Pharyngula

Hiding from religious reality

Salon has an interview with Elaine Pagels on the Gospel of Judas. I’m really not much interested in yet another quaint twist on Christian dogma — I can understand how historians may differ, of course — but in the course of the interview she pulls this stunt … this ridiculous, absurd, cowardly claim that is pretty much routine from theologians.

What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don’t there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn’t this become a question for science?

Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.

I agree … almost certainly not. The idea is laughable, a great big silly joke.

Elaine Pagels, meet Rick Warren. He’s an evangelical pastor, and he’s huge — I’m sure far more people have heard of him than of Elaine Pagels, and if his flock has heard of Richard Dawkins, it’s only because Warren may have damned him from the pulpit. He has a bit of a dialogue with Sam Harris in Newsweek.

Do you believe Creation happened in the way Genesis describes it?
WARREN:
If you’re asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don’t. I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man’s nose? If you believe in God, you don’t have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it’s fine with me.

WARREN: Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions. I’m willing to admit my presuppositions: there are clues to God. I talk to God every day. He talks to me.

HARRIS: What does that actually mean?

WARREN: One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer. I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He’s an intern at this church, and so I said, “God, I need you to help me with this,” as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, “I’m an immigration attorney; I’d be happy to take this case.” Now, if that happened once in my life I’d say, “That is a coincidence.” If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence.

This concept that Pagels finds so unlikely, that there is “some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt” is precisely what Warren and many millions of Americans believe. I agree that it is absurd, but far from being a “village atheist”, Dawkins seems to be far more aware of what people actually believe than a professional historian of Christianity. I find myself intensely disgusted by the continued and frequent denial of the obvious by the very people who purport to be the experts on the subject — it’s as if they have their eyes firmly closed and refuse to even consider the reality of religious practice.

Now Pagels is a believer; if not the “big person up there”, what does she believe in?

Are you saying that part of the problem here is the notion of a personal God? Has that become an old-fashioned view of religion?

I’m not so sure of that. I think the sense of actual contact with God is one that many people have experienced. But I guess it’s a question of what kind of God one has in mind.

So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?

Well, I’ve learned from the texts I work on that there really aren’t words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it’s certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.

Certainly many people talk about God as an ineffable presence. But if you try to explain what transcendence is, can you put that into words and explain what it means?

People have put it into words, but the words are usually metaphors or poems or hymns. Even the word “God” is a metaphor, or “the son of God,” or “Father.” They’re all simply images for some other order of reality.

Vacuous nonsense, air and fluff, excuses and evasions, nothing at all. Those seem to be our choices in this widely spread argument: the ridiculous anthropomorphic personal entity of the Rick Warren majority, or the etiolated and pointless vapor of the theological intellectuals. Common inanity vs. rarefied insipidity. The Lucky Charms leprechaun vs. invisible fairies in the garden.

I choose none of the above. The nonexistence of any of these idiotic fictions is the only choice that makes any sense.

Comments

  1. #1 Tom Rees
    April 2, 2007

    These two variants of religion need each other for mutual support. Theologians have created a god that is sufficiently vaporous to be non-dissprovable. If the average christian was presented with this image of god, they would reject it because it does not fulfill the emotional need.

    But the average christian can profess their belief in a deeply personal god (continually tweaking the laws of physics for their personal benefit), and can avoid the atheist challenge by deferring to the theologians (Dawkins can be ignored because he’s not attacking the ‘real’ christian god). The theologians, meanwhile, benefit from the kudos and deference received from the christian community at large (even though their beliefs are largely tangential).

    There was a study (last year? year before?) showing that, in the US, belief in a personal god was inversely related to aducational level. Can’t find it now – does anyone else know where it is?

  2. #2 C
    April 2, 2007

    People have put it into words, but the words are usually metaphors or poems or hymns. Even the word “God” is a metaphor, or “the son of God,” or “Father.” They’re all simply images for some other order of reality.

    Yeah? I have a better one for this uhm… other order of reality. How about “Janus”?

    Nah, that would be too obvious, eh?

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich
    April 2, 2007

    WARREN: Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions. I’m willing to admit my presuppositions: there are clues to God. I talk to God every day. He talks to me.

    HARRIS: What does that actually mean?

    I am also waiting for an answer on this “presupposition” question as well, since the objection without definition has also come up on my blog when I post regarding Dawkins.

    Also, Dawkins does address the vague God that Pagels refers to in The God Delusion.

  4. #4 Ex-drone
    April 2, 2007

    The egregious part of Pagels’ comments is that she summarily dismisses Dawkins’ atheism but then can’t or won’t bother to explain her own belief.

    For Tom Rees, Michael Shermer conducted a survey on the factors of belief in God in his book How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. If I remember correctly, the top two factors are the religiosity of your parents/upbringing (modified by your relationship with your parents) and your level of education. For this latter factor, the higher you go in school, the more likely you are to be an atheist.

  5. #5 Scott Simmons
    April 2, 2007

    Perhaps I’m not the one to be jumping in here, but what the hey … The problem folks like Dawkins and P.Z. have with these theologians is that their musings provide a smokescreen for the masses of believers to use to convince themselves that their beliefs are not intellectually bankrupt. Rick Warren isn’t looking at these sophisticated theologians and saying, “Whoa–I guess my belief in a big Sky Fairy is kind of goofy.” He’s not really looking at those theologians at all, other than to point the skeptics at them when Dawkins raises doubts that he can’t answer.

    If this was part of some intellectual process, whereby every year, more and more Christians abandoned their Bronze Age ideas in favor of this more abstract but fundamentally plausible deity, that would be great from the atheist perspective. But it will never happen, because this plausible deity doesn’t inspire the kind of widespread devotion and fanatic loyalty that the kind old guy with the beard and the heavenly thunderbolts to aim at unbelievers does. And the reason why that is, is something that these sophisticated theologians, in my opinion, really ought to be mulling over …

  6. #6 Caledonian
    April 2, 2007

    People don’t think rationally most of the time, and most people don’t think rationally at all.

    That’s why so few people notice that a god that is so etherial as to be beyond scientific inquiry no longer meets the criteria for existence. That’s why Dawkins is actually wrong when he says science cannot disprove god – for many, many definitions of ‘god’, ‘god’ is logically incoherent and necessarily nonexistent.

  7. #7 MysticOlly
    April 2, 2007

    Unfortunately Burt Humbug has ignored the subtle and sophistacated new ways of thinking about Odin.

    For example, Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir is actually a very real, temporal, metaphorical manifestation of the eternal human ideal of creativity.

    Through the appreciation of his multi-leggedness we can come to some very real and relevant insights into the moral nature of the modern man and his valiant struggle to juggle (like an eight-legged horse) the various constricting and enlightening factors that daily assail and inspire her/him.

    In fact as we understand Odin’s one-eyedness is a penetrating and sublte insight into the blindness of man vis-a-vis the fact that the world (by which I mean something particularly Norse and horny) is perceived through the pirate eye-patch of our senses and thus half of the world’s mystery and beauty and . . . er . . . non-material aspect is shielded from us.

    It is only through a radical re-definition of what the eye-patch is that you can understand the infinite subtleties of the perceived world and how this affects are most subtle moral choices (except of course when it comes to eight-legged horses).

    So basically PZ you are an idiot.

    For Odin’s sake, get a degree (in something eternally TRUE like Norse studies (you damn viking-wannabe))

    ((Look double-brackets))

    Oli

  8. #8 MysticOlly
    April 2, 2007

    BCH

    ‘wrong’ is a pretty amorphous term.

    I am not sure what exactly you mean (I can come up with several caricatures) when you say that I might think belief in God/Odin is wrong.

    I don’t think belief in God is wrong, if I define wrong as implying bad or evil. I think the existence of a defined linguistic meme known colloquially as ‘God’ is highly questionable. I can’t see how the belief itself has any particular moral value. Behaviour based on this belief may be good or bad. I am well aware of the vast amount of good work done by well-meaning religious charities and people, even (this is serious) to those people who offend them the most. And likewise I commend anybody who chooses to support and pursue the only known methods for discovering reliable and repeatable truth about the universe (ie. Science).

    That doesn’t mean for a second that the paricular beliefs of those involved gain any truth points. Good people can still hold crazy ideas about the world.

    And I believe Norse belief is technically called ‘Asatru’.

    Oli

  9. #9 Steve LaBonne
    April 2, 2007

    As to Pagels, she is a brilliant historian, and she actually publishes books and articles and not just angry blogs.

    I agree. So then, why is she wasting her time by lowering herself to an intellectually inept attack on Dawkins?

  10. #10 Dean
    April 2, 2007

    Hw cm Brt Hmbrg lft Knss?

  11. #11 Frustrated
    April 2, 2007

    Is anyone using adblock on firefox noticing that the video ads arent’t blocked anymore? I can’t block them now. I’m really close to getting rid of all my scienceblog bookmarks.

  12. #12 John B
    April 2, 2007

    I find myself intensely disgusted by the continued and frequent denial of the obvious by the very people who purport to be the experts on the subject — it’s as if they have their eyes firmly closed and refuse to even consider the reality of religious practice.

    Keep in mind, Elaine Pagels doesn’t study modern American Christianity, and probably doesn’t consider herself an expert in 20th or 21st century fundamentalism in America. Her work has been almost uniformly focused on Gnostic Christianity (hence her involvement in the Gospel of Judas press).

    When she talks about ‘the people I study’ that’s what she means. I don’t see how a reference to Rick Warren’s beliefs are helpful in addressing that point.

    She’s a historian of religion, so she doesn’t agree with Dawkins’ opinions about how harmful, bad and unnecessary it is… surprised?

  13. #13 Michael Derr
    April 2, 2007

    What is particularly disgusting about the Rick Warren debate is that he fell back on, at the last moment, that most heinous of spiritually devoid gambits: Pascal’s Wager. To me, there is nothing that says, “I don’t really have faith” like claiming that a good reason to believe in God is simply because it makes more sense to hedge your bets that way. Ugh.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    April 2, 2007

    Frustrated:

    Is anyone using adblock on firefox noticing that the video ads arent’t blocked anymore? I can’t block them now. I’m really close to getting rid of all my scienceblog bookmarks.

    Have you tried using Flashblock in addition to AdBlock? I find it’s pretty helpful at keeping pages uncluttered when I haven’t yet found the proper URLs to block.

  15. #15 PZ Myers
    April 2, 2007

    I suspect that if Elaine Pagels studied the majority beliefs of the first century middle east, she’d find that gnostic priests were a distinct minority, and that most people were praying to rather more pedestrian gods. I also suspect that the beliefs of those gnostic priests would not translate well to the 21st century, and would look even goofier than Dawkins’ portrayal of modern theologians — there is no salvation for her thesis there.

    Burt, I oppose the tepid theology of the theologians because it is dishonest. It represents a febrile strand of apologetics that is in defiance of mainstream belief, but is tolerated by those mainstream practitioners because it is handy to use in deflecting criticism. It supports idiocy instead of supplanting it.

  16. #16 John
    April 2, 2007

    So now scholars of Biblical history are equatable with evangelists? Pagels doesn’t use her podium to promote religious thought, rather she uses it to explore the secular history of Christianity. As The Bower Bird points out, she is responsible for leading some people to new levels of rationality in regard to religious thought – and abandoning it altogether. She doesn’t write books and books attacking we atheists and she’s certainly entitled to her personal opinion about all that, but, really, that is not her focus nor the reason she was interviewed. Besides, what she has to say in regard to “God” as a metaphor is very similar what Dawkins says about physicists who use “God” metaphorically in their statements. I don’t see any important difference and I don’t really understand the point in taking Pagels to task for answering a question about her personal opinion. It doesn’t really prove anything.

  17. #17 Will E.
    April 2, 2007

    Years ago, when I was a religion major studying early Xianity, Pagels played a major role in my education. But now, trying to read her interview in Salon, my eyes just glaze over. It is all more or less fiction; she is simply doing literary exegesis the way Harold Bloom writes about Shakespeare and Milton and James Joyce. I can’t bear to read that kind of stuff about Xianity any longer. She simply refuses to see the obvious, the true heart of the matter: that the reason there were so many conflicting ideas about Xianity in its early centuries is because it was simply invented.

    Rick Warren, he’s just an Elmer Gantry, but at least Gantry was played by Burt Lancaster in the movie version. Warren would rate, who? Newman from “Seinfeld”?

  18. #18 Burt Humburg
    April 2, 2007

    Taking a quick break from medicine in between getting vitals and seeing patients and I noticed this comment.

    Burt, I oppose the tepid theology of the theologians because it is dishonest. It represents a febrile strand of apologetics that is in defiance of mainstream belief, but is tolerated by those mainstream practitioners because it is handy to use in deflecting criticism.

    I know we’re all inclined to see things from our own perspective, but if you are a theist, you don’t see these new ways of thinking about God as a means of deflecting criticism. There’s a role for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here and it isn’t clear to me how this isn’t obvious. Even if you disagree with theology, the efforts to raise Christians out of bronze-age thinking is to be commended, whether it comes in the flavor of theism or atheism. Encourage this and marvel in a few years time when the culture is more enlightened. Maybe not atheistic, but at least not hostile to science.

    There’s much here to be encouraged. That’s my point. Make of it what you will.

    BCH

  19. #19 Alan Kellogg
    April 2, 2007

    “Sleipner” was originally the word for the four men who would haul away the corpse of the sacrifice after he was hung from Odin’s tree. “Sleipner” the eight-legged horse came about thanks to clueless academics who confused Swedish poetics for an actual item.

    As to PZ’s atheism we would like to remind PZ that he is God, and as God We would must ask the PZ get over Himself.

  20. #20 roy sablosky
    April 2, 2007

    That’s why Dawkins is actually wrong when he says science cannot disprove god – for many, many definitions of ‘god’, ‘god’ is logically incoherent and necessarily nonexistent.

    Exactly. Science has no need to “disprove god.”

  21. #21 Steve LaBonne
    April 2, 2007

    Those attacking PZ for this post should, yet again, be reminded that Pagels’s remarks only came to his attention because of her frankly rather stupid, and definitely gratuitous, attack on Dawkins.

    Pagels is an important scholar whose work I greatly respect. The tired “vilalge atheist” gibe should have been beneath her.

  22. #22 Ian
    April 2, 2007

    Frustrated:
    “Is anyone using adblock on firefox noticing that the video ads arent’t blocked anymore? I can’t block them now. I’m really close to getting rid of all my scienceblog bookmarks.”

    I’m a huge fan of “NoScript” myself. It takes care of everything Java, Javascript and Flash, starts out “off” by default, and can be turned on temporarily or permanently by site or universally, without restarting firefox (it does require a page reload, though, which sometimes wipes out forms). For sites that require scripts for full functionality (such as my bank) and don’t annoy the hell out of me with obnoxious abuses of said scripting languages, I leave them activated all the time. I have scienceblogs enabled (I don’t think I can comment without it), but the video ads must be coming from some other server, because I’ve never seen them.

  23. #23 Jimmy
    April 2, 2007

    His response to what are logical arguments by Pagels are insanely fanatical. She’s presenting what are fairly rational ideas about a basic inability to describe the indescribable. Something that is really only experiential. What does a sunset look like? Could you really describe it satisfactorily? Yes, there are sages that are exceptional at describing the experience of god, but it is not common, especially by the laymen. Richard Dawkins has become the Christ of the athiest. It blows my mind that athiests like this guy don’t realize that they preach with the same fanaticism as the people they criticize. They hold faith in the idea that they are right. What childishness.

  24. #24 CalGeorge
    April 2, 2007

    Where is Bérubé when you need him?

    From her talk:

    The route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion… When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics, as has happened in the US over the past 20 years, all perspective is lost. Great art can be made out of love for religion, as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.

    A fascist aesthetics? A closet endorsement of Chocolate Jesus? A claim that secularism lead to impotence and appeals only to wankers?

    Help us, Michael!

  25. #25 Sarcastro
    April 2, 2007

    What was the name of Norse mythology anyway?

    Aesirism? In general it was syncretic polytheism but in specific it was the Indo-European Aesir sky-god pantheon ascendant over the earlier, possibly pre-IE, cthonic Vanyir pantheon. At least as presented by the Eddas.

  26. #26 John
    April 2, 2007

    Wow, calling what Pagels said about Dawkins an “attack” is amazingly thin-skinned. I’d call it a “jibe” at best and certainly one that Mr. Dawkins has the knowledge of context and sense of humor to withstand! Call Dawkins the christ of atheism, now THAT’S an insult – but again, I think he is sophisticated enough to brush that off.

    I equate scholars like Pagels with string theorists, actually, and like the ideas that spring from both. I don’t need to accept either as wholly indisputable fact in order to see the worth there. I also don’t need to only have friendships with athiests. Really, this is all getting very nitpicky.

  27. #27 Steve_C
    April 2, 2007

    So if something is indescribable, even to people who believe in the indescribable thing, then the people who find the undescribable thing purely unbelievable are exactly like the most fanatic believers of the indescribable thing? Or actually BECOME the embodiment of the indescriabable thing?

    Did I get that right?

    Maybe I just didn’t describe it well.

  28. #28 tristero
    April 2, 2007

    I am a friend of Elaine Pagels. In fact, she translated a Gnostic text – “Thunder, Perfect Mind” – for a piece I wrote.

    It is quite true that Elaine’s Christianity would have had her burned at the stake in an earlier age. That, of course, is the entire point of her work, at least to a non-scholarly public, namely to challenge the very notion of what Xianity means. To a public that is used to equating Xian belief with variants of American fundamentalism, Elaine’s work is a surprising reminder that Christianity is not Pat Robertson.

    Elaine’s views, which are clearly similar to what’s meant, loosely, by the phrase “Spinoza’s God” – ie, God as identical to nature, with religious practice and scripture as metaphor for imprecise, transcendent oceanic feelings – are extremely common among the more educated church/temple goers. So I don’t think she’s being cowardly, nor is she necessarily uninformed. Whether there are more “metaphorists” than there are folks who believe in a real person in the sky is, I think, something that should be left to the results of surveys, not assumed by Dawkins, Elaine, or anyone else. Anyone know of any?

    One final point. The notion of religion as metaphor actually long predates Spinoza. It is, after all, what is behind the ban, among Jews and Muslims, of images of God. Yes, it is true that literalism and reification are also very old. But the notion that Genesis was never intended to be read as literally true is probably as old as Genesis itself. The people who wrote the texts probably never thought in terms of “really happened” in our sense, nor did the redactors who kept two totally different stories, as well as the Sumerian flood tale from Gilgamesh, in the final text. The notion of “historical truth” is not necessarily something that would have meant much 4000 or so years ago.

  29. #29 Anna Z
    April 2, 2007

    Pagels didn’t exactly attack Dawkins. She pointed out that the God he spends so much energy debunking is a charicature.

    Nor does Pagels “enable” the fundies to believe their religion has an intellectual base. They hate her and think she’s going to hell. They don’t need or want intellectuals in their narrow world.

    Nor does she speak for that world or to it, and doesn’t need to.

    Of course, according to *some* atheists, only the fundamentalists are “true” believers. Sheesh, why don’t the godless clean up their own ranks first before they go picking and choosing who’s a Christian or not? Honestly, start with the agnostics, who try to pass as godless when really they are more wishy washy than the likes of Pagels.

    I’m a huge advocate of keeping religion out of the schools and government, but it’s fruitless to try to eradicate it from peoples’ lives. Until we perfect the brain, making it a perfect computing machine, there will always be areas of non-rational or intuitional thought, and sometimes even faith in its many varietes. To some of us, who may agree with certain points and not others, it’s interesting to read Pagels’ views. It is not, however, our business to tell her what to believe or who she must speak for – she alone gets to choose.

  30. #30 Steve LaBonne
    April 2, 2007

    Tristero, Pagels is not a Spinozist by a long shot. Spinoza’s pantheism is so thoroughgoing that the great difficulty of distinguishing it from materialism has long been notorious. It’s quite clear from Pagels’s quoted remarks that her god has not yet evaporated to quite that extent (so much the worse for her.)

  31. #31 PZ Myers
    April 2, 2007

    And I’m saying that the god Dawkins debunked is not a caricature of people’s actual beliefs. When over half the people in this country believe in a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis, it’s safe to say that there are 150,000,000 people here believe in “some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt”.

    I agree that Pagels is an Invisible Fairyist, and that’s a step up from the Lucky Charms Leprechaunist. What I find contemptible, though, is the way these theologians will readily accept the existence of an invisible intangible god, but they deny the existence of the Lucky Charms Leprechaunist type of Christian that I can see every day in my little town.

  32. #32 Blake Stacey, OM
    April 2, 2007

    PZ wrote, way up top:

    Salon has an interview with Elaine Pagels on the Gospel of Judas. I’m really not much interested in yet another quaint twist on Christian dogma — I can understand how historians may differ, of course — but in the course of the interview she pulls this stunt …

    Calling it a “quaint twist” is apt, since the “new theology” set form in the Gospel was actually expounded in “Three Versions of Judas“, a 1944 short story by Jorge Luis Borges.

  33. #33 John
    April 2, 2007

    Steve, I agree with you about Pagel’s remarks in that realm, but it strikes me that is an opinion about one specific role that the wide umbrella of “religion” plays in creativity and I’m not keen to throw away the baby with the bathwater.

  34. #34 Patrick
    April 2, 2007

    Pagels didn’t exactly attack Dawkins. She pointed out that the God he spends so much energy debunking is a charicature.

    So no one actually believes in a God who created the universe and answers prayers and sent his son to die and wrote a book talking about? Well, hell, that’s a load off my chest. I guess we can just stop opposing creationists and stop worrying about those religious folk opposing stem cell research. They don’t believe those things, after all.

    “Those people who believe all those crazy things aren’t real Christians! Get with the times! Real Christians believe in… uh… whatever it is I believe. There’s metaphors. Metaphors for other realities. It’s all very intellectual. And it works out great for me, because any time an atheist comes up with an argument, I can just say it doesn’t apply because my God isn’t like that. He’s just this metaphor, you know? In fact, he’s pretty much indistinguishable from nothing, except that he exists. Really. He does! Those mean atheists just can’t accept this new intellectual religion, which is the real new Christianity. All that literalism stuff is so last century.”

  35. #35 Michael
    April 2, 2007

    Why isnt the isue of brain function and brain chemistry being mentioned? You are dealing with different levels of addiction here. We all know that there is a region of the brain that is succeptable to this “god” stuff. We also know that humans do respond chemically (seritonin/dopamine receptors). Once these receptor are set off (chanting. prayer, fellowship, talking in tongues. I also know that there are 2 types of christians, the ones are are altered chemically and the ones that are there for social networking and just want to fit in – .

    We are in a mess here. How do you treat billions of addicts? I have heard that focused electro magnetic radiation can effectivly erase these conditions. So, maybe in the future a controlled airburst…

  36. #36 BadAunt
    April 2, 2007

    I’m with Bower Bird on this one. I grew up with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as one of the very few approved books in the house, and was secretly convinced that it proved that I was wicked. If someone tied me to a bonfire and lit it I knew I would never sing a hymn with so loud and cheerful a voice that (I’d) be heard through all the cracklings of the combustibles, and the noise of the multitude. I knew I would become an instant atheist in exchange for a bucket of water, and consequently go to hell. It was a worrying thing to know about myself.

    So when I read Pagels, when I was about 18 or 19, it was a revelation to me. The Bible was a collection of HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS! I had never heard anybody talk of it that way before. I think if she’d been pushing atheism I’d have been suspicious, but her personal views on religion didn’t seem to be an issue, at least to the naive reader I was. What was important was that she treated the Bible as historical documentation, and wrote about the Christian religion in a historical context. I cannot overstate how astonishing that was to me at that time. I was unbelievably ignorant. Because of her I started to question EVERYTHING.

    Pagels started me off on a process of learning about the religion I had been brought up to never question, and, really, to never even think about, at least not with any clarity. She gave me a foothold, a place to start.

    So actually I don’t care if she goes all wishy-washy over religion. I will always be grateful.

  37. #37 PZ Myers
    April 2, 2007

    Exactly. Most of the country is completely uninformed and uncaring about the actual content of the Bible — it’s enough to say that they believe every word literally.

    Now if everyone who currently blindly accepts the bible on faith were to become aware and accept the vague theology of Pagels, I’d be happy, and I’d be perfectly willing to accept the state of affairs. I probably wouldn’t even bother to criticize Pagelianism, although I would be rolling my eyes a lot.

    In the current state of affairs, though, Pagelianism is a sloppy bit of whitewash over an ugly reality — it’s a feeble attempt to provide cover for very bad ideas. That’s why I don’t sit silent now when an otherwise intelligent historian mumbles a few lame excuses for her belief.

  38. #38 Joshua
    April 2, 2007

    Even if you disagree with theology, the efforts to raise Christians out of bronze-age thinking is to be commended, whether it comes in the flavor of theism or atheism. Encourage this and marvel in a few years time when the culture is more enlightened.

    Is there any evidence beyond one person’s anecdote in this thread that Pagel’s or any other theologian’s writings have any impact whatsoever outside the narrow field of academic theology? Nevermind the specific impact that you claim here of raising Christians out of bronze-age thinking.

    I think that comparing the entire output of all the academic theologians in the English-speaking world to the publication numbers for Left Behind — just the first one, not the sequels — should be instructive in this case.

  39. #39 PZ Myers
    April 2, 2007

    So Elaine Pagels can spout fluff and nonsense, and we’re not supposed to criticize it because, well, she’s Elaine Pagels? I don’t get it. Who else is on the list of being immune from criticism? Can I get on it?

  40. #40 Clare
    April 2, 2007

    Correction: looking again at the original quote, Pagels is indeed talking about what people believed a very, very long time ago, and not now. Dawkins, though, IS talking about what people believe now, and it would be worth acknowledging that point.

  41. #41 Scott Hatfield
    April 2, 2007

    PZ, Burt: If I may be so bold, I think much of this exchange misses the mark.

    For example, Burt correctly points out that a doctrinaire rejection of all believers (including, I suppose, folks like me) is a political non-starter. But is this relevant? Even Sam Harris, our century’s answer to Thomas Paine, doesn’t appear to be running for public office. As a personal matter, I don’t feel rejected by folk like PZ or Dr. Dawkins. In fact, I can testify that both have lent me a dollop of assistance and advice upon occasion, so apparently their public pronouncements have not transformed either of these gentlemen into private ideologues. Interesting!

    In the same vein, PZ rails against the rarified thought of the contemporary religious scholar whose eminence could be appropriated by fundies who would not share the former’s heterodoxy. Yet, in my experience many of these scholars are forthright in rejecting fundamentalism, so from my point of view they seem no more or less guilty of enabling the opposite side than many scientists whose words have been taken out of context.

    I conclude, therefore, that what matters is whether or not the individuals in question blunder in attempting to *privilege* their views. We are able to interact with one another and make common cause to the extent that we are able to avoid that pitfall, I think. Burt, I suspect that neither you or PZ would regard anyone unable to make that commitment as a natural ally, whether they happened to agree with you, or not! And, as allies go, I admire the things both of you fellas have done on behalf of science education! Cordially…SH

  42. #42 Greg Peterson
    April 2, 2007

    I see Newsweek pandered to its no doubt largely religious audience by letting Warren have the last word, with that short-bus Pascal’s Wager riff. Yeah, if you can’t find any real reason to believe, do it because you’re too chickenshit to work out the actual odds.

  43. #43 melior
    April 2, 2007

    Distilled, Pagels’ sniffing dismissal of Dawkins is just a garden variety No True Scotsman argument.

    Humburg, above, tries his version of this slippery move:

    There’s a difference between God as taught by home-grown fundies in Kansas (say, for example, the pastor of one of the largest churches in Overland Park, KS and God as taught by modern seminaries other than fundie schools.

    It’s worth pausing to note the chutzpah required to dismiss tradition in theology in favor of ‘modern’ (cutting edge!) seminary studies.

    Not too many generations ago, that was grounds for being paid a little visit from the Inquisition.

  44. #44 Kristine
    April 2, 2007

    Scott Simmons nails it: But it will never happen, because this plausible deity doesn’t inspire the kind of widespread devotion and fanatic loyalty that the kind old guy with the beard and the heavenly thunderbolts to aim at unbelievers does. And the reason why that is, is something that these sophisticated theologians, in my opinion, really ought to be mulling over …

    Spot-on, Scott, and let me add another dimension: social class and ethnicity. I’ve worked in “pink collar” jobs alongside a lot of women of color and low-income women.

    These women I met, decent, solid (and mostly single) mothers, spent hours in church, just hours, singing, clapping, jumping around, maybe speaking in tongues and all that. They talk about church all the time and it occupies a great deal of their lives. They get support from the “we can do it! We can improve our lives with God’s help!” spectacle and I am loathe to take that from them – but they don’t break it down into rational, attainable steps how to “do it.” This is a form of cultural capital that they didn’t learn in their environment.

    The more charismatic churches sap their worshippers energy and they come to work utterly exhausted. Convinced that all they need is God, they are heirs to exhaustion; and they have all this motivation but no real idea of the hierarchical actions required of one to, say, actually get a written recommendation or choose a college. (They give away a lot of their money to church, too.) Their skill level often didn’t match the job (not because they lied in the interview, but because they honestly felt that they “can do it”) and I literally showed people how to use the computer, how to alphabetize and refile documents, and in one case, how to type on the typewriter (and how to hide this lack of skill set from the boss until they did have it). Never did I rat out a coworker to the boss.

    Since church is so important to people’s lives I wish the pastors would hold seminars about concrete skills that people really need, instead of emotionally blowing people away with the We are joyful! Every! Single! Second!

    How can people think with all this going on? But as Dawkins’ once said about these “happy, clappy churches,” “They are afraid of thinking.” Actually, I think he was quoting a mainstream theologian, but still.

  45. #45 kemibe
    April 2, 2007

    Whatever the innate intelligence of people like Pagel, their inability to do the only sensible thing and simply part with their untenable ideas about the supernatural turns them into blithering, self-contradicting morons. “We just don’t have words for God” and “There’s no way to physically descibe God” are bald-faced retreats from a reality that continues to further erode religious dogma from all angles — a desperate effort to protect an idea that has no place in the extant world.

    The questions asked by Dawkins and Harris are absolutely legitimate, and necessary, in a world full of people who insist that their supposedly extant god should hold sway over our political and educational systems, and the only answer morons like Pagel have is to complain and come up with insulting terms for the questioners. To a rational person, they look like childish, colossal fuckheads.

    Life would be so much more rewarding for people in the grip of faith-woo if they could just abandon it in good conscience, but unfortunately it’s not that easy.

  46. #46 tristero
    April 2, 2007

    PZ, Agreed. If all that was going on was Pagelianism, there wouldn’t be much to worry about. You might roll your eyes, someone else might be curious, but there would be little of this nonsense you (and I, and many others) are so rightly alarmed about.

    Also agreed, Elaine is not beyond criticism. I like her, both personally and as a scholar, but that is no reason not to confront her when she’s wrong or when one simply disagrees. Among other things, failure to disagree, and strongly, is rather insulting.

    FWIW, the Salon interview is the most specific that I know of (there are others, in all likelihood) where Elaine talks about her own beliefs. In her books, she discussed the history of the texts without reference to her own beliefs until “Beyond Belief” which was long after she became (relatively) famous. I saw her once on a panel with a devout Catholic and a very liberal evangelical. Both the Catholic and the evangelical made a point of pompously proclaiming their own “faith,” implying that their “witness” was somehow important in weighing the truth of what they said. Elaine spoke entirely in terms of the history she had studied, never alluding to her personal beliefs.

    Also, in speaking with her, Elaine has made her impatience/contempt with the ignorant fanatics, like Dobson et al, very clear. All her work as an historian is a conscious, highly polemical response to the growth of christianism and the religious right (in fact, according to some scholars, her take on the Gnostics distorts their views to make them more palatable to modern liberal sensibilities). And she very publicly denounced Passion of the Christ.

    In short, I truly think it is mistaken to assume that Elaine believes Dawkins attacks a “caricature” and not a very real, very disturbing trend in American Christianity. True, she clearly is not an atheist, but I think she sees the dangers of christianism and religious fanaticism quite clearly. There is more than one way to confront christianism and her discussion of the Judas gospel is, in fact, just that.

  47. #47 tristero
    April 2, 2007

    Steve, I don’t see how I’m refuting myself. I’ve never denied that the ignorant are unaware of Pagels. What I’m trying to get at vis a vis the literalists is simply a variant of the old Gary Larson cartoon: we know they’re nuts, but exactly what kind of nuts are they?

    I submit that knowing that 50% of Americans take the Bible literally is not only deeply disturbing, but deeply puzzling. I want to know exactly what that means. That is all.

    My hypothesis is that religious literalism is not monolithic but occupies a spectrum and that there is less absolute literalism than there is ignorance and partial literalism. If this is the case, and I think it is, it would be very useful to know more about it.

    I’m certainly not denying that christianists are dangerous political operatives, and that there are lots of ‘em. I want to know more about them and their followers, not so I can empathize with them, but so that I can confront them more efficiently.

    As I’ve said many times. Religious tolerance and diversity: no problem. Fanaticism cloaked as devout “faith” that operates in the political cultural domain to grab/consolidate power: that is exceedingly dangerous.

  48. #48 tristero
    April 2, 2007

    grendelkhan, Thanks for the stats. As I said, I’m aware of them. And we both agree they are vague. All I’m saying is we need more information on these people. A lot more.

    Why? So we can craft more effective strategies to confront and defeat them politically. Agreed, Dawkins’ approach is effective. But I think there are others that are also effective, including Elaine’s. Her work in the wider public sphere is all of a piece, namely to deny that Dobson’s “Christianity” equals all of Christianity, or is even a particularly valid offshoot.

    Yes, it’s academic and the number of people involved is small, but my guess is that until The God Delusion, about as many Americans read Elaine’s books as Dawkins. I wouldn’t dismiss her or her approach out of hand. The Gnostic Gospels was a bestseller, and still sells exceedingly well. (I suspect that Dawkins now has more readers, however.)

  49. #49 Scott Hatfield, OM
    April 2, 2007

    Kristine (OM!): I am intrigued by your comments (as usual). Is it your impression that the exhausted women you’ve observed are actually hurting their ability to compete in the workplace? Would they be, in your judgement, better off not going to church just in terms of being more energetic, more alert, etc. ?

  50. #50 BadAunt
    April 2, 2007

    Tristero, that is a very interesting comment (to me, at least) about Pagels not proclaiming her Christianity in her books, and not usually publicly either. That was the impression I had as well, but had wondered whether it was just that I didn’t see it – it is a long time since I read her.

    I must admit that I am a bit puzzled by what she says in the Salon interview. It feels a bit odd to me that something she wrote could make it so clear to me that Christianity is just another religion (and ultimately to a rejection of religion), but it didn’t work that way for her. It makes the whole question of a need for religion being sort of embedded in some people (but not all, obviously) seem far more plausible. Is it possible that it isn’t something people can choose? Maybe we are born with a need for some kind of religion (however wishy-washy), or not. Maybe that’s why religious people who attack science insist on talking about atheists ‘belief’ in science. Maybe they are incapable of imagining a life without SOME kind of belief.

  51. #51 Peter Metrinko
    April 2, 2007

    Prof. Myers:

    I, too, was led out of religion by Pagels, whose histories of early Christianity could easily lead one to realize it was all made up. I think as a historian in this field she would lose credibility by saying “this is what you should, or should not believe.”

    A writer on BeliefNet said: “Elaine Pagels changed the historical landscape of Christianity by exploding the myth of the early church as a unified movement.” I think the sentiment is quite accurate. (Others, of course, joined her in this revelation of truth.)

    PZ, I would ask you to read what Pagels says about the Gnostic Gospels:

    So for the first time we had a very wide range of early Christian sources. And we began to see very clearly that what we call Christianity is a rather small selection, a small slice, of a much wider horizon. What survived as orthodox Christianity did so by suppressing and forcibly eliminating a lot of other material.

    It’s hard to characterize these texts in one simple way, because there’s a whole library of different things. But most of them are about the premise of finding access to God for oneself. That’s why the monks who hid them liked them, and that’s why the bishops didn’t like them, because if you can find God for yourself you might not need a church or bishops or the whole ecclesiastical apparatus.

    http://www.beliefnet.com/story/128/story_12865_1.html

    That statement is supported by her heavily researched works. For thinking people who were force fed religious doctrine (as I was) books like hers are often the best way out of the bunkum. A person with even a moderate intellect will not change his mind simply by being told “You’re wrong.” It doesn’t work that way.

    What does she believe in? When her first book came out and she was doing the talk show circuit, a close friend of mine told me Pagels was asked if there was a god, and she allegedly replied … “we’ve made it all up.”

    Since then, she has lost her husband and her son within a short time. Her “Beyond Belief” book talks of her going back into a church community to seek solace.

    I think she honestly may be at sea about what she believes. If one is fed religious tripe at an early age, even years of study and self-proclamations of agnosticism or atheism might evaporate with an emotional shock. The addiction of the Christian religion with its idea that, after we die we’ll see the people we love and everything will be warm and fuzzy, is a hard one to break.

    I do not fault her for her fuzziness. I wonder why she doesn’t just stand up and say “It’s all made up”. But I can understand why she may not be able to.

  52. #52 Howard
    April 2, 2007

    PAGELS SPEAKS THE TRUTH

    “I think the sense of actual contact with God is one that many people have experienced. But I guess it’s a question of what kind of God one has in mind.”

    Ironically, she reveals the essence of the dilemna…WHAT KIND OF GOD ONE HAS IN MIND

    The figure of speech “to have something in mind,” can refer to a perceived external event or to an internal event that is perceived. Believers cannot differentiate between the two.

  53. #53 Steve_C
    April 2, 2007

    And they believe in Satan and Hell too….

    To the vast majority of christians, these are not metapors.

  54. #54 Steve_C
    April 2, 2007

    They might need some special form of clearasil for metapors,
    metaphors on the other hand…

  55. #55 Will E.
    April 2, 2007

    Keith Douglas wrote, “Nowhere does she address the possibility that some or all of the gospels is fiction / midrash. (In fact, it was learning about the non-canonical gospels that pushed me in that direction.)”

    Absolutely, I second those sentiments. The biblical authors were in many ways literary masters. Perhaps the only way, I would say.

  56. #56 maja
    April 2, 2007

    So Warren is admitting that this immigration issue encounter happened once, and was a complete coincidence?

    Well, at least that’s honest.

  57. #57 llewelly
    April 2, 2007

    PZ:

    … although I would be rolling my eyes a lot.

    You’ve got to be careful about rolling your eyes. It makes your view of reality dark and gritty …

  58. #58 Kristine
    April 2, 2007

    Would they be, in your judgement, better off not going to church just in terms of being more energetic, more alert, etc. ?

    You know we don’t agree on religion so I’m going to try to be objective here and hold off on what I think they “should” do. I accept that people are different than me.

    These women are sick and tired for a miriad of reasons, not just church. But my point is, if “the church is its people” then it has an obligation to recognize when it’s not helping, when what it’s doing is beside the point. I am talking about people who never grew up middle-class, and did not absorb from their environment the specific information about taking tests, resumes, professionalism on the job, skills, etc. They must learn this overtly, the way one learns a foreign language, because so many of them had no role models in this respect. But how and where do they learn it? They can’t envision the steps of even how to look for a book in the library, and they’re ashamed to ask someone in authority, so they’d ask a peer (me at the time).

    I wasn’t a believer but at least in my church there was an emphasis on intellectualism, upon the writings of the church fathers, upon *gasp!* memorization, which at least trains the mind to work through intellectual puzzles and problems, and grounds one in western culture. We learn by doing, and this is still a form of rational thinking. We learned to use the church library, too. No, I didn’t believe in God but this type of practice was useful in other areas. It taught me to plan (and to plan my escape!). ;-)

    It at least made me practice following a line of logic (such as the logic was). It gave me cumulative knowledge of history and literature and art. But today, that’s not what people are getting. They’re getting stimulus-response, happy-clappy instant feelgoodness. It’s anti-intellectual. Then they’re supposed to leave this environment and function in an entirely different one, one in which they are expected to be well-versed in (white, middle-class) cultural knowledge and to follow lines of logic and solve intellectual puzzles. They’re expected to plan and engage in abstract thinking. Well, those members of the “happy clappers” who are already middle-class (probably because they left the mainline church) then leave the service and rejoin the middle-class world that they already know how to negotiate, leaving the other members of the church, once again, without role models.

    It’s terribly hard to move up without role models. Again, I use the phrase “cultural capital” to demonstrate this. It’s hard for middle- and upper-class Americans to appreciate how lost someone is when s/he is the first one to break into a professional environment. Most people don’t realize how much stealth information they absorb from their family and peers about how to think logically in a professional world. And then there’s the church of today, remade in the image of the mall and TV, getting everyone hopped up, hyped up, with services lasting hours, with immediate rewards. How many times do people need to be told “God loves you!” For how many times a week? For how many hours? Maybe this is liberating for people who are already middle-class and have been socialized to function in mainstream America. But all this does is teach people who were never middle-class to get impatient when results are not immediate. It raises their expectations about what they’re supposed to be feeling when they work (it is normal to feel fear and anxiety, but they expect holy joyfulness all the time). It teaches them to be completely unrealistic about how the work world is supposed to be, which makes them easily discouraged. It’s a handicap, because it’s anti-intellectual.

    There was a recent survey highlighted in Newsweek about how little Americans know about the Bible. Holy crap, think about that. Americans are eating, drinking, breathing religion, but they don’t know the Bible – and I do. What does that tell you?

  59. #59 Steve LaBonne
    April 2, 2007

    Of course, he was a dishonorable, murderous deceiver, and he’d surely be hoarding the results of that research. And then there’s the human sacrifice part. So nevermind about the whole “admirable” thing, I guess.

    Just sounds like a typical politician to me. ;)

  60. #60 Norman Doering
    April 2, 2007

    Elaine Pagels may dis Dawkins with lines like “village atheist” and PZ may dis Pagels for doing so — but I get the feeling they’re all smiling and winking knowingly at each other and acting out this “good-cop, bad-cop” game on the fundies who don’t know that both science and Biblical history and archeology demolish the primitive beliefs of fundies.

    However, the truly weird Christian believers are people like Andrew Sullivan whom Sam Harris is also debating:
    http://richarddawkins.net/article,536,God-Is-Not-a-Moderate,Sam-Harris-and-Andrew-Sullivan-Beliefnetcom

    And I’ve blogged on it:
    http://normdoering.blogspot.com/2007/02/harris-versus-sullivan-battle-continues.html
    http://normdoering.blogspot.com/2007/02/harris-versus-sullivan-battle-becomes.html
    http://normdoering.blogspot.com/2007/03/sam-harris-very-politely-disagrees.html

  61. #61 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 2, 2007

    Process theology, for example, is ascendant and holds some interesting ideas that would be perfectly in-keeping with what this interviewee says. I’m not a theologian, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more enlightened evangelical positions besides.

    But what we see here is a technique of argument among atheists: they belittle these ascendant new ways of thinking about God.

    Obviously it should be recognized as a problem to hold up yet another vacuous and non-real (not used) theology in response to criticism of apologetics. (But I note however that process theology posits interventionist gods, so it is amenable to Dawkins methods as I understand it.)

    But apologists don’t change easily, otherwise they wouldn’t be apologists. The bait-and-switch technique where religious and theologists covers each others problems is also still too valuable.

    I guess that also explains why a post answering a common technique of argument among religious, to belittle new ways of thinking about gods, is rejected on similar arguments. It doesn’t suit the purpose, so the apologist is blind for the irony.

    Btw, for someone with the least interest in understanding phenomena, it is obvious what Dawkins is doing. He is reducing an area into a part that he can handle with tools available to him. It also happens to be the worst part of a problem he perceives. It isn’t a belittling of beliefs, but an honest analysis.

    Here’s a theologian trying to move away from “Big mean skygod will kill us if we pay attention to science.” Instead of encouraging this kind of thinking, P-Zed is bashing it.

    This can be completely reversed. Here is a scientist trying to move away from “Big mean skygod” et cetera. Instead of encouraging this kind of thinking, Burt is bashing it.

    So where does all these effortless reversals of apologetics descriptions leave us? Well, at the very least in a position where apologetics need to find new arguments. Which in itself is nothing new. :-)

  62. #62 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 2, 2007

    Process theology, for example, is ascendant and holds some interesting ideas that would be perfectly in-keeping with what this interviewee says. I’m not a theologian, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more enlightened evangelical positions besides.

    But what we see here is a technique of argument among atheists: they belittle these ascendant new ways of thinking about God.

    Obviously it should be recognized as a problem to hold up yet another vacuous and non-real (not used) theology in response to criticism of apologetics. (But I note however that process theology posits interventionist gods, so it is amenable to Dawkins methods as I understand it.)

    But apologists don’t change easily, otherwise they wouldn’t be apologists. The bait-and-switch technique where religious and theologists covers each others problems is also still too valuable.

    I guess that also explains why a post answering a common technique of argument among religious, to belittle new ways of thinking about gods, is rejected on similar arguments. It doesn’t suit the purpose, so the apologist is blind for the irony.

    Btw, for someone with the least interest in understanding phenomena, it is obvious what Dawkins is doing. He is reducing an area into a part that he can handle with tools available to him. It also happens to be the worst part of a problem he perceives. It isn’t a belittling of beliefs, but an honest analysis.

    Here’s a theologian trying to move away from “Big mean skygod will kill us if we pay attention to science.” Instead of encouraging this kind of thinking, P-Zed is bashing it.

    This can be completely reversed. Here is a scientist trying to move away from “Big mean skygod” et cetera. Instead of encouraging this kind of thinking, Burt is bashing it.

    So where does all these effortless reversals of apologetics descriptions leave us? Well, at the very least in a position where apologetics need to find new arguments. Which in itself is nothing new. :-)

  63. #63 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 2, 2007

    he was a dishonorable, murderous deceiver

    He was also as all (asa) gods a lecherous philanderer.

    But at least he didn’t change form and sex to birth Sleipner as a mare, as Loki did.

  64. #64 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 2, 2007

    he was a dishonorable, murderous deceiver

    He was also as all (asa) gods a lecherous philanderer.

    But at least he didn’t change form and sex to birth Sleipner as a mare, as Loki did.

  65. #65 Dustin
    April 2, 2007

    He was also as all (asa) gods a lecherous philanderer.

    Wait, does that include Bragi? If it does, I’m crushed.

  66. #66 Doozer
    April 2, 2007

    …some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt…

    Dang, a Straw God…

  67. #67 Scott Hatfield
    April 2, 2007

    Kristine: We may not agree on beliefs, but (my goodness) we share a lot of opinions. I concur, the ‘happy clappy’ church conditions significant numbers of people in a manner that keeps them ignorant and easy to manipulate, and many of them suffer in the ‘real world’ as a result.

    Sadly, the unrealistic expectations that are raised by this approach are rarely directed back at the hierarchy at whose trough they drink; instead, convenient demons (liberals, gays, treehuggers, etc.) are offered as targets.

    Eventually the only sense of accomplishment such folk experience is membership and participation within their belief system as one of the ‘elect’. No wonder so many of them come to have a deep hatred of the present world and look forward, Tim LaHaye-style, to its imminent destruction.

    Yet, as you point out, so many of the biblically inerrant crowd are also biblically illiterate. You ask what this tells me? I would respond (with some irony) that they have succumbed to a debased form of the ‘priesthood of the believer’, one that so devalues reason and tradition that they willingly rely upon their authority figures to interpret scripture for them, rather than read it for themselves!

    I’m a Methodist myself, so I often feel as if I’m a member of another species among such folk. Out of curiousity and a desire for understanding, in what religious tradition did you experience at least a partial appreciation for the life of the mind?….SH

  68. #68 Azkyroth
    April 2, 2007

    TheBowerbird opines about poor femi-muddled Elaine:

    Her husband, the physicist Heinz Pagels, was a fantastic person and a great author before perishing in an untimely climbing accident… Perhaps if he were still around he could sharpen her thinking.

    Wow. Three strikes and Bowerbird is O-U-T. No wonder these environs are so oft-referred to as Testosterone Acres.

    Indeed, mysogyny is the only possible explanation for this sentiment, since clearly this person’s spouse was not involved in an area of study which requires logical analysis, nor is the potential for positive effects on a person’s attitudes and behavior from relationships anything more than a patriarchal fiction. And indeed, such a heinous comment could only have been uttered by a male chauvinist pig, hence any actual indication on BowerBird’s part as to their gender is unnecessary. And since this interpretation is absolutely and unshakeably correct, interpteting a single comment as “three strikes” is perfectly reasonable. You’re absolutely right.

    “jb,” the stereotype of feminists as irrational, paranoid reactionaries with a chip on each shoulder is both unflattering and a hindrance to the goals of gender equality and mutual respect. Please stop feeding it.

    (More, on topic, in a moment).

  69. #69 Peter Metrinko
    April 2, 2007

    I would love to have PZ, Dawkins and Pagel on one stage talking about all this stuff. For me, that would be great theater and learning. It’s the kind of thing PBS should put together.

  70. #70 Blake Stacey
    April 2, 2007

    Scott Hatfield:

    Yet, as you point out, so many of the biblically inerrant crowd are also biblically illiterate. You ask what this tells me? I would respond (with some irony) that they have succumbed to a debased form of the ‘priesthood of the believer’, one that so devalues reason and tradition that they willingly rely upon their authority figures to interpret scripture for them, rather than read it for themselves! [emphasis added]

    I might as well just quote Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians (chapter 4, p. 31):

    On the average, the high fundamentalists said they had read about twenty of the books in the Bible—about a third of what’s there. So they may insist that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches, but most of them have never read a lot of what they’re so sure of. They are likely, again, merely repeating something they were told while growing up, or accepted when they “got religion.” Most of them literally don’t know all that they’re talking about.

    And, a little later,

    The sample [of university students] as a whole barely scored above chance on my four-question quiz, which makes sense when you recall that most of their parents had not even read one book in the Bible. But what surprised me no end was how poorly the fundamentalist students did: overall they got only a 60%. They did best on that much-advertised quotation from John 3:16—which three-fourths of the fundamentalists got right. But
    all of the questions were so easy, why didn’t they get an A+ instead of a D or an F?

    The answer appears to be that, while they may tell everyone the Bible contains God’s revealed truth to humanity, so everyone should read the Good Book, in truth they—like an awful lot of their parents—don’t know what’s in it because they haven’t read much of it either.

    I’ve also asked parents who do read the Bible how they decide what to read. Most fundamentalists said they read selected passages, which often were selected for them by their church, a Bible study group, the editor of a book of devotional readings, and so on. Very few bother to read all the infallible truth they say God has revealed. If you only get into heaven if you’ve been devoted enough to read the whole Bible, there’ll apparently be no line-up before St. Peter.

  71. #71 Blake Stacey
    April 2, 2007

    I just noticed this, from Jimmy up in #41:

    What does a sunset look like? Could you really describe it satisfactorily?

    I think Zelazny finished this one rather well, in his short story “For a Breath I Tarry” (1966).

    Frost shifted his bulk so that his eyes faced the setting sun. He caused them to blink against the brightness.

    After it was finished, Mordel asked, “What was it like?”

    “Like a sunrise, in reverse.”

  72. #72 Burt Humburg
    April 2, 2007

    Big response roundup follows.

    Meilor writes:

    Humburg, above, tries his version of [the No True Scotsman argument]:

    There’s a difference between God as taught by home-grown fundies in Kansas (say, for example, the pastor of one of the largest churches in Overland Park, KS and God as taught by modern seminaries other than fundie schools.

    By that logic, why haven’t you abandoned evolution since even P-Zed admits that some of the previous evidence supporting evolution, namely Haeckle’s embryos, has been determined to be false or possibly even falsified? Rethinking ideas in the light of new evidence, by your argument, isn’t allowed. There is only the ancient way of thinking or a complete abandonment of all, apparently. Any effort to modernize ancient arguments to reflect newer thinking must be a “No True Scotsman” approach, right?

    Obviously, there’s a role for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We kept what was good about evolution and got rid of the needless bits like Haeckle. Modern evolution *doesn’t* include the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny and calling that a “No True Scotsman” approach is simply empty. So too does theology discard 6-day creationism and so too is calling that statement a “No True Scotsman” argument empty. We’ve moved on from ancient understandings, whether theological or scientific. If you’re going to judge theology by the understandings caricatured by fundies, I think it’s only fair to judge evolution by the understandings Haeckle or Casey Luskin have of it.

    Because anything less than that is just a “No True Scotsman” argument.

    Maybe you don’t know that Johnston, the pastor I critiqued in that link from above, never got a theology degree. He just set up a fundamentalist ministry in the middle of the apparently underserved Overland Park area – what sacrifice. See http://www.religionnewsblog.com/17696/jerry-johnston-2 Long story short, “No True Scotsman” doesn’t apply because Johnston ain’t a true Scotsman.

    386sx writes:

    All those texts she read and she learned that there really aren’t words to describe God. Okay, thanks for the honesty Ms. Pagels, and thanks for not deflecting criticism.

    Look, I’m not a theologian, but even I know that the Tetragrammaton was constructed precisely to be unpronounceable. That’s the Tetragrammaton; that’s ancient Hebrew legend. Now she says the same thing using slightly different language and you accost her for this?

    It isn’t clear to me what about an inscrutable power thought to be guiding and influencing us in ways that science cannot detect or comment upon would be expected to be describable. The belief is not useful in terms of explaining or predicting scientifically detectable things, but as long as it isn’t purported to be so, why would it’s lack of predictability be considered a strike against it? Holding theological ideas up to the tests of science strikes me as akin to criticizing a basketball player for not scoring touchdowns on the court.

    Kemibe writes:

    The questions asked by Dawkins and Harris are absolutely legitimate, and necessary, in a world full of people who insist that their supposedly extant god should hold sway over our political and educational systems, and the only answer morons like Pagel have is to complain and come up with insulting terms for the questioners. To a rational person, they look like childish, colossal fuckheads.

    Agreed. No arguments here.

    Gelf writes:

    What you are interpreting as a desire for “ideological purity” is really just the simple attempt to establish the terms of the discussion.

    This is the problem with liberal, moderate believers. They recognize that believers with strong metaphysical claims sound like (and frequently are) lunatics. Therefore the liberal believer jettisons any specific claim except for the basic claim that God exists, to which they cling tenaciously. Any attempt to establish what they actually mean by that is met with waffling, hedging and frequently very poetic expressions of nothing at all…

    I question the characterization of this position as any sort of progress. It is instead an empty rhetorical tactic meant to thwart discursive progress. It is the mark of someone who wants to be left out of debate, but cannot quite bring himself to stay out of it by keeping silent.

    It is possible to see the transition from science-unfriendly fundamentalism to science-friendly theism as something other than progress, but it requires one to have as their goal godlessness and not enlightenment. This is a case of perspectiveless, nothing else but “The Goal” of atheism (or whatever it is you’re after) will do thinking. It’s ideological purism, same as P-Zed’s. That’s fine as far as an intellectual reasoning or whatever, but practically, you and he are politically dead in the water. Refusing to embrace these more moderate and, yes, progressive theologies on the basis that they cannot define God (or whatever it is that you’re after them to define) to your satisfaction, again, strikes me as pretty damn politically unastute.

    Good luck influencing the faithful with that kind of thinking.

    If it helps, the USSR didn’t collapse because we invaded Moscow. There are a lot of good reviews of our efforts to subvert communism out in the literature, most of which mention the encouragement of pro-capitalist groups, even while they lived in communism. I don’t share your goal of atheism, but even if I did, I’d still be telling you that the drop excavates the stone, not by might, but by falling often. The goal of science-friendly attitudes is shared by theists and atheists; there’s a big enough tent there for everyone.

    Little steps, guys. Little steps.

    BCH

  73. #73 Burt Humburg
    April 2, 2007

    Apparently, I’m a formatting n00b. My attempts to break paragraphs within my blockquote tags resulted in some odd formatting above. Apologies for this – the blockquotes should be extended more than one paragraph. -BCH

  74. #74 Dustin
    April 2, 2007

    If it helps, the USSR didn’t collapse because we invaded Moscow. There are a lot of good reviews of our efforts to subvert communism out in the literature, most of which mention the encouragement of pro-capitalist groups, even while they lived in communism.

    And the USSR didn’t collapse because of capitalist propaganda, and it didn’t collapse because of Reagan, either. What kind of belligerence is it that blinds people to the existence of Gorbachev and Yakovlev?

  75. #75 Alan Kellogg
    April 2, 2007

    #71,

    Did those same clueless academics carve this image in the 8th century?

    A representational metaphor, a simile. Not to be taken literally. The old Norse were a poetic people and loved analogies. They used imagery all the time in their art and literature, the eight-legged horse motif was but one of them. To borrow from psychiatry, the carving is not a representation of anything concrete in the sense of Sleipner being an actual mythological beast, but of a circumlocution. A tricksy way of referring to the men who carted off Odin’s sacrifices.

  76. #76 Kseniya
    April 2, 2007

    And the USSR didn’t collapse because of capitalist propaganda, and it didn’t collapse because of Reagan, either. What kind of belligerence is it that blinds people to the existence of Gorbachev and Yakovlev?

    That’s a good question, Dustin, but I think you know what kind: that which naturally proceeds from the myopia of occidentalism.

    Nonetheless, claims which attempt to minimize the role of Reagan (or Thatcher), or that of “capitalist propoganda” and its more modest but pervasive cousin – the influence that increased east-west transparency, precipitated by Glasnost, had upon Soviet society – are no less myopic.

    A quick Google turns up these interesting remarks by Gorbachev himself.

  77. #77 Monado
    April 3, 2007

    The only thing I have read by Elaine Pagels is “The Gnostic Gospels” and I enjoyed it a great deal. It was quite enlightening to read about the different versions of early Christian scriptures and the different practices of the branches of the church. It was especially interesting to note that the struggle between them was basically a cultural-evolutionary one in which the group that was most hierarchical wiped out the more consensual one, wrote the history book, and prevented the others from propagating their ideas.

  78. #78 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 3, 2007

    Wait, does that include Bragi? If it does, I’m crushed.

    Frak, you called me on my bluff. No, it seems Brage (Bragi) and Balder (Baldr) were considered to be pretty innocent.

    OTOH, I have this danish all ages comic book that implies otherwise. Don’t knock scripture!

    This is the instant that we scientists refer to a “The Big Bang” – or whatever is the correct thoeretical term these days.

    “we scientists” – “whatever is correct”?

    Anyway, big bang is the term for the whole process of observed expansion – as in “bigbang cosmology”.

    But it is only a valid description for our observable part of the universe. There are plenty of realistic cosmologies, not excluded by observation, that describes a larger setting. Some have no definite beginning, some can be infinitely old.

    But even if a simple bigbang would be the remaining option, you can’t discuss time to and beyond the apparent singularity without a theory of quantum gravity. So you have made your argument out of NOTHING. Think about that. ;-)

  79. #79 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 3, 2007

    Wait, does that include Bragi? If it does, I’m crushed.

    Frak, you called me on my bluff. No, it seems Brage (Bragi) and Balder (Baldr) were considered to be pretty innocent.

    OTOH, I have this danish all ages comic book that implies otherwise. Don’t knock scripture!

    This is the instant that we scientists refer to a “The Big Bang” – or whatever is the correct thoeretical term these days.

    “we scientists” – “whatever is correct”?

    Anyway, big bang is the term for the whole process of observed expansion – as in “bigbang cosmology”.

    But it is only a valid description for our observable part of the universe. There are plenty of realistic cosmologies, not excluded by observation, that describes a larger setting. Some have no definite beginning, some can be infinitely old.

    But even if a simple bigbang would be the remaining option, you can’t discuss time to and beyond the apparent singularity without a theory of quantum gravity. So you have made your argument out of NOTHING. Think about that. ;-)

  80. #80 windy
    April 3, 2007

    A representational metaphor, a simile. Not to be taken literally. The old Norse were a poetic people and loved analogies. They used imagery all the time in their art and literature, the eight-legged horse motif was but one of them. To borrow from psychiatry, the carving is not a representation of anything concrete in the sense of Sleipner being an actual mythological beast, but of a circumlocution. A tricksy way of referring to the men who carted off Odin’s sacrifices.

    Perhaps the origin of the legend is four men carrying a sacrifice, like the origin of the unicorn legend might be the oryx or the rhino, but why does this mean that Sleipner can’t be an ‘actual mythological beast’, whatever the hell that means? It features in the Eddas as a steed, not as a metaphor for four men.

  81. #81 frog
    April 3, 2007

    You actually missed her worst comment. The rest pale in comparison:
    Can you read the Bible seriously without reading it literally? There are parts of the New Testament which encourage slaves to remain slaves. Do we take that literally?

    Does she know what “literal” as opposed to “serious” means? Assuming she knows, she still confuses them in action. Of course, we don’t take it literally, but we have to take it seriously, that they meant what they said, even when what they said is fabulous. You can take poetry seriously without taking it literally. But if it is neither literal nor serious, then what the hell is the point?

  82. #82 Steve LaBonne
    April 3, 2007

    frog, I’m an atheist of very much the uncompromsiing Dawkins / Myers type and I love poetry (and my all-time favorite poet happens to be Dante, at that.) What exactly the hell is the point you’re trying to make, if any?

  83. #83 PZ Myers
    April 3, 2007

    I think poetry is wonderful stuff, myself.

    I don’t think literal muses, ghosts, or gods have any hand in writing it, though. Do you?

  84. #84 Steve_C
    April 3, 2007

    Oh I’m so going to wipe my orange cheese powder fingers on you.

  85. #85 Steve_C
    April 4, 2007

    Oooo. Lookit the sock puppet. Hi puppet. Such a cute little frog puppet.

  86. #86 frog
    April 4, 2007

    PZ,

    Unlike some of your fans, I figure that you’re capable of distinguishing between suggestions for ways to analyze religion from an attack. The fact that a lot of religious folks are credulous cretins incapable of distinguishing the map from the territory (or even recognizing which territory the map pertains to) does not imply that all of religion is simple stupidity. If I read a poem that claims to be penned by a ghost, I don’t take that for a fact; on the other hand, to enjoy the poem for the nonce, I will suspend disbelief temporarily.

    This is how religion functions for the more cognitively powerful folks – like a movie or a play. It has great emotional appeal, as a fairly realistic portrayal of people’s inner lives. Many people know this consciously – among Jews, there are many atheist Jews who go to synagogue every Saturday. For Christianity and Islam, the atheists have a tendency to lie, or fool themselves (Pagels, for example – that’s what all the talk about “Gnosticism” is about), because of those religions’ creedal nature. But talk to priests or other clerics after having a few drinks – how many of them actually believe in the literal truth of transubstantiation? How many believe in Einstein’s God when they aren’t wearing their robes and funny hats? That’s why most religions have an esoteric aspect – the big “secret” is just that it’s all a play (see the Dionysian festival and the evolution of Greek plays). The ritual is what matters.

    Of course, most people are plain stupid, and their leadership recognizes that. Sometimes it’s a con, and sometimes it’s an honest attempt to organize and care for the morons. The morons can’t tell the difference between make-believe and reality. How many people went to watch the The Davinci Code, and forget that they were watching a movie? How many people go to a trekkie convention, and start to think they actually are Klingons? How many people believe that Bill Clinton really feels their pain?

    But, then again, you have quite a few moronic atheists who confuse maps with territories themselves – you can see it by their paranoiac responses, unable to distinguish what’s in their minds from what’s in the minds of others. I bet a lot of them grew up as or among Christian fundamentalists.

    So, who are you talking to? Dawkins has decided that he’s got to talk to the morons – as Pagel’s put it, “play the village atheist.” It’s an insult only if you think the morons should be manipulated for their own good; Dawkins obviously disagrees, for good reason – we’ve reached a point where the morons unconsciously taking part in a play may just be too dangerous for the rest of us. If you don’t recognize the game that’s being played, your criticism will be directed at the wrong parties, or at the wrong places.

    To boil it down, Pagels explicitly believes in nothing, just an alternate psychotherapy to Freud’s – but it only works as long as it’s left in the realm of art (the same place for Freud as well). As soon as you try to pin it down scientifically, well of course it’ll fall apart, just like trying to analyze Yeats as a scientific treatise. Rick Warren is probably just a con-man, and believes in nothing himself. His followers are idiots – even if you manage to convince them that there is no god, they’ll still be atheistic idiots. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for cretinism.

  87. #87 frog
    April 4, 2007

    Talkin’ about the Free Primitive Baptists, not the the Southern Baptists. The pompous ones are the middle-class churches, and the middle-class wannabe’s. There’s still anti-papist churches around.

  88. #88 Steve_C
    April 4, 2007

    Well then you should stick to being a Southern Baptist. You’ll be right at home there with their religion of poetry, art and music.

  89. #89 Steve_C
    April 4, 2007

    He’s arguing that the more artful and intelligent forms of christianity are superior.
    And we athiests; who point out that just by changing the definition of what god is, doesn’t make it any less silly or pointless, are morons. We should leave it alone because it makes people feel good or that it’s not the offensive literal religion that most follow.

  90. #90 frog
    April 4, 2007

    No, Chet. That is not what I’m arguing.

    First of all, I’m not on PZ’s ass. I’m simply suggesting that there are bits being missed here. I don’t know how much I diverge from PZ’s thoughts on the matter – I am safely assuming that the blog format is insufficient for a deep analysis, and giving suggestions.

    Second, not all Christians are cretins. Just most; but that applies equally to all groups. But you can’t analyze the minds of the followers and the leaders together. It’s complicated, and any attempt to sum it all up in a simple truth is simply deluding yourself.

    It’s not all one thing or another. It’s not all beneficial theater, and it’s not all a con, or simple irrationality (some of it is very complex irrationality). A Unitarian is not the same as a Southern Baptist, an atheist religious Jew is not the same as Jews for Jesus. Einstein’s God is not Dobson’s God, Aquinas is not Haggard. An actor on stage believing, for the moment, that he actually is Napoleon is not the same as a schizophrenic believing he is Napoleon. Trivially true, no?

    The majority of people are pretty damn stupid – that’s also trivially true. They’ll never understand how much of their lives they are just making up. Then you’ve got smart folks. Some are playing a game, consciously. Some have a blind spot – it’s a tricky blind spot, because it’s a natural blind spot: the inability to suspend disbelief, and then re-implement it. They have a need for ritual – that’s universal to human cultures. But for (probably) evolutionarily good reasons, most of us forget that it’s ritual – that the dance is just a dance, that the poem is just a poem, that the painting of a door is not actually a door.

    Elaine Pagels is not Rick Warren. She may be giving him comfort – I think PZ, as well as Dawkins, have a good point on that. But her “empty” beliefs aren’t exactly empty. You just can’t look at those sort of beliefs in the same light. It’s like walking on stage during a play and starting to denounce the actors all as fakes, and the audience all as dupes, while muttering about how the story isn’t “literally true”. Well, of course it isn’t – it’s not supposed to be. The God she believes in is 99% of the way to Dawkins God, but wrapped up in all kinds of poetic irrationality.

    Collins may be among the smarter folks with a mental defect. You see it with children, even the smartest, all the time. They’re playing with a doll, they call it a monster, and suddenly they forget that it’s make-believe and start shrieking in fear of the monster. That doesn’t make the game stupid, or worthless, or asinine. It just makes the child a child.

    What I see among some atheists is some of the same that MacNeill was peddling with his “religion is evolutionarily adapted” crap. “Religion” is not a thing – it’s a lot of different things. If you call voodoo, fundamentalist Christianity, and Pagels’ Gnosticism the same thing, you’re making the same mistake (one which Pagel makes in describing Dawkins as “playing the village atheist”).

  91. #91 Steve_C
    April 4, 2007

    Then we agree. But god isn’t poetry, art or the universe.

    And for the vast majority of people god is NOT the god of Pagels and Einstein.

    You can’t say there is no god, except the one you don’t find offensive.

    You can’t have Pagels arguing against Dawkins with her god when he’s not even addressing her god. She’s moving the markers. And you can’t call atheists morons for calling her on it.

  92. #92 frog
    April 4, 2007

    But I can call some atheists morons for letting her trip us up with here own conflation, rather than pointing out her cheat (which, PZ did point out originally). The cheat is the most important point, because it puts “liberal” religious folks in the same boat with the fundies.

    And I’m not saying there is no god, except the one I find inoffensive. I’m saying that God is really experienced, which is completely different from say that God is objectively real. That experience will continue to exist – that kind of experience is a common human experience. That kind of experience needs a space for most people. People need to go from time to time to a club house, put funny hats on, sing, dance and jump up and down. They need to suspend rationality for a while.

    The only people who give them that space are the priests. Trying to take away God-belief without creating something new to fill the space is doomed to failure. Buying crap from TV, going out clubbing, or drinking themselves to oblivion is ultimately unsatisfying.

    Re Elaine in particular: “He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize.” She’s right – the God he’s debunking is not the God her folks would recognize. The response should be, that the God her people recognize isn’t the God that Dawkins is trying to debunk – he’s trying to debunk YHWH or Allah walking into the Garden of Eden. The one that 50-90% of Americans believe in. And insulting him for doing that is a cheat that puts her on the wrong side of the truth.

  93. #93 Owlmirror
    April 4, 2007

    By coincidence, today I tracked down The God Delusion, chapter 1, and I note that in that very first chapter, Dawkins brings up the naturalistic God of Spinoza and Einstein (and other scientists), just so that he can make sure to draw the distinction between that and the literal creator-God of the fundamentalists.

    I still need to read the whole book, but that first chapter is interesting for its obvious connection to this thread.

    I kind of doubt that Pagels has read tGD at all, and may very well be reacting to the (somewhat inflammatory) title of the book alone.

  94. #94 Keith Douglas
    April 5, 2007

    (woops, hit post)
    Andrew: A catastrophic problem with your scenario is that the big bang is not the origin of the universe, it is the origin of our local hubble volume. The philosopher Adolf Grünbaum has a good paper on this subject that is fairly accessible. Look for “The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology”.

  95. #95 Anton Mates
    April 9, 2007

    I suspect that if Elaine Pagels studied the majority beliefs of the first century middle east, she’d find that gnostic priests were a distinct minority, and that most people were praying to rather more pedestrian gods.

    In fact, Pagels herself is aware that many Gnostics, intellectual elite included, believed in “a great big person who made the universe.” They just didn’t think that person was the God, but rather a cheap imitation. The true God is somewhere outside the universe, responsible only indirectly for its creation.

    Which makes it, I think, mildly dishonest for her to say that “the God that [Dawkins is] debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize.” They’d recognize it just fine–it’s just that many of them would label it as the Demiurge. It doesn’t make them any more sophisticated or enlightened to have believed in an evil (or merely blind or stupid) big-man-in-the-sky rather than a good one.

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