Monday, October 22, 2007

a subject unworthy of debate?


God Bless ...


Reading various blogs, I've come across an argument by another atheist, Jonathon Miller, who says he prefers to keep his atheism to himself, because he doesn't see much point in expressing his lack of belief in something so obviously false or wrong.

I understand this. Why give these people oxygen? Why not, as scientists, artists, politicians, philosophers, whatever, pursue our work, building connections, networking, exploring, developing knowledge and understanding, rendering, almost inadvertently, the religious approach irrelevant?

It raises the question of the real value of anti-religious polemics. After all, religion is the softest of targets, the easiest of options. Einstein and Darwin could've devoted their lives to examining the evidence for the existence of God or Christ, instead of developing theories which have moved us far beyond traditional religious understandings of the universe and of humanity, thereby doing far more damage to those religions than a thousand speeches by Hitchens, Grayling and the like.

And yet, and yet...

While I recognise that people like Hitchens, and myself, are making life easy for themselves by almost lazily pointing out the absurdities of religious belief, we are moved to do so by a sense of the urgency of the project. Leaving aside the horrors of Islamic submission, - which are quite overwhelmingly multifarious - Christianity still dominates the US, to the extent that nobody can hold significant public office in that country without professing Christian beliefs, and atheists are reviled and persecuted. It seems to me that everybody is focusing on the US as the battleground - in Britain, sure they've had a rabid Christian as their PM for years, but that's almost been an anomaly. What were Thatcher's religious beliefs? What are Gordon Brown's? Does anybody care that much? In Oz we're about to have a committed Christian as PM. I don't like it, but I don't think it's going to interfere much with governance. In the US, however, Christianity plays far too large a political role, - not to mention the intelligent design push - hence the urgency of the debate there.

Also, it's impossible to ignore, in our increasingly multicultural society, the predominance of other faiths. Just tonight, after teaching business English to a student from East Turkestan, I returned to her loungeroom to find her elderly mother [a thoroughly endearing and hospitable character with a sly sense of humour] bowing down on her mat to the scary-fantastical Allah. The same guy who has inspired, so it's claimed, so many murderous attacks upon Americans, Australians, Jews, Iraqis and so many more.

I’m impatient to rid the world of these fantasised friends and fiends, to build an understanding of what we truly are, to get more of a grip on our dynamic human nature.

So – confrontation or carry on regardless? The latter is most important, but where religion threatens to take over, or even to overly influence, the body politic, that must be fought tooth and nail.

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10 Comments:

At 9:59 pm , Anonymous cerebralmum said...

Having participated in many long arguments with atheists (I'm agnostic) I think much of their approach is wrong. I see no point in pointing the finger at religion. Like most people, I have known many people of various faiths who are worthy of admiration and respect. If that it so, where is the innate harm in their beliefs?

What I take issue with (and argue against vociferously) is prejudice, the abuse of power, censorship, hypocrisy, intolerance and so on and so on. Sure, these things are easily found in "religion", but they are not limited to religion and they are not founf in all religious people. It seems far more productive to me to examine these patterns of behaviour in a broader cultural context if we are to truly understand them, and change them.

It is blatantly obvious (to me, anyway) that trying to divest anyone of their beliefs is, at best, fruitless and, at worst, as intolerant and hypocritical as what many atheists believe themselves to be fighting.

Faith is not harmful to others in and of itself. You could make the argument that believing something categorically untrue is harmful to themselves, but that would put you in the position of being their new "saviour". I am highly suspect of anyone who thinks themselves entitled to that role.

I am in Australia and not faced with the prejudice against my non-belief that is extant in parts of the US so perhaps it is easy for me to say this from the comfort of my largely-secular society, but seriously... How is attacking a whole group of individuals on the basis of a label (Christian or otherwise) an improvement?

As for your question, "Confrontation or carry on...", I agree with your answer. Tooth and nail. But we should be very careful not to become that which we fight against.

 
At 12:53 am , Blogger Stewart said...

Hi, thanks for your comment - I was looking at your site earlier today, but perhaps you knew that, which would explain your comment?

This post tries to confront a very real dilemma I have. Of course I know a few believers - increasingly, because of my work, of the Islamic persuasion - and not surprisingly they're all nice, gentle, hospitable people. I agree it would be fruitless to try to persuade them out of their beliefs, but I certainly think those beliefs are wrong. This is not arrogance, it's a perfectly normal consequence of having a non-relativist view of the world, a view that argues, for example, that either gods exist or they don't, and that the answer matters. The truth will set us free.

You've written "Faith is not harmful to others in and of itself. You could make the argument that believing something categorically untrue is harmful to themselves, but that would put you in the position of being their new "saviour". I am highly suspect of anyone who thinks themselves entitled to that role."

With respect, this I think is a very bad argument. Faith - a very odd concept - seems to be believing in something regardless of evidence, or in a way beyond reason, or maybe the concept isn't even definable, but there is no doubt whatever that having such faith can be very destructive to the self and others. Think of the parent who scares his children half to death with the prospect of eternal hellfire, or who subjects that child to genital mutilation because god or the ancestors frown on sexual pleasure. According to your argument, we shouldn't interfere in this abuse, because we have no right to act as 'saviours'.

Again, you claim that trying to divest someone of their beliefs is intolerant and hypocritical. Surely you cannot believe this. If you found that someone believed the earth was flat, would you consider it intolerant to try to convince them otherwise, based on the considerable evidence available?

Beliefs are either right or wrong, aren't they? Or do you think that religious beliefs, unlike other beliefs, cannot be right or wrong? But if you thought that, then it wouldn't matter to you whether you believed in god or not. But i'm sure it does matter to you.

To me, there's a lot of muddled thinking on these matters. In bending over backwards to appear tolerant, people often fall into a kind of fuzzy relativism that does nobody any service.

So, getting back to the dilemma. I'm an objectivist, and I think the evidence overwhelmingly supports the falsehood of all religion. On that basis I think there is a good argument for confrontation, but from a pragmatic perspective I recognise its counter-productiveness, and even its destructiveness in the short-term in some instances. One solution for me is to look at and promote the important work being done in evolutionary psychology and other fields in regard to religious thinking and behaviour as an adaptive feature in the development and spread of homo sapiens.

 
At 7:46 am , Blogger Stewart said...

Allow me to further elaborate this point. Not only do we not believe that it's bumptious and arrogant to divest people of beliefs, we actually believe it's essential and we do it all the time. It's called education, which can virtually be defined as the replacement, in children and adults, of simple beliefs about the world with more sophisticated ones.
To give an example, I'm close friends with a very bright and self-confident five-year-old. Ever since she's been able to talk, I don't think she's ever answered a question with 'I don't know'. She knows everything! If I were to ask her, say, where babies came from, she might well say, from my mummy's tummy. If I asked her how it got there, it's likely she'd say that God put it there, because she's been to church a few times and is quite taken with the God concept. Now, I'm not about to divest her of that belief, but clearly there will come a time when that belief [or the series of beliefs she might replace it with from her lively imagination] will have to be replaced by the correct belief [that's to say knowledge] about the cause of pregnancy. To not inform her of the truth in this matter would clearly be a dereliction of duty.
The obvious point in all this is of course that not all beliefs are of equal value, and many, such as the belief that all Jews are vermin and should be exterminated, are pernicious and should be combatted - primarily through education. A religious belief that treats women as chattel and/or as dangerous sexual delights that must be kept constantly under wraps, is also pernicious and should be combatted in the same way. I also think that, since all monotheistic religion is largely about submission to the will of a divine dictator and evasion of human responsibility, it needs to be combatted. My dilemma is largely about strategy in this battle.

 
At 11:55 pm , Anonymous cerebralmum said...

Stewart, I had no idea you visited. I subscribed to your blog a while ago.

You've made many strong arguments in response to my (admittedly thin) comment, so this will probably be a long response.

With regards to the question of whether gods exist or not, I actually disagree that the answer is important. I should clarify that what I mean by "faith" is simply a belief in the existence of god/s, not necessarily a belief in specific religious doctrines. I stand by my statement that it is not harmful in and of itself. What is harmful is a fixed idea of the nature of god accompanied by a rejection of all those who disagree and an adherence to a set of baseless (and nebulous) scriptural interpretations which were created to control and subject and are obviously harmful. Much of the moral philosophy which can be found in religion can be rationally agreed with. And much of it is contradictory, incoherent rubbish which has been distorted to serve particular interests at the expense of other people.

I think that I am being an objectivist when I say that all the examples of religious harms you list above exist in human society outside of religion as well as within it, just as there are as many people of various faiths who abhor those harms as much as you or I do. (Genital mutilation is one such example: In some places it is a cultural practice, not a religious one; In other places both believers and non-believers alike condemn it.)

Surely the only logical conclusion which can then be reached is that it is not a belief in gods which is at fault, but a failing of human societies? And, if so, it follows logically that blaming religion is taking too narrow a view.

In my opinion, these issues are cultural, sometimes at a familial level and sometimes at a societal one. There is an interesting table showing various levels of belief in particular aspects of religion. If you look at it, doesn't the question need to be asked as to why far more people in the Philippines believe in god than in the US, yet more people in the US believe in the devil and hell than any other country listed? Wouldn't our interests be better served by examining the secular cultural patterns of those societies in conjunction with their religious ones in order to determine the cause? That seems to be a far more objective (and productive!) method to me.

Certainly, religion has been used in heinous ways but according to my best understanding of history and human behaviour, religion is only harmful when twisted into service as a means of propaganda in order to maintain social, political and economic control. If it is not being used in this way, it is innocuous, inert. Like a rock. If someone bashes another person's skull in with it, I'll take issue with the wielder, not the weapon.

That is my strategy in this battle.

The question of scientific truths which you have raised is another matter. I do not know how to change the mind of someone who believes the earth is flat. I remember very clearly as a young girl being asked, very smugly, by a child I had just met(maybe 7 years old) whether or not I believed everything I was taught at school. I was then informed that evolution was a lie and we were created by god. This shocked me not because I was raised by an atheist and an agnostic, and not because I had any depth of scientific understanding, but because, at such a young age, her mind was entirely without questions.

Perhaps it is a dereliction of duty to not inform young minds, but while we can try to teach them, we cannot make them learn if they choose not to. Many people choose to live in ignorance of a lot of things and, yet again, this is not limited to religion and not a necessary corollary of religion. John Hewitt over at The Writer's Resource recently outlined his religious beliefs and I can't imagine that you will find anything he said objectionable.

(I have completely distorted your blog stats by now - I had to leave unexpectedly in the middle of this to see someone in hospital, so I apologise if this has become less than coherent.)

With regards to my statements about intolerance and hypocrisy that surely I "cannot believe" - Obviously if you disagree with my position that a belief in gods is not harmful in and of itself, this will make no sense, but I conceive of that belief (when it is personal and does no harm) as, at worst, a kind of Kantian non-age and, at best, a symbolic language (as valid as my own) through which someone tries to make sense all those things we are yet to understand. Seeking to dictate their private symbolism would be intolerant.

I'll leave you with an excerpt of a newsgroup post I wrote responding to some very hypocritical atheists. I think it explains my position more clearly than I can right now.

"Someone who tolerates theism doesn't bother to trot out the flying spaghetti monster and demand proof they know will not and can not be forthcoming. That is an arrogant tactic used solely to ridicule a subjective belief by objective means and is indicative that many atheists here are not as disinterested in everybody else's responses to metaphysical questions as they like to imagine. When they stoop to it, they not only reveal that they think they have the moral high ground, they reveal that they do not have the moral high ground.

Much theist behaviour is objectionable. If the objections made to them were about their behaviour, rather than their theism, the world might be a little
bit nicer. It might not improve the quality of the theists, but the
atheists would be more worthy of respect."

 
At 2:21 pm , Blogger Stewart said...

There are obviously some interesting points here, which I'd like to come back to - whether because I believe in open dialogue or I always want to have the last word, I'm not sure - but i'm a bit snowed under right now, so it might be a few days. So I'll post my further reflections - especially on the religion-culture nexus - in the blog itself rather than in comments. Talk to you soon.

 
At 7:04 pm , Anonymous cerebralmum said...

I'll be looking forward to the last word.

 
At 4:19 am , Blogger that atheist guy said...

Howdy. Cerebralmum invited me over here from a comment on my blog. Cerebralmum wrote:

"I should clarify that what I mean by "faith" is simply a belief in the existence of god/s, not necessarily a belief in specific religious doctrines. I stand by my statement that it is not harmful in and of itself. What is harmful is a fixed idea of the nature of god accompanied by a rejection of all those who disagree and an adherence to a set of baseless (and nebulous) scriptural interpretations which were created to control and subject and are obviously harmful."

I think that is the key point of debate here. I also think the simple belief in a god is not inherently harmful, but who really has such a simple belief? Most religious people not only believe that a god exists, they also believe to know the mind of this god and its desires.

If you believe, as I think the majority of Christians and Muslims do, that your god damns all non-believers, how can you not reject "all those who disagree"?

Cerebralmum also wrote, "If the objections made to them were about their behaviour, rather than their theism, the world might be a little bit nicer. It might not improve the quality of the theists, but the atheists would be more worthy of respect."

I'm not sure how we can separate critiques of their behavior from their theism. Here in the US the federal government has cut off most funding for stem cell research. How can we protest that action without engaging directly with people's beliefs on the nature of God and what he wants us to do? Any disagreement with a religious doctrine has to be seen as an attack on God himself.

But then you do say "it might not improve the quality of theists." So what do you think we should do? I actually do hope to improve the quality of all people, in that I hope society gets "better" as time goes on. In the US we have to worry about faith based terrorism, but also faith based restrictions on personal freedoms and public education. All of these actions are based on the belief that God has told us what to do.

 
At 8:20 am , Blogger Stewart said...

The question of whether deism, or the ahistorical, somewhat theorised god of post-Bible Christian theology, is entirely harmless, or in any way 'believable', will be the subject of a later post by me.

 
At 10:15 pm , Blogger Da Boozchzz said...

I live in the USA...So, I can say without a doubt that belief in fantasies is in it of itself very harmful! I say this with such conviction because these faith-heads vote in large numbers and have dominated USA politics for far to long. They are winning in the battle to remove the teaching of evolution in some local districts which is harmful, very harmful! Science has been deeply hurt as well...Funding for research has been cut in many areas and this is harmful, very harmful! The past seven years under George Bush has really hurt this country in so many ways! I could go on and on...We can not drop our guard when it comes to all the progress made in curing humanity of the "harmful" virus of religious dogma!

 
At 11:11 am , Blogger Matt (aka Scaroth) said...

that atheist guy said:

>>
I also think the simple belief in a god is not inherently harmful, but who really has such a simple belief? Most religious people not only believe that a god exists, they also believe to know the mind of this god and its desires.
>>

Pantheists and Deists hold such simple beliefs, and generally do not see God as requiring or desiring anything in particular. In fact, the Pantheist view is of an impersonal God that cannot "will" anything.

 

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