Play whack-a-mole with Lee Siegel

You have to read this essay to believe it: Militant atheists are wrong. It's a collection of what I call indignant pieties — "how dare atheists challenge my precious faith!" — and it's also distilled, concentrated, essence of stupid, painful to read and even more agonizing to have to waste time arguing against. But then, it's by Lee Siegel. Lee Siegel. There's a man who has a lot of courage, exposing himself on the internet again. Siegel is the amazing hypocrite who denounced the ethics of the blogosphere, and then cobbled up a sock puppet ( remember "Sprezzatura"?) who went trolling around the blogosphere singing the praises of Lee Siegel. Fortunately, I don't have to suffer over his nonsense too much — Melissa takes a bullet for the rest of us, stuffs Siegel's brain in the toilet bowl, and flushes.

I do want to touch on one bizarre claim he makes while swirling down the drain, though.

Because the existence of God is undemonstrable, unverifiable and the object of an impractical leap of faith, religion, it seems to me, is one of imagination's last strongholds.

Credo quia absurdum est. I believe because it is absurd. That sentiment -- either a corruption or a paraphrase of the saying of an early church father -- is the essence of religious belief. By taking a leap of faith in God, you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy.

I love that admission. I wish more theists would make it. It's saying that the value of religion lies in its awesome idiocy — that no rational, reasonable person could possibly believe in that load of tripe, therefore, because so many people do believe in it, it must be valuable (and they so blithely overlook the possibility that the reason so many accept it is that they are irrational and unreasonable). A willingness to believe does not make a fact out of fantasy — it makes you a believer in nonsense, nothing more.

He also makes the claim that atheists sole argument is that religious people do bad things — "Judging religion by its instances of fanaticism is like judging a democracy by its crime rate" — but that's not my argument at all. I think both theists and atheists do bad things all the time because they are human beings, and that what that really tells us is that religion does not rescue us from our human failings.

My gripe with religion isn't that it makes one evil at all. My complaint is that it encourages people to believe in incredibly stupid things … a contention that Lee Siegel ably affirms and demonstrates.

More like this

Tertullian. It's attributed to Tertullian. Lazy bastard can't even quote properly.

By speedwell (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

My gripe with religion isn't that it makes one evil at all.

I'm not sure I agree with this, think about suicide bombers, etc.

I think Steven Weinberg put it well "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion."

The Credo quia absurdum est, I meant.

By speedwell (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Ah, but religion does make people evil.

If religion were only about being stupid, then it wouldn't be any more of a crime than making Bruce Willis movies or following Paris Hilton's career.

By Christian Burnham (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy.

For extremely postmodern values of "fact", of course. We fools mired in empirico-rationalism are not accustomed to such a pallid and pliant definition of "fact". We're so out of touch that we'd say you're just dying for a fantasy.

If anyone thinks that Dawkins' book, "The God Delusion" . . . is going to persuade today's religious fanatics, here or abroad, to loosen up and enjoy a little MTV, you have to ask yourself just who is "deluded."

Is that what Dawkins' point was? How on earth did I miss that?

By noncarborundum (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

It's like he has "I'm scared, mummy" tattooed on his forehead or something.

By Rudi Tapper (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

About the whole "evil" thing. . . I don't think that's the best way of putting it. At least, it doesn't have too much predictive value. If put on the spot, I'd say something like, "It's in human nature to fight over scarce resources. Religion creates new scarcity: not only is there only one Jerusalem, but there is only one path to salvation and only a single valid translation of the Bible. When the opportunity arises, people will fight to win control over these scarce resources, on the large scale or on the small. To me, this kind of violence is more immoral than others, because the value and even the existence of these resources cannot be tested via observation, reason and experiment."

But anyway. . . .

Wikipedia informs us that Lee Siegel has a new book in the pipeline:

Siegel's critique of Web culture, entitled Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, is scheduled to be published in January 2008.

Apparently, being "against the machine" involves calling everybody a fascist and then making up fake people to agree with you. Tedious.

"By taking a leap of faith in God, you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy."
So true, now if only all people of faith would sign onto that!
And once you realize that nothing can be anything, why not believe in something fun like FSM?

We have people already working in the field of fiction and the imagination who are doing far better than the religious. They are musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, conjurers, theatricals, and artists.

As an atheistic actor and songwriter, it just bugs me to hear that we need religion to keep the imagination intact. As if a sudden lack of priests would result in a world filled with lifeless automatons, blindly filing into cubicles and factories for the rest of their days.

Whenever some pompous windbag wants to sound all deep and knowing, they start their drivel by quoting someone famous to associate themselves with them. In this case it's Voltaire. Let me try it.

As George Washington once said, "Father I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down that cherry tree." Like George Washington, we atheist must tell the truth. We can't hide behind the lies of religion. We must carry the truth like a torch into the darkness and drive back the demons of irrationality! Too do less would be an insult to our founding fathers!

How did I do? Did you get a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye?

Disclaimer: Before one of you jumps on it, yes, I know the story of Washington and the cherry tree is a folk tale. That wasn't the point. Go with it. Take a leap of faith. :)

OEJ

By One Eyed Jack (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Surprise, surprise, he hasn't understood Tertullian correctly either. (Most people don't.) What T. actually meant was: Here's this story, absolutely crazy on its face, being taken seriously; the sillier it looks, the better the reasons they must have for taking it seriously; so its apparent absurdity is evidence that there's good evidence for it, and therefore is itself evidence for it. (More specifically, the story was that of the Resurrection, and the people taking it seriously were the apostles.) It's got nothing to do with leaps of faith; it's just a paradoxical way of expressing what purports to be a rational argument.

Please note that I'm not defending this argument, which fails for multiple reasons.

I've always thought religion is an absence of imagination. Nature is explained by the drama of anthropomorphic supernatural beings. The creator of the Universe is your father. Etc. Most of it is shockingly unimaginative. Siegel should take a physics class if he wants his imagination really stretched.

Does Lee Seigel still believe in Santa Claus? Or the tooth fairy? OK, he's Jewish, so forget the Santa Claus part, but the point is the same. Grow up, already. His concept of the relationship between religion and art is wrong. Were those paintings in Lascaux inspired by some belief in an unseen deity? Maybe, but it's not apparent. Those were real animals. No serpents with human heads. Of course, fertility goddesses and the like came along, but they didn't know better. We do.

Whenever I read reviews of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, it seems like the critics haven't actually read their books. Almost no specific examples or counter arguments; just generalized reasons why they believe or why those atheists seem so aggressive.

PZ wrote: "I think both theists and atheists do bad things all the time because they are human beings, and that what that really tells us is that religion does not rescue us from our human failings."

I'd say "Amen," but....

Sam Harris wrote the following:

How to Believe in God
Six Easy Steps
1. First, you must want to believe in God.
2. Next, understand that believing in God in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
3. Then, realize that the human ability to believe in God in the absence of evidence might itself constitute evidence for the existence of God.
4. Now consider any need for further evidence (both in yourself and in others) to be a form of temptation, spiritually unhealthy, or a corruption of the intellect.
5. Refer to steps 2-4 as acts of "faith."
6. Return to 2.

Beating Tertullian by a nose is Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians,
"For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."

He goes on for awhile about how the foolishness of God is better than the wisdom of the world. He knew, the cynical old sophist, that if you can say that with a straight face ... you win.

From #13

Surprise, surprise, he hasn't understood Tertullian correctly either. (Most people don't.) What T. actually meant was: Here's this story, absolutely crazy on its face, being taken seriously; the sillier it looks, the better the reasons they must have for taking it seriously; so its apparent absurdity is evidence that there's good evidence for it, and therefore is itself evidence for it. (More specifically, the story was that of the Resurrection, and the people taking it seriously were the apostles.) It's got nothing to do with leaps of faith; it's just a paradoxical way of expressing what purports to be a rational argument.

So it's Johnny Cochran's Chewbacca defense.

Blake Stacey (#9):

It's in human nature to fight over scarce resources. Religion creates new scarcity: not only is there only one Jerusalem, but there is only one path to salvation and only a single valid translation of the Bible. When the opportunity arises, people will fight to win control over these scarce resources, on the large scale or on the small. To me, this kind of violence is more immoral than others, because the value and even the existence of these resources cannot be tested via observation, reason and experiment.

As you probably know, Fighting Words, the recently-published book by secularist biblical scholar Hector Avalos, presents precisely those arguments.

I just finished reading the book; it's excellent.

Were those paintings in Lascaux inspired by some belief in an unseen deity? Maybe, but it's not apparent. Those were real animals. No serpents with human heads.

I've heard it argued that prehistoric cave art is actually a reflection of prehistoric hallucinogen use. Of course, it's really hard to tell whether a particular drawing represents a buffalo or a hallucination of a buffalo (I mean, you're really buffaloed if you try), but since cave art and petroglyphs do show other motifs which resemble the common types of visual hallucinations, it's an interesting notion.

For examples, see this video, at roughly minute 15.

Lee Seigel writes:

But shouldn't they be attacking Bush and Co.'s hypocrisy in betraying Christian values instead? Such polemics are a case of throwing the sacred bathwater out with the baby. The analytic philosophers used to call such arguments that so sorely miss the mark "category mistakes."

Then, later in the article he writes:

For the imagination is what embodies concepts, ideas and values that cannot be scientifically verified and that have no practical usefulness. Because the existence of God is undemonstrable, unverifiable and the object of an impractical leap of faith, religion, it seems to me, is one of imagination's last strongholds.

Ok, let's talk about "category error."

1.) One of the main arguments made in the recent spate of books is that religion introduces facts which justify any sort of moral choice, and there is no way to arbitrate who's right by using secular sources. For example, the same religion will be used as justification by both pacifists and imperialists. An objective observer on the outside can't decide which side in a theological dispute is "betraying" the "true" religion as God wanted it.

The atheists are not "missing the mark" and making a category error here. Siegal misunderstands the argument.

2.) First, he says the imagination embodies "concepts, ideas and values." Then God and religion are added in to this category of things that can't be scientifically verified. But wait. Is God supposed to be a living person, a Being, an entity which exists, created and sustains the universe, and cares what happens to us -- or is it a concept, idea, or value? If you think it's the last, you're an atheist.

Seems to me that Siegal has made a category error here.

Oh yes, Siegel has finally nailed it - the one killer refutation of atheism that apologists and theologians have failed to notice for thousands of years is that atheism is wrong because it will hinder imagination.

My first criticism, even if this were true, his argument is irrelevant, rather it would only state a side affect of the truth. Atheism is only wrong if it is unsound, and proving a negative correlation between atheism and imagination gains him nothing (not to mention that correlation only implies, not necessitates causation). What a wonderful example of an argumentum ad consequentiam Siegel has provided.

That stated, I am amazed that Siegel has never heard of George Carlin, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett, Salman Rushdie, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Woody Allen, David Cross, David Gilmour, Billy Joel, and, one of my personal favorites, H.P. Lovecraft. That list does not include agnostics. So either Siegel is staggeringly ignorant of the contributions of non-theists to the arts or he does not consider the works of these people significant or he is aware and considers them important, but is being completely dishonest. Considering his past episode of sock-puppetry, I'm going with the last one.

I think that when intellectually vacuous shit like this gets published as an opinion piece, the paper should be obligated to provide a response either from the editor or from some willing reader.

By Atheotatous (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Seems to me religion stifles imagination and creativity.

Every denomination has its list of proscribed behaviors, foods, music,clothing, etc.

And of course subjecting the belief system to critical analysis is out of the question.

By ZacharySmith (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Melissa takes a bullet for the rest of us, stuffs Siegel's brain in the toilet bowl, and flushes.

And I will come to collect this debt when you least expect it...

Thanks for the link, PZ. ;-)

Sprezzatura did show up at the Denialism blog. It was rather underwhelming.

I think it may be possible, and desirable to some, to indulge in counterfactual religious experience. I know that I had some great times (about a quarter century ago) dancing and singing, driven by the temporary and affected conviction that Haile Selassie was the living God. The next morning I went to my law school classes; I didn't sell my belongings and move to Ethiopia.

More recently, I (together with a large, diverse, and hungry congregation, including many UC Berkeley professors) sang loudly and enthusiastically about how God should hear our plea for life in the coming year before darkness came and the gates closed. (cf. Dylan, "tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door") It was a powerful moment, even though I don't believe that God exists (at least not in that version), and, I suspect, neither do many of my fellow congregants.

OK, I know this is not what Lee Siegel is talking about; when I get around to reading his essay, I fully expect that I will deem him a lunatic. I'm just talking about the pleasures of a bit of fantasy now and then. (I also dig chanting with Krishna Das.)

By mgarelick (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

PZ wrote: "I think both theists and atheists do bad things all the time because they are human beings, and that what that really tells us is that religion does not rescue us from our human failings."

I think that if religion simply equated to personal supernaturalist beliefs of humans with human failings, then those who lack supernaturalistic beliefs would not waste time, energy, or money banding behind political atheism. The problem is that leaders of organized religions have deliberately monopolized and amplified human failings.

Tertullian:
"Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote.6 Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4). The difference between the imputed and actual words is striking and important. James Moffatt in a sadly neglected article of a half-century ago discovered the clue to the interpretation of the words in observing that here Tertullian "follows in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle."7 In Rhetoric 2.23.22 Aristotle shows that an argument |[P.418] from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story: some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them. On this view, the words presuppose a tidy correlation between faith and reason, and a consideration of Tertullian's aims in the treatise in which they are found supports this interpretation.

In writing the De carne Christi Tertullian undertook to demonstrate that the flesh of Christ was real; in fact, was exactly what sense data made it appear to be to the rational mind. His opponents were a variety of "heretics" who refused to admit that Christ's flesh was like ours. The most formidable of these opponents was Marcion, who regarded the flesh of Christ as phantasmic - not, therefore, what it appeared to be - and it is to the refutation of Marcion that he devotes the first major portion of his treatise. In this debate two reasons constrained Tertullian to be thoroughly rationalistic. First, his case depended, as we have just seen, on the validity of mind and sense to establish truth. Second, Marcion rested his case, however perversely, on a claim to be absolutely logical. Hence his book of Antitheses, in which he showed impossible contradictions between Old and New Testaments; hence also his expurgation of the Gospel of Luke, and his Apostolicon which freed the New Testament from "later" accretions and made - to his mind - a logically consistent gospel.8 Tertullian was never a man to skirt an issue, and he readily saw that his case would be strengthened by using Marcion's own weapons against him. Consequently he shaped his argument against Marcion in this book into a calculated appeal to rational probability through methods established by a long tradition of rhetorical theory on the nature of conjecture, a tradition going back at least to Aristotle.9 It is significant that in this same chapter (5.7) Tertullian uses fides to mean not "blind faith," but "token of evidence." Moffatt then was right: in this context a sudden intrusion of anti-rationalism is improbable, and we should regard the whole section as a manifesto on behalf of reason in religious faith."
http://www.tertullian.org/articles/sider_credo.htm

By t. jasper parnel (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Imagination is a gift, a pleasure and a privilege. It makes boredom shorter, literature greater, scientists cleverer and sex better.

Unfortunately for Lee Siegal, what it absolutely never does is make falsehoods truer. Knowing the difference between a wish and the world is a sure sign of maturity. Time to grow up, Lee.

"By taking a leap of faith in God, you create value out of nothingness."

Actually, when you base your process on nothing, you just create lots of nonsense; which is why many varieties of nonsense exist. Or in the jargon of people who process data: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

By Bubba Sixpack (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

"In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves."
...
"By taking a leap of faith in God, you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy."
...
"For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can't be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved."

What an interesting idea. Attacking a Leap of Faith equals an attack on Truth, Beauty, Love itself. Let's play, shall we?

"By taking a leap of faith in [Extraterrestrial abduction], you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy."

"By taking a leap of faith in [the tooth fairy], you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy."

"By taking a leap of faith in [the Easter Bunny], you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy."

Therefore, when you attack E.T., the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, you're not attacking silly ideas that no reasonable adult would believe in, you're actually attacking the very ideas of Love, Truth, Beauty and Decency.

How can you anti-Easter bunny-ists live with yourselves?

Sprezzatura did show up at the Denialism blog.

It'd be more correct to say a comment from someone calling themselves "Sprezzatura" showed up. Whilst the comment might have been Mr Siegel, it could just have easily been someone making a joke. If so, it was a good one (IMO), since it was classic Sprezzatura.

One Eyed Jack: ... I know the story of Washington and the cherry tree is a folk tale.

Not exactly: it was coined by an opportunistic Washington "biographer" named Mason Weems in a book published very soon after his nominal subject died.

Other falsehoods from this same book include the throwing-the-dollar-across-the-Potomac story and the tale of Washington praying on his knees at Valley Forge.

The author, you may be startled to hear, was a dedicated churchman usually known as Parson Weems.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 09 Oct 2007 #permalink

who was the audience for lee's argument?

(it seems fairly reasonable for one to argue from the basis of absurdity if his or her audience is in the market for new absurdities; one might plausibly gain many converts this way from among those who feel their present religion is too reality-based to provide whatever they are attempting to get from it)

By pholidote (not verified) on 10 Oct 2007 #permalink

Bah. He comes close to becoming a Kierkegaardian and ALMOST gets it. Now THERE'S an honest Christian. (Kierkegaard, that is.) I don't know how you'd translate K. into Judaism though.