The naked emperor

It’s interesting how a simple word, a name or a book title can cause twitching in the knee area. I predicted we would see a rash of this syndrome with the publication of Richard Dawkins new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. We are going to see more of the syndrome as the book reviews and other publicity appear in our newspapers and magazines.

One of the most common symptoms of the knee jerking goes right back the Terry Eagleton’s early review of Dawkins’ previous book, The God Delusion. That is the charge that Dawkins had no right to produce that book because he is not a religious philosopher or theologian (see Do you believe in a god?).

I think this symptom also indicates laziness on the part of the sufferer. The delusion that a review of titles, or ones own prejudices, will suffice rather than a proper review of the book. The syndrome seems more common in individuals also suffering from other afflictions involving mystical beliefs, or conviction of the existence of gods who look out for them.

Even though Dawkins’ new book does not deal directly with these mystical beliefs those knees are still jerking – as readers will note from recent comments here (see Dawkins bashing season upon us?). I thought it would be interesting to reintroduce something written by PZ Myers, author of the science blog Pharyngula, three years ago –  The Courtier’s Reply. Many of you will have read it before but its a great piece of writing and deserves to be more widely known. So I repeat it below:

“I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.”

By the way. Myers is currently writing a book. I imagine we will see it some time next year. He certainly has great literary skill so I imagine it will be a best seller.
I look forward to it.

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63 responses to “The naked emperor

  1. PZ Myers’ piece was very clever. But The God Delusion really was a diatribe against a strawman caricature. It failed to engage seriously with what faith actually is. I’m sure Dawkins rantings made atheists feel smug, but his book was simply reinforcing prejudice and ignorance, not advancing any science or understandings of faith.

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  2. But The God Delusion really was a diatribe against a strawman caricature.

    I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship.

    It failed to engage seriously with what faith actually is.

    Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

    ropata, all you are doing is proving PZ’s point.
    You are the very model of a courtier doing a “reply”.

    I read your links.
    They all do the same thing.
    For example…

    The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way.
    Oh dear. Not taking religion seriously. My oh my.

    Your understanding of Christian theology is shockingly bad.
    Goodness gracious, Vicar! How terrible.
    (insert hand wringing here)

    Voodoo is crap.
    One doesn’t need a 4-year degree from Baron Samdi College carefully sprinked in chicken blood to figure that out.

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  3. Cedric, what are you doing? Following the poor example of your guru I presume.

    [PZ Myers] enables and endorses intellectual arrogance. Karl Popper famously encouraged a sort of charity principle when examining and interpreting works with which one disagrees. The idea is to put the other side in as favorable a light as possible to begin the discussion. That way, one is looking at the best the other side has to offer before opposing it, requiring the best available counters. Popper even advocated the strengthening of an opposing position before criticizing it for the sake of ultimate understanding. Myers and Dawkins see no need for such charity, despite the obvious benefits to such an approach described by Popper. Such arrogance is unbecoming, obviously. But more importantly, Myers and Dawkins neglect an obvious and crucial point of critical thought (also emphasized by Popper) — we may well be wrong. If Myers and Dawkins are so sure of themselves, they should be more than willing to meet the best arguments of theism charitably and directly. Arrogant dismissal simply doesn’t cut it.

    [PZ Myers] epitomizes intellectual laziness. An atheist may reasonably conclude that there is not sufficient evidence of and that there are no good arguments for God. That atheist may even conclude that God’s non-existence is obvious, say so strongly and base that position entirely upon theism’s purported failure to carry its burden of proof. But writing a book about the subject demands more. Good scholarship means meeting the other side(s) carefully and fully. The intellectual laziness of demolishing strawmen and then declaring victory simply isn’t good enough, especially for a quality scholar like Dawkins (even when writing in an area of abject ignorance).

    More here.

    PS: Ken, It’s spelled “Emperor” not “Emporer”! Unless you were simply trying to make the analogy as inaccurate as possible. 😛

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  4. Following the poor example of your guru I presume.

    What I am doing is pointing out that you are just stuck in the rut of the courtier’s reply.
    Your links are just more of the same ol’ same ol’.

    Cutting and pasting from those links doesn’t help you.
    I read it already the first time around you posted them here.
    Those links (predictably enough) give nothing new.

    Is it rational to believe in Voodoo?

    You (presumably) don’t have much time for Voodoo.
    Yet I doubt that’s because you have invested much time and energy in learning the “deeper mysteries” of Haitian traditional curses and lucky charms.
    You can’t be bothered.
    Neither can I.
    It’s just mumbo-jumbo and superstition.
    Like all other belief in gods.
    That’s not a diatribe nor “intellectual arrogance”. It’s rational thought.
    It’s illogical to believe in something without evidence.
    Basic stuff.

    Magic is not real. It doesn’t work.
    Invoke your personal brand-name god all you like. Give offerings. Spend money and mumble prayers all day long. Zeus, Thor, Baal..whatever.
    Nothing happens.
    There’s nothing tangible.

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  5. I have plenty of evidence and personal experience of divine intervention, but I don’t think it will help you. You only want to mock.

    If you want know God, you can. If you want evidence, take a look for yourself. Jesus said “a sinful generation demands a miraculous sign”. God is not at your beck and call.

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  6. I have plenty of evidence…

    Then spell out this “evidence”.
    No waffle.
    Evidence.
    Or is it on the level of…”Have you ever looked at your hand? I mean, wow, really looked at it?”

    “Personal experience of divine intervention…?”

    Personal experience?
    That’s um…nice.
    You do realise that Voodoo practitioners and all other woo merchants claim the same thing for their own brand-name beliefs, yeah?
    No very convincing.

    If you want know God, you can. If you want evidence, take a look for yourself. Jesus said “a sinful generation demands a miraculous sign”. God is not at your beck and call.

    If you want know the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you can. If you want evidence, take a look for yourself. As His Noodliness said “a sinful generation demands a miraculous sign”.
    The FSM is not at your beck and call.
    So there.
    (Flounces off, stage right.)
    🙂

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  7. Thanks for the correction, Ropata. Unfortunately the spell check (on which I rely strongly) doesn’t do the post titles.

    Although I should really just reply “Courier’s reply” to these sorts of criticisms of Dawkins’ book – I really think the straw man change has been done to death.

    Dawkins himself makes quite clear that he is not critiquing (at least directly all forms of Christianity. Some liberal Christians will see the forms he does criticise as a caricature (fundamentalists, creationists, etc.). However, quite a large proportion of the Christian community does think that way6. For example – even in NZ about 40% of Christians oppose evolutionary science.

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  8. @ ropata: I have plenty of evidence and personal experience of divine intervention, but I don’t think it will help you. You only want to mock.
    No, I don’t think we all want to mock. But remember, this is a science-based blog, & a lot of us here are scientists. So when someone says, I have a lot of evidence for X, then our first instinct is to say, OK, show us the money (or something similar) 🙂 And this really is where the miscommunication issues start to creep in, because the way I see it, faith is a very personal thing, but for scientists, something on that level offered as evidence is no more than anecdote.

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  9. I endorse Alison’s comment, Ropata. Anecdotal, personal, “testimony”, by itself, is not objective evidence. But it can be a starting point.

    I often had the experience in my career of being confronted with anecdotal “evidence” for an agricultural product. These were oftne made in advertising. However, when a proper experimental investigation was made these claims sometimes proved to be unfounded.

    We are easily fooled by our desire for things to be true – and many advertised products rely on that. It’s especially the case when people have made a commitment (paid for something).

    I suspect your unwillingness to share the evidence and personal experience results from you recognition that the evidence you have is no more than anecdotal.

    However, if you do have some evidence resulting from properly investigated phenomena – then do share. Even if people ridicule ideas or evidence initially, if the evidence is well founded it usually wins out.

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  10. Ken, I too would be lost without spell check. I recommend Firefox it will automatically spellcheck everything written in the browser, even post titles.

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  11. Firefox it will automatically spellcheck everything written in the browser, even post titles.

    Safari will too. Pretty sure Opera does too. Both of these are available for Windows as well as Macs.

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  12. I am using Firefox but just checked and the spell check only works for entries more than one line long. That’s why my titles aren’t checked.

    Unless there is a way to change that for titles?

    I am actually getting a bit pissed off with Firefox because it seems to keep my processor busy and slows down. Probably because I do use a lot of attachments and would not like to give them up.

    Does Safari have much in the way of attachments?

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  13. As luck would have it, Qualia Soup has just released a new video that neatly fits with the thread.
    Putting faith in its place

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  14. Another slowdown is if you have a lot of JavaScript running, or if you are short of memory.

    Does Safari have much in the way of attachments?

    I presume by attachments, you mean plug-ins? It does have plug-ins, but I’ve never really looked into them. I tend to use Safari for browsing with a lighter-weight interface myself.

    Are you using Windows, btw?

    It might be worth looking at Opera (http://www.opera.com/). It has a pretty low footprint, etc., given it has everything you can think of. Some people who don’t know it seem to want to write it off because it has a small market share, but it’s a professional effort from a commercial company available for free. (They make their money off use of the technology on mobile devices.) They have a long track record of introducing innovations to the browser well before others.

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  15. Curious, I’ll have to look into that.
    I have friend who loves Opera, haven’t tried it myself.

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  16. (apologies if this is a double-post)

    QualiaSoup has just created a new video that neatly slots into the thread.
    Putting faith in its place

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  17. Ken, Cedric,
    Rather than clutter the thread I have written a long response at my blog (warning: it seriously needs editing). I don’t expect to convince you. I’m not a professional apologist, had no training in theology either. I just read stuff. I have had many doubts and detours along this journey of faith. Sometimes I want to believe, sometimes I don’t. As an INFP I trust my feelings/perceptions/intuition more than most. I’m aware this approach can be fallible. But like any other human enterprise pure empiricism is also fallible. The evidence I cite is partly experiential, partly philosophical, partly empirical. Just a few pieces of a puzzle that outline a picture of a world created by a loving God.

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  18. I trust my feelings/perceptions/intuition more than most.

    Any cultist or woo merchant can say exactly the same thing.

    But like any other human enterprise pure empiricism is also fallible.

    It’s proved itself to be very, very successful over the last couple of hundred years.
    Nothing succeeds like success.
    If you want to kill smallpox or keep billions from starving then go with science and leave the prayer wheels at home.

    The evidence I cite is partly experiential, partly philosophical, partly empirical.

    ….and betrays very flawed thinking.

    …the Universe appears to be specifically designed for humans to arise.

    The Universe is a hostile evironment. It’s all very well and good to try and see the glass “half-full” but you can only take that so far.

    A survey of more than six hundred miracle records in the canonization files of the Vatican Secret Archives from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century reveals that more than 95 percent are healings from illness.

    There is no scientific evidence that prayer is anything more that quiet murmuring to the ceiling.
    None.
    When was the last time you ever heard of of a faithful believer of any religion getting back their legs? Take Lourdes for example. Dawkins went there and asked how many people have been miraculously cured. (The numbers are NOT good.) God clearly hates amputees.
    He’s happy to “help” with that migrane.
    Got a chesty cough? Given the power of prayer and a few antibiotics and and several days in bed and it will miraculously disappear.
    Suffering from a severed leg or arm? You’re screwed!

    It would be nice to have some wonderous magic power come along and heal the sick.
    Many gods throughout history have been credited with such magic.
    However, the links on your blog do not provide credible scientific evidence to suggest that any of it is real.
    It would be nice if it was but…
    (shrug)
    In the meantime, faith healers will continue to prey on the fearful and the desperate.
    James Randi examines faith healing.

    I should also mention that atheism requires large dollops of faith. Usually unstated, the assumptions are…

    Atheism requires no faith. There are no “unstated assumptions”. There is no atheist rulebook or manual or orthodoxy or code of practices or list of “beliefs” in order to be a “real atheist”.
    If you want to know atheism is then…ask an atheist rather that just making stuff up to suit yourself.

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  19. All other discussions aside, I just had a look at a very brief interview about Dawkins’ latest book and have to say I am looking forward to reading it sometime. I generally don’t buy brand-new books as they are frightfully expensive, so will be waiting till someone throws a copy in my lap that I can keep or it starts appearing second-hand bookstores.

    In the very brief interview he had this to say:

    Why were you motivated to write this book?
    Well, it’s about the evidence for evolution. Evolution is one of the most fascinating ideas in all of science. It explains your existence and mine, and the existence of just about everything we see. How can you possibly ask what motivated me? It’s just a wonderful subject to write a book about.

    Is this supposed to be the definitive refutation of creationist arguments?
    Well, it’s amazing that there needs to be a definitive refutation of them, but yes, if you put it like that, it is a propitious time from that point of view. Any time would have been a good time for this book.

    Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution?
    No, I don’t think they’re incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God—to name only Francis Collins [the geneticist and Christian believer recently chosen to head the National Institutes of Health] as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind.

    I find evolution fascinating so hopefully this book continues that wonder as I am only engaging it at a cursory popular level.

    The brief and frustrating interview can be read here:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/216206/page/1

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  20. Ropata – had a look at your article.

    I have no interest in discussing you religious beliefs with you. Everyone is entitled to such beliefs – and their justification usually are not the sort of things that can be discussed rationally.

    Someone has said that if one adopts a belief by not rational methods they obviously cannot be reasoned out of it. And I accept that we all have beliefs and attitudes which are non-rational – It’s part of being human. We just aren’t a rational species.

    Where I will get into discussion with you is on scientific issues. Things like ID claims can be, and are, considered scientifically and shown to be wrong, even malicious.

    Similarly I will take issue with your charges of “scienticism”, and your presentation of science as “materialist.” These are arguments used by the enemies of science. they are being peddled by the religious apologists and have gained some traction in the religious community. They need to be strongly countered and I try to do that here (and elsewhere).

    So, I will debate the science and philosophy with you – but have no interest in discussing religious belief. Unless factual claims are being made and then that becomes the province of science.

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  21. Ken,
    I didn’t come to faith by intellectual arguments, but there are some people who have. But I have subsequently found the rich corpus of Christian scholarship produced by centuries of great intellects, to be more than satisfactory.

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  22. We just aren’t a rational species.

    Aristotle would turn in his grave!

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  23. Aristotle would also turn in his grave if Ken said “There is no such thing as ‘Aether'”.

    But back to the comment on whether or not we are rational now that we’ve established that a comment is not necessarily right or wrong just because Aristotle didn’t hold it.

    I presume Ken’s comment was along the lines of what he often quotes which is that we are not a rational species, rather, a rationalising one. Which, to me makes perfect sense. Does it not for you?

    (or is it that you object to the implication that we are a ‘species’ and, hence, part of the animal kingdom?)

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  24. What if it’s all a lie? What if everyone is deceiving me, or they’re simply mistaken? What if I just happened to be born in a Hindu home and raised in a Hindu temple? What if, up until now, I’ve living in a bubble, looking at the world through a distorted lens? What if the gods don’t exist? Would I have the courage to live according to that conviction?

    The force of those questions spilled down and threatened to overwhelm me, but for small voices whispering a gentle admonition. What about the fulfilled prophesies in the Vedas? What about all the self-authenticating proofs in the sacred texts? These surely are solid justification for all that I believed. With these evidences, I was quietly reassured.

    Do you find this kind of thinking “rational” Stuart?
    It not rational.
    It’s just silly.
    Voices in your head?
    Get medical help.

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  25. Stuart’s comment really underlines my point. He made it, presumably, because of an emotional response (although he may now rationalise that and provide and “explanation.”)

    Perhaps, though, we can apply our intelligence rather than our intuitions, and I can ask him to explain what he means? otherwise there is really nothing to discuss, is there?

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  26. Nothing really serious meant. Just that Aristotle defined human as a ‘rational animal.’ So accordingly, if we are not a rational species (i) we aren’t human, (ii) its not worth commenting here because any response will be irrational :-). Thus Aristotle would be, if he were around today, quite peeved at Ken’s flippant comment. Now I know Ken and Aristotle are using ‘rational’ in a difference sense, for it does appear Ken believes that we are a rational species in the same sense as Aristotle,

    NB. Ken says, “we can apply our intelligence…”

    which I believe was that we are the only species that thinks about thinking – thus, are rational.

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  27. Though commenting here and inviting the oft infantile invective of others may be seen as irrational, I guess.
    :-/

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  28. Though commenting here and inviting the oft infantile invective of others may be seen as irrational, I guess.

    ;-/

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  29. Thought so – just trying to provoke. Aristotle was irrelevant.

    However, this idea of use being a rationalising rather than rational species is, I think, very powerful And consistent with our current knowledge in the science of the brain, consciousness and psychology.

    It’s interesting to see the responses people have to the word “Dawkins” with this understanding! Hell – I can even analyse my own past responses this way.

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  30. Any person who doesn’t understand that humans rationalise, will be incapable of accepting that they themselves can rationalise.

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  31. I got to reading your comments and had some time on my hands to put into words some views that I have been brewing for a while. I hope you bloggers don’t find it too inappropriate for me to post such a long rant in the traditionally short form space. If you do read it let me know what you think. (By all means, copy and paste into a more digestible format.)

    On this topic of religion generally, I think we are ready to move past the question “Is there a God?” We are hundreds of years into debates like those above and we can usefully ask new questions.
    Let’s ask “Is” and “Ought” questions. What is going on here? Why is the world the way it is? Then we can ask, What ought we to do about it?

    The important “Is” question is: “Why do so many people still believe this nutty stuff?”

    This is where Richard Dawkins – and I am a fan – seems weakest. (Although, I don’t claim to have heard all that he has said on the issue). Dawkins discusses religion as a meme which is successful because of the innate psychology of children which leads them to unquestioningly learn,usually useful, survival lessons from parents. But, for me, this does not take into account the very many people (like Ropata) who speak of personal experiences which clearly go beyond just parental guidance. As religious doctrine has repeatedly been forced to concede ground to the explanatory power of science, it has become the sensible, defensive position of believers to say that their belief is based on faith alone. No evidence required. Nevertheless, a great many believers claim some sort of religious “experience” as a key reason for their belief. Even without a major revelatory event many more believers would, if pressed, explain that religious belief is the best way they have of making sense of many small pieces of otherwise inexplicable evidence in their lives. In short, religious belief is still evidence based for the believer, even if the, sometimes, frustrated believer can’t always quite put their finger on what is happening in their own mind. The aggregation of the evidence and the drawing of a religious conclusion may not always even be a conscious decision.

    Neurophysiology is on the case here. Long and short term mental states such as love and anger have now been much studied. Some researchers think they have found a cluster of nerves in the brain responsible for out of body, near-death experiences, explaining the similar features experienced by different people. Experiences which are specifically religious, are under study. I have also listened to researchers describing functional brain scans revealing neural processes which appear to be common to us all when we are posed with moral/ethical dilemmas. It seems that our moral sense is firmly based in biology. (No references for this research I’m afraid; its largely gathered by listening to podcasts in which the researchers summarize their own work – but have a look around yourself, you will find such research progressing a speed.) It may be some years away, but I think it inevitable that eventually mechanistic explanations will be found for religious belief (as for all thought and behaviour). In 1768 Voltaire wrote the famous phrase “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We are approaching a time when we will discover how some people actually do come to invent him. We will know what experiences, acting on what genetic predispositions, cause religious belief. (If we think that the current antagonism towards evolution theory is bad, imagine the response to these researchers. Also, it is plausible that there may one day be a treatment for love, and god! Within the study of memory there are already chemical treatments proposed to remove traumatic memories. But that is leading to “Ought” questions, and first we must finish with “Is”.)

    As to the why our minds have mechanisms that arrive at religious conclusions, I suggest that the mechanistic detail will eventually be seen to fit with the following theory, (which, on its face, already fits well with natural selection processes). The advantage of the human brain above all other species is the ability to think in the abstract in order to construct models with which to predict the future. Selective pressure has developed this as our most valuable human attribute. This ability is complemented by the also highly useful, innate human tendencies to organise information that comes to us into patterns and a tendency to be curious and gather information in the first place. These powerful psychological drives have produced both science and religion across all human cultures in an effort to explain our world to ourselves; to create meaning which enables acurate prediction. A religious world view is the imperfect application of these abilities, science is the, still flawed, but ultimately more accurate and matured application of the same abilities. It has taken thousands of years of cultural development (an education-technology cycle) for humans to develop the skills necessary to build the more accurate view; the body of knowledge we call science. Language, writing, mathematics, instruments, surplus wealth, a connected educated elite are all essential parts of the development of science. The flawed view was able to developed unopposed within emerging human culture and in appearing to provide a satisfactory explanation became a part of powerful political-religious institutions in all cultures. In modern times, as these major organised religions (mainly Catholicism) are tainted by an historical association with failed explanations, religions of the past have declined where-ever an education in history takes place and high technology is relied upon. But where a population receives a poor education, even where there is a reliance on modern technology, the major world religions continue to prosper. And where the traditional religions are discredited by history, “new” religions, cults and personal spiritual trends, are able to spring up afresh and prosper. Why, when we live in the age of Science, (with the example of such outstanding explanatory and predictive success), do so many people still believe in a god (and so many other wacky things)? Why do people persist in accepting, or personally building, the flawed world view.

    Religion is a hugely complex phenomenon and devotion to a religious belief will be due to a combination of reasons depending on the particular culture and the individual’s psychology. One major factor will be, that there is still an enormous cultural momentum within the large world religions. People often subscribe to a religion by accepting the belief uncritically for family/social/ethnic/political group reasons, possibly combined with a lack of education. (The Dawkins’ “unquestioned parental guidance – meme” explanation fits in here.) As a state religion, Islam currently prospers for political/social control reasons as much as it does for any tendency it has to explain the observed world. But I think these social reasons go mainly toward explaining the persistence of religious belief and not why educated/intelligent/critical thinkers do still come to religion in the absence of a surrounding religious environment. There is some deeper, personal/individual reason to look for here; something that is the underlying generator of fresh belief. So we need to look even more closely at human psychology.

    For one thing, the powerful drive to question/predict/look for meaning, has produced a culturally entrenched acceptance that there should be profoundly meaningful answers to existential questions such as: “Where did I come from?”, “What is my purpose in life?”, “Where do I go when I die?” These questions have been asked for thousands of years and answers have been provided by a belief in a god. The drive to know what the future holds for us is particularly biologically relevant. Accepting death, without any ongoing existence, is deeply unsettling when instinct aims to achieve survival. The natural reaction to such a disturbing outcome is to accept the assumptions within the first and last of the questions, that there is some form of continuity of consciousness before and (more particularly) after death. Religions have always been unashamed in offering this salve in one form or another. In the English language, the element of life-after-death/eternal life is often frequently expressed, as “the promise of life after death.” Some brain researchers have commented that we all have a subjective illusion that our “self”/consciousness, is somehow separate from the mechanical workings of the brain producing the awareness. This false impression makes the conclusion of after death seem all the more plausible and for some people almost inescapable. (Even as atheists we have to accept that, religious answers to these questions almost certainly lead to improved mental health for some people.) The replies the lessons of science gives to these questions seem comparatively unhelpful. “Although it is your imperative to survive, you will fail.” “You came from, and continue to come from, chemical bits; an accumulation of matter and energy in a temporary reversal of entropy.” “Some of your chemical bits are nerves which operate in a way that includes monitoring themselves and produces a false sense that you are a ‘self’ separate from these nerves and supporting body.” “There is no externally imposed purpose to your existence.” These are not comfortable conclusions for a mind to accept. Nevertheless, evolution equips us with the ability, and drive, to ask the unsettling questions and religion is one way of avoiding the unpalatable truths. Religious belief serves psychological, self-interest. But to me the appeal to self interest seems too overt, even crude, to be the most significant cause for people adopting belief in a sincere way. Even very limited thinkers would be well aware of their own willingness to accept god for these reasons, and without any evidence at all would be aware of how flimsy their belief was. I think life-after-death is an icing on the cake for most believers; an incentive/reward for successfully joining the dots somewhere else in their mind. One of those dots will often be the “illusion” of the “separate self “ idea mentioned above; that your consciousness is separate from, and able to go on without, your body. I have heard young people grappling with the idea of death and after a time simply refusing to accept that “they” will not persist in some fashion after the death of their body; because for them it was literally unimaginable that they would not.

    But by itself even this does not provide the profound experience that many people clearly base their faith on. A profound experience comes when a truly unsure person consciously or unconsciously gathers many troubling/inexplicable bits of information. When enough apparently strange bits of information have built up, realization will come, possibly with a shock, that there can be only one possible conclusion. There is a god! The more bits of strange data are gathered, the more diverse the examples and the more seriously a solution is pursued, the more profound the “realization” will be when it comes.

    Apart from the “separate self”, where does the troubling/inexplicable experience come from? The fact is, that many people don’t understand the ways their own brain can work or fail to work, and they are easily mystified by themselves. Other kinds of endogenous evidence can come from sleep paralysis experiences, sleep walking, unusual dreaming patterns, near-death experiences, memory loss, concussion, unrecognized petite-mal siezures, sub-clinical stroke events, drug or food induced altered mental states, extreme pain states, altered blood pressure/shock, schizophrenic states, euphoric sexual states, love attachments formed or lost, child-birth bonding processes. For many people, until neuroscience fully describes the foundations/causes of our moral judgements, strong feelings of empathy/compassion/fairness/right & wrong will also continue to seem mysterious and in need of explanation.

    Just as the evidence from hard to fathom mental states and experiences can seem inexplicable, so too can evidence from without. Events like, thinking of a person who then proceeds to give you a phone call. Having exactly the right amount of money in your wallet in advance, without knowing what you were going to buy. Building a stone-wall and picking up a stone that is exactly the perfect and odd shape to key into the wall. A street light failing exactly as you drive past. The lights changed green just as you suddenly address your attention to them. Noises in an empty house that sound like a person’s cries. Why are people so ready to think they see causal relationships in circumstances like these? Why do we all have a “No way!” experience? Because, while this data is external, the experience of its strangeness is also generated within. Although there is great species survival advantage in having individuals with powerful abilities/drives to gather data, to identify the existence of patterns and to make attempts to predict the future by searching for causal links, there is no corresponding value in having humans evolve further to become equipped with a cautious, statistically aware approach to processing the data and drawing conclusions. Within certain limits, having a wide variety of proposed solutions/causal links/predictions serves an evolving human population as well, and probably better, than all members of the population delaying drawing conclusions and then taking delayed action based on a more limited range of more likely, but still not necessarily correct, views of the world. Provided one member of the population behaves to their advantage based on a believed connection/predictive model, then at least part of the population survives. (“The fishing was good last time when the moon was full and so it is a good time to travel to the river to fish when the moon is full” vs “The fishing was good last time I saw an owl and so it is a good time to travel to the river to fish when I see an owl”. At least one of these will work.) Through communication, or example, understanding of the successful conclusion/link may spread through the rest of the population. So, I think it is fair to generalize that untrained humans are very poor at appreciating the statistical basis of the world they live in. Anecdotal evidence has greater weight in the decision making processes of individuals than more remote data (consider: fears of flying, racial stereotyping based on small amounts of information about that race, willingness to gamble, smokers discounting health statistics). Put another way, humans are evolved to notice possible patterns/correlations in the world around them, and to jump to conclusions that there are causal links. We are inductive thinkers, not cautious, deductive thinkers by nature. No one member of the uneducated, early population is a cautious and statistically aware experimenter, working their way through the evidence to find the best explanation for data/the most sensible causal link – this would require a much more advanced mind. But not to worry, because the population as a whole is trying out all the hypotheses, it doesn’t matter. (In times of stress, social animals like humans may tend to unite in combined action to survive and diverse behaviour may decrease. This may mean that the advantage of a diversity of solutions may appear most at times of very high stress and social dislocation, or at times of very low stress when individuals engage in more intra-specific competition.) The greater mathematical awareness and cautious, methodical approach of modern science needed to be developed and bolted on to human behaviour by centuries of cultural development to progress beyond the flawed world views.

    I suggest that it will be a very common occurrence that as people (young people in particular) learn about their world, deeper meaning than is justified is highly likely to be taken from internally generated mental events and external random events. People will remember larger or smaller sets of these apparently inexplicable/strange experiences at any one time, with memories of many events trailing off into the past as dimly held memories. People build a suspicion that “something is going on”. Where a scientifically inexplicable, causal connection is unequivocally identified, a religious/spiritual interpretation will be likely to be triggered. Possibly the person will be in a vulnerable mental state – looking for answers in particular at that time. Joining the dots, a person will crystalize a religious world view to explain all the troubling data collected and draw further comfort from ongoing strange experiences. As with Ropata, there will be few religious people willing, or even able to explain how they reached their conclusion. It will just seem obvious and right. These are vague and unscientific inductive processes. People are likely to want to protect, what for them is a very satisfactory conclusion, from too much scrutiny. Laying out the detail in language, exposes it to logic and denies it the force with which it was experienced subjectively.

    Modern, western culture fits this theory well. But there is also variety within the human population. Not everyone is as powerfully driven to know or spread the truth of the world as scientists and preachers. Some intelligent, educated people will accept religion passively for cultural reasons without engaging in close analysis. They could easily be educated to a more accurate world view. Some people may be happy to drift along with the vague sensation that something unknown is going on that they don’t understand. They may never need religion as such and yet never be shaken from their view. By contrast you are unlikely to find many people who drift passively into atheism or drift along passively as atheists. Most atheists are scientific thinkers who, unless they become lazy, accept the limits of any conclusion, appreciate that uncertainty always exits and are always open to new evidence. Atheism is the most likely conclusion by a wide margin, but it is still only the best hypothesis. Comparing the confident theist with the confident atheist in a world providing an education in science, the reasons for the difference of view will most likely be either; that the person holding the religious view finds the complexity of scientific views simply too difficult to understand and dismisses them, or that the process of forming a religious interpretation of experience occurred before exposure to science training and the experience was so strong that it ended the possibility of further debate for that person. With a dogmatic personality type the difference between a Nobel Prize winner and a profound believer might be just which set of explanatory options (the scientific or the religious/nutty) reached him/her first. (Fortunately for the world Edward O. Wilson was not so dogmatic. A scientist heroes of mine, he made the change from a religious world view and has one of the most uplifting views of how to live without this false comfort.)

    So, in summary, at the core of religious/spiritual misinterpretation is the fact that there was no powerful selective advantage in the human species developing an accurate statistical appreciation of the data we receive. It has taken the cultural evolution of mathematics and scientific communities to harness our natural inventiveness and a, more or less, uneducated inventiveness still operates to make sense of the world for some people. It could be an unsupported/anecdotal belief in homeopathy, numerology, astrology. It could be a belief in a conspiracy theory with little evidence. It could be a belief that you become more likely to win the Lotto if you just stick to your lucky numbers week after week. It could be a belief that it is more dangerous to fly than to drive. It could be the terrible belief that you were responsible for death or accident because of some small act or omission. It could be the belief that you are more powerful agent for change in the world than you actually are. It could be a vague belief that there is something guiding us that we just don’t know about. Or it could be a belief in an all-powerful creator God in personal communication with you.

    Scientists should not be too smug. Yes, their world view is more truthful/accurate, but the creativity that finds new theories to fit new data within science is the same creativity that proposes religious/spiritual explanations to people for their personal experiences.

    We come at last to “Ought”. If we think we know what the situation is and why, what ought it to be? Is there any reason to say that religious views should be removed or campaigned against?

    The argument I like the best is one of principle. I am sure Dawkins advances the argument, although I can’t recall him making it strongly. It is simply that it is an offence to the ideal of truth to allow such huge misconceptions about the nature of existence to continue or at least to continue without someone putting up their hand and shouting “foul”. Our psychology dictates that we value truth no matter who we are – which is why we get hot and bothered about these issues at all. Connected to this is the argument that it is morally wrong to allow these false views to be pressed into the minds of young people, before they can bring their own more developed analytical capabilities to bear on the problem.
    I recall Dawkins making practical arguments more strongly – mainly that the moderately religious (with good intentions) make the world safe for the extremists. And these extremists (sometimes terrorists) cause a lot of pain and suffering. I think I recall him suggesting that hurtful actions, carried out for selfish reasons, are often cloaked in religious justifications. This is a good argument, historically and to this day, as we recall the recent Bush administration and the extreme Islamic governments out there. It is the most serious risk that important decisions taken about big issues, at governmental level, will be bad decisions because they are taken from within a religious world view. There is also some danger that believers who base their moral behaviour in religion may find themselves behaving antisocially if they cease to believe. (Although I think it is just as likely that such lapsed believers will be surprised to find that their “goodness” does not simply evaporate.) Also, true believers become potential victims of the charlatans, “healers”, tithing gatherers and psychics. They sometimes deny themselves and others access to the benefits of science, like medical treatment. So, action, and inaction, motivated by religious belief has caused a lot of harm. I do believe this. But then, action/inaction motivated by religious belief has also done a lot of good. And it seems that it will continue to be that way. People holding religious beliefs with a variety of commitment levels make up major threads in the society in most cultures. Religion provides social cohesion, social control and a focus/stimulus for the expression of the same moral values observed by atheists/humanists, for people who might otherwise not behave well. (This was most likely the point Voltaire makes with his comment quoted above, although the quote exposes much wider possibilities.)

    So in the end, how actively we atheists should pursue a policy of beating up the poor believers with the facts, depends on where we think the balance lies between the good, and the bad for that particular culture of belief. I am not sure that I have so far heard a compelling argument that special efforts, over and above the normal course of progress through a sound public education, including science at all levels, is warranted in the western world. I come closest to activism when I look at the intrusion of religion into the world’s “greatest” democracy. The unofficial requirement that candidates for high public office in the USA make overt displays of belief is a disquieting political meme. (A trend that seemed to gain some ground in England during the term of Tony Blair as well.) I console myself that for the most part, once office is won in the US, secular pragmatism and logic seem to hold sway in decision making. And that seems to be true of most NZ political parties. Science based decision making seems to be back on the agenda with Obama.

    But even if we hold the radical view that the truth should be thrust upon believers by all means currently possible, it seems likely that the diversity of the human race will contain a significant proportion of people whose personality type/brain function/intelligence level will cause religion to persist as a natural part of species diversity, no matter how earnestly and freely we offer the education. And take the most extreme view: if, in 1000 years time, guaranteed ways of removing belief were found (a chemical/surgical treatment or a genetically engineering removal of human religiosity from the germ line) how far should it be applied? If it were possible to “cure”/change all gay people to be truly satisfied by heterosexual relationships, would it be ethical/right to do so? Are they not a valid part of the vast, diverse mix thrown up by the random course of nature. If you tell a person they are living a deluded, albeit happy, life in “the Matrix” and they do not, or are not able to believe you, do you have any obligation or right to forcefully remove them from their life? I think the value we place on tolerance for diversity would and should stay our hand from stamping out the negative effects of religion in this way. And, in any case, it seems unlikely that democratic political processes would allow this, even if such intervention became technically possible. The believers of all varieties will always be there in significant numbers (maybe a majority) and if they were not, the main reason for the intervention disappears. The separation of church and state continues to be the answer. Let religion flourish by all means, but do not let it make the important decisions please. With the best will in the world, it is not the most accurate basis for meeting the challenges the human population faces. Learn from religion what the common floor of human values are and take those into secular government.

    In my personal interactions with religious friends I adopt the attitude, that where I see no harm being done, I have no need to press my atheist views, however offended I may be by the offense this gives to truth. Perhaps I have been lucky or sheltered, but I have almost never personally seen objectionable/harmful behaviour motivated by religious views. (Perhaps it is hard to recognise.) On the other hand I understand that a significant group of people within the anti-anti-smacking lobby are religiously motivated. Here is an obvious case of religion setting back the progress of human civilization towards non-violent solutions to our many relationship problems.

    In Star Trek, Spock was always the main character for me. But however wacky things got with Kirk, and however much Kirk and McCoy chided Spock for his very logical outlook, Spock just raised that eyebrow and everyone seemed to get along just fine. Well done Spock!

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  32. Ah! The formatting that might have helped make this more digestible has not copied – sorry.

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  33. i dont believe in a god today, thats just the way god made me.
    but i might do tomorrow
    im not convinced by people claiming to work for god, and am very wary of people who claim to know gods will and talk with him.!
    people saying that god needs their money are at best lying and at worse seriously disturbed mentally.
    people should be allowed to believe in whatever they want in my humble opinion, without someone on one side saying “you are right in believing, but wrong in your choice of god. ours is correct yours doesnt exist”
    and the other team saying “you are wrong for believing as everything must be explainable to be of any use in life”
    is mr dawkins saying ” people who dont believe in a god are vastly more intelligent than anyone who does, because by the very fact of them believing means they are self deluding and therefore of lower intelligence”?
    or are they more like the child who is happy believing in santa and are secretly crying out for someone to come to dispell this silly rubbish for them? knowledge increases sorrow.
    is that how non believers see believers?
    i dont fully understand how a snowflake is formed but someone explaining how the temerature drop causes molecules etc etc etc wouldnt make the snowflake seem any prettier to me, so part of me says “shut the f up, i dont want to know, you telling me screams to me of self important showing off and i dont like people looking down their nose at me, if i want your opinion i will ask for it.”
    lol
    the reason for anger and hate in religion (in my opinion) is that belivers feel they are being looked on as stupid for believing or stupid for believing in the wrong god, this leads to agression to anyone who does not think as they do.
    i think organised religion should be made illegal and people should believe what they want in their own hearts and heads, no more land grabbing money making churches causing poverty and then relying on that same misery for their attendances etc etc, just a personal belief, then there would be no need for people to devote their life to ruining other peoples life long firmly held convictions either.
    if a god did create the vastness of the universe, why on earth(lol) do people think he is sat on a cloud saying to himself ” i wish i had a few thousand builings created on that planet there where they can collect cash and talk about how great i am?”and
    “and anyone calling me by the wrong name i want him killed” i dont think so.
    i also dont think that you can PROVE that the sun will come up tomorrow.
    but that doesnt mean that it isnt going to because it cant be proven.
    yes, i know it doesnt actually “come up”lol

    i dont believe in the power of prayer, but i do believe in the power of mass thought waves..energy created by our minds altering our world phsically and the more minds concentrating on the same outcome (till we can fully train our minds to use this ability) the stronger the effect.
    so when (prayer) has had a miraculas effect it wasnt a god that did it but the minds of the people willing the effect.
    we are all gods if we can learn the skills.

    wibble wibble
    soory for the spelling mistakes hope nobody is offended and thanks once more for asking for my opinion
    ta ta for now

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  34. Dave,

    Quick “food for thought” reply as your post is so long have to I’ll to read it all later: consider if there were no “religious story” making the rounds, consider how these neurological events/systems would be considered in the absence of a mythology associate them with.

    If you look at the neurological studies, the features being looked at aren’t specifically “religious”, but rather either are likely to make people more susceptible to holding any kind of beliefs uncritically or are conditions that those who already have religions notions would likely use to “justify” both their religion and their “experience”.

    The point I’m making is that hanging these studies on “religious experience” will almost certainly prove to be an inappropriate way of looking that them, they’re better looked at from a wider perspective in which religion just becomes another one of many beliefs people to choose to hold and apparently “unexplained experiences” are just that.

    There is a case for people understanding what makes people susceptible to unfounded beliefs (not just religious) or have “experiences” that have been “explained away” by religions or exploited by others in other ways.

    Haven’t time to explain this one, but I think a long of people misplace what Richard Dawkin’s is doing. Perhaps one thing to remember is that most religions actively discourage their members from looking at other explanations or points of view (e.g. by making out that these are “evil”). By By silently doing nothing, you can argue that the effect is to aid the religious leaders in their wish to close the minds of their followers. By actively presenting the alternatives, those that are fence-sitting might at least be encouraged to check it out the other explanations, etc. So food for thought: how would you have religious people be made aware that there are alternatives to consider that their leaders are discouraging them from considering?

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  35. Dave – you say: “Perhaps I have been lucky or sheltered, but I have almost never personally seen objectionable/harmful behaviour motivated by religious views. (Perhaps it is hard to recognise.)”

    Of course many people with religious views present no problems – some of my best friends and all that.

    But the fact is that religious views have motivated people to do horrible things. (eg. Twin Towers).

    I certainly have experienced (as a child) terror from religious people telling me I was a ‘sinner,’ etc.
    (Should add that terrorising dogma can also come from other ideologies).

    So, I disagree with you there.

    However, I find that apart from that I am basically in agreement with you.

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  36. dave (not dave m),
    Very perceptive points about the experience of religious believers, and I appreciate your pursuit of truth. But many religious people came to faith through an honest and diligent commitment to the pursuit of truth. I know I didn’t articulate things very well, C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” or N.T. Wright in “Simply Christian” express themselves much better.

    I was raised an atheist and initially reluctant to trust this unfamiliar supernatural thing I didn’t really understand. But I felt drawn in by Something wonderful and I was very curious to figure out the spiritual side of life, I thought perhaps I am more than a cosmic accident. This faith experience is deeply personal and difficult to summarize but here are a few things I appreciate about God’s work in my life
    – an encompassing sense of a powerful benevolence at work
    – purpose/hope, to be a better person and bless others
    – deliverance from demonic oppression
    – inner healing, help thru depression/anxiety
    – sense of being changed from the inside out
    – alleviation of physical pain
    – prayer and worship, sense of connection to God
    – a “good book” of wisdom, direction, and devotion
    – a community of caring people

    These things are very tangible to me but you can’t put them in a test tube so (to an atheist) it mustn’t be “real”. This is why atheist arguments seem shallow to me. Faith isn’t science, it’s a lifestyle and an experience. I find the atheist reliance on an intellectual structure that excludes or explains away any possible spiritual/supernatural realm to be quite unappealing.

    There is much to criticise in Christian culture. But my faith in God is not dependent on every foible of Christians. It is not even dependent on me being any good at following Jesus. (Earlier this year I seriously questioned everything I had previously believed and decided to forget about God for a while). It’s just an openness to receive divine Grace. Seek and ye shall find.

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  37. but you can’t put them in a test tube so […] it mustn’t be “real”.

    You just said they’re not real yourself. Think about it. You can’t make it “not real” for some and “real” for others. If it can’t be observed, it can’t be observed, that’s it. No trying to have it both ways.

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  38. I observed those events. You didn’t. Your claim “it can’t be observed” is just wrong. 2 billion Christians…

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  39. You’re using the word observe in a different sense than I wrote and I suspect you know that.

    You didn’t observe in the sense that they could be observed independently, you said so yourself with your analogy to test tubes, etc. You may wish to think that you observed them, of course. It’d be more honest to say that.

    The number of people has nothing to do with anything. Lots of people belief in other things you would call myths or mistaken beliefs; that there are many of them doesn’t make their beliefs right. You don’t believe in Hindu mythology; millions of people do. By your logic they must be right and you wrong. Well, no, the number of people has nothing to do with something being right or wrong. Likewise, many people believe in truly worthless “natural remedies”. How many people belief this has nothing to do with how likely the remedy is to be right. What they do show is that large numbers of people are willing, eager even, to convince themselves of things that are not true.

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  40. Well, all those millions are observers aren’t they? Perhaps not “independent” or “scientific” but still significant I think. Thus my POV is supported by at least *some* evidence.

    “Natural” remedies are useful.. some do have medicinal properties, and even those that are simply placebo still have a significant positive effect. So what’s the misbelief?

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  41. Thanks Ken. So if you place more emphasis on the harm/trauma that religion causes than I do, what would you do about it if you could? How far would you go? What would be ethical behavior for an atheist or atheist government in pursuit of propagating the most accurate world view?

    Heracides – I think you misunderstand me.

    Ropata – I think you are part of this discussion because you are still in search of the truth and feel you need to test your ideas. You are clearly an intelligent person and want to reason things out. But if you want to preserve your spiritual/religious world view take what you have now, go and be happy – the force of reason is with Heracildes. Although there are some benefits from atheism I suspect that believers are, on the whole, happier.

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  42. Dave, I think different people have different experiences. One shouldn’t dismiss this by referring to it as a difference of emphasis. Some people have been terrorised as children – others obviously haven’t.

    I don’t think governments should be in the business of claiming religious beliefs, or non-religious beliefs. They should be secular.

    But, yes, governments should be determining and even propagating accurate descriptions of the world. That’s in all our interests. They do this by employing scientists and other specialists. We see it happening, for example, in the case of global climate change.

    Ethically it would wrong for governments not to do this. Some politicians actively work to tell lies about climate change and we should judge them morally wrong.

    You might be trying to elicit a suggestion that I advocate undemocratic behavior to restrict the activity of religionists. That is not the case. But we have got to get away from treating them with kid gloves or buying the “respect argument.”

    If religionists want to make factual claims about reality they must expect them to be critically assessed. We should not allow them to violate the human rights of others, particularly children. And we should insist that they have no more rights than others – that ours is a pluralist society and that others have the right to present their views. And we should demand that any criticism of our views be done according to normal rational methods of argument – not by vilification, demonisation, threats and name-calling.

    I think this is a position any liberal, freedom loving, Christian can and should accept.
    “that believers are, on the whole, happier.” The empirical evidence appears to suggest that this may be true in some countries (eg USA), and not in others (eg Scandinavia).

    It may be that, because the adherence of Christianity are now a minority (49.5% according to last census) in NZ that non-believers are actually happier. And this may become more apparent with time?

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  43. Heracides – I think you misunderstand me.

    Please explain how.

    I don’t see that I’ve written anything that “misunderstands” you. My main point was that viewing the neuroscience work as being directed at religion per se is misleading in the sense that actually these studies expose more general (or underlying) things, of which religion can be one thing that is affected by them. If you consider them outside of a context of religion, it becomes clearer. Referring to them as specifically examining religion alone is to somehow make religion “special”, when if you look at the mechanisms these studies examine, they are not specifically “about” religion, they are “about” broader, more general things that happen to be exploited by religions, but also show up in other contexts.

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  44. These things are very tangible to me but you can’t put them in a test tube so (to an atheist) it mustn’t be “real”. This is why atheist arguments seem shallow to me.

    No, it’s not just some bunch of athiests out to get you, ropata.
    You have to include all other religions too.
    They don’t think you have anything tangible either.
    That’s because, according to them, you’re just a deluded heathen who’s following some primative foreign mumbo-jumbo.
    To them, your religious beliefs are shallow.
    Walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes.

    As Heraclides said… You don’t believe in Hindu mythology; millions of people do. By your logic they must be right and you wrong. Well, no, the number of people has nothing to do with something being right or wrong.

    Imagine a Hindu taking your own words and making EXACTLY the same claims but using hi/her own Hindu religious terms and concepts.
    Would you accept them or would you dismiss them because clearly they are worshipping false gods and reject the One True Religion (which you just so happen to be in the right geographical area to discover and believe in. Lucky you.)

    Let’s channel a hypothetical Hindu for a moment…


    …here are a few things I appreciate about Krishna’s and Shiva’s and Brama’s (etc.) work in my life
    – an encompassing sense of a powerful benevolence at work
    – purpose/hope, to be a better person and bless others
    – deliverance from Kali oppression
    – inner healing, help thru depression/anxiety
    – sense of being changed from the inside out
    – alleviation of physical pain
    – prayer and worship, sense of connection to Krishna and co.
    – the Vedas of wisdom, direction, and devotion
    – a community of caring people numbering in the billions.

    There is much to criticise in Hindu culture. But my faith in the gods is not dependent on every foible of Hindus. It is not even dependent on me being any good at following Lord Krishna. (Earlier this year I seriously questioned everything I had previously believed and decided to forget about ghee for a while). It’s just an openness to nirvana (more commonly called moksha) and the eventual reuniting with
    Brahman. Seek and ye shall find.

    Does this line of argument sound convincing to you. Does it inspire you to wash in the Ganges and eat ghee and never harm a cow again?
    Nope?
    Hmm.

    Do you find the whole Hindu “bag” to be silly and kinda useless and shallow?
    If so, then you are an atheist with regards to Hinduism.

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  45. Well, all those millions are observers aren’t they? Perhaps not “independent” or “scientific” but still significant I think. Thus my POV is supported by at least *some* evidence.

    No, the plural of anecdote is not evidence.
    Faith is not the same as evidence nor is science the same as religion.
    They are different.

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  46. Cedric, why do you assume I haven’t considered other religions? (I don’t think they are out to get me either, why do you keep making these presumptions?) I find them fascinating. They do have some interesting insights. Buddhism has a lot of practical wisdom for living “here and now”. Hinduism has some deep insights into human nature and spirituality. The Vedas do have a lot of cool things to say. Islam professes virtuous living and discipline. The New Age movement has some beautiful ideas about our place in the universe. As a Christian I believe they have part of the truth but their understanding is incomplete. When the apostle Paul went to Athens he didn’t slag off their numerous gods, he spoke positively of their devotion. So no I’m not a total atheist wrt other religions. I don’t just dismiss them carelessly.

    “All the world is my church, and my religious duty is doing good to my fellow man”
    (Tom Scott)

    When Jesus met Buddha : “Something remarkable happened when evangelists for two great religions crossed paths more than 1,000 years ago: they got along”
    hindu samaritans : “there remains a way, an imperative even, to lay down the weapons of spiritual warfare and join hands in the love of neighbor, to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, shelter the homeless and orphaned, to empower the repressed and downtrodden.”
    The Lost (Eastern) History of Christianity : What would have happened if the hegemony of Europe hadn’t been established? Might we have been far more pluralistic, had a greater appreciation of paradox, and taken seriously the role of faithfulness to the *practice* of Christ?

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  47. Cedric, why do you assume I haven’t considered other religions?

    ropata, I’m sure you feel that you have indeed considered other religions but…ultimately you went with the one that just happened to be in your geographical neighbourhood.

    I find them fascinating. They do have some interesting insights.

    That’s nice and all conciliatory but are you saying that all religions are on the same level as your religion…or do you, eventually, reject them?

    Do you not believe that your religion is the One True Religion?
    (Sure, the silk robes of the Taoists may be very cool in summer and those Sufi Mystics say some very nice things about child-care but…)

    Is there such a thing as a false god?
    A false religion?

    So no I’m not a total atheist wrt other religions. I don’t just dismiss them carelessly.

    All right then. Do you dismiss them with great regret and sensitivity after having carefully and deeply considered the various holy texts of the thousands of faiths both past and present, while at the same time acknowledging selected truths however incomplete and flawed they may ultimately be?

    Do you dismiss, for example, Bacabs?

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  48. Considering other religions isn’t the point I or Cedric were making. We were pointing out that your logic, that your claim it right because 2 billion Christians… believe in Christianity, just doesn’t work. The number of people that believe in something says nothing about if it’s right or not.

    In fact, if you accept your faulty logic for the sake of exercise and follow it through, you’d end up saying that religions can’t all be right:

    Many million Hindis -> by your logic Hinduism “must also be right”.

    Many million Islamists -> by your logic Islam “must also be right”.

    Many million Buddhists -> by your logic Buddhism “must also be right”.

    Etc., for many others down the ages: Zoroastria, and the Greek, Norse, etc. religions, all had plenty of followers in their day.

    But… their “teachings” conflict, so they can’t all be right.

    If you try argue only one is right, you’d have to justify it (and explain why you presented the faulty logic too). In particular—and please note this—you’d have to refute all the other religions! This would have you saying “mine is a religion like their’s” (because of the commonalities that all religions have) but at the very same time saying “mine is not a religion like their’s”. In end, it’s because that’s what you want not for any sound reason.

    The “correct” solutions are either to say that your logic is false (which it is anyway) and start over again with some other way of “justifying” your particular religion that doesn’t have this flaw, or to say that none of the religions are right (including your own).

    All atheists are doing is are spotting the logic and dismissing all religions, one more than you do.

    If you do choose (self-)justification of one religion over others, you’ll run straight back into doing the same self-justification that all the other religions that you deny are doing against your religion… See the flaw in this?

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  49. Ken – please do not assume I “dismiss” anything.

    In almost all arguments (within the proper Monty Python definition of the word) the structure of the argument is usually quite clear; valid points are made for various views and accepted by all parties. That people come to declare themselves for one view or another depends mainly on the weight/priority/emphasis that personal experience leads individuals to attach to the various points. I seek to show my understanding of your view by referring to your emphasis – not to dismiss it.

    I am just curious as to your view and not trying to provoke a particular response.

    You say: “I don’t think governments should be in the business of claiming religious beliefs, or non-religious beliefs. They should be secular.”
    But you also say: “But, yes, governments should be determining and even propagating accurate descriptions of the world…Ethically it would wrong for governments not to do this.”

    So do you think a government should be sitting on the fence and taking no action about religious belief in our society? Or should it be taking action beyond the passive approach of the state education system? Should our national anthem refer to god? Should the oaths we take in public processes refer to god? Should ministers be allowed to be Justices of the Peace, Judges, police officers, MPs? Should there be tax advantages for religious organisations? Should schools of religious character be supported or even allowed as part of the state system? Should state approved foster parents be allowed to be religious? Should parents be prosecuted for telling their children that they believe in god? (“We should not allow them to violate the human rights of others, particularly children.”)

    I agree with your principles. I too want the serious business of leadership and government to be based on science informed humanist values – but I am still not clear how far you would go? With the kid gloves off, what would you change if you could (assuming you could win support through democratic principles)?

    Regards free speech – I am not sure I would want to prevent people expressing their views even if they do come across as vilification, name calling etc. (What would hapen to all the blogs?)

    And regards happiness – I suspect that, like you, I want more evidence on this, but I suggest that percentage adherence does not necessarily correspond to % happiness with the belief. If we eventually reached 100% atheist belief we might still have (figure plucked from air) 80% unhappy atheists. 100% deist/spiritual belief might produce 50% unhappy believers (who knows?). Do you suppose that understanding the truth will always lead to happiness?

    (Am very much enjoying the conversation!)

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  50. Dave – I don’t know why you are concerned about how far I “would go”? Do you ask that of everyone?

    Your questions:

    So do you think a government should be sitting on the fence and taking no action about religious belief in our society? Yes

    Or should it be taking action beyond the passive approach of the state education system? Our education system is hardly passive – but no, not beyond a secular educaiton system.

    Should our national anthem refer to god? No – as a matter of not favouring one group over another. If believer want to sing about god I am not going to stop them – just don’t forcce it on me.

    Should the oaths we take in public processes refer to god? No – obviously, if we eant them to have any meanoing.

    Should ministers be allowed to be Justices of the Peace, Judges, police officers, MPs? treat them like car salesmen, accountants, etc. No differently.

    Should there be tax advantages for religious organisations? No – as it is we are forcibly tithed to subsidise relgious activities.

    Should schools of religious character be supported or even allowed as part of the state system? Only to the exten they fulfil a secular role. Support should not exten to relgious activities.

    Should state approved foster parents be allowed to be religious? Of course.

    Should parents be prosecuted for telling their children that they believe in god? (”We should not allow them to violate the human rights of others, particularly children.”) No of course not.

    Children are a difficult area and I endorse the position of Dawkins and Dennett on this. We should teach children how to think, not what to think.

    None of this has anything with “how far I would go.” It’s just basic human rights.

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  51. Heraclides – you misunderstand me because
    “how these neurological events/systems would be considered in the absence of a mythology associate them with.” is exactly the question I have addressed and proposed an answer to. (I.e. the development of religious/spiritual belief.)

    If you have read my original post then I have not been sufficiently clear and/or you have misinterpreted me. (I have strung quite a few points together.)

    Try re-reading me with the understanding that I am an atheist and that I am not discussing whether believing in god is correct. I view the arguments against the existence of god(s) as being, by far, the most probably correct view. My posts are aimed at asking the hard question; what are you going to do about it? My personal view is in my original post and I seek the views of others.
    When you reply to me “So food for thought: how would you have religious people be made aware that there are alternatives to consider that their leaders are discouraging them from considering?” is a narrower version of exactly the broad question I have asked (and given my view on).

    I would be interested to know your answer to this question. Perhaps you could respond to the specific points I put to Ken regards possible government action in my previous post. And we could add as a question – (apart from promoting/supporting whatever action you prefer through government) are there any principles to guide an atheist in their personal relations with believers? Should we be proactive in challenginging their views where-ever we find it. Do we wait to challenge assertions that make themselves known to us or should we seek out privately held views to challenge? Should we refuse to engage with deists in any way, apart from debate, unless they accept the atheist view? Should we establish that the owner/cook/waiter of the restaurant is not religious before we eat there? Is being agnostic good enough for us? How far should we forgive/accept inaccurate views (and just get on with life), or not? Does the religious inaccuracy represent a threat that requires atheist zealotry in response?

    These are not trivial questions. The management of the relationship between the human species and the supporting biosphere is the issue of our time. Do we think a religious world view might contribute to an incoherent/less effective response? I suggest that our answer to this question significantly informs our view of how radically atheistic we should be. That is, more radical than we are. And yet how far can ethical “anti-religious” behaviour be taken. For myself, I see the formation of any large scale, formal atheistic groups and government responses as likely to entrench resistance. Educate well and let the force of reason have its way, I say. As I have said earlier, I suspect that genetic variation will see religion always with us in some form.

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  52. Dave – responding to your question “are there any principles to guide an atheist in their personal relations with believers? “

    This interests me as I am keen on developing unity of action in political situations. I think there are many issues which unite theists and non-theists alike – and we should cooperate on these. Human rights, for example.

    I was concerned that such cooperation was being rejected by many Christians in the National Statement on Religious Diversity discussions. That is a problem we have to confront.

    Part of reason for rejection of unity of action is the theist demonisation of non-theists. We can counter that by asserting our rights to exist in this pluralistic society and to take part in these discussions. This is helped by being assertive, talking about things like atheism, making it acceptable, helping atheists to “come out.”

    This consciousness raising process will in the end make it more acceptable for theists to join with us in political actions.

    Any debate we have with them should of course be respectful. So far theists have often been disrespectful towards us – something we have to educate them on.

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  53. Hi Ken.

    Yes, I do like to find out how people think their beliefs would play out in their behaviour. I enjoy the discussion and it informs my view of myself. Not everyone knows their own mind well enough to have the question posed to them.

    I appreciate your responses.

    In as much as there is no co-ordinated approach/policy within our state education system to make an argument denying the existence of god, our system is certainly passive. Which is ok by me, by the way.

    Be aware that a number of your answers would require governement action/legislation to bring about and would be changes to the status quo. I would certainly support removing reference to god in all public documents and leave only the option to “affirm” rather than “swear” oaths. I also think that the tax exempt status of organised religions should be removed – but that would be buying a big fight and we will not see it anytime soon.

    Separating the religious activities from non within integrated and private secondary schools receiving state funding is a nice idea but would be a practical impossibility. One day we may see schools which include religious instruction denied any state funding but that would be almost as big a fight as tax free status for churches.

    Suggesting that your responses are as a matter “of course” from applying “human rights” principles makes me think you have some very clear principles in mind and that they produce inevitable conclusions for you. I suspect most people are less certain on these matters. I for one. Which is why I enjoy posing the questions and the discussion so much. To me these are not obvious answers. I am often surprised by the outcomes my values lead me to in particular contexts. It is the uncertainty that makes the conversation valuable.

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  54. Hi Ken.

    This is an excellent point you make about finding common ground with deists.

    We all operate from a core of shared values regardless of how we interpret their origin. We cannot expect whole communities of world view to change on short time scales. Big, pressing issues will need co-operation.

    I think the pedulum has been swinging in what makes for acceptable expressions of belief, and in a way that is often difficult to spot. When and where I was growing up in NZ made me think that it was believers who had to “come out”. Over the last 10-15 years or so the theists have become vocal and now I sense the Dawkins-prominent response tending to flower.

    I agree that atheists should not back down from their views. But I am not sure the playing field is quite level. Tell me if you think I am right when I assert that theists tend to feel more threatened by the atheists than vice versa?

    I suspect that atheists don’t really need to make public expressions of their belief to feel secure in it, in quite the same way that believers do. But if we athesists do organise the consciousness raising process you suggest do you not think this might tend to scare off the desired cooperation, rather than make it more likely, as you hope?

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  55. Cedric,
    I am a Christian so that implies I believe in Jesus Christ and the creeds of the church. Jesus was/is a physical incarnation of Yahweh, and he claimed to BE the truth, and I accept that claim. Therefore I certainly disagree with many of the core tenets of other religions, but I wouldn’t say that makes that religion completey false. Misguided, incomplete etc maybe.

    Heraclides.
    You haven’t disproven my point. I don’t rely on numbers at all. I was just using my shared experience for one example. If I relied on numerical advantage I would not be a Christian in New Zealand today. I came to faith despite some opposition and have found it socially challenging at times to profess my beliefs.

    I believe the revelation of God in Christianity is superior to any spiritual experiences from other religions (or new age or drugs for that matter). I believe the theology of christianity is far more robust that that of other religions.. it just makes sense to me. I believe the historicity of Christ is reliable and the history of the Church records umpteen divine interventions in human history. The Bible contains a dsitillation of humanity’s highest spiritual aspirations unparalleled by any other religion. So yes there are millions of believers in other religions but it does not dilute the fact that Jesus is Lord.

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  56. because
    “how these neurological events/systems would be considered in the absence of a mythology associate them with.” is exactly the question I have addressed

    Sorry, not meaning to argue, but because I wrote that does not say that I misunderstood you. In fact, you appear to be misunderstanding me (!) and were perhaps not writing very clearly.

    My point was fairly subtle and I’m not certain that you really get it. It’s not that linking these studies to religion is wrong, I’m quite happy with you doing that. It’s that making these findings specifically “about” religion is to make them about something more focused that they are actually about. At a couple of points in your post you do this, even if your intent was present them in a broader view.

    Try re-reading me with the understanding that I am an atheist and that I am not discussing whether believing in god is correct.

    I could see both at the time I replied; your reply suggests that you are making assumptions about my thoughts and my reply. My reply doesn’t say anything along the lines of “whether believing in god is correct” or not.

    is a narrower version of exactly the broad question I have asked

    This pretty much confirms that you haven’t gotten what I wrote. Your words were in fact narrower than mine with respect to the point I was making. I was suggesting that you broaden them in a specific, admittedly subtle, way. E.g. you wrote “Experiences which are specifically religious, are under study”, that’s too narrow, the activities are not “specifically religious”.

    Seeing that you now say you want this read with a broader view, then, fine.

    I’ll stand by saying that I think that none of this research, to me, shows there is a specific brain function that is specifically “about” religion and hence “causes” religion. Rather I see these as showing a range of features of brains that when religion is “offered”, or the person is prompted with religion prior to experiences evoking those features of the brain, people with religion attribute them to their religion.

    Likewise, there appear to be some features that make people more susceptible to religion when offered, which is not the same thing as saying these features “cause” religion or are “about” religion in some way.

    I think people need to take care about what these studies precisely mean. Hooking them on religion too narrowly, makes religion a “feature” of our brains, which not actually something these studies show.

    A related point is that just because we have some feature (phenotype), doesn’t mean that it’s there because it’s been positively selected for (as per selection in basic evolutionary theory). They can be features that are a by-product of evolution selecting for other things, just as the recent book review that Ken put up points out. There is a tendency to think of every feature as being “selected for” which isn’t necessarily justified. Selection is for the overall good; some poor “side-effects” can be tolerated and “come for the ride” if the overall selection is for the better.

    (A computer programmer might draw the analogy of bugs that are “features” in that they were not part of the intended function of the program, but a by-product of how it was implemented. On rare occasions these are actually for the good, but most of the time they’re just bugs. Either way, they’re side-effects of the implementation.)

    Another related point is that for someone to have an experience that they deem “religious” they have to have some notion of religions first. I’ll leave you with that, as this reply is long enough for me! 🙂

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  57. ropata,

    Trying to take back your argument and at the same time saying it’s not wrong is childish to me. Sorry, I’m not in the mood for sloppy excuses. You justified your position because “many people” share the same view, that’s clear as daylight. You can’t deny that. It’s a false argument for claiming something to be right or wrong.

    I think I’ve shown how that was wrong, quite clearly.

    What matters is not how many people claim to have a “shared experience”, but evidence for the claim. This particular thing is the reason for the cliché “the plural of anecdote is not data”. An anecdote it an anecdote, even if it’s repeated a billion times over.

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  58. Heraclides
    I didn’t realise I was supposed to be proving something to you. Was simply describing how things work in my world. I gave you reasons why I believe I am right, clearly you find those reasons insufficient. Fine by me. However your opinion does not make nearly as much impression on me as encountering the presence of God on a regular basis.

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  59. Thank you Heraclides.

    Let me assume the burden of not having expressed myself clearly enough. My apologies.

    Please do not seek to correct me on the research to which I refer and of which you have no direct knowledge. I refer both to general brain function research and research related specifically to linking brain function to religious experience/thoughts as identified by the subject of the research. Both types of information help inform our view of how and why religious belief arises. I stand by my claim that “Experiences which are specifically religious, are under study”; whether you think that is too narrow or not is beside the point.

    The non-adaptive features selected for because they accompany adaptive features are often referred to as “artifacts”. I think my original post made it very clear that I see religious experience arising from human psychology as an artifact of adaptive features (curiousity, pattern finding). So yet again I am at a loss to interpret why you are bothering me with this info. It seems you are too subtle for me Heraclides.

    I am not here to debate shallow, semantic points like, what came first the “religious exerience” or the “religion”, in some foolish test of strength.

    You are an atheist – right? What are you going to do about it? Do you have no interest in how your philosphy informs your own behaviour (apart from how it prompts you to road test it against Ropata)? Do you have no response at all to the second half of my previous post for you?

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  60. Heraclides,
    I know and have experienced enough of God’s love and healing presence in my life that cannot be “disproven” by any intellectual means. Can the love between mother and child be empirically tested? Yet it is a phenomenon familiar to virtually all.

    Reducing my experience of God to a bunch of rational propositions cheapens it. There’s no way to empirically disprove or debunk something that has affected my life deeply for many years. Trying to live a godly life is a perfectly logical and rational response when God makes himself clearly evident.

    Ken may say its all in the brain, but perhaps the reason the human person has a capacity for the numinous, transcendent and spiritual is because it was designed that way, and there really is a supernatural realm!?

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  61. If it’s personal testimonials time, let me thrown in my two cents for perspective.

    I have experienced all that you talk of, Ropata, and I’ve believed it to be true just as fervently. But I no longer believe it to be true.

    No doubt you’ll struggle to believe that I’ve experienced what you have experienced because you can not currently comprehend going from where you are now to where I am now. If it’s any consolation I didn’t believe it when others used to tell me that they once shared my convictions either.

    I didn’t enjoy the experience of losing my beliefs at the time but I’ve come to love truth above fantasy and so while I no longer have the false comfort of eternal salvation I feel I am more at peace with myself and my place in the world.

    That’s not to convince you, Ropata. More to provide some perspective to others reading this that the experiences of our feelings are anecdotal and not necessarily evidence for truth.

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  62. Damian, you said:
    No doubt you’ll struggle to believe that I’ve experienced what you have experienced because you can not currently comprehend going from where you are now to where I am now.
    I can respect your decision. I certainly do understand, and have doubted a lot. I never was much of a good Christian. But there’s still something that draws me in, after many years of wandering.

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  63. Ropata – I can appreciate that you feel drawn in to something. It’s my point about us being a rationalising rather than rational species.

    We easily arrive at decisions and beliefs on emotional, intuitional grounds. (Apparently we have real trouble making decisions if we can’t engage our emotions). Then we automatically try to find rational “explanations” for our decisions and beliefs.

    In science we have a culture and procedures to reduce this subjectivism and to test ideas against reality. Obviously this doesn’t operate in religion.

    Really, it seems to me that no religious “claims”, beliefs are a bit like personal preference for colour or flavour.

    The problem comes when we try to rationalise beliefs by making factual claims. That brings us into the realm of science. Unfortunately people can sometimes get so desperate to rationalise their subjective religious beliefs that they start to distort or lie about the facts.

    I think there may be something about the monotheistic religions which drives adherents into this basically unscientific attitude, while still trying to use science. Perhaps the nature of their particular god hypothesis inevitably forces them into making factual claims about reality and hence inevitably drives them into a conflict with science.

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