What I’ve Always Wanted to Say About Dawkins and Religion

Now that I’ve pissed some people off about rape*, I thought I would calm things down by turning to a more sedate topic: Richard Dawkins and religion.


Everytime Dawkins has issued one of his proclamations about religion, I’ve wanted to respond, but the words have never come out quite right. Thankfully, Barbara O’Brien has written a wonderful post that sums up exactly what I think:

What Dawkins writes about religion is, IMO, generally true of that part of religion he is writing about.
Unfortunately, like every other fundamentalist atheist I’ve ever encountered, he is profoundly ignorant about religion as a whole. The small part of religion he knows and writes about is not representative of the whole. He’s like a really backward space alien who lands on the North Pole and assumes the whole planet is covered by ice. And, because he doesn’t respect religion enough to study it, he remains willfully ignorant of it. This is, pure and simple, elective ignorance, which is the hallmark of a fanatic….
Let me say (if you are new here) that I do not “believe in God” as people normally understand those words, and in particular I don’t believe in a personal God, yet I am religious. And I sincerely believe that if Dawkins ever tried to wrap his brain around religions as I understand it, his head would explode. I can tell from his writing he hasn’t even been exposed to much about religion and has no idea how ignorant he is.
If Richard Dawkins wants to apply himself to a criticism of Tillich, or Spinoza, or Dogen, or any other religious teacher or thinker who doesn’t fit the religion mold in his head, that’s grand. But until he does, he’s stuck at the level of claiming evolution can’t be proved until someone finds the Missing Link.

I agree: give me that old time agnostic monism…
*The ScienceBlogs Blogerator 8300 is on the fritz; for some reason, html tags don’t work in the ‘entry body’ part, so here’s the link.

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167 Responses to What I’ve Always Wanted to Say About Dawkins and Religion

  1. Joshua says:

    HAH! Please. If what Dawkins does is landing on the north pole and concluding Earth is made of ice, then Barbara O’Brien has stumbled across an oasis in the desert and concluded that she is surrounded by water.
    The real level of public understanding of theology is about on par with the level of public understanding of evolution. They heard a couple of things this one time that the maybe dimly half-remember, but it never comes up unless somebody asks. Barbara O’Brien is completely delusional if she thinks the average believer today has read a single book by any of the people she mentioned.
    I’m sorry. This argument, while sounding very pretty and inclusive, is just wrong. When Christians and other believers start reading those religious philosophers, then maybe this criticism will have validity.

  2. Mustafa Mond, FCD says:

    fundamentalist atheist

    Could someone define that? Without raping the language?

  3. Mustafa Mond, FCD says:

    It looks like she has her own personal definition of “religious” as well. If you’re going to reassign words willy-nilly, I don’t see the point in pretending that you are communicating with others.

  4. Mustafa Mond, FCD says:

    Don’t take me wrong. I absolutely love religion. And Dawkins has never dealt with my religion. It’s just that when I say “religion”, I mean what most people mean when they say “butter brickle ice cream.”

  5. writerdddd says:

    What a load of crap. Dawkins addresses this very issue in the intro to The God Delusion. Those people who think Dawkins is ignorant of theology are completely missing the point. The vast majority of religious people are completely ignorant of theology and, in the case of fundamentalists and evangelicals, they hold theology in outright disdain.
    Sam Harris is 100% spot on when he says these moderate religious folks are providing cover to the extremists. Until they start speaking out against the bullshit lurking in their own religious closets instead of crying because someone is making fun of their silly superstitions, thank god for people like Dawkins and Harris who have the balls to call a spade a spade.

  6. Larry Moran says:

    Boooooring ….
    We’ve heard this kind of whining before. People like Barbara O’Brien think that Dawkins is spot on when it comes to the stupid versions of religion but their own personal religion is ever so much more rational and sophisticated. Dawkins is way too ignorant to understand the better kind of superstitions.
    Yeah, right. The Emperor still doesn’t have any clothes [The Courtier’s Reply].

  7. Badger3k says:

    I keep hoping for a better critique than “that’s not what I believe, so he can’t say that my invisible supernatural entity is real!” Same shite, different day. It’s like creationists using hundred-year-old arguments and claiming they are new.
    The post linked to goes back to RJ Eskrow’s (if I spelled it correctly) HuffPo piece, where he seems to be backpedaling (“I didn’t mean you”) and making spurious claims without backing anything up. From what I can gather, Harris seems to be a “Fundamentalist Atheist” because of his political views (I’m not sure how atheism leads to supporting torture, which seems to be RJs implication), and I’m not sure of Dawkins. I need to go back and read more comments to see if RJ ever provided any evidence to back up his claims.
    I may never understand it, but if your (meant in the generic sense, not pointing at anybody in particular) invisible deity has no evidence for its existence, all your theological claims still stand as fantasy. As someone once said “Where’s the beef?”

  8. jeffk says:

    Theology is no doubt an amazingly complex and carefully thought out field of study that has been contributed to by thousands of incredible thinkers over the course of thousands of years.
    But it’s all based on one big reeking pile of crap and so it’s worthless. It’s like developing all of physics on the assumption that F = ma^2. You could probably come up with all kinds of stuff but it’s still WRONG, because it has incorrect foundations. This is why Dawkins has no need to give a more complex treatment of theology than moronic evangelical christianity – it would be a complete waste of time, it’s just the same crap masked by layers and layers of semantics and pseudo-philosophy.
    And I see that most people in this thread have similar opinions; from now on when someone trys to pull the “Dawkins doesn’t deal with REAL religion” bullshit, they should just be pointed to this thread.

  9. Mondo says:

    Mr Moran is right on, especially about the boring part. To me it is like having a continual debate over the existence of Santa Claus.

  10. Koray says:

    Absolutely worthless post by Barbara O’Brien.
    Willfully ignorant? Maybe, but how about some examples? Let’s drop the stupid polar landing analogy and talk about what Dawkins is not seeing.
    His head would explode? Assertions are boring, especially the condescending ones.

  11. MarkP says:

    Could someone define [fundamentalist atheist]? Without raping the language?
    No. It’s a intellectually dishonest well-poisoning tactic made by people who can’t win the logical argument. It’s one of those phrases, like “darwinist”, that immediately makes me stop taking you seriously.

  12. Danf says:

    Could someone define [fundamentalist atheist]? Without raping the language?
    Maybe “bigoted athiest” would have been a better term than “fundamentalist athiest”, but I think the essential points that Dawkins is not only being far to simplistic about the subject but is also failing to investigate it properly are perfectly vaild.

  13. O’Brien is doing exactly the same thing that every single sect or branch or denomination does when religion as a whole is critiqued. Appropriately…
    Those damn Romans should be critiqued for their rashness and obviously dangerous ideas. But lets not forget the the Judean People’s Front or the Judean Popular People’s Front. They have some pretty wacky ideas too. We over at the People Front of Judea are much better than that and are astounded that anyone would put us in the same group as the others. We are much more rational and make up the majority of the population anyway. Just look at these fancy robes I’m wearing. I am rightly offended that anyone would think we share the blame with those others.

  14. Richard says:

    The old “Dawkins doesn’t deal with my particular flavor of religion, therefore he is ignorant” argument. Not just ignorant, but willfully ignorant! Oh my!
    As Larry said, it’s the Courtier’s Reply again, and again, and again….

  15. Greco says:

    Oh, no, not more pseudocriticism from the “I’m so sophisticated and progressive and open-minded and rational and shiny and purple and cute and I smell so good” crowd. Yes, I have just summarized the whole of their arguments.
    On a lighter note: all the five “most active posts” at the moment belong to different blogs. Maybe it’s a first?

  16. Greco says:

    fundamentalist atheist

    Could someone define that? Without raping the language?

    Sure. It means “really eeeeevil person who thinks my fuzzy beliefs are no more reasonable than more clear beliefs and that I would like to silence right now before he/she hurts my feelings anymore”. I think it’s a pretty good definition.

  17. Brian says:

    I kinda like Mondo’s reasoning, except it’s less to me like debating the existence of Santa Claus, and more like complaining that the skeptic hasn’t truly studied the physics of flying reindeer and sleigh, or the moisture-wicking breathability of faux-fur-lined red poly blends, or the various explanations of how a fat man fits down a narrow chimney.
    Point is, it doesn’t really matter how elegantly you can explain all of those wacky things when they’re based on a fantasy.

  18. MarkP says:

    I think the essential points that Dawkins is not only being far to simplistic about the subject but is also failing to investigate it properly are perfectly vaild.
    In a recent talk, Dawkins showed one of those colored maps of the world we’ve all seen before, this one showing the areas dominated by various religions. Where it is red there is one God, green is 3-in-one, yellow, thousands, that sort of thing. Then he asked us to imagine science being like that: in this part of the world, people believe the dinosaurs were killed by a meteor, here they believe global warming did it, here it was the mammals’ rise, etc. It was remarkably effective in illustrating the difference. Look at an overlay of world educational levels and religious fervence. They are starkly negatively correlated.
    That’s not being simplistic. That’s cutting to the chase. I don’t need to read Augustine and Aquinas and Paley after that, and other similarly damning facts about religious thought, are known. It’s clearly not an area where thought produces much of value. It doesn’t warrant “proper investigation”. When it actually starts demonstrating knowledge outside it’s tight little rhetorical circle, I’ll change my tune. After millenia, I’m not optimistic.

  19. “Of course Dawkins is perfectly correct in saying the Emperor has no clothes of the ordinary kind, but he simply hasn’t considered the possibility of extra-hyper-mystery invisible clothes made of subatomic quantum filaments. If he had the superior intellect and sensibility of yours truly, he’d see he has completely misdescribed these transdimensional clothes as being non-existent, when in fact they do exist in a way that transcends time and space.”
    Bleagh!

  20. bioephemera says:

    Whatever. At this moment, I’m surrounded by thousands of conservative Christians. If more than two dozen of them have actually read Augustine, I’ll eat my hat. It’s rather unfair to expect Dawkins to know substantially more about religion than the bulk of this country’s “religious” right do.

  21. dcbob says:

    Mike is dead on as usual. I think I’ve read nearly all of Mr. Dawkins’ popular texts, including The God Delusion, and I consider The Selfish Gene a finalist for the best popular science text ever written. Nevertheless, reading Dawkins on religion is a waste of time. He doesn’t do any better a job writing about religion than Deepak Chopra does at writing about medicine. Read Dawkins on what he knows about: science. For religion, wander back a century and read William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

  22. Lettuce says:

    Unless Dawkins can explain how all those angels got on the heads of all those pins, he is unqualified to pronounce on the unknowable.
    By the way, religion is irreducibly complex.

  23. John B. says:

    I think this argument is really odd:
    “Those people who think Dawkins is ignorant of theology are completely missing the point. The vast majority of religious people are completely ignorant of theology and, in the case of fundamentalists and evangelicals, they hold theology in outright disdain.”
    I think I understand what the writer meant, but it’s depressing, somehow. I guess as long as you never depend on religious people understanding atheism, it doesn’t make any difference.

  24. John B says:

    Sorry the above comment is unclear. I get that athiests, generally, don’t care enough about religion to learn anything about it, but, being ignorant:
    #1 Don’t try to pass commentary on what most religious people do, or don’t, understand about their own beliefs. If you don’t want to know about it, that’s fine, but don’t pretend you know about it.
    #2 Don’t ever complain that theists (of whatever stripe) make ignorant arguments about atheism. Your basic premises are as patently false to them as theirs are to you. If you see no need to understand religion, don’t expect better treatment. Each of you can criticise the other according to standards you don’t share until the cows come home, and practice your reflexive rhetorical victories in isolation while accomplishing nothing.

  25. I think that the many posters defending Dawkins should get straight whether they are defending (1) the correctness of Dawkins’ position, or (2) the persuasiveness of Dawkins’ argument. These aren’t the same thing at all.
    If you want a serious dialog with someone, then you have to come to grips with what they actually believe, not your own caricature of it. If you want to say that religion is so ridiculous (akin to belief in Santa Claus, or unicorns, or whatever) that it doesn’t even merit a serious argument, that’s fine. But then what was the point of The God Delusion? Is it a serious argument aimed at convincing theists, or is entertainment (or encouragement) for those who are already convinced that theism is stupid?

  26. Jason says:

    Daryl Mc,
    I think that the many posters defending Dawkins should get straight whether they are defending (1) the correctness of Dawkins’ position, or (2) the persuasiveness of Dawkins’ argument. These aren’t the same thing at all.
    I assert both that Dawkins is correct and that his argument is persuasive.
    If you want a serious dialog with someone, then you have to come to grips with what they actually believe, not your own caricature of it. If you want to say that religion is so ridiculous (akin to belief in Santa Claus, or unicorns, or whatever) that it doesn’t even merit a serious argument, that’s fine. But then what was the point of The God Delusion?
    Religions make a lot of claims, some more reasonable than others. Many religious claims are no more plausible than claims of the existence of unicorns. The basic point of The God Delusion is to debunk theism, at least in its traditional forms (Christianity, Islam, etc). One reason theism receives much more attention from people like Dawkins than belief in unicorns is that the former is very much more widespread than the latter.
    Is it a serious argument aimed at convincing theists, or is entertainment (or encouragement) for those who are already convinced that theism is stupid?
    Some of both, I think.

  27. sixteenwords says:

    I find Dawkins’ point both correct and persuasive.
    I’m also a former Catholic who will, when pressed, describe myself as a Catholic when asked in much the same way people describe themselves as “Irish” when they are in fact Americans.
    I’m also Irish, having as I do one of those apostrophe names online forms hate so much.
    And, finally, I’m pretty coversant in Catholic theology and catechism as I am the product of a (mainly) Catholic education and did my time as an altar-boy.
    Fortunately, the nuns in my former community (Hagerstown, Maryland) were mainly from my current community, one with (at that time) a very recent and long-standing socialist past.
    I’m not persuaded that Dr. Dawkins needs a grounding in Catholic theology, apologetics or catechism to weigh in on the liklihood og a God or any of the larger questions surrounding that.
    Indeed, such a thing is often an impediment to the larger point that God is extremely unlikely to exist, less likely to exist in any of the popular forms and, in any case, belief in such an entity is a net loser for humanity.
    But that’s me.

  28. Jason writes: I assert both that Dawkins is correct and that his argument is persuasive.
    To whom? Who has been persuaded by it? Whose opinion has been changed by it?
    The basic point of The God Delusion is to debunk theism.
    But how does it serve that purpose? Once again, the point of “debunking” something is to convince people who might be inclined to believe it. By that criterion, The God Delusion fails. At least, I’ve never heard anyone praise it who didn’t already agree with its conclusion.

  29. Jason says:

    Barbara O’Brien’s argument is nonsensical. She provides no evidence to support her claim that Dawkins “is profoundly ignorant about religion as a whole,” but clear evidence that she herself is. She claims that Dawkins knows and writes about only “a small part of religion.” The “small part” Dawkins writes about in TGD is theism in any of its traditional forms. This encompasses the religions of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, which together comprise the vast majority of the world’s religious adherents. She then complains that Dawkins fails to address the religion of “Tillich, or Spinoza, or Dogen,” as if those individuals have more than a tiny number of followers. The woman doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about.

  30. sixteenwords writes: I find Dawkins’ point both correct and persuasive.
    Would you say that you personally were persuaded by it, that your opinion was changed by reading Dawkins? If not, then in what sense is it persuasive?

  31. Jason says:

    Dayrl McC,
    To whom? Who has been persuaded by it? Whose opinion has been changed by it?
    Many people, I think. If your claim is that Dawkins’ argument cannot be considered persuasive because we don’t have clear evidence that it has persuaded a large number of people, then the same could be said of virtually any argument in any book by anyone, so it’s a trivial criticism.
    But how does it serve that purpose?
    By presenting arguments that belief in God is unreasonable and unjustified.
    Once again, the point of “debunking” something is to convince people who might be inclined to believe it. By that criterion, The God Delusion fails.
    Oh, do please present your evidence in support of this claim. How many people need to read TGD and remain unconvinced in order for your criterion of failure to be satisfied? 1? 100? 100,000? Or what? You’re not saying anything meaningful here.

  32. Here is one of the many possible formulations of the traditional problem of evil.
    1. God exists (so the rest of the argument does not describe a purely imaginary being).
    2. God is and always has been all-good.
    3. God is and always has been all-powerful.
    4. God is and always has been all-knowing.
    5. If God has always been all-good he will always have wished to eliminate evil.
    6. If God has always been all-powerful and all-knowing he will always have had the means to eliminate evil.
    7. If God has always had the wish and means to eliminate evil then (by now) he has succeeded.
    8. If God has succeeded in eliminating evil, then there is now no evil in the universe.
    9. (From 1-6) God has always had the wish and means to eliminate evil.
    10. (From 7., 8. and 9.) There is now no evil in the universe.
    11. There is (still) evil in the universe.
    Here, 5., 6., 7., 8., and 11. appear to be innocuous and incontrovertible. 9. and 10. are derived and do not strictly even have to be there. Since the total set is inconsistent, one or nore of 1., 2., 3., and 4. must be false. But these just are theism (in the orthodox sense of Abrahamic theologies).
    This sort of thing is generally accepted by philosophers, including atheistic ones, not to be a successful argument against theists! Why? Because the theist can always deny one or more of 5., 6., 7., 8., and 11.
    I am prepared to accept that the argument is not successful, in the strong sense that there is no escape, since there are indeed many twists and turns by which someone could try to deny 5., 6., 7., 8., or 11. (actually, 11. will be difficult for any orthodox theist in “our” tradition to deny). But think what a position that denies one of those propositions would look like. I think that there are plenty of people who would not be prepared to deny any of those propositions. For them the argument works, and orthodox theism is untenable.
    I think that it is possible to argue with any theist who is not inclined to twist and turn forever and deny claims that the rest of us think are innocuous (or simply to claim that the whole thing is a mystery beyond reason). It is also possible to argue with someone who is open-minded about theism, wavering one way or the other or looking at it freshly, and not willing to deny seemingly innocuous statements.
    It is not possible to argue with a theist who is prepared to use an argument such as I have presented as a reductio ad absurdum, demonstrating the falsity of, say, 5. above (or else who will claim the whole thing is a mystery beyond reason). I think that Dawkins should have as his audience, potentially receptive to his views, anyone except this kind of theist. Against this kind of person, no atheistic argument will ever succeed. However, the rest of us are quite entitled to think that such a person is unreasonable.
    Though Dawkins never uses this exact argument, as far as I recall, it is an example of the sort of argument that will convince many people, if not strictly successful against all comers. The same applies to many things that atheists can say, and they are all worth being said. Of course, a truly hardened theist can always bite the bullet, argue from a position that seems very strange, and maintain logical consistency.

  33. Jason,
    Okay, maybe you are right. But of the dozens of discussions about the book that I have read, I have seen no examples. Why do you believe that there are such examples?
    If your claim is that Dawkins’ argument cannot be considered persuasive because we don’t have clear evidence that it has persuaded a large number of people…
    I’m making a much stronger claim, which is that nobody has been persuaded by it, that nobody’s opinion has been changed by it. It’s a falsifiable claim; to prove me wrong, it only takes a single person who believed one way before reading Dawkins book and now believes a different way.
    …then the same could be said of virtually any argument in any book by anyone, so it’s a trivial criticism.
    My criticism is that (as far as I know) Dawkins book hasn’t convinced anyone who didn’t already agree with the conclusion. You think that criticism applies equally well to “virtually any argument in any book by anyone”?

  34. craig says:

    My friend Jeff used to hear the future people talking to him through his TV set. He could talk for hours about all of the things they told him, about all of his distorted perceptions and fantasies. Jeff was a schizophrenic.
    You can use that one word to explain Jeff’s delusions and his illness. You don’t have to discuss in detail the content and meaning of the messages that the future people gave him, or analyze the characteristics of these future people as compared to future people other schizophrenics have described.
    You CAN do that if you want to do a comparative study of delusions, you might find great value in that, you might come to a greater understanding of why people are delusional and how those delusions manifest themselves.
    None of this will make the delusions anything but delusions.

  35. Russell,
    I don’t agree that your number 5 is “innocuous and incontrovertible” at all. Being good does not mean that you wish that all evil were eliminated.
    Here’s an analogy: JRR Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings was all-powerful relative to Middle Earth. He had the means to eliminate all evil from it, by just rewriting it to eliminate Sauron. Why didn’t he? Because the evil represented by Sauron served a higher purpose in his story, making heroism and sacrifice (and an interesting story) possible.
    Maybe God loves humans in the same way that Tolkien loved the inhabitants of Middle Earth.

  36. sixteenwords says:

    Daryl, in the sense that it moved me from an agnostic to embrace atheism without regret, Id’ say it was persuasive to me.
    As was Sam Harris.
    As has been PZ Myers.
    In the sense that I was already highly doubtful about the God thing, perhaps not. But then, if you can’t be an atheist and answer that question truthfully, I have issues with the question (although not your right to ask it.)

  37. sixteenwords,
    Yes, I can see how a manifesto such as Dawkins could be persuasive in getting atheists to “come out of the closet”. Good point.
    But then, if you can’t be an atheist and answer that question truthfully, I have issues with the question (although not your right to ask it.)
    Sorry, I don’t understand what that means. What question?

  38. Jason says:

    Daryl McC,
    Okay, maybe you are right. But of the dozens of discussions about the book that I have read, I have seen no examples. Why do you believe that there are such examples?
    Because the arguments against theism are strong and because Dawkins is exceptionally talented at articulating them clearly and cogently.
    I’m making a much stronger claim, which is that nobody has been persuaded by it,
    I think that’s an absurd claim.
    My criticism is that (as far as I know) Dawkins book hasn’t convinced anyone who didn’t already agree with the conclusion.
    Well, make up your mind. Is your claim that no one has been convinced by TGD, or merely no one that you know of?
    Your argument is just silly. Without detailed polling data or other such evidence we don’t have any basis for making serious claims about the number of people who have been persuaded by a book to change their belief. I think the major value of Dawkins’ book is not winning immediate converts to atheism, but simply raising the public consciousness on the subject of the value and merits of religious belief, putting it out there and stimulating people to think and talk about it. In the long run, I believe greater public discourse will inevitably erode religious belief, regardless of how many “instant converts” Dawkins may manage to produce through this book specifically.

  39. Jason says:

    Daryl McC,
    I don’t agree that your number 5 is “innocuous and incontrovertible” at all. Being good does not mean that you wish that all evil were eliminated.
    Read it again. The premise is not merely that God has always been good, but that he has always been ALL-good. Omnibenevolent. Why would an all-good God not wish that all evil were eliminated?
    Here’s an analogy: JRR Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings was all-powerful relative to Middle Earth. He had the means to eliminate all evil from it, by just rewriting it to eliminate Sauron. Why didn’t he?
    Because it would have been boring. And perhaps because Tolkien intended the novels to be an allegory for his Christian beliefs. Good fiction usually involves conflict and challenge, adversity and triumph. But we’re not talking about fiction, we’re talking about God’s plan for the world. What’s the point of making anyone suffer unnecessarily? How is that good?
    Really, the problem of evil has vexed theism since at least the time of the ancient greeks. The only real answer they’ve ever managed to come up with is to appeal to mystery, to claim that somehow, for reasons we cannot understand, the evil is necessary to bring about the greatest good. Which of course is no answer at all.

  40. Colugo says:

    I am an atheist who believes that Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, despite their admirable contributions, have made some unwise rhetorical choices.
    In addition, Harris is a very curious kind of rationalist, one who apparently takes certain mystical concepts very seriously.
    http://www.alternet.org/story/46196/

  41. Jason,
    Your argument is just silly. Without detailed polling data or other such evidence we don’t have any basis for making serious claims about the number of people who have been persuaded by a book to change their belief.
    I’m drawing a conclusion based on the evidence that I have. I’m certainly willing to change my conclusion if I get new evidence. In contrast, you seem to be claiming that Dawkins is persuasive without a single piece of evidence to back up that claim.
    I think the major value of Dawkins’ book is not winning immediate converts to atheism, but simply raising the public consciousness on the subject of the value and merits of religious belief, putting it out there and stimulating people to think and talk about it.
    Fair enough.

  42. Jason writes:
    Read it again. The premise is not merely that God has always been good, but that he has always been ALL-good. Omnibenevolent. Why would an all-good God not wish that all evil were eliminated?
    Because it would have been boring. I actually think that “good” is not possible without the threat of evil. What is good? It’s protecting the weak, it’s comforting those who need comfort. Feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick, providing company for the lonely. None of those examples of “good” make any sense without the possibility of bad things happening (hunger, disease, loneliness, etc.)
    I suppose that if there were no possibility of anything bad, then we could still have beautiful music and art. We could still have intellectually stimulating discussions and ideas. We could still have sports and games. Those are all good in a certain sense, but not in the moral sense.

  43. Nick Dellhall says:

    Mike: The impression I get from reading Dawkin’s God Delusion is that he is quite knowledgable about the religions he is writing about. If I remembered correctly, he has been exposed to religion in his younger years. So I don’t see how most of Barb’s argument would work.

  44. Jason says:

    Daryl McC,
    I’m drawing a conclusion based on the evidence that I have.
    The evidence you have does not support the conclusion you’re drawing. Your sample is far too small and there’s no reason to believe it’s representative of all readers of the book.
    Because it would have been boring.
    The reason God has not eliminated (or even reduced) all the evil in the world is to prevent boredom? That seems like a reasonable explanation to you, does it?
    I actually think that “good” is not possible without the threat of evil.
    If God is omnipotent then by definition nothing can threaten him. So evil cannot threaten him. So an omnipotent God (according to your premise) cannot be good. So God can either be good or omnipotent, but not both. Perhaps that’s what you believe, but it contradicts Christian doctrine. It’s inconsistent not only with the Christian doctrine of an all-powerful, all-good God, but with the doctrine of a perfect afterlife in Heaven for the saved, unsullied by evil or the threat of evil. Perhaps this example will give you a sense of how vulnerable theism is to the kind of rational scrutiny Richard Dawkins subjects it to in TGD.

  45. Belathor says:

    I’m making a much stronger claim, which is that nobody has been persuaded by it, that nobody’s opinion has been changed by it. It’s a falsifiable claim; to prove me wrong, it only takes a single person who believed one way before reading Dawkins book and now believes a different way.
    http://richarddawkins.net/convertsCorner

  46. Belathor says:

    Because it would have been boring.
    But doesn’t proposition 3 give God the power to create a world in where there is no evil and life is not boring?
    I actually think that “good” is not possible without the threat of evil.
    Why? (Why is “good” relative to “evil” instead of both “good” and “evil” being relative to “normal”?)

  47. MarkP says:

    So let me get this straight. It doesn’t matter how logically sound Dawkins’ arguments are, as long as the deluded stubbornly stamp their feet and refuse to concede the points, that’s a weakness of Dawkins’ argument?
    Every time you people who claim Dawkins is missing the really sophisticated versions of deism actually specify what you mean, you show how ridiculous it is to claim any theism is sophisticated.

  48. Michael says:

    I have been converted. Me. ME, me, me! I lead a non demoninational christian church for the better part of 7 years and these are the very arguments that persuaded me. The arguments of Richard Dawkins. But they’re not his alone are they? They’ve been around for quite some time. I never knew though because I was kept away from all that. From reason and critical though. I shunned leaning on my own understanding. I simply hung out with those of like mind and never ventured forth to challenge my beliefs. It wasn’t until an outspoken atheist raised his voice that I even knew what I was missing. I know well the sophistication of modern christian belief, and I assure you none of the masses have read Augustine, much less even know his name. Enough bald assertion. Address the damn claims made! Otherwise go take up my empty space in the pews of the unthinking, for I surely won’t be filling it again.

  49. Michael says:

    And as far as the argument made by Barbara, it’s shite and everyone here apparently knows it. I’m shocked that it even found it way onto this blog. Tillich is a congregation unto himself with views so far from the norm that no modern christian would recognonize them. (It’s a pretty sure bet that every christian at least believes that god “exists”) Spinoza, is plain and simple a pantheist, and I bet my left leg that every chirstian I meet on the street tomorrow will have never even heard of dogen. Those men represent no one. And only Spinoza had good ideas. This is shite. You’re out of your depth.

  50. John Phillips says:

    It amuses me that so many critics of Richard’s book bring up examples like Tillich, Spinoza et al, none of whom represent anything remotely recognisable to the average xtian’s faith. Additionally, even assuming that Richard did know nothing about it, why is knowledge about theology, which is only a study attempting to rationalise the irrational with an a priori belief in god after all, necessary to dismiss religious belief and the damage it has caused and continues to cause. Give us simply one piece of evidence that centuries of theology has managed to produce for the existence of god and all us atheists will hold up our hands and admit we were wrong. Oops, still no evidence after all that time simply more rationalisations. Well then until you can produce something tangible you might as well be talking about unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sorry Pastafarians 🙂 At least the FSM’s ‘things he really rather you didn’t do’ are a much better set of rules for living life by than most of the traditional religious ones.

  51. Eike Pierstorff says:

    Yes, I can see how a manifesto such as Dawkins could be persuasive in getting atheists to “come out of the closet”. Good point.
    Has anybody actually read the book? My copy arrived today, and right at the start it says:
    I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, or are worried about the evils that are done in it’s name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. (emphasis mine)
    So apart from being a good point bringing atheists out of the closet is apparently the books main purpose and convincing theists isn’t. You can blame Dawkins for not trying, but not for failing.

  52. Eike Pierstorff says:

    Sorry, I was operating under the rather atheist assumption that feeling unhappy about your religion means that you are not actualy religious anymore. So it is my last post that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Funny how you realize things just after you hit the submit button.

  53. Shmuel says:

    I see the Christians are arguing over “religion” again at science blogs.

  54. Skarn says:

    Has anybody actually read the book?

    I’m wondering the same thing. Dawkins goes to great lengths fairly early on in the book to talk about why his arguments against god are irrelevant to the god of Spinoza, although he does suggest that people who use the word god in this way are hindering intellectually honest discourse about the kind of god and religion that most people ascribe to.
    Thus I can only assume that Barbara has not read the book, and since Mike is reposting her comments, neither has he.

  55. I_like_latin says:

    Having read The God Delusion (a good read btw), even being sort of on the fence about Christianity, I was not convinced by Dawkin’s arguments. In fact, some I found quite silly (e.g., Why the anthropic principle almost certainly proves there is no god?). If someone can explain this to me I’d be very appreciative since when I read it all I see is: We exist and where we exist the conditions for our existence are right.
    To the point at hand. I believe that fundamentalist atheist is an oxymoron and pejorative term. However, missionary atheist or evangelical atheist are just as bad because of those words associations with ‘religion’. What seems to be lost in the fray is that many (Dawkins among them) think the world would be better off without religion (that argument could go on for ages and I’m not going to address it) and are on a ‘crusade’ to enlighten others and change their ways. In that sense, they are evangalizing, in the sense that they are zealously supporting their cause, but not in the name of a religion. Hence the origin of the terms ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘evangelical’ atheist. I think all of this arguing over semantics and whether the world would be a better place with no religion is a waste. The world would be a better place if it was tolerant of others beliefs. Not that many religions or ‘insert some non-pejorative here that is equivalent to evangelical’ atheism seem to really want that.

  56. JimV says:

    I haven’t yet read TGD, so I don’t know if Dawkins actually said “the anthropic principle almost certainly proves there is no god”. The phrase “almost certainly proves” sounds vaguely oxymoronic to me. I would have thought Dawkins meant to say something like: the anthropic principle disproves the theistic claim that the universe must have been specifically designed for us in order for humans to exist in it.

  57. Mustafa Mond, FCD says:

    First I will reiterate a question mentioned by a few already:Mike, have you read The God Delusion?

    Having read The God Delusion (a good read btw), even being sort of on the fence about Christianity, I was not convinced by Dawkin’s arguments. In fact, some I found quite silly (e.g., Why the anthropic principle almost certainly proves there is no god?). If someone can explain this to me I’d be very appreciative since when I read it all I see is: We exist and where we exist the conditions for our existence are right.

    This argument has been around for a while, but I thought Dawkins turned a few nice phrases on the topic. Such as: If we are looking for a needle in a haystack, we must remember that we are sitting on a needle. (Not verbatim; sorry I don’t have the book with me.) Conditions on this planet are conducive to the form of life that inhabits it. Is that profound evidence for the divine, or is that stupendously !Duh! tautological?

  58. MarkP writes: So let me get this straight. It doesn’t matter how logically sound Dawkins’ arguments are, as long as the deluded stubbornly stamp their feet and refuse to concede the points, that’s a weakness of Dawkins’ argument?
    Again, the criterion for success for an attempt at persuasion is: Does it persuade? That’s an empirical question. Saying that belief in God is as ridiculous as belief in the tooth fairy may be true, but that doesn’t make it persuasive.
    Michael’s post is relevant to the question. He says that he was a Christian prior to reading Dawkins’ book and was an atheist afterwards.

  59. Belathor writes: Why? (Why is “good” relative to “evil” instead of both “good” and “evil” being relative to “normal”?)
    As I said, the examples of good acts (in the moral sense) that I know of all seem dependent on the possibility of bad things happening. If you eliminate that possibility, then those particular sorts of “goodness” become meaningless.
    Maybe there is a notion of “good” that doesn’t depend on the possibility of bad things happening, but I don’t know it.
    Now, you could distinguish between “bad” and “evil”. Suffering is bad, but it’s not evil unless a conscious entity causes it. I suppose that you could imagine a world in which evil acts are not allowed.
    Another alternative is that perhaps the world would be better without evil or good. A world in which nobody ever suffers would have no good (in the moral sense), but maybe that’s okay.

  60. J. J. Ramsey says:

    First, a thought on what “fundamentalist atheist” is supposed to mean. Whatever the fine details are of someone’s definition of “fundamentalist atheist,” the gist is usually something like:
    “Hey, you guys claim to be standing up for reason and critical thinking, but you’re making many of the same cognitive errors that the fundamentalists do.”
    A couple of these cognitive errors are a tendency to demonize the opposition and to cast the debate in black-and-white terms. There is also just the tendency to resort to fallacious arguments.
    Nick Dellhall: “The impression I get from reading Dawkin’s God Delusion is that he is quite knowledgable about the religions he is writing about.”
    But if you don’t know that much about religion, how do you judge? Having read TGD, I’d say that Dawkins wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I could catch some places where he was being ignorant. His “Argument From Scripture” section was one place where it jumped out at me.
    For example, Dawkins correctly describes some of the inconsistencies in the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, his treatment is incomplete enough that a Christian could resort to the standard apologetic: Quirinius may have served an earlier term, before 6 C.E., when Herod was still alive, and the Lukan census could have happened then. If Dawkins had boned up on his Christian apologetics, he could have cut off that line of argument by pointing out that a census under Herod was implausible because Judea under Herod was a client kingdom, and client kingdoms paid the Romans in lump-sum tribute rather than via the direct taxation that would have necessitated a census. Since Dawkins had taken his “hobgoblinology” more seriously, he could have made his argument much more convincing with just a few extra lines, or a paragraph at worst.

  61. J. J. Ramsey says:

    Me: “Since Dawkins had taken his ‘hobgoblinology’ more seriously, he could have made his argument much more convincing with just a few extra lines, or a paragraph at worst.”
    Sorry, that should read, “If Dawkins had taken his ‘hobgoblinology’ more seriously, he could have made his argument much more convincing with just a few extra lines, or a paragraph at worst.”

  62. MarkP says:

    Again, the criterion for success for an attempt at persuasion is: Does it persuade? That’s an empirical question.
    Yes it is, just like the criterion for success for an attempt at healing is: was the patient healed? However, if the patient refuses to take his medication per doctor’s instructions, the failure of the attempt can hardly be laid at the feet of the doctor. You cannot wake a man who is pretending to sleep.

  63. Just in case I’ve given the wrong impression, I’m not a particularly big fan of Christianity. my list of some the things that I dislike about it.

  64. Steve Watson says:

    My exposure to Dawkins was limited to the occasional short article (and all the quotes in Dennett’s book) until last year when I read both The Ancestor’s Tale and The God Delusion. Given its advanced billing (and the author’s reputation as a fire-breather) I found the latter’s treatment of religion both more nuanced and even sympathetic than I’d expected. Dawkins clearly has a nostalgic affection for the Anglicanism in which he was raised, as well as an appreciation for the contributions to culture of the KJV, of religious art, music and architecture (he even mentions a few clergy as good friends). However, alongside that he also has his (entirely rational and well-justified) conviction that conventional religion is all wrong as to fact, frequently wrong in its moral effects, and ultimately unnecessary as an activity or institution. Concerning that conviction he is uncompromising, basically saying over and over: “Justify your claims, or stop wasting everyone’s time”. And I think he’s right to do so.
    To reiterate a point already made: Dawkins explicitly exempts Spinozan pantheism from his critique. He doesn’t mention Tillich explicitly (Harris does), but so what? One can devise god-concepts ad infinitum that evade his critique — and outside of liberal seminaries, very few people (and probably none of the really dangerous ones) believe in any of them. I really think the onus is on those claiming a critical exemption for some theology to specify it and show that the exempted theology is relevant to the culture wars.
    As far as the persuasive value of TGD goes: I was a Christian, of flavours ranging from fundamentalist to liberal, for some 28 years. I think there is probably no time during that period when I would have found the book persuasive, though for reasons having to do with my idiosyncratic personal history rather than any fault in the book — no presentation can be persuasive to all possible audiences, and I was never in Dawkins’ stated (see previous comment) target audience. But I think I’m a rare bird.
    BTW: TGD is a much better book than Harris’ The End of Faith — it does a much better job of backing its assertions with specifics (such as the ways in which moderate religion — deliberately or not — serves to shield extremist religion from critique), and does not get side-tracked into the author’s mystical idiosyncracies (to fire another shot in my lazy campaign to lessen Harris’ IMHO undeserved respect in atheist circles).

  65. Dan S. says:

    However, his treatment is incomplete enough that a Christian could resort to the standard apologetic: Quirinius may have served an earlier term, before 6 C.E., when Herod was still alive, and the Lukan census could have happened then. If Dawkins had boned up on his Christian apologetics, he could have cut off that line of argument by pointing out that a census under Herod was implausible because Judea under Herod was a client kingdom, and client kingdoms paid the Romans in lump-sum tribute rather than via the direct taxation that would have necessitated a census.
    I think this sort of thing could be used to support the general counter-argument as well (that covering every single base is not necessarily a requirement, for reasons x, y, and or z). Done consistently, this would promise to turn Dawkins’ mass-market book into an enormously bloated giant-tome version of one of those endless TalkOrigin articles that tries to show every reason why the Flood/Ark thing couldn’t be true.
    Now, if what you mention is a really standard apologetic, something that most wavering/questioning theists (if that’s the intended audience) would have on the tips of their fingers . . . well, that’s a flaw, and perhaps he would be best off with it in there nonetheless. But it still seems a bit . . .
    It might be interesting, folks, to consider as an anology-text an imagined ‘The Creation Delusion,’ a hypothetical work with the same style, limitations, preoccupations, etc. (and position in the cultural arena in terms of status, precursors, etc.), but attacking creationism instead. Or possibly not . . .
    And incidentally, is there an equivalent to the Index of Creationist Claims for theism/atheism? That would be entertaining.
    “You cannot wake a man who is pretending to sleep.”
    I like that.

  66. Steve Watson says:

    Again, the criterion for success for an attempt at persuasion is: Does it persuade? That’s an empirical question.
    Yes it is, just like the criterion for success for an attempt at healing is: was the patient healed? However, if the patient refuses to take his medication per doctor’s instructions, the failure of the attempt can hardly be laid at the feet of the doctor.

    Not a good analogy, IMHO. My willingness to take my meds as directed relies on my prior granting of authority to the doctor, based on a rational trust in the process by which we educate and certify doctors (coupled with a background understanding of my condition and why the therapy is appropriate).
    In the case of someone trying to persuade me of something (be it political, commercial or philosophical/religious), in the general case — including Dawkins — there is no such presumed authority (unless I’m a sucker who falls for anyone with a Ph.D), thus I’m not a priori obliged to accept the “therapy” — not even to expend the non-renewable resource of my time listening to it. Life is short, and there’s plenty of folks with Important Messages they want me to hear.
    Persuasion is an art that requires not only making the argument itself coherently, but getting your audience’s attention (an issue of psychology as much as of reason), and communicating to them “where they are”. From the “Converts Corner” I would say that he is successful with some people, but obviously not with others. As I said above, no presentation will reach all possible audiences — but that is the fault neither of the author, nor necessarily of the “missed” audiences. It’s just a facet of human diversity.

  67. MarkP says:

    The analogy goes to my argument that on this particular subject, there are many people who cannot be persuaded through reason because their opinion is not formed that way. So in effect, they simply do not listen, ie, don’t take their meds. God is the ultimate security blanket, and many of it’s adherants care not for the logic of the arguments that there are no monsters.

  68. Chris says:

    If it doesn’t matter that Dawkins doesn’t know much about religion because the vast majority of people around the world are not aquainted with the philosophical arguments behind their religion, then the only thing Dawkins can be criticizing is how people’s unreasoned beliefs operate. He *cannot* properly criticize religion if he doesn’t know anything about it.
    Many people commenting here claim that theology is invalid because it’s based on an erroneous assumption (the existance of a god), but do any of you know for sure that god does not exist? What if you *can* prove that a god exists? (that’s the first step to religion; the next step is to try and show that scripture is mandated by said god). The assumption that god doesn’t exist just because you can’t prove it yourself is just as bad as the assumption that god does exist just because you believe in it! It’s wilful ignorance all around. There are plenty of people who have given what they think are purely logical and logically consitent proofs of the existance of god. If you don’t even know the arguments presented, how can you say you conclusively know them to be invalid?
    Criticizing the population in general for their unreasoned beliefs is a whole different story, and is much easier to do. You can’t, however, build a criticism or denunciation of religion based solely on how people practice it. It would be the same as trying to criticize scientific method based on those who use the name but not the method itself.

  69. Crow says:

    Mike,
    It’s nice to see an evolutionary biologist with the balls to admit that Dawkins is talking like a raving fanatic. He may be on “our side”, folks, but he sure isn’t doing us any favors by forcefully advocating the Discovery Institute party line that religion and evolution are incompatible. Even if he was right this would be bad politics. He’s wrong for all of the reasons that people have so elegantly pointed out here and elsewhere, so it’s bad philosophy, too.
    Among those professional evolutionary biologists who view the struggle with Intelligent Design as a burdensome but unavoidable obligation, you’ll find broad agreement with Mike’s position. It’s only here in the blog-world, among those internet personalities who view the struggle with Intelligent Design as not a nuisance but rather a fortuitous career opportunity, that we see such strong support for Dawkins’ fundamentalist atheism (defn: a fundamentalist is capable of reading the world at only one level – in Dawkins’ case, the material).
    Best regards,
    Crow

  70. Caledonian says:

    I have never yet encountered anything popularly called ‘religion’ that wasn’t a system of superstitions.
    Can anyone offer a counterexample? Anyone? I’m particularly looking at you, Mr. Mad Biologist.

  71. Jason says:

    Crow,
    Read the many comments here explaining why Barbara O’Brien and Mike’s claim is false, and if you disagree with them, offer your rebuttal. I would point you in particular to the first two paragraphs of Steve Watson’s post of 2:52pm, which I think provide an excellent summary of the reasons why Mike and Barbara are wrong.

  72. Chris says:

    Mike P:
    “Every time you people who claim Dawkins is missing the really sophisticated versions of deism actually specify what you mean, you show how ridiculous it is to claim any theism is sophisticated.”
    So the fact that a bunch of people on the Internet don’t know the philosophical theology behind any particular religion means that said philosophical theology doesn’t exist?
    Now I can show that GR is bunk by asking around at my local elementary school for explanations of it.

  73. anon says:

    Tillich, or Spinoza, or Dogen, or any other religious teacher
    ***************
    Barbara O’Brien is completely delusional if she thinks the average believer today has read a single book by any of the people she mentioned.
    ###############
    Actually, it was in reading Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard and a bunch of others that I lost faith. I understood why it was comfortable, I got why people wanted to be part of it, but I left because most people did not, they did not want to, and they only cared about what God could do for them and a very limited amount of others. I was often looked askance at for reading “hard” books, and often every question I had was compounded by more. Then when a family member took theology in University- well, that did me in. Only because of that did I start connecting dots about how religions were recycling motifs from one to the other. Funny- now I am the skeptic and the family member is more open to religion…..

  74. Stogoe says:

    Wait just a second. You see, I read the article that caused this eruption of superstition and fence-sitting, and I didn’t get any atheism out of it. I don’t see how anyone could have. So, are we arguing that the article is wrong, or that ‘Dawkins wrote something, therefore I’m gonna stamp my feet about my security blanket’?

  75. Jason says:

    I’m no expert on Tillich, but I have read some of his work and I found it utterly vacuous. I agree with Martin Gardner’s conclusion that the only thing that really distinguishes Tillich’s “theism” from atheism is terminology:

    Tillich defended his metaphysics with such infuriating vagueness that it is often impossible to know exactly what he meant, but I side with those who find it hard to distinguish Tillich’s God from what atheists mean when they talk about all that is. It sounds as if Tillich is saying something deep when he speaks of “the ground of being,” “being-as-such” and the “transcendent unconditioned,” but what these terms finally come down to mean is simply that which is, taken in its incomprehensible totality. Is there not a touch of deception when a man who professes to be a Protestant theologian calls the “ground of being” God, then discards as unworthy all those aspects of the person model that were stressed not only by the Reformers but by Jesus himself?

  76. People keep confusing theology with philosophy of religion (which may be part of theology, but it’s also part of the rational investigation of theology).
    Over the centuries, philosophers of religion have put and crtiqued arguments for and against the existence of God. That’s the field Dawkins needs to know something about, and he actually does know quite a lot about it. He is, himself, doing work in that field in much of his writing – maybe not at the most rigorous professional level, but at a level that is of interest to philosophers while being appropriate for a more popular audience.

  77. Lincol says:

    I think that what makes Dawkins a fundamentalist atheist is his belief in the non-existent of god when the is insufficient data to support this belief. A far more reasonable position to hold would be the non-belief in the existence of god.
    I, like Einstein, fall on the Spinoza end of the religious spectrum, but I ordinarily refer to myself as a Christian Atheist. In short, I think Jesus is cool, but not supernatural, nor sent by a supernatural god.
    Also, I find all the Dawkins worshiping more than a little ironic.

  78. Leni says:

    I’m fairly certain that we can chalk Barabara O’Brien’s remarks up to nothing more than “Dawkins is a big dumb poopiehead.” (To steal a line from Ed Brayton.)
    O’Brien doesn’t bother addressing the content of Dawkins’ statments, but instead dismisses him as a “fundamental atheist” (a term, while not remotely as offesnsive, I consider nearly as stupid as “white nigger”. I don’t care what the intent is, it’s idiotic.) who’s head would explode if he were ever to gain the enormous mind-bending, earth-shattering knowledge and wisdom that O’Brian apparently has attained.
    Good grief. It sounds like like me when I convinced myself that I had esp and told my friend that I had mental powers no mere mortal could understand. The primary difference being that I am now embarassed about what I said. And of course that I was not an educated adult when I said it.
    Anyway…
    Also notice she doesn’t actually say what it is she knows that Dawkins doesn’t. “Do tell,” I kept thinking.
    There is, of course, nothing to tell. O’Brian knows exactly nothing more than anyone else about this subject, just like she doesn’t have any special powers of mental discourse that she gleaned from reading Spinoza that Dawkins doesn’t. (I’ve read him and I’m still an atheist. So what?) What she’s talking about, and what Dawkins does not share, is her emotional reaction to religion. Spinoza’s articulation of that is one of the things that makes him likable and interesting to read; not correct.
    Nor does she say why one must read the likes of Spinoza in order to criticize religion. What’s so special about these authors? Should we all catch up on our Quezalcoatl too?

  79. Caledonian says:

    Are we fundamentalists anti-Tooth-Fairyists because we hold that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, instead of merely saying that we don’t believe that She exists?
    Presumably you remain open to the possibility of Easter Bunnies, Santa Clauses, and Tooth Fairies. Such philosophical sophistication!

  80. Leni says:

    Caledonian wrote:

    Are we fundamentalists anti-Tooth-Fairyists because we hold that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, instead of merely saying that we don’t believe that She exists?

    Yes, you big fairy bigot.

  81. neti neti says:

    Caledonian writes:
    I have never yet encountered anything popularly called ‘religion’ that wasn’t a system of superstitions.
    Can anyone offer a counterexample? Anyone?
    Sure. Significant strands of Buddhism, Unitarian-Universalism, and Quakerism. (I’m assuming you’re defining “superstition” as “A belief in something not justified by reason or evidence”.)
    I think that how a person behaves is more important than what a person believes. I think it’s great that Dawkins wants to get across the idea that “atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled”. Fine, so can theists, agnostics, mystics, etc.
    This quote from author Karen Armstrong, quoted in a review of one of her books, is germaine:
    “Secularists and fundamentalists sometimes seem trapped in an escalating spiral of hostility and recrimination. If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterises modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience but which no society can safely ignore.”

  82. AndyS says:

    I have never yet encountered anything popularly called ‘religion’ that wasn’t a system of superstitions.

    All the American Buddhist teachers I know do not teach anything that is supernatural or superstitious — nor do they interpret the Buddhist texts as claiming anything supernatural exists. Quite the contrary. All of what they teach is about becoming more aware of what’s real and what’s not and more aware of what’s going on in our thoughts, emotions, and body. I believe all of these teachers consider themselves religious.
    This is why I object to saying religion = theism (or pantheism or deism). I’m religious, atheist, and materalist. So are many other people.

  83. Caledonian says:

    Significant strands of Buddhism, Unitarian-Universalism, and Quakerism. (I’m assuming you’re defining “superstition” as “A belief in something not justified by reason or evidence”.)

    Strands of? All three of those groups are superstition-rife – and UUs are downright incoherent, to boot. Demonstrate for me the justification for belief in reincarnation, or in the belief that one has no creeds (safeguarded in the creed, no less!), or in the countless incompatible traditions of the Friends.

  84. Jason says:

    neti neti,
    Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Way and other doctrines. Quakers believe that God exists and that they experience his presence directly. Perhaps you could describe the evidence and reasoning that you think justifies these beliefs.
    Unitarian-Universalism is merely a set of political or social principles. It involves no truth beliefs at all, as far as I can tell. (Individual U-Uists may hold any of a variety of religious beliefs, but those beliefs are not part of U-U itself.) For historical reasons, being an outgrowth of Christian sects, U-U is still viewed as a religion by many people, but I don’t see how it qualifies in any meaningful sense as a religion rather than a philosophy or ideology.

  85. Jason says:

    AndyS,
    I’m religious, atheist, and materalist.
    What beliefs do you hold that are religious in nature rather than merely philosophical or ideological?

  86. Caledonian says:

    Just to clarify things: Religion.
    Science is a system for the coherence of doubt. You claim to be religious, atheist, and materialist, AndyS – but not scientific.
    That’s… interesting.

  87. Lincol says:

    I think comparing god to the tooth fairy is missing the point. There is a strong definition for what a tooth fairy is and what a tooth fairy does, and, therefore, it is a fairly straightforward process to design an experiment to test for the existence of tooth fairies. Tooth fairies are falsifiable. God on the other hand is not.
    With both the existence of god and the non-existence of god being non-falsifiable beliefs, what reason do I have to choose the belief in the non-existence of god over the belief in the existence of god? surely both require equal amounts of faith. The non-belief in the existence of god doesn’t require any faith…

  88. Leni says:

    Lincol,

    I think comparing god to the tooth fairy is missing the point. There is a strong definition for what a tooth fairy is and what a tooth fairy does, and, therefore, it is a fairly straightforward process to design an experiment to test for the existence of tooth fairies. Tooth fairies are falsifiable. God on the other hand is not.

    Oh. Ok.
    Scratch Tooth Fairy and fill in “purple schmurfleploop”.
    Is that sufficiently ill-defined and unfalsifiable for you tackle?

  89. Lincol says:

    Sure. purple schmurfleploop is okay. And without knowing what a purple schmurfleploop is, surely it would be ridiculous for me to say that I believe without doubt that they do not exist.

  90. llewelly says:

    Lincol said:

    Tooth fairies are falsifiable. God on the other hand is not.

    This is certainly true of some gods. However, many religions choose to accredit their gods with certain actions, such as the Noachian deluge, which are falsifiable, as the talkorigins archive demonstrates at interminable length.

    As a second example, most Americans believe prayer is effective. This is a falsifiable claim about God, and the evidence against it is overwhelming. The theologically sophisticated who believe in non-falsifiable gods are a minority.

  91. Stogoe says:

    Lincol, Godd can be whatever the describer wants it to be. Godd has no describing characteristics, so whatever claims you disprove, ‘oh wait, it doesn’t actually apply to my personal Godd, so neener nanny boo-boo.’
    It’s a neverending fight with the feel-good deist-Courtier’s Reply demented fuckwits, and it has no bearing on actual, honest-to-Godd real world religion the way people practice it.

  92. John B says:

    “I have never yet encountered anything popularly called ‘religion’ that wasn’t a system of superstitions.”
    It might interest you to know that we don’t even use the term ‘superstition’ anymore in comparative religion, outside of scare-quotes. It was right up there with ‘magic’ in the list of terms “people use to describe the beliefs and practices of people they don’t like.” It’s just an ethnographic synonym of ‘religion’.

  93. neti neti says:

    Caledonian, yes, significant strands. Religion is a pretty subjective thing for some people, you know? — and some traditions are more liberal about personal preference and creedal requirements than others. Belief in reincarnation isn’t a requirement to be a Buddhist. Nor are there particular things that one has to believe, or not believe, that make or break one’s being a UU or Quaker (besides very general, “universalist” axioms like “love is better than hate”).
    Jason, being a Buddhist myself, would it be OK if I weighed in on my (and AFAIK, quite a few others’) approach to Buddhism? Or would you like to tell me what Buddhists “believe”, and perhaps explain to me that I’m not really a Buddhist? Buddhism is for me primarily a matter of study, practice and experience. Not all Buddhists (or UU’s, Quakers, etc.) approach their religions as a matter of belief. (See Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Beliefs” and Richard Hayes’s “Land Of No Buddha”). Buddhist teachings that might be translated as “nothing lasts” and “to extinguish avoidable suffering, extinguish unrealistic desires” are, to some Buddhists, propositions to be considered, tested and applied in daily life and meditation. You may reply, “then that are not religious”, but how is that reply different from the “no true Scotsman” fallacy?
    There are also the mystical types, e.g., Friends and others who see terms like “God” and “inner Light” as metaphors for subjective experiences of peace, love, beauty and happiness. Of course, these are experiences that atheists, agnostics, and nontheists, as well as Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Shintoists, Rastafarians, et. al. can and do have all the time. If a person uses religions language to interpret a/o describe her experience, she isn’t any more special, or less special, than someone who eschews religious langauge and interpretation.
    So it is possible to be religious without “believing” stuff, unless Richard Dawkins and like-minded folk get to be the arbiters of what constitutes religion. If someone self-identifies as religious, why argue the point? It’s just a matter of personal preference for some people, just as some people think The Beatles were the best band ever. It goes without saying that there is plenty to criticize in religion; one could say that it’s the only form of performance art that consistently declares itself to be the Greatest Show On Earth. But some of us, while not accepting such claims of ultimacy, still enjoy the show.
    So I don’t accept the implied burden of having to show why religion, as I or anyone else practices it, is necessary. No one else but me can be the arbiter of whether something is or isn’t necessary for my happiness. Further, I don’t care what someone else says he believes in, as long as his conduct is decent. If a person finds religion (or its absence) necessary to act decently and be happy, fine. Whatever gets you through the night.

  94. Lincol says:

    Sure llewelly, I have no doubt that what you’re saying is true. The point I was trying (albeit badly) to make is that a god belief (which is really a separate issue from religion) is no more delusion that a belief that no god exists. When you start talking about the Christian god, the Hindu pantheon etc or when you start assigning attributes to god then then the entire discussion changes.
    Proving (or being more Popperian – disproving) the existence of god is not something science can do. Believing that god exists or believing that god does not exist are both examples of saying more than the data justifies (there is after all no data).
    These criticisms of Dawkins miss the mark, but criticisms of naturalistic pantheism which hold atheism are superior also miss the mark.

  95. neti neti says:

    You may reply, “then that are not religious”
    even better, you may reply “then that is not religious”, or “then they are not religious”… 😉

  96. Lincol says:

    In fact its clear that Dawkins does not have a problem with naturalistic pantheism; however, he believes it merely to be a form of atheism. I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment.

  97. neti neti says:

    Speaking of boring, I find the entire debate over the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator-god to be extremely boring, because that’s just “not where I’m at” in my thinking on religion, and (because of my liberal UU upbringing) virtually never have been. Unlike Barbara O’Brien, I’m sure Dawkins could easily wrap his head around the idea that there are people who self-identify as being religious and approach religion not so much from belief as from practice a/o experience. I’ll have to read his book to find out to what degree he has chosen to do so.
    It seems to me that pragmatically, since religion probably isn’t going to go away, atheists and nontheists et. al. should welcome the voices of liberal, prosocial religious people who want to transform it into something better.

  98. Jason says:

    neti neti,
    If the word “religion” is to be useful it must refer to a kind of belief that is reasonably distinguishable from other kinds of belief such as philosophies or ideologies, and/or refer to a kind of behavior that is reasonably distinguishable from other kinds of behavior such as sports or hobbies.
    Your statement “Buddhism is for me primarily a matter of study, practise and experience” and your denial that Buddhism necessarily involves any set of truth beliefs makes it pretty clear to me that the word as you are using it refers to something more akin to a sport or hobby than anything that would qualify as a religion as that word is generally understood. So yes, I’m saying you’re not really a Buddhist and that “Buddhism,” as you are using the word, isn’t a real religion. I say that you’re abusing language, that you’re using it in a way that obscures rather than clarifies.
    Of course, you are perfectly free to use the word “religion” to refer to what you do. But the rest of us are not obliged to respect that usage, especially given that it flies in the face of the generally accepted meaning of the word and conflates very different types of belief and behavior.

  99. Lincol says:

    Jason. I think it is important to recognize that different words have different means to different people. I don’t think this is the time or the place to discuss whether/how meanings are constructed, but I think its important to note that things are always as straightforward or simplistic as is sometimes made out

  100. Jason says:

    neti neti,
    Nor are there particular things that one has to believe, or not believe, that make or break one’s being a UU or Quaker
    What does make or break one’s being a UU or Quaker, then? Anything? What is it that distinguishes UUs from non-UUs, and Quakers from non-Quakers, as you conceive UU and Quakerism, other than mere self-identification?
    As I said, the defining characteristics of UU, at least as described by the Unitarian Universalist Association and all other reputable sources I have seen, are nothing more than a set of social and political principles. I think that calling that a “religion” is ridiculous.

  101. neti neti says:

    Jason, of course Buddhism is generally considered a religion in the broader sense (see entry #7 at wiktionary), and of course the more one narrows the definition of religion, the more Buddhism becomes the classic example of a borderline case (and is called a “psychological system”, etc.)
    Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path can be believed, or not, but they do not posit anything supernatural and are entirely consistent with an agnostic (maybe atheistic), materialistic worldview (which worldview is seen among a significnat number of Buddhists throughout its history). Such Buddhist teachings can be seen as “theories” that are falsifiable, but not altogether empirically provable.
    I certainly don’t think terms like “sports” or “hobby”, when applied to the practices of Buddhists of any stripe, clarify more than they obscure.
    (Aye, but no true Scotsman likes sugar with his porridge…)

  102. llewelly says:

    Lincol, I agree that atheism is not superior to (for example) Spinozoan pantheism on the grounds of falsifiability.

  103. neti neti says:

    Jason wrote:
    What is it that distinguishes UUs from non-UUs, and Quakers from non-Quakers, as you conceive UU and Quakerism, other than mere self-identification?
    Nothing. Self-identification is sufficient (for all UU’s, and for liberal Friends). Gathering with other UU’s or Quakers for religious services also helps, but isn’t necessary.
    Jason: As I said, the defining characteristics of UU, at least as described by the Unitarian Universalist Association and all other reputable sources I have seen, are nothing more than a set of social and political principles. I think that calling that a “religion” is ridiculous.
    I think that religion is a very personal, subjective matter, but again, gathering with fellow practitioners and holding services of some sort is nearly a sufficient criterion.
    For First Amendment purposes: It walks, quacks and looks like a duck, but doesn’t necessarily think like you might think a duck should. 😉

  104. AndyS says:

    Jason asks,

    What beliefs do you hold that are religious in nature rather than merely philosophical or ideological?

    I believe in the 4 Noble Truths which includes the 8-fold Path. For me that set of beliefs while making no appeal to the supernatural can be held religiously. In the same religious spirit I try to follow the 5 Buddhist precepts for lay people which are easy to say (don’t lie or steal; be very careful with alcohol, drugs, and sex so that you don’t hurt yourself or others; be respectful of and compassionate toward all living things) and difficult to practice.
    What makes this religious (for me) is that I choose to hold these beliefs in a special way and to follow them religiously. That’s what makes it different than “merely” philosophy. While I suppose one could make a philosophical or even psychological/sociological case that the 5 precepts are good ethical guidelines, that’s not why I follow them. I follow them because they “feel right” and I don’t try to of convince others of this — to each their own.
    Caledonian,

    Science is a system for the coherence of doubt. You claim to be religious, atheist, and materialist, AndyS – but not scientific.

    I thought that was obvious — especially since you and I have had this discussion many times. I’ll make it explicit: I’m also a naturalist. If it matters, I have an MS degree but am an engineer/manager by profession.
    Now, can you try to explain the phrase “a system for the coherence of doubt”? It’s very poetic (very Zen of you!), and as such leaves much to the imagination.

  105. AndyS says:

    Hi again, Jason,
    Reading your responses to neti I have some sympathy for your point of view — while pretty much agreeing verbatim with neti. You write,

    If the word “religion” is to be useful it must refer to a kind of belief that is reasonably distinguishable from other kinds of belief such as philosophies or ideologies, and/or refer to a kind of behavior that is reasonably distinguishable from other kinds of behavior such as sports or hobbies.

    It’s very common in Buddhist circles to refer to Buddhism as a practice. It’s something active, something you do. It’s also quite easy to distinguish from a sport (there are no teams or contests) and hobbies (“An activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure”). Buddhism is something to practice pretty much all the time and pleasure is just one-third of it (pain and neutral feeling being the other two thirds — yes, silly Buddhist humor).
    For the intellectually minded (or afflicted — sorry,more Buddhist humor) Buddhism does offer its version of psychology and metaphysics but no one would claim those are core principles or have the status of science. The five precepts or ethical guidelines for lay people that I mentioned above are universally accepted among Buddhists (and probably most everybody else) along with the Four Noble Truths.
    I think most people who investigate Buddhism enough to actually begin a personal practice are, after a time, rather surprised with the utter simplicity of it — a lack of the mysterious. The further you go the more ordinary it becomes. As saying goes, “After the enlightenment, the laundry.”

  106. Jason says:

    neti neti,
    I agree that Buddhism in the traditional sense of the word does qualify as a religion. It’s your “Buddhism” that doesn’t.
    As for the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and other Buddhist doctrines, I ask again: what evidence and reasoning do you claim justifies these beliefs? Even the Dalai Lama does not claim that belief in all the tenets of Buddhism is justified by evidence and reason, merely that they have not been disproved.
    Nothing in your description of what you claim to be your religion qualifies it for inclusion in that conceptual category. As you describe it, your “religion” is more akin to the practise of yoga, or meditation, or somesuch than to the practise of anything recognized as a religion.
    You keep mentioning the No True Scotsman fallacy, but I don’t think you understand it.
    Here’s what I consider to be a good definition of religion, from British sociologist of religion Steve Bruce. Needless to say, your define-it-yourself “religion” clearly doesn’t qualify.

    Religion consists of beliefs, actions and institutions predicated on the existence of entities with powers of agency (that is, gods) or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose (the Hindu notion of Karma, for example), which can set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs

  107. Jason says:

    neti neti,
    Nothing. Self-identification is sufficient (for all UU’s, and for liberal Friends). Gathering with other UU’s or Quakers for religious services also helps, but isn’t necessary.
    Well, I think this statement just proves that your conception of the meaning of religion, or at least of the religion of Quakerism and the “religion” of Unitarian-Universalism, is utterly vacuous and devoid of substance. If all that is required is self-identification, if any set of beliefs and practises is consistent with Quakerism and Unitarian-Universalism, then calling them “religions” is meaningless. It’s just an empty label, signifying nothing.

  108. Jason says:

    AndyS,
    It’s also quite easy to distinguish from a sport (there are no teams or contests) and hobbies (“An activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure”). Buddhism is something to practice pretty much all the time and pleasure is just one-third of it (pain and neutral feeling being the other two thirds — yes, silly Buddhist humor).
    Sports obviously do not necessarily involve teams or contests, and neither sports nor hobbies are necessarily devoid of pain or “neutral feeling,” so I fail to see how you have clearly distinguished your Buddhism from those other kinds of activity.
    What makes this religious (for me) is that I choose to hold these beliefs in a special way and to follow them religiously.
    I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. You might also “religiously” work out at the gym every day, but that doesn’t make physical exercise a religion.
    That’s what makes it different than “merely” philosophy. While I suppose one could make a philosophical or even psychological/sociological case that the 5 precepts are good ethical guidelines, that’s not why I follow them. I follow them because they “feel right” and I don’t try to of convince others of this — to each their own.
    But any action could be justified in that way. One might say that it just “feels right” to do anything that one does not necessarily consider to be an ethical principle.
    Like neti neti, you don’t seem to have any substantive justification for claiming that your beliefs/behavior/whatever qualify as a religion, you just have a sentimental attachment to the word.

  109. Chris says:

    Caledonian:
    “Are we fundamentalists anti-Tooth-Fairyists because we hold that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, instead of merely saying that we don’t believe that She exists?
    Presumably you remain open to the possibility of Easter Bunnies, Santa Clauses, and Tooth Fairies. Such philosophical sophistication!”
    These all have particular characteristics which might lead us to believe in them given the appropriate evidence. What’s difficult about proving/disproving the existance of god with science is that the evidence which might lead us to believe in said god is the existance of the universe itself.
    Testing the existance of god is outside of the realm of science due to the very definition of god, given that every definition (that I’ve heard of at least) of god involves god being exempt from the laws of the universe.
    For all other fairies and creatures with names made up of random letters (to make their definition sufficiently vague), if you postulate that they have no measurable effect on the universe it is irrelevant if they exist or not. If you postulate they have an effect, then that effect can be looked for/measured/tested. God is a special case of “mystical!” being, by definition.
    *If* god exists, whether or not any particular scripture has been handed down from that god is a whole different question.

  110. Leni says:

    Lincol said:

    “Sure. purple schmurfleploop is okay. And without knowing what a purple schmurfleploop is, surely it would be ridiculous for me to say that I believe without doubt that they do not exist.”

    Exactly.
    Now how is that different from God and the tooth fairy?

  111. Davis says:

    God is a special case of “mystical!” being, by definition.

    This is special pleading, by definition.

  112. Leni says:

    Chris wrote:

    What’s difficult about proving/disproving the existance of god with science is that the evidence which might lead us to believe in said god is the existance of the universe itself.

    The existance of the universe could provide evidence of anything.
    You might want to maybe find something more specific to your needs than.. um.. everything that exists and ever existed or will exist.
    But I guess… I can see the appeal in saying “everything proves me right!. Even though I can’t say exactly how!”

  113. Chris says:

    Leni,
    “The existance of the universe could provide evidence of anything.”
    Like what, a force of gravity that operated as F= Gmm/r^7 ? Hardly.
    “You might want to maybe find something more specific to your needs than.. um.. everything that exists and ever existed or will exist. ”
    God is a big concept, how could it be different?
    I’ve said exactly how the existance of the universe supposedly proves the existance of god. God is supposed to be the first cause of everything. This is equivalent to saying “whatever came before the big bang”, or “whatever caused the big bag”, i.e. the thing that caused the existance of the universe and gave it its physical laws. God’s existance is simply not falsifiable by scientific method, and is out of the realm of science.
    There are other ways to prove/disprove a thing, but they’re not scientific method (math, for example). Up to you whether you think the existance of god can be proved that way. *I* certainly don’t know. I haven’t read Plotinus, for example.
    “But I guess… I can see the appeal in saying “everything proves me right!. Even though I can’t say exactly how!””
    I don’t see the appeal in that at all. It’s certainly not what I’m saying, or what I see anyone here saying.
    Interesting that you seem to assume I believe in god though.

  114. Chris says:

    Davis,
    Please explain how god is not a special case for the purposes of trying to prove its existance with the scientific method. Are you claiming that the existance of god can be determined via the application of the scientific method?

  115. Jason,
    It seems to me that there are a bunch of distinct items that are usually packaged together and called a “religion”: a set of beliefs about the nature or origin of the universe, a community of like-minded individuals, a set of practices aimed at living a good life, a set of moral teachings for how to treat others, a set of attitudes towards the world. You seem to be insisting that if you lack the first item, a set of beliefs, then the rest of the package is irrelevant, it’s not a religion. But what AndyS and neti neti are saying is that they don’t consider the first item important to them.
    Maybe it’s Humpty-Dumptyism, but I don’t think it is. If my mother, for example, spends her whole life attending Christian church services, studying the Christian bible, singing in the choir, having her children’s weddings in the church, having her husband’s funeral conducted by a Christian minister, participating in the church’s charitable activities, raising her children to do the same, wouldn’t you be inclined to call her a Christian? But she never considered the factual claims of Christianity to be true. She doesn’t believe in a God that exists independent of human minds. She doesn’t believe that Jesus was the offspring of God (any more than anyone else is). She doesn’t believe that Jesus arose from the dead, or was born of a virgin. She doesn’t believe that good people go to Heaven after death, nor does she believe that bad people go to hell. She doesn’t go out of her way to tell people about her heretical beliefs, but she is honest about them, if anyone asks.
    Why does it bother you so much that she would consider herself a Christian?

  116. Caledonian says:

    For all other fairies and creatures with names made up of random letters (to make their definition sufficiently vague), if you postulate that they have no measurable effect on the universe it is irrelevant if they exist or not.

    Wrong. If they have no effect on the universe, they don’t exist. The first clause is just a different way of stating the second – interaction is what existence IS.
    Defining God as a nonexistent being, and then insisting that the possibility of its existence is coherent, is just plain stupid.
    If you’re the “Mixing Memory” Chris, when are we going to see an example of a valid knowledge claim that isn’t generated with the scientific method?

  117. Steve Watson says:

    Re: whether non-creedal systems like UU/Quakerism/secular Buddhism are “religions”.
    I tend to agree with AndyS and neti^2. While I see Jason’s point, he is being prescriptive, I tend to descriptivism in language — if they are commonly called religions, then they are. Also there is the historical argument: since they evolved out of traditions that were uncontroversially religious, they retain the label (just as birds are still dinosaurs).
    However, if arguments about semantics aren’t religious arguments, then I don’t know what is ;-).

  118. elliottg says:

    A New Year’s Resolution. I will not waste my time in idiotic discussions about my religion. I have my own reasons and you can go pound or twirl or whatever if you care. To think that intellectual error about the unknowable needs to be corrected is delusional. I’ll call that the atheist’s delusion or maybe the Dawkins delusion.

  119. elliottg says:

    BTW, I believe in love too and love my wife and kids even though my rational mind certainly is aware that these are just complex interactions of genetic (propagation) and stimulus (sex is good) and societal (promiscuousness is bad) influences.

  120. PZ Myers says:

    Even if he was right this would be bad politics.

    Ah, a single sentence that strikes at the heart. This is an ongoing argument between people who think political expediency trumps striving for the truth, vs. people who think the most important long-term priority is to fight for what they consider to be truth, and politics must follow.I find it hard to understand how many are ready to say, “I don’t believe in god, but I’m willing to downplay by ideas to keep the people of faith happy…”

  121. MarkP says:

    Lincol: I think that what makes Dawkins a fundamentalist atheist is his belief in the non-existent of god when the is insufficient data to support this belief.
    He didn’t say he was certain, he said it is extremely unlikely. He does have more than enough data to support that, and this entire thread is just one more piece of it.
    A far more reasonable position to hold would be the non-belief in the existence of god.
    Careful, I hear you can get hairy palms from that.
    Chris: Testing the existance of god is outside of the realm of science due to the very definition of god, given that every definition (that I’ve heard of at least) of god involves god being exempt from the laws of the universe.
    That just makes “god” the ultimate entry in the contest of who can come up with the most complicated, meaningless, disprovable idea. Congratulations, you win. It doesn’t make it real, it’s just a word salad.

  122. MarkP says:

    Correction above:
    Change “complicated, meaningless, disprovable”
    to “complicated, meaningless, undisprovable”

  123. Lincol says:

    MarkP. My statement is more about the perception of Dawkins than what Dawkins actually says.
    Upon further reading I found that him and I are not in much disagreement (expect maybe over what exactly atheism is). Although I generally call myself and atheist I don’t consider myself one. It appears Dawkins would consider me an atheist.

  124. Lincol says:

    I guess one way I could attempt to explain my non-atheism when Dawkins would probably call me an atheist is that I use god in my metaphysics (and some ethics) in a similar way to how Dennett uses intentionality in cognitive science.

  125. Crow says:

    PZ Myers wrote:
    [quote]Ah, a single sentence that strikes at the heart. This is an ongoing argument between people who think political expediency trumps striving for the truth, vs. people who think the most important long-term priority is to fight for what they consider to be truth, and politics must follow. [/quote]
    Yes. The former are called pragmatists.
    I may quite reasonably believe in the importance of socioeconomic equality in the United States, and at the same time work for the Democratic party on the grounds that tilting at windmills with the Communist Party is not the most practical means to my desired end.
    -Crow

  126. MarkP says:

    I’m still waiting for the first bit of evidence that Crow’s pragmatism is more effective than Dawkins’ approach at making this a more rational world. From my POV, we are a lot better off having Dawkins and Harris and anyone else with a large audience “come out” proudly with their atheism.

  127. Chris says:

    Caledonian,
    I can prove the truth of Pythagorus’ theorem without using the scientific method. Do you feel that this is a sufficitnly “valid knowledge claim”?
    I have no idea what “Mixing Memory” means.

  128. Chris says:

    Mark P,
    “That just makes “god” the ultimate entry in the contest of who can come up with the most complicated, meaningless, disprovable idea. Congratulations, you win. It doesn’t make it real, it’s just a word salad.”
    How is that definition complicated? There’s only two requirements: God created the universe and is exempt from its laws. Do you think I’m trying to argue for a particular religion’s conception of god? I’m only pointing out that the definition of god puts it outside of the realm of scientific inquiry. Any kind of “well we could try to measure this” is trumped by “but god can just break that rule”. You may not like it, but how would you go about trying to prove to me that god definitely doesn’t exist?
    It doesn’t *necessarily* make it real or not. It *only* makes it impossible to disprove with scientific method. This is not an especially difficult topic. It’s a series of logically valid statements for which one of the premises is impossible to disprove using one particular method of inquiry.

  129. Crow says:

    I’m still waiting for the first bit of evidence that Crow’s pragmatism is more effective than Dawkins’ approach at making this a more rational world.
    Have you read the Wedge Document? The whole thing is predicated on exactly that fallacy that Dawkins is advancing: the fallacy that modern secular science and religious faith are fundamentally incompatible. Sadly, Dawkins is using his position as a talented and successful popularizer of evolutionary biology (science) to preach his own personal metaphysics (not science). Of course one is perfectly welcome and indeed logically consistant to hold these scientific and non-scientific views at the same time. But that does not mean that the former necessitates the latter. By pretending that it does, Dawkins is blurring the same that the Discovery Institute would like to sweep away.
    Or perhaps you believe that secular science and religious faith are fundamentally incompatible. If so, I’d strongly suggest that you take a basic course in philosophy. There you might learn the epistemological difference between a materialist methodology (science) and a materialist metaphysics (Dawkins’ brand of atheism). After all, if Richard Dawkins and Phillip Johnson had done so, we might have been spared an awful lot of trouble.
    -Crow

  130. Lincol says:

    And in response to atheist claims that I’m using god to mean something so radically different to what theists mean when the use the word that the word becomes entirely meaningless… If atheists can use words like free-will, consciousness, hate, love etc without being dualists, then I can use god.

  131. Nick Dellhall says:

    “How is that definition complicated? There’s only two requirements: God created the universe and is exempt from its laws.”
    You’re only assuming this – where is the evidence? I can say with equal validity that the opposite is true. It is unproductive to prove / disprove the existence of god.
    And how do you prove Pythagorus without invoking a scientific/logical/mathematical method? I am interested in hearing about that one.

  132. Caledonian says:

    Caledonian,
    I can prove the truth of Pythagorus’ theorem without using the scientific method. Do you feel that this is a sufficitnly “valid knowledge claim”?

    It’s a sufficiently precise claim; it is, however, incorrect, and thus invalid.

  133. Davis says:

    Please explain how god is not a special case for the purposes of trying to prove its existance with the scientific method.

    Okay, let’s look at what you said:

    For all other fairies and creatures with names made up of random letters (to make their definition sufficiently vague), if you postulate that they have no measurable effect on the universe it is irrelevant if they exist or not.

    You’re postulating a god with no measurable effect on the universe, apparently. Based on what you said above, you need justification for claiming that the existence of a non-interacting god is relevant. You provide no such justification, you simply inserted a convenient caveat into your definition of “god”. That’s special pleading.
    Either we apply your statement above to all beings that have no measurable effect on the universe, or we apply it to none.

  134. Davis says:

    I can prove the truth of Pythagorus’ theorem without using the scientific method. Do you feel that this is a sufficitnly “valid knowledge claim”?

    So the rules of logic are not part of the scientific method? I’m not so comfortable with that claim.

  135. Jason says:

    Crow,
    The whole thing is predicated on exactly that fallacy that Dawkins is advancing: the fallacy that modern secular science and religious faith are fundamentally incompatible.
    What is the nature of the alleged fallacy? One might believe through religious faith that the earth is only 6,000 years old, for example. Are you seriously claiming this religious belief is compatible with “modern secular science?”

  136. The rules of logic are not the whole of the “scientific method”. I don’t think there is such a thing as the scientific method, actually. We simply have fields of study that are currently more amenable than others to certain kinds of precise investigation which I have been calling “science in the narrow sense” in my posts (though I think it is the sense that most people have in mind when, for example, perfectly rational inquiries in history go on in the Arts Faculty, rather than the Science Faculty, of a typical university).
    If we call those methods of precise investigation, using mathematical modelling, scientific instruments, expermental apparatus, and so on, “scientific methodology”, it’s true that a great deal of rational investigation goes on that does not use scientific methodology. But I’m not interested in claiming that science is the entirety of rational inquiry. I am interested in supporting “science and reason”. I’d like to see science and reason beat out attempts to understand the world by such “other ways of knowing” (*rolls eyes*) as consulting priests or holy books, or goiong into a mystical trance. Isn’t this what the debate is really about, rather than about semantics and demarcation problems?

  137. Jason says:

    Russell Blackford,
    I’d like to see science and reason beat out attempts to understand the world by such “other ways of knowing” (*rolls eyes*) as consulting priests or holy books, or goiong into a mystical trance. Isn’t this what the debate is really about, rather than about semantics and demarcation problems?
    I think so, yes.
    To be fair, I should also say that most of the “other ways of knowing” crowd doesn’t seem to be claiming that these “other ways” compete with or should replace science, but that they somehow complement it. But they are infuriatingly vague and evasive about what the “other ways” are and what we “know” or “understand” from them, although I assume most of them are thinking of things like religion and mysticism.

  138. Chris says:

    Davis,
    “So the rules of logic are not part of the scientific method? I’m not so comfortable with that claim.”
    Deductive mathmatical method is separate from scientific method as far as I can see, though they often work very well together hand-in-hand. You can prove things in math that you can’t with scientific method (disclaimer: This is as far as I’ve ever used/learned/been taught scientific method, which is repeatable experiemental proof and inference to a result.) my simple working example here is c^2 = a^2 + b^2 for the hypotenuse of a triangle. I can’t prove that this relationship *always* holds by experimentation, but I can show it to always be the case with some squares, a triangle and some simple algebra.
    Some people here do not seem think the distinction is important. I think it goes directly to the difference in the nature of the two methods of knowing things. There are many examples where a mathmatical model of the a system predicts an experimental result, but no one says “Good, we’ve got this one solved!” until the experiments show that the model is right.
    So as I’ve said above, if you wisah to examine the idea that god exists outside of the laws of the universe, scientific method cannot disprove god’s existance due to the natue of the thing we’d be trying to disprove.
    My goal is to get people to focus on the real problem with people in general: lack of education and lack of intellectual honest in their own opinions/beliefs. It’s just as bad for an atheist to say “I’m sure god doesn’t exist, and I’m sure all religions are garbage” when they don’t know the nature of any proofs that might exist to show the existance of god, and they haven’t educated themselves about the nature of those religions as it for a religious person to not know about their religions or not know about proofs of the existance of god. (Or to do whatever they feel like and conveniently justify it on a bad interpretation of their theology).

  139. Chris says:

    Davis,
    You’re postulating a god with no measurable effect on the universe, apparently.
    No. I’m saying that the fact that god is claimed to have created the universe and at the same time is exempt from its laws separates it from any other postulated mystical creatures. This is the reason why I think the claim that I’m making the special pleading fallacy is false; I say that there is an attribute to this so-called mystical being that makes that being significantly different from others.
    I’m also saying that the definition of a mystical being matters, because if you postulate one that has no effect on the universe at all, who cares if it’s real, and how would you ever know?
    Based on what you said above, you need justification for claiming that the existence of a non-interacting god is relevant. You provide no such justification, you simply inserted a convenient caveat into your definition of “god”. That’s special pleading.
    I don’t recall saying that god would be non-interacting. If you can point out where you think I said that, I’ll try to clarify.

  140. Chris says:

    Caledonian,
    It’s a sufficiently precise claim; it is, however, incorrect, and thus invalid.
    You’re telling me that c^2 = a^2 + b^2 as describing the length of the hyptenuse of a right triangle is incorrect? It is an elementary proof.

  141. Chris says:

    The HTML for my post of 7:52PM didn’t work out as I’d hoped. Sorry about that.

  142. Crow says:

    Crow,
    What is the nature of the alleged fallacy?

    Stephen Jay Gould wrote an entire book, Rocks of Ages, on precisely this subject. I think he still counts as a reputable source among internet debaters evolutionary biologists who are involved in this argument. I can scarcely hope to better his book-length explanation in a paragraph here, but the gist of his argument is that religion and science represent two non-overlapping ways of knowing. While I don’t agree 100% with his position, it makes for a very good starting place when teaching undergrads or addressing the Dawkins position.

    One might believe through religious faith that the earth is only 6,000 years old, for example. Are you seriously claiming this religious belief is compatible with “modern secular science?”

    No, of course not. If a person believes that the best causal material explanations for the state of the world has an origin of the world only 6000 years ago, scientific explanations that you and I tend to accept are going to outperform that person’s explanations badly on science’s turf (in terms of prediction and verification). Religion has overstepped its turf when it takes doctrinal claims as scientific ones. Science can overstep too. If I decide that behavior X is OK because it is part of my evolved psychology, I am falling into a form of the naturalistic fallacy (put too simply, science tells us what is, but not what ought, and since one cannot derive ought from is, science cannot make normative ethical claims.)
    In any case, people who claim that their religion tells them scientific things about the world are likely not engaging in a form of religion that is compatible with modern secular science. But the fact that some people adopt a form of religion incompatible with science does NOT mean that all religion is incompatible with science. I’d propose Zen Buddhism and Roman Catholicism as two examples of religious faiths or attitudes that are fully compatible with modern science, or at least very nearly so.
    -Crow

  143. Davis says:

    Deductive mathmatical method is separate from scientific method as far as I can see, though they often work very well together hand-in-hand. You can prove things in math that you can’t with scientific method (disclaimer: This is as far as I’ve ever used/learned/been taught scientific method, which is repeatable experiemental proof and inference to a result.)

    Mathematical proofs are a direct application of logic. You assume axioms, and prove theorems that follow from those axioms using the rules of logical inference.
    So for example, the Pythagorean Theorem is not true in any absolute sense. It is true given the axioms of the real numbers, and the axioms of Euclidean geometry, and so on (in particular, it’s not true for triangles drawn on the surface of the earth, which has spherical geometry).
    Last I checked, making logical inferences is part of the scientific method; without the tools of logic, science would be pretty well hamstrung.
    I’ll also note that mathematicians do make use of evidence, and not just logic — before setting out to prove a theorem, we look for evidence that it might be true (in the sense of following from the axioms) in the form of confirmatory examples.

  144. Davis says:

    I’m saying that the fact that god is claimed to have created the universe and at the same time is exempt from its laws separates it from any other postulated mystical creatures. This is the reason why I think the claim that I’m making the special pleading fallacy is false; I say that there is an attribute to this so-called mystical being that makes that being significantly different from others.

    So what measurable effect does this formulation of god have on the universe?
    I could say “the fact that the tooth fairy is claimed to collect teeth, and at the same time is exempt from the laws of the universe, separates it from any other postulated mythical creatures.” Again you’re special pleading, but pushing it back another level. Why does creating the universe make god any different from any mythical being claimed to have unique attributes? Why does this one claim deserve unique treatment?

  145. Davis says:

    Oh, and I was a bit imprecise — I should have said “non-measurable” rather than “non-interacting.” Nothing you said implies the latter. However, this seems to imply the former:

    Testing the existance of god is outside of the realm of science due to the very definition of god, given that every definition (that I’ve heard of at least) of god involves god being exempt from the laws of the universe.

    I’m not sure how to interpret this, if not as saying that any effect god has on the universe can’t be measured. Are you saying god has an effect on the universe, that can be measured, but that this effect is not distinguishable as coming from god?

  146. Jason says:

    Crow,
    the gist of his argument is that religion and science represent two non-overlapping ways of knowing.
    They’re obviously not “non-overlapping.” They make competing claims about the age of the earth, for example.
    Religion has overstepped its turf when it takes doctrinal claims as scientific ones.
    If religious beliefs about the natural world, the world we can study using the methods of science, are not justified, why are religious beliefs regarding a postulated supernatural world justified? Why are they any more likely to be correct than, say, guesses? Why is the belief that religion has a “turf” of any kind justified?
    In any case, people who claim that their religion tells them scientific things about the world are likely not engaging in a form of religion that is compatible with modern secular science.
    Right. So religion and science are not “non-overlapping.” Religions have always made claims about the natural world.
    But the fact that some people adopt a form of religion incompatible with science does NOT mean that all religion is incompatible with science. I’d propose Zen Buddhism and Roman Catholicism as two examples of religious faiths or attitudes that are fully compatible with modern science, or at least very nearly so.
    Roman Catholicism teaches, for example, that the existence of God may be known through reason. That claim is obviously inconsistent with science, which does not accept that reason supports the existence of God.

  147. Dan S. says:

    You know, if it was just ‘other ways of feeling/emoting/coping/acting/reflecting’, I think that might work just fine . . .

  148. Crow says:

    Jason,
    (1) Have you read Gould’s book, given that you find it “obvious” that you can reject it its thesis?
    (2) You are missing the main point. Your argument is of the form “Religion X overlaps with science, therefore all religion must overlap with science.”
    (3) I thought in Roman Catholic teaching, reason could help guide one to faith but that true faith in and knowledge of God required Grace. Can you please justify your assertion about Catholic theology?
    And now for the big one:
    If religious beliefs about the natural world, the world we can study using the methods of science, are not justified, why are religious beliefs regarding a postulated supernatural world justified? Why are they any more likely to be correct than, say, guesses? Why is the belief that religion has a “turf” of any kind justified?
    You and most of the other pro-Dawkins posters here have made a metaphysical leap that is so obvious to you that you don’t notice that you’ve made it. You seem to believe that science gets right answers about ultimate reality. I agree with you that science gets great answers about how to do things on this planet. But does it get to ultimate reality? That’s a metaphysical belief, and therefore derives from outside of science. Hume pretty much sewed this one up in the 18th century (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), and philosophy has never found a way out. If this makes no sense whatsoever, I again urge you to consider the aforementioned instruction in the basics of philosophy.
    -Crow

  149. Jason says:

    Crow,
    (1) Have you read Gould’s book, given that you find it “obvious” that you can reject it its thesis?
    Yes, I read it (a long time ago). I know what Gould’s NOMA is. It’s not exactly a complex idea. And it’s obviously wrong, because religions do make “scientific” claims, claims that are testable using the methods of science. Gould’s claim is normative, not descriptive. It’s what he thinks religion should be, not what religion actually is in the real world. Religions have always made scientific claims. Not just small and obscure religions, but major ones such as Christianity and Islam. And their “scientific” claims are not about minor issues but fundamental ones, like the age of the universe, the place of the Earth in the universe, and the origin of human beings.
    (3) I thought in Roman Catholic teaching, reason could help guide one to faith but that true faith in and knowledge of God required Grace. Can you please justify your assertion about Catholic theology?
    It’s a formal dogma announced by the First Vatican Council, although it predates that. See here for example.

  150. Jason says:

    Crow,
    You seem to believe that science gets right answers about ultimate reality.
    I made no claim about “ultimate reality,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. You claimed that religion’s “turf” is a postulated supernatural reality. I asked you why you think this claim is justified and why you think any religious beliefs about the supernatural (gods, demons, angels, heaven and hell, etc., etc.) are justified. Do you have an answer?

  151. Crow says:

    Jason,
    Thank you for the reference above. I’ll read up on that.
    I agree that Gould’s position is a normative one in the sense that it requires some change, particularly on the side of religion. Some organized religions have already made this shift. I continue to maintain that the Roman Catholic church is well along the way, and I note that they accept the scientific answers to all of the issues you mention above – age of the universe, place of the Earth in the universe, and the origin of humans.
    I made no claim about “ultimate reality,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. You claimed that religion’s “turf” is a postulated supernatural reality. I asked you why you think this claim is justified and why you think any religious beliefs about the supernatural (gods, demons, angels, heaven and hell, etc., etc.) are justified. Do you have an answer?
    My own metaphysics do not seem particularly relevant to the discussion given that I am only arguing that metaphysical positions other than metaphysical materialism are intellectually honest, but here they are:
    I have no way to know a priori that the methodology of science leads me to ultimate truth.
    If something is not material, it cannot be measured by a materialist method, but I have no philosophical reason to assert that it this means that it does not exist.
    Beyond science, other ways of knowing may exist.
    Religious / spiritual belief represents another way of knowing, and within the realm of science we cannot disprove its validity with respect to its non-material claims.
    -Crow

  152. Jason says:

    Crow,
    My own metaphysics do not seem particularly relevant to the discussion given that I am only arguing that metaphysical positions other than metaphysical materialism are intellectually honest,
    You stated your metaphysical belief (“Religion has overstepped its turf when it takes doctrinal claims as scientific ones”), and I asked you how you justify that belief. If you don’t think it’s relevant to the discussion, I don’t know why you stated it in the first place. You still haven’t offered any justification for it.
    Religious / spiritual belief represents another way of knowing,
    Again, how do you justify this claim? Why should anyone believe that religious/spiritual beliefs are knowledge rather than just myths, superstitions, guesses or hopes? What knowledge do you claim this other “way of knowing” has produced? Give us some examples.

  153. Crow says:

    Jason,
    My claim: “Religion has overstepped its turf when it takes doctrinal claims as scientific ones”
    Justification: Science is a methodology, not a collection of facts. Anything – including religion – oversteps when it claims that results not derived or derivable by this method belong to this method. That is what happens when someone tries to teach “creation science” or “intelligent design” in the science classroom.


    Again, how do you justify this claim? Why should anyone believe that religious/spiritual beliefs are knowledge rather than just myths, superstitions, guesses or hopes? What knowledge do you claim this other “way of knowing” has produced? Give us some examples

    Non-scientific ways of knowing have not produced scientific knowledge, practically by definition. So if you define knowledge as equivalent to scientific knowledge, then the answer to your question is “none.” And whether or not you personally follow that definition, many metaphysical materialists do. That is reasonable enough, given their metaphysics. But there are other reasonable metaphysical positions as well – and none of them, the first included, derive their validity from scientific evidence.
    Thus I can only provide examples if you accept, as I do, that there are valid forms of knowledge that are not scientific. I’ll offer three examples of non-scientific knowledge that may be easily apprehended even by one who rejects any sort of spiritual/religious experience.
    1) Bach’s fifth suite for solo cello.
    2) The ethical sense which you and I very likely share that it is wrong to torture defenseless babies.
    3) That “there is a grandeur in this view of life….that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
    I could also list any number of theological insights – but if one is coming from the position that theology is bunk, these are unlikely to impress as examples of useful knowledge derived from religion.
    Best wishes,
    Crow

  154. Jason says:

    Crow,
    Justification: Science is a methodology, not a collection of facts. Anything – including religion – oversteps when it claims that results not derived or derivable by this method belong to this method. That is what happens when someone tries to teach “creation science” or “intelligent design” in the science classroom.
    Okay, I think that’s a valid argument against “taking doctrinal claims as scientific.” But what if they’re not taken as scientific? What if they’re taken as non-scientific claims of truth? (As they traditionally have been–the Christian claim of a young earth, for example, was made long before “creation science” was invented). Has religion still “overstepped its turf?” If so, why?
    But there are other reasonable metaphysical positions as well
    Well, that’s what I’m asking you to justify. Asserting that it’s reasonable is not an argument for its reasonableness. Again, how do you justify the claim that religious/spiritual beliefs are knowledge rather than just myths, superstitions, guesses or hopes? Why is this claim justified, or even merely reasonable?
    I’ll offer three examples of non-scientific knowledge that may be easily apprehended even by one who rejects any sort of spiritual/religious experience.
    1) Bach’s fifth suite for solo cello.

    I don’t understand how this qualifies as a claim of knowledge at all. What about Bach’s fifth suite? What are you claiming to know about it?
    2) The ethical sense which you and I very likely share that it is wrong to torture defenseless babies.
    This is also badly formulated. I assume the claim of knowledge you’re making here is “It is wrong to torture defenseless babies.” If so, my response is to ask why this claim is justified? Why are you justified in claiming that this is knowledge rather than merely a belief?
    The same question applies to number 3 on your list.

  155. Crow says:

    Jason,
    But what if they’re not taken as scientific? What if they’re taken as non-scientific claims of truth? (As they traditionally have been–the Christian claim of a young earth, for example, was made long before “creation science” was invented). Has religion still “overstepped its turf?” If so, why?
    Actually, in this case I don’t think that religion is overstepping its turf — so long as they don’t expect science to confirm their claims. It seems perfectly reasonable to me – and here may be where I part ways with many metaphysical materialists – to assert that (a) the world is actually 6000 years old and (b) because of the limitations of a materialist methodology, best answer that science will come up with is that the world is far older.
    Where religion oversteps is when it asserts (a) the world is 6000 years old and (b) science if done properly would confirm this.
    Religions can take whatever metaphysical positions that they want, as far as I’m concerned. If you want to take the position that the whole world began shortly before your previous post, with all of the previous thread intact and that I was created merely believing that I typed my post, fine. That’s a scientifically irrefutable metaphysics.
    There’s another place that religion oversteps in the USA that I used to know and love — when it tries to violate separate of church and state. Thus in a public school, I would say it is also an overstepping — though one of a very different sort — to teach that the 6000-year-old age of the earth is even a non-scientific truth.
    ———
    Obviously these my examples of knowledge are not “facts proven by science and/or deductive logic”. I was trying to push a bit on your sense of what “knowledge” is in the first place and what it means to have non-scientific ways of knowing. If one takes a phenomenological view of knowledge, the experience of hearing Bach’s 5th cello suite is knowledge; a moral sentiment is knowledge; an awe at the grandeur of evolution is knowledge. What do you think Knowledge is?
    Best,
    Crow

  156. Bob Preston says:

    Oh, give me a break.

    If Richard Dawkins wants to apply himself to a criticism of Tillich, or Spinoza, or Dogen

    If the religions of the world applied themselves to those religious thinkers, then Dawkins wouldn’t have anything to be angry about.
    But they don’t. And even when they do, they use the slimmest of “arguments” — a gap in evolutionary theory, say — to run into the arms of whatever god they believe in.

  157. Jason says:

    Crow,
    Actually, in this case I don’t think that religion is overstepping its turf
    Then you’re rejecting Gould’s NOMA. Gould’s objection was not merely to religions trying to pass off their claims about the natural world as science, but to their making claims about the natural world at all, whether they called those claims science or not.
    I was trying to push a bit on your sense of what “knowledge” is in the first place and what it means to have non-scientific ways of knowing. If one takes a phenomenological view of knowledge, the experience of hearing Bach’s 5th cello suite is knowledge; a moral sentiment is knowledge; an awe at the grandeur of evolution is knowledge. What do you think Knowledge is?
    Knowledge is justified true belief. I don’t understand how you think the experience of hearing a piece of music could qualify as knowledge at all. Hearing is a sense perception, not any kind of belief. If two people hold two mutually contradictory moral sentiments (say, one person believes abortion is immoral and the other believes abortion is not immoral), do you consider both beliefs to be knowledge?

  158. Crow says:

    Jason,
    With regard to NOMA: Correct. This is one of those places where I diverge from Gould (I mentioned my less than 100% agreement in an earlier post). In my view, religion oversteps if it makes causal material assertions about the natural world. If it makes metaphysical ones, no problem.
    Knowledge is justified true belief.
    If you define knowledge as justified true belief, and you define justified as “scientific/logical”, then what exactly remains for knowledge? You’ve just defined your way into a hardline materialist metaphysical position. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that position — it’s a perfectly reasonable one for a scientist or anyone else to take. I am saying that there are other reasonable positions and other reasonable conceptions of knowledge, and to deny this reveals a failure of imagination that one can only call fundamentalism.
    -Crow

  159. Jason says:

    Crow,
    If you define knowledge as justified true belief, and you define justified as “scientific/logical”, then what exactly remains for knowledge?
    I don’t define “justified” as “scientific/logical,” but I don’t see how belief can be justified except through science and reason. What alternative method(s) do you propose?
    I am saying that there are other reasonable positions and other reasonable conceptions of knowledge,
    What do you believe knowledge is?

  160. Edward says:

    Not that anyone will see this, but here goes: I have neither the time nor inclination to read Dawkins. I am curious what, if anything, he has to say about certain religions. Specifically:
    Baha’i, Buddhism, Quakers, and Unitarian Universalists
    Does anyone who has actually read Dawkins care to enlighten me?

  161. Chris says:

    Davis,
    I think the problem here is an overloading of the word “logical”. There is both logical inference and logical deduction, and I claim they are separate methods of finding things out. There are things that scientific method can show that deductive logic cannot, and vice versa.
    Logical deduction from axioms can give us knowledge about things that science can’t (mathematical proofs). While I’m open to being shown a counter-example, I can’t see how we’d deduce the nature of various physical laws from a set of axioms and deduction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a deduction from axioms in a physical science. It’s always prediction and verification: even if we come up with an equation we think is right, it has to be tested experimentally before we consider it to be a thing that is known (unlike with math proofs, and one of the current problems for string theory as I understand it).
    As for the tooth fairy: You might claim the tooth fairy is exempt from physical laws but you still describe a characteristic that can be tested: the exchange of money for a tooth. So we can come up with an experiment to try and discover if the tooth fairy exists, i.e. leaving a tooth under the pillow. This is not the case with god and this is what puts god into a different category than other mythical beings.
    The effect on the universe I’m saying that god would have is the existance of the universe itself. You seem to have a problem with this, but I can’t figure out what it is. Please restate.
    Given this simple definition of god: God created the universe and is exempt from its laws. How would you go about trying to prove via scientific method that god doesn’t exist? Do you feel the idea that god might exist is absurd on its face? How come?
    Now onto the rambling summation.
    It’s entirely possible that god does exist or god doesn’t exist. At least, I have not seen a convincing argument yet to show that either *couldn’t* be the case. The mistake is to blindly believe one or the other and close your mind to avenues of rational inquiry. Both Augustin and Plotinus feel they have presented proofs for the existance of god. I just happen to have started reading Augustin last week so this kind of thing is on my mind. Otherwise I probably would have left this whole discussion alone. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to tackle the behemoth of Plotinus. I don’t care enough about whether god exists to devote a major part of my life to that investigation. But it would be intellectually dishonest for me to say that god definitely does or does not exist, given that I have not yet explored even the major thinking on the subject and given that I have yet to see an argument or proof that shows something definite either way. Valid criticism of how people pratice their religion does not disprove the existance of god. As I’ve said above, it’s just as bad for an atheist, knowing little or nothing about the philosophical arguments behind religion, to be *certain* about the non-existance of god as it is for a religious person to blindly believe in god, not understanding their religion and not knowing about the arguments that are said to support the belief in god and scripture.

  162. I don’t mean to intrude in a convo that is not my own, but…
    Given this simple definition of god: God created the universe and is exempt from its laws. How would you go about trying to prove via scientific method that god doesn’t exist? Do you feel the idea that god might exist is absurd on its face? How come?
    Yes, but the problem with this is that it is deliberately formulated to escape any kind of scrutiny. One can play semantics and do that with any proposition. One is still logically an atheist if one doesn’t take those postulates regarding god(s) that are not demonstrably either true or false (or undecidable) serious. In fact that is my position on most god claims I know of, I’m a non-cognitivist atheist.

  163. Jason says:

    Chris,
    There are an infinite number of conceivable entities the existence of which we cannot disprove using the methods of science. Why is belief in your non-disprovable God any more justified than belief in any other kind of conceivable but non-disprovable entity?
    As for the tooth fairy: You might claim the tooth fairy is exempt from physical laws but you still describe a characteristic that can be tested: the exchange of money for a tooth.
    But almost all Gods that people actually believe in are also postulated to have certain characteristics and to interact with the natural world in certain ways, and that leads to testable consequences. We may not be able to disprove them, but we can rationally conclude from evidence that their existence is unlikely.

  164. Edward says:

    Well, no response to my question. For the record, my sentiments are with Barbara O’Brien and Mike. “Fundamentalist atheist” is a term I use myself, not infrequently. Most of the atheists I know in person are not fundamentalist, but fundamentalist atheists seem far more common on the internet. Here is my operational definition of fundamentalist:
    A fundamentalist is someone who thinks they don’t believe in myths. As a result they think that their belief system is the only possible correct one.
    By “myth,” I mean something that cannot be proven.

  165. Davis says:

    While I’m open to being shown a counter-example, I can’t see how we’d deduce the nature of various physical laws from a set of axioms and deduction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a deduction from axioms in a physical science.

    This happens in the highly-theoretical corners of, for example, physics. String theory really does prove theorems, as it is a fairly abstract mathematical model. If the mathematical model is correct, then the theorems that follow should tell us something about the world.

    Given this simple definition of god: God created the universe and is exempt from its laws. How would you go about trying to prove via scientific method that god doesn’t exist? Do you feel the idea that god might exist is absurd on its face? How come?

    What you’re talking about is deism. Deism is certainly irrefutable. I find it absurd for two reasons. One is that there’s no rational reason to postulate the idea in the absence of pre-existing god-belief (it does conveniently allow one to claim not to be atheist, however). The other is that I take the position to not believe a claim made without justification. You are taking the position that one needs justification to reject a claim, which is rather problematic epistemically — it puts you in the position of being unable to reject all sorts of ridiculous ideas (such as the teapot in orbit around Pluto).

    It’s entirely possible that god does exist or god doesn’t exist. At least, I have not seen a convincing argument yet to show that either *couldn’t* be the case.The mistake is to blindly believe one or the other and close your mind to avenues of rational inquiry.

    You’re falling back on an old, tired error. Not even Richard Dawkins, fundamentalist atheist that he is [tongue firmly in cheek here], claims that a god *couldn’t* exist. He applies rational inquiry to conclude that it’s highly unlikely that god (as the major theistic religions conceive, not your deist god) exists. Atheism is not certainty that god does not exist; it’s lack of belief in the claim “god exists”.

  166. Chris says:

    “This happens in the highly-theoretical corners of, for example, physics. String theory really does prove theorems, as it is a fairly abstract mathematical model. If the mathematical model is correct, then the theorems that follow should tell us something about the world.”
    How do you mean that string theory “proves theroems”? Do you mean simply that the model provides predictions about how the universe works, or something more? If the former, are the predictions enough, or do we need experiments to verify the predictions? (which is what I’ve seen in everything I’ve read about string theory, which admittedly is nothing above the undergrad level).
    “One is that there’s no rational reason to postulate the idea in the absence of pre-existing god-belief”
    The other is that I take the position to not believe a claim made without justification. You are taking the position that one needs justification to reject a claim, which is rather problematic epistemically — it puts you in the position of being unable to reject all sorts of ridiculous ideas (such as the teapot in orbit around Pluto).
    I’ll have to think more about this one. At the moment I feel that “the existance of the universe” is still a good enough reason to investigate whether or not god exists, given that the existance of god seems no more or less likely than “it just happened, no reason”. Nothing is inherently contradictory about the claim of god existing, except for how unlikely it is.
    Lots of things that are highly unlikely or very unintuitive are still true. Newton’s first law is unintuitive. The fact of 1.999… = 2 given the real number system is unintuitive. Assuming the absence of any god and assuming only one universe, the fact that we’re here at all is highly unlikely, but here we are.
    “You’re falling back on an old, tired error. Not even Richard Dawkins, fundamentalist atheist that he is [tongue firmly in cheek here], claims that a god *couldn’t* exist. He applies rational inquiry to conclude that it’s highly unlikely that god (as the major theistic religions conceive, not your deist god) exists. Atheism is not certainty that god does not exist; it’s lack of belief in the claim “god exists”.”
    It’s not an error at all. It’s half of the small thing I’ve been trying to say, which I didn’t think was terribly controversial until I posted it here. I *know* Dawkins agrees, but a lot of scientists/scientific-minded people/atheists I’ve talked to who think they’ve escaped the trap of dogma don’t agree, which is supremely ironic. Which leads to the second half of what I was saying above, namely that scientific method isn’t the only way of finding things out, and if you don’t bother to investigate the writings of those who think they’ve proved the existance of some kind of god, you’re not doing *too* much better than religious people who just believe stuff. Still somehwhat better, IMHO, because at least with science you’ve got one solid method of knowing things, and most science-oriented people are at least open to the possiblity that they can be wrong about something.

  167. Davis says:

    How do you mean that string theory “proves theroems”? Do you mean simply that the model provides predictions about how the universe works, or something more? If the former, are the predictions enough, or do we need experiments to verify the predictions?

    There’s a significant chunk of string theory which is almost indistinguishable from pure math (it touches on my field, but it’s a bit too far removed from my specialty for me to understand it well). Some mathematical objects which play roles in string theory come from algebraic geometry; theorems about these objects give predictions for string theory. Of course, not the kind we have the ability to test, at the moment.

    Assuming the absence of any god and assuming only one universe, the fact that we’re here at all is highly unlikely, but here we are.

    I’m not sure there’s any meaningful way to say anything about the likelihood of our being here. It sort of bothers me when people make this claim — it sounds like Douglas Adams’ puddle, thinking that the world fits us so perfectly (rather than vice-versa).
    And if you’re willing say it’s unlikely that the universe would exist without being created, I’ll just turn around and say the same thing: it’s unlikely god would exist without being created. At some point, you need to accept that something exists without having been created (or that there are infinitely many gods). Once you agree to that, you may as well just say it’s the universe which simply exists — we are at least pretty confident the universe really does exist.

    …if you don’t bother to investigate the writings of those who think they’ve proved the existance of some kind of god, you’re not doing *too* much better than religious people who just believe stuff.

    Actually, what I know about logic and its connection to the real world leads me to believe that any supposed a priori proof for the existence of god is bunk. Now if people had observations giving evidence, I’d be interested to hear them.

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