i-cca372ab81ff5ceab8b36fbfa8962a87-Gandhiwheel.jpgJean Kazez, a philosopher at SMU, blogs a nice critique of the bone I picked with Jerry Coyne. She sees in my argument:

a kind of defense by decimation. First you cut down the pretensions of religion; then you say religion is alright.

Rosenau says that if religious scripture doesn’t deliver scientific knowledge, like a physics textbook, it can still deliver some kind of knowledge. It can deliver knowledge like novels do. When you understand fiction as fiction, you understand that it’s true in vampire stories that there are vampires. What’s true out there is only that power can come from preying on others. If you don’t separate truth-in-fiction from truth-out-there, you’re liable to make mistakes. Maybe you’ll go around looking for vampires to hang out with, in the hopes of getting bitten by one and living forever.

This, I think, is an essential point. Genesis is a lovely book, written in a mix of poetry and prose, filled with mythical beasts and impossible events. The Book of Job is clearly set up as a parable, with an omniscient narrator (omniscient, but not divine). The Bible is a literary work, and saying so diminishes it not one whit (assuming you have sufficient respect for literature, I guess). Problems come when you try to force it out of that framework, making it into something it is not. That’s not to say the Bible is necessarily only a literary work, but in interpreting it in other contexts, we can’t ignore that literary aspect. In this sense, I think that the claim of decimation may be unfair. However, I’m talking outside my area of special expertise, and am willing to admit error in response to reasoned critique.

To step out of the religious realm for a moment, Star Trek gives us an analogy. It’s one thing to argue about whether Picard or Kirk is the better captain. It’s one thing to think Kirk rocks and to pay $75 to get Shatner’s signature. It’s yet another to pepper him with questions about why Kirk didn’t do this or that in episode 5. He doesn’t know. He’s an actor playing a character. The character made that choice, not the actor. The actor doesn’t know everything the character does. This inability to separate fiction from reality is widespread, and hardly restricted to religion. It is bad wherever it crops up. We don’t just need better science classes, we need better English classes. We need to train people to appreciate that there are different sorts of claims out there, different ways of evaluating them, and that it’s foolhardy to try testing a claim from one domain using the tools of another.

This is not to say that “religion is alright,” but that religion may well be alright. Religion is a topic where I’m unwilling to express much certainty.

Kazez suspects that I may have been arguing, then:

that there’s an element of actual religion that’s salvageable, even if the claims about miracles and the supernatural are false. If everyone would just recognize scripture as fiction, religion would be a good thing–at least the religions that involve good, edifying fictions. The truths in these fictions would stay safely in the fictions, and the edifying lessons would be learned. These are lessons about human psychology, morality, happiness, and much else.

I’d quibble here. Calling miracles false requires us to unpack a lot of meaning.

It’s one thing to say that God did not miraculously reach down and craft Eve from Adam’s rib. That is clearly not how the first woman came to be. This doesn’t mean that our existence as a species is not somehow miraculous. I don’t think in these terms, so I can’t do justice to the arguments of people who defend this notion, but certainly many see the natural processes by which life evolved as having been set in motion or nudged by divine will. The image of a rib being taken from a sleeping Adam is thus a figurative representation of that complex process, too elaborate to attempt to set down in the poetry of several millenia ago. Again, this is imputing a level of literary truth to the concept of a miracle, a level of meaning some religious people deny vociferously and consider heretical. Nonetheless, I think it’s at least a notion worth exploring.

And I think Kazez gets the critical point here right, that the truths (or at least truth claims) from literature and other non-scientific ways of knowing are of a different sort than scientific truth claims. They involve squishy things like psychology, emotion, morality, and other normative judgements that simply can’t be tested in a scientific framework, but which do carry meaning.

Kazez gets my basic goal here, but thinks I go a step too far:

Rosenau’s real interest is in arguing that religious people ought to be brought to science without being made to feel that their religion has to be left at the door. If religion delivers truths to us in the way that fiction does, it would be a bad idea to leave it at the door. That’s his basic idea, I think [yes- Josh]. But he’s simplified reality to make his argument more compelling. Religion delivers truths (like fiction does), but also falsehoods. Some of the falsehoods are inimical to science. You really do have to leave religious fundamentalism at the door, if you want to enter into the temple of science.

Naturally. You also have to leave scientific falsehoods behind before entering the temple of science. One of the confusions I see in a lot of critics is the idea that by claiming religions may possess truths that I’m claiming all religious claims are true. No, no, no. That’s why I distinguish “truth claims” from “truths.” Just as our current state of scientific knowledge contains a certain number of falsehoods, our understanding of religious topics is sure to contain a certain number of falsehoods as well. Some religions may be entirely false, and I’m not inclined to think any religion has an exclusive claim on truth.

Fundamentalism is particularly risky because it fails to recognize the possibility of internal error, or to leave any scope for new knowledge. I oppose fundamentalism because it sets itself as the sole possessor of truths, and in making that claim, creates an inherent imposition on others. This all treads dangerously close to a sort of relativism, and my thinking on why it isn’t relativism to actively defend this sort of diversity of opinion largely derives from a post on the late, lamented Left2Right blog, a post only available on the Wayback Machine now. As that post notes, one can agree that there are absolute truths without thinking they have those truths, and without imposing one’s proposed truths (truth claims) on others, either forcibly and overtly or through passive coercion. That’s why I’m a civil libertarian, and a member of groups like SPLC, ACLU, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and why I volunteer to promote marriage equality (often staging out of pro-marriage equality churches, FWIW).

So I don’t just think fundamentalism is incompatible with good science, I think it’s incompatible with good society. Note, though that this is a truth claim which cannot be scientifically tested. A lot of religious people agree with me, and find support for that view in their religious texts, in their study of history, and in their reading of literature. Jason Rosenhouse challenges me to offer a truth derived from religion, and I guess that’s a good start. So is the Golden Rule. (Though again, I’d call these truth claims, not confirmed truths.)

Kazez concludes by identifying areas of agreement and repeating her disagreement:

I don’t think it’s either true or helpful to say that a choice must be made between science and religion. But we can make that argument without decimating religion–making it out to be just a tiny, innocuous fraction of what it really is.

I see her point about decimation, and it inspires two thoughts. First, that the enablers are making a big fuss over my attempts to compare religion with golf or literature, but I don’t recall similar outrage from them over PZ Myers’s comments in Expelled:

Religion is an idea that gives some people comfort, and we don?t want to take it away from them. It?s like knitting. People like to knit. We?re not going to take their knitting needles away, we?re not going to take away their churches, but what we have to do is get it to a place where religion is treated at the level it should be treated, that is something fun that people get together and do on the weekend and really doesn?t affect their life as much as it has been so far.

I don’t think I’m winding up at quite the place PZ was, but how far apart is that rhetoric from mine? Would everyone be fawning over me had I used knitting rather than golf as an example?

In any event, I’m not convinced that what I’m doing is really decimating religion. I look at people like slacktivist, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, various popes, and even people I know who are Christian ministers, and I feel like the idea of religious truth (claims) being distinct from scientific truth (claims) is pretty central to their approaches to religion.

My challenge, and one I think is shared by many agnostics and atheists, is that I don’t actually have much experience with religious feelings. The claims that seem central to me about religion are not claims about our intersubjective, shared reality. They are claims about personal revelation, feelings of oneness or connection, and other matters of intrasubjective reality. I can’t share that experience. I have no way of testing it, of replicating it, or otherwise picking it apart. They tell me they had the experience, and I have no obvious reason to think they are lying. Even if fMRI revealed some consistent brain activity associated with those experiences, that doesn’t do much to explain what those experiences signify, nor does it help me share that experience and compare it to other experiences I’ve had. Because of that disjunction, I’m at something of a loss in trying to describe the experience of religious belief.

To me, this is sort of like my experience with dance. I don’t dance. I watch professional dancers and dancers at parties with a sort of anthropological interest, but I can’t really relate to the joy people take in moving particular ways. They seem to know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to move in response to movement, and in response to other dancers and their partners. I see that, and can appreciate that it occurs, but I can’t really relate to it. I don’t know why that is, but I feel roughly the same way when I hear people talk about religious experience.

So I feel no more qualified to judge the merits of religions or of religious experiences than I do to judge dance. One need not be a professional dancer to evaluate the qualities of a dancer or a dance troupe, but I tend to think that one really should have some sense of what dance means to a dancer before criticizing a dance. I feel the same about religion, so I don’t feel qualified to speak too broadly about the core of religious experience, which parts are essential and which parts aren’t. But my experience reading about and talking with various believers makes me think that, for at least some, religious experience doesn’t consist of claims about the material world, and indeed that claims about the material world are too mundane to get tied in with religion. If I’m right about that, the distinction of scientific truth claims from religious truth claims is not a decimation, but a clarification, one which could be useful to all involved.

The reason I ran with the vampires example was that it is a less personal experience. Those of us involved in the discussion are not the sort who believe vampires are real, or who dress up as vampires and try to be them. We all seem to have roughly the same relationship with them, and many of us seem to enjoy things like Buffy or Underworld. As such, it seemed like a useful way to raise questions about what we gain from tales of the supernatural or paranormal, in a context where not much is at stake. And to offer yet another answer to Jason Rosenhouse’s query, I’d suggest that slacktivist offered some truth claims that can be drawn from literature, and how those intersect with religion. To whit: “any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others,” “there’s a downside to this predatory choice,” “The symbol [of the cross], like the thing itself, is powerless,” and most significantly: “The cross confronts vampires with their opposite — with the rejection of power and its single-minded pursuit. It suggests that no one is to be treated as prey — not even an enemy. The idea of the cross, in other words, suggests that vampires have it wrong, that they have it backwards, in fact, and that those others they regard as prey are actually, somehow, winning.” That last sentence is not just about vampires, it’s also about what Jesus means to slacktivist. Nothing about that sentence is dependent on Jesus having risen from the dead, or being the son of god, or any other of the claims which one occasionally sees Christians challenged to justify.

And as if anticipating this debate, slacktivist went further, and made clear that this symbolism isn’t exclusively Christian. “I’ve heard rumor,” he writes, “of a vampire not so long ago being turned away by one of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of Gandhi at his spinning wheel.” In short, by the symbol of an undeniably real person, one who was not a Christian but who exemplifies the sort of attitude that slacktivist describes.

Can anyone claim we’d be worse off if more people took these lessons to heart? No empirically testable claims are at stake here, only the normative questions of ethics and literary interpretation.

To anticipate some objections: No, I’m not claiming that religion has exclusive domain over such normative truth claims. And again, I’m certainly not claiming that any particular religion has the correct set of truth claims, which is to say, I don’t know that any religion is true, and I don’t think religious truth claims ought to be inherently treated as true. Testing them is different than testing scientific truth claims, and it’s worth remembering that even in science, where we share an empirical reality and can replicate experiences, we still cannot arrive and unquestionable truth, only at increasingly good approximations of the truth. I’ve met many religious people who approach religion in a like manner, which makes me think it fair to hold that religious truth claims can fairly be considered tentative and incomplete, subject to revision as new knowledge and new experiences come to bear.

I’ve written more than enough here to keep folks busy for the weekend, but I’ll try to put up a post shortly clarifying a few terms, which may help move the discussion along.

Manual trackbacks and hat-tips to John Pieret, Ophelia Benson, and Stephanie Svan, and a thank you to all the commenters. I apologize for not being more active in the comment threads, but there have been actual attacks on science education occupying time I might prefer to spend on abstract philosophical debate. This issue is unlikely to go away soon, so don’t give up on me.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Olson
    September 18, 2009

    This blog actually articulates the one issue I had with the original and corrects what I saw as an error: Vampires are an analogy for evil and a desire to seek not only earthly power, but carnal immortality. As pointed out here, this is done at the expense of others. The cross is not a symbol of powerlessness, but rather of those abstract, immaterial ideas, those things which are counter intuitive to personal well being winning out over earthly/carnal/material power. Christs ideas of how to live are greater than Roman or Greek notions of how to live. Ghandi faced the Brits with ideas, not with guns. The rejection of earthly power, can lead to a better world with greater freedom, liberty and equality for the whole of humanity. Obviously, leading such a life is difficult and the benefits are hard to see. Ghandi doesn’t look as if he is enjoying all the luxories and Christ made so many people happy they nailed him to tree. Of course the world would be a better place if we all took their point of view.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 18, 2009

    The Bible is a literary work, and saying so diminishes it not one whit (assuming you have sufficient respect for literature, I guess).

    Josh, I’m beginning to think we’re just on different planets. How can you possibly claim it does not diminish the Bible to treat it solely as a work of literature when so many Christians instead insist it is the holy and inerrant word of God?

    Are these really the arguments you think will assuage the worries of those who fear accepting modern science means they must give up their religion? Are you really going to tell them not to worry, because they still have the option of treating the Bible as a powerful work of fiction and of extracting vague human truths from it in the same way you might from a good vampire story?

    So I don’t just think fundamentalism is incompatible with good science, I think it’s incompatible with good society. Note, though that this is a truth claim which cannot be scientifically tested. A lot of religious people agree with me, and find support for that view in their religious texts, in their study of history, and in their reading of literature. Jason Rosenhouse challenges me to offer a truth derived from religion, and I guess that’s a good start. So is the Golden Rule.

    My challenge was to find an example of a truth we know uniquely from religion. The Golden Rule certainly doesn’t qualify, since it long predates the Bible and is anyway obvious to anyone with a conscience. And if I am understanding you correctly, you are actually offering the idea that fundamentalism is incompatible with good science and good society as a truth learned from religion. That’s serious chutzpah!

    Pointing to very liberal versions of Judaism and Christianity that make do without notions of the supernatural, or divine revelation, or elevations of the Bible (or the Torah) to anything beyond great literature, is not a refutation of the idea that science and religion are incompatible. It is far closer to a confirmation of the thesis. “Decimate” is too kind a word for what you are doing to religion.

  3. #3 inverse_agonist
    September 18, 2009

    Relevant to this discussion is the fact that psychedelics can pretty reliably induce mystical experiences by acting as agonists at the 5-HT2A receptor:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18593735

    These experiences are as genuine as any other, complete with feelings of timelessness, peace, oneness with the universe, sense of revelation, etc. William James described the same sort of thing with nitrous oxide:

    http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/nitrous/nitrous_article1.shtml

    I think the important point here is that revelation is a feeling that, like all feelings, results from certain patterns of brain activity. These patterns can be artificially induced, and they can be terminated with the appropriate antidotes (e.g., ketanserin in the case of psilocybin). Revelation is not a way of knowing. It is a way of feeling, with no semantic content at all. The feeling is ineffable, as mystics are prone to saying.

    Having a mystical experience feels really good, but why does that make it more true than being severely depressed and feeling the universe is so abominably awful that we should just kill ourselves? What makes the people who felt super good a few times so special? When the same person has had both mystical experiences and a “dark night of the soul,” how would we say when they were right?

    There are no facts about whether the universe is good or bad or whether particular actions are right or wrong. We have feelings about those things because our brains are structured in certain ways, due to evolutionary forces.

    Also, “truth in fiction” is nonsense. Fiction can illustrate certain principles, but the validity of those principles doesn’t hinge on any given work of fiction. Do Ayn Rand’s novels “prove” that we should all be objectivists? Do after school specials prove that having sex will ruin your life forever?

    It’s amazing what mental contortions people will put themselves through to avoid calling religion the pernicious nonsense it is. I say that as someone who practices zazen at least a few times a week. I do so because I like the way it FEELS.

  4. #4 JoshS
    September 18, 2009

    A suggestion, Josh – wall-o-text hurts the eyes, and makes it hard to read. Breaking the text up into smaller paragraphs really helps the reader, if you’d consider it.

  5. #5 Jean Kazez
    September 18, 2009

    Josh, I think it’s a good idea to be a bit restrained before thinking huge numbers of people are completely benighted and utterly wasting their time in fruitless nonsense…so I’m with you in trying to maintain a little humility and look for value where it can be found (without making things up).

    Re: the bible as fiction. In the setting I know best– a Reform temple–I think most people see a very great deal of the bible as heavily fictional. But they value it anyway. Partly the feeling is just that it’s “our book,” the thing that has sustained a continuous cultural identity over thousands of years. But both the fictional and the non-fictional parts of the bible are widely taken to transmit truth. Getting truth out of it is sometimes like pulling teeth, but I think the process of extraction is viewed as non-incidental. In other words, what’s holy is not just the Torah, but sitting around arguing about what it might mean.

    As to how much we should value bible-as-fiction, if it does transmit truth, I think Jason Rosenhouse is setting the standard way too high. He challenges you to identify a truth that we “uniquely know from the bible.” But why on earth would that be critical? That’s like saying we should value the beaches of Hawaii only if there’s something we can get there and nowhere else. They’re great beaches, even if the beaches of Crete are similar! People who can get to Crete might not be able to get to Hawaii, and vice versa. To get past the metaphor: people who learn truths from the Bible just might not be culturally in a position to put the bible down, and get the same truths from Tolstoy or Cormac McCarthy or science books (even if they’re all available there–maybe and maybe not).

    Just one clarification–you describe me this way:

    I think Kazez gets the critical point here right, that the truths (or at least truth claims) from literature and other non-scientific ways of knowing are of a different sort than scientific truth claims. They involve squishy things like psychology, emotion, morality, and other normative judgements that simply can’t be tested in a scientific framework.

    But I have a rather rich idea of what’s out there, despite believing in nothing supernatural. I put psychology, emotion, and even morality “out there.” So I think when fiction teaches us truths, they’re just plain truths. (I don’t know about there being different “ways of knowing”–literally. I haven’t thought about it enough.)

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    September 18, 2009

    I look at people like slacktivist, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, various popes, and even people I know who are Christian ministers, and I feel like the idea of religious truth (claims) being distinct from scientific truth (claims) is pretty central to their approaches to religion.

    William James.

    This isn’t exactly a new concept, and James is taught in quite a few seminaries.

  7. #7 D. C. Sessions
    September 18, 2009

    Josh, I’m beginning to think we’re just on different planets. How can you possibly claim it does not diminish the Bible to treat it solely as a work of literature when so many Christians instead insist it is the holy and inerrant word of God?

    Emphasis added to strawman.

    Shanah tovah, Josh (and Jean, and everyone else who appreciates a cultural observation regardless of whether they believe that it has anything to do with the Big Bang.)

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 18, 2009

    Jean -

    My reason for asking for things we know uniquely from religion stems from the fact that almost every religious person I know claims there are many such things. They make very specific statements about historical events, about the existence and nature of God, about the reality of miracles and about Jesus’ resurrection, for example. They tell me I should believe these things because they are in the Bible, or because they had a religious experience that convinced them that they were true, or other reasons besides.

    Religious clerics and theologians have routinely claimed that they do, indeed, have access to sources of truth about the world that are unique to their religious traditions. That is the claim that I am probing. It sounds to me like both you and Josh dismiss it, as do I. If I have misunderstood you, then please correct me. But if I have understood you correctly, then you have already conceded a great deal of what people like Richard Dawkins argue.

    Nothing in my comment suggested there is no value in reading the Bible, or that there is something wrong with a person who feels enriched from having read it. It’s just that so many people claim the Bible is a very special book, with a value far beyond any other work of literature. Treating the Bible as just one more great work of literature, right alongside Hugo and Dickens and Dostoevsky perhaps, does not constitute reconciling science and religion.

    For heaven’s sake, Christianity is supposed to answer fundamental questions about human existence. It is supposed to hold out hope for salvation and point us towards the better life to come, to humble us before the greatness of God’s glory, to give meaning and purpose to our existence and to assure us that God is real and that he really loves us even when no one else does. Not in a symbolic or metaphorical way, mind you. Powerful stuff.

    And here comes Josh to tell us casually that reading the Bible is like watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I really don’t think I am the one being disrespectful towards religion here.

    D. C. Sessions -

    You’re going to have to explain to me how I strawmanned Josh’s point. He seemed pretty clear that the value of the Bible is purely literary.

    And if that remark about people who can and can not appreciate the value of a cultural observation was directed at me, then I am insulted. I don’t think religion provides a useful way of knowing beyond what can be obtained by more mundane means. How does that imply I don’t recognize the cultural value of religion?

    In my beliefs I am an atheist. In my cultural heritage I am Jewish, and that has great significance to me. Earlier tonight I had Rosh Hashanah dinner with some Jewish friends of mine. I am happy to participate in Passover seders and Hanukkah candle lighting ceremonies. When my colleague’s son was Bar Mitzvahed earlier this year, I was very excited to attend and I loved being the go to guy on Jewish questions for the goyische segment of my department.

    For my feelings about what it means to me to be Jewish,

    read this.

    Yes, obviously, if religion is just about going through the motions of religious ceremonies for reasons of tradition or cultural significance then there is no problem in reconciling science and religion. Do you honestly think that is what is at issue in science/religion disputes?

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    September 18, 2009

    JoshS: Fixed. Sorry.

  10. #10 TB
    September 19, 2009

    Jason
    I’m a bit confused about what you’re asking for. Certainly each religion has ideas that they think are uniquly true – Jesus as the son of God for instance. That other religions have had people who are the sons of Gods doesn’t diminish that unique truth claim.
    That’s probably a superiscial reading of your point though.
    More broadly, I wonder if it’s a fair challenge. We’re asking this question with the benefit of being at a (relatively) advanced and civilized culture. We look back and see when ideas such as not killing took shape – even become laws. But even that doesn’t nessesarily convey that those ideas are truth. Certainly religion isn’t the only way of doing that – we are sophisticated enough now that truths can be self-evident. But it seems that was an efficient way then of raising those ideas to the level of truth and mass-communicating that with authority. That it’s not the only way that could be done doesn’t seem to me as pertinant how effective it was.

  11. #11 Jean Kazez
    September 19, 2009

    Jason,
    Great link–a very nice thing to read on Rosh Hashanah. I have to add one thing–I love the fact that the music at temple is all dark and brooding and in a minor key. I think this is the equivalent of mustard, not mayonnaise.

    I will really enjoy going to services today, and the truth is, I rather enjoy the minor (ahem) complication–that I don’t believe any of it. It makes it all extra intriguing. In fact, it gives me something to think about when the whole thing goes on too long. Why do I like it, if I don’t believe in the god everyone keeps praying to?

    I think you’re right that if everyone was like me, it would be trivially true that religion and science are compatible. But I’d also say the people sitting next to me may not believe things that are in any real tension with science (I’m not sure–given that I can’t peer into people’s heads). They don’t petition God to step in and fix things. There’s no talk of meeting up with him in the next life. The idea is minimal–there is a God (who, where, what…who knows?) and there is a covenant between him and us, so that there are things we should do and not do.

    Plus, there’s a lot of talk about a long ago history full of miracles, but I’ve never been clear how much of it people take as “just plain true”. I think at least the rabbis would demur and use fuzzy phrases like “our sacred history.” In temple book groups, serious books of bible criticism are read, which are completely realistic about history (like Richard Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”).

    So–is there really any problem with retaining the elementary tenets of the faith and doing science? What exactly is the problem? The two things are like oil and vinegar–no interaction, no disruption of one by the other. I can think the religious beliefs are false (I do) but they seem completely non-threatening to science.

    I’ve gotten away from the topic of fiction–I just wanted to add that I think it’s a little unfair to say Josh believes reading the bible is like watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He just introduced vampire fiction to illustrate a concept. He could have used “The Cat in the Hat,” a book from which I learned a great deal (about what fun you can have when mother is gone). If the bible really is taken to be just fiction, that doesn’t stop it from being a special book because of its especially evocative content as well as its history and centrality and symbolic significance.

  12. #12 D. C. Sessions
    September 19, 2009

    If the bible really is taken to be just fiction, that doesn’t stop it from being a special book because of its especially evocative content as well as its history and centrality and symbolic significance.

    Fiction/nonfiction is a false dichotomy, although one that 21st Century America buys rather readily since we don’t often run into exceptions.

    Just as an example, though, one might ask whether “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” is fiction or nonfiction? How about Kipling’s “Recessional?”

    In general, mythic literature is outside of the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy since it’s usually [1] understood to be allegorical. The idea isn’t that anyone ever thought that Aesop’s Fables were accounts of actual events, nor were they told as stories in the same sense that the Odyssey was: they were explicitly told to convey a moral that people understood better by example than by explication.

    [1] OK, we all know too many people who don’t get this.

  13. #13 Ophelia Benson
    September 19, 2009

    the enablers are making a big fuss over my attempts to compare religion with golf or literature

    Not really the best way to put it, Josh. I don’t think I, for instance (assuming I fit your category of ‘enablers’), made a big fuss – I couldn’t figure out what you meant, and I asked questions about it.

    the truths (or at least truth claims) from literature and other non-scientific ways of knowing are of a different sort than scientific truth claims. They involve squishy things like psychology, emotion, morality, and other normative judgements that simply can’t be tested in a scientific framework, but which do carry meaning.

    You’re claiming too much here. You’re creating, or attempting to create, a false dichotomy. Psychology, just for one thing, is not necessarily all that squishy – clinical psychology may be, but research psychology isn’t. But even apart from that – what you call ‘other non-scientific ways of knowing’ aren’t necessarily radically discontinuous with scientific ‘ways of knowing’ – and to the extent that they are radically discontinuous with scientific ways of knowing, they may well not be ways of knowing at all, they may rather be ways of guessing or assuming or hoping or wishing or projecting.

  14. #14 Ophelia Benson
    September 19, 2009

    The claims that seem central to me about religion are not claims about our intersubjective, shared reality. They are claims about personal revelation, feelings of oneness or connection, and other matters of intrasubjective reality.

    Central how, central in what sense? I think the pope and most other clerical types would disagree with you. There is such a thing as doctrine, and it’s not generally as optional as liberal apologists for religion like to pretend it is. Plenty of clerics consider ‘claims about personal revelation’ outright heresy.

    So, in short, I think you’re just wrong about what claims are central to religion in general (though you’re right about plenty of individual believers, of course), so I also think the dance analogy doesn’t work for religion in general. Religion as such isn’t entirely opaque to outsiders, because it does rest partly on straightforward truth claims that all of us can parse. I think it’s a bit obscurantist to make religion seem more Special and mysterious than it really is.

  15. #15 Matti K.
    September 20, 2009

    If the word “truth” is so difficult, why not scrap it altogether? Science can be used to produce rational facts whereas religion may provide values to guide one’s life. Why isn’t this enough? I think very few people disagree with the statement above.

    How on earth can an atheist or agonostic give advice to religious people on how to make religion and science compatible?

    Is it politically incorrect for an accommodationist to state that through religion one cannot produce rational facts?

  16. #16 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 20, 2009

    Jean -

    I’m glad you liked my essay. For myself, I decided to skip services, despite the hard sell from those Jewish friends of mine I mentioned in an earlier comment. Some Jewish traditions I like, others not so much!

    I think there are two general sorts of problems that science poses for religion. First, it sometimes uncovers facts that contradicts popular religious claims. Second, it is based on methods and attitudes that can make religious revelation and holy books seems like unreliable ways of obtaining information.

    A version of religion that scrupulously avoided making empirical claims about nature and which looks skeptically on claimed religious revelations could thereby avoid any conflict with science. And there are certainly some forms of religion that fit those descriptions, like Reform Judaism perhaps. The trouble is that I don’t believe those attitudes represent the mainstream of religion, at least in America. The public opinion polls bear me out on that. There would be no need to write polemically about religion if Reform Judaism were what it’s all about. But it isn’t.

    Regarding the Bible, I really don’t think I’m being unfair to Josh. For many people, the idea that extracting truths from the Bible is the same sort of thing as extracting truths from The Cat in the Hat would be deeply offensive. If you’re inclined to think the Bible is the holy and inerrant word of God, it is quite a come down to see it treated as just one more work of literature. Aesop’s fables are fictional stories from which we can learn valuable truths. It sure looks to me like Josh is placing the Bible at the same level.

    Let me use a personal example. I think Les Miserables is the finest novel ever written. I have read it several times, and each time I feel I notice something new. There are passages that are so insightful and beautifully written that I must put the book aside for several minutes to calm down before reading on. If other people have the same reaction to the Bible (or the Koran, or the Book of Mormon) then that is fine.

    But if someone now tells me they don’t care for Les Mis, (it garnered a number of negative reviews when it was first published), well, that’s just different strokes for different folks. The really interesting claim made on behalf of the Bible, by contrast, is that not caring for it will actually put your soul in jeopardy. You have missed something of critical importance, say many religious people, if you treat just as a work of literature.

    If someone says they admire The Origin of Species just as a piece of good writing then those of us who are scientifically inclined would say that person has missed something important. Yes, it is indeed a good piece of writing. But it is also true, not just in a vague symbolic sense but in a literal sense. You are learning something about how the world actually is by reading the book.

    So is the Bible more like Les Mis, or more like The Origin? If I am understanding Josh, he thinks the value of the Bible is comparable to Les Mis. The dominant and, in my view, worrisome view is that it is more like The Origin.

  17. #17 Dave2
    September 20, 2009

    Matti,

    I think almost all religious believers would disagree with your characterization of religion. They would say religion is about a great deal more than “provid[ing] values to guide one’s life”. It’s about the actual origins of the universe, the actual origins of humanity, what actually happens when we die, and where we’ll actually spend eternity. These are intended as accurate claims about reality, not as mere uplifting stories to guide our lives. I mean, that’s why so many oppose the teaching of evolutionary biology: they don’t just do it for fun.

  18. #18 MPL
    September 20, 2009

    @ 17 (Dave2),

    They would say religion is about a great deal more than “provid[ing] values to guide one’s life”.

    This is true, at least for many (I’m pretty sure that’s darn close to the description you’d get in a Quaker meeting house or a Episcopalian church, or quite a few seminaries). But in all the religious accounts I’ve seen from believers, when religion mattered the most to them in practice was when it was providing an emotional experience, or moral guidance, or turning their lives around.

    The typical anti-evolution fundamentalist is pretty casual about it: they vote for anti-science school boards, but they don’t spend their lives like Ken Ham (with the exception of Ken Ham).

    Moreover, most of them seem to defend the bad ideas (e.g. 4,000 year old universe) because they think it is a necessary condition for something else they think is true (e.g. “God loves you”). Please note that this is a completely valid piece of reasoning: B only if A, B, therefore A.

  19. #19 Dave2
    September 20, 2009

    MPL, your points are perfectly compatible with my criticism of Matti. I don’t see how any of them cast any doubt on my position, or serve to defend Matti’s position. But further, I think they apply only to things like creationism. Take, for example, the existence of God. This is supposed to be an actual fact about the world: God is really supposed to exist. Thus when religious believers say “God really does exist”, they aren’t just expressing their commitment to a set of values, they’re asserting the real existence of a supernatural being. And your points don’t quite apply to God’s existence: it matters a great deal to believers, they’re not casual about it, and they don’t treat it as anything optional. Even your example “God loves you” is much more than an expression of value commitments; it would just collapse without the factual element.

    Accounts of religious belief which leave out the factual claims are like Hamlet without the prince.

  20. #20 MPL
    September 20, 2009

    Well, assertions like “God exists” certainly seems like an assertion on par with “bacteria exist”, but in versions other than crude creationism, postulated entities like God seem to have no physically observable consequences even in principle (they may have philosophical or moral consequences, but that’s different).

    So now you have a very strange sort of definition of “real” in play. You can assert that the idea of a completely effect-free entity is nonsensical, but that would be a philosophical, not scientific point. Like you (I assume), I prefer an ontology where consequence-free entities don’t exist, but I don’t think you can prove that they don’t exist in the same way that you could prove that phlogiston does not exist, since, by definition, no possible consequences exist to falsify the belief.

  21. #21 Deen
    September 21, 2009

    I don’t think I’m winding up at quite the place PZ was, but how far apart is that rhetoric from mine?

    I think it’s pretty clear that PZ is stating what he would like religion to be, not what religion actually is. Also, PZ is comparing religion to knitting because they can both be pleasant pastimes or hobbies, not because they are both ways of knowing.

  22. #22 Tulse
    September 21, 2009

    We all seem to have roughly the same relationship with them, and many of us seem to enjoy things like Buffy or Underworld. As such, it seemed like a useful way to raise questions about what we gain from tales of the supernatural or paranormal, in a context where not much is at stake. And to offer yet another answer to Jason Rosenhouse’s query, I’d suggest that slacktivist offered some truth claims that can be drawn from literature, and how those intersect with religion. To whit: “any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others,” “there’s a downside to this predatory choice,”

    As I suggested in a earlier post, there are other “truths” one could draw from Buffy — for example, given that a group of brave young white people use religious imagery and violence to fight against a threat unrecognized by the rest of society, a pernicious evil that is infiltrating their community and threatens to suck the life out of all good and decent folks and turn them into one the non-humans, one could say that the “truth” of Buffy is that “all good Aryan-derived peoples should violently fight against immigration and race-mixing.” And frankly, I don’t know how you could argue against this as a possible “truth” without some sort of evidence external to Buffy. Literature, in other words, doesn’t teach us any internally-validated “truths”, but it only suggests possibilities that we have to test in other ways, and definitely doesn’t offer any “objective” claims, since all claims of literature involve interpretation.

  23. #23 windy
    September 21, 2009

    questions about why Kirk didn’t do this or that in episode 5. He doesn’t know. He’s an actor playing a character. The character made that choice, not the actor.

    No, the writer made the choice. It may be hard to find out the reasons for it (maybe the writer does not even know), but it didn’t come from some source of “truths” beyond empirical reality.

    many see the natural processes by which life evolved as having been set in motion or nudged by divine will. The image of a rib being taken from a sleeping Adam is thus a figurative representation of that complex process

    On the other hand, to many people that passage has revealed truths like these:

    A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.

    How can you tell if Paul is wrong?

  24. #24 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Jason Rosenhouse: “How can you possibly claim it does not diminish the Bible to treat it solely as a work of literature when so many Christians instead insist it is the holy and inerrant word of God?”

    I didn’t claim it was solely a work of literature, but note that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that interpretation must be done “taking account of its literary forms and devices.” Which is to say, it is a work of literature. They’d say it’s rather more than that, but it is that at minimum. Beyond that, yeah, I think inerrantists are wrong, and I don’t mind defending that point of view. Atheists may be right to say that no religious interpretation of any religious text is correct, but I don’t know how we could determine that and it strikes me as an excessively broad claim.

    Jason wants a truth available “uniquely from religion.” I can’t do that. I can propose various truth claims, some of them contradictory, but to be uniquely from religion, they’d have to have no empirical content at all. So “Jesus died for our sins” is a religious truth claim, but I don’t know if it’s a truth. I tend not to think it is, but I don’t know for sure. I do believe that we should do unto others, and part of the reason I think that is its status at the center of so many religions as a normative claim, and that a reformulated and it stands as an evolutionarily stable strategy (not a normative result, note). The normative claim is a truth claim, and we can find support for it not just by the agreement among religious groups, but from mathematical results. Did religions stumble on that truth? Did a god set the world up so that this would be true, and then give it as a commandment to early people? I can test the former claim, and I tend to think it’s true. I can’t test the latter two, they may well be false but I can’t falsify them, and I see no advantage in insisting that people reject those, so long as they don’t set the latter against the former.

    Jason: “Pointing to very liberal versions of Judaism and Christianity that make do without notions of the supernatural, or divine revelation, or elevations of the Bible (or the Torah) to anything beyond great literature, is not a refutation of the idea that science and religion are incompatible.”

    It is support for the claim that science and religion can be compatible. I’m not making any grand claim of certain compatibility, but I do think that it is wrong to assert incompatibility as demonstrated. Unless we simply read moderate and religious believers out of the category of religion, we have to accept that they might be right and the conservatives might be wrong. And reading the moderates and liberals out of religion would absolutely be worse than decimation. The conservatives might be right, I suppose, but I think they’ve got enough things wrong about the world that I’m not inclined to trust them about religion.

    Jason again: “Religious clerics and theologians have routinely claimed that they do, indeed, have access to sources of truth about the world that are unique to their religious traditions.”

    And others have argued for forms of syncretism, that all religions have elements of the truth, but none is entirely correct. I’m not interested in refereeing that fight.

    Ophelia objects to my saying: “The claims that seem central to me about religion are not claims about our intersubjective, shared reality. They are claims about personal revelation, feelings of oneness or connection, and other matters of intrasubjective reality.”

    She asks: “Central how, central in what sense? I think the pope and most other clerical types would disagree with you. There is such a thing as doctrine, and it’s not generally as optional as liberal apologists for religion like to pretend it is.”

    First, the Pope and other clerics may be wrong. But I don’t think you give them quite enough credit. Consider Pope JPII’s statement on evolution: “How do the conclusions reached by the various scientific disciplines coincide with those contained in the message of revelation? And if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions, in what direction do we look for their solution? We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth. … It is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say. In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences. … new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory. … What is the significance of such a theory? To address this question is to enter the field of epistemology. A theory is a metascientific elaboration, distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them.”

    To me, he seemed to be doing more or less what I described, distinguishing empirical science from broader questions, setting aside the established science and asking about the spiritual significance of evolution, especially in terms of how the soul came into play over the accepted evolutionary process. He concludes: “The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation [empirical, scientific], which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.” I can dispute his conclusions without denying that he’s drawing sensible demarcations.

    And yeah, some clerics do dispute personal revelation, while others (e.g. Quakers) celebrate it as central to their religion. Again, I’m not about adjudicating who is right and who is wrong there.

    Jason again: “The really interesting claim made on behalf of the Bible, by contrast, is that not caring for it will actually put your soul in jeopardy.”

    That’s not especially the claim of the Jewish Bible. Ancient Jews were pretty clearly henotheists. Jews were prohibited from doing various things, including worshipping other gods, but there’s no way to read Exodus and think that the Pharoah’s gods weren’t real to the author. The sorcerers perform real miracles! The Jewish Bible has no generalized command to convert people (as the Christian Bible does). People of other faiths could live in ancient Israel without converting, and it isn’t clear what, if anything the ancient Jews thought about souls. Even today that’s a disputed point. Nor is body/soul dualism a particularly Jewish doctrine, FWIW. So I think that statement is wrong several different ways, at least for the Jewish Bible. And furthermore, the temple where I went on Rosh Hashanah has as a guiding principle that “the God you don’t believe in does not exist.” Yeah, it’s a pretty liberal congregation, and that’s an extreme view in Judaism, but not nearly as extreme as the Council for Secular Judaism, which is a non-theist Jewish group.

    Tulse: I responded to the Aryan Buffy in the other thread.

    Windy: You’d evaluate those sorts of claims through an honest and open discourse, trying to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, respecting and exploring one another’s moral views, and finding common ground and areas of disagreement for further discussion. I think Paul is wrong because I think all humans are equal, and that’s where I’d start the conversation.

  25. #25 Benjamin Nelson
    September 25, 2009

    Josh, I should say first of all that I am perfectly happy with the “different kinds of truth-claims” talk.

    This is not to say that “religion is alright,” but that religion may well be alright. Religion is a topic where I’m unwilling to express much certainty.

    But that’s not good enough if we’re in the “meaning” game. Part of the idea of talking about invariant meaning is expressing some certainty about what’s being talked about. If we’re not willing to express certainty about what we’re talking about, then it means that everything we say about the relevant statements is going to be wrong, because we’re not committed to what contexts the statement is true and which it isn’t. Until we make appropriate commitments, there’s no rational meaning there for us to unpack. We’re in a quagmire of interpretation.

    One tactic for getting to a solid meaningful ground with the texts is to burden your claims with “someness” qualifications — like if I say, “for at least some, religion is merely therapeutic” (a rough paraphrase of your comments above). That’s not false, no doubt about it. Sadly, in that context, the texts would nevertheless at their worst be kinds of bad therapy. (cf. original sin and female self-conception.) If we judge the meaning according to its effectiveness at therapy — if we want to hear an internal “Hooray” but we instead hear a chorus of “Boos” — then the texts are false.

    Still, for their part, that fact might not be relevant to the secular activist. Being nice Millian liberals, even the secular activist like PZ Myers — Dawkins too, probably — can ignore any associated psychological trauma as being the person’s own business if they’re mature adults. (Extending his analogy, I suppose you can hurt yourself knitting by stabbing yourself in the arm, but I won’t be first in line to condemn knitting.)

    Another tactic for understanding is to pick out an exceptional target and associate them with the most offensive form of interpretation: i.e., that religious persons are fundamentalists if and only if they adopt literal readings of the texts, and literalness is the crime here. But this risks making the sociology involved more complex, at best; inscrutable, at worst. Moreover, it misses out on a key component of the secular activist’s critique, which extends beyond the fundamentalists. For religious communities must be held to account, not just for the falseness of their creeds, but the vileness of their conventional allegories.

    What is not a helpful tactic when unpacking meaning is appealing to ad hoc insights about texts with inaccessible authors. When I draw the moral, “Genesis is about the bittersweet realization that a life of knowledge is a life of pain”, it is not the same thing as the traditional allegorical interpretation of Genesis. We can call an allegorical interpretation of Genesis “true” or “false” depending only on its relationship to convention, and from convention to literalness/therapeutic value/moral value. But my interpretation of it is not treating the text by making a truth-claim at all. Rather, it’s just sort of an interesting thought without any secure fit with the text, because even if the authors were to rise from the dead and say “No no no, you got it all wrong”, I’d still say that that’s what it means, because that interpretation is the most relevant one to me.

  26. #26 Deen
    September 26, 2009

    Shorter Josh Rosenau: “religious opinions are all over the map, therefore compatibility.”

    More seriously, your long comment mostly seems to show your reluctance to commit to any clear stance, especially if this could mean that you’d have to criticize religion – especially moderate religion.

    For example, you start off with denying that you said the Bible was solely a work of literature, but you don’t say whether you think if it’s more than that or not. Do you or do you not think that the Bible is more than just a work of literature? If not, why did you deny that it is, and argue with Jason Rosenhouse? If so, how is it more? And how would you know? And would believing it is more than just literature be compatible with science? You also neither admit nor deny that the belief that the Bible is more than just literature is quite common in religious groups, even in mainstream religion.

    Likewise, you claim not to be interested to referee the fight between theologians. But nobody asked you to referee any fight, we just want to know what you think about the special sources of knowledge claimed by religion (or certain religions at least). Specifically, we want to know if you think such a claim is common in religion, and especially whether you think it’s compatible with science or not. If so, how is it compatible? If not, how would you refute such a claim without painting some of the moderate believers with the same brush? With the reply you’ve chosen, however, you seem to just be dodging these issues.

    Besides, for us atheists, it’s not really about which theologian is right. As far as we’re concerned, they’re all wrong. Or at the very least, useless. To “[bring] out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans”, as you so seemingly approvingly quote the Pope, they first have to show that there’s a Creator there to study, and that there’s a way to access his plans. Do you really think they can do this? If so, how? What do you think they have to offer that we can’t learn from ordinary philosophy or science? And if you don’t believe that theology is a legitimate pursuit of knowledge, why not come out and say so?

    And finally, why can’t you simply admit to the fact that many people believe that not caring about the Bible sentences you to Hell? How do you think that bringing up some Jewish traditions refutes that? Why even bring those up? You accuse us of writing the moderates and liberals out of religion, but you seem to want to deny (or at least downplay or distract from) the existence of certain problematic beliefs within mainstream religion. Why would you do that?

    The overall impression your comment leaves me with, is that you can’t allow yourself to admit that many moderates often use similar arguments as fundamentalists, such as the special status of the Bible as more than just literature, or claims of knowledge about the will of God. You can’t allow yourself to either criticize these arguments, and alienate the moderates who believe them, or defend these arguments, and affirm the fundamentalists. Therefore, you dodge our questions and ignore our arguments and hope we go away. It doesn’t look like a pleasant place to be in.

  27. #27 Josh Rosenau
    September 28, 2009

    Deen: “Do you or do you not think that the Bible is more than just a work of literature?”

    Deen, a paragraph later: “you claim not to be interested to referee the fight between theologians. But nobody asked you to referee any fight.”

    I see a contradiction there. Asking me to weigh in is asking me to take sides. My personal opinion on these matters is irrelevant.

    Of course many people think that not caring about the Bible sentences you to Hell. Quite a few people think that eating beef sentences you to be reborn in a lower caste when you next live. And others think that science and religion are compatible, that (in the words of a rabbi I saw speak last week) “the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.” If the first group is right, I’m doomed no matter what. If the last group is right, I’m fine. The last group has no beef with science, they do things I don’t (go to temple regularly, dance, etc.), but they don’t try to make me or anyone else do things I don’t want, so why should I care? Why should I make them my enemy?

    If the fundamentalists are right, it doesn’t matter if they are a majority or a minority, we’re all still screwed. And if the Unitarians or Secular Jews are right, it doesn’t matter if they’re a majority or one lonely voice. Your questions about what’s common is irrelevant to the question of who is right, or which sorts of claims are true.