Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Does God have to be good?

Somebody called Charlotte Allen wrote a column in the LA Times recently that has succeeded in what one assumes was its primary intention of pissing off atheists everywhere. It has gone massive in the Godless blogosphere over the past couple of days. I might as well join in the fun. Allen's argument isn't particularly original or well thought-out, but it is forcefully expressed - so forcefully that it can be held up as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the case against the so-called New Atheists. Sam Harris dismissed it as "one of the most embarrassingly stupid attacks on the “new atheists” to be published in a major newspaper".

Allen claims that atheists are "crashing bores" who are always whining about being "oppressed", thus demonstrating "boo-hoo victimhood". They are obsessed with "the minutiae of Christian doctrine"; their blogs focus on an "obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain". Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are constantly going on about how clever they are and, by comparison, how stupid religious believers are for believing stupid things. And they sound so angry, probably because they had bad experiences in childhood.

"The vitriol is extraordinary", she writes, ironically for someone who begins her column with the words "I can't stand atheists".

Whatever the deficiencies of her general argument, Allen does at least identify a striking duality in the case made by atheists. Here is what she writes:


And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot. Dawkins, writing in "The God Delusion," accuses the deity of being a "petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak" as well as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist ... bully." If there is no God -- and you'd be way beyond stupid to think differently -- why does it matter whether he's good or evil?


The case for atheism does indeed seem to consist (usually, at least) of two logically quite separate propositions:

1) There is no God

2) Religion is a bad thing

The first is a question of fact, or of something very like fact. Either there is a God, in the sense of a Supreme Being who ordains the universe, or there is not. The existence or otherwise of the deity may be inferred from the nature of the universe, or it may be known more directly (for example, by God, or gods, speaking to individuals - though this itself raises severe problems of proof). Either way, though, there is some objective sense in which "Is there a God?" is a question that in principle has an answer, even if it is impossible, in this world at least, to resolve.

But atheists, at least the celebrity atheists and a high proportion of those committed to atheism, aren't satisfied with that. They want to go further, to argue that religion has harmful consequences. It encourages ignorance and laziness, for example. It is responsible for wars and acts of terrorism. It leads to damaging guilt about sex. It wastes time and intellectual energy that might be spent on more useful thoughts. It is a tool of the powerful to oppress the masses (this is usually a left-wing critique). Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great is largely taken up with arguments of this kind - which, given the state of the world today, is hardly surprising.

That is the short answer to Allen's question. Even if God does not exist, it matters a great deal what sort of personality is ascribed to him, because God represents for believers an ideal to strive towards. The double argument of the atheists ("there is no God" + "God is not Great") is only the mirror image of the equally mashed-up argument of believers, which is in turn concealed by the double-meaning of the very word "believe". To "believe in God" means, almost invariably, both to believe that God exists (as one might "believe in" Bigfoot) and to believe that religion is morally virtuous and worthwhile (as one might "believe in" the Labour party). Whether or not God exists, religion undoubtedly does. Asserting the non-existence of God, then, is one plank (and not an essential one) of the broader and more pressing argument against religion.

It is of course possible to be an atheist yet hold to the view that religion is useful and beneficial to society. One might look at the great works of music and architecture that belief has inspired, to the example of religiously-motivated charity workers, or to the role that religion has undoubtedly played in maintaining social cohesion. Thinkers from Seneca onwards have argued that the social utility of religion is what matters, not whether it is true. Or one can ruefully say, considering the beauty of religious myths, or the idea of a loving God welcoming his children into an eternity of bliss, "if only it were true, if only I could believe it". But such thoughts are most unlikely to propel one towards a position of campaigning atheism. So it is only to be expected that people who make a big deal of their lack of belief should also point out the downside of religious belief.

There ought, logically, to be a fourth belief-position: that God exists, but is a complete bastard. There would seem to be abundant evidence for such a belief. If you take, as many do, the Bible seriously as a source for information about God, you don't have far to look for examples of divine bad behaviour: cruelty, murderousness, capriciousness, hypocrisy, lying, genocidal tendencies, racism (to say nothing of misogyny and homophobia), above all perhaps a bullying sense of entitlement. And not just in the Old Testament, either. The God of the philosophers isn't much better: he created, or appears to have created, a world of pain and suffering, in which the weak go to the wall and the evil prosper, in which nature is red in tooth and claw and the lives of most people throughout history have been nasty, brutish and short. Believers can sing hymns all they like about the mercy, compassion, greatness and fundamental goodness of God - but isn't that so much whistling in the dark? Even if there is a God, why should we fondly imagine that he cares about us?

Needless to say, many believers recognise these points. Even Charlotte Allen, who writes, "atheists don't seem to realize that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses". To theists of her persuasion, the struggle to reconcile belief in a loving God with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is something of point of honour: it shows how serious and intellectually committed they are, how they want to engage with deep questions. It is almost heroic. The persistent complaint from believers and their supporters (such as Terry Eagleton) is that atheists (or at least atheist arguments) are necessarily shallow because they can't be bothered to spend time trying to "get it". Being religious, for these sophisticates, is a perennial struggle to continue placing trust in an infinitely wise God despite, perhaps even because of, the weakness of the case. They like to see themselves as being more subtle thinkers than non-believers, who are stuck in a literal-minded world where straightforward questions might lead to straightforward answers. This position, of course, is every bit as "arrogant" as the mocking tone sometimes affected by atheists when ridiculing religion.

For their part, most atheists seem just as committed as believers to a view of God which, by definition, elides his existence with his supposed goodness. Take, for example, David Attenborough's reply to religious correspondents who chide him for not crediting God with creating all the wonderful animals he has spent a lifetime filming:

They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.


Attenborough seems to be saying that the cruelty of the natural world, or at least its amorality, is an argument against the existence of God. But it's clearly not an argument against a Supreme Being. A wholly objective God would be as interested in the welfare of the worm, who does after all have to survive in the world, as in the child. It is merely an argument against an idea of God who wishes to make the world as nice as possible for human beings. Yet believers will not be satisfied with such a refutation. They will want to say that in the great cosmic scheme of things God has his purposes, that the world as a whole demonstrates the goodness of God.

For believers, goodness is one of God's essential attributes. If you say that there is a creator or a supreme being who is not essentially good, then you are not merely denying a particular property of God, you are denying God's existence as firmly as if you were to say that the origin of the universe needed no outside intervention. God, in other words, cannot simply be defined as a Supreme Being, or as a Creator. God is a good Supreme Being, a good creator. By the same token, to deny the existence of God is to deny goodness itself. Nonsense, of course, but nonsense encoded in the DNA of language itself.

88 comments:

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Religion doesn't have to be bad, harmful to the individual or society in order to not be true. Christianity is clearly all those things of course but it is not religion just one strain of it.

You have to be either staggeringly dim or had your brain so rotted by religion that you cannot apply it to not notice that this is the position of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris et al.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I am open to the suggestion that there might be a good and beneficial religion in existence, or perhaps it once existed but has died out. Maybe one day someone will show me for evidence for it but until that time I remain agnostic as to its existence. It seems an unlikely notion to me so I'm not expecting to ever be shown such evidence, but like a Pink Flying Unicorn its not something we can rule out completely.

The Heresiarch said...

Is it not rather simplistic to expect religions to be either "good and beneficial" or the opposite? Presumably all religions have some beneficial effects, or they wouldn't last very long.

Clearly, religion "doesn't have to be bad, harmful to the individual or society in order to not be true". But most anti-religion arguments do stress the bad aspects of religion in gneraral or a particular belief system as reasons for believing in its falsity. About half The God Delusion is made up of arguments of this kind.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Why would religions have beneficial effects to anything but themselves? Remind me what benefit humans and mosquitos derive from malaria? How do tapeworms benefit us? Why would C-difficile or MRSA need to have beneficial effects upon humans to survive?

I'll re-read the God Delusion but I'd expect that Dawkins would be smart enough to do as Dennett does and clearly separate the truth or otherwise of religion from its ethical value. Its the kind of mistake I think I'd have noticed if he made it, but I may have been chortling at his gentle unstrident teasing of Chrisitians too much and overlooked it.

Religions appear to be nothing more than social constructs. Expecting them to be one either one thing or the other would be like expecting all political parties to be either liberal or conservative when they can be revolutionary, nationalist, social democratic, technocratic, kleptocratic, nespotic or religious amongst other possibilities.

asquith said...

Came across this yesterday. It's from a while back, but worth noting as especially staggering.

http://larison.org/2007/01/17/dont-know-much-about-history/

Where would one even begin trying to answer this?

stardancer69 said...

Thanks for yet another interesting read. Today's edition of the Jesus and Mo comic strip seems to condense it rather well.

http://www.jesusandmo.net/2009/05/20/tired/

Anonymous said...

The child abuse reports from Ireland today should be shoved in Ms. Allen's face. The pillars of community took innocent children and sexually abused them and made them slaves to boot. The island of saints of scholars.

Religion..... aka a front for pedophiles and charalatons

quisquose said...

I have never claimed that religion cannot be a positive motivation, but I expect it probably motivates good and bad in equal measure.

Religion has the effect of squashing the normal distribution curve of morality, and pushing more people to the extremes at both ends, but probably having little effect on the average.

The real question for me is does religion have a net benefit on society overall. Is society better or worse if it has more people motivated to sacrifice their lives towards altruistic aims, only to be offset more people willing to sacrifice their lives towards evil?

I suspect worse, but is it possible to measure?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

It is worth noting that the prisons are full of religious types while atheists are more likely to be found at home with their children and pets. If religion were beneficial one might expect it to be the other way around.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Religion certainly seems to have been very beneficial to those who liked to rape children as it gave them a ready supply of cowed victims. And then it protected them from being punished for their crimes.

John B said...

@WML, I'm not saying you're wrong on the prison thing - indeed, I'm sure that in the UK it's true - but does it work out when you control for other factors that we know correlate with imprisonment (I'm thinking socioeconomic status and educational levels, in particular)...?

Anonymous said...

Is not calling atheists names more fun than reason.
And why do they have to prove anything?

The Heresiarch said...

Woolly asks: Why should religions have beneficial effects to anything but themselves?

Because human beings aren't mere robots, and human societies aren't purely mechanical either. It stands to reason, I think, that a religion that did not have at least some beneficial effects (eg promoting social cohesion) would be rejected by the "host organism". Religions succeed by "colonising" a number of different human attributes (co-operation, altruism, a desire to connect with others, hierarchical instincts, the mystical sense) and binding them together.

As for The God Delusion, I don't accuse Dawkins of making the basic mistake you identify. Of course he doesn't confuse the truth of religion with its social effects. I never made any such suggestion. You don't read very carefully, do you Woolly? What I said was that, for atheist arguments like his, the "truth" question and the "ethics" question tend to be equally stressed. This led me to suppose that there was a closer connection between the two than might appear obvious from strict logic.

Yes, Asquith, that article does seem to be rather confused. But I liked the point that atheists "no longer even attempt to answer" the ontological argument. I've always been particularly attracted to the ontological argument. I don't think it proves the existence of God, or anything of the kind, but it does, I think, prove (or at least imply) something. Perhaps it proves the non-existence of God, in the sense that it shows up the incoherence of the concept. What I've attempted here - and failed miserably, of course - is to apply the ontological argument to the concept of God's goodness. My suggestion is that this explains why religious people are so upset by non-religious ethical arguments.

quisquose: "Religion has the effect of squashing the normal distribution curve of morality, and pushing more people to the extremes at both ends, but probably having little effect on the average."

Excellent point. What it does also, I think, is provide an easy short-cut to moral behaviour. In perhaps a majority of cases, following the religious rule will lead to ethically-correct behaviour, and it relieves people of having to think too hard about their own actions. But it's inflexible and leads to anomalies, and has trouble adapting to changed circumstances. Philosophy is a more accurate guide to morals than religion is, but it's also much harder work.

As for your prison point, Woolly, I think you'll find that many people discover God while they're inside. Religion doesn't put them there - but it might help them gain early release.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

John B said...

@WML, I'm not saying you're wrong on the prison thing - indeed, I'm sure that in the UK it's true - but does it work out when you control for other factors that we know correlate with imprisonment (I'm thinking socioeconomic status and educational levels, in particular)...?It is a valid question but how do you know that religion isn't causing the low socioeconomic status?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Heresiarch said... As for The God Delusion, I don't accuse Dawkins of making the basic mistake you identify. Of course he doesn't confuse the truth of religion with its social effects. I never made any such suggestion.Perhaps you should re-read your post of 20 May 18:26 when you said exactly that. Or are you claiming that your account has been hacked?

Clearly, religion "doesn't have to be bad, harmful to the individual or society in order to not be true". But most anti-religion arguments do stress the bad aspects of religion in gneraral or a particular belief system as reasons for believing in its falsity. About half The God Delusion is made up of arguments of this kind.Maybe you didn't mean to accuse Dawkins of making a basic mistake but that is how it looked to me and I really can't find any other way to interpret your words.

The Heresiarch said...

To repeat:

You don't read very carefully, do you Woolly? What I said was that, for atheist arguments like his, the "truth" question and the "ethics" question tend to be equally stressed. This led me to suppose that there was a closer connection between the two than might appear obvious from strict logic.

What I am saying is that "religion is bad" arguments are, implicitly, used in the same way as "religion is false" arguments. "Reason to believe in its falsity" does not mean "reason why it is false" does it?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Heresiarch said...

Woolly asks: Why should religions have beneficial effects to anything but themselves?

Because human beings aren't mere robots, and human societies aren't purely mechanical either. It stands to reason, I think, that a religion that did not have at least some beneficial effects (eg promoting social cohesion) would be rejected by the "host organism". Religions succeed by "colonising" a number of different human attributes (co-operation, altruism, a desire to connect with others, hierarchical instincts, the mystical sense) and binding them together.And religions appear to have evolved mechanisms for overcoming the defences of the host organism. Rather like parasites such as tapeworms for one example.

Asking why humans haven't evolved intellectual defences for religion is like asking why they haven't evolved defences for the common cold. The answer is that they have, most of us don't have a cold most of the time. In the same way most of us don't think or act religiously most of the time.

Or you can view it as an ongoing arms race. We evolve reason and philosophy so religion counters with theology. We evolve science and learning so religion evolves creationism. We evolve debate and criticism so religion responds by evolving the response that it must be uniquely exempt from discussion.

Imagine if the rather silly social more that it is rude to doubt or question a clearly false religious claim were applied elsewhere in life. Years ago some friends came to dinner very excited about a business proposal they intended to engage with, put money into and pursue instead of their jobs. To me it sounded like an obvious pyramid selling scheme and they would lose their shirts on it. As a friend I pointed out to them the problems and that it was a false prospectus. Soon afterwards many people lost money as the whole thing collapsed.

But religious people would say that I was wrong to deny them their false hope of easy riches. They would say I didn't respect their beliefs in the scam and that I should have kept quiet and watched them ruin their lives for a lie.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

A simple "I was wrong about the God Delusion" would suffice. I don't enjoy watching you dig yourself deeper into the hole.

The Heresiarch said...

Which hole would that be? The only hole I can see from here is the large one that you are occupying. I have explained what I meant. If you think I'm wrong about what I meant, rather than about what you wrongly thought I meant, please explain how.

You make some fine points - though I think creationism (in the wider sense) came a long time before scientific explanations for life. Also, you say that most people aren't religious "most of the time". In many parts of the world, I think you'll find that they are. The idea that religion is a specific area of thought or activity is a modern western one. At most times and places, the whole of life has been suffused with religious experience and explanations.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I would agree that the God Delusion is not a book of philosophy. Dawkins seems to have been aiming at a mass market and so cannot confine himself to purely philosophical arguments. He is probably right to attack the "Religion is good therefore God Exists" fallacy far more than it deserves in philosophical terms because it is widely believed by the general population. Christopher Hitchens is even more polemical and less philosophical as one might expect. This does not make them wrong as such, just not examplars of philosophical excellence. If that's what you want then try Grayling or Dennett.

Horses for courses. If you want action and plot then don't pick up a Salman Rushdie novel. Similarly don't complain that the latest Harry Potter has too much nonsense about magic in it!

Chris said...

To parody Mrs Beaton: First, define your God..."In a way, Darwin discovered God - a God that failed to match the preconceptions of theology, and so passed unheralded. If Darwin had discovered that life was created by an intelligent agent - a bodiless mind that loves us, and will smite us with lightning if we dare say otherwise - people would have said "My gosh! That's God!"

But instead Darwin discovered a strange alien God - not comfortably "ineffable", but really genuinely different from us. Evolution is not a God, but if it were, it wouldn't be Jehovah. It would be H. P. Lovecraft's Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.

Which you might have predicted, if you had really looked at Nature."
-- Eliezer Yudkowsky

Matt said...

The Heresiarch:

"...there is some objective sense in which "Is there a God?" is a question that in principle has an answer, even if it is impossible, in this world at least, to resolve.

But atheists, at least the celebrity atheists and a high proportion of those committed to atheism, aren't satisfied with that. They want to go further, to argue that religion has harmful consequences."

Atheism cannot be proved or disproved, so is therefore just a belief, as is theism, which is compleletly distinct from religion.

Each position, when held to be fact rather than opinion - is equally untenable, but are only mistakes of a logical kind.

Religion however is nonsense in a whole host of other ways. The most fundamental is the central fallacy that the believer has some knowledge about the nature of the deity, even though the deity is inaccessible. If it were not then theism could be proved.

After that there a million and one ways in which religious beliefs can be shown to be bunkem, but the question of whether God is good is subject to the central fallacy. It is a non-question, as are therefore all questions about God.

So what is left to argue about - insofar as questions that can actually be answered because they are not either unknowable or non-questions, are +only+ those regarding the effects of religion on the world.

That's a complicated and interesting subject, but has nothing to do with the existence of God. It's time the two subjects were seperated.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Matt said...

Atheism cannot be proved or disproved, so is therefore just a belief, as is theism, which is compleletly distinct from religion.Its not what can or cannot be proven absolutely as true but what can absolutely be proven to be a reasonable belief and what can be proven to be an unreasonable belief.

Atheism could be disproven if God actually existed, it is a falsifiable proposition. In much the same way evolution, which you might call a 'belief', could also be disproven if some anomalous evidence such as a pre-Cambrian rabbit fossil were discovered.

There being no reason at all to believe in the existence of God and plenty of reasons to doubt its existence there is no doubt that religion is a thoroughly unreasonable belief while atheism is a perfectly reasonable one. Reasonable is not the same as right of course, many conspiracy theories sound quite reasonable but they all turn out to be false. The Aether was a resonable concept but it turned out to not exist.

valdemar squelch said...

Religion arguably exists because it binds people together in a way that transcends common sense. This might confer a survival advantage on Tribe A over Tribe B - if, say, you believe you're going to heaven by killing as many of Tribe B as possible, regardless of personal safety, or indeed whether they are defenceless old folk, women and children. Comes the Enlightenment, and religion's irrational nature is exposed. What to do? Lie. Firstly and especially to yourself. Nietzsche called this Catholic trait 'the prolonged suicide of reason'.

Intellectual dishonesty is a defining characteristic of religion in the modern West. I notice the new Top Catholic thinks the Irish abusers are 'courageous'. He presumably includes the Christian Brothers who successfully sued the commmission on the Industrial Schools to ensure they would not be named. Courageous? Only if you can't grasp simple truth as most people experience it. Religion, at this level, seems to me a barely-controlled form of insanity.

Matt said...

WML,

Given that i) in almost all certainty the properties ascribed to a deity by all religions are fictitious, and ii) there is no evidence of a deity's interference in the universe, or reason to suppose a such a deity +should+ interfere with the universe, surely the only valid property of a deity that needs to be considered for it's existence, is that of it's being creator of the universe.

If you disagree with the above and are describing God as per some religious tradition, then I totally agree that non-belief is by far the more reasonable position.

However, if you can accept the above, I'd argue that the odds are 50/50, as the only evidence we have is the existence of the universe itself, and the knowledge that any deity must by necessity be outside of that universe, and therefore beyond the reach of our scientific understanding.

"Atheism could be disproven if God actually existed, it is a falsifiable proposition."

Not if God is a universe-external non-interfering creator as described above.

... but personally, I doubt any deity exists at all, hence the T-Shirt I'm wearing today which says "I Am God".

*grin*

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

In the absence of any convincing evidence one way or the other we can speculate about all sorts of Darwinian Evolutionary reasons why religion has prospered and spread. I don't think that we need to invoke 'jihad' or 'crusade' though. I think it is Jared Diamond who observes in Guns, Germs & Steel how religion seems to be characteristic of large groups of people since it helped to justify the kleptocracy. Because people surrendered resources to the priest-king then that meant there could be a leisure class of rulers, administrators which made it possible for that society to grow in numbers.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Matt, you are making unexamined assumptions about what it is possible to infer from observation. It might for instance be possible to infer the existence of other universes from the cosmic microwave background radiation. I'm not nearly clever enough to predict what science might achieve over the next few billion years, or maybe just clever enough to not fool myself into thinking that I could make any such prediction.

Given that the best current explanation of the universe involves it starting from a point of complete entropy it is impossible for any information to have passed through from the outside. So if some entity did intentionally cause our universe to come into existence it cannot have had any input into how it developed or communicate with us or observe us in any way. That does not make it a 'Creator' in any interesting sense of the word.

Such an entity need not be any supernatural being but could simply be an intelligence that had evolved and grown over time. However for all intents and purposes it does not exist for us. Its possible existence is a mildly (at best) interesting abstract intellectual notion of no relevance to our lives.

Given the lack of any data points you cannot sensibly ascribe any odds to your proposition. If you think you can justify your 50:50 then by all means do so but I doubt you can. I would like to see your sample sets of Universes and Creators ....

indigomyth said...

//There ought, logically, to be a fourth belief-position: that God exists, but is a complete bastard. There would seem to be abundant evidence for such a belief.//

I think this is the root of Satanism, or at least the logical justification for it.

WeepingCross said...

"There ought, logically, to be a fourth belief-position: that God exists, but is a complete bastard."

Byron seems to have held to something similar:

'Look the omnipotent tyrant in his everlasting face, and tell him his evil is not good' -

- as His Lordship put it in 'Cain'. You might argue that, for God to be God, whatever his will was would necessarily be Good, and that 'goodness' can't exist as a separate category. Most theodicy, it seems to me, is an attempt to avoid that conclusion and align humanistic definitions of Goodness with what we might deduce we can know about God: but there is seldom a perfect fit. A God who was not good wouldn't be a God worth believing in, and in fact human self-regard might require active rebellion against such a deity; the Luciferian position.

The Christian understanding is that we know God is good because of his self-revelation in this little Galilean carpenter. Theologians had always attempted to read off information about God from the world itself, but those never carried complete conviction, and, as we've come to know more about evolution and whatnot, they've come to look more and more threadbare, so the Galilean has to carry accordingly more weight. This leads back to the remarks that have been made (by Matt and Woolly) about God being outside the universe and therefore unknowable by anyone inside it. I must say this sounds awfully like a fifth-form debating society point which has never gone examined. What is to prevent a God, should there be one, from making as much known about himself as he thought his creation ought to know? Admittedly, there is an ambiguity here in that those who concluded Jesus was God would necessarily already have had some ideas about what God was like in order to draw the conclusion.

Woolly: "the best current explanation of the universe involves it starting from a point of complete entropy"

I'm not a scientist, but isn't entropy a situation of increasing disorder within a system? Could you explain?

"Religion, at this level, seems to me a barely-controlled form of insanity."

Valdemar, sometimes you are not alone.

The Heresiarch said...

Father W: Thank you for that heavyweight contribution.

What is to prevent a God, should there be one, from making as much known about himself as he thought his creation ought to know?

That rather is the question, though, isn't it? There's a widespread theory that God wrote a book, or got others to do so. The trouble is, which book? Presumably you'd have to judge the book on its merits, so that deciding whether or not a particular book was a message from God or not becomes a matter of literary taste. And eventually you have two or more sects waving their books at each other, which once again is a human dispute, and God seems to be playing no part in it.

As for the man from Galilee, the vast majority of the Jews weren't convinced, and presumably they were in the best position to know...

Woolly: "Such an entity need not be any supernatural being but could simply be an intelligence that had evolved and grown over time. "

That comes quite close to my own preferred theory, that the universe we live in was made by someone in another universe who was in possession of a Universe Creating Machine.

Valdemar, the "courageous" comment was pretty extraordinary, even by Catholic standards. The whole affair proves just how dangerous it can be to "respect" religious figures simply because they are religious. Religion's self-image as being the soul of goodness and morality too often gives it the benefit of the doubt.

Matt said...

Correct me if I'm wrong WML, but I think you mean that it started from a point of complete order, with entropy then making it less ordered ever since?

If so, that's wrong. If the universe did start from a point of complete order (i.e. it was completely homogeneous), it would follow that there would never have been the clumpy arrangement of matter we see today.

It's precisely because of the inhomogeneity of the initial conditions that we have all the interesting things in the universe rather than, well, nothing. It's the resulting early disorder of the universe that we see in the CMB you mention.

What could have passed from the outside in a creation scenario, would be those initial conditions - the various constants and ratios, so when you say "So if some entity did intentionally cause our universe to come into existence it cannot have had any input into how it developed or communicate with us or observe us in any way.", I disagree entirely. In a (at least mainly, if not entirely) deterministic universe, the starting conditions are crucial, so if there were a creator, it's input would be far from of "little relevance"

On my 50/50... yeah, I shouldn't really use the term. What I mean is that there is no way of knowing - all bets are off. I've never been fond of probability, in fact I barely believe in it at all!

Matt said...

The Heresiarch: "That comes quite close to my own preferred theory, that the universe we live in was made by someone in another universe who was in possession of a Universe Creating Machine."

Surely it doesn't matter how many universes there are, there still has to be a first one, so who created that? Even if you put them in an infinite closed loop, or an open infinity, who created the entire system? All questions regarding God and creation come down to that impossible paradox: infinity.

My own personal pet theory is a kind of pantheism; that all sapient consciousness forms a universal whole when not trapped in a matter form; a kind of Jungian Universal Consciousness that IS god, and the material universe being just a closed-system expression of that. We are all god, god is everywhere, etc etc.... but I wouldn't propose it as a way of life or a belief system or have any "faith" in it. IMO it would be arrogant and stupid to suppose I know the right answer if any exists.

WeepingCross said...

I was having coffee this morning with 'a prominent Anglican dignitary' who, anent the installation of Archbishop Nichols, recalled seeing photographs of the enthronement of the RC Abp of Dublin in the early 1900s. You could tell what these men were like from their faces, he said: they were thugs, full of pride and rage and hate, representatives of an institution buttressed by unshakeable self-belief which inevitably presented a God who reflected itself. That was what the culture of violence and silence came out of, and the pattern of their religion did nothing to erode it: far from it, it facilitated it. Forget questions of philosophy and history: the wickedness of Christians is atheism's strongest suit. If the God we say we believe in were real, we shouldn't be quite such shits quite so much of the time, should we?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Matt said.. Correct me if I'm wrong WML, but I think you mean that it started from a point of complete order, with entropy then making it less ordered ever since?You're wrong. The Universe starts from complete disorder, no information at all.

If so, that's wrong. If the universe did start from a point of complete order (i.e. it was completely homogeneous), it would follow that there would never have been the clumpy arrangement of matter we see today. Its expanded since it started and is continuing to expand, this is how there can be pockets of temporary order that we like to call Galaxies but the total entropy is still increasing.

WeepingCross said...

WML: I still don't understand this. How can the universe have started from a point of 'complete entropy' if 'total entropy is still increasing'? I know it's not relevant to the main point, but I'm baffled by this usage of a word I thought I was familiar with.

Heresiarch: 'The trouble is, which book?' The relationship is more complex than that. When I read the Christian scriptures, I have a strong sense of a voice speaking through them, and I understand that Jews and Muslims, or at least some of them, also experience the texts as sacramental - signs that mediate God's presence. Historically, behind each text is an experience of an encounter with God, and what's at question is less the validity of the text than the validity of that encounter. I don't make any great claims for the Bible's literary quality at all, though a number of congratulatory self-reviews are written into the Koran.

Some religious traditions aren't focused on texts at all, of course, such as Shinto or Graeco-Roman paganism (which I have a soft spot for, having a friend who is almost excessively devoted to the Divine Emperor Claudius).

As for the Jews, their experience is rather paradoxical, I suggest both for Christians and atheists. We would want to claim that Jesus recontextualises the violent bits of the Old Testament, but the Jews, with only the O.T. to go on, became, once deprived of statehood, a pacific, gentle and passive people who failed to respond violently to centuries of being kicked around by everyone else. The paradox for atheists is that the Jews only became belligerent nationalists once they were detached from a religious identity - Zionism is a largely secular phenomenon, at least in its origins.

The Heresiarch said...

WC: "When I read the Christian scriptures, I have a strong sense of a voice speaking through them".

A single voice? I've read some of Paul's writings, and I certainly have a sense of Paul as a particular personality. But it has nothing whatever in common with the voice in John's Gospel. As for the Old Testament, is there a voice "speaking through" a work like Leviticus? Surely it's just a collection of folklore and bizarre ancient laws? There may be a unified voice in the Koran, but that's one book.

Matt said...

WML: "You're wrong. The Universe starts from complete disorder, no information at all."

How is no information "complete disorder"?

And if you consider the the universe started ex nihilo, how do you explain it's existance without a creator? I would have have thought you'd be the first to say teh opposite, that is started at a singularity with all the information contained therein, which is current scientific theory.

"Its expanded since it started and is continuing to expand, this is how there can be pockets of temporary order that we like to call Galaxies but the total entropy is still increasing."

That's true, but without a degree of variation in the initial starting conditions, the seeds would not have been sown for the large variations we se today:

"About 300,000 years after the Big Bang... The distribution of this material was very close to, but not quite, uniform. These slight over- and under-densities were observed for the first time by the COBE satellite"

http://www.astro.utu.fi/~cflynn/Stars/l1.html

That's what we see in the CMB, and it's those variations that led to matter clumping into stars, galaxies etc.

And the reason there were those "slight over- and under-densities" is that the starting conditions must not have been prefectly symetrical.

Matt said...

WC: Considering how many conflicting religious beliefs and religious texts there must have been during the course of human history, how do you - any any other religious person - reconcile that with the belief that the particular one you ascrbe to (because you happened to be born in a certain place at a certain time) is the correct one?

And if you say that it only comes down to subjective feeling about what you are reading, how do you reconcile the fact that human feelings are so often shown to be wrong, with placing such faith in those feelings?

Sorry, but I really don't understand how intelligent and learned people - of which there are significant minority who are religious - can reconcile their beliefs with their knowledge. I can honestly only put it down to psychology.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Stuff pops up into existence from nowhere all the time, look up the Casimir Effect on wikipedia. Its not the same as the Universe but it does show that no supernatural element is necessarily required.

Positing a creator does not explain anything, that argument was regarded as old and discredited in the time of Bertrand Russell. To hear it being regurgitated now is frankly embarrasing. Google for "Turtles all the way down" if you're one of those about 100 years behind the times.

The question of why the Universe is not symmetrical but is clumped is a vexed one. Why did matter win out over anti-matter? Why are left-handed molecules vastly more prevelant than right-handed ones. We don't know as yet and it will be a lot of fun finding out.

WeepingCross said...

Heresiarch: I have to be very precise about this, yet it’s not easy to be. You’re absolutely right in pointing to the differences between the authorial voices, in literary-critical terms, of the New Testament writers, and the varieties of genre and structure which can be found throughout the Christian scriptures – which I find is part of what makes them exciting on a purely intellectual level. That’s been the model for my engagement with them, for most of the time I’ve bothered to do so. But now I find there’s something different involved in my dealings with the texts I am, professionally, supposed to interpret and expound. It is a sense of being addressed in a way which is exactly not the ‘authorial voice’, but which comes from behind that voice. It’s especially strong when I read the Gospel narratives, which, after all, are supposed to record the direct utterances of Jesus. That’s why, as you will know, the public reading of the Gospels is privileged liturgically with processions, candles and incense, and the other texts aren’t. But it isn’t entirely absent from the reading or recitation of the other texts; in those cases, there is more sense of the mediating human voice, which is sometimes that of a whole people rather than an individual. And I can put it no more concretely than that, adding that I now understand what the liturgical declaration ‘this is the word of the Lord’ actually means, whereas once upon a time I found myself thinking, well, is it?

Now, you can analyse this sense of being addressed differently. It could easily be put down to self-hypnosis – that I expect to be addressed in this way, and so have come to experience it. As it's just a subjective experience, I can’t prove it’s not self-hypnosis; it has no evidential value, and I offer it as an aid to understanding and nothing more.

Matt. Many people do give this sort of argument as a reason why they move away from religious belief – ‘they can’t all be right, so how can we know?’ I think this is particularly a problem for people brought up in religious environments who aren’t adequately helped to make the transition from a childish sort of faith to an adult model, but adult converts, as I was, have a narrative of changing ideas which makes that argument irrelevant.

But that doesn’t mean the impetus behind the change has any validity for anyone other than the individual. The subjective experience I described above wouldn’t lead me to change my views in any direction. Not only is it subsequent to my change of heart – long subsequent - but I couldn’t have such an experience unless I had already decided there was a God who was capable of communicating in that way. You are right, it has to rest on more than that – at least if you’re going to build any bridge of understanding between those who believe and those who don’t. In my case it came to a decision over what was historically more likely to have happened to make the friends of the Pale Galilean believe he’d come back from the dead. Now, the answer I arrived at isn’t provable, but it is a position theoretically capable of being falsified and so is not actually irrational, and it is evidential. Nevertheless, you could argue that I only accepted that answer rather than any of the others because of my own intellectual and personal history, and I certainly can’t disprove that. How could I know otherwise?

Blimey, this has become an essay. At least I don’t have a sermon to write.

WeepingCross said...

Woolly. Forgive me, but the observation under certain mathematical analytic models of a non-real force between two surfaces positioned a microscopic distance from each other in a laboratory-created vacuum doesn’t exactly sound to me like ‘stuff popping into existence all the time’. You make it sound as though I might turn around to find a treacle tart sitting on a Chesterfield sofa on the other side of the study. Now that might be fun.

I have problems with quantum mechanics. The article on the Casimir Effect suggests that it only appears when the vacuum between the two plates is analysed according to quantum electrodynamics, and can only be measured in terms of virtual particles – which, as I understand it, don’t really exist but are posited in order to examine certain effects in quantum calculations. It sounds like logical overinflation – the movement from one theoretical deduction to another on the basis of that deduction (another version of ‘turtles all the way down’). After all, the Ptolemaic universe looked perfectly sensible until it collapsed under the weight of all those epicycles and regressions.

Matt said...

WML: I don't disagree with any of that, probably just with some of the terminology you use. Thanks for the link.

WC: You make it sound like a simple did he or didn't he question, but as I see it, even then, your faith relies on all these things:

- Jesus appearing to have risen from the dead, as testified by his friends

- Jesus actually having died

- Jesus being the Son of God as he claimed (did he?), and therefore his teachings are the will of God

- His teachings have been faithfully transcribed, translated, and filtered to their present form intact

Would you agree? And even then, that surely covers only four books of the scripture that actually deal with his words, what does his rising from the dead and word being the word of god have to do with what was written in all the other books? Why would you have faith in any of that?

It seems a long way to leap from the quite few words that are actually supposed to have come from Jesus, to the expansive doctrines of the Christian religion(s).

McDuff said...

WML:In the same way most of us don't think or act religiously most of the time..

I'd say this was the opposite of true. Reason and rationality is the exceptional state, not the low-energy pattern-recognition mode that fits everything into the box our chimp-brain finds easiest to comprehend.

"Religion" isn't any one thing as much as an arbitrarily codified cross-section of character traits, some of them more-neurological, others more socially inscribed. We like people to like us, we like being right, we like being strong. We have trouble when things happen and nobody caused them and we anthropomorphise the shiznit out of everything we have even the vaguest emotional relationship with. The western intellectual tradition of drawing a clean bright line between religions and the secular state is almost unique to us, and is neither a natural phenomenon nor an especially logical one. Our historical regressions to nationalist outpourings of passion show the limitations of Enlightenment thinking in actually changing the hard-wiring of our circuitry. There's no real logical difference between worshipping the concept of England and the concept of Roman Catholic Church - the social institutions shouldn't need the mythological fantasies but, somehow, they don't work as well without them.

Positing that there's a religious impulse that's as much a part of humanity as our sex drive doesn't mean that any of the religions we've made up are correct, though. It just offers an explanation as to why they're around.

WeepingCross said...

Matt, yes, I was keeping things simple in order not to bore too many people, including myself (I’m conscious that Heresy Corner is not really about theology). I now think the matter is not quite as straightforward as it seemed when I converted, but the essential decision remains unchanged. You are right in all your statement of the assertions I had to assent to in the course of changing my mind, though the order was the last, the second, the first, and the third. What happened was, to summarise, that I ceased to be convinced by the counter-arguments to all those assertions.

As to your second point, Jesus positions (is represented as positioning) himself within the tradition embodied in those other texts, to which he alludes and from which he quotes. The other early Christian writings interpret Jesus’s life by continual reference back to the Old Testament, so his followers must have recognised him not as revealing some new and previously-unknown God, but the one they’d known about before – even if in a strikingly different mode.

Yes, it is a long way from the one point to the other, which is what allows people to draw such widely varying conclusions from the same statements; but it involves accepting the truth that you hint at, that there is a strange emptiness at the heart of Christianity - that the closer you get to 'the historical Jesus', the less you can really say, and that the texts, which are all we have to go on, were already the product of a tradition as soon as they were written.

Gig said...

Speaking as an unashamed atheist, surely it all boils down to the fact that the theists (priests/imams etc.) pretend to KNOW the will of something/somebody that they cannot possibly EVER have actually had contact with?

Whether there is a god or not; whether she is good/bad; whether I shall survive after death etc. all fades to a meaningless background noise when compared to the staggering fact that for thousands of years religious authority figures have been selling something they do not own and promising something they are not qualified to deliver.

And since so few come back after death to sue them, they keep getting away with it.

Selling the Golden Gate bridge is illegal, seems nobody is interested in applying the same laws to selling the pearly gates?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Hi Weeping Cross. Thanks for reminding us of the overwheening arrogance ignorance that the deluded use to trump science and reason.

You don't like the implications of what science has proven so therefore you doubt the science. Well you have that right in a free country, nobody can force you to be sane after all.

WeepingCross said...

On the contrary, I was interested in your statement about 'things popping into existence all the time' and so followed it up, and concluded that your characterisation of the Casimir Effect was somewhat exaggerated. As you said originally, it actually 'proves' nothing. As for quantum physics, my only point was that once you reach the stage of inventing non-existent particles in order to examine phenomena which only exist under certain analytical models, it starts to seem a bit fishy to a layperson. Do you see what I'm getting at? I'm certainly ignorant about the details of quantum theory, but perhaps the scientists should explain themselves better.

Which things that you think 'science has proven' do you think I don't like?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The scientists have explained themselves very clearly and precisely. If you continue to stick your fingers in your ears and sing "La-La-La I'm not listening!" then that is your problem and not theirs. To quote Mark 4:9 "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."

The scientific method has proven itself far beyond all reasonable doubt. The list of miraculous achievements is so long I'm not even going to attempt to do more than scatch the surface with - Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, letting the blind see, the deaf hear and uncovering the origins of life itself.

Clearly that is not enough for you and instead you cling to some weird apocalyptic death cult that has not delivered on any of its promises or claims. Your right in a free society of course, but hardly sensible.

The Casimir Effect proves what it proves, the stuff just pops into existence from nowhere. It doesn't explain the Universe, that is a work in progress, but add in observations like that the total energy and mass in the Universe adds up to zero and we have interesting clues to a natural materialistic scientific explanation. There are by contrast no clues that point to a supernatural origin or cause.

WeepingCross said...

Woolly, it seems you think I think in a very different way from the way I do think.

My point about the Casimir Effect was that your characterisation of it was exaggerated. When you mentioned it I thought 'that sounds interesting' and expected to discover evidence of matter spontaneously coming into existence - a galaxy, planet, or at least a Scottish village that only appears every two hundred years. What I discovered was a miniscule force that's only observable by quantum calculations and only under artificial laboratory conditions. It is precisely not 'stuff' as anyone might normally understand it. I don't think you should leap on it as demonstrating a material explanation for the universe's existence.

In any case, you should surely be aware that my belief in Christianity rests on other grounds than assuming the logical necessity for a creator: I've talked about it enough here. I'm quite happy with the proposition that the existence universe can be explained by material means alone. That's not the point.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

WeepingCross said... I'm quite happy with the proposition that the existence universe can be explained by material means alone. That's not the point.

Not that you have much choice, Christians long ago accomodated the rather obvious fact that their religion was based on a lie and that Jesus wasn't coming back. Its no surprise that, mostly, they've since taken the discovery that god didn't create man in their stride. There are a few pesky nutters in the USA who insist in believing in God but all respectable ones clearly don't. They even put lightning conductors on their buildings just to prove to the world that they don't actually believe God exists or has anything to do with physical events.

So I'm not surprised you can accept that God didn't even create the Universe. Its just a small step after all the other atheistic beliefs that Christianity has absorbed down the centuries. Doubtless it will accomodate many more, the list is long already.

Most Christians have accepted that God doesn't cause disease or cure it. Demon spirits of the air don't really possess people. There is no Heaven above us, just sky and then the vacuum of space. No Hell below us either.

And of course most Christians happily agree that God was wrong about slavery, pensions, commerce, divorce, homosexuality and a whole host of things - silly old god eh?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Casimir Effect for anyone not able to access wikipedia for themselves proves that the Universe can temporarily ignore e = mc^2 +p^2c^2. The Universe could potentially be something like the everyday virtual-particles that cause the Casimir Effect. The terms "real particle" and "virtual particle" are rather misleading.

Oh go read wikipedia yourselves or call in on Physics Forum. I've got work to do.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said...
I'd say this was the opposite of true. Reason and rationality is the exceptional state, not the low-energy pattern-recognition mode that fits everything into the box our chimp-brain finds easiest to comprehend..

Please remember that religion is not the only form of irrationality and unreasonable behaviour in humans; there is spite, envy, bigotry, racism, homophobia, misogyny, greed, masochism, sadism, fear, ignorance as well. I admit that these are characteristic of religions like Christianity but let's not get fixated on that.

Animals can behave superstitiously too, this is well documented in birds and various mammals not just great apes like humans. As a computer programmer I'm quite used to looking for the rational reasons behind apparently irrational and unexpected behaviour so I often see this with pets or young children. They seem to have the laser-beam intelligence that works well on solving some problems but because they lack a wider context of extra information it lets them down. If you can imagine the restricted information available to the toddler or the cat then their behaviour often makes perfect sense.

We are all prone to irrationality, superstition, belief in luck and explaining away incovenient data. It would take superhuman self-discipline to not do so which is why we all need the checks and balances of peer-review, debate as well as the habits of regularly checking our own assumptions and motives.

WeepingCross said...

Woolly: "So I'm not surprised you can accept that God didn't even create the Universe."

Sorry, I was expressing myself imprecisely. I should have said something like 'The availability of a material explanation for the existence of the universe has no necessary bearing on the existence of a creator God' - which is why I don't think you should rely so heavily on the Casimir phenomenon, quite apart from the fact that we don't actually perceive Stuff with a capital S constantly flicking into existence ex nihilo. I suppose you could argue that it does so, but that we don't yet have the means to perceive it.

I don't want you to have illusions about what Christians believe: although you are right to point out that naturalistic ways of thinking have largely displaced supernatural ones (although the contrast is by no means as complete as you think), belief remains because it didn't rely on that supernaturalism. I thought it was fairly clear that I believe in God, and I can think of only a handful of people who are part of our congregation yet claim not to. I mention it because your view of things is what I used to think, too.

"we all need the checks and balances of peer-review, debate as well as the habits of regularly checking our own assumptions and motives"

Absolutely right, if only everyone did so.

McDuff said...

WML.

Well, yes, but - and I say this as someone who's rather enamoured of Dawkins' - I think you're making the fundamental mistake that Dawkins and other western atheists make when talking about religion. You're making a Church of England Atheism argument.

"Religion" is a huge grab-bag of concepts, not all of which would be intuitively related were they not all collected in a church building, not all of which are related in the same way in all cultures. Things like group identities, spiritual beliefs, conceptions of natural justice, philosophical understanding of the world and our place in it, our desire for ceremony and structure are all part and parcel of what we call religion here but it's a very western conception of the world. Pantheism and tribal animism are "religions" too but the objections to them are quite different to the objections to the standard monotheistic religions. Even monotheisms like Islam and Christianity don't occupy entirely the same headspace in their followers. Meanwhile, there are other irrationalities like, say, football fandom, conspiracy theories, nationalism and homeopathy which aren't religions not because they don't use the same sociological or neurological spaces in our brains that religions do but because we have decided as a society that the arbitrary boundaries exclude those behaviours. When you break it down into its components nationalism is western religion with an idealised and transcendent nation state taking the place of an unseen creator deity.

We are as a species irrational. Your particular beef with religion is noted but it has to be said that people would not become naturally rational if the churches suddenly evaporated tomorrow. Rather, the drives, tics and impulses which sent them to church would simply find new frameworks to get hung on.

Moreover, there are good reasons to say that dictating rationality as the sole mode of thought for all people at all times is a mug's game. As I said it's a higher energy state, it uses more of people's brainspace that they would in most cases rather use for other things or not use at all, just like most people would rather catch the train from Edinburgh to London than walk it. Indeed, your point about animal superstitions points to a similar conclusion. And what's the difference between a superstition and a religion anyway?

Telling people they should submit every thought and social interaction to something similar to the scientific method is dumb for two reasons. One, it's inappropriate for propositions that don't lend themselves easily to scientific formulations, which is a lot fewer things than those with a natural science or engineering turn of mind (such as myself) might think, and two, they're not going to listen to you.

Religion is both too big, too pervasive and most importantly too indistinct a category to be effectively railed against.

McDuff said...

'The availability of a material explanation for the existence of the universe has no necessary bearing on the existence of a creator God'.

Although it does render a creator God unnecessary. Which is no reason for you not to believe in it, and credit to you for acknowledging that fact, but even you have to admit it's an interesting and complicated little tapdance you're performing here.

Personally, I find the existence or non-existence of any given deity to be one of the dullest discussion topics with regards to religion. This is mostly because we can grant every argument about His or Her existence entirely and without equivocation and it still, amazingly, gets us no further towards solving the question about whether I should be a Shiite Muslim or a Roman Catholic. Which is, after all, what all the bickering is really about.

If anything, granting the explicit existence of God seems only to confirm his or its absolute irrelevance to religion. You might as well say the Bible was written by the Casmir effect for all the material difference it would make to the ceremonial life of your average Anglican.

WeepingCross said...

"even you have to admit it's an interesting and complicated little tapdance you're performing here"

Oy, tell me about it already.

"I find the existence or non-existence of any given deity to be one of the dullest discussion topics with regards to religion"

I'll tell you a secret: this is why I try not to talk about it.

"the Bible was written by the Casmir effect"

Who told you the plot of Dan Brown's latest book?

Never going to be a bishop now.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said...WML.

Well, yes, but - and I say this as someone who's rather enamoured of Dawkins' - I think you're making the fundamental mistake that Dawkins and other western atheists make when talking about religion. You're making a Church of England Atheism argument.
I think you are confusing who are we arguing against with what we are arguing about. Like Dawkins I mostly get Protest Christians to debate with so debates about religion generally touch on that. We make the arguments for the audience after all. I could write pages about the non-existence of the Flying Pink Unicorn for example but since nobody takes her seriously it would be rather a waste of time.

If I only came up against believers in the great god Atum then we'd have long Atumist debates and doubtless you'd accuse me of conflating religion with arguments over whether Atum really did create the world in an deeply moving and spiritual act of oral auto-fellatio.

I actually disbelieve in Thor and the Duke of Edinburgh too you know. Its just that we don't get many Vikings or Tuvalans on here.

Belief in 'Jesus' or 'Allah' is just as silly as belief in the Flying Pink Unicorn. Or just as worthy of respect to put it another way.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said...We are as a species irrational. Your particular beef with religion is noted but it has to be said that people would not become naturally rational if the churches suddenly evaporated tomorrow. Rather, the drives, tics and impulses which sent them to church would simply find new frameworks to get hung on..

And if we cured HIV tomorrow then the ungrateful wretches would only find some other way of getting sick and dying so let's not bother then. After all, we eradicated smallpox yet they still insist on getting cancer.

Religion is just one illness we need to cure, or make harmless and find a way of living with like rhinoviruses perhaps. There are plenty of others like belief in Homeopathy or Fascism.

One thing at a time. As the saying goes you eat an elephant one spoonful at a time.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

WeepingCross said...
Sorry, I was expressing myself imprecisely. I should have said something like 'The availability of a material explanation for the existence of the universe has no necessary bearing on the existence of a creator God' Well it certainly should have a profound bearing on belief in a supernatural creator. You've heard of Occam's Razor I hope,

I am under no illusions here as to what debate can achieve. You did not reason your way into religious belief and so there is no way to reason you out of it. But like a cat sharpening her claws on a scratching post I like to make sure mine are still sharp. Thanks for letting me scratch at you!

McDuff said...

And if we cured HIV tomorrow then the ungrateful wretches would only find some other way of getting sick and dying so let's not bother then. After all, we eradicated smallpox yet they still insist on getting cancer.

Religion is just one illness we need to cure, or make harmless and find a way of living with like rhinoviruses perhaps. There are plenty of others like belief in Homeopathy or Fascism.
.

But you miss my point. "Religion" is so big and so all encompassing that it covers much that makes us human. You are not talking about curing HIV, you're talking about "curing" the state of being a multicellular life form. One of the downsides of that is, yes, susceptibility to viruses. And, yes, it's possible to postulate different modes of existence. But there are certain limitations to what we can hope to "cure" without radically changing what it means to be human.

Religion is a natural outgrowth of the way in which we construct our sense of self. We don't come by our personalities by reason and we don't construct our social networks via the scientific method. We rely on stories, peer pressure, shifting clouds of perceptions, a whole stack of nonsense really. Out of that it's absolutely to be expected that we'd come up with animism and roman catholicism as well.

This is not to say that we shouldn't challenge notions that offend or damage. But attacking religion because it's irrational is like attacking cancer because it's carbon-based. The target might be right, but if you've only got a sawn-off shotgun you'll hit an awful lot you don't need to.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... But you miss my point. "Religion" is so big and so all encompassing that it covers much that makes us human.War is even bigger and even more all encompassing of what makes us human. We have not yet rid the world of it but in most of the world it is now peace that is the default state for the first time in human history. War used to be what defined us, it was the be-all and end-all of societies and countries. Everything in life was structured to support and sustain war, from boyhood males were groomed to become warriors. We have fundementally changed the idea of what it is to be human by marginalising war and trying to rid ourselves of it.


If we can do it for war then we can do it for religion too, far more easily too I believe. And there is no doubt that we should try to rid the world of both. It is possible and desirable.


You are not talking about curing HIV, you're talking about "curing" the state of being a multicellular life form.

You exaggerate wildly. My cat is not religious in the slightest. Nor am I. It is quite possible to be a multicellular and not religious.

McDuff said...

Being irrational is not an intrinsic part of being multicellular, but it is an intrinsic part of being a human being. In any event, you have no evidence whatsoever that your cat is not religious. I do not know that they are, but it wouldn't surprise me, especially with the time the species has spent around humans.

You may not be religious, but religion, as I keep saying, is only a meaningful distinction between irrationalities from a purely archaic point of view. From a neurological or sociological point of view it is merely a collection of irrational instinctual behaviours which happen to sometimes fall into the general fuzzy set marked "religion" and equally sometimes do not. Comparisons with war are foolish because war is a much more restricted set of human behaviours. Indeed, everything within the war set can sometimes be included in the religion set, and again, sometimes not.

Also included within the religion set are many behaviours which are generally perceived to be good things. Now, it is not necessary to be a part of an organised religious structure to think that giving money to the poor, for example, is a good thing. But similarly you can't say that giving money to the poor is always and forever an act without a religious component. Indeed, in some cultural contexts the acts drip with spiritual symbolism. Even in cultures where the act of giving to the poor is not so ingrained into a particular religion, there is still a wide range or motivation and, I am afraid to say, the strict rationalist atheists who will tell you all about enlightened self-interest remain in a minority. Even those who do not subscribe to any religion's newsletter, for the most part, do good things because of a belief in something like "goodness" or "justice" or, heaven forfend, "morality", or some other made up, transcendent concept that they don't really care to understand much beyond its use as a generic motivation to behave in a more socially lubricated manner. "Because it is the right thing to do" is not necessarily any more rational a reason than "because God told me to. It might be if "right" has certain rational tracks leading to it, but for most people "right" is a hodge-podge collection of social mores and prejudices that they absorbed rather than created themselves. It does the same job in the same set of non-rational behaviours that "god" does in the more religious.

Again, the necessary point. Some religious behaviours may well be bad, and because they are religious they are necessarily irrational, but they are not bad because they are irrational, but because they are harmful. And all irrationalities are not harmful.

The Heresiarch said...

McDuff: In any event, you have no evidence whatsoever that your cat is not religious. I do not know that they are, but it wouldn't surprise me, especially with the time the species has spent around humans.

Dogs believe in a higher power, certainly, but I'm pretty sure cats are atheists.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... Being irrational is not an intrinsic part of being multicellular, but it is an intrinsic part of being a human being. In any event, you have no evidence whatsoever that your cat is not religious.

I have never seen the cat in church. Cats don't torment other cats over trivial differences so I'm certain they aren't religious.

I think your definition of 'religion' is far too broad as it would seem to include many things including going to football. I don't think that supporting ITFC is really a religion although it has all the elements of one, many of the bad as well as the good.

I've traded in belief in a magical Sky Pixie for belief in playing a pass & move game rather than the despised "head tennis" practised by teams such as Wigan or Bolton and being better than Norwich. Its a collective group thing, a culture thing, there is singing and ritual, there is charity work and being rude about others so it certainly has a lot in common with going to church I suppose but I wouldn't call it religion.

You have confused morals and ethics with religion. They are certainly something religion has latched onto and would like to persuade people that they have a monopoly on but in reality they are human concerns that predate religion and outlast it. Claiming them for religion would be like claiming the invention of fire or buildings for religion.

God does not actually do any job whatsoever. People learn their ethics, morals and instinctual behaviours from their parents and their wider society. Assuming you weren't raised by cats then the chances are it was your Mum & Dad who taught you to not steal, say please and thankyou and so forth. It certainly was not God. And if belief in God made folk into better people then you'd expect a very different prison profile to the one we find.

McDuff said...

I think your definition of 'religion' is far too broad as it would seem to include many things including going to football. I don't think that supporting ITFC is really a religion although it has all the elements of one, many of the bad as well as the good..

Exactly, sir. You don't think it's really a religion, but especially in this country football is a remarkably apposite example of how the objects of a given religious agenda can be considered a fungible commodity. The football teams in various british cities have adapted to their positions at the centre of various warring tribes that used to be marked by differences in religion. You can follow the evolution of tribes like Hearts and Hibs or Rangers and Celtic from religious sects, to religious sects with a football team, to football team with a historical religious affiliation.

As I said to WeepingCross, the existence of God is boring because it's not relevant. You can do religion based on anything, and God is a transferable entity, easily replaced by a football team or a giant ball of yarn. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that God is irrelevant to religion, but if you spend any time studying religion you realise it's true even without observing how easily it can be exchanged with football.

The trouble is, your definition of religion is way too small. You say your cats can't be religious because they don't "bicker over petty differences", as if that's all there is to religion (when, mostly, religious folks don't even do that much except with people who aren't members of their religion!) Then you dispute that because ethics and morality doesn't always have a religious component that it is never a component of religious belief, which is plainly ludicrous. That ethics are not always religious in nature does not mean that they are never religious in nature.

To the extent that cats (or dogs) have nascent personalities, it's highly likely that they have something that resembles an early evolutionary stage of what we would call the religious impulse. In fact, given the commonalities between species, it's weird to think that there wouldn't be some forms of animal religion, rudimentary animism in the case of primates or vast multilayered song-stories of the cetaceans. Unless you're one of these creationist types who thinks humans are somehow more than just clever apes.

And that's the point. Thinking about us as merely clever apes, all this religion stuff just looks like the rest of what we do, which has always been my point. That the only difference between irrational religious hooliganism and irrational football hooliganism is that you don't like God.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The OED defines religion as
• noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

These are three different uses of the same word as is common in English and not three things that are the same. Just because definition 3 applies to football does not make it the same as the thing that is described by definitions 1 or 2.

Consider the word 'field'. An electromagnetic field is not a grassy place with cows in it nor is it a battle or any of the other meanings of field.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... Then you dispute that because ethics and morality doesn't always have a religious component that it is never a component of religious belief, which is plainly ludicrous. That ethics are not always religious in nature does not mean that they are never religious in nature.

Ethics and morality are as much to do with religion as child birth, death, eating and sleeping. These things all happened before religion, would always have happened if religion had never existed and will continue to happen in the happy event that religion did us a favour and went away. They are all essential aspects of being human. Religion is not.

They are to religion what grass is to football. They may be the surface that the game is played upon but they are not owned by the game or particularly much to do with it. Most grass is not a football pitch after all.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... That the only difference between irrational religious hooliganism and irrational football hooliganism is that you don't like God.

God? Which God? There have been untold millions of Gods, how could I possibly dislike a god of which I have never even heard? I don't see any evidence for any of them and the only difference between me and a believer is that I simply apply my reason and rational sceptical thinking to 10,000,000/10,000,000 gods not just 9,999,999/10,000,000.

I freely admit that I don't approve of the idea of the Abrahamic Sky Pixie (a sort of all-seeing invisible Super Daddy) on ethical grounds. But luckily for me there is absolutely no good reason to imagine any such thing exists.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

To the extent that cats (or dogs) have nascent personalities, it's highly likely that they have something that resembles an early evolutionary stage of what we would call the religious impulse.

Not really. They don't have even the most basic culture to pass down from one generation to another. Superstition is the nearest they can get to religion. Religion is just a culture of superstition.

And don't get all teleological with evolution. Homo Sapiens is not 'more' or 'better' evolved than other species or the pinnacle or goal of evolution. Cats and Dogs evolved much more recently than humans anyway, they would have to since we bred them from their wild ancestors.

McDuff said...

Ethics and morality are as much to do with religion as child birth, death, eating and sleeping. These things all happened before religion, would always have happened if religion had never existed and will continue to happen in the happy event that religion did us a favour and went away..

This is a fatally flawed argument. Just because X is not always Y does not mean that Y is not always X. To reiterate, [b]that some entity does not always have a religious component does not mean it is never a component of religion[/b]. I don't think you could find a single thing - not even belief in God (which is to say, a supernatural controlling agency, something we're neurologically biased in favour of assuming the existence of) - that requires what we formulate as religion in order to exist.

If religion "did us all a favour" and went away, it would continue to exist just as childbirth, music, storytelling and dressing up in silly clothes would. We just wouldn't call it religion, but it would still be the same instincts, socialisation techniques and neurological tics, shuffled up and put in a different amusing hat.

McDuff said...

I freely admit that I don't approve of the idea of the Abrahamic Sky Pixie (a sort of all-seeing invisible Super Daddy) on ethical grounds. But luckily for me there is absolutely no good reason to imagine any such thing exists..

But you do believe in the fundamental superiority of "the passing game", and conveniently ignore that what you apologetically describe as the game of football is simply a mutated totem around which various tribes meet to worship idols and occasionally do battle?

And before you point out that "God" does not exist but that Luton FC does exist, allow me to respond that coyotes exist but Coyote the trickster does not. Shadows in the forest and hidden tree roots exist, but an evil spirit lurking in the forest to lead the unwary traveller astray does not. Just because you can point to the physical manifestation of something and say "there's the symbolic entity I was talking about!" does not mean that everything that symbol represents in ceremony or parable is recognisable as a real object. Twenty-two men kicking a ball around a pitch definitely happens, but the cultural event that is "the game of football" requires thousands to gather in one place in a ceremony where they ecstatically will it into existence, often with the help of drugs, and often with a subset from either tribe charging off into battle in a red mist. If football fans ever thought "rationally" about what they were doing they would all get very embarrassed and slink off home, vowing never to talk about it again.

Which isn't, I would suggest, a million miles away from your average church. Bigger, drunker and more prone to random acts of violence. Probably closer to tribalism than the more sophisticated monotheisms. But, y'know, those aren't always good things. Or, well, ever good things.

They don't have even the most basic culture to pass down from one generation to another. Superstition is the nearest they can get to religion. Religion is just a culture of superstition..

Sure, that part would be significantly limited. But it's very likely that they'll still have the neurological pathways to enable them to have spiritual experiences. You can get a cat high, after all. You can make a cat hallucinate. Cats and dogs dream. The capacity to see things that aren't there is alive and kicking. The basic mammalian pattern-recognition circuitry is just as alive and well in us as it was when it was first built to run away from things in the bushes in a creature that's a common ancestor of us and our housecats. It misfires in us all the time and we get the virgin mary in cans of coke and alien abductions. While I don't know exactly what form a cat religion would take, I'd be very surprised if there wasn't anything recognisable as ur-religion there.

Of course, you might dispute that spiritual experiences, visions, hallucinations and the like aren't "religion" because not every dream is religious. Which seems to, again, insist on the question as to whether there is anything you think *is* religion except bickering and belief in God?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Listening to the podcast of 'Start the Week' reminds me of the difference between atheists and the religious; the guest says he has data showing a correlation between thinking more intuitively like children and religiousness while those who think analytically like adults tend to be atheist.

This is a good fit with the observation that succcessful religions praise and encourage those who switch off their critical faculties and, as the Christian strain puts it in Matthew 18:3-4 "And he said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'".

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... But you do believe in the fundamental superiority of "the passing game", and conveniently ignore that what you apologetically describe as the game of football is simply a mutated totem around which various tribes meet to worship idols and occasionally do battle?.

A passing game is certainly more enjoyable to watch than the crude 'head tennis' even if the latter is more successful.

Cats and Dogs have zero culture, not a little culture, but none at all. Zero. Thus they cannot have religion. They can have delusion, superstition, misfiring pattern recognition, an instinct to assign intentionality to inanimate objects and all the other key ingredients of religion but they cannot have religion any more than they can have poetry.

Do you claim that because they can see, taste, feel, vocalise, experience, memorise and learn that they must therefore have poetry? After all, if you think they can do religion then surely you must think that they can do poetry too. If not then perhaps you would care to explain why zero poetry is possible but not zero religion.

McDuff said...

Did he have any data on who was more likely to believe in state propaganda about The War On Terror?

McDuff said...

I don't speak dog, therefore I don't know what dog poetry would be. I imagine it would be an artistic collection of smells, if it existed, but since it's entirely outside my capacity to measure I, personally, am agnostic on the actual existence of dog poetry.

But I think it would be a fascinating topic of study if we ever worked out how to do it.

One of the things about being rational, as opposed to just arrogantly intellectual, is that you become acutely aware of the limits of knowledge and the smallness of human understanding. Dogs might well believe that all the flashing lights and loud noises we make are just us "marking our territory".

I'm not saying dogs are all poets. I'm saying that I can perceive that they could be. Just like I can perceive that they have a spirituality which would be to human spirituality as, well, as the dreamsong is to the Catholic Church, probably.

Don't you ever wonder what whales are singing about?

The Heresiarch said...

McDuff: "Don't you ever wonder what whales are singing about?"

About their desire for sex with other whales, presumably. Or perhaps they think it attracts plankton.

Dogs are pack animals, so it's entirely plausible that they have the inklings of what developed into human religious sensibility. Unlike cats.

McDuff said...

About their desire for sex with other whales, presumably. Or perhaps they think it attracts plankton..

So you think whales are into hip-hop? An intriguing suggestion...

McDuff said...

Dogs are pack animals, so it's entirely plausible that they have the inklings of what developed into human religious sensibility. Unlike cats..

See, that's intriguing, because while I'd say wolves might have a religion, most dogs would probably be stunted in that area, since they now live in an entirely different environment than your average timber wolf. Cats, on the other hand, have rich social lives and so it seems far more likely that pre-domestication ur-religious instincts would be better used.

They have hierarchies and traditions, of sorts. I have no idea whether they have the kind of complex appreciation for storytelling that we do, but then again religious stories are often of the very simplest form anyway.

In any event, as we lack a cat's perspective on such things it's very hard to say. Certainly either of us could be right. But given shared evolutionary history, it seems peculiar to think that we'd be the only species to see ghosts and gods.

The Heresiarch said...

I think you downplay the importance of the evolutionary dynamic. Being a pack animal, dogs (and wolves) are committed to a greater whole. I think one of the primary motivating factors in a religion is that sense of something larger than oneself. Religion is a social activity, in origin, and even private religious experience generally takes the form of feeling part of "something" much larger. So I would argue that religion evolved from an underlying psychological bent towards living in communities. You say that domestic dogs are "stunted" compared with their wild cousins. Perhaps they are, in a sense: they are neotenous. But they still retain most of their pack instincts. In particular, they look to their human family as a pack, and their devotion to their owners might even be considered a form of worship.

Cats are notoriously self-contained, individualistic and focused on what they want. They have no evolutionary history of group dynamics. Perhaps lions are tending that way, but even their pack instincts are less deeply-rooted than those of dogs.

McDuff said...

You wouldn't be the first writer to talk about dogs perceiving their owners as gods.

And I think you're presenting a false dichotomy between "pack" creatures and insular ones. There's more than one kind of pack, and more than one kind of society. Neighbourhood cats have dispersed social networks, but they are complex and can cover wide areas and involve many more interactions than you would get in a more tightly bound pack.

But then, our failures to conceive cat religion because they're not tribal also comes back to the limited ways we westerners conceive of religion. We forget that "religious" experience includes wandering hermits and lone nutter prophets sat on the top of mountains communing with the infinite. Of course cat religion isn't going to take the same form of human religion. But I think you do the other mammals a disservice if you define them simply in terms of being "pack" or "solitary" as if that's all their is to their history.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Heresiarch said... Dogs are pack animals, so it's entirely plausible that they have the inklings of what developed into human religious sensibility. Unlike cats.

Dogs have evolved to live with humans and have several of our traits such as jealousy and a sense of fair play that their wild wolf ancestors simply do not possess, nor indeed do our closest relatives the great apes like chimpanzees. A dog that sees another dog getting a better reward will refuse to cooperate even though that denies it rewards while chimps are more rational in this regard.

The likely explanation is that dogs instinctive understanding of human society and interactions has made them such a highly valued domesticated animal.

Cats seem to rely on being decorative and low maintenance with a side-line in pest control.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... But given shared evolutionary history, it seems peculiar to think that we'd be the only species to see ghosts and gods.

We don't see ghosts or gods, no species does since they simply do not exist. Some people might think they do but these days we know beyond reasonable doubt that they are mistaken.

WeepingCross said...

This has gone way beyond anything I really want to, or feel I can usefully, comment about, except to respond to the Heresiarch that Good Kit Smart would have disagreed profoundly about the religious awareness of the cat:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry-excerpt-jubil/

Of course Kit Smart was quite mad, but that doesn't make him wrong. And Dr Johnson thought he was marvellous. However, even I think he's pushing it a bit.

McDuff said...

WML

You really are frustratingly literal at times. Human beings who are delusional or hallucinating or on drugs or trips see things that aren't there. They actually see them despite the fact that they are not there. Similarly, people see faces in clouds (or in punctuation, if it's the internet) despite the fact that there are, in fact, no faces there. Pointing out that there aren't faces in clouds is about as useful as pointing out that a symbol is not the thing it symbolises or the word "table" is not something you can put a cup of water on. It's entirely missing any semblance of the point.

Your constant reiteration of the dull fact that God does not exist as a literal entity absolutely fails to address the persistence of belief in supernatural entities with agency, be they amorphous like "fate" or "karma" or "destiny," or specific like Jesus or Allah. Simply saying "everyone is wrong! they're wrong wrongity wrong wrong! Mitaken! Perpetuating frauds on themselves!" is a really rather incurious take on a universe lacking an obvious god but awash with belief in it.

Isn't it rather odd, in your model, that human beings can be so irrational about so many things if they're actually rational beings?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

McDuff said... You really are frustratingly literal at times. Human beings who are delusional or hallucinating or on drugs or trips see things that aren't there. They actually see them despite the fact that they are not there. Similarly, people see faces in clouds (or in punctuation, if it's the internet) despite the fact that there are, in fact, no faces there. Pointing out that there aren't faces in clouds is about as useful as pointing out that a symbol is not the thing it symbolises or the word "table" is not something you can put a cup of water on. It's entirely missing any semblance of the point..

You may be right, but from personal experience I know there are times when just knowing that you are experiencing an illusion causes you to stop seeing it and to see the reality.

There is a common visual illusion that affects skiers in the snowy/windy/misty conditions we call a "white out", especially on groomed pistes. To the skier it appears that the ground in moving and he or she is being swept away by it. This can be quite frightening and affects not just novices but experienced skiers.

The experienced skier however does not panic, knowing it is an illusion and that the ground is staying still. And sure enough reality appears to change before your eyes and the truth that the skier is moving not the ground becomes apparent.

As with the religiously or superstitiously deluded it is hard to convince the novice experiencing it for the first time that their senses have misled them and that they need to apply their faculty of reason instead. One has to try various devices, getting them to watch a piste-marker for example, before they get it.

If we took your approach and did not try to reason with the deluded or worse listened to the strange conceit that strong held delusions should be 'respected' then novice skiers would be left to injure themselves or ski off the edge of a cliff.

Superstitious or religious delusions, like homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy & chiropractic for example flourish in a culture where they are not challenged, not shown up as irrational, not debunked. Most people hate to learn they are wrong, don't thank you for convincing them of it, and will use every trick to hang onto their position.

McDuff said...

Optical illusions =! drug-induced hallucinations, but I suppose at this stage in the game it's not particularly relevant. I'll just say that's a lot harder to talk someone out of an LSD trip.

Staggeringly, I've not outlined an "approach" apart from, well, "trying to further understand the situation." Perhaps it's because I'm capable of nuances of opinion that I don't see "religion" as a singular mass of problems that must all be solved by merciless eradication, thus don't actually believe that a singular "approach" to the problem of irrationality is either necessary or possible. Perhaps it's because I don't think that tilting at windmills is a great life goal. Perhaps it's because there difference between skiing and living life is that you have to be pretty daft to go skiing in the first place and most people want to believe that they're not going to die in an avalanche, wheras being born happens to at least people and they mostly want to believe there's some meaning to their lives, thus making the comparison almost 100% inapt.

Superstitious or religious delusions, like homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy & chiropractic for example flourish in a culture where they are not challenged, not shown up as irrational, not debunked..

Also, point of interest, one where they are challenged and debunked.

Most people hate to learn they are wrong, don't thank you for convincing them of it, and will use every trick to hang onto their position..

Wow, it's almost as if your approach of stomping your feet and shouting that people are wrong doesn't work either! Amazing! It's almost as if there was some cognitive predisposition against changing your mind. If only we could study that more and use the evidence we gather to perhaps draw broader lessons about human behaviour...

Nah. Let's just call people wrong over and over again instead. It won't achieve anything but it certainly makes us feel intellectually superior to the rubes!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

A lot depends McDuff on what you think I wish to achieve. I certainly don't want to 'de-convert' anyone, just to stimulate their intellectual immune-system so that religion doesn't take too strong a grip on them. Religion is fine when its just a game or social hobby people indulge in like going to football. The problem comes when they make the error of taking it seriously and then folk get blown up or don't take their meds or worse.

McDuff said...

And one could make the same argument about football. As someone who's been a resident of Newcastle and Manchester I've seen exactly what happens when people take what should be "just a game" far too seriously and kick the shit out of each other and break shop windows. Do you think that I would have much luck "stimulating their intellectual immune system" by telling them that football was irrational and that they were morons for believing it's more morally superior to be a City fan than a Utd fan?

No, what you do in that case is say "hitting people is wrong!" without mentioning the football, and lock them in prison.

I appreciate we can't do that with governments, and that you've convinced yourself that only religions cause wars because nobody fights over stuff and nobody ever has a border dispute over land or resources unless they can back it up with appeals to a religious belief. But I'm not sure what convincing yourself that all religion is particularly and uniquely pathological helps with that either. Homeopathy isn't a religion, after all, but it has damaging social impacts. Arguing, as you have done, that religion is a unique and justifiable kind of irrationality rather than a rather fuzzy region on the scale of human irrationalities doesn't seem to make anything you want to do any easier.