject.

    That’s why step 2 is better than step 1. Certainly, being a non-physicist, I rely on the testimony of physicists who say that as weird as it is, quantum mechanics does work.

    But step 3 is really the only truly justified way to judge the validity of a subject. But it takes a lot of time and that’s why most people only use step 1 or 2. But if I were going to write a book debunking astrology I *would* devote lots of time to reading astrological literature so I could find the internal inconsistencies and so forth in order to point them out in my book.

    Similarly, debunking theology would be better served by reading theological literature and pointing out the flaws. Saying “well, the typical theist doesn’t know much theology so it doesn’t matter” doesn’t really hold water. The populace might not know theology, but the existence of a whole academic field with a huge literature gives theists the notion that there is evidence out there for their beliefs even they themselves don’t know it. Just asserting that theology is bullshit without any analysis of it is only going to convince people who *already* think it’s bullshit.

  23. #23 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Shame about Nagel. He was once a very interesting philosopher. He has devolved into a poster child for the deliquescence of Anglo-American philosophy as a serious intellectual discipline. But he has always been a closet dualist hiding behind the meaningless label of “anti-reductionism”.

  24. #24 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    With regard to the “ontological argument”, I will add that it has always- meaning, right back to the Greek pre-Socratics- been one of the chief occupational hazards of philosopers to imagine that they can establish the truth or falsity of contingent propositions (about the true, scientific methods for doing so they of course have no professional expertise whatever) by purely logical arguments (their specialty; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). This mental affliction should be met with pity, not with assignments for book reviews, not even in the likes of The New Republic.

  25. #25 reason
    January 18, 2007

    I like Peter Ellis’s argument.

    What does “greater” mean in this context exactly? And extending Peter Ellis’s argument, surely there is no logical reason to equate this imagined with greatest with the God of the Bible is there. Anything observed limitations of the Biblical God will disqualify it.

  26. #26 Baratos
    January 18, 2007

    Whenever someone argues for the existence of a perfect being, I always reply “Of course a perfect being exists–the cockroach!” I have yet to see a good, objective definition of what are perfect traits, so why not define it as “Everything a cockroach has?” 😛

  27. #27 Tukla in Iowa
    January 18, 2007

    “theological training”? What the hell is that?

    It means you spent years learning how to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  28. #28 Jon H
    January 18, 2007

    “Maybe we have a problem dressing down the Dalai Lama, but he, in his theology, is just as deluded as the Pope.”

    Not quite. As noted above, the Dalai Lama has said that if a tenet of Buddhism is contradicted empirically, then that tenet will have to change. (Supposedly, he himself changed a Tibetan tradition that the moon is a source of light, based on his own observations of the shadows on the face of the moon, via a telescope.)

    Also, note that unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t involve some cosmic spook granting you forgiveness, watching over you, wiping away phantom sins He was kind enough to lay on you to begin with, or granting access to a divine afterlife. Nobody says “Buddha is my copilot” unless they’re using it ironically to refer to the pot pipe in the ashtray.

    The ‘rewards’ such as they are, in Buddhism, are attained through mental training (with instructions) and long effort. And for all the mystical talk about “Nirvana”, as far as I can tell “Nirvana” is just a constant living state of taking the lemons life gives you and making lemonade. So to speak. In other words, Nirvana is not some mystical place, it’s this world seen and experienced in a different way which removes suffering (really, emotional suffering, not physical suffering. But if you’re physically hurt, it doesn’t help to add needless emotional pain on top.)

    Furthermore, the basic principle of Buddhism is cause-and-effect, which is not particularly mystical until you get into the hairy theories of how it transfers from one ‘rebirth’ (ie life) to the next. (Since the goal of Buddhism is to ‘end’ the cycle of rebirth, I see it as a metaphor for ending the series of mistakes or unwise behaviors that cause you suffering.) The core is that what you do now will have effects down the road, inherently, not because there’s some mystical being arranging things. If you don’t tighten the lid on the pickles, you may end up with a broken jar and a stinky mess if you later try to lift the jar by the lid. If you treat your coworkers badly, they won’t be very helpful later when you need them. Cause and effect. Not mystical.

    Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of mystical baggage loaded on from Hinduism and the native Bon religion, but at heart Buddhism has a lot less than, say, Catholicism. The main practices are meditation to increase concentration and to apply that concentration to examining the mind (ie, thoughts and mental processes). The effects of meditation are testable, and logically, a lot of time spent meditating should have effects just like a lot of time running, or playing piano.

  29. #29 Dennis
    January 18, 2007

    Amatuer philosophy does tend to lack the rigor that is characteristic of (some) professional philosophy, but even if it does suffer from the flaw associated with its amatuer character, that doesn’t strip it of value. Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars is a prime example of the best amatuer philosophy has to offer. Though a professional philosophy could have (not necessarily would have, mind you) made tigher arguments and treated the issues more comprehensively, it’s still one of the most valuable books one could study regarding the justice and war.

    It is disheartening to see professional philosophers (even quite prominent ones) exercising such an amatuerish fallacy as dismissing arguments due to their source (namely, an amatuer philosopher.) If the philosophy is poor as a consequence of it’s amatuer source, then it should be a simple matter to refute it without the benefit of logical fallacies.

  30. #30 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Nagel knows that, and he also knows that he’s not as smart as Hume, who by rights ought to have succeeded in killing off the ontological argument once and for all. That’s exactly why he has to resort to ad hominems in order to protect his irrational mysterian beliefs.

  31. #31 Bob
    January 18, 2007

    But he has always been a closet dualist hiding behind the meaningless label of “anti-reductionism”.

    Well, I wouldn’t say the label is meaningless — and certainly not all anti-(non-?)reductionists are dualists — but the “mysterian” label certainly does get annoying with Nagel.

  32. #32 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    The problem with “reductionism” is that the word has been used in so many different mutually incompatible senses. That’s why I feel that as a slogan “anti-reductionism” has become pretty much meaningless, at least without a great deal of further amplification as to exactly what is meant- and that explanation would be better off on its own without the label attached. More commonly “anti-reductionism”, as with Nagel, is basically a smoke screen for something that would sound less respectable if stated openly.

  33. #33 Grumpy Physicist
    January 18, 2007

    IMO, Steve LaBonne hits the philosophical nail on its pointy little head with:

    one of the chief occupational hazards of philosopers to imagine that they can establish the truth or falsity of contingent propositions…by purely logical arguments

    Which is one of the big reasons that philosphers don’t get a whole lot of respect in the physics community. Because for philosophers, it’s all about words and human perceptions of they way things *should* be.

    Early 20th century physics showed physicists, at least, that the universe doesn’t give a tinkers damn about the way humans think things *should* be. So now the prevailing view is ‘question ALL assumptions, no matter how fundamental, and back up that questioning with hard experimental evidence’.

  34. #34 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 18, 2007

    Weinberg has a distinctive and certain voice, though I could as well accuse him of being too well-intentioned. He is a physicist that likes to take the philosophical arguments on, instead of dismissing them as the hammer and nail obsession to get to truth that has occupied philosophers and theologists for millenniums. Many physicists seems to treat philosophy like PZ treat religion, tolerance but no respect.

    But in this case it is mostly his conclusion that we should not disrespect all religion equally I disagree with. As some commenters noted, it is mostly political, economical and perhaps cultural contingencies that makes the differences. I agree with that it may even be contraproductive to single out some.

    Though I don’t think that means that one should not point to the religion as a contributor when analyzing specific political trouble. Functionally, religions differ in what the believers are supposed to do.

    Dawkins definitely dismisses ontological dualism as though he doesn’t understand that there are versions of it that 1) are widely, though not unanimously, supported by professional philosophers and 2) have nothing to do with religion per se. He also throws out moral absolutism in a similarly sloppy manner.

    It is probably due to Dawkins background as a scientist – dualisms and moral arguments aren’t adequate when they meet reality. For example, physicists has made platonism a monism, neuroscientists doesn’t necessarily need qualia, and decoherence has put any remaining measurement problem outside the mind. With that in mind philosophic discussions seems less profitable here. I suspect Dawkins didn’t want to waste too much time on it after a rough analysis showing that it is precisely a waste of time.

  35. #35 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 18, 2007

    Weinberg has a distinctive and certain voice, though I could as well accuse him of being too well-intentioned. He is a physicist that likes to take the philosophical arguments on, instead of dismissing them as the hammer and nail obsession to get to truth that has occupied philosophers and theologists for millenniums. Many physicists seems to treat philosophy like PZ treat religion, tolerance but no respect.

    But in this case it is mostly his conclusion that we should not disrespect all religion equally I disagree with. As some commenters noted, it is mostly political, economical and perhaps cultural contingencies that makes the differences. I agree with that it may even be contraproductive to single out some.

    Though I don’t think that means that one should not point to the religion as a contributor when analyzing specific political trouble. Functionally, religions differ in what the believers are supposed to do.

    Dawkins definitely dismisses ontological dualism as though he doesn’t understand that there are versions of it that 1) are widely, though not unanimously, supported by professional philosophers and 2) have nothing to do with religion per se. He also throws out moral absolutism in a similarly sloppy manner.

    It is probably due to Dawkins background as a scientist – dualisms and moral arguments aren’t adequate when they meet reality. For example, physicists has made platonism a monism, neuroscientists doesn’t necessarily need qualia, and decoherence has put any remaining measurement problem outside the mind. With that in mind philosophic discussions seems less profitable here. I suspect Dawkins didn’t want to waste too much time on it after a rough analysis showing that it is precisely a waste of time.

  36. #36 poke
    January 18, 2007

    As I recall, Plantinga’s modal ontological argument just rephrases it all in terms of non-actual worlds and the one with God must be actual for it to be God, blah blah.

    If you accept that conceivability gives you absolutely nothing, which you should because the brain isn’t made of magical pixie dust, then you can reject all a priori argument. Just because I can conceive of X doesn’t mean there’s even a question or a “problem” of X’s existence (in the philosopher’s sense), or a question of any of X’s properties at all. A lot of people don’t realise that the majority of philosophy follows the model of the ontological argument: you conceive of something fictional and then you take the problems it poses to be actual. People who use philosophical arguments to trump empirical evidence commit the same error. Without the belief that conception renders some sort of existence, there can’t be first philosophy, since philosophy deals only in fictions that may or may not find useful application to the world. The whole notion that philosophy can pose problems for science is wrong.

  37. #37 Tycho the Dog
    January 18, 2007

    Jonathan Badger…

    Phil Plait debunks astrology pretty effectively his book ‘Bad Astronomy’ without the need to debate the minutiae of the astrologer’s art. It is dismissed on the basis of its own improbability – that our lives and personalities cannot be governed by the position of distant planets and phenomenally distant stars.

    Theology is all about achieving internal consistency for organised religions. But, as others have pointed out, the internal consistency of a religious system is not evidence of its material validity. I’d guess that most religions that have flourished and faded during human history have been internally consistent, but we still dismiss them as constructs of the human imagination.

    Wouldn’t better evidence for the truth of a religion be its external consistency? E.g., miracles, divine interventions, and so on – something indisputably and unequivocally ‘supernatural’.

  38. #38 quork
    January 18, 2007

    Also, I can conceive of the perfect cheeseburger, a cheeseburger in paradise, if you will…

    Yes, you are on to something there. It was good to see Weinberg give a shout-out to Guanilo of Marmoutiers, a contemporary of Anselm, whose Perfect Island argument was the first assault on the ontological “proof.”

  39. #39 Warren
    January 18, 2007

    Maybe we have a problem dressing down the Dalai Lama, but he, in his theology, is just as deluded as the Pope.
    Posted by: John Graham

    To the other defenses offered I’d add that Buddhism explicitly disallows the idea of a god or of souls, since either would have to be permanent, unchangeable, eternal things — and Buddhism refutes the possibility of such things based on the observable fact that nothing is permanent, everything changes, and therefore the idea of “eternal” is nonsense.

    Jon H went into some of the mechanics behind the philosophical explorations of the religion/philosophy. I tend to concur that Buddhism is heavily burdened by indigenous religion — in Japan it took on a Shinto flavor, in China it took on a Taoist cant; and in the Indus River Valley it smacks distinctly of Hinduism.

    I’d differ with his analysis in one respect, though; Buddhism isn’t really about ending suffering — it’s about ending attachment, which is the cause of suffering. (Attachment is the beginning and ending of the concept of “sin” in Buddhism.)

    As for the “rebirth” element — that was actually probably quite heretical at the time Siddhartha Gautama was teaching it 2500 years ago. Imagine Hindus being told that reincarnation (not rebirth) was actually impossible, and that “maya” was a false principle — there really was suffering going on, which meant by extension that the world must be, in some fundamental way, real.

    The idea of rebirth is a bit like a candle flame being passed from one wick to the next, and then the first candle being extinguished, with a sort of nebulous energy of some kind being passed along, but certainly not a soul — IOW, it’s mystical, feel-good hooey that doesn’t actually have to be believed in order for the philosophical aspects of Buddhism — or the principal practice, sitting meditation — to be used and explored.

    On the other hand, of course, the Dalai Lama does call himself the fifteenth incarnation of some holy muckamuck or other, though whether he actually believes it in his heart of hearts is a very different matter.

  40. #40 "Q" the Enchanter
    January 18, 2007

    One sentence disproof of AOA: The “greater than” relation presupposes that the elements of the relation both exist.

  41. #41 Bryson Brown
    January 18, 2007

    The link to Godel’s proof is illuminating– one very nice thing about logic is that you really need to put all the ingredients on the table before a proof will go through. There are a lot of strong (and strange) assumptions there, in rather intimidating formal guise. Def 2 is very peculiar: I read it as claiming that phi is or expresses the essence(?) of x if and only if every property of x is fixed by its being phi… Df. 3 and Ax 5 tell us that there is a property, E, such that x has it if and only if every property phi that expresses an essence of x is such that there necessarily exists some x that has phi, and that this strange property E is a perfection. There’s more, of course, but the point is clear already– it takes a lot of deep, dark metaphysical assumptions to prove God’s existence. Duh!

  42. #42 Warren
    January 18, 2007

    …it takes a lot of deep, dark metaphysical assumptions to prove God’s existence. Duh!
    Posted by: Bryson Brown

    Or one Babel fish.

  43. #43 Jonathan Badger
    January 18, 2007

    Phil Plait debunks astrology pretty effectively his book ‘Bad Astronomy’ without the need to debate the minutiae of the astrologer’s art. It is dismissed on the basis of its own improbability – that our lives and personalities cannot be governed by the position of distant planets and phenomenally distant stars.

    Haven’t read the book, but that doesn’t seem like a very good argument. It’s just the “argument from incredulity” as Dawkins calls it, or the “goofy meter” as I did. Sometimes that argument leads to correct conclusions, as when it causes people to reject astrology and other newage woo, but it can just as well be wrong as when it causes people to reject quantum mechanics or evolution.

    But, as others have pointed out, the internal consistency of a religious system is not evidence of its material validity. I’d guess that most religions that have flourished and faded during human history have been internally consistent, but we still dismiss them as constructs of the human imagination.

    But they *aren’t* internally consistent — certainly Judaism/Christianity aren’t, at least. That’s the major reason for rejecting them.

    Wouldn’t better evidence for the truth of a religion be its external consistency? E.g., miracles, divine interventions, and so on – something indisputably and unequivocally ‘supernatural’.

    Well, I was raised Episcopalian, and like in most liberal forms of theism there was very little in the way of faith healing or other “miracles” or “intervention” (at least in the present day — they were a bit vague as to whether Jesus actually had superpowers back in the day). Pretty much the only supernatural element was the afterlife — conveniently outside experimental verification. But realizing that even the theological explanations for the afterlife weren’t internally consistent was probably the start of my path to atheism.

  44. #44 CJColucci
    January 18, 2007

    Concerning the ontological argument:

    1. I do not know, and no one has ever explained to my satisfaction, what it even means to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. I don’t understand wthat it means even to conceive of the “greatest possible X,” (does the greatest possible hamburger have a seeded bun or not? does the greatest possible general have a beard? how tall is the greatest possible poet?), let alone “greatest possible thing of all possible great things.

    2. What’s so great about actually existing?

  45. #45 Sonja
    January 18, 2007

    A good friend of mine (who has a PhD in Psychology), said that she believes in God because we have concepts of good and evil. And the only way we could have the concepts of good and evil is if there exists in the universe a thing of total good and a thing of total evil. She calls the total good “God” and the total evil “the Devil”.

    I was stunned because the argument was utter nonsense. I couldn’t figure out how she bought this premise that all human concepts had to have physical manifestations in order to exist in the human mind? Does this mean there is a being of total angst? one of total shame? one of total silliness?

    There are smart people, such as my friend, want desperately to fit in to mainstream society and therefore know they have to be theists. They just look for more philosophical-sounding explanations to justify their irrational beliefs.

  46. #46 Steve Watson
    January 18, 2007

    When I read Lovejoy, it occurred to me that Anselm’s proof really only makes sense if you’re thinking in terms of the Great Chain. Outside of that, it’s not obvious that there could be any singular “greatest entity”, or even what “greatness” means.

  47. #47 GH
    January 18, 2007

    Dawkins can express himself all he likes about anything. He has earned himself the amateur label because of silly statements, half-baked or frivolous arguments,

    Puh-leez Vargas. His arguments go to the core. His detractors never actually rebut him but say he doesn’t address this or that which of course would take him 1000’s of years to rebut each silly point in 1000’s of religions.

    He just goes to the underlying premises.

  48. #48 Greco
    January 18, 2007

    All you need to do to show astrology cannot work is to point out that it is based on arbitrary drawings in the sky that vary widely across cultures and the equally arbitrary association of balls of rock, gas or plasma with the personalities of imaginary beings.

  49. #49 Beren
    January 18, 2007

    Haven’t read the book, but that doesn’t seem like a very good argument. It’s just the “argument from incredulity” as Dawkins calls it, or the “goofy meter” as I did.

    I have only read the debunking of astrology on his web site (http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/astrology.html), but that argument wasn’t an argument from incredulity. He first discussed the fundamental forces and explained why none of them can be reconciled to the claims of astrology. Then he supposes that some as-yet unknown force is responsible, and explains why that can’t be. Then he supposes that it works anyway, and demonstrates that the claims are too vague, contradictory, and frequently innacurate to be valid. Finally, he provides links to a survey paper that summarizes the results of most (all?) then-extant results of research into astrology and concludes that astrologers’ predictions are no more accurate than chance.

    It was far more than a simple argument that he didn’t understand how it could work, so it couldn’t work (:

  50. #50 grigory
    January 18, 2007

    Over at John Lynch’s blogged response to this post, he has taken to censoring my comments. Those who read “Stranger Fruit” will have noticed that Lynch often mercilessly cuts into commenters who make typos (especially if they agree with PZ). Well, I merely pointed out that he often makes the very same sort of errors. In his response to this post about Weinberg, for example, he refers to Dawkins as “Dawkin’s”, and on his webpage he writes “surrpunding” for “surrounding”. None of this is very important: everyone makes this kind of mistake. They’re trivial. It’s just this triviality that I wanted to point out to him, in the hopes that he would stop ripping into people in such a pedantic way. No such luck… apparently John can only dish it out… not very good at taking it. I thought this might interest you, PZ, as it sheds some light on the ethical character of your self-styled opponent.

  51. #51 Sammy
    January 18, 2007

    You know, it’s precisely because of silliness like Anselm’s argument that I can’t take people criticizing “amateur philosophers” seriously.

    The “ontological proof” of St Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater.

    I can conceive of something that sucks harder than all of the things that suck. The thing I have conceived of must exist, since if it did not, there would be something like it that actually exists and would therefore suck even worse.

    I can conceive of something which is even MORE ROCKING than Ted Nugent. (I know – hard to believe. But stick with me.) If I can conceive of something which rocks even harder than Ted Nugent, then it certainly must exist, because its existence would rock even harder than its nonexistence.

    Of course, the latter formulation is easily disproved through the simple observation that nothing rocks harder than Ted Nugent. End of discussion.

  52. #52 Bryson Brown
    January 18, 2007

    Not (I hope) to be too pedantic, but even the Babel-fish argument needs some metaphysics to get going. It would require ruling out a ‘universal language of thought,’ I think. Otherwise, we could (maybe) build or breed such a thing…

  53. #53 DEQ
    January 18, 2007

    Poke:

    As I recall, Plantinga’s modal ontological argument just rephrases it all in terms of non-actual worlds and the one with God must be actual for it to be God, blah blah.

    This isn’t quite right. Plantiga’s argument, as I understand it, relies on the fact that (L(g>Lg)^Mg)>g is a theorem of any modal logic that includes the K and B axioms.

    Some notation: lower-case letters are propositions. L is the necessity operator; Lp is read as “it is necessary that p.” M is the possibility operator. > is the material conditional, ^ is a conjunction. Now let’s take g to be the proposition “God exists.” The formula (L(g>Lg)^Mg)>g should thus be read as follows: If God’s existence strictly implies that God necessarily exists and God possibly exists, God exists.

    Most people want to say that logical truths are necessary and hence are the same in any possible world. If you say that, then you’re probably committed to taking the modal logic S5 to be the ‘right’ modal logic. And S5 includes the K and B axioms. There are a whole bunch of modal logics that don’t include these axioms, but they’re all too weak to adequately represent logical necessity properly. So most people want S5 to be the logic of logical necessity.

    But (L(g>Lg)^Mg)>g is a theorem of S5, and so anyone who likes S5 is committed to the truth of that formula. However, since it’s a conditional, you don’t need to buy the claim that God exists unless you’re convinced of the truth of the antecedent (namely, L(g>Lg)^Mg). The antecedent says that: God’s existence strictly implies that God necessarily exists and God possibly exists.

    For my money, the weak part of this claim is the second conjunct.

  54. #54 Abbie
    January 18, 2007

    Over at John Lynch’s blogged response to this post, he has taken to censoring my comments

    Ah, me too! I assumed it was because what I write is incoherent, though.

  55. #55 Jonathan Badger
    January 18, 2007

    I have only read the debunking of astrology on his web site (http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/astrology.html), but that argument wasn’t an argument from incredulity.

    Looking at that article, I agree that it isn’t an argument from incredulity. Instead he *does* consider the problems of the internal consistency of astrology and *has* investigated what the astrologers say before rejecting it. Rejecting something as bullshit *after* one has read about it is perfectly justified. But that wasn’t how Plait’s argument was explained in the posting I was responding to.

  56. #56 grigory
    January 18, 2007

    Abbie,

    I read your comment over at “Stranger Fruit”… Lynch is obviously just censoring you because you disagreed with him.

    What a scummy way to run a blog.

  57. #57 Abbie
    January 18, 2007

    So it was up temporarily? Strange.

    There’s plenty of others disagreeing with him… he just must not like me.

  58. #58 jdkbrown
    January 18, 2007

    Here’s my favorite perfect-island-style objection to the ontological argument:

    We can conceive of a refutation of the ontological argument none greater than which can be conceived. If this refutation (a) didn’t exist, or (b) didn’t really refute the argument, we could conceive of a greater refutation, which is, of course, impossible. Thus, there is a refutation of the ontological argument, and the argument is therefore unsound.

    This was contributed by a student in one of my intro to philosophy classes. (I get really good students sometimes!)

    For a great (if dense) critical evaluation of all the major philosophical arguments for the existence of God, see John Mackie’s *The Miracle of Theism*.

  59. #59 ano
    January 18, 2007

    Abbie:

    There’s a comment of yours that’s still up…
    It’s not objectionable… certainly doesn’t warrant a ban

  60. #60 grigory
    January 18, 2007

    That name should be “grigory”… my browser wanted it to say “anonymous” and I erased it I thought… anyway ano = grigory in the above comment

  61. #61 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    grigory:

    you have shown yourself to be little more than an annoying troll of a (as you said yourself) “high school student” who was making claims that Godel’s argument was clearly wrong but refused to back it up with substance beyond “Take a course in logic. I’m not in the business of explaining people’s blog posts to them.” You are not being banned, just being held until you actually say something sensible that pertains to the discussion at hand.

    abbie:

    which comment are you saying I banned you for? In which thread? Your name does not ring a bell … and I don’t ban people because they disagree with me.

  62. #62 jdkbrown
    January 18, 2007

    DEQ:

    Right. All the modal ontological argument really succeeds in showing is that *if* God exists, then he exists necessarily. Likewise, if there isn’t a god, then necessarily there isn’t a god.

    So the anti-theist has to deny that it’s even possible for God to exist. This, at first, looks like a hard bullet to bite–how can we be so presumptuous as to deny even the possibility of God? But if you keep straight the difference between epistemic and metaphysical possibilty, it doesn’t look so implausible. It’s not too hard to deny ‘Mg’ if we read ‘M’ as metaphysical possiblity–especiallly if we keep in mind which modal axioms are floating around. It is hard to deny ‘Mg’ if ‘M’ is epistemic possibility–it’s really then just a statement of epistemic modesty–but the argument doesn’t go through then.

  63. #63 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Abbie:

    The only comment I have received from you is this one and it is obviously still online. If you made another one, I haven’t seen it (and it’s not in the spamtrap or moderation list).

  64. #64 grigory
    January 18, 2007

    Lynch:

    If you agree with me that pointing out someone’s spelling mistakes to undercut their credibility doesn’t pertain to the discussion at hand, then you’ve understood my point. Now start applying it in your handling of comments.

  65. #65 Bryson Brown
    January 18, 2007

    I’ve never been that impressed with S5 as a logic for metaphysical necessity– the existence of God, in particular, might be held to be such an important metaphysical fact about a world that, from the point of view of such a world, no world where God does not exist would be possible. In that sort of case, the worlds where God exists will be worlds where God’s existence is necessary, but there will be plenty of worlds (like ours) where God does not exist. For some such worlds, worlds where God does exist may be possible, so we could have a world where God’s existence is possible but not actual or necessary. The key, of course, is that modal accessibility be asymmetrical in some allowed frames…

  66. #66 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    “grigory” You claim that I “often mercilessly cuts into commenters who make typos (especially if they agree with PZ).” Often? Mercilessly cut into? Makes it sound as if I regularly point at bad spellers/typos and go “Oh, look at idiot. No need to respond to him”. I recall only once consciously making a point of someones typos (here). Let’s look at what I say, shall we:

    You seem to expect Dawkins to mention all versions of the ontological argument aver stated? Or just the ones you believe are good?

    I don’t expect him to deal with all versions “avar stated”, and don’t find any of them convincing myself. I do however, expect Dawkins as an intellectual to properly engage with the arguments even in a popular work.

    Like Kurt says it is really easy to dismiss such proofs, just deny the assumptions, and you are home safe.

    Ahem. Shouldn’t you as a rationalist be disproving the assumptions and not just denying them. Whether Gödel’s proof may be “destrpyed” by denying that “existance is a positive property”, surely you must prove your stance rather than just deny Gödel’s

    didn’t Dawkins dismiss this assumption in his book?

    Precisely. Dismiss is the key word here. Dawkins doesn’t so much argue against Anselm as sneer at him. Dawkins “devotes” six pages to the ontological proof. Does he actually engage with the argument by trying (for example) to argue against its assumptions? No. Instead we are told that the argument is “infantile,” we are given it in the “appropriate … language of the playground”, and we are told that it is “logomachist trickery” that offends Dawkins. When we actually get to a “disproof” (p. 83) we are presented with Norman Malcolm’s statement regarding the queerness of the statemnt that existence is a perfection but are never told why we should accept Malcolm’s view over that of Descartes, Leibniz or Gödel (who of course, don’t get mentioned). Then we are treated to Douglas Gaskins’ “funny” proof that God doesn’t exist (which, by the way, is clearly logically problematic).

    And please, have you read Dawkins book? It is not a learned treatise,

    Yes I have. Damned straight it is not a “learned treatise”. Just because a work is popular doesn’t mean it cannot fully engage the opposing viewpoint or have to “dumb-down” the material. See, for example, Gleick’s Chaos or Dawkins’ own The Selfish Gene. Both deal with complicated material in a clear, concise fashion, and both are intellectually more respectable that Dawkins’ current jermiad.

    An come on, doesn’t Gödel, Anselms and Plantingas “proofs” sem very contrived to you?

    Just because they “sem very contrived” doesn’t mean that they can be dismissed quickly.

    As you can see, I make an attempt to engage with soren’s argument (something you refuse to do). Perhaps I should have laid off making an issue of the spelling, but that’s an issue between myself and Soren (who himself later said “Let me also apologize for the spelling mistake, I can see how that made all my points mute, and without merit.”)

    Anyway, I want to apologize to PZ (who is not by opponent, as you seem to think) for taking up space with this issue.  

  67. #67 Kseniya
    January 18, 2007

    If Anselm’s argument proves anything, it’s that God is the product of human imagination.

  68. #68 mndean
    January 18, 2007

    John,
    Please don’t apologize! I need to feed my killfile every now and then, and your just the kind person I like to plonk, egotistical and petty.

  69. #69 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    From the review: “As for the New Testament, he quotes with approval the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, that “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”.”

    It’s fine that Weinberg finds much to agree with Dawkins on, but he should be more careful about believing Dawkins’ quotations to be accurate. Jefferson actually said these words about the God of Jews, while stressing how the Christian God is different from this picture. Here’s the complete letter. Search for the word ‘cruel’ to find the context.

    So, which is it? Has Weinberg misunderstood Dawkins’ words, or has Dawkins engaged in selective misquotation, as he had done with other authors before? Can anyone verify?

  70. #70 Keith Douglas
    January 18, 2007

    Paul: Nagel, like most of my fellow philosophers I’m afraid, are really out to lunch on the ontological dualism thing. (I don’t claim to know the motivation of most philosophers who hold onto such a view, but it wouldn’t surprise me if residual religousity was a factor.) The arguments in its favour seem to be uniformly bad and yet keep cropping up, and the very critical arguments against it have been known since the 17th century and are never addressed. Of course, there are exceptions: Dennett, the Churchlands and Bunge are all aware that conservation laws refute dualism to within moral certainty. Descartes had an out (imperfect knowledge of conservation laws)- the latter day dualists do not. Evolution just stomps on most versions of dualism, too. (Chalmers’ view is honest in this respect at least, and admits to panpsychism.)

    DEQ: In my view, the mistake is thinking that “logical possibility” extends to anything other than propositions, where it would simply be a synonym of “logically contingent”, i.e. not contradictory or tautologous. But since this is relative to a logic, the idea that logic has existential consequences is bizarre, to say the least.

    The above said, I think the most non-contentious refutation of the ontologial argument is in Scriven’s Primary Philosophy. The usual Kantian argument is IMO mistaken, since an exact, useful existence predicate is perfectly respectible. (Bunge, for example, has written about this. My MA thesis also develops this point in an aside.)

  71. #71 Chayanov
    January 18, 2007

    “[The Dalai Lama] has said, after all, that if science were to conclusively show any tenet of Buddhism to be wrong, then science would win hands down.”

    Except it’s not the job of science to disprove Buddhism. It’s the Dalai Lama’s job to show that Buddhism is correct. In this instance, he’s just as deluded as any other religious person, and all too willing to shift the burden of proof away from his belief system.

  72. #72 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Dawkins quotes Jefferson on page 31 of TGD as saying “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust” amd offers no citation.

    It’s clear from the letter that Jefferson was talking about the “religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses”. Sloppy research by Dawkins.

  73. #73 Abbie
    January 18, 2007

    Lynch: Hmm, brilliant me, I’d missed it. (I should have doublechecked before making the comment, sorry.)

    I never claimed I was banned, I just thought the post hadn’t been approved. Apologies.

  74. #74 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Both Anatoly and Lynch are… let’s put it charitably… mistaken. Jefferson was most definitely referring specifically to the God of orthodox Christianity (for which he had no use whatever) as well as of Judaism. And in fact has complaint with Christians was precisely that they had ignored the actual teachings of Jesus in favor of continuing to worship this cruel God, along with introducing doctrines such as the Trinity which he denounced as patent adsurdities. Hence his famous edition of the New Testament (Google “Jefferson Bible”) with miracles and other references to teh supernatural edited out and only the ethical teachings of Jesus remaining.

  75. #75 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Steve,

    I’m not so sure I can agree with you. Here’s the quote in context:

    [Jesus’] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration.

    In the second sentence, Jefferson talks about the “object of worship” of the Jews as being “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust”. It is not at all clear from the passage that Jefferson is extending this to the Christian god – after all, he says that Jesus attempted to “reform” this image.

  76. #76 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    By “the Christian god,” I am of course meaning the sort of god as presented by Jesus in his teachings.

  77. #77 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    By “the Christian god,” I am of course meaning the sort of god as presented by Jesus in his teachings.

    You mean the one who, according to Jesus, punishes sinners with eternal torment in the fires of hell? That God?

  78. #78 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    You clearly know nothing of Jefferson. No surprise there.

  79. #79 George
    January 18, 2007

    I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training.

    What’s it like to be a Nagel?

    To claim that that is the only reasonable conclusion for anyone to draw from the empirical data, the defender of evolutionary theory would have to claim that the belief in a god who can intervene in the world, like the belief in witchcraft, is itself irrational, and that it has been refuted by science. I am sure there are atheists who believe this, even if many of them would be reluctant to say so — for reasons of tact if not of political prudence. But I believe they are mistaken: Neither belief nor disbelief in God is irrational, and the consequence is that two diametrically opposed attitudes toward the natural order are both reasonable.
    http://www.law.nyu.edu/clppt/program2005/readings/secular_philosophy.pdf

    He’s a both/ander. No wonder he doesn’t like Dawkins.

  80. #80 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Steve:

    > You clearly know nothing of Jefferson. No surprise there.

    No need to stoop to insults.

    Look at the quote on page 31 of TGD. Dawkins states:

    Thomas Jefferson – better read – was of a similar opinion: ‘The Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.’

    That quote attributed to Jefferson does not occur in the letter that Anatoly linked to. Perhaps it occurs somewhere in Jefferson’s writings; if so, can you point me to it?

    It may be what Jefferson felt, but he did not say (unless you can demonstrate otherwise) that ‘[t]he Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.’

  81. #81 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Again, I’m not insulting you; I’m stating facts. If you knew the first thing about Jefferson- the very model of an 18th century deist- you’d know that he was a devoted enemy of Christians (whom he referred to as Athanasians- Google on the keywords “Jefferson” and “Athanasians” for some really choice invective) and their idea of God. Go and learn. He indeed “said” it many times over, and not by any means just in the quoted letter. In no way, shape or form was Dawkins misleading anyone about Jefferson’s views.

  82. #82 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    Wow, Steve LaBonne is on a roll. Dawkins misquotes Jefferson, mangling his words and falsely attributing his characterization to the “Christian God”, when Jefferson specifically talks about about the God of Jews, in the context of explaining what Jesus sought to reform in that image! Steve, seeking to defend his idol, is all too ready to blithely put into Jefferson’s mind intentions Steve all-too-clearly sees (but Jefferson never uttered), while ascribing ignorance to me and John Lynch. Not quite Dawkins’ level, Steve, but you’re getting there.

    Meanwhile, I wonder how many regulars here are intellectually honest enough to admit to the plain fact that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here and alters the plain meaning of Jefferson’s words. Let’s see how many people are up to the task. After all, we’re all rational people here, right?

    In fact, I wonder if PZM has anything to say on the subject! I suspect he’s not quite as… brazen as Steve to openly defend Dawkins with falsehoods, but not quite… ready enough to admit Dawkins could commit such a gaping instance of misquotation in TGD. So, my money is on him keeping silent.

  83. #83 George
    January 18, 2007

    If he misquoted Jefferson, he will be the first to apologize. If Jefferson did not say that first bit (“The Christian God”), a lot of web pages out there need to be updated.

  84. #84 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    > He indeed “said” it many times over, and not by any means just in the quoted letter.

    Please provide me with a reputable citation (perhaps in Jefferson’s collected writings) and I will gladly agree with you.

  85. #85 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Again, ‘The Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust’ is not in the quoted letter, so Steve’s claim that he said it not “just in the quoted letter” is false.

    > a lot of web pages out there need to be updated.

    That may indeed be the case. It wont be the first time.

  86. #86 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Do your own research.

  87. #87 bernarda
    January 18, 2007

    I haven’t read all the posts, so maybe someone already posted this. But here is an interview with Richard Dawkins on KPFK radio.

    http://www.alternet.org/story/46566/

  88. #88 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    I’ve been able to find this:

    “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…” (Works Vol. iv., p. 325).

    It is clearly not the letter Anatoly quoted (though the parallels are striking). Since I haven’t a copy of Jefferson’s Works, I cannot check the quote, but I will take it on face value and stand corrected.

    This would have been a lot easier had Dawkins provided a citation for his quote (as he does for a Randolph Churchill quote in the previous sentence in TGD).

  89. #89 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    You’ve made an ass of yourself in public but you blame Dawkins? He was not writing a scholarly tome.

  90. #90 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    > Do your own research.

    I did.

    And by the way, you made a claim. You should consider back them up occasionally.

  91. #91 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    > He was not writing a scholarly tome.

    I’ve heard that one before. Apprently it’s the catch-all excuse.

    It doesn’t have to be a “scholarly tome” to have footnotes. Guess what, Dawkins does give some, just not for this quote. A little inconsistent, imho.

    > You’ve made an ass of yourself in public

    No, I investigated a claim and admitted I was wrong. You claimed that the letter Anatoly linked to contains the quote (“He indeed “said” it many times over, and not by any means just in the quoted letter.”). Are you willing to admit you were wrong?

  92. #92 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    YOU are the one who was wrong. YOU need an excuse. Dawkins doesn’t need one. I don’t need one. YOU are the one who is so ignorant that he needed to be told the most basic things about Jefferson’s views. Nice try though.

  93. #93 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    John,

    The version you cite is known as another spurious quote. Please see what the Jefferson library has to say about it. You may want to reconsider your reconsideration.

    The quote appears with several different attributions; it seems they’re all as spurious as the quote itself. Additionally, I don’t believe there’s an edition of Jefferson’s writings universally known as “Works”. There’s “The works of Thomas Jefferson” of 1904 (edited by Paul Ford); its volume IV covers the years 1782-1786, is available online, and contains no such quote.

  94. #94 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Sheech!

    I’ll try this one more time.

    Steve claimed that in the letter, Jefferson was “most definitely referring specifically to the God of orthodox Christianity” [emphasis mine]. Reading the letter it is clear that this is not the case (both the “definitely” and “specifically” claims). Steve claims that he has not made an error. You be the judge.

  95. #95 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    While you’re on the site you would do well to spend 5 minutes perusing the good summary of “Jeffersons’ religious views” to be found there:
    http://www.monticello.org/reports/interests/religion.html

  96. #96 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Anatoly,

    Meanwhile, I wonder how many regulars here are intellectually honest enough to admit to the plain fact that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here and alters the plain meaning of Jefferson’s words.

    I’m intellectually honest enough to point out that you are clearly misrepresenting what Jefferson wrote in that letter. The “reform” he’s discussing is his, Jefferson’s, interpretation of what Jesus really meant, not a reformed God that Christians supposedly believe in that differs from the cruel and vindictive Jewish God.

  97. #97 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    And I was correct, regardless of the wording of the specific letter, because it is precisely the Old Testament baggage that was one of the main things Jefferson detested in orthodox Christianity. Again, this is of the most elementary obviousness to anyone who knows about Jefferson’s views on religion. I used to attend Unitarian churches and we always got a chuckle out of his notoriously inaccurate prediction that someday everybody in the US would be a Unitarian.

    Again, regardless of the status of that particular letter, there is no question whatsoever that Dawkins did not misrepresent Jefferon’s views on Chritianity at all. He was agin it. He believed neither in the Trinity, nor in the divinity of Jesus, nor in a personal God of the orthodox type as opposed to the “Nature’s God” of deism.

  98. #98 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    Steve, you advanced several false claims already in this thread and contributed exactly nothing to the argument over Dawkins’ misquoting of Jefferson (in fact, there’s no argument, it’s just plainly true). You’re not exactly in a meaningful position to tell anyone to read anything about Jefferson. I have read that page, and much other material about Jefferson’s views.

    Idiots may think that someone who objects to Dawkins’ misquoting Jefferson on Christianity must surely consider Jefferson to have been a Christian. Idiots don’t allow for the possibility that someone may well know Jefferson did not believe in the Christian doctrine, and still object to dishonest misquotation of his views on religion. Idiots see the world as “our side versus their side”, and do not understand that someone may respect the truth as it is, convenient or inconvenient though it may be. Idiots are best ignored.

  99. #99 stogo
    January 18, 2007

    Forget, it Steve. It’s Chinatown.

  100. #100 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Steve,

    No one is arguing about what Jefferson felt about religion. That is common knowledge.

    You claimed that the letter was “specifically” dealing with the Christian god. This is not clear from the context.

    You claimed – as does Dawkins – that Jefferson said (elsewhere) that “The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”. That may be true, but we’re having a difficult time tracking down that quote. Dawkins does not source it (as he does other quotes) and may indeed have taken it as “common knowledge” as it appears to exist online.

    Again, I’m not claiming that Jefferson did not believe what you attribute to him. I’m merely saying that the quote (as given by Dawkins and supported by yourself) needs to be demonstrated to be accurate. You may think this is nit-picking but it is central to good historical research to represent quotes accurately.

    Anatoly:

    Throwing around “idiot” (just as Steve threw around “ass”) is not helpful.

  101. #101 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    I’m intellectually honest enough to point out that you are clearly misrepresenting what Jefferson wrote in that letter.

    But are you intellectually honest enough to also admit that Dawkins is misquoting Jefferson by saying that Jefferson wrote about “The Christian God” things that Jefferson wrote about the God of Jews as opposed to the God of Jesus?

    Come on, that can’t be too hard.

    Now, about my purported misrepresentation of Jefferson’s views:

    The “reform” he’s discussing is his, Jefferson’s, interpretation of what Jesus really meant, not a reformed God that Christians supposedly believe in that differs from the cruel and vindictive Jewish God.

    That doesn’t contradict anything I wrote, as far as I can see. You have a good point. Jefferson describes, in a series of striking oppositions, the differences between the God of the Jews, and the God of the Jesus, so to speak, in Jefferson’s understanding of how Jesus tried to reform Judaism. He doesn’t say anywhere that Christianity as actually practiced in his time is exactly what Jesus wanted it to be. In fact, he plainly states that they’re very different, many times in his writings (not just in this letter). But that doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that he considered Jesus to have added nothing, in practical terms, in terms of how people actually practice Christianity, to the image of God the Jews had! That would also be an absurd mischaracterization of his views.

    So, by quoting Jefferson as saying “The Christian God etc.” Dawkins is misquoting him, both explicitly (because these aren’t the words Jefferson used and the words Jefferson used talk explicitly about the God of the Jews), and substantially (because Jefferson didn’t think or say that the Christian God as actual practicing Christians see him coincides with the God of Jews).

  102. #102 Colugo
    January 18, 2007

    The proper interpretation of Dawkins’ characterization of Jefferson’s beliefs about God:

    The atheist version of angels dancing on the heads of pins.

  103. #103 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Anatoly,

    But are you intellectually honest enough to also admit that Dawkins is misquoting Jefferson

    You haven’t demonstrated that Dawkins misquoted Jefferson. Are you intellectually honest enough to admit that (since you seem so big on this “intellectual honesty” thing)?

    That doesn’t contradict anything I wrote, as far as I can see.

    Of course it does. You claimed that Dawkins misrepresented Jefferson’s “plain meaning.”

  104. #104 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    Jason,

    OK, so you can’t admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson when Dawkins quotes Jefferson as saying

    “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”

    while what Jefferson said (in the only known well-established quotation of the “terrific character etc.” words) was

    …His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being…

    I understand. Is anyone else of the regulars here intellectually honest enough to admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here?

    Come on. Anyone? This is one of the preeminent science blogs. It champions rationality, independent thought, and questioning authority. It can’t be that bad, can it?

  105. #105 George
    January 18, 2007

    Is anyone else of the regulars here intellectually honest enough to admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here?

    I am. I’m still investigating.

    Currently looking here for clues:

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/ToC/0054.php

    THE WORKS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON IN 12 VOLUMES, ED. PAUL LEICESTER FORD (THE FEDERAL EDITION) (1905)

  106. #106 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Forget, it Steve. It’s Chinatown.

    Sigh, I should know better than to contribute to the hijacking of a thread by trolls…

  107. #107 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Anatoly,

    OK, so you can’t admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson

    I can’t “admit” what you haven’t shown to be true. A letter containing a quote similar to the one Dawkins offers in TGD does not demonstrate that Dawkins’ quote is spurious. John Lynch seems to understand this. Why can’t you?

    I wouldn’t bother with this, except that you seem to have some pathological need to score trivial debating points against Dawkins (yes, I remember your appearances in previous Dawkins threads), and I’m happy to hang you by your own juvenile standards.

  108. #108 steve s
    January 18, 2007

    The “ontological proof” of St Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater. And what could this greatest actually existing thing be, but God? QED.

    Hmm…Netflix just delivered The Wrath of Khan. I could watch that. On the other hand, I could spend some time trying to figure out what that quoted gibberish is supposed to mean. Hmm…What to do…what to do….

  109. #109 Kseniya
    January 18, 2007

    I accept that the quote in question is spurious, and that Dawkins fell prey to a pitfall that is all too common in this day and age: the assumption that if a quotation or attribution is ubiquitous on the Internet then it has a high probability of being accurate. Sloppy? Yes. A profound or intentionally deceitful misrepresentation of Jefferson’s views? Hardly.

    The evil twin of the Jefferson quote is a disturbingly ubiquitous “Ten Commandments” quotation attributed to James Madison, which has been shows to be one of the many lies to come from the poison pen of dominionist David Barton.

    Clearly, in his letter to William Short, Jefferson refers to the Old Testament God, not the “Christian God” as described by Jesus in the New Testament – but given that they are universally (?) considered to be one and the same entity, the corruption of the quote attributed to Jefferson in the (probably fictional) letter to “Dr. Woods” is, at worst, a little bit of spin, and hardly qualifies as a deception, particularly when viewed in comparison to the whole-cloth fabrications of a David Barton.

    This passage by Jefferson (from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush) seems apropos this discussion:

    “[My views on Christianity] are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other… It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith which the laws have left between God and himself.”

  110. #110 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    I’ve asked here for help in sourcing the quote as given by Dawkins. If any reader of this thread has any clues, please post.

  111. #111 Colugo
    January 18, 2007

    This thread digression has been about evolution all along. Oft-cited garbled and incorrectly attributed quotes are interesting examples of memetic evolution.

    Two other oft-cited bogus quotes:

    1) Thomas Jefferson: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

    Actually, it’s from a 2002 interview with Howard Zinn.

    http://www.tompaine.com/Archive/scontent/5908.html

    http://urbanlegends.about.com/b/a/146858.htm

    However, an authentic Jefferson quote is arguably more radical: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

    2) George Orwell: “We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.”

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations

    The real quotes:

    Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy,’ poem (1892):

    “Yes, making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep”

    Orwell:

    “[Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them.” (1942)

    “Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” (1945)

  112. #112 GH
    January 18, 2007

    His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses

    I’m not sure this is accurate anyway, he made sure to mention not one jot or tittle shall change. But he did want people to not think rules are more important than people so in this sense he was revolutionary.

    The “reform” he’s discussing is his, Jefferson’s, interpretation of what Jesus really meant, not a reformed God that Christians supposedly believe in that differs from the cruel and vindictive Jewish God.

    I think this is pretty much correct. The thing is you can’t really ‘reform’ God so to speak. If he is the same God in both books, well, he is the same God in both books. He didn’t reform. The religion, due to a growing secular outlook and morality may, but God stays constant.

    Which is why the not changing a jot or tittle of the jewish law makes sense from a theological perspective.

    Now Thomas Jefferson clearly, or maybe not so clearly, thought Christianity and all it’s superstitions less than admirable but appears to approve of at least some of Jesus’s teachings.

  113. #113 JimC
    January 18, 2007

    If Dawkins sourced the quote wrong he sourced the quote wrong. He made a mistake – big deal. It does nothing to diminish the overall strength of his book.

    Likewise calling the OT God not a Christian God is pretty pointless unless one is willing to throw the OT out of Christianity.

  114. #114 George
    January 18, 2007

    Unless there is a second “cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust” quotation, it appears Dawkins got it wrong.

    Via Amazon’s look inside the book (requires login), see Jefferson’s Political Writings, pubished by Cambridge University Press:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/sitbv3/reader/102-2667336-9547322?asin=0521648416&pageID=S0CQ&checkSum=kT28hLA8QqwqLOzxtoGs5EG6JFI8yFQIL0j7Xsva6/Q=

  115. #115 Kseniya
    January 18, 2007

    Jim, exactly.

    It would be convenient for atheists if all the Founding Fathers could be proven to have been die-hard atheists, but they weren’t. Trying to recast them as such is as dishonest as the lies of the “myth of separation” dominionists.

    Regardless, what they created was not a Christian or atheistic nation, but a secular nation with freedom of – and from – religion. This notion was (and still is) one of the Great Ideas in all human history, and one we need to protect with ongoing vigilance. This should be apparent to all Americans whether they are dedicated to the preservation, or to the extinction, of Religion. The evolution of Religion as a human institution is a process that must occur outside of the context of State.

  116. #116 Numad
    January 18, 2007

    Jonathan Badger,

    “Similarly, debunking theology would be better served by reading theological literature and pointing out the flaws. Saying ‘well, the typical theist doesn’t know much theology so it doesn’t matter’ doesn’t really hold water. The populace might not know theology, but the existence of a whole academic field with a huge literature gives theists the notion that there is evidence out there for their beliefs even they themselves don’t know it.”

    I’m not convinced that this ‘doesn’t hold water’.

    This kind of perfectly superficial knowledge of theology goes hand in hand with a disregard of the details of theology.

    Assuming that logical consistency has any persuasive power over a given theist, there’s no guarantee that a specific theological argument from a specific, and it’s underlying assumptions, would be accepted by that theist, if they’ve never heard of it before. Not when they have their own personal or popular beliefs to default to.

    Not that I’m saying that knowledge of theologic tradition is harmful.

  117. #117 Caledonian
    January 18, 2007

    I’m not sure this is accurate anyway, he made sure to mention not one jot or tittle shall change.

    See the story of the woman caught in adultery. Sure, the law won’t change – but he’ll reinterpret the hell out of it. It’s basically just a giant headgame.

  118. #118 Condorito
    January 18, 2007

    Steve La Bonne,hey, we all saw it, dude, you called him an ass and it bounced right back in you face hahaha. Hey dude, better come up with that quote, because at leats the darn JEFFERSON LIBRARY has not found it yet. It is quite probably a mere distorsion of the other text, maintained by amateurs.
    It is not the point you are wrong. Anyone can be, but you failed to realize that. You made claims of superior knowledge, you called Lynch an ass and a troll…Is it necessary to be so stupid? can we stick to actual argumentation? Thos pathologicla practices is what I aunderstnd to be truly ugly, like a TROLL. Anyway, today, you gave all a good laugh. The african saying says, the higher goes the monkey up the tree, the better you can see his ass.

  119. #119 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    I’m so very hurt when illiterate morons diss me. Wait… actually it’s a compliment. Thanks.

  120. #120 Condorito
    January 19, 2007

    No compliment, just target shooting. Don’t stick your neck out like that. It’s irresistsible. Anyways, thanks for the laughs.

  121. #121 GH
    January 19, 2007

    Sure, the law won’t change – but he’ll reinterpret the hell out of it. It’s basically just a giant headgame.

    Nah, the law didn;t change at all, but he did change the punishment from stoning to forgiveness. Which while the law remains unchanged it certainly expresses itself alot softer.

  122. #122 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater.

    This isn’t well stated; it leaves an important part out. If we have conceived of the greatest possible thing, and we can conceive of it not existing, then we haven’t really conceived the greatest possible thing after all — we get a contradiction. If we really have conceived of the greatest possible thing , and the greatest possible thing necessarily exists (else it wouldn’t be greatest), we must find its non-existence inconceivable.

    The most obvious objection is that we can’t prove that anyone has actually ever conceived of the greatest possible thing. Another obvious objection is that we can’t prove that existence is greater than non-existence. A more subtle objection is that existence isn’t a predicate; it’s meaningless to compare an existent thing to a non-existent thing: which is faster, the fastest car in the world, or a car that goes twice as fast but doesn’t exist?

  123. #123 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    But are you intellectually honest enough to also admit that Dawkins is misquoting Jefferson by saying that Jefferson wrote about “The Christian God” things that Jefferson wrote about the God of Jews as opposed to the God of Jesus?

    Dawkins apparently misquoted Jefferson, but you surely can’t be asserting that “the God of the Jews” and “the God of Jesus” are distinct entities, can you, troll? Christians believe they are the same entity, so the misquote doesn’t change the meaning.

  124. #124 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    By “the Christian god,” I am of course meaning the sort of god as presented by Jesus in his teachings.

    So are you saying that the Christian God is just a “sort”, a fictional character used for pedagogical purposes? That certainly isn’t what Christian believe. Nor do they believe that “the Christian God” is a different entity from the God of the Jews — they are monotheists. According to Christian belief, Jesus swept away the old rules — he didn’t and could not have swept away God’s historical behavior.

  125. #125 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    Do your own research.

    Well, Steve, they have done their own research, and have demonstrated that Jefferson used that exact same phrase in connection with the “sect” of Moses — the exact same phrase that Dawkins used, without citation, in connection with “The Christian God” — perhaps drawn from one of the web sites where this quote appears, again without citation. It is most likely that the Dawkins quote is inaccurate. It does us no good when people on “our side” are so transparently intellectually dishonest as you have been here; there are far better ways to respond to the trolls than that.

  126. #126 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    Actually reading the literature, seeing whether it makes sense or contains internal inconsistencies, logically incorrect statements, and assertions inconsistent with more supported fields of research.

    Hey, Badger, have you read the book yet? Or are you hoping that PZ will simply forget to disemvowel you?

    In any case, your comments are as moronic as ever. Regardless of how voluminous the literature on demonstrations that an angle can be trisected with compass and straightedge or that pi is rational, there is no need to absorb that literature in order to refute the claims. The same is true of astrology and religion.

    Idiot.

  127. #127 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    Dawkins definitely dismisses ontological dualism as though he doesn’t understand that there are versions of it that 1) are widely, though not unanimously, supported by professional philosophers

    Ahem. There are no respectable professional philosophers who support theistic dualism, and virtually none who more generally support substance dualism. The various esoteric (and fallacious) arguments for aspect dualism or property dualism, in regard to the mental, are not within the scope of Dawkins’s book.

  128. #128 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    Nagel, as a philosopher himself, maybe blows some of the philosophy problems out of proportion

    Uh, yes. Dawkins doesn’t simply “assume” scientific reductionism, it’s an extremely well-grounded position, and he and the rest of us are far better off to ignore the abstruse fallacies that folks like Nagel and Chalmers professionally generate for the consumption of other professional philosophers. Better to leave the refutation of that stuff to folks like Jaegwon Kim, Robert Kirk, and many other physicalist philosophers who are experts in the field.

  129. #129 Steve LaBonne
    January 19, 2007

    If the quote can be demonstrated to be incorrect, Dawkins ought to correct it in the next edition of his book. Where have I said otherwise? It remains a fact, as you, truth machine acknowledge, that he did not unfairly represent Jefferson’s view’s on Christianity. That is the point I have been concerned to keep clear amidst the troll smoke screen.

  130. #130 Jonathan Badger
    January 19, 2007

    in any case, your comments are as moronic as ever.

    So says a troll using a false name who contributes little to the discussion.

  131. #131 JimC
    January 19, 2007

    According to Christian belief, Jesus swept away the old rules — he didn’t and could not have swept away God’s historical behavior.

    As was said above this is not what Christians believe as Jesus was clear he wasn’t there to change the law. Instead he changed how it was used. Substituting forgiveness for punishment. He didn’t want people to fear the law or be slaves to it.

  132. #132 Jonathan Badger
    January 19, 2007

    Assuming that logical consistency has any persuasive power over a given theist, there’s no guarantee that a specific theological argument from a specific, and it’s underlying assumptions, would be accepted by that theist, if they’ve never heard of it before. Not when they have their own personal or popular beliefs to default to.

    Yes, there are no guarantees, just like refuting the “if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” creationist chestnut doesn’t mean that we’ve convinced the person who said it.

    But I do find it odd that we’ve taken creationist literature seriously enough to point out all the flaws in it and even created an internet archive of the debunking, and yet the more moderate theological literature (written by and for people noticeably less insane than creationists) isn’t considered worth such a treatment.

  133. #133 wintermute
    January 19, 2007

    Dawkins attributes the following to Jefferson:

    The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…

    .

    John Lynch finds a citation for the following passage, as a demonstration of the quote’s accuracy:

    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…

    Anatoly refers us to the Jefferson library, who claim that the following quote is “unconfirmed”, thus demonstrating that Lynch’s citation is false:

    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.

    Let us accept that the fact that they have been unable to confirm that quote means that it is spurious. Given that there is no overlap between it and the original quotation made by Dawkins, why does it necessarily follow that Dawkins misquoted Jefferson? I accept that the fact that my 10-minutes interweb research has not uncovered a decent citation for it is evidence that it may well be apocryphal, but it’s hardly compelling.

    In addition, why does Anatoly insist that it must be a misquote of a specific letter? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a letter writer had re-used a phrase he particularly liked…

    I suspect that Anatoly is right, overall, and the the quotation is false, but simply pointing out that a different quote that had been conflated with it was false is not proof positive.

  134. #134 windy
    January 19, 2007

    But I do find it odd that we’ve taken creationist literature seriously enough to point out all the flaws in it and even created an internet archive of the debunking, and yet the more moderate theological literature (written by and for people noticeably less insane than creationists) isn’t considered worth such a treatment.

    Good idea, why don’t you start up an archive of theological claims?

    (The obvious reason why this has not been a priority is that creationism is explicitly anti-science, and theology isn’t. But certainly Dawkins would agree that theology is sneakily anti-science.)

  135. #135 John B
    January 19, 2007

    This is mildly off-topic: Just a couple of words (actually, a giant pile of words) about the representations of Buddhism in this thread so far.

    The Short Version:

    The idea that Buddhism is less ‘superstitious’ or mystical than Biblical religions is false, and based on textual bias, ethnocentrism, and bad scholarship.

    The Long Version:

    Jon H & Warren’s commentary represents a fairly typical form of western reception of Buddhism that prefers to see Buddhism as a form of philosophical/ascetic movement, rather than a religion in the same sense that Christianity, Judasim, and Islam are. This conception of Buddhism is grounded in:

    a) the bias of early reports of enlightenment protestant scholars of religion, that saw in some Buddhist texts a rational alternative to ‘superstitious’ religions like Catholicism. The practices of people were rejected as ‘corrupt’, while the textual accounts were accepted as ‘true Buddhism’ purely based on the Protestant Christian bias about the importance of Scripture.

    & b) missionary tactics consciously adopted by twentieth century Buddhist teachers (D.T Suzuki comes to mind.) Which attempted to explain Buddhism to westerners using analogies to western psychological or philosphical ideas, increasing the confusion between elements of Buddhism that are of interest to westerners, and some list of sine qua non Buddhist fundamentals.

    Jon H:

    The ‘rewards’ such as they are, in Buddhism, are attained through mental training (with instructions) and long effort. And for all the mystical talk about “Nirvana”, as far as I can tell “Nirvana” is just a constant living state of taking the lemons life gives you and making lemonade. So to speak. In other words, Nirvana is not some mystical place, it’s this world seen and experienced in a different way which removes suffering (really, emotional suffering, not physical suffering. But if you’re physically hurt, it doesn’t help to add needless emotional pain on top.)

    This is a completely modern westernized view of the goal of Buddhism. That’s not a bad thing, but historically and in other cultures ‘Nirvana’ has not at all meant some view of the world that helps people deal with emotional pain. The term refers to stopping the cycle of death-rebirth, ceasing to exist, which is the only ‘end of suffering’.

    Warren:

    To the other defenses offered I’d add that Buddhism explicitly disallows the idea of a god or of souls, since either would have to be permanent, unchangeable, eternal things — and Buddhism refutes the possibility of such things based on the observable fact that nothing is permanent, everything changes, and therefore the idea of “eternal” is nonsense.

    This is not accurate. Every Buddhist system recognises the existence of gods, in their cosmology the gods are part of the material world and part of the cycle of death and rebirth. They dispute, internally, the relevance of the gods to the project of achieving enlightenment. Some forms of Buddhism recognise the stockpile of merit deities have access to, others demand individual or group progress without divine aid.

    Being part of samsara means that these gods will eventually need to be reborn as humans in order to achieve enlightenment, their divine status is not permanent or eternal. The Buddhist conception of divinity is different than the biblical one but, to me at least, that doesn’t mean they ‘disallow the idea of a god’.

    Jon H went into some of the mechanics behind the philosophical explorations of the religion/philosophy. I tend to concur that Buddhism is heavily burdened by indigenous religion — in Japan it took on a Shinto flavor, in China it took on a Taoist cant; and in the Indus River Valley it smacks distinctly of Hinduism.

    There is no reliable way to separate out an ‘essential Buddhism’ from the ‘indigenous religions’ of a population. Look at the effect theosophists had on Sri Lankan Buddhism in trying to ‘de-mythologize’ their religion for them. They simply recast the religion using Protestant Christian values to suit their western tastes, there’s nothing in it the is more ‘essentially Buddhist’ than the elements they rejected. This form of Buddhism is now sometimes referred to as ‘Protestant Buddhism’ because of the impact of western converts and their ethnocentrism.

    I’d differ with his analysis in one respect, though; Buddhism isn’t really about ending suffering — it’s about ending attachment, which is the cause of suffering. (Attachment is the beginning and ending of the concept of “sin” in Buddhism.)

    Don’t forget ignorance, since it is the cause of attachment.

    As for the “rebirth” element — that was actually probably quite heretical at the time Siddhartha Gautama was teaching it 2500 years ago. Imagine Hindus being told that reincarnation (not rebirth) was actually impossible, and that “maya” was a false principle — there really was suffering going on, which meant by extension that the world must be, in some fundamental way, real.

    The anatman doctrine was heretical in the Buddhas time, since it rejected upanishadic doctrine about the Self. Buddhists in general are not in agreement about the fundamental reality of the lived experience, however, and it is not coincidental that the Buddha’s biological mother is named ‘Maya’.

    The idea of rebirth is a bit like a candle flame being passed from one wick to the next, and then the first candle being extinguished, with a sort of nebulous energy of some kind being passed along, but certainly not a soul — IOW, it’s mystical, feel-good hooey that doesn’t actually have to be believed in order for the philosophical aspects of Buddhism — or the principal practice, sitting meditation — to be used and explored.

    The Buddhist doctrine of dependent coorigination is required to explain how you continue to exist moment to moment, as well as explaining the jump between lives. In Buddhism, rebirth is continually happening, as the aggregates produce experience and then pass away.

    On the other hand, of course, the Dalai Lama does call himself the fifteenth incarnation of some holy muckamuck or other, though whether he actually believes it in his heart of hearts is a very different matter.

    I would say that the odds are high that the Dalai Lama fully accepts the traditional beliefs of Tibet, and carefully shapes his comments for western ears to best promote his religious and political goals. He is fully trained in the traditional pedagogical technique of ‘skillful means’.

  136. #136 PZ Myers
    January 19, 2007

    About the ongoing Founding Fathers wrangle: I care about Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs about as much as I care about Moses’; they’re irrelevant, and if Jefferson had been a devout Muslim it would have about as much impact on what we should promote as if he’d been a firebreathing antitheist. We were founded as a secular nation, we should continue to be a secular nation, and we should work to remove more religion from our society. That’s it.

    About the lack of treatment of the theological literature: that’s because a good number of us who are allied as activists in the fight against creationism support the foolishness of religious belief, and start throwing hissy-fits if anyone tries to extend our brief of fighting against the religious extremists to fighting for a more secular, rational world. This is a house divided against itself, and the other “team” shares a property with the Founding Fathers: a willingness to suspend criticism of an institution of long term, damaging consequence in favor of short term utilitarian compromise. We will reap that harvest someday.

  137. #137 Jonathan Badger
    January 19, 2007

    About the lack of treatment of the theological literature: that’s because a good number of us who are allied as activists in the fight against creationism support the foolishness of religious belief, and start throwing hissy-fits if anyone tries to extend our brief of fighting against the religious extremists to fighting for a more secular, rational world

    I certainly agree that the the community defending evolution shouldn’t get involved in debunking theological literature; I’m all for the alliance of non-creationist theists and atheists in the defense of evolution. I was referring more to the lack of treatment of the theological literature in the expressly atheistic literature.

  138. #138 Anton Mates
    January 19, 2007

    To add to what John B wrote:

    Not quite. As noted above, the Dalai Lama has said that if a tenet of Buddhism is contradicted empirically, then that tenet will have to change. (Supposedly, he himself changed a Tibetan tradition that the moon is a source of light, based on his own observations of the shadows on the face of the moon, via a telescope.)

    However, the Dalai Lama believes (quite literally) in many things which have been contradicted empirically; at a minimum he’s not working very hard to find out whether they have been or not. He asserts, for instance, literal reincarnation (for instance, he remembers toys he played with in past lives); that the god Mahakala watches over and protects him and his previous incarnations, in the form of divine crows; and that visions and moving corpses herald the birth of a new Dalai Lama. He has also defended the precognitive powers of the Nechung oracle, against the criticism of Westerners and other Tibetans.

    It’s certainly commendable that he doesn’t think disbelief in any of this will get you sent to Hell for eternity, but he’s not exactly a champion of empirical research.

    Also, note that unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t involve some cosmic spook granting you forgiveness, watching over you, wiping away phantom sins He was kind enough to lay on you to begin with, or granting access to a divine afterlife. Nobody says “Buddha is my copilot” unless they’re using it ironically to refer to the pot pipe in the ashtray.

    Actually, probably the largest Buddhist branch in the world is Pure Land, found throughout East Asia, and it involves exactly what you describe. Amitabha, the Buddha of compassion, dwells in the paradisiac Western Pure Land, into which you can be reborn through faith in and worship of Amitabha. If you make it to the Pure Land, attaining Nirvana in the life after that is particularly easy.

    The Lotus Sutra, the primary scripture of Nichiren Buddhism, also describes Buddhas as eternal and watching over us benevolently. They may not be exactly like the Judeo-Christian God–among other things, we’re all supposed to become Buddhas eventually–but they’re gods in all but name.

  139. #139 J Daley
    January 19, 2007

    Regarding the “amateur philosopher” attack, an extension of The Coutier’s Reply:

    “Mr Dawkins lacks any training and is an amateur at best in the Philosophy of Clotheology, and his ignorance regarding such works as Pant’s Critique of Pure Fashion or Le Haute Couture, not to mention Gabardine dualism (“the crotch is the seat of the pants”) is greatly apparent in TGD. He should have consulted experts in the subject before dismissing it; otherwise, he’s the same as pleationists who dismiss the Theory of Nudity while lacking any training in nakedness.”

  140. #140 John B
    January 19, 2007

    PZ Myers wrote:

    About the lack of treatment of the theological literature: that’s because a good number of us who are allied as activists in the fight against creationism support the foolishness of religious belief, and start throwing hissy-fits if anyone tries to extend our brief of fighting against the religious extremists to fighting for a more secular, rational world.

    I can’t speak for religious people, but my problem with some of the support for ‘the foolishness of religious belief’ is based on a rejection of social scientific ‘expertise’ about religion as a human activity, as opposed to theological ‘expertise’ in defense of religious truth.

    When i have arguments with people who claim to represent science/atheism but who reject all the developments in the social sciences since the early 20th century, and who’s understanding of the relationship between science and religion is about as sophisticated as something you’d read in Frazer’s Golden Bough, I really can’t accept their position as an informed one.

    I’m not saying they aren’t allowed to have political opinions, just that arguing with someone like that about religion is like arguing with a creationist who thinks the Origin of Species was the last word on evolution.

  141. #141 Alexander Vargas
    January 19, 2007

    Jefferson’s version of the bible without the miracles, makes a great point: sacred texts have had a historical-moral value to the societies that uphold them. It is quite a different thing from “superstition” and “ignorance”. If this is not understood, the traction of religion on society cannot be understood (nor can we truly know how to deal with it).
    Continuity with the god of the Jews was just mandatory, for obvious social-historical reasons; but the god of christianity, and the religious life of early christians in general, experienced some major metamorphosis (more specifically, thanks to the influence of the more humanistic religions to the east).
    I think Jefferson would have frowned at the mention of the “christian” god in that misquotation. I think he would have been more meticulous.
    The origin of the misquotation must be a plain old cheat, to pitch Jefferson into the match against the christian majority at hand.

  142. #142 CortxVortx
    January 19, 2007

    Randall: “Also, I can conceive of the perfect cheeseburger, a cheeseburger in paradise, if you will.”

    A cheeseburger in paradise would not be perfect since it’s “not too particular, not too precise.”

    — CV (parrothead)

  143. #143 Alexander Vargas
    January 19, 2007

    If you want to understand the history of western science you would have to read theological texts. The precedent to the renaissance occurs when the church starts mixing theology and classic greek philosophy and science. This produces some excellent philosopers, and a transition to rationalism (from early St Augustine, then St Thomas, Occam), recovering the interest in man and the natural world.

  144. #144 Numad
    January 19, 2007

    Jonathan Badger,

    “Yes, there are no guarantees, just like refuting the ‘if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?’ creationist chestnut doesn’t mean that we’ve convinced the person who said it.”

    There are even less guarantees. Refuting this chestnut would be effective if the person cared about facts or logic. On the other hand, even a theist with such a positive disposition could fail to be persuaded by arguments from theology such as were discussed, without being at fault at all.

    A theist who, as described earlier, doesn’t know specifics of theology beyond a certain depth, can disregard arguments from that theology simply by not recognizing the assumptions on which it rests. Atheists do it all the time, there’s no logical inconsistency there.

    The internal logic of a theologian’s thought doesn’t necessarily bind other theologians, and less certainly still theists with simpler understandings of their religion.

    If one’s discussing religion or mythology, it’s appropriate that one doesn’t discuss it at a level more superficial than one’s interlocutor: but going at deeper levels can be more futile than helpful.

    “But I do find it odd that we’ve taken creationist literature seriously enough to point out all the flaws in it and even created an internet archive of the debunking, and yet the more moderate theological literature (written by and for people noticeably less insane than creationists) isn’t considered worth such a treatment.”

    I’m not sure how odd it is. Clearly, creationist claims go farther: there’s both more urgency to their debunking and more means to debunk them with. It’s basically a crude theology set up against scientific fact.

    Fact is, with other theological material the term debunking stops being appropriate, and I’m seeing this as an atheist.

  145. #145 Alexander Vargas
    January 20, 2007

    Dawkins is basically an ultradarwinian into scientism. He has respect for natural sciences but not much true respect for philosophy, history, or social sciences in general.
    However, social sciences, and not a sterile theory of meme selection, are the most relevant areas to understand cultural change, and specially, how religion increases or decreases its pervasiveness in society, and what could be done about it.
    I understand those who do not want to know much about theology, but take a historical-sociological attitude. After all if you want less influence and privilege of religion, it comes in handy to have a genuine understanding of what is going on in their heads (and how that may change or become undone)
    The surge of humanism, rationalism and science that begun In the Renaissance should be of great interest to Dawkins, but I think he is rather handicapped to discuss it. His feet are only truly on the ground if we talk about selection of something. Anything.

  146. #146 Écrasez l'infâme
    January 23, 2007

    Crossposted from Stranger Fruit:

    Positive Atheism lists the quote as a phony, having made an inquiry to Jefferson Presidential Library:

    The Jefferson Presidential Library has searched for the following alleged quotation and cannot find it within their collection of known and verified Jefferson writings. Therefore we think this quotation is probably a forgery and recommend its removal from all quotes collections.

    However, there are several properly cited Jefferson quotes at WikiQuote that express Jefferson’s views on this subject throughout his life:

    * The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 78.

    * Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. “No two, say I, have established the same.” Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 80.

    * I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not [297] comprehending the mysteries of the trinity.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 81.

    * [I]n a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever[.]
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, pp. 83-84.

    * Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object [religion]. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. … But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. … Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions I. of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was Punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it’s consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it’s exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe when speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 324-327.

    * A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution [the University of Virginia].
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814.[1]

    * But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill[.] … The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems,[footnote: e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. –T.J.] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 141-142.

    * My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers [the authors of the Gospels], which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history. … That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[2]

    * His [Jesus’] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[3]

    * The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823.[4]

    * It is between fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. … what has no meaning admits no explanation.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825.[5]

  147. #147 Écrasez l'infâme
    January 23, 2007

    Crossposted from Stranger Fruit:

    Positive Atheism lists the quote as a phony, having made an inquiry to Jefferson Presidential Library:

    The Jefferson Presidential Library has searched for the following alleged quotation and cannot find it within their collection of known and verified Jefferson writings. Therefore we think this quotation is probably a forgery and recommend its removal from all quotes collections.

    However, there are several properly cited Jefferson quotes at WikiQuote that express Jefferson’s views on this subject throughout his life:

    * The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 78.

    * Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. “No two, say I, have established the same.” Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 80.

    * I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not [297] comprehending the mysteries of the trinity.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 81.

    * [I]n a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever[.]
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, pp. 83-84.

    * Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object [religion]. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. … But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. … Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions I. of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was Punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it’s consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it’s exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe when speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 324-327.

    * A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution [the University of Virginia].
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814.[1]

    * But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill[.] … The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems,[footnote: e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. –T.J.] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 141-142.

    * My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers [the authors of the Gospels], which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history. … That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[2]

    * His [Jesus’] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[3]

    * The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823.[4]

    * It is between fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. … what has no meaning admits no explanation.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825.[5]

  148. #148 Alexander Vargas
    January 23, 2007

    A little more preaching in the desert about the evils of scientism:
    Those who uphold that only science provides knowledge, and don’t care to think out a philosophical point, have a tendecy to say “aw, philosophy is bullcrap”.
    They could be a bit more respectful to the forefathers of atheism, as well as to those that have made enduring contributions in both philosophy and science (Goethe, Einstein).

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