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September 17, 2006

Thinking About The God Delusion

gddelusion.jpg

One of the nice things about doing a signing at a bookseller's trade show is that afterward you get to wander through the tradeshow floor and admire all the marvelous books that publishers are giving away to booksellers, and maybe snag one or two for yourself. I had to be careful to limit myself to just a few, on account I brought only my backpack with me, not a packing box; even so I walked out of there with five books. One of them is Richard Dawkin's latest book The God Delusion, in which the eminent public scientist enthusiastically takes a cudgel to the very notion of God, representing Him as unneccesary, something of a bother and a definite public health hazard.

And by "Him," we're specifically talking about Yahweh, the god who is the God of half the people on the planet. Indeed, Dawkins is cheerfully rude about Yahweh -- he calls Him psychotic, in point of fact -- and appears to relish the idea of getting the religious host entirely bunched up about it. One portion of his book has him airing some e-mail he gets from some of the more idiotic and intolerant religious folk; as I was reading it I wondered if he was merely excerpting a blog entry he did somewhere along the way. Much of the book has the informal "whacking the idjits" feel of a blog entry, just in printed form. Perhaps this is an intellectual atlas of stature: When you're student, grad student or associate professor, you vent in your blog; when you get tenure, you get to vent in a book.

I think The God Delusion is a very good and interesting book, but I have an ambivalence regarding Dawkins' delight in trashing God and religion. As far as things go, I suspect Dawkins and I are in the same boat regarding the existence of God, which is to say we're agnostic about it, roughly to the same amount we're agnostic regarding invisible pink unicorns. On the other hand, unlike Dawkins, I don't tend to believe the concept of religion itself rises to such levels of risibility that those who follow one must be apprehended largely as credulous dolts. Even if I believed they were, as long as they kept their credulous doltery out of my way, I would be fine with it. My quarrel with religion, when I have one, is when those who practice it wish to impose it on me, often in ways counter to the expressed beliefs and goals of the religion they espouse, or counter to the Constitution of the United States, the wisdom of the freedoms and rights granted therein I find myself progressively astounded by as the years go on. Enjoy your religion, folks. Just keep it to yourself, if you please.

Also, there's the nagging question in my mind of how much, on a purely practical level, the human condition would change if our species were somehow magically innoculated against the idea of God. In the book, Dawkins posits the idea that religion is a byproduct of some useful human evolutionary adaptation -- a byproduct that has gone awry, much as a moth spiraling in toward a flame is an unfortunate byproduct of the evolutionary adaptation that allows the moth to navigate by starlight. In this particular case, Dawkins speculates religion might be a byproduct of an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation that makes children susceptible to guidance by parental (or elder) authority.

(Dawkins is careful to say that he's just throwing out that particular possible explanation as an example, and that his real allegience is to the idea of religious belief as a less-than-advantageous offshoot of a more useful evolutionary adaptation, but I have to say that I find that particular idea intriguing -- I'm projecting onto Dawkins here, but when I read this hypothesis of his I couldn't help think about the idea that mentally speaking, dogs are child-like wolves; that is, as adults they have activities (wagging tales and barking being the obvious ones) that wolves outgrow. Grey wolves and dogs are the same species -- taxonomically dogs are a subspecies. Would Dawkins suggest that religiously-minded humans are to agnostic humans as dogs are to wolves, i.e., mentally suspended at a pre-adult stage in some critical way? Again, to be clear, this is my supposition of Dawkins' possible implicit argument; don't go blaming him for my trying to model his thinking process. But this is what my brain lept to, and I wonder if Dawkins had left that there for the biologically-adept to pick up.)

If Dawkins posits that religion and religious belief are merely an evolutionary byproduct, then the problem is obvious: Even if we flush God down the toilet and send the religions of the world swirling down with Him, the biological root cause of the God delusion is still extant, and will inevitably be filled by some other process, just as getting rid of all man-made open flames won't keep a moth from circling another sort of artificial light source, be it a lightbulb or a glowstick or whatever. God knows (sorry) that entirely atheistic authoritarian schemes have exploited the same human tendency toward obedience, and Lysenkoism, for one, shows that you don't need a religious doctrine to pervert science. Getting rid of God intellectually doesn't change the human condition biologically. It will simply create an ideological vacuum to be filled by something else. Which it will; nature abhors a vacuum.

Perhaps Dawkins is an optimist about humans and their ability to plug up the God hole with a more pleasant and useful alternate scheme; I regret I would not share such optimism. Indeed, if an agnostic wanted to make an argument for the continuance of religion, it would be the (no offense) "devil you know" argument: Most religions give at least lip service to the idea of love and peace, so clearing that out of the way is not necessarily a good thing from a practical point of view. Say what you will about Jesus, for whom I have nothing but admiration even without the "son of God" thing, but one of the things I find him useful for is reminding people who allege to be following His teaching just how spectacularly they're failing Him, in point of fact. The Book of Matthew is particularly good for this, I've found.

I don't doubt Dawkins could make a perfectly good rebuttal for this (possibly along the lines of if we're going to look at it practically, the cost-benefit analysis suggests that religions do more damage than the thin line of agnostics/atheists berating religionists to live up to their role models could possibly ever hope to repair through public shaming), but for the rest of us it's worth thinking about: one may argue that a belief in god or the practice of a religion is bad, but what suggestion do we have that what follows after God and religion will be any better? This may or may not be an argument against eradicating God, or at least attempting to do so, depending on one's taste; it still ought to be considered.

Moving away from this particular aspect of the book, one thing Dawkins notes is that here in the US, being an atheist is the worst possible thing you can be; people would apparently prefer you to be gay than godless (which means, of course, pity the poor atheist homosexual, particularly if he wants to marry his same-sex partner). Dawkins notes that the Atheist-American community (which would apparently include agnostics in the same manner that the gay community accepts bisexuals) is a pretty large community (22.5 million strong, according to the American Atheists), but that it's politically pretty weak, in part because atheists and agnostics in the United States don't have the same sort of strong lobby that, say, the Jewish community has.

I find this an interesting point. Personally speaking I have yet to feel marginalized or discriminated against because I am an agnostic. Part of this, I'm sure, is because I also happen to be a white, educated, heterosexually-bonded non-handicapped male of above average financial means, and those facts matter more in this society. Another part, I'm sure, is that I simply don't care what other people think about my agnosticism, and I also know my rights, so in general an attempt to marginalize me probably wouldn't really work. Another part is that, in fact, I haven't been marginalized or discriminated against for my unwillingness to adhere to a religion. I'm not suggesting it doesn't happen; I'm saying it hasn't happened to me. It may be possible that if I were to run for public office, my agnosticism would become a campaign issue; what I think would be more of a campaign issue is that I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Which is to say I would have an uphill climb even before my agnosticism were an issue.

I'm an open agnostic -- ask me, I'll tell you -- but I don't spend a lot of time defining myself through my agnosticism, and I pick and choose my battles. Teaching creationism (disguised as "intelligent design" or otherwise) in classrooms? Fight worth having. Getting worked up about "In God We Trust" on the coinage? Someone else can shoulder that load. I suppose this triage might upset some certain segment of folks who self-identify as agnostics and atheists, but honestly, if I'm not going to get worked up about God's vengeance, I'm not going to get worked up about their pique.

Also, as previously suggested, I worry more about the religious when they want to impinge on my rights from the point of view of a US citizen than the point of view of an agnostic, because my rights as the latter are predicated on my rights as the former. This is an important distinction to make, because there are more US citizens than US agnostics/atheists, and because as it happens, when the religious-minded wish to impinge on my constitutional rights, they also usually end up impinging on the rights of others who are not the same religion as they, or if they are of the same religion, have beliefs that do not require they try to shove them on others. Therefore, I have common cause with religious people who, like me, do not wish their rights abridged by some noxious group of enthusiastic God-thumpers who believe their religious fervor outweighs the US Constitution. And I'm happy to make that cause with them, and I'm not going to go out of my way to say to them "thanks for your help, even if you are a complete idiot to believe in that God thing." I'll just say thanks.

I think that should be sufficient for anyone, including Richard Dawkins.

Posted by john at September 17, 2006 01:28 PM

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In Thinking About The God Delusion, John Scalzi ruminates on Richard Dawkins's new book, which I haven't read yet, so can't really comment on. However, I do know enough of Dawkins's writings that something Scalzi said, mostly in passing, leapt [Read More]

Tracked on September 20, 2006 08:26 PM

Comments

Paul | September 17, 2006 01:55 PM

John, perhaps this is a semantic thing - though it's hard to see how in a piece in which you use both of the words 'atheist' and 'agnostic' separately and together - but to even loosely describe Dawkins as 'agnostic' on the existence of a god is about as far from his espoused position as you can get. I'm interested in why you used that word.

Ginny | September 17, 2006 01:58 PM

I believe that God (as most world religions know it) was originally created to explain what was, at the time, unexplainable: the sun shining, the rain falling, the stars in the sky. Being absorbed in Self as most humans are, we believed that while we were creations of God, we could control God and how he reacts to us through pleasing him--sacrifices, prayer, etc.--just as we thought the Earth was the center of the universe, we created a God that was in turn both our master and our servant.

Being petrified of death, we also constructed an elaborate afterlife, to explain what happens to us when our bodies cease; and this is also controlled by God; but once again we put ourselves in charge by putting forth the notion that we can control our destiny and how God treats us in the afterlife by pleasing him--once again, putting ourselves in charge of our "master."

The very idea that we can control a supernatural being by dancing as fast as we can is curious and child-like in its basis and reflective of the ancient peoples who created God.

I, personally, was raised Roman Catholic and after decades of not attending church, became a Quaker. To me, "God" is what Quakers call "that of God within;" which to me, personally, means my self--there are no prayers in this particular religion, and for most sects of it no priests--"worship" consists of an hour and a half of complete silence and meditation. It allows for inward reflection as a way to better oneself. The best part is, there's absolutely no reason nor call to convert other people--rather, my particular Meeting spends an inordinate amount of time learning about other faiths and what they do & why they do it. Mostly we just repsect the people around us, and that's what (in my opinion) 'religion' should be for.

fishbane | September 17, 2006 02:00 PM

This is the first time I've seen someone express something close to my feelings about the religion issue. I really don't care that much about others' choice in invisible beings, and I'm normally very respectful about it. Other than being bored, I don't even mind going to religious ceremonies if it matters to a friend that I do so. I mention this only to draw the distinction between agnostics like me, and apparently you, although I don't wish to place words in your mouth, and people like my girlfriend who are rather more hostile towards religion.

In any case, my tolerance dies at the point where someone else's god(s) tells them to legislate my morality. This does take us down the path of tricky issues, like school. In an ideal world, a faithful creationist shouldn't have to pay have the kid led to a life of sinfullness any more than my kid should be spoonfed creationist crap on my dime. Unfortunately, we do happen to inhabit a slightly less than ideal vector involving little things like democracy and scarce resources, so compromise is required. Another problem is even admitting that, as people of my frame of mind tend to think "compromise" means "lets teach factual science and leave out all the invisible pal stuff", whereas others take it for an opening to abstract god one step away, wink, and call it science while rattling on about eyeball construction and misconstruing information theory.

Gah. I started to ramble rather heavily there. Sorry about that.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2006 02:02 PM

Paul:

Because Dawkins calls himself an agnostic on pages 50 - 51 in the book, noting, of course, that "I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden." This is to say he's intellectually honest about it: He deeply doubts the existence of god, and thinks the evidence is rather overwhelmingly against one existing -- he's not one of those people who thinks it's a 50/50 chance of God existing. He's a de facto atheist, but admits one cannot know for certain. That's about where I fit in, too.

Steve Brady | September 17, 2006 02:05 PM

Have you read Douglas Adams's "Is There An Artificial God?" (link)?

In it, he talks about Bali and how their religion is tied in to their agriculture and therefore has a practical function.


"In God We Trust"

My problem is the inaccuracy. If it said "In God Many Of Us Trust" I'd be fine with it.

I'd rather have our actual motto on the money, though - and in the pledge ("one nation, from many, indivisible...").

fishbane | September 17, 2006 02:19 PM

"I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden."

That's where I fit in, too - I believe there is no god, but I have no way of proving that is so, so the best word for my belief state is agnostic.

Steve Buchheit | September 17, 2006 02:20 PM

John, it's a by-product of our genetic predispotion to pattern recognition. We see patterns, connect the dots, because we survive better that way. This is what camoflague intentionally disrupts.

We look for patterns everywhere, and so when we look outside into the world we begin to see patterns both where they exist and where they don't exist, because we're preprogramed to see patterns. God, as in Yahweh, started from such a pattern recognition. Then, through intermitten/random reward behaviors (most prayers aren't answered but occasionally they are, or appear to be) the pattern is reinforced.

When religions give comfort and cause for the religious I certainly support them. Once they cross the lines and start the "we must convert the infidels/pagans/heathens even if we have to kill them to do it" I start having problems with them.

In general, about this thread, I quote from "Friends"
"Can, open, worms, everywhere," - Chandler.

Laurie Mann | September 17, 2006 02:21 PM

I pretty much quit two jobs because religious fanatics had taken over and made not being a believer difficult. They didn't do anything I could sue over, they just made things tough.

How tough?

Well, remember the Promise Keepers? One of my co-workers got really into being a Promise Keeper. He was also a Scout leader, so we had a lot of homophobic, anti-feminist rhetoric out of him. When I asked him if he understood that the Taliban had certain similarities to the Promise Keepers, he just didn't get it.

When you're a feminist, and when you have friends who are gay, hearing this shit just gets to be too much after a while.

However, it is a great example of religion (and Republicanism) being the opiate of the masses. Just turn off your mind and go with God. *BAH!*

Rachel | September 17, 2006 02:29 PM

I think it's okay to make common cause with religious people in some cases, and also to speak against religion as a phenomenon...

Marc | September 17, 2006 02:47 PM

Scalzi wrote, "[p]ersonally speaking I have yet to feel marginalized or discriminated against because I am an agnostic." I am in the same boat, though I wonder how much of it might have to do with his (or my) lack of belief in god simply not coming up. If there were a generally recognized agnostic/athiest symbol that I could wear on a chain around my neck - akin to the ubiquitous cross - that announced my disbelief to the world, I wonder how many dirty looks and how much outright hostility I would have to deal with.

Polls seem to indicate that hostility to athiests is widespread and accepted in this country -- see discussions here, here, and here, for instance. (Yes, I realize that the VC posts used the term "athiest" while Scalzi and Dawkins used "agnostic," but look at the wording of the polls - they seem to mean about the same thing). There have been very successful campaigns to teach people that hating others because of their race or religion is socially unacceptable, but no corresponding program to stamp out (or at least repress) hatred of people based on their lack of religion.

Annalee Flower Horne | September 17, 2006 03:20 PM

The reason I have difficulty with books like that one is because the "you're an idiot if you believe in God" rhetoric makes it impossible for me to pay attention to the book's actual point.

I don't have a problem with atheists and agnostics. Really, I don't. It's not my business if you don't believe in God, and it would be arrogance of the worst kind for me to assume that you haven't thought about an issue simply because you didn't reach the same conclusions that I have about it. I, unlike a lot of the Religious Right, am secure enough about my beliefs that I do not see the existance of those who do not share them as a threat. I'm a first ammendment fangirl who thinks everyone should be entitled to their own beliefs and a government that upholds their right to same.

But I find it rather ironic how some people will screach about how no one respects their position on God's existance with the same breath that they'll call me and mine idiots for not sharing said position. Prosletyzers annoy me. I don't particularly care whose side they're on.
----

A side note to Ginny: I'm a Quaker as well. For the record, though, the vast majority of Quakers today are in fact Programmed Friends (IE, they have pastors and attend churches instead of meetings), so saying 'for most sects' is technically inaccurate. Most sects of American Friends are unprogrammed, but on the world stage, we're very much a minority.

David Moles | September 17, 2006 03:24 PM

The problem I have with the "credulous dolts" line of thinking is that it requires me to believe that folks like Will Shetterly, the Nielsen Haydens, and Benjamin Rosenbaum are credulous dolts.

The same Occam's Razor that leads me not to believe in God also leads me to think that line of thinking just isn't going to be profitable....

Tim Walters | September 17, 2006 03:26 PM

My belief is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same as yours, but I call it atheism, and am a bit perplexed that anyone would consider it agnosticism. To do so requires either putting the existence of God in a special epistemological category where absolute proof of nonexistence is required for disbelief, or professing agnosticism in all matters, since certainty is nowhere to be found.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2006 03:29 PM

Well, and of course you may call it atheism if you wish, Tim. I'm not going to be hairsplitter about what other people call themselves when they're not believing in a God.

Gwen | September 17, 2006 03:32 PM

I'm taking a class in comparative religions right now for college, to understand more about religions. Very interesting stuff so far.
Most interesting yet was a paper by Robert N. Bellah called "Civil Religion in America." (You can find it at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/Bellah/articles_5.htm .) Basically it's about the American religion, why every inaugural address has had a reference to God but none to, say, "Jesus Christ," the Israel mythology of the American Revolution and then the Jesus myth for Lincoln, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the Arlington National Cemetary, et cetera: the common religion of (United States) Americans, similar enough to Christianity that Christians are able to claim that we're a Christian nation founded on Judeo-Christian values and usually get away with it.
All right, I know it sounds kinda crazy--the United States doesn't have a religion, not even an unofficial one!--but it makes a weird kind of sense. (And now I know why I get so upset when people advocate temporarily suspending Constitutional rights.)
I'm in the "not sure" religious category myself. I mainly figure that any deity who was all obsessed with being worshiped isn't really worth it anyway, that they'd rather us act morally and spend our time in this life on this life. (So there, says Gwen to "the jealous God" and the kill-the-infidels God.) It's my version of Pascal's Wager: I wouldn't want to worship pretty much any monotheistic deity I've read about even if they did exist, and if they don't I'm also fine not worshipping them. Maybe some of the polytheistic deities, but then if they're that cool they don't mind me not worshiping them.
And I think that the "worse than homosexuality!" exists. Not for my circle of friends I'm no longer in touch with, but then the idea of "worse than homosexuality" would sound stupid to them anyway (clarification: because homosexuality isn't bad).
But for my parents, for instance? I haven't told them yet--I don't want them to think they've been remiss in their parenting duties in raising me to be a Good Christian. (They'd still love me and all, but...parental disappointment.) I think they'd think it was their fault, and then they'd work harder to get my younger siblings to turn out better, as in, the indoctrination I never had. (We used to go to church, which I liked because of the singing, but we haven't since we moved when I was ten.)
Yep, religion in the United States is a weird, weird thing.
P.S. I'm in favor of going back to the original coin motto: "Mind Your Own Business."

Ginny | September 17, 2006 03:36 PM

Annalee: I stand corrected. I have noticed a larger movement within Friends to have Programmed Meetings, which I find unfortunate. Additionally, there was a Meeting (if I remember correctly) in North Carolina which made a statement on Marriage defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman and for the purpose of procreation, a position which I find repugnant. It seems that many Friends today are being led to the need to...be led. I much prefer the ability to be a free thinker.

MatGB | September 17, 2006 04:11 PM

John, on the semantics thing, I tend to think of atheism as a 'faith'. It annoys some atheists, but it works for me. I believe there to be no god or gods. I also know that this cannot be proved, only disproved.

It's an element of faith. I don't believe in fairies, I don't believe in ghosts, I don't believe in gods, but I respect the rights of those that believe otherwise because, well, I may be wrong, although I doubt it and believe them to be deluding themselves.

To me, an agnostic is someone who hasn't thought about it, hasn't come to a decision, doesn't really know their own mind. From your description, you're an atheist, according to my internal definitions. But, essentially, it's semantics, we agree on what matters. And I really must get around to buying that book. And yours, for that matter...

Timothy McClanahan | September 17, 2006 04:45 PM

The concept of a world without religion sounds interestint at first, and may at first glance be thought to be a better place, without religious wars, etc., but that neatly sidesteppes human behaviour. We'll group up into any group we can just so we can be part of a group and lord it over other groups. Whether it's my race vs yours, my state or town vs yours, my soccer team vs yours, whatever, it doesn't matter. We don't need religion to feel a need to kill someone else; it just makes for yet another excuse.

While I have no statistics at hand, and I doubt if any such exist, it certainly seems to me that more people have been killed because of religion, than have been spared because of religion.

Speaking of soccer "houliganism," it's kind of interesting that alcohol helps spur on the same type of antisocial behaviour as religious ferver, isn't it? Does this mean ulta-religious people are acting kind of drunk, intoxicated on their religion, and thus losing inhibitions against doing things their professed religion bans (murder, etc.)? Hmm, just had that thought - it bears further cogitation, though I'm feeling quite peckish, so I'll stop here and go in search of some tasty comestibles.

fishbane | September 17, 2006 04:45 PM

Matt: You say semantics, I say squid. "Agnostic" refers to someone who claims to have not convinced themselves of one side or the other of the various claims about superior beings that have beem made over time. Many people, myself included, have concluded they are right about the topic, but still apply the label to themselves because they cannot demonstrate why they are right to others.This is one of the ways we sever belief from fact.

As far as:

But I find it rather ironic how some people will screach about how no one respects their position on God's existance with the same breath that they'll call me and mine idiots for not sharing said position. Prosletyzers annoy me. I don't particularly care whose side they're on.

Respect is a two way road. Speaking only for myself, I don't have any particular reason to be spiteful to religious people. I do, in fact, make jokes about invisible pals and whatnot, but that is mostly around friends, and hardly worse than some theists asserting strongly that I will be tortured forever in firey pits once dead. In matters that matter, I am, and I think most of my fellow travelers (not like we're organized, or anything) are usually quite respectful. And really, I don't understand why the faithful (of whatever faith) should be so thin-skinned. As I understand it, most faiths call upon believers to something much more severe that polite mockery.

As a datapoint, I go to church about once a month with a person who is close to me. I'm about as non-xian as can be, but I'm perfectly capable of respecting my friend enough to take communion because it is important to them.

(For the record, I was a Religious Studies major in a small, expensive liberal arts college in the NE U.S., until I realized that I wasn't doing anything useful, and dropped out. And that was before I realized that the degree was worth more than the knowledge, and was sad about screwing the pooch both ways. So it goes.)

Jon | September 17, 2006 05:35 PM

I also don't particularly care whether someone is a believer or not. But I become quite annoyed when people lump everyone who believes in God in with the religious reich of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, etc. I am a gay born-again Christian. They say I don't exist. But then who typed this post?


Not all Christians try to force pseudo-science in schools, and we don't all bomb abortion clinics. Those who do are only a mouthy minority, but it is far easier for lazy news people to quote one of these "leaders" than to try to find out how most Christians actually feel.

jason | September 17, 2006 05:35 PM

Excellent, John. Truly excellent. Thank you.

fishbane | September 17, 2006 05:54 PM

Jon, above: But I become quite annoyed when people lump everyone who believes in God in with the religious reich of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, etc. I am a gay born-again Christian. They say I don't exist. But then who typed this post?

Jon (obviously not Scalzi, just to be clear): I'd just ask, who is "they", or alternately, the "people"? You're quite clearly angry with some number of so far unidentified people that if I squint, I can mistake for someone who seems like me, but I have trouble figuring out how you came to that anger towards something that vaguely looks like me.

What set you off? I don't mind talking, if I am, in fact, the sort of person that makes you angry. Why not air our laundry here, in our favorite authors home, instead of stinking up our own? (Sorry. That meaphor went on for too long. This is why I'm not published yet.)

Mark K. | September 17, 2006 06:04 PM

Rachel:

I think it's okay to make common cause with religious people in some cases, and also to speak against religion as a phenomenon...

I wouldn't presume to tell anybody who they should make common cause with, or on what causes, but I will point out that for a non-trivial number of religious people, this kind of statement can sound a lot like "I think it's okay to work with gay people and also speak against homosexuality as a phenomenon." As in, religion often isn't merely an intellectual position, but an umbrella category for a deeply meaningful set of personal experiences.

Annalee Flower Horne | September 17, 2006 06:47 PM

Ginny, I agree with you about the unfortunate tendencies I see among Friends with regards to acceptance these days. The 'gay marriage issue' is tearing through Quakerdom in a big way right now. It came up many, many times at the World Gathering of Young Friends in 2005, and again at the gathering in Africa later that year.

One of the big things that I took away from the world gathering, though, is that many Programmed Friends are a lot like us. They tend to be more Christo-centric than unprogrammed Friends, but most of their core beliefs are the same as ours. A lot of them are not evangelical.

I kinda feel like I'm thread-jacking by talking about Quaker politics here, though. If you drop me an email (Flowean at earlham dot edu), I'd love to continue this discussion someplace where it's not cluttering up Scalzi's comment thread.

Janiece | September 17, 2006 07:28 PM

My copy of this book just shipped today, and I can't wait to read it. I'm always up for books that make me think.

The trouble with discussions surrounding religion (or sex, or politics) is the emotional hook. Once an individual gets "hooked" into an emotionally loaded discussion with no intention of listening to the other party, but only to convince the world that they are RIGHT, no meaningful discussion will occur. I'm glad this thread seems to have escaped this trap.

I would say that my issue is with FANATICS, of any stripe, be they fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Atheist, et al. If you are a fanatic, then I have no time for your argument, be it good, bad or indifferent, as your credibility is suspect, at best.

Matt Arnold | September 17, 2006 08:14 PM

I refer to me, Scalzi, and Dawkins as obviously atheistic as it's possible to get and still remain reasonable. Call it hairsplitting, but there is a good reason that I reject the term "agnostic." That reason is that I have hundreds of real-life experiences about how listeners and readers think the word "agnostic" means. They think it means we think the evidence for God is as good as the evidence against; or that we haven't thought about it and hardly care. In other words, it means not taking sides.

I choose the word "atheist" specifically because by so doing, I'm taking sides and revealing that I think believers in God are wrong.

An atheist doesn't have to be obnoxious or pushy about it; just state it with that word and leave it at that. And all of a sudden one more piece of the social unanimity the believer depends on will have been shaken. The freedom to leave behind belief in God is difficult for most people because they literally don't think they know any atheists. Atheists are "those evil, nasty people" charicatured in Jack Chick cartoon tracts. Once they meet enough normal, friendly, charming people who are willing to admit they gently but firmly disagree on God, rather than hedge deceptively with the mealy-mouthed word "agnostic", they will be more accepting of diversity at the very least.

This is why I choose the label of an atheist.

Mark K.:
I wouldn't presume to tell anybody who they should make common cause with, or on what causes, but I will point out that for a non-trivial number of religious people, this kind of statement can sound a lot like "I think it's okay to work with gay people and also speak against homosexuality as a phenomenon." As in, religion often isn't merely an intellectual position, but an umbrella category for a deeply meaningful set of personal experiences.

Homosexuality is not indicative of (as King put it when discussing prejudice) "the content of one's character." It's curious that so many can believe religion is the only source of all morality and character, and simultaneously religion is sheilded from criticism as if it were just any other genetic demographic category. As if it were a mere multicultural decoration. As if it weren't, in this free country, a choice that reflects character.

fishbane | September 17, 2006 08:33 PM

I choose the word "atheist" specifically because by so doing, I'm taking sides and revealing that I think believers in God are wrong.

That's fine. That's fair. I hope you're OK with the fact that, while I agree with you, I'm not willing to sign on. My little issue is that I cannot prove to myself that god (pick one, or several) doesn't exist. I don't think (they) it does (excuse the grammar), but I can't prove it. Therefor, I can't call myself an atheist.

I understand why atheists get annoyed with my position, when they come from a political front. I have trouble with that, but that seems obvious.

I wonder about the interesting parts - what makes Matt not like what is so obviously the same belief state we share, other than my (and others) acceptance of J. Random Religion as being Just Fine. (I also don't tape bacon to any animals. I like it better without adhesives. )

Rachel | September 17, 2006 08:35 PM

Mark K.:

"I think it's okay to work with gay people and also speak against homosexuality as a phenomenon."

Well, isn't it? If a conservative republican agrees with a log cabin republican about abortion, don't they make common cause about that? Should the fact taht the conservative agrees with the log cabinner mean that he must agree with everything else in the log cabinner's stable of opinions?

So I like Hugo Schwyzer's feminist blog. I am interested in his religious interpretations and the way that he uses religion in his posts.

I still think religion, by and large, is a damaging phenomenon. That doesn't mean I think Hugo is a dolt, or that he personally is damaging. As I said, I'm even interested in his Christianity.

But I don't think there's a problem with me saying all these things, supporting Hugo's feminist stands, and also believing that religion does more bad than good.

Janiece | September 17, 2006 08:45 PM

Matt Arnold,

"Homosexuality is not indicative of (as King put it when discussing prejudice) "the content of one's character."

In the case of many religious persons, I think you will find disagreement on this point. Although I personally believe that homosexuality is determined biologically, I know many people who consider it "wrong," and fully within the control of the individual. Looking at the world through a religious lens, they feel they can fully justify their condemnation through their belief.

Okay, I'm bored with the whole Devil's Advocate role now.

"As if it [religion] weren't, in this free country, a choice that reflects character."

Bravo! Choosing a religious doctrine that advocates immoral behavior "in the name of (insert deity here)" is a free choice, and speaks to the morality (or lack thereof) of the individual making the choice.

fishbane | September 17, 2006 08:48 PM

Wow, we need some puppies. Stat!

Janiece | September 17, 2006 08:55 PM

fishbane,

I'm a fan of Giant Schnauzers, myself.

Paul | September 17, 2006 09:27 PM

John:

[Because Dawkins calls himself an agnostic on pages 50 - 51 in the book, noting, of course, that "I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden."]

Well, yes, but wouldn't you say that he's using the term 'agnostic' here to state that he isn't one? He doesn't believe in the fairies, and he doesn't believe in the god. He's agnostic about them to exactly the same degree, which is to say not at all.

[This is to say he's intellectually honest about it: He deeply doubts the existence of god, and thinks the evidence is rather overwhelmingly against one existing -- he's not one of those people who thinks it's a 50/50 chance of God existing. He's a de facto atheist, but admits one cannot know for certain.]

But there's no 'but' there. Being an atheist doesn't mean knowing for certain; it's not a claim one makes about oneself that one 'admits' one can't back up. Another commenter, fishbane, says:

[That's where I fit in, too - I believe there is no god, but I have no way of proving that is so, so the best word for my belief state is agnostic.]

Have we read the dictionary lately, people? 'I believe there is no god' is as good a definition of atheism as you'll put together in six words or fewer. Not being able to prove it either way is neither here nor there. Theism/atheism isn't about proof; it's about what you believe or don't.

I've seen elsewhere what looks to me like a real queasiness about using the word 'atheist' in people whose descriptions of their own beliefs are absolute textbook examples. There's a retreat towards 'agnostic', which is quite at odds with what the word traditionally means. Do societal pressures make it hard for people to call themselves what they are? The argument that someone refers to themselves as an 'agnostic' because the existence of a god can't be conclusively disproven is, as Tim Walters says, an odd bit of logical exceptionalism. Ask someone whether they honestly believe in those invisible pink unicorns, and they'll (hopefully) say, without equivocation: 'No', even if when pushed they'd agree that their existence can't be conclusively disproven. And yet, with the whole god thing, there's this genuine reluctance to admit to lack of belief, which shows itself in what seems to me to be a disingenuous choice of the word 'agnostic' over 'atheist', even when the latter is by far the better description of the position being taken.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2006 09:49 PM

Paul:

"Well, yes, but wouldn't you say that he's using the term 'agnostic' here to state that he isn't one?"

Not really, no. If he were an absolute atheist I suspect he would come straight out and say so, because Dawkins isn't the sort to pull his punches on the subject. Therefore, an agnostic of the de facto atheist sort, as noted. If you want to argue his choice of label, you need to take it up with him.

For my part, I find that "agnostic" rather adequately maps my feelings on the subject, which is why I'm content to use it, and I'm not one to pull my punches on the subject, either.

Paul | September 17, 2006 10:11 PM

John, could you clarify what you mean by 'absolute atheist' and 'de facto atheist'? I'm not sure I'm getting them.

Re: Dawkins. I'm kind of stunned that anyone would see him as in any way equivocal on the matter of atheism. I might have to go quote hunting, but conventional wisdom about him is that he's about as militantly atheist as they come. It's what endears him to me.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2006 10:23 PM

Paul:

"John, could you clarify what you mean by 'absolute atheist' and 'de facto atheist'? I'm not sure I'm getting them."

I'm going by what Dawkins writes in the book. For the de facto atheist, he provides the quote: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption he is not there." Whereas an absolute (or more accurately as Dawkins refers to them, "strong") atheist is provided this quote: "I know there is no god." Dawkins notes that he'd be surprised to meet many people in the latter category.

I don't believe Dawkins is being in the least bit equivocal on the subject of God; he merely recognizes, quite correctly, that he cannot know for certain, as he also recognizes that he cannot know for certain about the fairies in the lawn, as wildly unlikely as they might be. Basically, he's too good a scientist to say he knows with absolute certainty something he doesn't, which in my opinion is a good position to take.

Karl | September 17, 2006 10:46 PM

More on the atheist versus agnostic terminology debate:

I choose the word depending on the context. Much of the time, people have the idea of an agnostic as someone who can't make up their mind. For those people, I call myself an atheist. I don't want them to get excited about the possibility of my conversion. I explain the relevance of the agnostic terminology when the discussion gets more technical.

It seems that people choose the term depending on the kind of religion they engage. It's hard to be anything but atheistic about the God of the religious fundamentalists. There’s too much falsifiable evidence laying around. The world didn’t begin 6,000 years ago. God doesn’t answer prayer in a statistically obvious way.

Then again, if someone thinks of God as a vague cosmic power underlying the universe, it's pretty hard to falsify that concept. I'll call myself an agnostic. What if God is another term for the organizing properties of the universe, i.e. the laws of science?

Tell me what you mean by the term "God" and I'll tell you whether I'm an agnostic or an atheist about your God.

Avdi | September 17, 2006 10:49 PM

See also Oolong Caluphid's classic trilogy: Where God Went Wrong, A Few More of God's Greatest Mistakes, and Just Who is this God Person, Anyway?

Scorpio | September 17, 2006 10:53 PM

Um. I think "half" is a huge overestimation. Those Chinese and those Indians, you know.

Steve Burnap | September 17, 2006 11:06 PM

Usually I've seen that position called "Weak Atheism" ("I don't believe in God because I see no evidence for one") as opposed to "Strong Atheism" ("I know there definitely is no God".) It's very close, but not exactly the same as what I've seen called "Strong Agnosticism" ("There's no way to prove God's existence so I don't waste time worrying about it".)


Though it's possible to be a "Weak Atheist" and a "Strong Agnostic" at the same time, and that's where I've always kinda sorta fell.


I have no interest in proselytizing and honestly I've not particularly suffered for holding the views I hold, though I think a lot of that is that when you don't believe in God, you don't particularly talk about religion, especially if you are the sort of "mind your own business" type non-believers often are. But sometimes I think that the public view of agnostic/athiests is more negative than it should be because the default in this country is "believes in God" so that if you say nothing (as most agnostics/atheists do), people just assume you believe and so "atheist" is this strange "other", and not their friends and neighbors. I often wish there was a way to simply say "look, I don't believe in the invisible sky giant" without coming off as some sort of activist.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2006 11:09 PM

Scorpio:

"I think 'half' is a huge overestimation."

It's not. There are about 2.1 billion Christians and about 1.3 billion Muslims (and about 14 million Jews). Which is about 3.4 billion people, which is about half the current world population (actually a bit more, I think).

Source: Adherents.com

Matt Arnold | September 17, 2006 11:24 PM

The claim that one doesn't know for sure that there are no fairies, pink unicorns, or flying pigs is such pedantic hairsplitting that it's actually humorous. So I ask you, why do we invoke this word, "agnostic", only when the gremlin in question is a god? I suspect it's for a deeper purpose than merely to avoid rocking the boat (although it actually is that in some cases).

The deeper purpose is that the skeptical and freethought community is deeply committed to attaining something near perfection in microscopic accuracy and meticulous honesty. I'm actually quite proud of the scientific community of which Dawkins is part; only this crowd would go to such pains of ultra-scrupulous academic quibbling that they'll go to any length to give their philosophical opponents precisely as much advantage as they can. And weigh it out with a teaspoon. It's like a right-handed master swordsman agreeing to fight left-handed just so that there's no doubt he's the best. You won't get such rigorous fairness and self-criticism from nearly as many religious scholars.

Jenny Rae Rappaport | September 17, 2006 11:34 PM

So right, the whole point about the 14 million Jews is slightly inaccurate... there may be 14 million people who claim that they're Jewish, but at least in the US, there are many, many Jews who classify themselves like I do, as "Jewish agnostics". This term has come about for a variety of reasons, but essentially, it's come to mean people who consider themselves culturally Jewish and who believe in Judaism from a cultural standpoint, but who don't give a damn about whether God exists or not because they don't believe there is a God. I do the High Holidays, Hannukah, and Passover, but I observe them because it's something my family has been doing for millennia.

The leaders of American Judaism have been trying to fight against this trend for years, but as long as they continue to tell me how wrong it is for me to want to marry my non-Jewish, atheist boyfriend, even though I fully intend to raise my future children as Jews.... they can go figure out how to repair their religion themselves.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2006 11:34 PM

Matt Arnold:

"So I ask you, why do we invoke this word, 'agnostic', only when the gremlin in question is a god?"

Evidently we don't; as Dawkins says, he's also agnostic about the fairies in the garden.

Nor for that matter, do I; I'm agnostic on any number of things that I'm deeply skeptical about, because I think it's right and proper to acknowledge that fundamentally there are things I don't know and can't prove.

The issue is that people confuse "agnostic" with "wishy-washy." However, I fail to see that as my problem.

Jonathan | September 17, 2006 11:55 PM

We’ve spent a lot of time on Atheism vs. Agnostic, yet I’m surprised no one has chosen to explore a Deism-like thread.

I’d have expected sci-fi types would be predisposed to believe that our existence has some creator, or some purpose beyond the terrestrial. It’s hard to imagine everyone on this thread are convinced that there is NO intelligence that set this Universe and our existence into motion.

I’ve heard that many physicists and astronomers are religious because they better appreciate how unimaginably vast and complex the Universe is, and yet is also so orderly and precise. Einstein wanted to know the “thoughts of God” by understanding the fundamentals of nature. So I’d expect the sci-fi fans to have a similar desire to explore nature’s truths. (yeah, I realize I’m making an argument to lovers of FICTION, but I’m hoping we can acknowledge the difference between fantasy diversion and our personal beliefs). So I expected the sci-fi types be more characterized as dreamers (like me) and thus additionally prone to superfluous musings and explorations beyond the rational.

Sure I’m a skeptic, and I can hop-aboard the bandwagon rejection of organized religion with the best of ‘em, but I’m curious…. in the privacy of each of your personal thoughts, are you REALLY so convinced that no creator exists? Or are you trying to convince yourself? I’m still trying… but no firm answer yet.

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. - Albert Einstein

Anonymous | September 18, 2006 12:10 AM

I think that the terms agnostic and atheist approach different parts of the question.

The term atheist talks about an absence of belief in God. The term focuses on belief.

The term agnostic talks about the existence of God being unknown or unknowable. It's talking about certainty.

The use of a given term depends upon the issue that a given person finds most relevant. This is why you often find the self-labelled atheists engaging the fundamentalists. They are arguing about which belief is correct. Meanwhile, agnostics often appear more conciliatory. It's not that they believe much different than the atheists. They just talk about the issue differently. They focus on determining the appropriate certainty for a given belief.

The terms are not mutually exclusive. It's perfectly coherent for a person to call themselves an agnostic atheist.

Karl | September 18, 2006 12:10 AM

woops, that was me.

Ted Lemon | September 18, 2006 12:35 AM

Steve: e pluribus unum is latin for "from many, one." This appears on the nickel and the quarter, but sadly not on the dime or the dollar bill. I don't have any other currency on hand or I'd check that as well. I have to agree that it would be nice if that had precedence over "in God we trust," since in fact it's a much better description of what's important about the U.S. Oh well.

John, for an invisible pink unicorn to exist is actually a logical impossibility. A unicorn is either pink, or invisible, but not both. So to be agnostic about the existence of such a creature is in fact illogical. Such creatures definitely do not exist.

I could give you some equally good proofs for the nonexistence of God, but it's rather pointless to do so; the only real purpose of these arguments is to dispel wrong ideas about what God could be, in the mind of someone who is interested in what or whom God is. For someone who is already certain, one way or the other, such proofs are uninteresting at best; heresy at worst.

David: I have yet to figure out what sort of deity Will Shetterly believes in, if any. Perhaps one day he will come clean... :')

Gottacook | September 18, 2006 12:39 AM

What Jenny Rae said above, I agree with completely. Judaism has no creed. My wife and I both grew up in families that belonged to synagogues, and we belong to one now in large part because we want our two daughters to have a Jewish education and milieu - but they'll be able to make up their own minds later about what they want to take from it, as we did. Oddly enough we now live in a neighborhood (outside Washington, DC) with many orthodox Jewish families, and so we have to explain to the girls that we are as much Jews as they are; we don't base our daily lives on observance the way they do, but Jewish identity is important enough to us that we want such a thing to continue. Not the same as religious belief at all, at least not for me and my wife.

John Scalzi | September 18, 2006 12:45 AM

Ted Lemon:

"A unicorn is either pink, or invisible, but not both."

Sez you. I posit the invisible pink unicorn existing unobserved in a Schroedinger's box, where it exists in an indeterminate state, both pink and invisible. That's the unicorn I am agnostic about.

Eric | September 18, 2006 12:45 AM

"I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden."

I'm at a distinct disadvantage since I don't have an advance copy of the Dawkins book and cant't read the paragraph. However, to me the comment comes across as far more likely to be a snarky reference to the "Cottingley Fairies" hoax than an "honest" admission that he doesn't know if there are fairies in his garden. I.e. Dawkins may not be able to conclusively prove a negative, but he doesn't have any hesitation about comparing God to a hoax played upon the public and people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who willingly played the part of "credulous dolts" because their need to believe trumped their sense of reason.

However, like I said, I could be wrong. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the sentence. (However--and someone correct me if I'm wrong--I'm fairly sure that Dawkins is chummy with James Randi and I know that Randi has used the Cottingley Fairies to illustrate several points about human credulity and the ease with which intelligent people can be deceived by simple means. At any rate, I'd be shocked if Dawkins wasn't rather familiar with the whole affair.)

I also would have to say, John, that your feelings of not feeling marginalized "because I also happen to be a white, educated, heterosexually-bonded non-handicapped male of above average financial means, and those facts matter more in this society" may have a great deal more to do with your geography and the nature of your work than they do with any of the factors you mention. I happen to be white, educated, heterosexual (although single) and of above-average financial means, but I also live in the South and work as a lawyer in a county with significant poverty and education issues: I cannot say I have been actively discriminated against, but I can also tell you that having a "don't ask/don't tell" religious policy is extremely prudent down here. Times that the subject has come up, I've had people actually argue with me about my religious beliefs--as in, "No you're not, you can't possibly be an atheist." Down here, my beliefs would probably receive more respect if I were an active, chicken-sacrificing, orgy-hosting, blasphemy-screaming Satanist. Marginalized? Oh yeah.

Matt Arnold | September 18, 2006 12:48 AM

Jonathan,
certainly not any SF I read. Well, other than Robert Sawyer's embarrassing novel "Calculating God." (More about that here.) An irrational explanation is no real explanation at all, so "explorations beyond the rational" is no less a mishmash of meaninglessness than if it were a contradiction in terms. Science fiction that attempts it is definitely not playing to SF's strong suit. We're dreamers about the possible and preferably the plausible. Those are categories which has no overlap with the irrational.

Don't make Einstein out to be anything but an atheist. He really hated it when people misinterpreted his metaphors that way. Nature is not a benevolent, all-wise supernatural person, and he didn't intend to equate the two.

Scratch the surface of a Deist, and you get a confused Atheist. Oh, excuse me, I meant a confused Agnostic-- I forgot that some in this crowd want to split meaningless and ineffectual hairs about that.

All of us are rock-solid in our unbelief concerning flying pigs, because no matter how much we concede that they fall within the laws of physics, when it comes down to it none of us are buying umbrellas to protect against falling pigshit. It's the same with god. See, when you examine atheism, agnosticism and deism "under a microscope" as it were, they really have microscopic differences. But zoom out to the level at which we live life, and you can't tell them apart.

Lisa | September 18, 2006 12:58 AM

I go to a Unitarian Universalist church, the church of beleiving whatever the hell you want. (Joke: What is a UU? An agnostic with children. That pretty much sums me up.)

I go for the community spirit and the peace and solace of service and for the social and religious education for my kids (which is largely age-appropriate comparative religion peppered with UU history, environmentalism, and sociology training.)

In regards to what would happen if there were no religion due to the fact that God/Jesus/Whoever forces people to be good--I've never understood that argument. So believers of Yahweh are only good people because God told them to be so they can go to heaven and get their prayers answered? You can't be a good person for the sake of being good? For the sake of your fellow man?

I think it was Lincoln who said something on the order of "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion." We all know religious folks who are wonderful examples of the best that religious teachings can be. And we all know very religious people who are moral and ethical assholes. Same goes for your agnostics. I think the root cause of whether people make positive moral choices lies somewhere other than religion. I think it may lie more in the sciences of neuropsychology and sociology.

In any case, we all struggle from time to time to make the right moral choice. If religion helps someone do that and gives them some sense of peace, I'm fine with it. But when we get into some of the murkier moral issues (abortion, etc.) that we all as a society have to decide on together...it gets very hard to even have discussions and come to good moral conclusions with someone whose only talking point is that "God said so." That is when religion gets really damaging. Especially when both sides are saying, "I'm right because God says so" because that only leads to war.

Steve Ely | September 18, 2006 01:20 AM

I used to think of myself as an evangelical Christian, but my faith has been slipping away progressively more in recent years, such that, while the situation may change back, I'm verging more on agnostic these days. But I still very much have and anticipate continuing to have sympathy, affection, and esteem for many friends who have a strong faith in God, and so I don't expect to ever be on board with the level of contempt and hostility it seems like Dawkins has for everyone religious.


So, anyway, I wanted to say thanks, John, for your being able to share Dawkins' view of God without sharing his apparent loathing of believers.

Paul | September 18, 2006 01:24 AM

Karl:

"The terms are not mutually exclusive. It's perfectly coherent for a person to call themselves an agnostic atheist."

A really interesting point. Obviously it's consistent to recognise the inherent disprovability of a deity, but at the same time to consider oneself, and label oneself, an atheist. Both are accessible if one chooses. What's interesting is to see what people do choose, given the choice.

On the disbelief side of things, how often do people who disbelieve in the existence of a god, but at the same time recognise the possibility, however remote, call themselves 'agnostic', and how often call themselves 'atheist'? What I tend to see is far more people for whom both are true choose 'agnostic'. The hedging is on the side of belief. Even the merest chance is enough to push them away from the scary word, even though it's perfectly descriptive of what they think.

However, it doesn't seem to be the case that there's a symmetrical retreat from theism in the face of the possibility, however remote, that a god might not exist. Are churches full of people who believe that there's a god, but who accept that it's possible there might not be, and consequently think it's logical to call themselves 'agnostic'? Not so much. Again the hedging is on the side of belief.

Djscman | September 18, 2006 03:07 AM

A few years ago I found the Maxims for Non-Believers on the internet somewhere, and they changed my life. The seven simple commandments really spoke to me, told me how to comport myself, instructed me how to spread the the Words with Maximum (ha-ha!) impact. Every Sunday I spend an hour or two reading and rereading them, reciting aloud as necessary. The other six days of the week I pick one Maxim at random to meditate upon. Sometimes the power of the Maxims comes over me and I begin to lurch and shake all over the floor, speaking in a grammar and vocabulary that might be wholly unique, but is also consistent.

I try not to preach the Maxims too often or too powerfully to my believer friends and family--that trespasses against the spirit of the Maxims. But I do craft little macrame bracelets with each Maxim abbreviated in gold print. T.K.E. for (mortal) life, yo!



With regards to Dawkins writing in a sort of loose blog-style, does that remind anyone else of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, or Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions...? The authors had some interesting anecdotes and nifty conclusions, but there didn't seem to be an overarching organizing principle to the books, um, much like this sentence has no larger point or thesis to support, except maybe Dawkins is following a proud literary tradition of skeptical inquiry...?

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan | September 18, 2006 03:59 AM

John, as for not being discriminated against: most people don't really register your agnosticism unless you tell them about it. But there are junctures when being a non-believer would effectively disqualify you from things - running for office, for example. And it would probably make it just that little much harder for you to get custody in case of divorce.

Here in the UK, where many "good" schools are religious school, you woulnd't be able to send you kids to them. In Italy, it's very hard to have a funeral service. Not as bad as having flaming crosse on your lawn, but I wouldn't consider not being able to run for office a small limitation.

As for the rest, I think there is a real distinction between agnosticism and atheism, and the people who are proclaiming themselves agnostics are, and the people who are proclaiming themselves atheists really are.

That is, while I cannot disprove the existence of God, I don't think I am really required to do so, and I think this makes me an atheist.

And, while I am amused by people like Dawkins, I don't think all religious people are credolous dolts. I think they are wrong, but I think many of them are wrong in pretty sophisticated ways.

What really annoys me are not the people who have given serious thought to their faith and have confirmed it, but those who never even thought of questioning it.

A.R.Yngve | September 18, 2006 05:43 AM

When people say "God" they seem to mean many things at once -- often without being entirely aware of it.

One one level, "God" means simply "that which created the Universe". I have no problem with the need to explain why anything exists -- but I don't think a final answer to that is possible.

But: on a deeper, emotional level there's a lot of stuff going on.... to many religious people, "God" so obviously is a parental authority figure writ large.

-People announce their "rebellion" against Jahve as they would rebel against an autoritarian father.

-People refer to "God" as a "father", or "He".

Where does this need of an "über-parent" come from?

That Neil Guy | September 18, 2006 06:58 AM

The Whatever: Come for the Bacon on a Cat. Stay for Threads like This.

dave | September 18, 2006 07:05 AM


The term atheist talks about an absence of belief in God. The term focuses on belief.

The term agnostic talks about the existence of God being unknown or unknowable. It's talking about certainty.

True. One thing that is missing, though, is a word for someone who simply doesn't care about the question of the existence of God. 'If I gave it any thought, I'd probably be agnostic' is too much of a mouthful.

Tim Haas | September 18, 2006 07:59 AM

One thing that is missing, though, is a word for someone who simply doesn't care about the question of the existence of God.

I use the word "nontheist" for that very sense.

John Scalzi | September 18, 2006 08:00 AM

Tim Haas:

"I use the word 'nontheist' for that very sense."

I prefer the term "apatheist," myself.

Schwa-Schwa | September 18, 2006 08:21 AM

Hi,


I'm personally an atheist - a Christian atheist even, since it would be quite dirty to refuse to acknowledge the powerful Protestant influence on my life and morality - but for me the reason people are religious is summed up in a graffiti that used to be on a shop in my home town:


ELVIS DUZZENT LUV YOU

NOBODY FUKKEN' DUZ!!!!


Leaving aside the utter illiteracy and the reference to Elvis, have a think about what religion gives you. It gives you Someone who loves you unconditionally - not a thing all of us have access to, I'm afraid. It gives you a community in the form of a church, whereas as an atheist you have to make your own community, perhaps through work, a sporting club, a fan club - again, not something everyone has access to. In many societies, and I'm thinking particularly of Islamic societies, religious bodies are the only ones providing reliable welfare services that you and I would expect to be funded through our taxes.


When Christianity failed to give the people what they needed, it lost supporters. If atheism/agnosticism fails to give people what they need, it will lose supporters. Atheism is associated with neoliberalism and rampant individualism, which by definition don't look after the community ("there is no society, only individuals and their families"). Guess what? Evangelism and Islam are ready to step into the void.

Anonymous | September 18, 2006 09:12 AM

However, it doesn't seem to be the case that there's a symmetrical retreat from theism in the face of the possibility, however remote, that a god might not exist. Are churches full of people who believe that there's a god, but who accept that it's possible there might not be, and consequently think it's logical to call themselves 'agnostic'? Not so much. Again the hedging is on the side of belief.

I appreciate the honesty of Christians willing to admit that they are technically agnostic, living out their faith in the awareness of that uncertainty. However, it seems that most humans are not wired that way. Faced with uncertainty, most people prefer a possibly wrong answer to an unresolved question.

When people say "God" they seem to mean many things at once -- often without being entirely aware of it.

One one level, "God" means simply "that which created the Universe". I have no problem with the need to explain why anything exists -- but I don't think a final answer to that is possible.

But: on a deeper, emotional level there's a lot of stuff going on.... to many religious people, "God" so obviously is a parental authority figure writ large.

Most people don't know what they are talking about when they mean God. If you ask them, they can give a quick definition:
- created the universe
- omnipotent
- benevolent
- answers prayer
- saves people
- (it varies depending on the individual)

When the questions get deeper, God starts sounding more like a conceptual gap-filler, an answer for questions that are beyond our comprehension:
- it's a mystery
- we aren't meant to know
- God is beyond our understanding
- you can't prove whether God exists

And when the skeptics are away, people revert to a feeling of God as being more of a parent:
- being with them
- answering prayer
- helping them find peace about the next life
- giving them a feeling of purpose

People talk about God as though it means one distinct thing but I find it hard to know what a person means without getting to know them for a while. Most people, when it comes down to it, don't know what God means in a rational sense. There can be many different ideas of God, even within the same church.

There's something complex going on. It seems that most people believe in God on the basis of feeling but they justify it on the basis of reason. It's like the feeling and the reason exist in two separate worlds.

We have a world of remarkable diversity of belief. People hold these beliefs strongly despite the diversity. Because there is no criteria to clearly distinguish which of these beliefs are more likely to be correct, these beliefs are supported by ritually addressing the spiritual needs that people feel. The basis of spiritual belief, in most cases, is these spiritual needs and not empirical, rational inquiry.

Anonymous | September 18, 2006 09:41 AM

Excellent entry, John.

What you said reminded me of two books: the first is Karen Armstrong's A HISTORY OF GOD: THE 4,000-YEAR QUEST OF JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM. It's well written, informative, and a good read. It describes how God has changed to reflect the societies that have worshipped him in different millenia--and although I doubt Armstrong would describe herself as atheist or agnostic, I think she would agree with the description of God as a somewhat psychotic figure, over time.

Sam Harris' THE END OF FAITH: RELIGION, TERROR, AND THE FUTURE OF REASON seems to echo Dawkins, but his emphasis is the danger that religion brings to society, here and now. Along the way, he tries to respond to the argument that religion does bring good as well as evil, with some success, and tries to construct an alternative to religion, less plausibly to me. What the book really brings forth is a powerful indictment of allowing religious thinking to trump reason.

AliceB | September 18, 2006 09:43 AM

Shoot. That was me.

dave | September 18, 2006 09:43 AM

Atheism is associated with neoliberalism and rampant individualism, which by definition don't look after the community

Funny, when I was growing up it was just the opposite. If you said you were an atheist you were assumed to be a communist.

John Scalzi | September 18, 2006 09:52 AM

Yeah, I don't know that I buy the whole, "Atheism associated with neoliberalism" thing, either. The atheists I know personally are pretty much all over the board with their politics.

Steve Buchheit | September 18, 2006 10:17 AM

Dave, the correct word for not thinking about a god either way would be "heathen."

As for neoliberalism being Godless, that's just Karl Rove clap-trap.

I also think it's interesting how most of the conversation is about monotheism and specifically Yahweh worship compared to the non-belief in such. Granted, the argument was predisposed to that bent, I just happen to think it's interesting.

George | September 18, 2006 10:19 AM

Is it so difficult to believe that an organism with attributes that to us are godlike could have evolved in this immense universe?

Janiece | September 18, 2006 10:28 AM

George,

I have not noted anyone denying the possibility of a highly evolved species in our universe. May I ask what prompted your comment?

Minivet | September 18, 2006 10:31 AM

I'd like to draw out and compliment another section of your post from what's been discussed:

Also, there's the nagging question in my mind of how much, on a purely practical level, the human condition would change if our species were somehow magically innoculated against the idea of God.

Amen. In China, monotheism had next to no impact, and indeed conceptions of gods in general have not had any prominence in public discourse for at least a hundred years. But has China had any less trouble with irrational fanaticism?

Take away gods, and people will find other things to be crazy about.

Cambias | September 18, 2006 10:43 AM

I'm an atheist, though of the non-strident variety (I have no problem with dollars trusting God, for example). However, I have come to realize that all of my ideas of right and wrong, good and evil are ultimately derived from religion.

After all, as a hard-core materialist, I recognize that right and wrong have no objective meaning in the physical universe. They can't be measured or observed except through human beliefs. Which means, of course, that to say it's "wrong" for someone to impose religion on me is absurd -- unless I can do so within the context of that religion. The whole basis for our modern religious tolerance is Protestant Christianity's emphasis on individual salvation, which provides just that context.

Another issue which atheists are curiously blind about is the abysmal track record of attempts to create a moral order without that God fellow. Consider the competing abbatoirs of Fascism and Communism in the 20th century, both of which were based on a flawed understanding of Darwin. Compared to that, your fundamentalist aunt or that annoying street preacher are pretty small potatoes.

(Yes, you may now bring up the Inquisition. I will now point out that the Inquisition ended two centuries ago and despite operating for half a millennium never racked up the body count Communism and Fascism managed in a few decades.)

All of this is just to say that atheists probably need to be more cautious about moral preening and self-congratulation than religious folks. And that we atheists may need those religious folks more than they need us.

Mark DF | September 18, 2006 10:47 AM

For pink unicorn’s sakes, my head is whirling.

John, I second the marginalization comments by Eric—and I think it also happens in much much more subtle ways. For example, I live in MA, the home of gay marriage. I work in Boston, at a finance firm where most people present themselves as accepting/tolerant of gay men and lesbians. And yet, while I have not experienced overt discrimination—I get nice reviews, good raises, people cooperate with me—in six years I have been invited to a casual co-worker kind of lunch by only one straight guy (n.b.: I’ve initiated invites plenty---and not a few have been turned down with “gee, can’t make it today”). Nothing I can really call anybody on, but, well, I tend to lunch with the same female co-worker or go it alone. At the risk of starting a subthread (at Whatever? Heavens!) I would call that marginalization, but not discrimination, and at the further risk of sounding paranoid, I attribute it to my orientation (‘cause, hey, I’m a nice guy who should be able to click friendship-wise with more than one person out of eighty co-workers).

Contrast that with an agnostic/atheist. One can have the exact same apparent social life and family life as a devout religious, so belief status probably does enter in how someone is perceived as a friend/co-worker/neighbor until long after the level of friendship is established. Co-workers (at least in here in the Northeast) tend not to ask if you go to church. There’s no initial/earlier perception of Otherness.

What’s further different on the agnostic/atheist front is job status. In my experience as a freelancer, I’ve felt assessed predominantly on my work product, not my suitability as a co-worker. Almost by definition, I self-selected places I felt comfortable working at, either consciously or unconsciously, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I didn’t get some jobs because someone perceived me as gay and was uncomfortable with it. Again, that type of situation is not as likely to come up for an agnostic/atheist, I think.

Janiece | September 18, 2006 10:59 AM

Mark DF,

Are you implying that it's easier for an atheist to "pass," and so does not experience the same level of discrimination as individuals with more obvious differences? Interesting idea...

Dave | September 18, 2006 11:02 AM

In China, monotheism had next to no impact, and indeed conceptions of gods in general have not had any prominence in public discourse for at least a hundred years. But has China had any less trouble with irrational fanaticism?

The last time China had a serious brush with monotheism was the Heavenly Rule of Tai-Pang, back, in the mid 1800s. The resulting war killed twice as many people as the First World War.

Jennie | September 18, 2006 11:07 AM

I would like to comment on Dawkins' hypothesis that belief in God is a byproduct of the evolved need for children to accept the authority of their parents. I have not read the book, so I can only go on what Scalzi paraphrased in his post.

All pack animals have a hierarchy, and therefore have a mechanism by which subordinate members of the pack accept the authority of the dominant members. Wolves are an excellent example. Yet wolves do not have religion. No animal does, except for the human animal. So why would humans develop religion, when we are already hardwired for the pack mentality?

I am also curious if Dawkins addresses the brain functionality of religion. Research has shown that the temporal lobe is most active during an experience described by the subject as "spiritual." The temporal lobe is also the locus of creative activity. Does anyone know what part of the brain is involved in the experience of authority? If it is not the temporal lobe, then that seems to cast doubt on Dawkins' hypothesis.

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I think they are relevant to the foundation of the entire discussion. Every human culture has had some form of religion. Why? Dawkins posits biology. If that is ruled out, then why?

Also, as others have noted, there is a signficant distinction between religious people and fundamentalist fanatics. The terms should not be used interchangeably.

Finally, it is possible for religion to accommodate science. In my experience, intelligent non-religious people often point to the incompatibility of religion and science as a reason for rejecting religion. Many expressions of religion certainly do fly in the face of basic science (e.g. intelligent design). But not all religions have such contempt for science and scientific thought. Again, we need to distinguish between fundamentalist fanaticism and religion.

Nikudada | September 18, 2006 11:16 AM

Since becoming a reader post bacon syndrome I might as well say hello and join the discussion.

Personally my own agnosticism stems from a Socratic faith. If it is impossible to know anything then it seems futile to attack the god problem is any kind of fanatical way. Granted, this is the reason that faith is synonomous with religion - its impossible to actually know if God exists, unless he's talking to you.

In my opinion, though, its the answers to most all the questions in life that have splintered religion. It seems odd that during a period when we didn't know why rain fell we created (or discovered) large families of gods. As these questions were answered our number of gods dwindled. Now polytheism is a little less predominant now that so many of these questions have been answered( yet clearly not nonexistent since we still have hinduism, buddism, and a whole load others I'm too ill informed to know of).
But the biggest question, that of death, still plagues us. It is the one query to which science will seemingly never be able to answer and is, therefore, the one thing that prevents me from claiming to be an atheist. I have as much trouble believing science can solve the question of what happens after you die as I do that there is some guy up in the clouds who occasionally likes to plague cities, tell people to kill their sons, speaks to people in deserts, or punishes people by making them screw bulls.

Ok, nuff rambling for now. I'm sure to have angered enough people with my terrible grammer and incoherent statements. Cheers,
Nick

Steve Buchheit | September 18, 2006 11:16 AM

Jennie,

"Yet wolves do not have religion. No animal does, except for the human animal. "

I think that needs a qualifier of, "no other animal has exhibited what we recognize as religious behavior." At one time we said than animals had no language or reasoning capacity. Both of those have been disproven.

And while I haven't read Dawkin's book, I think the post about "authority figure" wasn't talking about Dawkin's theories.

Jenny Rae Rappaport | September 18, 2006 11:27 AM

Just as a side note to Jennnie and Steve's comments... are there any novels out there that have animals that have evolved their own religions? I don't mean animals with human religions superimposed on them, but an actual religion tailored for that animal? There's got to be something out there, right? Titles, anyone?

Jenny Rae Rappaport | September 18, 2006 11:28 AM

Whoops, sorry for the extra "n" in your name, Jennie.

Steve Buchheit | September 18, 2006 11:38 AM

Jenny Rae, "Watership Down" okay, we can make an argument that the god is a human mix of Christ and Coyote, but then again, the rabbits are humanized.

John Scalzi | September 18, 2006 11:38 AM

Jenny Rae Rappaport:

I believe Watership Down fits that description.

Steve Buchheit | September 18, 2006 11:40 AM

John,

JINX!

John Scalzi | September 18, 2006 11:45 AM

Damn. By the rules of jinx, I owe you a soda.

Steve Buchheit | September 18, 2006 11:52 AM

John, I yield my soda prize to Athena. ;)

A.R.Yngve | September 18, 2006 12:06 PM

"Bears Discover God".
;-)

Jenny Rae Rappaport | September 18, 2006 12:16 PM

Scalzi and Steve:

It's been so long since I read Watership Down, I totally forgot that. I distinctly remember that rabbits can't count above three though. =)

Any others? It occurred to me that the Redwall books could conceivably fall into that category, but while the mice have an abbey, they're not particularly religious. Instead, they excel at making delicious-sounding food.

Tim Walters | September 18, 2006 12:54 PM

Duncton Wood by William Horwood. An odd but compelling book about highly religious, intelligent moles.

Eric | September 18, 2006 12:59 PM

I think Anna's comments about political office and matters like child custody are well-taken. In local political races where I live, the candidate's church is almost always an implicit issue--how many people attend, how the person is regarded within the religious community. In a recent D.A. primary, a candidate made it a more explicit issue by prominently advertising his church attendence: if the gambit failed, it was only because his opponent's tours to give Bible-studies-speeches are well known around here.

Even on the national level, a part of President Bush's appeal is that he is regarded as a good Christian and a godly man by many people. Several surveys, if I'm not mistaken, have shown that large segments of the American population care about their President's religiousosity.

It's good that I don't have political aspirations: they wouldn't get anywhere.


Cambias: attempts to create a moral order obedient to that God fellow haven't gone well, either. The excesses of Nazism may or may not have had anything to do with atheism (in fact, if you accept Goldhagen's thesis in Hitler's Willing Executioners, Christian--specifically Lutheran--anti-semitism may have been one of the existing conditions that made the Holocaust possible). The excesses of the Inquisition, however, had everything to do with attempting to create a moral order pleasing to the God fellow.

The contention that we owe religious toleration to Protestant ideals is dubious on several fronts. First, Protestantism was not a monolithic front (and arguably still isn't, even if schisms have been conveniently buried): anyone who thinks that Protestant beliefs led directly to religious moderation and tolerance is woefully unfamiliar with the history of the Reformation, during which time assorted Protestants were seemingly happy to torture and kill rival Protestants and Catholics for miscellaneous heresies (or simply to guarantee political or material influence and control--funny how real estate disputes can turn vicious when they're dressed up as ideological differences). Secondly, ideals of religious tolerance have a much more obvious and direct debt to the Enlightenment philosophers who began to emerge as Reformation Europe's wars began to lose steam--besides being exhausted after the battles and purges, many of these fellows were heretics or even deists or even (gasp!) freethinkers who had a vested interest in moderation and tolerance.

Preening and self-congratulation are unflattering behaviors in anyone. What is perhaps more troubling is the veiled threat in, "we atheists may need those religious folks more than they need us." While I agree that the vast numbers of Christians could, if they wanted to resort to time-honored traditions, rise up and torture me until I professed myself born again and then murder me on the gallows or stake, I hardly think that's something anyone should be proud of or humbled by.

bonnie-ann black | September 18, 2006 01:07 PM

religion is hardly an "opiate" of the people, since it is often used to rouse them to fury, idiocy, obstinancy, homicide, regicide and suicide. it is, however, an opiate in that it dissolves self-will in many instances. just look at the idiocy of both Benedict XVI and the muslim reaction.

i'm what Margaret Atwood describes as a "strict agnostic." i don't believe in a personal, interested god. because if i did believe there was a personal, interested god, i'd have to hate it.

Minivet | September 18, 2006 01:28 PM

In China, monotheism had next to no impact, and indeed conceptions of gods in general have not had any prominence in public discourse for at least a hundred years. But has China had any less trouble with irrational fanaticism?

The last time China had a serious brush with monotheism was the Heavenly Rule of Tai-Pang, back, in the mid 1800s. The resulting war killed twice as many people as the First World War.

I was indeed leaving out the Taiping Rebellion, mostly because it had no lasting influence. I admit I had forgotten how many died in that rebellion, but the toll of the Great Leap Forward was similar or higher, proving my original point.

Minivet | September 18, 2006 01:29 PM

Forestalling another comment: That is to say, no lasting influence in terms of the spread of monotheism.

Karl | September 18, 2006 01:47 PM

Doh! Did it again.

That anonymous post with lots of bullet points about religious beliefs being derived from felt needs and not rationality was me.

Mark DF | September 18, 2006 01:48 PM

Janiece:

Yeah, I guess I am saying it's easier for an atheist to pass. I hope that's not perceived as playing "Who Has It Worse" because that wasn't my intent.

What I was trying to point out is, from an observational point of view, if someone does not make any specific remarks that would affix an identity label, someone else might still perceive them as gay but not likely to perceive them as atheist. That would be passing. Take it up a notch, if asked how one's weekend was, an out gay guy says "My husand and I went to the movies." An atheist says "My husband and I went to the movies." The first reveals orientation status. The second does not reveal belief status. That's passing, too. I was tossing out the contrast to illustrate why John might not perceive marginalization based on his beliefs.

Brian Greenberg | September 18, 2006 02:18 PM

Ted Lemon:
e pluribus unum is latin for "from many, one." This appears on the nickel and the quarter, but sadly not on the dime or the dollar bill. I don't have any other currency on hand or I'd check that as well. I have to agree that it would be nice if that had precedence over "in God we trust," since in fact it's a much better description of what's important about the U.S. Oh well.

Just because the blogosphere must correct every little mistake, I'm obligated to point out that "E Pluribus Unum" IS on both the dollar bill and the dime. On the dollar bill, it's on the back, on the banner in the eagle's beak. On the dime, it winds through the branches & torch on the back (http://web.mit.edu/cjoye/www/photo/img/Dime.jpg)

John Scalzi:
I posit the invisible pink unicorn existing unobserved in a Schroedinger's box, where it exists in an indeterminate state, both pink and invisible. That's the unicorn I am agnostic about.

Hmmm...an odd argument from the "you can't argue with science" guy. Color, as an attribute, is defined by specific wavelengths in the visible light spectrum. Human perception of color is defined by the effect that light has on the color receptor cells ("cones") in the retina. So, by either definition, I can't see how anything that's invisible could accurately be described as having a color. QED.

</smartass>

Leigh | September 18, 2006 02:20 PM

I was walking with an aquaintance down the sidewalk one day while a street preacher was yelling about how we are all going to hell. Suddenly the aquaintance turned to me and asked me, "Are you Christian?" I paused.

Yes. I am. I've even attended a four year mini-seminary that qualifies me educationally to be a deacon within the Episcopalian church. I am a regular attendee of church service, in the choir, and beyond attendance, actually believe in God. But I paused at the question, because I knew answering yes to him would mean he would catagorize me with that preacher and assume that I believe in the same firey hell and damnation as he. Instead I answered, "Christian with or without a sense of humor?" He laughed and apparently decided I was okay.

What bothers me about all this isn't the number of unbelieving heathens who are all going to hell (that is a joke). It is the view of Christians as a whole. If the Bible tells me that we are supposed to be recognizable by our love (somehow that phrase doesn't get quoted as often as the one bit about homosexuality in Leviticus) then many people have gotten off track, possibly including me at times.

But I do think that faith (any faith, not just Christianity or Episcopalian--though I am proud of my particular brand because we have a gay bishop and a female presiding bishop elect) is important for people as a whole. Like Cambias's argument, I don't find it surprising that many of the social leaders of our age and the past were people of faith. I don't find it surprising that it was Rabbi Rothchild and other white religious leaders who first took a public stand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (himself a man of faith) in Atlanta during the civil rights movement. Faith can (and probably should) be radical.

When we stop looking at a faith as a way to prosperity, as a way to pray ourselves safe, be in an "in" group, or as a way to get something from God or the Universe, and begin looking at faith as a giving of oneself, we hope, we begin to recognizable by our love.

I stand with Jon, the gay born-again, and the two Quakers, and the others with a faith who posted before. Most Christians are not standing on corners proclaiming damnation. Most of us don't believe that. I'm sorry that the loud minority has created such a black picture of us. Maybe it is time we start standing on street corners proclaiming God loves you, you are accepted, you will go to heaven, whether you care or not.

As for who I believe is going to hell or heaven, I forget who said it but I like it: You can be sure you have created God in your own image, when God hates all the same people you do.

Jemaleddin | September 18, 2006 02:35 PM

Sorry I'm late to this discussion, but:

John: which gods are you agnostic towards? Kali? Allah? Thor?

Christians certainly aren't agnostic towards Zeus or Shiva: they're atheists. I think their religion is every bit as ridiculous as they find everyone else's, therefore I'm an atheist, just like them.

Is there a chance that gods exist? Sure. But it's the same chance for each one, and I'm still an atheist to all of them.

Ted Lemon | September 18, 2006 02:38 PM

I find it a little weird how many "Christians" think the Old Testament is the literal word of God, but when they see Jesus' teachings contradicting their favorite parts of the Old Testament, they side with the Old Testament, not with Jesus. To me, that seems more consistent with being an ersatz Jew than a Christian.

Wakboth | September 18, 2006 02:47 PM

Religion, in moderation, can also be a beneficial opiate, relieving pain and stress.

The problem, I believe, is fanaticism, which is an all too universal human problem.

Brian Greenberg | September 18, 2006 02:51 PM

I find it a little weird how many "Christians" think the Old Testament is the literal word of God, but when they see Jesus' teachings contradicting their favorite parts of the Old Testament, they side with the Old Testament, not with Jesus.

A son disagreeing with his father in public? And today's teenagers thought they invented the concept...

;-)

Steve Buchheit | September 18, 2006 03:45 PM

Brian, "A son disagreeing with his father in public?"

Considering the Christian God is technically a triune, He would be arguing with himself in public. There's a word for that. :)

Hilary | September 18, 2006 03:47 PM

John you make a number of very interesting points which deserve further discussion and exploration. One of the very few I would rebut and recast is “… there's the nagging question in my mind of how much, on a purely practical level, the human condition would change if our species were somehow magically inoculated against the idea of God.” I believe our survival depends upon it.

Leaving aside for now issues of culture, degrees of dogma and where your fist ends and my nose begins, I would rephrase the issue as, is the end of faith required for the human race to survive? For it is the “virtue” of religious faith, not any particular religion, that is the antithesis of rationality. Belief in Santa Claus is adorable in a 4 year old and pathological in a forty year old. No amount of evidence to the contrary (Jesus rode a T-rex to church, carbon dating is Satan’s tool, 70…70 virgins and they’re all mine) can change this faith, and it is dangerous (go read Sam Harris on this).

The following quote is from a conservative lobbyist in Washington “...people can only sustain so many moral movements in their lifetime. Is God really going to let the Earth burn up?” …http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1786227,00.html… Well for the sake of my grandchildren I hope this guy’s influence is limited. This sort of crap can be found in the halls of power and not just the wing nut community.

The species is in it’s adolescence, flush with new hormones and hair in odd places (are atheists the pubic hair of humanity); we are in for a century or two of global maturation, embarrassing woodies and societal angst; jarring for individuals and just plain ugly for species. It’s time to grow up; babies with matches’ burn down houses, adults use them to fire up foundries. We are capable of destroying/degrading the human habitability of this planet by intent or accident. Our mere presence changes the number and distribution of species, the chemistry, the geology and the weather of earth; our structures alter local tectonics, cities are thermal mountains and don’t get me started on orbital space junk. This is our house and it needs to be maintained.

Religious faith offers an excuse not to do what is required to deal with the complexities of evolving into the planetary stewardship phase of civilization. Faith in gods, voodoo, or the earth mother provides the exception to rational thought, and once you have an exception then you can always find reasons to excuse other inconvenient truths. We don’t need to be Spock we just need a reasonably clear head. Faith confirms the null hypotheses of rationality; the ultimate “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Evolution favors the selfish, the dangerous, and “those that take care of their own”; until cooperation is required to survive. Common interest can be negotiated, immutable dogma cannot. If the entity you are negotiating with does not perceive the problem to be relevant and in their interest to solve then you’re screwed; I’m getting raptured, but until then where’s my Hummer. Cooperation on a global scale is required to maintain the climate, manage resources and insure that in an era where WMD technology is attainable by lesser groups (I’m talking bugs not bombs), that we don’t critically injure civilization.

I don’t advocate controlling people’s minds or restricting their beliefs. In fact, faith seems to be an artifact of evolution, but that’s another discussion. I think we need to educate and offer better alternatives; to wean society from it’s fairytales and prepare people for the complexity and responsibly of growing a civilization. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

As I am pulling much of this out of my rosy red rectum, feel free to kibitz, complain, embellish, or decry. My wife is embarrassed by my spelling and improper word substitution; I am a lousy typist, speller and atrocious proof reader, so just go with the train of thought.

Nathan | September 18, 2006 05:07 PM

Hilary

Your post brought into focus for me something that's been nagging me about this thread.

Every once in a while, someone will ring my doorbell with the intention of talking to me about God. I try to be polite because intellectually, I know that in their minds, they're trying to do me the greatest kindness they possibly can.....saving me from eternal damnation

On a more viceral level, the thought that's always foremost in my mind is "Well, I think everything you believe is completely wrong, too pal, but I didn't come to your house to tell you!"

Methinks that telling religious people that they're delusional isn't likely to gain many converts.

CJ | September 18, 2006 05:20 PM

A friend of mine helped me clarify why I didn't like Jehovah's witnesses coming to the door like that: they're not there to help you per se. They're there because they have been told it's their duty to witness for their God. They are trying to earn their own salvation by converting us heathens.

I'm not quite as nice to them as I used to be....

Bob Smietana | September 18, 2006 05:58 PM

Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and Owen Gingerich professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard would probably beg to differ with Dawkins. Both have books about science and God out now -- Collin's is called The Language of God, and Gingerich's is called God's Universe. Interesting stuff.

There's some evidence that monotheism, in the form of underground protestant churches, is alive and well in China.

I'm biased as a believer, and we Christians are no saints, but at least in the 20th century, the track record on athiestic cultures was pretty bad. The Soviets, Nazis, Cambodian communists, the Maoists, killed a lot more folks than the religious folks did. That may change in the 21st century, God forbid, but my hunch is that without God, human beings will worship either themselves or their society: that the State becomes God, and bad things follow.



Andrew Wade | September 18, 2006 06:08 PM

Evolution favors the selfish, the dangerous, and “those that take care of their own”; until cooperation is required to survive.

Not true. Natural selection can and sometimes does favor selfishness even when it is disastrous when applied globally. Natural selection is very much "local", though what local means can very greatly; and the global results can be strictly suboptimal. Google "game theory" and "evolutionarily stable strategy"; but the short of game theory is that even when cooperation is in everyone's best interests, it is not necessarily the rational choice for any given player The "prisoner's dilemma" is a famous case of this. Sometimes it is irrationality that leads to better results.

CartoonCoyote | September 18, 2006 07:08 PM

I'm biased as a believer, and we Christians are no saints, but at least in the 20th century, the track record on athiestic cultures was pretty bad. The Soviets, Nazis, Cambodian communists, the Maoists, killed a lot more folks than the religious folks did.

I have a serious problem with describing Nazis as 'atheistic'; they were anything but. I have an even more serious problem with lumping together the rest because of their lack of religious motivation in racking up death tolls.

Hilary | September 18, 2006 07:38 PM

Nathan – telling a hardcore fundie that they are delusional will not provide much satisfaction above the level of a spanking well delivered. But providing strength to those about to jump ship is valuable. And sowing doubt in their kids is a public service.

Bob S – one of the problems is that faith and intelligence seem to be well compartmentalized. There are many smart people who believe. As I said before there are good arguments that faith is part of an evolutionary process, I’ll post it later when I’ve cleaned it up a bit for this audience. The desire to believe is very strong particularly under adversity (I have very personal experience with this). But wishing something to be true and having it be true are two different things.

The Soviet, Nazi, Cambodians and Maoists were authoritarian cults of personality not atheist movements. Believers of all stripe have orders of magnitude more blood on their hands. If you want to formally debate some of this, the people over at God is 4 Suckers will do so (they have footnotes, I don’t). The folks there are only rude to blathering idiots (Bob you don’t appear to be one of those), to those that want an open discussion, there are quite polite. I say this because I assume that John doesn’t want the Whatever to become overwhelmed by the atheist-theist debate until universal thermodynamic equilibrium sets in.

If there were institutions providing the same benefits of community that religious institutions provided I think you would see fewer church members. While I believe there is fundamental brain structure involved in belief; that function can easily co-opted by belief in humanity and that incredible thing the universe; poof all magic gone.

Andrew – that was intended as a gross generalization. That evolution operates at many different levels both macro and microscopically is a concession wrung from me faster than Scalzi can say kitty carbonara. That humanity is now able to influence it’s own evolution is really the point, poorly stated on my part. This was also in reference to the rise of tribal species. I can’t and won’t dispute an thing you’ve said.

Hilary | September 18, 2006 07:59 PM

About 6 months ago I read a review of 'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,' by Daniel C. Dennett. The reason it bubbled up is that it was reviewed by a theist and that caused some uproar. The interesting part was that Dennett theorized the following: At an early point in the evolution of life, those creatures that realize (at some fundamental cognitive level) that there are “external agents of intent” out to get them, survive; i.e. something out there wants to eat me and is actively seeking to do so. I have extrapolated from here, exactly where the Dennett’s thoughts end and mine begin are fuzzy at best; I have not yet read the book and this concept was a side issue mentioned in the review.

This would occur to amidst the lower branches on the evolutionary tree; insects maybe, mammals certainly. If one continues on this thought experiment it means that evolutionarily successful brains (on a planetary basis) will have some of this behavior genetically hardwired. From there you get to higher social mammals (Homo sapiens and perhaps a few links back) attributing intent to weather, disease and bad case of jock itch; and so the gods are born. Thus there is a rational argument that faith is an artifact of diverse ecosystem evolution, it is similar to the argument that emotions are an artifact of intelligence. This concept resonated nicely and found a warm little niche within my world view.

If you then go further and observe that for the last few millennia organized religion has provided significant social/survival advantages (protection, relative affluence, health, status, and lots of begating) to it’s adherents; one could argue that religion has been a significant factor in human cognitive evolution. I believe that it is fair to say that the part of the brain that governs faith and that which ascribes external intent has been reinforced. The brain is fairly plastic so it is not unreasonable to see evolutionary effects occurring over relatively short time scales.

I have heard people refer to research on the religious part of the brain or the god cell (a variation of the “grand mother cell” where you track your way up each neural network layers of feature recognition filters until you get to the neuron that fires when you recognized granny). I know Sam Harris’ doctoral work is investigating the neurophysiology of religion and others are working seriously on this as well.

So religion may be an evolutionary artifact and we have been reinforcing it for some time, fine. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE HAVE TO CONTINUE TO HAVE RELIGIOUS FAITH OR SPIRITYUALITY OR GOAT ON A POLE (well maybe Goat on a Pole). We can grow and evolve out of it, and I believe we must.

Is the attainment of a stable global stewardship civilization dependent upon the transition from a faith based civilization to a paradigm of faithless rationally? Evolution favors the selfish, the dangerous, and “those that take care of their own”; until cooperation is required to survive. Cooperation on a global scale is required to maintain the climate, manage resources and insure that in an era where WMD technology is attainable by lesser groups that we don’t destroy civilization (I’m talking bugs not bombs).

What kind of transformation does a dominate species, having filled it’s ecosystem by exponentially increasing it’s population, have to undergo to survive global ecological, technological and political events. Does faith and the mindset of “chosen people” prevent or delay the cooperation required to for a civilizations to survive multiple and inevitable global catastrophes. I think it does.

A further insight came to me, and it is tenuous as hell and completely un-provable, but I think it interesting to consider, given the owner of this blog and their ilk. A classic genre of science fiction is the “can we survive our technology” – you know nukes and such. I connect this to my impression that the SETI people are beginning to wonder why nothing has been heard by know, they have been listening for some time. So is the end of faith (its time and rate of adoption) and not just the technology or ecologic issues the gating factor for transcendence to advanced civilization, and survival of the species as we know it.

Advanced civilizations face many modalities of destruction from asteroids to assholes, some require real early detection for corrective action to be effective. Global actions usually require global cooperation and cooperation requires an aligned sense of urgency, criticality, and action by the participants. For example I am gratified that China has realized that to build housing for their rural to urban migration over the next decade, would consume 40% of the entire world’s resources if they stuck with the current approach to urban planning and design. Ok so only 25% of the planet has agreed to this hey it’s a start.

Should any of my typos be caught or killed, I will call you a poo poo head in front of your loved ones.

Nathan | September 18, 2006 08:17 PM

Hilary,

I realize now that I probably gave the impression that I'm one of the team (athiest/agnostic).

I was raised in an observant Jewish home and although I retain most of what I was taught, I no longer keep kosher, and with the exception of weddings and funerals, haven't been in a synagogue since 1978.

I know there are other Jewish traditions, but I was raised to believe that we can't know whether or not there is an afterlife so, we don't behave ourselves here to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. We behave here (no coveting, murdering and what not) because it's worthwhile for it's own sake. Oh, and if there does turn out to be a heaven, I've got my bases covered.

Otherwise, I'm just finding this thread to be an interesting intellectual excercise.

Mark DF | September 18, 2006 09:28 PM

To get back to another of John's points, "Also, there's the nagging question in my mind of how much, on a purely practical level, the human condition would change if our species were somehow magically innoculated against the idea of God."

I think the only way that can happen is if something akin to the scientific method appears very early on. For that to happen, a fairly sophisticated thought process has to evolve early, which may be asking too much of evolution.

What makes me think this is the whole intelligent design "theory." It's not the faith-driven basis I take issue with--it's the anti-intellectualism of it. In a nutshell, ID says "Hmm. Can't figure it out. Must be God. If it's God, no need to think about it further." With that so-called process, we'd still be accepting the premise that rain is a gift /curse from god(s).

However, a sf writer could probably produce a plausible scenario where this could happen. Perhaps that is an exercise for the blogger ;)

Hilary--did you call me an ilk?

David Klecha | September 18, 2006 10:31 PM

Hilary:

From there you get to higher social mammals (Homo sapiens and perhaps a few links back) attributing intent to weather, disease and bad case of jock itch; and so the gods are born. Thus there is a rational argument that faith is an artifact of diverse ecosystem evolution, it is similar to the argument that emotions are an artifact of intelligence. This concept resonated nicely and found a warm little niche within my world view.

Which, on its face, seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn't it? I mean, logic says to me that the less intelligent the acted-upon, the more likely it's going to fail to discriminate about the source of the action. In other words, mice are going to see everything as a self-willed threat, while homo sapiens should be able to view leopards as one kind of threat and lightning as another. Further, I'm not sure this works since the earliest pantheons were built around both benefit and threat. It makes one kind of sense for Thor or Zeus to be invented, but I'm not sure about Aphrodite.

That said, overall I think the argument is far too simplistic.

As far as religion being successful because of "social/survival advantages," that argument seems a little too pop-anthro for my tastes. It's fine, I guess, for herd behavior, but does nothing to address the psychology of individual belief; in fact, none of the evolutionary arguments I've seen satisfy me in that regard. Dawkins' approach focuses too much on the Jewish/Christian/Muslim lines of monotheistic godhead patriarchy, and ignores the vast panoply of supernatural things in which people believe, and have believed, over the milennia.

The biggest truth of all is that Yahweh-based-religion-as-social-force owes its entire existence to a) the strategic conversion of feudal leaders, and thus populations, and b) subsequent inculcation through the generations, on a fundamental level. No one really needs to explain it further than that, in my mind. It's hard to overcome what we were taught in childhood to be true and something as fundamental as God tends to be harder to shake than Santa Claus, in part because God informs a truly significant degree of what is presented to us as children, and constantly reinforced through the formative years.

As a bit of a test, do any atheists or agnostics want to claim that they never, ever say "God damn it"? Or "Hell"?

Anyway, I see the question of religion as being separate from the question of belief. One is primarily social and political while the other is personal and psychological. The explanations for the former do not adequately explain the motivations for the latter.

Andrew Wade | September 18, 2006 11:57 PM

Hilary:

That humanity is now able to influence it’s own evolution is really the point, poorly stated on my part.

Ah I see. It's even better than that: we can (and are) evolving in more of a Lamarckian way, much faster than evolution through natural selection. To be sure it's not exactly biological evolution, but we've been gifted with brains of considerable flexibility and can evolve quite a ways without changing our biology.

Hilary | September 19, 2006 12:53 AM

David:
The brain is a massively parallel structure. Very unusual functional partitions exist. When I studies sensation and perception (a while ago so I may be out of date), for example, the striate cortex which is the higher order visual feature recognition engine at the back of the brain detected edges at different special frequencies and orientations. One would expect that movement would then be simply edges in motion. It is not, a completely different part of the brain detects motion but does not resolve any features. If the striate cortex does not function you can react to something the moves with out being able to “see” it. The upshot is that the mind organizes itself in ways that work for the mind, and not in ways that facilitate our understanding.

If basic deep cognitive structure fulfils the function of “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD) and first emerged in lower animals and is responsible for earlier detection of real threats, then we have an early common evolutionary survival feature. Deep structure, genetically coded, common to a wide variety of life, that is later rendered moot at the top of the food chain due to advanced features of homo sapient cognitive functions (language, cultural memory etc.) may become obsolete but not disappear (similar to junk DNA).

So we have a former processing modality that is no longer used to the degree it was before higher functions subsumed them, spinning it wheels looking for stimulus. Bang lightning strikes, burns the wife, what did this, why did this happen, how did I fuck up? HADD spins up along with the rest of the brain trying to understand and thus chimes in and modulates the experience, kicks in it’s two cents.

It is not a classification question of leopard or lightning. It is the coloring of experience similar to the use of emotions to process and tag memory. Do you remember the feeling first time you burned your finger or do you remember anger, fear and misery. These are not Zeus detectors, this is a propensity for modulating the interpretation of experience and attribution of action based on a particular residual mental processing feature.

Searching for relevance and meaning gives way to attribution of events to unseen agents of action. Culture dominates and evolves in each particular niche but the gods evolve everywhere (anthropologist’s is this true, % culture without deities?). I will stop this track and go back and read what Dennett has to say at this point. I may be completely full of shit.

Relative to the religion as a survival advantage. Over time it is the herd that breeds, individual belief and tastes have little to do with my point. Most individual beliefs are derived form the societal norm.

”The biggest truth … inculcation through the generations, on a fundamental level. “ I agree and then they killed the atheists, heretics, apostates, witches, pagans and nerds and fat chicks (girls please don’t hit me). Those that believe or pay lip service survive and thrive. Elders of the church are in control and live better unless you’re the underdog and driven out (Jews) or slaughter by imperial fiat (pagans). Clearly the believers survive better than those who don’t and to some degree you have a selection process occurring.

God is harder to shake than Santa (just try to grab on to god). God and Santa are the same thing, though one requires un-provable immutable faith and fealty, the other milk and cookies. But again I am talking about the concept of faith and not the implementation of religion.

Oh fucking Jesus on a frying stick in hell. There these are cultural words I use them I have never believed, I’m not sure I get the point.

I am closing this one just now I’m tired and Nicole is ridiculing me, I may not get laid. I am talking about large scale cultural feature driven by evolutionary biology, so individual permutations don’t enter into what I am talking about unless they become successful mutations. I have to reread what you have said and try to understand your point as it pertains to my ramblings.

Ted Lemon | September 19, 2006 01:51 AM

Several people have said or implied that faith is the easy way out. If faith feels easy to you, you are either an extremely spiritually evolved person, or what you have isn't actually faith - it's hope, or belief, or delusion. Nothing wrong with hope and belief, but they aren't faith.

Looking from the outside, it's easy to confuse hope, belief and delusion for faith. It's only when you're trying to develop faith in something that the difference becomes apparent.

Jemaleddin | September 19, 2006 06:32 AM

Bob: The Nazis were lutherans, not atheists. Not good lutherans, obviously, but they certainly didn't think of themselves as atheists. Add their death toll to the Christian tally.

David Klecha | September 19, 2006 08:45 AM

Jemaleddin:

But the Nazis did not kill in the name of God, they killed in the name of Hitler, or the Fatherland. They may have been incidentally Lutherans, many of them (but certainly not all), but the state religion of Hitler, the cult of personality, subsumed that. It's like saying lovers of sauerkraut were responsible for the Holocaust. Might be incidentally true, but that itself attaches no extra stigma to people who love sauerkraut. Their love of sauerkraut and their lip-service Lutheranism each had as much to do with not only how they conducted their fascist, genocidal regime but the whys and wherefores behind it, which is to say very, very little. The assignations of blame in the Crusades and the Inquisition and the Troubles in Ireland are much more valid, since who is what religion formed an overt rationale for those tragedies, but no such rationale existed in Nazi fascism.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 19, 2006 09:03 AM

Dogs don't "wag their tales," you do.

Matt Kressel | September 19, 2006 09:21 AM

"Argue not concerning God." - Walt Whitman

Ditto.

AliceB | September 19, 2006 09:21 AM

As I see it, the problem is not faith or religion, it's a mode of thinking in the way we act. When religion takes over reason,we're all in danger.

A recent example is the stupidity of Pope Benedict and the reaction among (some) Muslims. The Pope's quote of a 14th century christian text to characterize Islam as being based on violence was ill-advised, inflammatory, insulting, narrow-minded, and just plain stupid. The Pope was rightly called on this. And it was a good thing he apologized, although a bit too slowly given the outrage. That said, the Muslim reaction to what he said was over the top: churches were destroyed, individual christians threatened, a whole new jihad now being advocated. The actions to the outrage were beyond reason: islamic religious fervor and casuistry may be used justify them, but no reasoning person would think that a Christian 1,000 miles aways is responsible for the stupid words of a man in Rome. Reason has been trumped by religious thinking.

This is also true in the U.S. Every time a politician says "I do what Jesus would do" we are in trouble. Because what would Jesus do? What Pat Robertson says? What Bush says? What Colin Powell says? The fact is, no one knows--and trying to apply first and second century texts to the geopolitics, economy, and natural environmental troubles of the 21st century is downright dangerous.

I don't knock anyone's faith: it is, in the West, a basis for a lot of our morality. But it cannot be a substitute for reason. The "seperation of church and state" provision in the U.S. Constitution was written by people who were neither atheists nor agnostics--for powerful reasons that still apply today.

Nathan | September 19, 2006 10:17 AM


Alice B

My understanding (and ya'll should feel free to correct me if you know better), is that the Pope's remarks were part of a lengthy scholarly discussion of interfaith tollerance and, taken in context, were intended to illustrate historical problems we've had on the subject. However, since most people don't seem capable of reading past the first paragraph of a news item and/or watching a news clip on TV that runs more than 15 seconds, all most people got was "Pope quotes 14th century emporer....blah, blah, blah"

I'm not a great big fan of the current Pope, (and who gives a shit since I'm Jewish), but it seems unfortunate to me that no discussion longer than two sentences won't be twisted out of context because we don't have the patience to listen to an entire story.

This thread has been extremely civil even though some diametrically opposing views are being stated, but I'd bet, if I had the patience, I could pull snippets from a number of posts and make it sound likes its been a WWE Smackdown.

Having said that, I still think the protesters in the Islamic world are a bit nutso. Things are REALLY scary out there.

AliceB | September 19, 2006 10:26 AM

Nathan, you may be right, and my bad for not knowing the full context of the quote. But it wasn't the Pope's words that mattered so much to me, as that part of the Muslim reaction that was based entirely on religious thinking rather than any reasoned thinking.

And yeah. Things are scary out there. Here, too.

Hilary | September 19, 2006 11:32 AM

The original texts for virtually all religions are pretty nasty when it come to outsiders. Christian sects have been cherry picking the better concepts and eschewing the nasty stuff over the last several centuries. But, kill your kid if they espouse a different belief, no clothes of different materials etc. are the words of god, if you believe that sort of thing. Scholarly interpretation glosses over a great deal of true nastiness. Islamic fundamentalists seem to be pretty violent, they can firebomb other institutions all they want in order protest their pacifism and love for others. In all fairness all fundamentalists are pretty nasty if you give them half a chance.

CLD | September 19, 2006 01:36 PM

Most of us who have had the religious right attempt to marginalize us know our rights as well. However, just because you know your rights doesn't mean folks won't try to marginalize you [and be successful at it]. Even if I don't care what someone thinks of my being a lesbian, the fact that I am a lesbian is enough for some folks to feel as though I'm a second-class citizen who doesn't deserve the same rights everyone else enjoys. And although at this time, I know my rights -- they are actively working to take them away.

I guess this whole run-on paragraph was in response to your saying that you didn't feel marginalized as an agnostic partly because you know your rights, John. Trust me, once they've finished with us, they'll find another group to go after. And since their ultimate goal is a United States of Jesus, you can bet it'll be the agnostics and atheists.

Eric | September 19, 2006 01:56 PM

David:

Their love of sauerkraut and their lip-service Lutheranism each had as much to do with not only how they conducted their fascist, genocidal regime but the whys and wherefores behind it, which is to say very, very little.

Actually, see, that's really at the heart of a historical debate that's been going on since the mid-90s, starting largely with Goldhagen's work, which I referenced above. Understand that I'm not offering this up in some definitive sense: I think that some of Goldhagen's arguments in Hitler's Willing Executioners over-reach, and the book suffers from a flaw common to projects of its sort in that it fails to address whether Germans like Oskar Schindler and others were "extraordinary" or not; that is to say, if Lutheran anti-semitism was such a pervasive and permeating influence, how were some people able to resist it. Too, Goldhagen's analysis of German culture comes up short (in my opinion) in Goldhagen's own discussion of genocide in Poland.

I suspect that a real "answer" to the issue would have to synthesize Goldhagen's historical research with projects like Milgram's psych experiments and work in sociology--there's probably not one single sufficient factor that covers everything.

But Goldhagen's indictment is fairly compelling whether you take German Lutheran anti-Semitism as necessary or sufficient. And if you take that view, then the kind of Christianity that dominated Germany from the Reformation to the Holocaust had a great deal to do with Nazi actions: the Holocaust would not have been possible without that creed. This is not to say that all Germans or all Lutherans were killers--or, frankly, that all anti-Semites were killers (ironically enough)--nor is it to say that the actions of Nazis reflect on any other past, present or future Christians (or Lutherans); it is to say that the particular manifestation of that particular flavor of Christian belief that existed in Nazi/pre-Nazi Germany was a causal factor in the deaths of millions of people.

Of course, you might note that the aberrant homicidal behavior of one distinctive Protestant sub-sect in Germany doesn't reflect generally on modern Christians any more than the aberrant homicidal behavior of one distinvtive "godless" subsect in Soviet Russia reflects upon modern atheists. The "Christian" roots of Nazism were brought into the discussion as a response to a comment about the failure of "godless" ethical codes, and mainly as a way of saying, "If you're bringing out the wide brush, you might double-check which can of paint you're dipping it into."

Mark DF | September 19, 2006 02:41 PM

I'm glad someone brought the pope/muslim issue up. I did a quick skim of the pope's address, and, as Nathan notes, my read is that the pope was taken completely out of context. Here is the text. Ironically, the talk is about religion and reason. The pope did a completely normal academic approach: take a famous historical quotation and use it as a framing device for a discussion. A further irony is that the muslim reaction is exactly the type of reaction they are accusing the pope of insulting them with, which he didn't say at all. In light of this thread, I recommend reading it (I'm going to look at it more closely tonight).

This situation is Exhibit 1 why I think religion has reached its nadir as a social good.

AliceB | September 19, 2006 04:11 PM

Thank you Mark DF for the link. And yes the pope was talking about reason and religion--but unfortunately I now am even more convinced that he was a dunderhead in using the 14th c. quote. First he doesn't refute it--leaving it as a possible endorsed truth on his part. Second, it's entirely unnecessary for his argument.

It's like quoting a nazi text about the base nature of jews to make a point about God working in mysterious ways--and then later saying that the quote was out of context and of course he didn't believe the truth of it, even if he didn't quite say so at the time. I'm pretty sure world jewry would be in an uproar.

Doesn't change the fact that the violent, fundamentalist reaction was and continues to be outrageous.

Gwen | September 19, 2006 04:38 PM

"i'm what Margaret Atwood describes as a "strict agnostic." i don't believe in a personal, interested god. because if i did believe there was a personal, interested god, i'd have to hate it."
Something like that for me...except it's I don't worship any gods, because if there was a god who was so insecure she needed worshipping, I wouldn't want to worship her.
Number one reason why reading the Bible turns me off Christianity (and Judaism, but nobody's ever tried to convert me to Judaism). Why would I want to worship a jealous God obsessed with getting people to worship him and follow his edicts, no matter how silly, or he would kill them? My personal moral system does not like people who kill other people because of a difference in belief, people who punish people for their ancestor's sins, people who test other people's loyalty to them by telling the other people to kill their children, et cetera.
In other words, any deity who didn't advocate rational thinking, tolerance kindness & empathy, and so on would be my version of the devil. Don't care how all-powerful she is.
I just rediscoverd the Erisian Church of Discord, though, so I may end up being one of those weird agnostic Discordians. Kallisti and all that.
--But traditional religion certainly isn't a feel-good thing for anyone who is intellectually honest. Especially the ones which have the idea that people are inherently bad and need to be indoctrinated into morality with "jail and gallows and hell-fire." I personally think that tying up morality into Law instead of just basic human niceness causes a lot of trouble because of the people who end up following the Law but not being nice. Or moral.
And some of the beliefs in, say, Christianity (sorry but that's what I'm most familiar with right now), can lead to a dangerous worldview in this life. Complacency--we never have to worry about causing the end of the world ourselves, or a meteor hitting, or anything, because God won't let that happen because he's planning on ending the world as we know it himself, so we shouldn't even make contingency plans like meteor warning systems or space colonization. And bigotry, and intolerance, although that doesn't happen so much among those who are intellectually honest.
And it is possible to be intellectually honest and religious, which is (part of) the reason why I don't go around trying to get people to convert. I'll mess around with the minds of people who try to convert *me*, but otherwise, off-limits.
And I don't need to believe in any god to have that moral limit!
Re: the Invisible Pink Unicorn: the religion of the Invisible Pink Unicorn is based on both faith and reason. Faith, because followers believe that she is pink even though they can't see her. Reason, because followers know that she is invisible because they can't see her.
http://www.geocities.com/tribhis/cthulhutract.html for a new take on the Jack Chick tracts.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | September 19, 2006 05:53 PM

Going way, wayyyy back to the original post: On John Scalzi's topic of picking our battles, I can tell you one reason why I do pick the battle of the motto on the coin. It's because I want to frickin' get rid of the ammunition used by some to browbeat us who either don't call what we worship "God" or don't worship at all: "How can you not believe in God? Look, it says on the coin 'In God We trust'! If you don't believe in God, you're not an American!"

Rather than attempt to educate every one of those morons about the history of that commie-baiting slogan, I'd much rather see that blot wiped off the First Amendment entirely. Because in God many of us don't bloody well trust, and yet--*gasp*-- we're Americans too! Trusting in God is not a prerequisite to being an American!

Were those blatantly anti-constitutional (well, *I* think so, even if past Supreme Court Justices didn't) phrases off the coin and out of the pledge, true, it wouldn't magically make atheists electable in this climate, but it would take some of the wind out of that climate in which atheists are unelectable.

I know, I know--good luck to me. But it's something I do feel passionately about, and I think I have good reason. Not that I feel those reasons should compell others to take up the torch with me; I just feel those reasons should be represented.

And that's what.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | September 19, 2006 05:57 PM

Addendum: My "those morons" above refers solely to the proselytizing browbeaters who thing my being Pagan makes me less of an American. I, too, have little patience for any argument which rests upon, or goes out of its way to demonstrate (sometimes disingenuously), a belief that "religious" and "idiotic" are synonyms. I doubt I'd get past page 5 of The God Delusion for the same reasons that I was disgusted by The God Who Wasn't There.

Leland | September 19, 2006 07:31 PM

Wow, I don't check for a few days and I end up with hundreds of comments to read. I doubt many will read this but I find myself in the same position as John and most of the others who have posted here. My personal reaction to those who need to tell me about their god is to refer to "Him" as an invisible, omnipotent, space alien.

I have found a "religion" that properly meshes with my (lack of) belief. Check out the church of reality at churchofreality.org... or don't. It's not like I am trying to push my particular little group on you. I simply offer this in response to the quite valid comment about religions being organized and promoting their agenda. These days us who believe in reality can organize too.

Andrew Wade | September 19, 2006 08:24 PM

Number one reason why reading the Bible turns me off Christianity (and Judaism, but nobody's ever tried to convert me to Judaism). Why would I want to worship a jealous God obsessed with getting people to worship him and follow his edicts, no matter how silly, or he would kill them?

Woah there. Virtually no Christians, not even fundamentalists, read the bible literally. It is true that some sects of Christianity do believe in a God that is jealous, abusive, and well, evil. But there are also Christian sects that believe in a kind, nurturing God, and don't buy into the idea that us heathens are hell-bound. They don't necessarily pay much heed to the Old Testament (with it's genocides), or to the rantings of the Paul. I'm less familiar with Jewish practice, but I don't believe they commonly take the Tanahk literally either. (And the Tanahk is accompanied by copious commentary in the Talmud - though I do not know just how relevant the Talmud is to the various Jewish sects.)

In other words, any deity who didn't advocate rational thinking, tolerance kindness & empathy, and so on would be my version of the devil. Don't care how all-powerful she is.

Hear, hear! Thing is, no small number of Christians agree. It is unfortunate that the most visibly "Christian" Christians are the intolerant assholes.

Cambias | September 19, 2006 10:24 PM

Eric:

"The excesses of Nazism may or may not have had anything to do with atheism..." -- Hitler was no Christian. I've read Mein Kampf, and it's full of cod-Darwinism; the Race is all. And Marx wanted t dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. Both men mistook a description of How Stuff Works for a prescription of How Stuff Should Work.

And, yes, the Inquisition killed people; I even said as much. But in the Massive Genocide competition, even if you throw in the Albigensian Crusade, it's still a piker compared with some of the more recent anticlerical bloodbaths like the Soviet purges or the Great Leap Forward. Yet all too many atheists are willing to strain at the (admittedly large) mote in Christianity's eye while ignoring the huge honking bloodstained beam in their own.

"The contention that we owe religious toleration to Protestant ideals is dubious on several fronts. First, Protestantism was not a monolithic front..."

Indeed it isn't. Which is why a young nation in North America, populated by various Protestant denominations and a bunch of Catholics, had to enshrine religious tolerance in its constitution to make the whole thing work. But what made that possible is that Protestant Christianity (most types) places a strong emphasis on individual salvation rather than e.g. ritual or clerical absolution. In other words, Protestant Eric can achieve his personal salvation even if Protestant Jim is getting everything wrong. This allows Protestant Eric to feel all smug and superior, but still live in a secular society alongside Protestant Jim.

"...anyone who thinks that Protestant beliefs led directly to religious moderation and tolerance is woefully unfamiliar with the history of the Reformation..."

Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs. I am perfectly aware of the history of the Reformation. It has almost nothing to do with what I was talking about, which is why I didn't mention it. Again, I am not trying to whitewash Christianity -- I _am_ trying to point out that the very ideas you're using to criticize it come _from_ a Christian tradition.

And the Enlightenment era thinkers you cite were strongly influenced by the tolerance displayed in (Protestant) Netherlands and (Protestant) Britain. By our standards it was a very limited kind of tolerance, but, as you note, it beat what came before by several country miles.

"...What is perhaps more troubling is the veiled threat in, "we atheists may need those religious folks more than they need us." While I agree that the vast numbers of Christians could, if they wanted to resort to time-honored traditions, rise up and torture me until I professed myself born again and then murder me on the gallows or stake, I hardly think that's something anyone should be proud of or humbled by."

What a remarkably obtuse misreading. We atheists need Christians because our moral tradition comes from them, as I noted in my original post. Your blatant hostility toward Christianity is exactly the kind of thing I was trying to warn against: being an atheist doesn't make you (or me) a better person, and the fact that Christianity has a bloodstained history _still_ doesn't make you a better person. So instead of preening yourself on how you're not one of those red-eyed fanatical Methodists howling for blood in the Wal-Mart aisles, why don't you try a little humility? I believe it is one of the Christian virtues.

Matt McIrvin | September 19, 2006 10:59 PM

I also think the bloody legacy of 20th-century nonreligious ideologies are important to consider (specifically Communism, to avoid arguing forever about whether Nazism was religious).

But the lesson, to me, is not that Godless ideologies are particularly bloody (there's been a lot of religious violence since the Inquisition). It's more that theistic belief is not the dangerous thing; intolerant and unreasoningly dogmatic and enforced-through-violence beliefs, those are the dangerous things. It doesn't matter much whether a God is involved or not. In the West before 1900, dangerous ideologies tended to involve God, but that wasn't really the main issue.

mds | September 20, 2006 12:38 AM

Jenny Rae Rappaport:

are there any novels out there that have animals that have evolved their own religions?

It's not developed much, but one of the subplots in Brin's Startide Rising involves "pre-uplift" dolphin religion.

Mark DF | September 20, 2006 11:37 AM

AliceB,

I agree--the pope was dunderheaded. This is one of those situations where I wonder if it is purposeful (given that one doesn't get to be pope unless one is always aware that what is said will be scrutinized) or if it's one of those times even smart people do dumb things (I rarely tell my boss he's wrong/might not want to do that, and, trust me, he ain't the pope!).

Having said that, it's really starting to get under my skin that everything a Western leader says (whether I agree with them or not) has to be filtered for a muslim audience in order to prevent outsized violent reprisals. The high over-reactors are very often the same people who see no problem with anti-semitic screeds, burning my flag, kidnapping and torturing non-combatant westerners and remaining primarily silent when innocent people die in terrorist attackes. What is developing is almost a classic abusive relationship, with the Westerners tip-toeing around the batterers in order to not set them off. People can talk about the power imbalance between the West and the muslim world, but once the muslim world shields itself from any criticism--even 500 year old criticism--by instilling murdering fear, they will have leveled the playing field.

(disclaimer: I feel I'm going a little bit out on a limb here by saying the latter and that it might be misinterpreted. Please bear in mind that I'm not advocating bombing anyone. I'm trying to express an observational frustration. I don't agree with what the Bush administration has done. But I also know this situation was here before Bush and will be after him. What the West needs to do is figure out how to address it without compromising its values).

Eric | September 20, 2006 11:48 AM

Oh dear, Cambias, I seem to have struck a nerve…
The real point, actually, was that irrational beliefs have little or nothing to do with the theistic nature of those beliefs.

It has become a common strategy of Christian critics of atheism to hold up Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism as examples of the horrible path atheism will lead you down. There are many problems with this “critique.” The one I focused on was that Nazism arguably was informed and made possible by Christian practices in Germany. If, as Goldhagen argues, the Holocaust was made possible by the anti-Semitism of German Lutherans, it doesn’t really matter if Hitler was a Christian or not: the executioners in the camps weren’t Darwinists, they were predisposed to see their victims as less-than-human because they came from long lines of Christians who had been taught that the Jews had committed deicide. Without that fertile soil, Hitler’s commitment to pseud0-Darwinian eugenics would have fallen on deaf ears. That’s the heart of Goldhagen’s critique: it’s not what Hitler believed that is ultimately quite as important as what his “willing executioners” believed. Germany, for all it’s authoritarian tendencies, was a democracy and Hitler an elected leader: his vitriol found a mass audience that was willing, perhaps eager, to kill—and not because Germany was a nation of Darwinists.

It’s interesting that you mention Catholic settlers and then quickly shift focus back to your argument about Protestant ideals. The first problem, of course, and the one I alluded to, being that the emphasis in “Protestant Christianity (most types)” has to be on the last two words. Not all Protestant faiths play nice together, and Protestants and Catholics tend to be worse.

Indeed, your argument all but proves the opposite of its intent: the religious seperation of Church and State was necessary “to make the whole thing work” precisely because religious sects have a tendency to fight or expel dissenters. Indeed, the very mythology of America’s history is that it was founded by people who were expelled for religious dissent. The founders were familiar enough with European history to realize that allowing sectarian religion to intrude on civic life would be a recipe for disaster: in essence, religious toleration had to be enshrined in the Constitution despite Protestant intolerance, in order to keep religious intolerance from knocking the country into a possible civil war.

Now, one more thing: if you’re saying that religious scholasticism, including Christian theology from Catholics and Protestants, informed liberal democratic ideals that were incorporated into the Constitution, there’s no argument. In that sense, we do owe Christianity a debt much as any era owes a debt to its intellectual forebears. But I think you put your claim a bit more bluntly and broadly than that: we owe our democratic ideals to a mix of Enlightenment reason, Roman civics, Greek philosophy, Christian teaching, and diverse others—to emphasize one is to miss the totality of the picture and a misleading sense of where credit is due.

Protestant beliefs did not lead directly to religious moderation and toleration. They did lead to those things indirectly and sometimes in spite of Protestant beliefs. As an ideological matter, a dispute over the necessities of the sacrements or whether Works alone are sufficient to enter Heaven does not admit two answers—and in the matter of whether Jesus was Christ or whether or not the Pope in Rome is the head of the True Church there is even less room for compromise. As an ideological matter, a Protestant might be wholly justified in keeping his children away from the corrupting influence of rival Protestants or even eliminating the threat posed by Jews or Catholics. As a practical matter, however, running from your neighbors, exiling or fencing off your neighbors, or killing your neighbors ends up being very inconvenient. As a practical matter, you learn to gloss over differences and smugly assure yourself that you’re going to Heaven and you never had to kill a heretic to do it.

Moderation ultimately arrises in spite of exclusionary theologies (i.e. religions that claim sole truth) like most Protestant sects, and is then typically explained post facto by the scholars and preachers of those sects.

I am less familiar with the Netherlands, but of course the British tolerance arose after a rather bloody Civil War that had been preceded by an epic intra-familial religious dispute between the royal family and nobles, not to mention a series of bloody wars with Catholic France and Spain. The aftermath of 17th century war and politics was ultimately that the English were exhausted: it was much easier to agree to disagree than it was to continue dealing with religious in-fighting.

As for the ad hominem closing to your post—did I say I was a better person? Did I preen? Was I “blatantly hostile” to anything?

My point was simply that Christianity didn’t have any particular claim to moral superiority and that at least one of your “examples” of “atheist” moral inferiority was arguably an example of failings by Christians. Christians failing does not equal “Christian failings.” I was careful to point the finger of shame at a specific sect and specific kind of teaching, and did not try to make any claim that the kind of Christianity was or was not a “typical” kind of Christianity.

A further point is that “our” moral tradition owes a great deal to Christian thought as it has evolved over the past two millenia. That doesn’t always mean what you think it does: parts of our moral tradition arrise from subsequent thinkers rejecting Christian texts or teachings, thus the tradition arises as a rejection, not an adoption. Other parts of our moral tradition owe debts to other religions, other philosophies, and to secular ideas.

All of that aside, the fact that we may owe Christianity a great thanks for either of Michelangelo’s Pietas or for Mozart’s requiem mass doesn’t give Christianity a higher moral ground or mean that we should overlook crimes in the name of religion. I like Michelangelo, and accept that what is sublime in his work is rooted in his personal Christianity. I despise Nazi genocide, and accept that what is terrible in it has roots in the perpetrators’ Christian belief that the Jews rejected God and were eternally damned for murdering His only Son. Those are, ultimately, value-neutral beliefs that recognize the fact that intense beliefs can bring out the best and worst in a human’s potential.

Where you and I may differ most strongly is that I do have a concern that irrational beliefs may endanger my culture, my life, and the lives of others down the road. I do have a problem with someone deciding that a Deity created the world in six days (because he read it in a book) and imposing that belief upon schoolchildren despite tons of rational thought, research, and accumulated physical evidence to the contrary—such things endanger rational thought. It is even worse when someone decides that God wants him to kill people because a book says that’s what God wants. I am “blatantly hostile” to irrationality, and I think all people should be.

To that extent, then, Christianity may have been a booster rocket, to be spent and dropped when the next level of flight is reached. We may value the booster for getting us here, but that does not mean it hasn’t become dead weight, excess mass keeping us from making a better altitude and dragging us back down to earth. Clinging to false or unreasonable beliefs—that the world was created 6,000 years ago, that God has a homicidal loathing for the “false idols” of other peoples, that we can run the ecological table because the Rapture will keep the godly from being accountable for the wasteland—does make one a worse person, although it may have no impact on whether anyone else is actually much better.

Cambias | September 20, 2006 01:06 PM

Eric:

My analogy for Christianity and secular liberalism is that Christianity is like the stakes supporting a plant. I don't know if the plant can stand up without the stakes yet, and I do know that attempts to grow plants without stakes have rotted.

To spare John's bandwidth I won't go into a detailed did not/did so debate. The Protestant roots of the Enlightenment is a fairly well-supported concept in history and I won't thrash it out again.

My main point, which has gotten lost in the historical nitpicking, is that most modern atheists should recognize that their ideas of right and wrong have roots in religion. If you want to talk about right and wrong you pretty much have to work within the religious context.

Outside that context there's only the bare pragmatism of works/doesn't work. And as the various 20th century totalitarianisms demonstrate, the atheist track record isn't very good. (And despite the fact that Germany was a nominally Christian country, Naziism itself was strongly anticlerical; and surely you won't argue that Soviet or Maoist tyranny draws on Christianity.)

Bearing those two ideas in mind, I think atheists are foolish when they deride religion as nothing but irrationalism for boobs. After all, in a truly atheistic context, what's wrong with being irrational? If there's no objective moral system, you can't say that people "should" be rational. (Whereas the Pope can and has.) You can only say that rationality increases your chance of material success -- but the evidence for that is weak to nonexistent.

Which leaves a rationalist atheist like myself in a quandary. My solution is to quit getting all bothered that other people believe in that God fellow.

Andrew Wade | September 20, 2006 07:23 PM

Cambias

After all, in a truly atheistic context, what's wrong with being irrational? If there's no objective moral system, you can't say that people "should" be rational.

Substitute "materialist" with "atheistic". An objective morality is no more incompatible with atheism than an objective reality. Now to be sure I acquired the metaphysical concepts of right and wrong (and truth for that matter) indirectly from Christianity. But that doesn't mean I have to "buy into" Christianity to reason about those concepts any more that Christians need to be Zoroastrians to reason about God. And I won't argue that my philosophy is particularly well-formed. But it is no less atheistic for that.

AliceB | September 20, 2006 08:32 PM

After reading the back and forth, I'm starting to wonder whether morals and ethics really derive from religion, or whether it's the other way round. After all, the concepts of love, treating people with respect, doing to others what you would want to be done to you, someone being holy and good, etc. antecede Jesus by many millenia. And these concepts exist in religions around the globe, including those that are polytheistic. And in cultures where religion is a smaller component of ethics, such as in Japan, there are strong moral codes and modes of behavior that the world recognizes as ethical.

So, thinking out loud, why aren't religions the codifications of ethical concepts that have been developed since we started emigrating from Africa?

Owlmirror | September 21, 2006 01:44 AM

So, thinking out loud, why aren't religions the codifications of ethical concepts that have been developed since we started emigrating from Africa?

A few thoughts out loud in response:

I don't think religions can be accurately described as being "codifications of ethical concepts". For the most part, I think that a careful assessment of religions would reveal that they are instead shared social traditions. The goal of these traditions is not to codify ethics in general, but rather to maintain stability of the social units, or tribes. Of course, as a side effect of maintaining this stability, there are some ethical concepts expressed as well, but note that the concepts of ethics are usually geared at maintaining social stability, not as universals to be pursued for themselves. For the most part in these traditions, avoiding violation of societal norms is more important than ethics as a universal concept - and note that most religious traditions also encode specific violations of universal ethics that are permitted (or even required) as enforcements of the social order.

Ethics as a universal concept was, pragmatically speaking, probably considered less necessary than social cohesion because when there are many small social units in direct conflict with one another, cohesion is required for simple survival. Those outside the social unit are probably hostile anyway; treating them ethically is given far less emphasis.

However, once larger social groupings arose, it became meaningful to consider ethics as a universal - again, from a pragmatic point of view, to maintain cohesion among groups that at least sometimes cooperate (and yet sometimes are hostile).

Some early traditions that arose from considering ethics as an actual universal concept were the various graceful-life philosophies of the Greco-Roman tradition (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Diogenes, Epicurus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, etc), the original teachings of Gautama Buddha, and to a certain extent, rabbinical Judaism. Note that each of these existed in reaction to then-current hierarchical religious traditions: the philosophers against the traditional polytheism, with its stories of the gods acting like just like petty, selfish humans with power (atheism was even then considered a capital crime); rabbinical Judaism against biblically literal priestly Judaism; and of course Buddhism against highly-stratified caste-enforcing Hinduism. Christianity can be seen as a synthesis of parts of bibilically literal Judaism (and smidgens of rabbinical Judaism), bits and pieces of the various Greek philosophies, and popular polytheism, with its weird stories of what the gods get up to being taken as serious truth to be transmitted as a "mystery".

All of which is why the assertion that "ideas of right and wrong have roots in religion" is not quite correct - religion borrowed heavily from philosophies which were already considering universal ethics as something to be valued; modern atheistic thoughts on ethics are simply seperating out the ancient humanistic philosophical heritage from the absurdist aspects of the religious traditions.

Getting back to the ultimate source of the sense of ethics, I think it's necessary take into account some recent neurological and psychological findings. The roots of empathy lie in the brain; there are "mirror neurons" which fire when another entity performing an action is perceived; there's a portion of the brain than mediates judgements. All of these suggest that at least a basic sense of ethics arises from our mammalian heritage; further research may discover that all animals with sufficiently advanced brains can have a sense of ethics.


Various sources that led to these thoughts:

Doubt: a history, by Jennifer Hecht
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
The Soul Made Flesh, by Carl Zimmer
Recent popular articles on neurology and psychology that I'm too tired to go searching for right now. But this might be a good start:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neurons

Owlmirror | September 21, 2006 02:02 AM

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 19, 2006 09:03 AM


Dogs don't "wag their tales," you do.

WAG-ing of a tale results in a draft, of course. A first draft, even.

Then you get the draft, and chew through it, to see where it bites. Just like a dog?

Matt McIrvin | September 21, 2006 05:30 AM

Outside that context there's only the bare pragmatism of works/doesn't work. And as the various 20th century totalitarianisms demonstrate, the atheist track record isn't very good.

That's a bit unfair, though. If you go by belief in the population, most of the social democracies of northwest Europe should probably be counted as atheist countries, even though most of them have established churches. If you just count regimes that actually enforced atheist ideologies, of course you'll get brutal tyrannies because only tyrannies do that sort of thing!

You could argue that the modern European atheist countries have religion-based cultural backgrounds, and of course you'd be right, but the atheist totalitarian states did too, so that provides no justification for counting only the nice places in the "Christianity" column and the nasty places in the "atheism" column.

Anonymous | September 21, 2006 10:09 AM

Thank you Owlmirror. Your answer helped me grapple a problem that has been niggling at me since the beginning. Not everyone in western societies derived their ethics from religious teachings--I grew up in a secular household, but with a clearly defined standard of ways in which you need to behave in society to be a good person, in every sense. I wasn't shielded from religious texts, but they weren't essential. And they don't need to be since they are a distillation or combination of other ethical philosophies brought in from numerous sources.

And so to John's question about whether we could have a good society without religion, I think, in theory we could, since ethical considerations do not require religion to exist. In practice however, it is almost impossible because we are not starting from scratch. Historically, societies that have enforced eradication of religion (e.g. Pol Pot's Cambodia) are tyrannical and unethical--because ethics require treating people with respect, and forcing people to give up beliefs is disrespectful, and in the case of tyrannies, violent, cruel, and often genocidal.

So, given that we are in societies that have religions, and to the extent religions are a vehicle to convey ethical behavior, then religions are useful. But I still think they remain dangerous because laced in with the teachings about ethics are requirements to be intolerant about non-believers--if you don't believe what I do, then you are condemned to hellfire, or I am entitled to destroy your church, or some such. The majority of believers may de-emphasize those portions of the teachings, but those provisions are still there, available to people who then can use them as justifications for bad behavior. They are like that loaded gun in the room that everyone is told not to touch and to ignore, but some idiot will eventually climb a chair to get it from the top shelf and fire it.

AliceB | September 21, 2006 10:10 AM

Dang. That was me again.

Eric | September 21, 2006 01:25 PM

I think Owlmirror and Andrew Wade did a better job responding to Cambias than I could. I would only add that one can also arrive at ethical/moral rules through reason without regard (either way) to religion. An example being John Rawls' famous thought experiment, discussed here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_position

Two more, brief points. (1) I never disputed that the Enlightenment drew on Protestant thought both directly and out of fatigue from the wars of the Reformation; the issue was the extent. (2) Religion and "Christianity" are seperate issues; Maoism, Stalinism and Nazism were effectively State religions. Examples of "atheistic" religions (in which there is no "god" but superstitious awe and faith replaces Reason) are poor rebuttals to rational materialism.

Matt S | September 26, 2006 08:14 AM

Richard Dawkins not only trashes virtually all the major arguments for believing in God, he trashes the horrible practice of parents indoctrinating children who are not yet equipped to decide for themselves, often straddling kids with these strange beliefs (and the will to justify and fight for these dangerous beliefs) for life. He argues that it would never be acceptable to label a tiny child a "Tory child" or a "New Labour child" - we agree they are too young to know where they stand on politics. So why is it considered acceptable in society to label that same child a "Muslim child" or a "Scientologist child"? Why is it acceptable to indoctrinate kids with weird (and obviously false) ideas about the cosmos but not weird ideas about politics (Nazism, for example)? If nothing else, this book ough to persuade everyone to deplore this utterly deplorable behaviour by parents who doubtless think they are saving the souls of their kids by effectively brainwashing them when they are too young to be immune (immunity in the form of reason, rationality, skepticism etc).....

AliceB | September 26, 2006 09:49 AM

Matt, everything you teach a child is a form of brainwashing--like putting on underwear before your jeans, not screaming in public, that democracy is better than autocracy, that girls are allowed to wear dresses but boys aren't, that you shouldn't cut your toenails in public, that school has value, that stealing is bad. The list is endless. But more to your point, long before children are capable of reasoning or assigning values to what people tell him/her, they are mimicking their parents' behavior. It's hardwired in the species. Asking a parent who strongly believes in a religion not to teach it to a child is close to impossible--because even if the parent doesn't send the child to religious school to indoctrinate him/her, the parent's religious behavior will be immitated by the child.

Parents have to deal with the hard questions children ask from a very young age, inclucing "Is there a God?" No child is satisfied with the answer, "It's up to you to make up your mind." Many children around 6 or 7 become worried about death, and, as the parent, you have to deal with the fears. Saying "I don't know whether there is an afterlife" also is an unsatisfactory answer to a child. A parent with only the smallest of beliefs, will find it a heck of a lot easier to answer questions by falling back on the religion they know than on having a truly unhappy child because they're waffling.

Frode | September 27, 2006 08:24 AM

Richard Dawkins is a hero. He speaks up and puts the focus on something that, for the good of mankind, should have been erradicated by now, at least in all countries that enjoy a relatively informed culture. I mean, there is enough information on the subject to make anyone who's not totally brainwashed see through the lies and fairytales in a matter of minutes.

But what I really wanted to say, is a reply to those of you who say that you tolerate religion as long as it's not being pushed in your faces, and you don't see why it's such a big deal if people want to believe. Firstly, it is being pushed in your faces, constantly. Just because you don't have someone preaching to you doesn't mean it doesn't affect you. The world is full of hatred and prejudice simply because of these old fairy tales. Anyone hear about this crazy baptist church that are happy US soldiers are being killed, because they're fighting for a country that doesn't punish homosexuality with death? Nice bunch they are, and all for a load of old bull that was outdated a very long time ago. That's just one small example, but there are countless others, from denying someone a life with a person they love, because of religious differences, to flying planes into skyscrapers. Wisen up, people! "Personal" belief is a meaningless term. Religion is religion, and unlesss you start to educate people and make them steer well clear of it in all its nasty forms, there will always be a justified reason for prejudice and hatred.

John Scalzi | September 27, 2006 07:28 PM

Frode:

"Firstly, it is being pushed in your faces, constantly."

And? Lots of things are being pushed into my face, constantly, whether I agree with them or not; that's what you get for living in a world where people think differently about various things. I choose to practice tolerance in most cases.

Gwen | September 27, 2006 09:39 PM

"The world is full of hatred and prejudice simply because of these old fairy tales. Anyone hear about this crazy baptist church that are happy US soldiers are being killed, because they're fighting for a country that doesn't punish homosexuality with death? Nice bunch they are, and all for a load of old bull that was outdated a very long time ago. That's just one small example, but there are countless others, from denying someone a life with a person they love, because of religious differences, to flying planes into skyscrapers."

And there are plenty of good things from religion, too: the Red Cross and Red Crescent, for one, and the Underground Railroad, and Salvation Army, et cetera.

I'll go out on a limb here and say that most religions today do not teach intolerance and hatred, that people get out of it what they put into it. There are a handful of exceptions. The trick, I think, is to put morality first, religion second: love and kindness and tolerance, then worship and ritual and whatever. "Think for yourself!" is good advice, but for some people thinking for themselves leads them to religious beliefs. Not all religious people are irrational; not all crises of faith lead people down the path of atheism. What works for you might not work for someone else, and that goes both ways.

Most people don't share gods with Falwell and Robertson. Many Christians skip past all the wrath-of-God genocide stuff, and the thou-shalt-nots and stoning and everything. A lot of people start with morality and then go to religion. Not enough, in my opinion, but a lot.

I was taking an online test that asked me if I self-identitified as a humanist. Didn't know what humanism was, clicked over to Wikipedia, and if the article was accurate, I agreed with every single one of the beliefs listed. So: I'm willing to believe that people *discover* their religion, too, find out that they believe a lot of the same things that followers of another religion believe. Some have claimed that the people don't "become" Discordians, that they come across the Church of Erisian Discord and then realize that they've been Discordians all along. So who's to say that everyone has been brainwashed?

Frode | September 28, 2006 04:53 AM

"The trick, I think, is to put morality first, religion second: love and kindness and tolerance, then worship and ritual and whatever. "Think for yourself!" is good advice"

Good advice, I agree. But surely, if you put anything before religion, being it morality or free thinking, does that not make you a hypocrite? If you're gonna be religious, then NOTHING can be more important than following the "word of God". If you gonna pick and choose the bits you want, then what's the point? My argument is this: Most religions do not PREACH intolerance, but the essence of them all must be, for there to be any point in believing, that they all claim to be the only true faith. And as long as religion is promoted as truth, people will believe there is nothing more important than doing what they are being told, as they don't really fancy going to Hell. No matter how innocent an old lady's beliefs may seem (I obviously don't take all the rather common religious prejudices into consideration), the fact that religion exists as "truth" not only enables hatred and differences. It makes it impossible to avoid.

MatGB | September 28, 2006 09:19 AM

John, you might find this interview with Dawkins from the BBC interesting, I did. Not least because he namechecks the FSM.

AliceB | September 28, 2006 09:45 AM

"But surely, if you put anything before religion, being it morality or free thinking, does that not make you a hypocrite? If you're gonna be religious, then NOTHING can be more important than following the "word of God". If you gonna pick and choose the bits you want, then what's the point?"

Frode, that's an inaccurate description of how people believe anything. The reason there are so many sects in Christianity, Islam and Judaism is precisely because people rely on morality and free thinking to work out their religious beliefs. The "word of God" may be a text, but from this text you can have the Hasiddim who don't permit women on the bima (where the Torah is read) and Reform Jews who ordain rabbis. I think a religious person would balk at the idea that people "pick and chose what they want": they follow community standards, in whichever community they chose to belong to. It isn't hypocrisy: folks within each community believe that they are being faithful to their religion.

I'm no fan of organized religion. And I don't think religion is necessary to be an ethical, moral, caring person. But I wouldn't call people who belong to religions hypocrites.

Frode | September 28, 2006 10:44 AM

Alice,
It's not an inaccurate description at all. By the "pick and choose" comment I made earlier I didn't necessarily mean that individuals make these decisions. As you so well pointed out, they're too busy following the rules of their respective sects, thereby accepting and adapting any views on homosexuality, abortion, non-believers, followers of other religions and so on. Positive stuff?
So, the individuals might not pick and choose, although I have personally known a number of people who have done this too, but along the way someone has done so and formed a sect out of their own opinions on what God REALLY means.
I'm sorry, but I can't see anything positive in this at all, and therefore no reason to defend, accept or respect religious belief in any form.

Gwen | September 28, 2006 03:10 PM

>Most religions do not PREACH intolerance, but the essence of them all must be, for there to be any point in believing, that they all claim to be the only true faith.

Not all. There's a reason why people can be, say, members of the three major religions of China all at the same time (Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism). Or be Shintoist and Christian (confusing to many missionaries, I'm sure). They claim to be truth, but not necessarily the Only Truth or the One True Religion. Sure, there are people who claim to be gatekeepers of the only way to salvation (a certain "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to my Father except through me" comes to mind), but for that I refer you to "you get out of religion what you put into it." Take the kind of person who does revel in all the bloody parts of the Bible...most people don't.

It's like video games. Everyone always wants to blame violent video games whenever anyone who has ever touched a controller goes out and shoots someone, but really? People who will kill someone based on a video game, or a horror movie, or whatever, has mental problems above and beyond their video-game-playing. Someone who commits suicide after their D & D character dies is not the norm, and certainly shouldn't be what we base laws on.

Most people have lives outside of religion; most religious people have morals outside of religion. (Rational people think rationally about their religions, moral people think morally about their religions.) Just because some people go blow themselves up, or use it to justify immoral practices (not cause them--I don't think anyone was trying to come up with new readings of the curse of Canaan and then suddenly realized they ought to go out and enslave all Africans!) because of their religious beliefs doesn't mean that religion is bad. And just because some people can live without religion doesn't mean that the people who can't are any less intelligent, or rational. Different strokes for different folks, and all that...I don't play video games, don't roleplay (yet), don't have a "real" religion. Does that make all the people who do any of these any worse than me? Sounds like dogmatism to me...

Frode | September 29, 2006 06:53 AM

The words forest and trees spring to mind....

My points are simple to grasp if you just stop looking for bigger, and somewhat irrelevant, arguments. Here goes:

1. Many religions, and their underlying sects, preach prejudice and discrimination that are based on their scriptures. The scriptures are no more the word of God than what Heimskringla is, and are therefore the source of completely unnecessary and intolerable prejudice.

2. Terrorism and persecution is the extreme outcome of religion. As long as any religion still exists, that in any way can be interpreted in a way that encourages this, people will do horrific things in the name of their God. But don't come running with the computer game allegory. What you're talking about here are the extremes. I'm more concerned with your everyday religion and the prejudice and discrimination promoted by most of these. I'm fed up with people tippy toeing around religious matters in order to not offend anyone, whereas religious spokespersons can insult pretty much who and what they want. After all, it's part of their religion! Muslims crying out for executions because someone printed a few comic strips depicting Mohammed! Christians condemning homosexuality and telling people they're going to hell! It's not healthy.

3. Again, you're putting forward the argument that religious people have morals and their own thoughts outside of religion. That's not an argument for religion. That just says to me if they can work things out themselves that go against the scriptures, then what's the point in believing any of it? You believe it's the word of God, the all-powerful creature who has total control over your post death destiny, but you still feel you have the right to decide some things for yourself. Rubbish. That, to me, smells of cowardice. You want to believe in God, but only to the degree that suits you. On a purely religious basis, I have more respect for people who are willing to blow themselves up for their God. I think they're completely insane, but they are so brainwashed and so full of faith that it's all-consuming. If you're gonna start thinking for yourself, then why not go all the way and get your facts right. It's all just laziness and fear, and I can't respect it.

4. I don't like discrimination. You might say that not all religions are harmful, but in the end they're primarily based on fairytales and ghost stories no longer needed to explain anything. So, who's gonna say which religions should be allowed and which should not? You can't. The only way is education, which is obviously why religion stands stronger in poorer or less educated countries. Oh, but Christianity stands very strong in the western world, and in particular the US, you might say. Which is true. From what I've seen it's a rather scary situation over there with people refusing their children to be taught evolution etc, just because they are scared of doubting anything their religion tells them. But you don't see many Christians flying planes into buildings. They're bombing the hell out of Muslim countries, but that is not based on religion. At least not primarily. However, if we go back a few centuries, Christians were organising religious terrorist campaigns as well, fully believing they were doing God's will. Culture has changed in the western world, and with it the perception of religion. So, in the end you cannot say one religion is more valid than another. They're all outdated and must disappear for the good of mankind.

Kadin | October 3, 2006 06:13 AM

I know it's quite a while after this was posted, but re: not minding other people's religions, I'd like to direct your attention to this William Kingdon Clifford:

"If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves; for then it must cease to be society. This is why we ought not to do evil that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby. In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I should make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that is should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery."

eryk smith | October 22, 2006 11:54 PM

to all of you who wrote something like this:

“I don’t know if there is a god; I don’t think any of us can know for sure. I really can’t say one way or the other. I do think there is something out there. A force, a power, a knowledge…something. I’m not sure what to call it, but I’m cool if others want to call it ‘god.’”


Yeah, and there’s something alright, something in your head besides brains. The question is not: “Is there a god/gods?” This question is, of course, logically unanswerable. The correct question is: “Do YOU believe in god/gods?” This question is very answerable. It’s a yes or a no. Stop being a pussy and answer the question.

“Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?” -Steven Colbert

John Scalzi | October 23, 2006 05:16 AM

Eryk:

"The correct question is:"

Not really. It's a different question and may not be the question that makes sense in a particular context.

Grover | October 29, 2006 07:31 AM

Out of poignant interest...
I notice a few materialists here. Very briefly, on a more philosophical note, there seem to be a great many things that Dawkins hasn't taken into account. He fails to recognise in any of his works the problems of scientific works, and of the senses at all...for example, where is Kant and his noumenal world? Nowhere. This will annoy a lot of people, but if he wants to provide a complete and utter disproof of the existence of God, he is obliged to shoot down every theory concerning not only the existence of God, but the validity of scientific enquiry, epistemology etc. because, working in the boundaries of a scientific perspective-darwinism-he is subsceptible to all kinds of counter-argument.
To whichever idiot suggested the thing about morality: every deviation from it is to the detriment of humanity. If you want the world to get blown up by evil terrorists, fine. Just go sit in some hole somewhere while the world gets onb better without you.
That being said, morality isn't just a safeguard.

Chang who is in pants... mostly. | November 3, 2006 08:30 AM

In reading this and the recent WIRED article, I am noticing a trend of smugness from either side. Both are content that they are right, while ignoring key arguments from the others perspective or camps.

I go out on a major limb here when I say - without having read Dawkins' book - that this is not the final argument against God. It's been going on for centuries, it will go on for centuries more.

Personally, I feel there are things neither side can explain away with logic or faith. I feel in my bones there is something out there that is vast and unfathomable beyond any concept of God we have. It's not a deist entity, nor is it something controlling and judgemental.

So sue me. I'm a ignorant primitive. Who believes in the Big Bang. And evolution. Maybe not unicorns, though.

Suck on that, Greg Gaffin!

j | February 2, 2007 04:16 PM

interesting that a few of you note basically how "its wrong to impose ones morals on another" yet in that very statement, thats just what you are doing to all of us. you are making a moral guideline and expecting EVERYONE to follow it. who gave you the right to decide what EVERYONE should do? you are imposing your morals on us!

who decides what is right and wrong? do you just follow your heart? peoples hearts will lead them in many different and conflicting directions. how then do you decide who is right between those opposing opinions?

take a vote? ok. so right and wrong are decided by the majority of what a population thinks. well what if the majority of a population thinks caniballism is ok. this and other thing we would all call wrong are practiced in cultures throughout the world. is it then considered ok because the majority of that population says so?
you dont think so? how dare you impose your values on them!

ok so you wont impose your values on them. youll just let them be them and you be you, staying out of eachothers way. guess what. populations grow and cultures expand. and eventually they meet. how do you deal with the conflict that then ensues?

you might tell them "you cant eat me i think its wrong" to which they reply "you cant stop me i think its right"

hmmm... again, take a vote? back to square one.

50 years ago most everyone thought homosexual acts were wrong. if you told them what was happening today, you would be a radical leftist and considered nuts. yet today we look back and say "oh they are just old fashioned"

50 years from now beastiality and pedophilia will be much more commonplace and be defended as "that persons right" sound ridiculous? thats what people 50 years ago would have said about homosexuallity today. what makes this point in time so unique that we should assume weve got everything right and that we could never practice those kinds of things in the future?

why shouldnt people have sex with animals? they didnt ask to feel that way. "its just the way they are". why not have relations with children? pedophiles cant help it that thats what theyre attracted to. "its just the way they are"


what does this have to do with God?
If people are the ones deciding what is right and wrong, then right and wrong have absolutely no value at all. because people change.

God is absolute. God is infinite. God is unchanging. good and evil are not two equal but oppsosite ideas. Good is God, and God is good , rejecting or conflicting god is evil.

People say there is right and wrong but some people are more right than others. if you were to rank a nations morality you might say canada is pretty moral, iran is less moral, and cannibalistic, raping baby sacrificers are the least moral. or you could put any group in whatever order you think "feels right"

however when you say this you are saying that some morals are more right than others, and in order for that to be so there must be an ultimate standard which you are measuring everyone by. there must be a single ultimate right by which you can jugde others, by how near or far they fall from that standard.

i ask you , what is that standard? it cannot be a human standard, as already demonstraed human standards are varying and in constant change and as such, meaningless

the answer is GOD . God is that ultimate standard.
Love and patience and forgiveness and goodness are not things that God does. They are what God IS. therefore anything counter to what GOD is, is wrong. He Himself is the ultimate standard by which to measure right and wrong.

And so i urge you to investigate Jesus who is God and who demonstrated this through his character.

I tell you that without God you cannot say anything to be right or wrong because that would just be another "opinion" Jesus said I am the truth..... and without truth all you have again is changing human opinions..

thanx to anyone who took time to read me.


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