The Samovar


Confessions of a reformed fundamentalist
October 28, 2006, 4:40 am
Filed under: Manifesto, Politics, Religion

I used to be a fundamentalist.

No really.

I used to be a fundamentalist atheist. I’d like to describe why I no longer am.

First, a bit of personal history. Neither of my parents are religious, so I never had the misfortune of a belief in god at a young and impressionable age (although I went to a C of E school for a while and was apparently not entirely atheist for a time). As I became older and more rational, I became increasingly annoyed at people who were religious because it seemed clear to me that there was no evidence for god, and certainly not the very specific god of religious texts like the bible. I became convinced that they couldn’t be generally capable of rational thought if they believed in it. I would describe this stage of my life as fundamentalist atheist. Richard Dawkins is probably the most well known example of someone in this stage. (And yes, my using the word stage is a conscious rhetorical trick for suggesting that his development has been retarded at an early stage.)

At university and subsequently, I became acquainted with religious people who clearly were capable of rational thought at quite a sophisticated level. I also realised that you could be right wing and capable of reason, which perhaps came as even more of a shock to me. Although to this day, I honestly can’t say I understand the mind of a rational person who is religious, the evidence suggested I had to revise my position (reluctantly though).

More recently, another reason has become more important. Anti-religious feeling has begun to be associated with specifically anti-muslim feeling, which is in turn tinged with a strong element of racism. The pope recently expressed the sentiment that islam is “evil and inhuman”. You’d expect the pope to think this – after all, islam is the competition – but many atheist or slightly christian people (you know, the ones who come up with cop out crap like “I believe there’s probably something”), who probably like to imagine that they’re not racists, think the same thing. It is of course possible to be anti-religious in a non-racist way, but I believe this to be much rarer.

I also realised that it is equally possible to be a liberal theist or a bigoted atheist, and I realised that I much prefer the former. In fact, whether someone believes in god or not is wholly irrelevant to how they behave in society. What is important is how they relate to other people. A recent study showed that muslim children at two schools in Blackburn were more tolerant than ‘white’ children. This is related to another point. Atheists can be manipulated by nonsense beliefs just as much as theists can. They can be motivated by racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, etc. Many of these have quite close parallels with religious forms of intolerance. As I argued in an earlier manifesto entry, focusing on religion and ignoring all these other forms of intolerance makes us miss some very important points.

I do think that ultimately, if rationality is to triumph then religion has to die out. I have some reservations about this based on my lack of personal knowledge or experience of religious sensations, but to be honest I don’t have many reservations about it. I don’t even think the concept of god is epistemologically meaningful. But this really is about the ultimate triumph of rationality, an event so far from the present as to be hardly worth speculating about. This fight is not the important one. The important fight is for rationality and compassion in the political domain, for freedom and tolerance.

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27 Comments

I would tend to take a similar view, that belief or non-belief in God is not particularly the problem. The problem is much more related to the types of beliefs we have and the degree to which we are intolerant of other people’s views. Fanaticism and intolerance does not need God to thrive.

Listening to the Sam Harris talk on YouTube, you certainly get the feeling that atheists should be fundamentally opposed to all religion or else. His thesis is that a liberal atheist stance is meaningless in the face of implacable religiosity. The problem is that religion, any religion, usually covers a broad spectrum of beliefs, from conservative to liberal, and that the painting of religion as a bete noir in all cases is simplistic and potentially a bit dangerous. Most people talk to God purely as a way to get through their lives – an inner dialogue, a crutch, a means to be kind to oneself in an otherwise unkind world. Deluded? Perhaps. But dangerous and liable to make that person strap explosives onto him? Not so much. And even in extremis, if someone had to recount their faith in their god, would the emotional reaction be much different for a convinced atheist who was forced to believe in a god?

The other problem I see is the lack of grounds for meaningful debate among believers and non-believers. It’s hard to tell someone with an inner feeling or inner conviction – that they know they can’t prove empirically – that it’s not real.

I’ve been on both sides of this argument – having fervently believed in God during my youth, and having no real beliefs. I don’t think I was a worse person when I was a kid. I also hated intolerance then just as much as I hate it now.

Comment by woodpigeon01

Hey woodpigeon, that link doesn’t work. Could you repost it?

Comment by Dan Goodman

Ok – trying again Sam Harris

If it doesn’t work, google “Sam Harris youtube” , it should be the first entry you see.

Comment by woodpigeon01

Faith and Reason

In case you haven’t seen this series by Bill Moyers – it’s fabulous! I was actually surprised that many of the authors who were interviewed referred to themselves as agnostic – I thought they would have said they were atheists.

Comment by azahar

“”At university and subsequently, I became acquainted with religious people who clearly were capable of rational thought at quite a sophisticated level. I also realised that you could be right wing and capable of reason, which perhaps came as even more of a shock to me.””

Dan,
Can’t resist this one!
Why can’t some people have rational thought in say physics/linguistics, yet are completely irrational when religion appears on the horizon? Why should they be linked, even though they can operate at a sophisticated-whatever that means-level?

And I’m really not sure about this:

“”Atheists can be manipulated by nonsense beliefs just as much as theists can. They can be motivated by racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, etc.””

I don’t think anyone will argue that. Those who believe in god, those who cop out by not knowing, can also be manipulated can’t they? So I’m not sure that advances your thesis.
t

Comment by Tony Hatfield

az, no time to look at the Moyers thing now, but I’ll look when I get back from my phd viva and job interview (what I’m doing for the next week and a half).

woodpigeon, I didn’t feel like I got anything new from that Sam Harris thing. He seemed to be just stating the standard atheist view of religion that I was talking about. Kinda like listening to Dawkins. He did mention one thing that I forget to consider when writing my entry, also mentioned by Natalie Bennett when explaining why she is so anti-religion, which is the way religions tend to treat women. In particular, religious attitudes to abortion and contraceptives. Now strictly speaking this is just as much a secular issue as anything else. It all revolves around where exactly you define life to begin. But in practice, it seems to be an issue where there is very little materialist motive for being against abortion, only a religious one. I think you can certainly make a good case that this is reason enough to be an atheist fundamentalist, I haven’t thought it through thoroughly yet. Maybe someone would care to comment on this?

Tony,

First point: in that bit I was sort of describing how it was that I came to this view rather than strictly justifying it. (To use Popper’s term, the logic of discovery rather than the logic of justification.) You’re right that there’s no reason that the two different sorts should be linked. One of the things I’ve realised in my 8 years as a mathematician is that mathematicians can be uncannily rational in one domain and totally irrational to the point of absurdity in another.

Second point: yes of course the religious people can be manipulated by both religious and secular rhetoric, whereas atheists can only be motivated by secular rhetoric. (Although there’s an open question about the importance of atheist rhetoric I suppose.) I think my point was that doing away with religion wouldn’t in itself do away with people being manipulated by nonsense. This seems like a trivial point, but I think a lot of people think that if we could just get rid of religion many of the worlds problems would be sorted. In particular, this argument is put forward in relation to Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, al Qaeda, etc. Personally, I don’t think that’s right.

I’ve been told that Marx wrote a piece “On the Jewish Question” which analyses religion from a materialist perspective. That seems like a sensible and valuable thing to do, but I’ve never been able to get on with Marx. I try reading it but just can’t understand what he’s getting at.

Comment by Dan Goodman

[...] Soumaya Ghannoushi has written an article called The Sickness of Secularism on the Guardian CiF site. Ostensibly, this argues a similar point to ones I have made in earlier entries on this blog. However, I think there’s much to disagree with in this article. It starts as follows. We are witnessing the rise of an arrogant secularist rhetoric founded on belief in the supremacy of reason and absolute faith in science and progress, dogmas which arouse ridicule in serious academic and intellectual circles nowadays. [...]

Pingback by Response to “The Sickness of Secularism” « The Samovar

[...] As a postscript, it might be worth my pointing out that I think it is completely right that atheists (or whatever you want to call them), should argue against religious belief. I am not opposed to robust and strongly argued attacks on religion and faith, but we should not use means which are antithetical to the spirit of rational enquiry, and we should not praise weak arguments just because we happen to agree with their conclusions. Finally, as I have argued before, I do not think that right now the battle with religion is the most important one, and it distracts us from more important battles. [...]

Pingback by Grayling on faith: the plot inspissates « The Samovar

A friend of mine emailed a comment on this entry, I’m posting it below (with permission):

I guess I’d like to defend Dawkins and Sam Harris – though perhaps not everything they say. Dawkins, I believe, actually agrees with you about religion vs secularism not being the most important issue we have to face now. I saw an interview with him where he was asked if he thought his linking of evolution with atheism was harming the fight against teaching intelligent design in schools (the fight would be easier if evolution had nothing to do with atheism). He replied that it might be – but that he saw that as a battle in a larger war of rationality vs superstition – religion being one of many brands of superstition. I believe he’s working on a tv show about some of the others.

I think the extent to which religion is a cause of social and political problems, or just a symptom (or whether it’s related at all) depends strongly on where you are in the world. Growing up in England, I always felt that religion was a weak shadow of its former self, of little political significance, and that religious people rather than atheists had to work hard to justify their views to everyone else. I think it’s also something to do with how we were taught history in school – an ever accelerating march towards secular liberal democracy. It seemed to me almost inevitable that the future would only reduce the significance of religion further. So I thought Dawkins (I hadn’t read any of Harris’ stuff then) was beating a dead horse, and organizations like the secular humanists were associated in my mind with private school old boys clubs – organizations whose members were a little weird.

But after spending the last four years in America I’ve come to a different view. I now think that over here religion is a significant source of suffering and unhappiness. Not merely something that happens to correlate with the two sides of a separate dispute – as in Northern Ireland, but actually the essence of the problem. The reasons I believe this are essentially the religious stances on: contraception, homosexuality, science education, eternal damnation, some medical research, euthenasia, abortion … for example. In all these cases, I think there is either something close to a uniquely religious point of view, or else a uniquely religious way of approaching the issue (and a lousy approach can be just as damaging as a settled conclusion).

I should say that I don’t even have strong opinions about the last two in that list. There are a number of positions on abortion for example that I am unable to distinguish between based on how much suffering they cause. What I object to about many religious groups is that their position is only distantly related to concerns about human suffering – essentially because they hold highly implausible views about souls and consciousness. These are mysterious subjects for sure – and the scientific account of them is (as far as I know) somewhere between vague and non-existent, but that doesn’t mean that any statement about them is as good as any other. In particular, the idea that the soul is divinely inserted to the embryo at conception is I believe scientifially unsound. And counsciousness is, as people in neuroscience tell me (is that you as well now?) not a property that can be imputed to 20 cells.

I am not convinced that the victory, or even progress of reason is inevitable. It seems to me from this side of the Atlantic to be in serious jeopardy, which is why I think the rather aggressive approach is Dawkins and Harris is precisely what is needed here now. For example, I think many people are just too bigoted to be interested in a rational argument that gay couples deserve the right of marriage as much as they do. Fortunately there is a more powerful way – social pressure. Arguing for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage should be socially unacceptable, in something like the same was as arguing for a law banning interracial marriage. A hundred years ago the latter was not taboo – indeed there were many such laws. And I don’t think things changed because of the quiet steady progress of rationality. Those opposed to civil rights didn’t see flaws in their arguments – they were pressured by vocal activists. Dawkins and Harris I think have the same idea in mind. I don’t mean to imply that the problems gay couples face today are as serious as those faced by the civil rights movement. But I think their solutions could be similar. (There are in fact other examples which I think are close to being as serious as civil rights. One is the role of the Catholic church in discouraging use of condoms in AIDS-ridden parts of Africa, where often the local church provides the only advice on such matters. Another is the status of women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc. )

There is another aspect of Dawkins’ and Harris’ books which I like – the emphasis on the harm done by liberal religious folk. That is, the kind who are rational in general, and as a result have mostly sensible positions in issues like contraception and homosexuality, but nevertheless think that faith is a virtue. I have felt for a while that it is these people that make the world safe for fundamentailsts, by making faith mainstream. They foster the idea that extremists are precisely what the word implies, i.e. people who started with good ideas and took them too far, as opposed to people whose fundamental epistemological outlook is misguided. For example, the opinions of settlers in the west bank are I believe no more sensible than those of the Branch Davidians, Astrologers, or cult victims of any kind. So why do they have so much more political power? I think the answer is that there is a spectrum of Jews starting with them, and working all the way down to very secular individuals, each of whom admires something of the religiosity of those more observant than them – but not necessarily of those less so. The chain of respect goes (almost completely) one-way. That is why settlers are so difficult to isolate and ostracize (despite their own best attempts). I think we really do need to acknowledge the facilitating role that moderates play for extremists, and Dawkins and Harris make that point well.

Does the above make me an atheist fundamentalist? I suppose it depends what you mean by the term. I ususlly take it to mean someone who’d maintain their views in the face of rational arguments or evidence to the contrary. So I don’t think anything I’ve said puts me in that camp – but maybe you meant something else.

While preemptively defending myself against the charge of fundamentailsm, I think it’s also worth pointing out that the aggressive approach does not amount to intolerance in the sense in which one sometimes hears of religious intolerance. Religious intolerance brings to mind laws preventing homosexual behavior, laws discriminating against women, laws against blasphemy, laws against apostasy (presently punishable by death in Afghanistan), etc. Aggressive secularism is not intolerant in that sense. I don’t want any laws preventing people from following their religion – except for laws that apply to nonreligious people as well. I don’t want them to be prevented from marrying one another, and I don’t want them to be forced to dress in certain ways. The intolerance I propose is only that you would have for someone who made racist remarks in your presence.

Sorry this has gone on for so long – I didn’t even spell out in full the religious positions I mentioned in the 3rd paragraph, and there are lots of other things I could say.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I think your distinction between how things are in the US and the UK is an important one. Obviously I don’t have any direct experience of what things are like over there, but the word on the street is that it’s pretty bad. ;-) But basically yes, if religion were a more powerful force I would change my view, which is I think largely a pragmatic one.

I would still question though whether or not religion itself is the real problem. For example, apparently they are doing lots of cutting edge work in genetics and stem cell things in Iran, which is clearly a very religious state. (Note: that’s an idea I have from somewhere, it might well be wrong.) I don’t know if you noticed another entry I wrote (http://thesamovar.wordpress.com/2006/09/22/religion-atheists-and-heirarchies/) arguing that hierarchies are the real problem. I’m not sure of this, but either way I do suspect that politics is a more important factor than god.

In an earlier comment on this entry, I conceded the point about the way religions treat women as a potential reason to be more fundamentalist atheist. There is a general point about gender and sexuality. But this only has to be a problem if we assume that religions can’t develop over time. It’s not god that says we shouldn’t use condoms, it’s people. Sure, they say that god tells them that we shouldn’t, but in practice many religious people have come over to the idea that actually you can.

In a way, the best outcome (from an atheist standpoint) might be the gradual fading away of the relevance of religion rather than the destruction of it. In other words, perhaps it is better that religion develops by incorporating elements of rationality until it reaches the point where it just vanishes through irrelevance. Until recently, I would say that this is what was happening in the UK. Now I don’t know.

This view would suggest that rather than attacking the idea of belief in god (e.g. by talking about how it’s just the same as believing in fairies, an approach that clearly alienates us from believers), we should attack the cultural conventions of religion from within it, or at least from a more sympathetic standpoint. When people are under attack, they tend to pull together and become more rigid in their outlook, so a less confrontational approach might be more effective.

Your points about abortion and consciousness are I think quite deep and complicated, and I don’t think we can do them justice here. (Maybe a topic for a guest entry from you if you’re interested?) I would say though that if the theists are correct and there is a god, who is to say that the soul isn’t injected into the embryo at conception? We certainly don’t know enough about consciousness to say that 20 cells can’t have it. A single neuron is capable of doing a Fourier transform on its inputs, and possibly more. Who is to say what 20 could do? There are even serious philosophers who suggest that a thermostat has a microscopic amount of consciousness are there not?

I think you might be a fundamentalist atheist ;-) but that’s not the worst thing in the world to be. It’s not a well-defined term, but I think it’s mostly just supposed to be a humorous suggestion that someone has something in common with religious fundamentalists. With Dawkins, it’s the frothing at the mouth arrogance and absolute conviction that he’s right. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the term, it’s clearly propagandistic, but I quite like it.

To finish on a note of agreement, I think there’s definitely something to your social pressure idea. In particular, I can find nothing wrong in your “The intolerance I propose is only that you would have for someone who made racist remarks in your presence.”

Comment by Dan Goodman

This article seems pertinent.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the reply – very interesting, and sorry for the delay in writing this. I suppose there are many things we could discuss – but I’ll try to stick to a few.

About consciousness and embryonic stem cells – remember that we are not talking about neurons. Stem cells are not yet specialized for any particular purpose (hence their importance for medical research) – and the rest of the embryo has only started out on the path towards specialization. So an embryo cannot be thought of as a bundle of neurons of the same size.

You say “if the theists are correct and there is a god, who is to say that the soul isn’t injected into the embryo at conception?”. Well, I’ll start a new religion today, with the same doctrine as Catholocism except that the soul is inserted at birth rather than conception. Or perhaps instead a sect of Judaism where the soul enters a boy’s body on the morning of his Bar-Mitzvah, while women remain zombies until age 25! Who’s to say these aren’t right? Isn’t the truth that God’s existence just doesn’t bear on the question of the origin and development of consciousness?

I think I disagree with you about the merits of the term ‘fundamentalist atheist’. I’m still not so clear about what it means – but I’ll go with what you said: that in general it is “a humorous suggestion that someone has something in common with religious fundamentalists”, and specifically in the case of Dawkins that something is: “frothing at the mouth arrogance and absolute conviction that he’s right”. That’s just one example of usage, so I probably shouldn’t make too much of it, but I do think it’s an inappropriate phrase – both in general, and for Dawkins.

Obviously arrogance is a trait present in all sorts of people – religious or not, and fundmentalist or not. It’s an understatement to say that Dawkins doesn’t exude humility in the usual sense of the word – as regards the claims of religion. So he is as you say, arrogant and convinced.

Starting with the latter first, I don’t think it’s at all useful to compare people’s level of conviction. If you found someone who was certain that 7×8 was 100, I don’t think it would be useful to compare their conviction with yours that they are wrong. Certainly I don’t think it would be appropriate to call you a fundamentalist mathematician. Fundamentalism I suppose means different things to different people – but to the extent that it is intended to be derogatory I think it should be associated not with degree of conviction (sometimes one should be convinced of things) but rather with a deficient process of forming beliefs. I notice though that you don’t seem to regard fundamentalism as an entirely negative term :)

Of course I have no monopoly on the word – according to wikipedia it means “a movement to return to what is considered the defining or founding principles of the religion” – which is certainly an irrational method of forming beliefs. They also give a “non-subject specific definition”: “Movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles”.
Later on: under “non-religious fundamentalism”: “Some refer to any literal-minded or intolerant philosophy with pretense of being the sole source of objective truth, as fundamentalist, regardless of whether it is usually called a religion.”

I guess the last of these is most relevant, but I don’t think anyone really thinks that athiesm by itself is the source of ‘objective truth’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean). I imagine that what the person who wrote the definition had in mind is people who claim that science is the sole source of truth. I have no idea whether Dawkins believes this (or whether I do), but someone who did might deserve the epithet ‘fundamentalist scientist’. At any rate it seems to me disconnected from the question of atheism. For example one could believe science was the only way to establish truth, and that God’s existence was indeed established by science. Similarly one can clearly be an atheist without believing that science is the only way to find truth. I realise that you didn’t write the wikipedia article – so I’m sorry if this is a big straw man!

Basically I think Dawkins’ degree of conviction in the statements he makes about religion is rationally justified, and his given his arrogance, I suggest the title ‘arrogant atheist’ since arrogance and fundamentalism are I think rather poorly correlated, and he seems to lack the really important characteristic of fundamentalists: their irrationality. Stated in this way it might sound like an academic quibble – but I think that is misleading. The irrationality is what leads to the awful suffering, some examples of which I listed in the previous post. That is really why I think that it is the irrationality rather than the certainty that is the problem. As for me, it’s up to you to judge if I’m as arrogant as Dawkins ;)

Then there’s this entirely separate, tactical question of finding the right attitude that atheists should have towards religion. You seem to be advocating a less in-you-face approach. I’m tempted to say that the problem is too serious for that – too many women are abused – too many people die unnecessarily of AIDS – too many homosexuals are stigmatized, etc, etc. The UK is really a great place to be – little of this is a problem there (I’m getting homesick as I write this). America, and the Islamic world is different – and I think it demands a more confrontational approach.

I’ve gone on too long so I’ll stop here, but other things I think would be interesting to discuss are: 1. the harm done by religious moderates, 2. whether politics is really causing the problems that I identified as religious

Simon

Comment by Simon Judes

Hey Simon, good stuff so let’s get going…

“Well, I’ll start a new religion today, with the same doctrine as Catholocism except that the soul is inserted at birth rather than conception.”

Three things to say here. Firstly, this is actually quite similar to what Peter Singer suggests is the case in certain circumstances. Secondly, the point is that the problem is political. I’m not arguing that we have to agree with the people who say that the soul is injected at conception (or at age 25 for that matter), but we cannot have a political system that ignores their belief. There are enough theists and enough atheists that unless one group is in a position of political domination over the other group, then it’s likely that neither side will get exactly what they want. Politics.

Finally, as a comment on the form of argument, you can’t argue along the lines of ‘OK well I will create a religion that says blah’ and suggest that this proves anything if people don’t actually believe in your religion. Billions of people believe in major religions like christianity and islam – that’s not something that can be just written off. I think there is a tendency for atheists like us to imagine that all wrong beliefs are equivalent (hence the use of the ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ argument favoured by Grayling, Dawkins, etc.). But in fact this doesn’t reflect reality. As it happens, the major contemporary religions are remarkably similar in many ways (monotheistic, shared texts, etc.).

“Isn’t the truth that God’s existence just doesn’t bear on the question of the origin and development of consciousness?”

Not at all. Or at least, people that believe in god don’t think so and we can’t just ignore that. In fact this way of putting it (assuming we’re still talking about abortion here) misses a larger point. Religious people aren’t necessarily interested in the development of consciousness per se, but the point at which something becomes alive in the sense that god is interested in. Our formulation of the abortion question is: at what point do we define consciousness to begin? The underlying assumption is that killing a conscious being is bad, killing an unconscious one is fine. For the religious person, neither this assumption nor question really interest them (at least as far as the abortion debate goes).

Moving on…

I’m willing to (partially) concede the point about fundamentalist atheism. It’s not a very useful term. I rather suspect that the term is poorly defined for religion too. Take Martin Luther for example. He went back to the original texts and radically reinterpreted them. Did that make him a fundamentalist catholic? (in the sense of a “movement to return to what is considered the defining or founding principles of the religion”). Would Popperian falsificationism be fundamentalist science in the sense of “Movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles”?

So on the tactical question.

I don’t disagree with you about the seriousness of things like people unnecessarily dying of AIDS. I also don’t think we should be less in-your-face about serious things like this. Is the right approach though not to concentrate on the facts of suffering rather than trying to tell people that they have to stop believing in god? Wouldn’t it be better in terms of alleviating the suffering to say “look – you don’t have to cause this suffering just because you believe in god”. Religious moderates in this view could be pointed at as an example, “see, they believe in god but they use condoms”. Religion can develop, and has done. If you tell someone that they have to give up their belief in god and their belief that contraception is wrong, aren’t you making it more difficult for them than if you just tell them that they have to give up their belief that contraception is wrong? Aren’t you in fact making the problem worse by insisting that they give up everything they believe in, and thereby actually stopping them from taking a moderate line?

OK I’ve written tons too so I’ll stop. I haven’t responded to everything you said so if you think I’ve failed to address a point that you think is significant just say so. I’d love to talk about whether the problems are uniquely religious or just generally political. My standard line is that religion is neutral in this regard, in some ways good and in some ways bad.

Comment by Dan Goodman

HI Dan,

“I’m not arguing that we have to agree with the people who say that the soul is injected at conception (or at age 25 for that matter), but we cannot have a political system that ignores their belief.”

I’m not really sure how this is relevant. At least – I didn’t think we were discussing rival political systems. The political system in England is I think neutral to religion – if someone wants to have more religion in schools or something they can just run for parliament, campaign, and see how many votes they get. The reason religion isn’t so powerful in England isn’t because the political system is somehow rigged against it (as in France say) – it’s just because the intellectual effect of the Enlightenment was felt more powerfully there than across the atlantic, and so fewer people are into religion.

“Finally, as a comment on the form of argument, you can’t argue along the lines of ‘OK well I will create a religion that says blah’ and suggest that this proves anything if people don’t actually believe in your religion.”

I think it actually does prove something. People talk about the diffferent parts of their religion as though they are logically interconnected – “God’s existence implies the soul enters the zygote at conception” etc. And what I was replying to was your statement “if the theists are correct and there is a god, who is to say that the soul isn’t injected into the embryo at conception?” My point was that ideas about consciousness and the soul are utterly unrelated (logically) to the question of the existence of God, and the imaginary religions were supposed to be examples of logically consistent ideas where the relation between God and consciousness was different from in Christianity. So I think the answer to your question is therefore that if the theists are correct and there is a God then one learns nothing new about consciousness.

“Billions of people believe in major religions like christianity and islam – that’s not something that can be just written off. ”

If we are discussing whether they are correct to believe in those religions, then I don’t think the fact that there are billions of them is of any significance. I agree with your point about large groups of people not being ignored in political processes, but I didn’t think that’s what we are discussing. At least I started out trying to defend Dawkins and Harris – neither of whom (as far as I know) advocate excluding large numbers of people from politics on religious grounds. Of course they (and I) regard the existence of so many religious people as a symptom of a deep-seated sickness in society – that we should certainly campaign against as citizens – but that doesn’t mean we want to rig the political system in our favour – just that we think our arguments are correct, and should win the day for that reason.

I probably have this completely wrong, but I get the impression from some of your phrasing that you see the actions of the religious as those of modest citizens in some political system, and those of atheists as manipulative moves by those in control of the political system, trying to undemocratically suppress the interests of religion. Perhaps this reflects the situation in the UK, but in most of the world I think the opposite is much closer to the truth.

I said: “Isn’t the truth that God’s existence just doesn’t bear on the question of the origin and development of consciousness?”
You said: “Not at all. Or at least, people that believe in god don’t think so and we can’t just ignore that.”

There are at least three things you might mean here – two I think are true (for different reaons), one false.
1. “We can’t ignore” means something like ‘they can’t be excluded from politics’. This is true – I don’t think these people should be prevented from the political process – but I didn’t think this is what we were discussing.
2. “We can’t ignore” means ‘we should do something about persuading these people that they are incorrect’. Absolutely, I agree – I might even say that as citizens in a democracy it is a virtue to engage with people who we disagree with about important issues, and to try to persuade them to our point of view using rational argument. (The same applies to religious people).
3. “We can’t ignore” means that the fact that people who believe in god have certain opinions on consciousness actually has some bearing on the question of consciousness and the body. I think this is just false – the argument that 20 unspecialized cells are not conscious (in anything like the usual sense of the word) is a scientific one – and I don’t see how the fact that lots of people don’t agree affects it at all.

About the tactical question:
“Is the right approach though not to concentrate on the facts of suffering rather than trying to tell people that they have to stop believing in god?”
I think it depends which people you have in mind. I’m sure it is true that people can be persuaded to use contraception without giving up their belief in God. But the point is that many people didn’t of their own accord decide that contraception was wrong – it was a belief forced on them by Catholic missions. There is no question that if an English doctor repeatedly gave similar advice, they would be in jail. A priest in a small town is trusted just as much (possibly more) than a doctor, and I think deserves a similar punishment. It is to those authority figures that I think an aggresive approach should be taken, and indeed I think the fact that Churches can get away with such homicidal negligence is a startling indication of the priveliges that religious organizations currently enjoy in politics. Maybe you’re right that the best way to attack religious authority figures isn’t to argue against the existence of God – but I think that could be the best way to diminish their constituency – to remove from them the undeserved appearance of respectability. I don’t mean to pick exclusively on Catholocism – it’s just one example, and I think one can possibly make an even stronger argument about Islam. But anyhow I agree that other, less aggressive approaches could be effective as well.

“I’d love to talk about whether the problems are uniquely religious or just generally political. My standard line is that religion is neutral in this regard, in some ways good and in some ways bad.”

Maybe I should say at the outset that I think it’s more interesting to talk about the problems caused by irrationality, rather than religion. So for the purpose of that discussion I propose a particular definition of rationality: Any idea has certain arguments/evidence in its favour or against it. A rational person is someone who apportions assent to propositions precisely in accord with the degree of evidence/arguments that they know of. I recognize that this is vague, but it captures neatly the distinction between forming beliefs based on evidence and forming beliefs based on how comforting they are, or something like that. What do you think? Is this what you mean by rationality?

Simon

Comment by Simon Judes

“So I think the answer to your question is therefore that if the theists are correct and there is a God then one learns nothing new about consciousness.”

Logically speaking no, but if a particular religion is right in more than just being correct about the existence of god, then that would tell us something, if not about consciousness about life, the soul, or something like that.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I think that the statement “God exists” is meaningless is that nothing follows from it, it is entirely disconnected from human experience and all other propositions. So I’m not disagreeing with what you say, just about the implications of what you say.

“If we are discussing whether they are correct to believe in those religions, then I don’t think the fact that there are billions of them is of any significance.”

Agreed of course, but that’s precisely what I was not talking about.

“I probably have this completely wrong, but I get the impression from some of your phrasing that you see the actions of the religious as those of modest citizens in some political system, and those of atheists as manipulative moves by those in control of the political system, trying to undemocratically suppress the interests of religion.”

I can see why I’m giving that impression, but it’s not my position at all. Really, it’s just that there are plenty of atheists strongly criticising religions, and lots of theists strongly criticising atheists. I’m playing the role of an atheist taking a critical look at his beliefs and attitudes, and those of his fellow atheists. Probably there are people doing something similar for religion.

“Maybe I should say at the outset that I think it’s more interesting to talk about the problems caused by irrationality, rather than religion. So for the purpose of that discussion I propose a particular definition of rationality: Any idea has certain arguments/evidence in its favour or against it. A rational person is someone who apportions assent to propositions precisely in accord with the degree of evidence/arguments that they know of.”

This could be a problem, as I have a different view of rationality to that, and I suspect our difference of opinion on this will be crucial in this particular discussion. My view is more in line with Pragmatism (William James’ version of it specifically). I haven’t developed a fully fledged theory of rationality of my own, but if you have too much time on your hands I’ve written out some of my specific ideas about rationality in an essay on epistemology. I would describe the rationality that you describe as a very strongly supported rational practise, but one which doesn’t compromise all of rationality. Incidentally, I came up with my view of rationality in trying to understand the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mathematics, and have only subsequently applied my ideas to religion.

Can we continue without a definition of rationality? I rather suspect it’s just asking for trouble later. What’s your view on this? We could talk specifically about religion and avoid the philosophical difficulties of talking about irrationality, but you said that’s not what you’re so interested in.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Hi Dan,

There’s an article you might find interesting on Dawkins’ website entitled “I’m an Atheist, But …”

http://richarddawkins.net/article,318,Im-an-atheist-BUT—,Richard-Dawkins

Point 5 is I think relevant – about how confrontational to be.

I don’t think we really are disagreeing about rationality. In particular I don’t really know what you mean by saying that you have a “different view of rationality”. It’s just a word, which in ordinary language is vague, and which I’ve defined in a particular way. You define it differently to me – which of course you are entitled to do. I think that just means a single word is insufficient to denote the range of things we want to talk about. I don’t think there is some ‘correct’ definition of the word rationality that we are both trying to get at, and which we might be disagreeing about. So I think we can choose to discuss my notion of rationality (let’s call it R1) – and/or yours (R2).

I should own up and say that I do think there is something special about R1 that makes it particularly useful. (Perhaps when I find out more about R2 it will seem special for a different reason.) That is – if we restrict ourselves to the class of beliefs that may be checked in the future (say beliefs about tomorrow’s weather) – then I think an R1 person will be right more ofen than someone with any other belief-forming practise. It is possible that beliefs which can be checked (in the above loose sense) are not at all a good guide to beliefs which cannot be checked. But I can’t see any reason to think that – particularly because the class of checkable beliefs is continually expanding.

One reason I thought it might be useful to have a more general discussion than just about religion was that I think the problems caused by religion stem from a failure of R1 – in particular from the idea of faith, which (amongst other things) is an explicit denial of R1. But R2 could be interesting as well. From what you said, it sounds like R2 differs from R1 – so given that R1 involved assenting to propositions in proportion to the evidence favoring them, I’d be interested for you to give an example where an R2 person has degree of confidence in something different from that warrented by the evidence.

So basically I think religious people (and many people who are not religious) fail to be R1. By the way, I don’t mean that they think they are R1 but actually they aren’t – it’s probably true that all of us are less rational than we might like to think. What I mean is that they have an alternative to R1 – faith (F), and on certain subjects they actively disavow R1 (and I imagine R2 as well) in favour of F. The word ‘faith’ clearly means many things to people – perhaps a mixture of trust, hope and joy, that depends on who you talk to, but whatever else may be thrown in, there always seems to be an aspect of it which amounds to a denial of R1 – and that is what I think it harmful about it.

I have no problem with talking specifically about religion – in any case I think to go further we’ll have to look at specific examples. The only problem I find often when doing this is something you may have had no intention of bringing up anyway: people say things like “religious governments may be bad, but look at secular leaders like Stalin and Hitler”, hoping to benefit from the comparison. This is where I think a larger view is important – the crimes of Stalin and Hitler did not come about from too much rationality! (Sam Harris’ words). It was their absence of R1 – specifically I think forming ideas about races and nations based on prejudice and dogma – that made their crimes possible. So their problem was not secularism, but rather something they had in common with religion. Anyhow – please excuse this rant! It’s not a response to anything you said – just something that I’ve experienced enough to want to avoid.

Maybe the following is a compromise: instead of talking about rationality in general, can we talk about religion’s alternative to R1 and R2 – faith, while keeping in mind that it is not particular to religion? How does that sound?

Simon

Comment by Simon Judes

Sorry – the link doesn’t seem to work. For the moment at least, you can go to:

http://richarddawkins.net/home

The article is then on the right hand side, under ‘newest articles’

Comment by Simon Judes

I think the problem is how rationality applies to moral and ethical propositions. Take for example the injunction not to murder people. There’s no rationality behind this principle, in fact it contradicts self-interest so in a sense it’s irrational. There is a sort of meta-rationality behind it (something like Kant’s categorical imperative perhaps), but it is not a proposition for which there is any evidence. I’m not arguing that we need religion for this reason (take humanism for example), just pointing out a huge area of life to which R1 doesn’t apply.

Suppose now that religion was circumscribed to providing ethical frameworks for situations in which R1 doesn’t apply – that’s sort of the direction it was headed in the UK until recently. In this scenario, there is no conflict between R1 and F because they are applied mutually exclusively. Now I still think that even in this scenario there is an argument against religion based on power relationships and social dynamics, but I don’t think that rationality / irrationality is significant here, what is significant is politics.

Now I actually think that there is an irreducible faith component to all morality, but that doesn’t have to be tied to religion of course. I also think there’s an irreducible faith component to knowledge as well, but for the purposes of this argument let’s leave that aside.

Since you don’t want to talk about Stalin and Hitler, let’s talk generically about racism instead. In what way does R1 tell you not to be a racist? It doesn’t. It might tell you facts about race which undermine ad-hoc arguments for being racist, but it can’t on its own stop you from being a racist. If a white person just hates people with black skin, rationality has nothing to say about that. So an R1 rational society could just as well be involved in horrific acts of racial violence as a faith based society. Now I suspect that if you look at history you would be able to explain much – perhaps most – violence in terms which were religion-neutral. A Marxist would attempt to explain all of history in terms of materialism, basically economic struggle. Now I suspect that’s not quite right, but I think there is a very significant kernel of truth to this way of looking at the world.

To take a contemporary example. At the moment, suicide bombing is usually considered to be a byproduct of faith (things like the 72 virgins claim). But a comprehensive study of suicide bombings showed that in every known case of suicide bombing, an occupation of one country by another was the claimed reason for doing it (and that the majority of suicide bombings were not by Muslims). I’d say it was clear in this case that although religion is used tactically, if there were no occupations there would be no suicide bombings. The problem is political, not religious.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Hi Dan,

“Suppose now that religion was circumscribed to providing ethical frameworks for situations in which R1 doesn’t apply ”

I wasn’t even advocating limiting religious activity to this extent! But even so, I’m not convinced there are any such situations – every ethical decision is to some extent grounded in facts about the world – and it therefore matters how beliefs about those facts were arrived at. Beliefs about the afterlife are I think highly relevant to many murder cases.

“In what way does R1 tell you not to be a racist? It doesn’t. It might tell you facts about race which undermine ad-hoc arguments for being racist, but it can’t on its own stop you from being a racist.”

I agree with you here – I don’t think rationality is really connected to moral propositions. I don’t think racists are necessarily irrational – just objectionable. On the other hand I have always found that in practise racists are irrational, in particular they form beliefs about the targets of their racism that are not based on evidence. But I admit that a racist can be R1. My problem with racism is not the failure of rationality – it’s just that I think in a great many cases a good dose of R1 thinking could undermine racism significantly. Take the essay of Orwell that you linked to about anti-Sematism in England for example – he details how people formed beliefs about Jews in ways unrelated to the balance of evidence.

“Now I suspect that if you look at history you would be able to explain much – perhaps most – violence in terms which were religion-neutral.”

I have no idea what proportion of violence comes from religion. I’m prepared to believe that it’s only a small fraction. But I don’t think it matters. Drink-driving deaths may be a small fraction of the total amount of crime, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t campaign against drink-driving.

“I’d say it was clear in this case that although religion is used tactically, if there were no occupations there would be no suicide bombings. The problem is political, not religious.”

I deliberately avoided the example of suicide bombings – for reasons somewhat connected with your comments. But the examples I mentioned before are surely sufficient by themselves: 1. the role of the Catholic church in dealing with AIDS in Africs, and 2. the status of women in large parts of the Islamic world. It may be that all parties involved could be rational and still do these things – but as a matter of fact I think they are not rational – and I think that fact has a lot to do with why these people are doing these things – even though logically there could be some other reason.

On reflection, I’m not really convinced by the study you quote on suicide bombings. It could well be true that the stated reason was in every case an occupation – but it doesn’t follow that the real reasons are purely political and not at all religious. If you look at men who murder their wives, you’ll probably find that often the stated reason is their wife’s infidelity. But it doesn’t follow that infidelity was ‘the’ problem. I’d say there were other factors that probably led that guy to kill his wife. It coule well be true that ‘no infidelity’ would mean ‘no wife-murders’, but that’s just not the point. You would want to ask other questions about what facilitated the murders – why did he have 10 guns in the drawer upstairs? Did he have a history of violence? for example. Similarly with suicide bombers, I think one is naturally led to ask questions beyond their stated reasons for their actions – and I think the answers lie in implausible beliefs about the existence of an afterlife. Certainly many suicide bombers homes are found to contain literature about martyrdom (in the religious sense), and what awaits them and their families after death – so it’s clear that the people involved are thinking about these things. The fact that most suicide bombings are carried out by Tamil Tigers is also an irrelevance – there may be men who murder their wives who do not have 10 guns in their house – and in that case your investigations would be led elsewhere. I was slightly reluctant to write this paragraph, because I think the case is much weaker than with AIDS and treatment of women, and there is certainly a big political component to the problem – but I don’t think one can reasonably claim that the evidence shows the problem to be purely political.

Anyhow, I’m interested to know what you think of Dawkins’ point number 5 – about being confrontational towards religion. And also about the deference people show (undeservedly I think) towards faith positions.

Simon

Comment by Simon Judes

“every ethical decision is to some extent grounded in facts about the world”

This is an interesting question so just to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, let me rephrase this in my own way and see if you agree. As an example, we might say that an ethical principle might say “If X is the case, then do Y”. The principle itself isn’t grounded in facts about the world, but since X is a fact about the world, the decision to do Y is grounded in fact. If this is what you’re saying, then as long as religion limited itself to ethical principles “If X then Y” and didn’t make claims about X then this would be OK?

“Beliefs about the afterlife are I think highly relevant to many murder cases.”

Tell me more…

“On the other hand I have always found that in practise racists are irrational, in particular they form beliefs about the targets of their racism that are not based on evidence.”

But which comes first, the racism or the beliefs about the targets of their racism? My feeling is that the racism comes first, not the beliefs. I doubt there’s a generally applicable formula here though, it probably happens both ways round.

“I have no idea what proportion of violence comes from religion. I’m prepared to believe that it’s only a small fraction. But I don’t think it matters.”

OK that’s fine. Some people make rather grandiose claims about what the elimination of religion would achieve, you’re obviously not doing so.

Re the Catholic church’s role in the problem of AIDS in Africa and religion’s treatment of women generally, I concede this point (I think I already did?). I’m not decided about to what extent this sort of thing is integral to religious belief, but if indeed they are not separable beliefs then I would agree that there is a moral imperative to oppose religious belief. Are they separable though? My instinct tells me that religious belief, like all belief, is remarkably plastic (although changes can take a long time to achieve). If this is the case, then our best policy regarding the problems mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph is probably the one you described in your first post on this entry:

“The intolerance I propose is only that you would have for someone who made racist remarks in your presence.”

So, as part of an answer to your last point, I don’t think we should show any deference towards religious belief and certainly not towards religious institutions.

“It could well be true that the stated reason was in every case an occupation – but it doesn’t follow that the real reasons are purely political and not at all religious.”

Hmm, I didn’t really summarise that study very well. The amazon.com review of Pape’s book is actually quite a good summary. The point is not that the stated reason is an occupation, but – quoting the amazon review – that almost all (95% of) suicide bombings “occur as part of coherent campaigns” which have a “clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland”.

The argument then is that suicide bombings don’t occur when there is no occupation, and they can occur without religion (the Tamil Tigers). Now I agree that this doesn’t show the problem to be “purely political”, but it certainly suggests quite strongly that it is much more about politics than about religion.

“Anyhow, I’m interested to know what you think of Dawkins’ point number 5″

I didn’t reply about this before because I don’t think he makes a very good case here. In that article he explicitly allies himself with Sam Harris so I’ll illustrate my point with reference to a Sam Harris article rather than a Dawkins one. In an article in the LA times Harris said:

“Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.”

In the same article he excuses “collateral damage” as being morally distinct from intentional murder, even if the numbers involved are hugely worse in the former than the latter. He claims that Israel unquestionably has the moral high ground compared to the Palestinians. He also says:

“This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization…”

I would say that this is precisely the sort of view I want to dissociate myself from. If Dawkins doesn’t indulge in such appalling rhetoric and politically backwards analysis, he ought to dissociate himself from Harris.

Incidentally I came across this article when coincidentally reading a critique of it earlier today. Unfortunately you have to pay to download the original.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I just want to leap in and (at the risk of going off on a tangent that I’d be better dealing with in my own blog) poke at the idea, implicit in some of the discussion above (eg Dan’s friend’s e-mail) that Consciousness has something to do with morality.

In Catholic superstition, life behins at the moment of conception. It thus follows that abortion, stem-cell research, certain forms of contraception (eg IUDs – but not, surely condoms?) are immoral. An atheist argument (or, at least, a non-Catholic one) against this is that small clumps of cells do not have a consciousness – but see the arguments above concerning neurones and thermostats.

However…isn’t there a hint of vestigial superstition in affording special consideration on the basis of consciousness? Consider that consciousness does not appear to have a special place in the universe. There is no grand scheme in which stars may explode, but conscious entities are not be wiped out by tsunamis. Indeed, the very idea of consciousness may be ‘Explained Away’ as simply the combined effect of neurological pathways that give certain organisms the control mechanisms that maximise the probability of certain biochemical processes occuring. So let’s remember our place.

On the other hand…we do tacitly acknowledge an ethical hierarchy which seems to correlate with consiousness. At the higher end, we (mostly) agree that (avoidably) killing people is (usually) wrong. (and, by the way, this might include humans who are as yet ‘merely’ collections of cells incapable of unsupported cells: any potential parent would regard the involuntary abortion of a wanted foetus as an outrage). At the lower end, we’re happy to disassemble thermostats without qualm. Somewhere in between there’s a continuum, and there are individual disagreements about whether it’s reasonable to kill fish, chickens, cows, dogs, bonobos. There are endless arguments along the lines of ‘Can lobsters feel pain’…and I recently discovered that the rules for halal slaughter include that animals must be transported kindly, fed beforehand and not killed in the presence of other animals (presumably so as not to worry them).

But is this really an argument about Consciousness? I suggest that really it’s about our own empathy. We regard as ethical that which we feel broadly comfortable with. We don’t think we’ll feel comfortable in a society in which human slaughter is tolerated (especially if we’re the ones up for slaughter). We don’t much care about lobsters, fish or thermostats…but as one gets higher up the mammalian hierarchy, animals get cuter and cuter.

So let’s be honest Atheist Fundamentalists here. A ‘scientific’ basis for morality is just as superstitious as a religious one – it’s making a god of new discoveries in the philosophy of neuroscience. All we actually know about morality is what we will or will not collectively tolerate. Which – alarmingly – seems to be ‘quite a lot’.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Ed, that’s pretty much what I was trying to get at when we were talking about abortion and consciousness, but you put it much better than I did. I think you could analyse it from a political point of view without talking about consciousness, life, souls, etc. You could say that a law which states “killing of beings of type X is illegal and punishable” is beneficial to beings of type X (under certain circumstances). Potentially X could be as specific or as general as you like, but the X that actually becomes law is the one that can secure the widest agreement amongst those whose opinion matters. In other words, we’re really saying that what is important is not consciousness, but ability (or potential ability) to participate in the political process, which sort-of coincides to some extent.

And yeah I don’t get the condom thing either. I guess they’re against wanking and wet dreams too. Actually, I wonder if the latter is sinful – worth pondering.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I guess the Catholic counter argument would be that we should look to God to answer questions which we’re not capable of answering on our own. Otherwise there’s a danger that unbridled democracy equates to ‘the tyranny of the majority’. What if, as a hypothetical example, one group of humans were to decide that another was inferior and could/must be killed?

It’s actually a good point. I don’t pretend to have an answer to the paradoxes of democracy, and I don’t pretend to know how we should conduct ourselves in the absence of moral absolutes. I suggest, though, that my contribution to our collective guesswork is better that any pretence of a known solution.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

“I became acquainted with religious people who clearly were capable of rational thought at quite a sophisticated level. I also realised that you could be right wing and capable of reason, which perhaps came as even more of a shock to me.”
I do hope you are not saying that all Christians (or believers, or faith-heads to use Dawkins’ pet word) are right wing! Because it’s certainly not true at all… (Although many, perhaps most fundamentalist atheists seem to need to believe it.)
Skimming the comments, I see some atheist fundamentalists of my acquaintance, and I also think you would seriously benefit from having some input given you by real Christians! An atheist fundy’s view, prefaced by his saying “a believer in the Catholic superstition would sa”… simply invites the rejoinder “well, how do you know what a Catholic would believe? Your language shows your prejudice, and therefore your likely total ignorance!

Debbie

Comment by Debbie Kean

Oh no, I’m not saying that Christians are right wing at all. Did you read the whole entry because the overall tone is, I would say, fairly favourable towards religion. Try the paragraph starting “I also realised that it is equally possible to be a liberal theist or a bigoted atheist, and I realised that I much prefer the former.”

You’re ‘Vicky’ from h2g2 right?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Yes, I am Vicky! I read it, yes, but I realise it could repay a more detailed read..

“I also realised that it is equally possible to be a liberal theist or a bigoted atheist, and I realised that I much prefer the former.””

Yes, this paragraph impressed me very much!

Thank you! You’re “Dogster?”

Debbie

Comment by Debbie Kean




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