Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Lout's Complaint

Reader, if you have been keeping score at home you are probably aware of a rhetorical move called "The Courtier's Reply." This device, developed by science blogger P.Z. Myers, is a re-casting of a frequent objection to uber-rationalist tracts like The God Delusion or The End of Faith, protesting that not all of what travels under the name of religion or spirituality is so easily ridiculed. The prototypical example of this objection is Terry Eagleton's review of The God Delusion, which opens as follows:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.
H. Allen Orr, writing in the NY Review of Books, strikes a similar note:
The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).
I hope you'll agree with me that these are clearly worded cautions against taking the most crude, infantile, or exploitative interpretations of religious thought as representative of all such thought. But this, like some puzzled dog in a Gary Larson cartoon, is what P.Z. Myers hears:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
You get the joke, of course. What good is book larnin' when there no there there to be larned about! No emperor's clothes, no god, no silliness whatsoever. Theologians and your apologists, you are so busted! In the end, the critique amounts to a blanket accusation of deceit covering each theological word ever written. Just so we're clear: Tillich: Liar; Buber: Liar; Bonhoeffer: Liar; Rumi: Liar.

It is sometimes allowed that these and other religious writers are deluded or mad, but most commonly, in keeping with rationalist skepticism, they are charlatans, as it is much more self-aggrandizing to heroically unmask the perpetrators of a great deceit than to mock its victims. Ironically, the Andersen fable is largely meant to caution on vanity, but Myers and Dawkins (who endorses the Courtier's Reply) seem to have missed that. They have zeroed right in on the emperor's credulity, without bothering to investigate its source. Are most emperors in the habit of swallowing any old pottage that comes their way? Not if they want to stay emperor for long. Rather, Andersen is isolating vanity as the tragic flaw of the potentate, and by extension, each of us, including the rationalists.

Whenever we are tempted to insist there is no there there, it is always wise to consider that the flaw may be in us, rather than in what is presented to us for our inspection: the grapes might not be sour just because we can't have them. Without the right training and receptivity, a great deal of the world remains unavailable to us. This is perhaps most classically demonstrated in art appreciation, or jazz, or wine, or any of the "acquired tastes." Considered this way, the Courtier's Reply becomes just another example of "My Kid Could Paint That." I call it the Lout's Complaint: Since I don't get it, they must be trying to pull one over on me.

And man, is it clear they don't get it. Recently, Larry Moran of the blog Sandwalk, a smart guy with some very heterodox things to say about molecular biology, vainly grappled with the idea that another blogger, James McGrath, could have a non-literal understanding of "god" and still call himself a Christian. Larry wrote:
McGrath thinks that theology can be justified because it addresses "life's inexpressable mystery." This is reason enough to reject atheism even though he denies the existence of any of the classical gods. Furthermore, this is reason enough to call himself a Christian.

I'd like to discuss why he is impressed by some "inexpressible mystery" and why he thinks it's a "miracle" that anything exists at all. [...]

But I'm not allowed to discuss those points, according to McGrath. I can't enter into a debate with him until I've read all of the sophisticated theologians who agree with him. I haven't done my homework. Until then, I'm just an amateur who doesn't understand the arguments against atheism and in favor of modern mysticism/theology.
It is noteworthy that Moran characterizes his own lack of understanding on this score as an obstacle that McGrath has put in his way: "I'm not allowed to discuss this with him ... until I have read all of the sophisticated theologians who agree with him." In fact McGrath does not attempt to scuttle the conversation based on Moran's lack of interest in the subject. But furthermore, isn't it commonplace to come prepared to an intelligent conversation?

Likewise, today, P.Z. Myers has written a post to complain that an article recommended by another science blogger as "lovely, lyrical, and wistful" is in fact "the same old nonsense."

The article in question, by Peter Bebergal, takes a position that rationalists can, sadly, only see as obfuscation: that literalist religious doctrines "induce religious stupor and cripple imaginations," but that nevertheless we need a portion of our language to address our non-rational understanding. To Myers, non-rational is synonymous with irrational, and all that is irrational is a danger to humanity. He writes:
Bebergal is waving his hands frantically, trying to justify irrationality as a power for human happiness rather than an impediment. There is no true power there... [I]t can ... make us feel good to give in to comforting myths. But this is not good for us. (my emphasis)
To demonstrate his point Myers imagines some lab rats trained to press buttons to stimulate their pleasure centers with abandon. But religion, in the form that Bebergal describes, is not a form of addiction. It is not intended for the gratification or exaltation of the practitioner; just the contrary, it is a way of contextualizing the practitioner within a social and cosmic order so that the meaning of her or his life will not be reduced to pleasure seeking. (This is exactly the role of the "higher power" in 12 steps groups--and it works).

It's not a complete surprise that Myers can only conceive of religion, spirituality, or mysticism as a comforting, ego-stroking enterprise, because that tends to be all that rises above the background noise of our popular culture: AM Radio sermons, megachurches, and televangelists are almost impossible to avoid, and most of them tend to exploit (consciously or not) the same feelings of anxiety and insecurity that are so effectively targeted by television commercials. If we are secular, and disinclined to pursue a spiritual or mystical (or even social constructivist) understanding of the world, it's easy to see why all religious expression would appear to be univocally ugly.

But that's why we have books. That's why Eagleton and Orr and others are exhorting Dawkins et al to read them. Not just (or even) theology, but any the challenging disciplines of assembly: philosophy, literary theory, philology, cultural studies. Even a cursory command of these fields might help Myers think twice before writing something that imagination is "a cognitive randomizer," or--my favorite from this piece,--"science has taught us ... that our imagination is pathetic." This is a confusion of categories along the lines of "I can't be overdrawn, I still have checks!" As Marilyn Robinson writes of Dawkins in her review of TGD, noting that he encounters no difficulty in the naive copy theory of reality, "he has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information."

Myers closes his piece with a paragraph so hateful I don't know how to maintain any hope in the possible increase of his understanding. Making sure we understand that, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, he will allow no moral or intellectual distinction to be made between fundamentalists and so-called "moderate" churches, he writes:
It's time we saw through the con game of these lying leeches, and that goes for the local liberal church as well as the most outrageous televangelist. The moderate church may be bad because it can lead congregants to the vilest exploiters, but it is also definitely bad because it is misleading you right now. (my emphasis)
Perhaps this was a heat-of-the-moment remark that would have been scrubbed from a print manuscript in the cooler, more rational clarity of the revision process. But taking it at face value, how are we to take seriously anyone who would subsume Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Bonhoeffer, Frederick Douglas, Gandhi, Martin Buber, Alan Watts, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu, Thomas Merton, Karen Armstrong, among countless others, as "lying leeches"? (Let alone the weird "gateway drug" logic that even if they were innocent, they would still "lead" others to virulent and exploitative fundamentalism.

I warrant that we'd have to add completely secular names to the list as well, since a significant quantity of important social and philosophical thought over the last century has directly challenged Myers' authority to conflate "reality" and "truth," or to aver, as though meaningfully, that "the universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up." So let's add to our list of liars and con-artists Wittgenstein, Derrida, Whitehead, Postman, Saussure, Cassirer, Searle, and Rorty.

And then there are the "real" scientists who in their own ways have demonstrated the commonalities of scientific and mythic thinking, among them Schroedinger, Bohr, Heisenberg, Bohm, Piaget, Bachelard, Gregory Bateson, Paul Weiss, Varela, Maturana, and Brian Goodwin*. By inference, these all must be con artists and liars too.

We'd be here all day if we added poets and novelists and literary theorists. But surely by now we have enough names to begin to create an impression of the sputtering realist as something of a reactionary; grossly uninformed, either through fear or incuriousity, and so agitated by the various threats to his or her sense of certainty that he or she is reduced to Dalek-like alarm calls. EX-TER-MIN-ATE!

Unfortunately this alarm call tends to rise to the top of our conversation, like those of the religious fundamentalists, or the anti-intellectuals sneering at modern art and fancy wines. Our scientists used to offer us more. They can again if we refuse to accept Hooliganism as an acceptable form of discourse about the world, and our place in it.


--
*I'm aware I haven't named a single woman in my lists of philosophers and scientists. That's partly because I want to give Mary Midgley a holiday from being my go-to philosopher (but you should all still read her), and partly because of a semi-conscious sexist bias I intend to redress in a future revision of this post.

75 comments:

Larry Moran said...

I'm afraid you haven't been playing close attention to the points that atheists are trying to make.

We don't believe in supernatural beings. We are interested in any arguments that theists would like to make to convince us that these supernatural beings exist.

Instead, we are expected to become experts in all sorts of things that are consequences of accepting God. Things like the problem of evil or how to rationalize God and science. Or, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Why should we care about those things when we don't accept the premise upon which they are based; namely; the existence of God (supernatural beings).

That's the point of the Courtier's Reply. The Courtiers accept unconditionally the assumption that the Emperor is wearing clothes and they launch into a sophisticated debate about the cut of his cloak etc. They are missing the point. The little boy sees a naked Emperor. The question is not whether the imaginary clothes are fancy or not, it's whether they are clothes.

Similarly, in the theists vs. atheist debate the point is not whether theists can come up with an explanation of miracles or of Jesus' divinity. The point is whether God exists.

If you have a good argument for the existence of God that we haven't heard before then now is a good time to present it.

Dave W. said...

You said that religion "is a way of contextualizing the practitioner within a social and cosmic order so that the meaning of her or his life will not be reduced to pleasure seeking." If there is another method through which this can be accomplished - a method lacking in appeals to faith in unevidenced beings and/or events - then religion (and spiritualism and mysticism) is unnecessary to meet the stated goal.

I'm fairly confident that my life has not been reduced to pleasure seeking, yet I got here - so far as I can tell - without the aid of religion.

But I must be a lout. I see a lot of names listed, with an assumption that the intended audience understands why all these people fit the arguments being made. Just how, for example, did Heisenberg demonstrate "the commonalities of scientific and mythic thinking?" How is it that unnamed "poets and novelists" are all assumed to be evangelical (in their poems and novels, I would guess)?

Of course, if one is willing to separate "reality" from "truth," then one is free to write in whatever "truth" one prefers, despite what reality might be indicating, which seems to me to be the ultimate expression of pleasure-seeking behavior. From such a viewpoint, I can see how a strict realism might be uncomfortable, and I can also see how any famous person in any context might be called upon as a silent witness to how wrong realism (or any other proposition) is.

underverse said...

Larry,

Thanks for your comment. Your post today on Ev Psych is an example of why I enjoy your blog.

I would have to be playing pretty poor attention indeed not to realize that atheists don't believe in supernatural beings, seeing as it's right there in the name. And seeing how I am one.

I'm not asking you to care about the problem of evil or any other conundrum, nor do I believe that Orr, Eagleton or Robinson are asking Richard Dawkins to care about anything in particular. What they are asking him to do is refrain from mischaracterizing the subject of his bestselling book.

There is an ambitious leap between not caring what someone else believes, or why, and ridiculing that belief at book length, based on a deeply impoverished understanding of that belief.

Literal belief in god as an existing "thing" that can perceived sensually is ahistorical. It's been on the upswing over the last couple centuries, but even now it's by no means the universal means of religious understanding. So your repeated acid test of asking for the argument of god's existence is something of a non-sequitur.

The courtiers in Andersen's tale may uncritically accept that the emperor is clothed, but you cannot make this claim about religious adherents except on a case-by-case basis, and even then, not without some evidence.

You can continue to insist that religious people define themselves according to your criteria instead of their own, but I'm not sure why they would pay any more attention. Meanwhile, perhaps one day you'll develop some actual curiosity about what a non-fundamentalist religious experience might be like.

Scott Ferguson said...

All these appeals by "Progressive Christians" to consider the sophisticated arguments about Being espoused by Tillich ignore the fact that your everyday worshiper in the pews believes in a real guy-in-the-sky mind of God. I'm not talking about fundamentalists either. This my wife, my family and in-laws and the United Methodist Church. I have read two prominent books, United Methodist Beliefs by W H Willimon and Three Simple Rules by Rueben Job, both bishops in the this mainline church. Each takes a straight forward position that God is a real entity who provides supernatural power to Christians. You can hardly call Bishop Willimon uneducated after his stint teaching at Duke.

These are the Christians atheists deal with everyday. Fundamentalism is merely the most extreme example of this religion that you want to cast as a strawman. Self-described Progressive Christians are a tiny minority who I have not yet been convinced remain within the fold (I am eagerly waiting to be convinced otherwise by Dr McGrath. See below*)

I'll agree that Dawkins and Larson are obnoxious and that Dawkins' piling of all histories bad stuff on religion's doorstep is grotesque. You guys may be right about the non-/existence and/or nature of God/Being but I'll bet the main reason he two sides are talking past each other is that the environments they are addressing barely intersect.

* - My latest attempt to figure out where the line between Christianity and *something else* lies is not progressing very well, either because I have not put it forward properly or because I am not considered a serious thinker in the blogosphere. Perhaps you can help me. If you do not belong in the camp with Jim McGrath, I apologise in advance.

My question is this: If belief in the "physical" reality of God and the historical reality of Jesus resurrection and status as God's son or chosen one is NOT required to be considered a Christian, what sort of beliefs, if any, would actually take one to the point where it would be inaccurate to call them a Christian?

ventana said...

Thanks for writing this Chris

I suppose it would be silly for me to suggest that Larry himself is a supernatural being. I would be more inclined to listen to him if he could prove to me that he does not exist.

My point is simply that an uncreated universe is an empty one. The simplest result of uncausation is nothing. Stuff is here. And not just any stuff either. Very complex, active, self organizing, self optimizing, self evolving, self socializing...very fancy stuff. It got here somehow. how does Materialism (Rationality?) even begin to address this issue? It's fine to say "I don't know," but to do that is a tacit admission that the whole thing is "Supernatural," and at that point on what grounds do we cavalierly reject the other team saying the very same thing? On the basis that they claim it makes sense? When you reject it on only those grounds it might behoove you to explore what they claim is sensible about it.

You are not likely to find a fair treatment of that from the pens of the gang of 4. I don't object to their writing their books, but I can't imagine the point of reading one of them either. It really is loutism, and if you alrady reject the premise and refuse to consider the alternative on first principles, why on earth bother with it at all?

The only reason I can see is that you want to join in the hooting from the loutish mob (and need to make sure your hoots are up to snuff). That lot shows up with fair regularity in history. They usually presage nothing good.

Carlos

Steve said...

Still waiting for the logical proof of god's existence claimed by the writer. In fact, still trying to figure out how you get a doctorate in a thing which has no provable existence.

I can understand Dawkin's anger. I don't like living under the thumb of the Christian-inspired law we have today. It ignores man's true nature.

I have tried it both ways in earnest. Atheism carries no comfort, but it faces fact. Whatever it is that the faithful feel never came to me. Especially after reading the Bible.

Nick Gotts said...

Literal belief in god as an existing "thing" that can perceived sensually is ahistorical. It's been on the upswing over the last couple centuries, but even now it's by no means the universal means of religious understanding.

Your evidence for this assertion?

Tim Altom said...

I have to agree with PZ here, and not altogether with Larry. The point is not refusal to believe, but skepticism. Is it necessary to read all the prominent biologists to show that tadpoles become frogs, or that bacteria do not come from bad air? Any 12-year-old can do simple experiments that show these things. There is proof always, tangible and, in many cases, uncomplicated. Science is the realm of demonstration, not belief. Reading theologians to understand their sophistries is not proof, no matter how many theologians there are. I'm with PZ here: I reject a god not because it's a base understanding for me, but because somebody must provide solid evidence. Multiplying courtiers does not make them more discerning. Putting them through PhD classes on imperial fashion does not make them more critical.

I'm not always with PZ when he calls believers "liars", because in many cases the element of intent to mislead is missing. Ghandi, Buber, and the rest seem sincere enough. But uncritical courtiers they undoubtedly are. The Andersen tale is here somewhat modified because none of us has seen the emperor or his clothes, but there is a vast tacit conspiracy of self-delusion about them, a hysteria of crowds. Increasing the crowd size does not make it better informed; even those crowd members with the largest reputations can see no further than the rest, and drink the same Kool-Aid.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

In your reply to Larry, you make the assumption that atheists are only responding to the fundamentalist version of religion. It's a big lump to make, a broad brush with which to paint.

While here you accuse Dawkins and Myers of not referring to all of the in-depth philosophers of religion. You make the assumption, apparently, that atheists have all started as atheists and refuse to look to the erudite defenses of religion in order to remain safe in our "extreme" positions.

How do you then approach those of us who started out as religious and sought through the philosophers you mention an intellectual justification for our faith; only to find eventually that the whole basis of sophisticated theology is a set of hypotheses which can not be tested (except by physical death?)

I, personally, have had fundamentalist experiences of what I thought were spiritual communion with God, later to discover that I was participating in a suggestive situation designed to make me feel that way through the power of suggestion.

I read Karen Armstrong's God. The feature that disappointed me was that in her examination of the experiences of the prophets such as Jeremiah, Muhammad and so forth, she accepted the assumption that these visions they had actually happened. It's rather disappointing.

I came from a position of faith, taught that through faith I would understand. I discovered that there is no cloth and no finery so smooth and light as air.

How do you approach those scholars such as Hector Avalos who came to theology, hoping to find a scholarly and accurate proof of the existence of God only to find, as PZ and Dawkins and yes, even Larry Moran have, that there is no rational reason to accept the existence of God(s?)

And, just so you'se you know, there are no periods in PZ. When you deride a person, at least try to spell his or her name correctly.

No apologist in opposition to The God Delusion has convinced me that Dawkins needs to go further. I've been there, done that, bought the books and went from being a Christian to being an atheist.

Jason Failes said...

"Just so we're clear: Tillich: Liar; Buber: Liar; Bonhoeffer: Liar; Krishnamurti: Liar; Rumi: Liar."

Yes, and I note that nowhere did you even once actually try to present any evidence for a deity, which is the entire point of Meyer's Courtier's Reply:

Without an independently observable phenomenon, all theology is baseless speculation, and thus is a demonstration of the limits of human imagination and what an individual must believe in order to keep their own faith, rather than a reflection of something that must actually exist in the real world.

Prove me wrong, if you can, but provide actual proof, not just more "hand waving".

Beowulff said...

Meanwhile, perhaps one day you'll develop some actual curiosity about what a non-fundamentalist religious experience might be like.
You know, this reminds me a lot of things certain kids in my high school would say, things like: "How can you say no to drugs without experiencing them yourself first? Shouldn't you at least give them a try? Aren't you even curious?"

Anonymous said...

I do seem to recall a Penn and Teller Bullshit episode about AA and 12 step programs. They rarely if ever publish success figures and from what they could find, these programs had about a 5% success rate.

You said "(This is exactly the role of the "higher power" in 12 steps groups--and it works)." You may want to check up on that.

Larry Moran said...

undervers says,

Meanwhile, perhaps one day you'll develop some actual curiosity about what a non-fundamentalist religious experience might be like.

I live in Canada. That's the only kind of religious experience that I know.

Now you've gone beyond missing the point, which was that you don't understand my position or the position of Dawkins and other atheists. Now you are deliberately mischaracterizing my position in spite of the fact that you claim to have read my postings.

I don't think we can have a serious discussion if you persist in erecting such strawman arguments but I willing to try one more time.

I do not think that all believers are fundamentalists. I do not think that all believers are Christians. I'm very much aware of the fact that there are "sophisticated" positions about God and supernatural beings. Many of those "sophisticated" positions deny "thingyness" (whatever that really means).

There are two problems with those "sophisticated" positions. First, they seem to be deliberately obtuse as though the holders of those positions intend to hide their true beliefs behind fuzzy language. Those "sophisticated" believers tend to focus all of their defenses on quibbles about language (e.g. "Literal belief in god as an existing "thing" that can perceived sensually is ahistorical.") and not on what they actually believe.

Second, the important point is not how much theist beliefs differ from fundamentalist beliefs. The important point is how they differ from non-belief. It's very hard to pin down the sophisticated believers and get them to explain exactly why they believe in something beyond the natural world. That's really the only question I'm interested in.

If you know the answer then please enlighten me and stop trying to divert attention away from the real issue.

In a few cases, I have encountered modern theists who have been honest enough to answer the important question. Their arguments for the existence of things beyond the natural world (i.e. why they are not atheists) boil down to the "Argument from Beauty" and/or "the "Argument from Personal Experience." Dawkins covers these on pages 86-87 and 87-92 in The God Delusion.

You seem to have some inside information about other, presumably devastating, arguments for belief. Otherwise, you wouldn't be so critical of the atheist position. Again, I ask you to please let us in on these sophisticated arguments that all stupid, ignorant, atheists have missed.

Bad said...

underverse, I think you are missing the point still.

The reason atheists aren't interested in most of the theologians and ideas you list is that they don't feel like they make any coherent claims that require refuting in the first place.

Most of the theologians you cite never get around to saying anything about whether the emperor is clothed or not. They talk a lot about, to strain the analogy even more, how meaningful clothing is, or how, isn't nudity the ultimate form of clothing?

To this, most of us say... ok, but so what? What does that even mean in terms of claims that are objectively true or false?

If God is some sort of expression of how some person feels about the divine mystery of all existence, that's great, but it isn't what anyone means when they argue whether a god exists or not. And the reality is that the vast majority of believers don't care about, or even care for, these obscure theologies either.

topologyrob said...

Just because Gandhi, Rumi et al were wrong about the existence of supernatural beings, it doesn't mean they were liars. Newton wasn't a liar because he didn't know about relativity. Focus your argument on evidence for supernatural things and you'll be more persuasive.

Kalia's little brother said...

Meanwhile, perhaps one day you'll develop some actual curiosity about what a non-fundamentalist religious experience might be like.

Perhaps, once evidence is presented. It is obvious you have none to present.

Ric said...

Alas, this post seems indeed to be a classic example of the Courtier's Reply. It is eloquently stated and steeped in offended righteousness, yet all it does is claim "the atheists don't understand the true religion." Unfortunately it adds nothing real to the discussion. It's just another plea to "please, please except my fancy religiousness from criticism, because other fancy people believed the same thing, and well, my religiousness is nebulous and sophisticated.

Rich Hughes said...

Please, stop navel-gazing. SHOW. ME. EVIDENCE.

Jason Failes said...

Vantana wrote:

"My point is simply that an uncreated universe is an empty one."

Naturalistic Fallacy: Just because the universe does not come with an inbuilt meaning does not mean that we cannot give it one, and live fulfilled lives. Is =/= ought, and in any case, our personal discomfort with an idea has absolutely no bearing on its reality.

"The simplest result of uncausation is nothing."

There is no such thing as "nothing". "Nothing" is a human concept. Even a hard vacuum is filled with virtual particle pairs. Again, our own preconceptions, lack of imagination, and incomplete knowledge =/= an actual hole in nature.

"Stuff is here. And not just any stuff either. Very complex, active, self organizing, self optimizing, self evolving, self socializing...very fancy stuff."

Yes, but not much of it, when you consider the amount of the universe that is hydrogen, hypothesized dark matter and energy, black holes, gas giants, and lifeless rocks.


"It got here somehow. how does Materialism (Rationality?) even begin to address this issue?"

Virtual Particles--->Matter (hydrogen)+gravity---->Nuclear Fusion--->all heavier elements--->self replicating compounds---->life----->people who ask rhetorical questions & smartass scientists who give literal answers.


"It's fine to say "I don't know," but to do that is a tacit admission that the whole thing is "Supernatural""

Um, no, it just means we don't know. Natural explanations have replaced thousands, if not tens of thousands of supernatural explanations. When has a supernatural explanation ever replaced a natural explanation.

That's right. Never.

Thomas Theobald said...

Ventana - you said the following with regard to the universe in its existence:

Very complex, active, self organizing, self optimizing, self evolving, self socializing...very fancy stuff. It got here somehow. how does Materialism (Rationality?) even begin to address this issue? It's fine to say "I don't know," but to do that is a tacit admission that the whole thing is "Supernatural," and at that point on what grounds do we cavalierly reject the other team saying the very same thing?


Saying "I don't know" is precisely the only option you have until you actually discover a cause and that discovery is proven true. It makes no such admission to "supernature" - that's a really dumb assumption on your part. It makes quite the opposite admission - that the observed phenomena or material is completely natural, and that its origin or explanation is simply not known.

To reject the "other team's" statement is very simple: they claim an external intelligent force brought all of this material/phenomena into existence as an act of will. That claim requires proof of the force, and proof that said force was the cause. No such proof is ever offered, and in fact the demand for proof is invariably sidestepped with a claim that their explanation arises from the cause itself. As an example, the Christian argument stems from the following circular logic:

1. They believe God created the Universe.
2. They believe this because God is attributed to having done so in the Bible.
3. They believe the Bible because they believe God wrote the Bible.

That sort of evidence is worthless. How so? Here you are: I am God. I in writing this expect that you believe it.

My claim to be God is no more or less authentic than the claim that the Bible is the writing of God. It only compares unfavorably because it hasn't been around for two thousand years. Such "proof" is inherently valueless, as it offers no true evidence, only hearsay.

So yes, every time some preacher pushes God as fact, regardless of the preacher's history of study or scholarly work, that preacher is pushing at best an unproven theory as if it were fact, and at worst that preacher is lying. You don't see Stanley Pons or Martin Fleischmann running around telling people that cold fusion works any more, do you? Of course not, and for good reason - they can offer no proof that it is real. And yet, preachers everywhere run around professing the "truth" of god's existence, and they can offer no proof that god is real.

I will assume for a moment that you belong to one of the three Abrahamic religions, and ask you a question: why don't you believe that the Earth sits upon the back of a giant tortoise, supported by four elephants? Or that it is in actuality a gigantic tree? Both of these are legitimate theological constructs of roughly the same age and athenticity as your Biblical teachings. Yet you don't believe them. Why not?

I'll answer for you, though I'd welcome your own answer: neither of them have proof, and in fact both are physically proven to be incorrect (although a "true believer" in either of these theories might imply that such constructs are literally true, but true in a metaphysical sense - the tortoise and elephants are invisible, the tree merely takes the form of our spherical Earth in the physical universe). By the same token, we atheists reject your god as unproven, though we welcome your offered evidence.

You simply haven't offered any.

T

Aris said...

To show how absurd "The Lout's Complaint" is, all one has to do is substitute all references to "religion" with "astrology," all the esteemed theologians' names with the names of popular astrologers, and all instances of "Dawkins" with "Randi." It will then be rendered as nothing more than a criticism of James Randi for arrogantly dismissing astrology without first engaging the esoteric arguments of astrologers about the effects of the midheaven-imum coeli axis and the precession of the equinoxes on humanity's future.

thickslab said...

Mary Midgley is your go-to philospher? Are you kidding? This is the woman who didn't even bother to read past the title of The Selfish Gene before she started talking about it.

Midgley is the perfect example of a philosopher who talks a lot and says nothing. Her writings are valueless.

Puck Mendelssohn said...

I have to agree with PZ here.

There is a huge difference between having evidence for a position, and having arguments. What theologians have is arguments. I spend, for reasons which I increasingly find puzzling, quite a bit of time reading theology. I do not find it subtle, perceptive and deep. I find it rife with excessive verbal complexity that is very good at covering over, to the undiscerning, the lack of any real core of "stuff" being discussed. These works--from all corners of the theological world--fit Hume's condemnation as "sophistry and illusion" to a T.

Arguments illuminate evidence, but arguments are not evidence. The fact that so much is written on theology by people who assume from the get-go that there are gods is completely irrelevant to the existence of gods. What is relevant is their evidence, but their concern for evidence is generally minimal. I recall Cardinal Newman's condemnation of those would would test Christian belief "as though evidence were the test of truth!" What kind of conversation can one have with such people?

And, by the way, practically nobody reads theology. I read it; theologians read it; and a tiny handful of believers with too much time on their hands read it. But it doesn't inform religious belief much, because very few of the believers ever crack the spine of a serious theological work. The idea that these "courtiers" are representative of the main course of religious belief in some way is hideously, comically wrong. Most believers wouldn't know a serious theological proposition if it bit 'em.

And oh, the verbal complexity. The twisted language, the twisted logic, bent up, coiled, ruined beyond all use. That is the masterwork of theology. The obscuritan eggheads responsible for postmodern lit-crit have nothing on these people, who invented the run-on sentence that ultimately says nothing about anything. Martin Heidegger is positively readable next to some of this stuff.

The courtier's argument is that it's necessary to dig into theology to understand religion. I have been digging. Let me tell you a story about digging which I think is applicable here.

Once there was a boy who had a cruel father. The boy wanted a pony of his own; he wanted this more than anything else in the world. The father, one December, spent the first couple of weeks of the month packing a small barn full of manure. On Christmas, the boy asked where his present was, and his father told him to check the barn. He opened the door and, contrary to everyone's expectation, squealed with delight and began to feverishly dig and tunnel his way into the pile. His mother asked, "what are you so excited about?" and he replied, "with all this shit, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

I have a weakness for pony-digs. I have been looking for two of 'em the last few years: the god pony, and the intelligent design pony. So far, I am not finding a lot of evidence that there really is a pony under all of this.

Puck

Vicki said...

Sigh.

Chris says: You know, a lot of what RD and PZ say about religion is just plain wrong.

Commenters hear: There are sophisticated proofs of God's existence that Dawkins and RD haven't addressed.

This seems to happen a lot.

I know from my experience that a lot of what PZ has to say about the motivations and behavior of religious people is just plain wrong. I'm a non-believer raised by fundamentalist parents (who themselves left their parents' Mennonite faith.)
I know from study that a lot of what RD and Sam Harris have to say about the history of religion and science is absolute bosh.
Like the other commenters, I have absolutely zero interest in arcane proofs of God's "existence." However, I agree with Chris that "not all of what travels under the name of religion or spirituality is so easily ridiculed"

Mark said...

Sir, Thank for your excellent article. As a fan of the scientific writing of P.Z.Myers I admire your willingness to take him on, hooligan that he is. One point that you made however I feel needs correction. I have spent many years reading the works of Jiddu Krishnamurti. I even had the great good fortune to hear him speak several times at his school in Ojai. I must tell you that Krishnaji had pretty much the same opinion of religion that Prof. Myers has. K was no theologian! Not for him the endless debate on the couture of the Man. He Had no respect for ritual, nor ceremony, nor belief in God, really belief in anything. "Discover for yourself!" was his only admonition. (Also, "Don't quote me!")and I'm sure "Don't reference me in a discussion on religion," is in there somewhere. All The Best

Dustin said...

I agree. PZ and his legion should really familiarize themselves with Midgley's philosophy. If they had bothered to read it, they would know that their demands for evidence are really just a feeble attempt at defending a morally pernicious phallogocentric myth of origins. Of course, the exponents of evolution like to say that it doesn't make any more sense to attempt to draw moral conclusions from the theory of evolution than it does to draw them from something like general relativity or quantum theory, but of course there is nothing in either of those theories which purports to explain the origins of the universe -- in that respect, the theory of evolution is unique and, as we all know, any origins story is a myth, and myths prescribe a set of morals.

The zealous adherents of radical scientism also like to point to the application of their theory-myths as indication that they are, in some realistic sense, true. Of course, it was actually myth (belief in ancient fertility gods), that prompted the move to agriculture, so applicability of a theory does not discount it as a myth.

Now they're over here on this blog, trying desperately to defend their position and cleanse their guilty consciences. I think, much like in the story by Poe, they are being driven by the sound of their own guilt, beating beneath the floorboards...

Chet said...

Meanwhile, perhaps one day you'll develop some actual curiosity about what a non-fundamentalist religious experience might be like.

Thanks to the critics of Dawkins and Myers, I think we know exactly what that experience is like, in two steps:

1) Find the nearest atheist whose lips are moving.

2) Accuse that atheist of being "militant."

Rinse and repeat. They certainly don't have the tradition and depth of fundamentalist traditions, since they're making it all up as they go along. (And, quite frankly, the moderate religious person is a lot less likely to have read any theologians or scriptures than the atheist.)

Theology needs to defend its own existence, as a field, before any specific theologians are required reading in the debate. I don't need to be familiar with every work on unicorns before I can justly conclude that, due to the nonexistence of unicorns, unicorn science is probably a sham.

Anonymous said...

So you accept that you have no evidence to offer for the existence of god?

valdemar said...

Atheists are militant in much the same way that feminists are strident i.e. they refuse to be patronised and told not to worry their little heads about things that don't concern them.
What 'militant' atheists want is for religious people to acknowledge that their beliefs are just that - not founded on fact, merely tradition alloyed with emotional need. You have no more claim to special treatment in the public sphere than people who claim to channel Atlanteans. And ultimately it is religion's political claims that make it contentious.

underverse said...

Scott Ferguson,

I doubt any of us knows what proportion of theists believes its doctrine literally, and which figuratively. Even words like "real entity" and "supernatural power" can be slippery. It would take more than short quotations to get at what these words are meant to convey.

Even ceding the extreme devil's argument, however, I'm not sure it matters. Some allowance must be made for the figurative view, even if they comprise a tiny minority (something that that I would expect atheists, a tiny minority in their own right, to understand.)

The larger issue I'm addressing is that the Churchillian Atheists seem to be saying that they have the right--or duty, even--to tell other people what sort of language to use to describe their experience, and their relations of meaning, without even entering into a negotiated discussion about it. That's just indefensible in my view.

underverse said...

Steve,

I never claimed I had a logical--or any other--proof of the existence of God. Please read through the piece again.

Aris said...

Dustin: ...but of course there is nothing in either of those theories which purports to explain the origins of the universe -- in that respect, the theory of evolution is unique and, as we all know, any origins story is a myth, and myths prescribe a set of morals.

The Theory of Evolution is about the origins of the universe? An origins story?

Dustin, basically and simply the Theory of Evolution is about the development of life on Earth, through the process of Natural Selection. The Theory of Evolution says nothing about the origins of life.
____________________________________________

underverse said...

Nick Gotts,

It's a common (though not universal) understanding in religious and cultural studies that mythic assertions do not have propositional truth value.

Do you, in your turn, have any evidence to the contrary?

underverse said...

Tim Altom,

You are making unsupported assertions about what the theologians and philosophers I cited are saying. No one in the list I provided posits a god that is a thing or personage, to the best of my understanding.

underverse said...

Mike Haubrich,

The only assumption I made (an inference really) was that Larry and Paul et al believe that religious claims are scientific in nature and subject to its methods. I think that's pretty clearly presented.

My response is that some religious claims are of that nature, in which case I support their requests for data. And some are not, in which case the requests are a non sequitur.

When you ask how I approach this type of person or that, I am not trying to account for all kinds of behavior or belief. Lots of people don't fall into the category of our present discussion, so I'm not approaching them at all. Busy, busy.

Puck Mendelssohn said...

underverse, you said: "It's a common (though not universal) understanding in religious and cultural studies that mythic assertions do not have propositional truth value."

Now, I think you're engaging in unnecessary verbal complication here. What this means, if I am parsing it out correctly, is that "religions do not claim that their stories are true." Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but under the "mythic assertions" and "propositional truth value," that appears to be what you're saying.

If that's what you're saying, you are wrong. Most Christian sects do claim that their stories are true. Even those that waive literal truth, e.g., the Catholic church and its stance on Genesis, stick to the "spiritual truth" sort of dodge that allows them to claim that even if not all of it is true, it's not false, either. To get to people who really say they don't suppose the bible is true, you've got to drill down to the Unitarians and their ilk, or to "liberal" theology which is accepted by almost nobody (and which, in particular, is accepted by almost no parishioners even in churches where it is accepted by clergy).

Puck

underverse said...

Jason Failes,

Can you not distinguish between lying, on the one hand, and sincerely arguing in good faith on the other? Putting aside for one moment whether Tillich et al were right or wrong, they deserve the benefit of the doubt on that score.

For all the talk about objective evidence, PZ and his camp seem remarkably deft at peering directly into the souls of the objects of their scorn and deriving their true meaning and intent.

underverse said...

Anonymous,

I don't have stats on AA success rates. I was speaking anecdotally.

However, without comparing it to other forms of treatment as a control, Penn's 5% number is pretty close to meaningless.

underverse said...

Beowulff,

Depending on the drugs in question, your high school peers weren't all wrong. At any rate, we're talking about reading books receptively and considering alternate points of view. It's not exactly the same as shooting dope.

underverse said...

Larry,

You wrote that sophisticated believers "seem" to be deliberately obtuse. See above my remark about PZ peering into souls. This conversation is going to go nowhere if you can't accept that a single religious writer, in all of human history, ever grappled in earnest with concepts that are difficult to express in everyday language.

You suggest that there is a more simple, "true" belief behind the "fuzzy" one. You may want that to be the case, but part of the act of communication involves being open to what your interlocutor is actually saying, rather than what you want them to say.

Granted, without the right foundation, most theology, and indeed, most philosophy save the most postivist variety, is going to sound fuzzy. I can't help you with that; all I can say is the more you read, the more meaningful it becomes.

Don't take my word for it, of course, but don't make the opposite mistake of insisting that because other people have differing referential value to their terms of art, they must be hiding something.

I have never tried to divert attention away from the real issue. I don't think it's the case that "sophisticated believers" (by nature a broad and vague term; belief runs far and wide and there aren't always nametags) necessarily believe in something "beyond the natural world." Rather many of them differ only (but significantly) in the language they employ to talk about it. It's less a matter of disagreeing what there "is" "out there" and more a matter of how to relate to it, and how to build world pictures out of it. (I hope you would agree that no obvious or apparent metaphysics can arise out of scientific data itself).

In general though I think you want something I can't provide: an argument for religious believe in the language of naturalism. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in continuing to communicate with you about this. I hope that's clear. I would appreciate it if you would extend as sympathetic or charitable an understanding of these words in your reply.

At any rate, I'm manifestly *not* attacking atheism. I'm just responding to a particular atheist metaphysics that often claims to have obviated all other descriptions about the world.

underverse said...

Bad,

The point I am not missing is that many theists make no "claims" at all in the sense you mean. It would be easier to have this conversation if you were more conversant with the distinction between "sacred" versus "mundane" descriptions of reality, or mythic versus logical. These are important distinctions that are important to this conversation, which is part of why the "Courtiers" are requesting that their critics do some homework before replying.

underverse said...

Thickslab, I regret to say you've been hornswaggled on the Mary Midgely issue. Below is a comment I made on Pharyngula in response to the same misunderstanding. All I'll add here is that if there's a fallacy of arguing from authority, surely there's a fallacy of dismissing by argument of false authority.

***

I haven't made it through all the comments yet, but let me address this snickering about my Mary Midgley reference. You're free to disagree with her work (if you are familiar with it), but the business about her not having read TSG before having read it is just propaganda. And worse, Dawkins knows full well that he is perpetrating falsehoods when he repeats it.

This is amply documented here, among other places. Those of you who enjoy "evidence" will I'm sure be diligent to follow all the links.

Dr. Dawkins has never apologized for this slander, nor issued a correction.

Bad said...

underverse: if you admit that these aren't making claims of that sort, then you must admit that your entire critique is baseless. The people you are attacking explicitly say that they are only interested in attacking or discussing claims of "that sort."

"These are important distinctions that are important to this conversation, which is part of why the "Courtiers" are requesting that their critics do some homework before replying."

The request has no basis. We simply do not have much of an interest in discussing people's subjective, non-contentious opinions about how awesome the universe is or how this or that religious word is the best expression of their feelings, nor are we obligated do to so until these people raise some clear point of contention with which someone could agree OR disagree.

Beowulff said...

Depending on the drugs in question, your high school peers weren't all wrong. At any rate, we're talking about reading books receptively and considering alternate points of view. It's not exactly the same as shooting dope.
I was expecting that I didn't have to explain that I did not equate drugs and religion, just like I should be able to assume you were not actually advocating drug use just now. I figured it would be obvious that I was pointing out that I did not think your arguments were enough to make someone want to experience a (non-fundamental) religious experience, or even develop a curiosity to it.

waldteufel said...

Could anyone here please give us a list of several specific pieces of evidence you have for any sort of god? Not argument, but evidence is what I'm looking for. Evidence that can be verified by multiple lines of experimentaion and observation would, I think, be the most convincing.

Max II said...

Sadly for your case I don't think Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris or Dennett ever call or imply that Tillich et al were liars or charlatans in any way. In all their learned liberal theology one may simply say they are wrong, or appear wrong because they have yet to produce a reason why one should accept their "intuitions" about the divine over any other "intuitions."

I can think Tillich was wrong, and in fact do, without assuming him to be a scam artist, or a liar. I can say he has bought into a delusion that states mystery needs a name or ritual in addition to the acceptance that it exists.

You throw out a litany of names without noting that some of them had nothing nice to say about the religious impulse. I believe Fredick Douglas was certainly one of these. You bring these names up as if they automatically confirm some dignity to the religious position. This is ludicrous. Mentioning Ghandi alone dooms much of your crediblity.

Steven Carr said...

'Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.'

Oh dear!

I was told that the Book of British Birds was inspired by the Creator and Designer of all British Birds and that it contained personal messages from him about biology.

Now I am told that the British Book of Birds is no more inspired than the Bible, and I am no more qualified to talk about biology than somebody is qualified to talk about Christianity after reading the Bible.

Now that the British Book of Birds can be put on the same discard table as the Bible, what inspired books are there on biology?

Dave2 said...

Literal belief in god as an existing "thing" that can perceived sensually is ahistorical. It's been on the upswing over the last couple centuries, but even now it's by no means the universal means of religious understanding. So your repeated acid test of asking for the argument of god's existence is something of a non-sequitur.

What's wrong with requesting an argument for God's existence? St. Thomas Aquinas certainly thought theism could be demonstrated with arguments. But Aquinas didn't think God could be "perceived sensually" (1.12.3 of the Summa seems to clear this up). I don't know what you mean by "thing", so I'm not sure whether Aquinas thought God was a thing, but he certainly thought God existed and had an essence. Is Aquinas being "ahistorical"?

I'm being cheeky, of course, but seriously, what is wrong with requesting arguments or evidence or some sort of justification for believing that God exists?

underverse said...

Mark,

I did not mean to imply that Krishnamurti was a Christian. One of his more annoying tendencies was to declare wrong everyone but himself--that's even more exclusive than Myers, who at least belongs to a loose federation of rationalists.

The point is that Krishnamurti wrote books and gave talks that would give Myers fits just as epileptic as anything by Thomas Aquinas.

It would be interesting, actually to see just what sort of reaction the New Atheists would have to Krishamurti. They share a rebel streak, a disdain of submission, but where they differ is in Krishnamurti's refusal to treat words as though they were real, that they accurately convey reality. This of course is the highest teaching of the rationalist doctrine, and it's just what gets in the way of mutual understanding when we discuss the different possible meanings of the word god.

Dave W. said...

I'm still interested in how, for example, Heisenberg demonstrated "the commonalities of scientific and mythic thinking?" I mean, there are commonalities between an orange and a basketball, but one will generally be sorely disappointed if one attempts to use one in place of the other.

I'm also intrigued - despite discussions elsewhere - about the phrase "literal beliefs." A belief is something one thinks is true, regardless of whether it's literal or metaphoric. "I believe X" is an assertion that X is, in some measurable-in-principle way, true. Even if the statement is full of flowery metaphor, we can scrape that aside and see the underlying claim about reality within. So "literal beliefs" as opposed to what?

underverse said...

Bad, you wrote:

The people you are attacking explicitly say that they are only interested in attacking or discussing claims of "that sort."

This is not a very close reading of Myers, Dawkins, or Harris, at least, each of whom purveys the belief that language is a kind of code or cipher, with hard meanings that should not be dislodged.

Read Larry Moran at Sandwalk, for example, where he writes that a self-described Christian isn't "really" a Christian because he doesn't believe in God in the way Moran finds it necessary to believe to be rightly called a Christian.

underverse said...

Beowulff, you wrote:

I figured it would be obvious that I was pointing out that I did not think your arguments were enough to make someone want to experience a (non-fundamental) religious experience, or even develop a curiosity to it.

I don't actually have a vested interest in whether or not anyone has a religious experience or not, or develops a curiosity about it.

However, I'm not the one who wrote one of the books saying that everyone that doesn't think like me is deluded or toxic. This is why I bring up understanding and curiosity: because that might be a step one takes before wholesale condemnation of most of the world's population.

underverse said...

Max II,

The "liar" bit was a direct citation from Myers' piece, where he wrote:

It's time we saw through the con game of these lying leeches, and that goes for the local liberal church as well as the most outrageous televangelist.

I'm not sure how you missed this, since I cited it specifically and provided a link.

Frederick Douglass was an A.M.E. minister.

underverse said...

Dave2,

There's nothing wrong with requesting arguments for god's existence. That doesn't mean anybody is owed one, of course.

Dave2 said...

There's nothing wrong with requesting arguments for god's existence. That doesn't mean anybody is owed one, of course.

Earlier, you seemed to suggest that to request or look for an argument was somehow to make an uninformed mistake about religious belief -- "something of a non sequitur". I'm not sure what the mistake was supposed to be: maybe it's in thinking that religious belief purports to be descriptive and religious language fact-stating, maybe you accept a kind of noncognitivism about religious thought and discourse. But I wanted to point out that, whatever mistake it is, informed religious thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas are making it as well.

But if you're now saying that arguments for God's existence aren't missing the point entirely, then maybe you disagree with the noncognitivists and agree with the rest of us. I can't tell.

Also, about whether anyone is owed an argument: there's a pretty plausible principle about beliefs that they shouldn't be held unless you have some basis for holding them. Do you think religious beliefs are a special exception to this principle, or do you reject the principle root and branch?

Anonymous said...

As a side issue...you are absolutely right that every believer has their own picture of God. It is not possible to dispute that without interviewing them first, on an individual basis.
On the other hand, the God presented in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in omniscent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. The concepts of individual believers are immaterial. There would be no organized religion with a minimum that everyone agrees on.
As this minimum is available to everyone, Dawkins is perfectly justified to critique it at book length. The specifics of the opinions given by St Augustine and Martin Luther are just as unimportant to the average church goer as they are to Dawkins.

underverse said...

Dave W.

I'm going to answer your question in a new post, presently.

Anonymous said...

There are god-concepts X, Y, and Z.

A person evaluates the evidence for god-concept X, and concludes the god described by god-concept X is highly unlikely to exist.

The person then extrapolates this conclusion to god-concepts Y and Z without bothering to understand these concepts.

The problem with this approach is god-concepts Y and Z may well possess attributes completely different from god-concept X which make them impervious to the critiques of god-concept X.

This is what the theologians are attempting to argue. They're pointing out Dawkins' strawman argument.

Owlmirror said...

The problem with this approach is god-concepts Y and Z may well possess attributes completely different from god-concept X which make them impervious to the critiques of god-concept X.

This is what the theologians are attempting to argue. They're pointing out Dawkins' strawman argument.


Dawkins quite clearly lays out that he is referring to the god-concept of a personal God, in the very start of the book, as you can read for yourself here:

http://preview.tinyurl.com/3vtob2

So if god-concepts Y and Z are impersonal, then Dawkins does not conclude that they are "unlikely to exist", but rather, that they are irrelevant to his arguments against the personal god-concept.

Anonymous said...

Just FYI: The control group in the Penn & Teller's episode of Bullshit! was people who quit drinking without the help of the 12-step method. Their success rate was --- that's right --- 5%!

To recap: With 12-step -- 5%, without -- 5%. Obviously, the metod is of big help here...

Tom said...

Seems more a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing" than a Lout's Complaint.

Bad said...

"This is not a very close reading of Myers, Dawkins, or Harris, at least, each of whom purveys the belief that language is a kind of code or cipher, with hard meanings that should not be dislodged. "

This is a pretty evasive and vague response to what I said. And I don't agree that your "close reading" is accurate in any case. What these people are addressing are specific claims: claims they identify upfront, and deal with upfront.

Meanwhile you're slinking around in a cloud of obfuscation accusing them of not dealing with things they never claimed to want to deal with or even care about.

"Read Larry Moran at Sandwalk, for example, where he writes that a self-described Christian isn't "really" a Christian because he doesn't believe in God in the way Moran finds it necessary to believe to be rightly called a Christian."

While I'm happy to let people call themselves whatever they want, the definition Moran is citing in this case is hardly some sort of obscure atheist imposition: they're the sort of requirements and definitions that the vast vast majority of Christians use and would think it rather absurd and pointless to call oneself a Christian without.

The problem of course, is that once you simply accept that anything can be as metaphorical or poetic as you'd like at any one moment (which is perfectly fine as far as it goes), then anyone can claim to be anything. That's fine and all, but sort of useless for clear, substantive discussions of any matter.

Given that theologians have basically granted themselves the leeway to say anything, without any bounds of evidence, logic, or even coherent communication, is it any surprise that there is an endless diversity of obscure views possible, always out there for you to point and complain that Dawkins hasn't addressed this or that aspect of?

But again, unless any of these views can demonstrate something of relevance or interest to the discussion, I think the burden is on them or you to explain why they are relevant, and why anyone should care.

Brian Macker said...

Chet says:
They certainly don't have the tradition and depth of fundamentalist traditions, since they're making it all up as they go along."

I see you are not familiar with the history of how religious belief arose. Which can pretty much be summed up as "making it up as we go along".

You are also mistaken about the depth of rationalist traditions and their accomplishments. Think "science" and be in awe of it's accomplishments in comparison to religion.

Anonymous said...

'It is sometimes allowed that these and other religious writers are deluded or mad, but most commonly, in keeping with rationalist skepticism, they are charlatans'

There's a much simpler, more generous answer ... people who believe in God are, for whatever reason, just mistaken.

Mistaken possibly for the noblest of reasons, and 'smart people made the same mistake' is a pretty good reason. But people make mistakes.

So, simple enough: if you believe in God, you have a reason to, so explain what that reason is, lay out the evidence, we'll all be able to see whether it's right or wrong.

So, complete the following sentence; 'the evidence for God is obvious and it's ... ' and we can settle this by tomorrow evening and move on. Awesome.

tank said...

As owlmirror pointed out, Dawkins quite clearly stated at the start of The God Delusion that he wasn't even talking about the kind of religion that you are going on about.

“My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the
other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to
get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity
to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods,
of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the
God of the Old Testament. "

How ridiculous that your whole post was against a strawman? Maybe if you read the atheists you criticise more closely you would have realised how misguided you were.

Dave W. said...

Anonymous wrote: "...if you believe in God, you have a reason to, so explain what that reason is, lay out the evidence, we'll all be able to see whether it's right or wrong.

So, complete the following sentence; 'the evidence for God is obvious and it's ... '"

Forget "evidence" for a moment.

If there is another rational, consistent and reliable method with which we can justify a belief aside from an iterative process of empiricism and logic, I'd like to hear it. Maybe it uses something that isn't called "evidence," which would make all these calls for evidence moot.

Larry Moran said...

underverse says,

In general though I think you want something I can't provide: an argument for religious believe in the language of naturalism.

Wrong. I'll settle for just plain simple English with a touch of rationality.

You claim that you are an atheist but you also claim that you understand and sympathize with those "sophisticated" beliefs. Seems to me like you're the ideal person to explain them to another atheist.

Waiting ....

That doesn't mean I'm not interested in continuing to communicate with you about this. I hope that's clear. I would appreciate it if you would extend as sympathetic or charitable an understanding of these words in your reply.

I'm trying really, really hard to understand this "sophisticated" view of theism. I only ask for one thing, that the "sophisticated" believers tell me why they aren't atheists. I don't think that's too much to ask, do you?

Read all the comments by the believers. Has any one of them offered an explanation for why they believe?

From my perspective they are not even trying to communicate with atheists.

At any rate, I'm manifestly *not* attacking atheism. I'm just responding to a particular atheist metaphysics that often claims to have obviated all other descriptions about the world.

Please describe why you think those other descriptions of the world reflect reality. And please use language that gets to the point. I'm more than happy to discuss those other views as soon as someone explains why I should believe in them.

taliesin said...

You said: "I did not mean to imply that Krishnamurti was a Christian. One of his more annoying tendencies was to declare wrong everyone but himself--that's even more exclusive than Myers, who at least belongs to a loose federation of rationalists.

The point is that Krishnamurti wrote books and gave talks that would give Myers fits just as epileptic as anything by Thomas Aquinas.

It would be interesting, actually to see just what sort of reaction the New Atheists would have to Krishamurti. They share a rebel streak, a disdain of submission, but where they differ is in Krishnamurti's refusal to treat words as though they were real, that they accurately convey reality. This of course is the highest teaching of the rationalist doctrine, and it's just what gets in the way of mutual understanding when we discuss the different possible meanings of the word god."

Are you certain you are referring to Jiddu Krishnamurti? iirc, J. Krishnamurti was very adamantly opposed to any authority, including his own, as evidenced in the talk given on the occasion of dissolving the Theosophical Society's 'Order of the Star' in 1929

Engineer-Poet said...

"Literal belief in god as an existing "thing" that can perceived sensually is ahistorical."

Ahem.  Genesis 32:24 says otherwise.

Beowulff said...


However, I'm not the one who wrote one of the books saying that everyone that doesn't think like me is deluded or toxic. This is why I bring up understanding and curiosity: because that might be a step one takes before wholesale condemnation of most of the world's population.

You still seem to condemn us for not being curious enough to something that we think is irrelevant, and without showing its relevance.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins describes the issues of a god that interacts with our universe, which opens such a god up to scientific and logical analysis. His arguments against this type of god are quite to the point.

You appear to argue that most advanced theologians or christians actually don't believe in this type of god. This leaves a god that doesn't interact with our universe, or maybe just so indirectly and slightly to be effectively undetectable. Such a god could exist, as science nor logic could ever rule that out. However, the existence of such a god is clearly irrelevant. Why should we be curious what theologians have to say about a god that can't influence our lives? Why should Dawkins not dismiss such gods as irrelevant?

Jason Failes said...

Underverse said:
"Can you not distinguish between lying, on the one hand, and sincerely arguing in good faith on the other?"

Yes, but can you understand why I don't think lying to yourself is much better than lying to others?

To not ask the hard questions, to not look into the evidence, to not challenge beliefs long-held since, often, early childhood*, and to essentially put your own feelings and intuitions above everything this world has to offer, then to hawk these ideas to the credulous as if you have developed some kind of authority during your pseudo-journey, is just as disgusting as a faithless televangelist shearing his flock.

It is an insult to all of us who spend years of hard work in a particular discipline and/or who make a continuous effort to keep up with the volumes of new scientific information produced each and every day, because we do care, passionately, about understanding the universe accurately, and being truthful with ourselves and with others to the end of all reckoning (not just when we we get tired, bored, or scared of reckoning).





*Yes, I know theologians often differ wildly from the details of the belief system they were raised in, but also usually leave the foundational assumptions untouched and go straight to the publisher.

Jud said...

underverse -

If what you are trying to communicate is simply that people like Dawkins, PZ and Larry wish to substitute a dry reason for imagination and its products, then I think you are quite wrong. Dawkins is clear in his book (which I found far more gentle in tone - rational, one might say - than the critics or your piece might have one believe) that there are things he likes about Anglican traditions, for example, and that an understanding of nature by no means precludes feelings of immanence.

I can vouch from personal experience that the latter is true. Years ago, my then girlfriend (now wife) and I were out watching the Leonid meteor shower. At 5 a.m., as the shower had generally diminished and we turned to go in, there was a spectacular display of several bright shooting stars in front of us. My girlfriend's mother had been ill for months, and she said, "Those are the angels welcoming my mother into Heaven." We went to bed. Around noon, we received the call that her mother had passed away at 5 a.m. that morning.

The point? That I don't need to "believe" (for whatever meaning of "believe" one wants to use) in angels literally welcoming souls into Heaven in order to appreciate the poetry of that moment.

underverse said...

Larry et al,

I've got a new thread up that responds to most of your comments here. Except you, Dave W. Yours is still coming.

http://underverse.blogspot.com/2008/05/number-of-points-seem-to-be-recurring.html

Dustin said...

Holy crap you're verbose!

CT said...

What so many theists still haven't got is that it doesn't matter what your precise views are. No matter what supposed nuances and subtleties your belief in God contains it is still a belief in God and it therefore deserves to be criticised. If you genuinely want expertise on existence then theology is clearly the wrong field entirely, a philosopher, preferably of metaphysics or a scientist would seemingly be better suited than a theologian (who's job description is to study belief from a biased perspective of already believing).

Your argument is like claiming I can't deny the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn because I'm not fully educated in the history of your pathetic schisms over what shade of pink the unicorn is.