Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Atheism and Religion

A correspondent points me at a lecture by Richard Dawkins and two by Sam Harris, attacking religion in pretty strong terms. I'm also an atheist, but I think there are a number of problems with their arguments:

1. Dawkins describes religious belief as due entirely to faith and almost entirely inherited from one's parents, scientific belief as due to rational and skeptical investigation. In doing that, he is implicitly comparing the average religious believer with the professional scientist--indeed, with the upper end of professional scientists. The average believer in evolution or relativity or whatever is no more able to provide a convincing account of the evidence and arguments for his position than the average religious believer--both of them hold their beliefs not because of rational investigation but because the people around them told them those things were true. And religious leaders, at least some of them, offer arguments for their positions which are based on more than just faith, whether or not those arguments are correct--offer the evidence of miracles, rational arguments such as those of Aquinas, and the like. It's true that there is more rehashing of old arguments and less new argumentation in religion than in science--but then, religion is an older project than science, so presumably more of the relevant arguments have already been made.

If, after all, everyone got his religious beliefs from his parents, it's hard to see how multiple sects could come into existence. At some point someone, Luther or Calvin or the founder of one or another of the multiple Islamic sects, concluded that his parents' view was wrong, produced his own, and persuaded others to follow it instead of their parents' views.

2. Dawkins complains about four year old children being labelled "Christian," "Muslim," "Hindu." What he is ignoring is that religious labels identify communities as well as systems of belief. For many people the communal identification--"I am a member of this group"--is probably more important than the belief; there are surely lots of members of one Christian denomination or another who could not adequately explain the difference in beliefs between their denomination and others. Seen from this standpoint, it makes as much sense to describe a four year old child as "Christian" as it would to describe her as "French."

I'm reminded of the story of the visitor to Northern Ireland who is asked by a local whether he is a Protestant or a Catholic. He replies that he is a Jew. To which the local responds with "Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?" The religious labels here have become primarily identifications of which faction you are a part of, not of what you believe.

It's tempting to blame religion for a good deal of past violence, but it isn't clear if the fundamental cause was religious beliefs or the tendency of humans to identify with groups. There's been lots of violence between Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Muslims, but also between English and French or French and Germans. And the USSR, whose official religious doctrine was atheism, was also one of the most murderous states in history.

3. Harris, and I think also Dawkins, points out that there are lots of different religions, they disagree with each other, so they can't all be true. That's a persuasive argument against many religious positions taken literally. But it's not a very persuasive argument against religion in general, because there is an obvious rebuttal.

One of the speakers, I think Dawkins, quotes J. B. S. Haldane's speculation that the universe may be too complicated for us to understand. Similarly, it might be that religious truth is too difficult for us to fully understand. If so, different religions might each be giving a partial and imperfect view of the truth, narrowed down to what a human can make sense of.

Consider, for an obvious analogy, the scientific view of the nature of light. A critic could argue that some scientists describe light as particles, some as waves, and they cannot both be true. The response is that they can both be true--we can write down a mathematical description of light that is consistent with all of the experimental evidence. What we can't do is to clearly intuit that description. We can intuit the wave version, we can intuit the particle version, to our intuition they seem inconsistent, but in fact each is a partial description of a single consistent reality.

Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to. Part comes from weaknesses I can perceive in the foundations for my own view of the world. At some point, I think, each of us is using the superb pattern recognition software that evolution has equipped us with to see a coherent pattern in the world around us--and since the problem is a harder one than the software was designed to deal with, it isn't that surprising that we sometimes get different answers.

54 Comments:

At 1:38 PM, January 16, 2008, Anonymous alan said...

Bravo (from a christian)

 
At 1:49 PM, January 16, 2008, Anonymous Arthur B. said...

As for point 1, I believe there are at least two qualitative differences between a scientific belief and a religious belief, even when both are held out of faith.

Someone may believe in relativity by faith and trust the scientist because it has no bearing on his life, he would not act differently if he believed relativity was wrong. Religious belief however is generally acted upon. The man who accepts an arcane scientific belief has no incentive to test it against real life, the man who has a religious belief is betting on his belief.

Central to the idea of religion to Dawkins is that they constitute memes. Not only do you get them from your parents, but the message itself tell you to transmit it and refuse competing ideas. You may very well receive scientific knowledge from your parents or friends, but never has anyone told me "quantum theory works, pass it on".
Thus, even though it appears that scientific and religious ideas are transmitted similarly for most people, they are not subject to the same constraints. A wrong testable hypothesis will have a much shorter lifespan than a testable one. Thus it is not so much the mode of transmission that is being criticized but the fact that it's embedded in the message.

 
At 2:02 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger Scott said...

Bravo (from an atheist)

 
At 2:06 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

"A wrong testable hypothesis will have a much shorter lifespan than a testable one."

The anthropological view of humans as highly malleable, associated with Boaz and, famously, his student Margaret Mead, managed to survive quite a while despite massive evidence that it was false.

"but the message itself tell you to transmit it and refuse competing ideas."

Some scientific propositions--for instance, the belief that there are no significant differences in the distribution of intellectual characteristics by race or gender--include a very hostile attitude to competing ideas. Hostile enough to force a president of Harvard to resign for even raising the possibility that the belief might be false.

"Someone may believe in relativity by faith and trust the scientist because it has no bearing on his life, he would not act differently if he believed relativity was wrong."

My belief in relativity may not have much effect on my choices, but my belief in modern medicine does--and while there is quite a lot of evidence to support that belief, I'm not sure how much of it the average patient has checked out.

Note also that a lot of the effect on your life of adhering to a religious belief is something you can test. You can't test the claim that you will go to hell if you sin, but you can test the claim that the fellow members of your congregation will treat you less well if they catch you sinning.

 
At 2:34 PM, January 16, 2008, Anonymous A.B. said...

When I say it will have a shorter lifespan, I am obviously talking on average. There are wrong, testable, scientific views that will persist for a long time, but I don't think they are the rule. The point is that religion have a self-defense mechanism that most scientific theory don't have, and when they do, I'd venture that they'd be criticized by Dawkins on the same grounds as religion.

Your belief in medicine has been tested by your experience, and you have relied on other people who experienced it, or even assumed that it would have been disproven if it were incorrect. This remains a scientific approach.

Of course, by going to the doctor you don't test the validity of medical theory itself, you care about the effect of medical theory on your life, not really its intrinsic truth. In this case your testable belief is : a doctor will cure me. For most believers, I think, the relevant belief is not "religion will do me good" - which is testable - but rather, the religious teachings are intrinsically true, which is generally not.

 
At 2:49 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger Mike Huben said...

"Some scientific propositions--for instance, the belief that there are no significant differences in the distribution of intellectual characteristics by race or gender--include a very hostile attitude to competing ideas. Hostile enough to force a president of Harvard to resign for even raising the possibility that the belief might be false."

The proposition includes no such thing. However, people holding the proposition usually are also aware of competing RELIGIOUS and CULTURAL propositions that state that there are huge differences by gender that render women intellectually unfit for many occupations. Those latter propositions are conspicuously wrong, and have been used for discriminatory purposes for millennia.

Your first point strikes me as an oversimplification of Dawkins' ideas, though without his book as reference I can't pin down what's missing. What I'd guess is that he's talking origin of popularity of the ideas: religious ideas gain popularity through persuasion to faith, scientific ideas gain popularity through reproducible demonstrations of evidence.

Your second point misses the flip side: by "identifying communities" you are dividing larger communities, often in harmful ways by encouraging us vs. them behavior. That's what's wrong with such identification. I work in what's perhaps the most integrated Boston public school: 1/4 white, 1/4 black, 1/4 asian, 1/4 hispanic. It's a single community to some extent, and life would be much more difficult if the students identified more by community. The single community is amazing.

Your third "partial description of a single consistent reality" idea is a typical conspiracy theory idea. You can construct a conspiracy theory to accommodate any set of data: but is it likely or convincing? We can construct infinitely many other conspiracy theories to explain the multitudinous religions just as easily: satan has set them up, they're all leakage from parallel universes, etc. What's annoying about yours is that it doesn't mention how much is WRONG about the religions: are they each 5% wrong, 95% wrong, or what? And which parts are wrong? That's all glossed over with your idea, in a feel-good concession to religions. As a (mostly) positivist, don't you feel guilty about that?

"Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
David Hume

 
At 3:06 PM, January 16, 2008, Anonymous AhmNee said...

The major difference here is that religion holds their particular scripture (Bible, Koran, Quran, etc.) are the ultimate truth. While there are religious moderates who don't believe that the tales of these scriptures are the whole truth per se, the truth of it is they are heritics to their church. If you accept that the scriptures are merely parables and stories passed down from generation to generation, then your religion is no different than if someone worshipped the god Aldur because they read the Belgariad by David Eddings or worshiped the Force because they saw Star Wars.

Either you believe everything in your scriptures as the whole and unvarnished truth, or you must admit they are stories with no more truth in them than a collection of the Nursery Rhymes of Mother Goose. A cute little story with a cautionary moral built in.

Science is meant to be argued. If convincing new evidence is found to challenge a scientific law, no matter how old and accepted, the matter is open for new debate and testing of the revised hypothesis until consensus if formed.

If you used those guidelines for religion, you no longer have religion. You have sociology.

 
At 4:36 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger Mark said...

Your last paragraph is an excellent summary of my own position, but I would add the observation that humans seem to be wired to over-recognize patterns of agency. This fact casts an additional shade of suspicion on any such belief, and is particularly devastating to beliefs based on "gut feeling."

 
At 5:43 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger Omar Cruz said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 7:36 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger Beastin said...

There are plenty of thoughtful people who believe in some god, but I would argue that they don't believe because they are thoughtful. There's a very nice religious fellow that I know who also has an abiding interest in the sciences. At some point he was trying to explain to me all of the great scientific evidence in favor of god. For a while I discussed with him the various errors in logic and fact contained in his arguments, but since I really had no desire to continue assaulting his religion I finally asked something along the lines of, “Is there anything that could shake your belief in god?” Naturally he informed me that there was not. I then replied, “Well, that's faith. There's really nothing for us to discuss. It's not about the evidence. You would believe in spite of the evidence.”

I actually doubt that the faith of most people is unshakable, but it's a common sentiment. It is also a distinctly unscientific notion. When was the last time that you heard someone proclaim that nothing could make them doubt quantum mechanics?

It's true that many people who believe in science don't really understand the scientific process, but their belief is not simply a matter of faith. Every day they perform an extremely crude experiment involving all sorts of technology and find that, practically speaking, science works. They're not collecting incontrovertible evidence, and some fields get a lot less testing than others, but compared to religion the results are spectacular. If priests could reliably revive the dead or even act as a telephone (without one) then religions would not need to appeal to faith.

 
At 9:46 PM, January 16, 2008, Blogger Brian Macker said...

“Dawkins describes religious belief as due entirely to faith and almost entirely inherited from one's parents “

Mostly religion is inherited in this way. A good visual aid he uses to illustrate this point is a demographic map on religion. One would think if people just picked their religion out of the air or considered them all before choosing there wouldn’t be anything to see on the map. It would be homogenous. Funny thing is that people don’t generally just flip to a new religion but instead go with daddy.

“In doing that, he is implicitly comparing the average religious believer with the professional scientist--indeed, with the upper end of professional scientists”

Don’t see how.

“The average believer in evolution or relativity or whatever is no more able to provide a convincing account of the evidence and arguments for his position than the average religious believer”

So what? The problem is that the professional theist is far inferior to the professional scientists. The average science believer isn’t likely to go wrong believing in gravity, but there are serious consequences if you believe flying a plane into the World Trade Center is going to get you into paradise.

“If, after all, everyone got his religious beliefs from his parents, it's hard to see how multiple sects could come into existence. At some point someone, Luther or Calvin or the founder of one or another of the multiple Islamic sects, concluded that his parents' view was wrong, produced his own, and persuaded others to follow it instead of their parents' views.”

Yep, it’s analogous to a mutation and Dawkins has covered this issue in detail. Hell he’s gone out of the way to discuss religions like the Shakers that are passed on precisely by non-biological parents. He covered proselytization, missionary work, religious celibacy, and so forth. You should actually read him some time.

“And the USSR, whose official religious doctrine was atheism, was also one of the most murderous states in history.”

Actually the official religious doctrine of the USSR was Marxism. Atheism is merely a lack of belief in other people’s religion. Christians used to be called atheists because they didn’t believe in the Greek gods. Said another way:

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
- Stephen F. Roberts, atheist.

Commies just have different prophets and deities they worship, Marx, Kim Il-sung, Lenin, etc. They have irrational faith just like the standard Christian, Muslim, or Jew. Read Harris because basically he is right about religious faith.

“Dawkins complains about four year old children being labelled "Christian," "Muslim," "Hindu." What he is ignoring is that religious labels identify communities as well as systems of belief.”

Yes, he is ignoring that and to make a point. A point that is lost on you apparently.

“It's tempting to blame religion for a good deal of past violence, but it isn't clear if the fundamental cause was religious beliefs or the tendency of humans to identify with groups.”

That would be because a good deal of past and present violence is due to religion. You don’t see that? It’s staring you right in the face. Hint: We stoned them because they were kissing in the public. Do you think Muslims kill Muslim homosexuals because they aren’t Muslim?

How about hand chopping, that disproportionate religiously motivated punishment for stealing bread? You know, I pointed out to a Saudi that it was wrong to do for all the rationally motivated moral reasons. Things like disproportionality, human fallibility, emergency, state complicity in economic destitution, mistaken identity, etc. You know what his reply was? “Well it’s ok if we make any of those mistakes because the amputee gets automatic admission into heaven in that case. Allah says so.” Holy fucking shit. If that isn’t religiously sanctioned violence I don’t know what is.

Ever read the Qur’an. It isn’t about group differences this book tells you that Allah himself wants you to commit violence on nonbelievers. It think it’s reasonable to lay violence at religions feet when it advocates it, the follower does it, and then uses the very text of the religion to justify the act.

“Harris, and I think also Dawkins, points out that there are lots of different religions, they disagree with each other, so they can't all be true. That's a persuasive argument against many religious positions taken literally. But it's not a very persuasive argument against religion in general, because there is an obvious rebuttal.”

What the hell does “religion in general” mean? Nothing I suspect. But let’s say you meant a specific religion. Well it’s true that this argument doesn’t rule out any specific religion being correct. That’s because it wasn’t meant to.

“Similarly, it might be that religious truth is too difficult for us to fully understand. If so, different religions might each be giving a partial and imperfect view of the truth, narrowed down to what a human can make sense of.”

Yes, an old argument. So then you are still left with the problem of telling which religious truth is right and which wrong. You can’t do it on religious grounds alone. You have to turn to reason. But if you are using reason then what’s point of religion again in determining truths?

“A critic could argue that some scientists describe light as particles, some as waves, and they cannot both be true.”

The critic would be right. In fact both types of scientists are technically wrong. Light is not a particle and it is not a wave. Not in the sense being given here. Those are usually only used as analogies so that people can someone grasp what’s going on. They are damn good analogies but not really accurate, and neither is “the truth”.

“The response is that they can both be true--we can write down a mathematical description of light that is consistent with all of the experimental evidence.”
But the mathematical description is a model which is not one of either a particle or a wave. It’s not “both” as you claim.

“What we can't do is to clearly intuit that description. We can intuit the wave version, we can intuit the particle version, to our intuition they seem inconsistent, but in fact each is a partial description of a single consistent reality.”

Some people can’t and some people can “intuit” if by that you mean understand, or grasp the concept. Most people can’t “intuit” plain old water waves in the sense you use the word. Nor do they truly “intuit” particles. Sitting through physics class and seeing the expectations of other students with regard to how they expect objects to behave makes that clear. They think that feathers and bowling balls fall at different rates on the moon. Expect balls on strings to move in curved lines when released from circling trajectories and the like.

Try reading Q.E.D. and other books by Richard Feynman and if you already “intuit” math well then “intuiting” light is a breeze. You’ll even understand things like holograms to the extent where you can answer questions like. “If you take a square hologram of a bird and cut it into sixteen pieces then look at them you will be able to see the entire bird in each piece. Are the pieces optically identical? If so why? If not then how are they different?” Feynman doesn’t even ask or answer this question but with some mental exercise the answers become obvious. At least for some people.

Now that I understand how quantum particles work the behavior of light does not seem inconsistent at all, with itself. Sure it’s inconsistent with beach balls, and ocean waves but light isn’t either of those two things.

“Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to.”

But admittedly she’s an amateur at religion as you’ve already stated. She probably doesn’t even know the bible instructs her to kill her children if they backtalk and the like. The religious solve the problem of squaring intelligence and the ridiculous of religion by compartmentalization. Religion doesn’t have to make sense, so intelligence really doesn’t come into it for most people.

“-and since the problem is a harder one than the software was designed to deal with, it isn't that surprising that we sometimes get different answers.”

So what then, any old answer will do? I’m not sure what exactly you are getting at here? You mean that when someone else uses their “pattern recognition software” to see the Madonna in the stain under an overpass that it actually is the Madonna? Or that face on mars actually was a face built by some intelligence. Or that Canadian peninsula that looks like George Bernard Shaw that I saw in the C.S.I.C.O.P. magazine was actually created by God in order to send us some message?

Sure people see patterns but they also make mistakes and those mistakes can be shown for what they are. Evolution is a good example, and Dawkins makes a great argument when he shows that what looks like “design” actually isn’t design. One less piece of evidence that points at a deity. Add that to the hundreds of other religious truths that have been shot down by rational inquiry. Sounds to me like you might be making some “God of the Gaps” type argument where the gap is in peoples brains.

Just because some brain can’t conceive of a squared circle doesn’t mean that is good evidence that squared circles actually exist. My dog can’t conceive of squares with uneven sides so does that provide good evidence that such contradictory objects are in fact plausible?

Why does our lack of knowledge point to god for some people? Why not bandersnaches? Hell, leprechauns were perhaps first invented exactly with this mindset during a camping trip. “Damn, I can’t find my socks! Wonder why? I know must be some little green person stole them. Why green you say? Well how else could he get away into the forest? I think I’ll name my discovery the leprechaun.”

 
At 1:18 AM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your points, but 3 not so much.

Religion is different from science in only one truely objective way i think: all religions fail the test of internal consistency, a scientific worldview atleast could be different in that regard.

But i gave up on arguing with religious people when i realized most areligious people couldnt care less about internal consistency either. They pick a bunch of axioms, pretend they are truths, and then adhere to them as long as it suits them.

 
At 3:46 AM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous Steve Dekorte said...

"Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to."

Could you please post what you consider to be her most intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful argument for the existence of God?

 
At 6:29 AM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous nels said...

excellent post!

 
At 9:02 AM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous Alan Gunn said...

Fine post. I am dismayed by the many criticisms of "religion" that are in fact criticisms of forms of religion that I, a Methodist, consider absurd. It's like blaming science for the phlogiston theory of heat. (I'll concede that science is a lot better about getting rid of its loonier manifestations than Christianity is, but that may just be because unintelligent and badly educated people don't do science.) Religion, by its very nature, has to be open to everybody. So it ain't fair to pick on the fools and then act as if you've refuted the whole enterprise.

 
At 9:23 AM, January 17, 2008, Blogger jimbino said...

I'm totally confounded by the way many here use the words "faith" and "belief." It is beyond comprehension that a child can be born into a faith or a belief or that the faith a person is derivative of the faith of the majority of a country.

To hold otherwise is to pervert the meaning of the words.

Religion is another matter, as it has more to do with ritual than belief and indeed need not involve any rational thought processes. A person can be born into a religion, and I imagine that is the idea of baptism or genital mutilation of a child right after birth.

Furthermore, it should be recognized that Baptists, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and others of the Anabaptist tradition will say that "God has no grandchildren," which means precisely that one can become a child of God through faith, but that such a believer's child will gain no such status by virtue of having been born to a believer.

For that reason, a conscious declaration of belief, followed by adult baptism, is necessary in their religious tradition.

I hold that a person can be born into the Jewish religion, but that no amount of mutilation at birth can possibly introduce him into the Jewish faith, if there were such a thing.

In this regard, it should be noted that "faith" is not a prerequisite for the Jew or the Calvinist, since they become children of God not by faith, but by virtue of God's having chosen them, not vice versa.

Indeed, "faith," is one of those Greek abstractions, like "hope," "love," "truth," "beauty," and "justice" that does not really figure in the Hebrew Bible. They are concepts of the New Testament by way of the Greeks. None of the Jewish Patriarchs became children of God by virtue of faith, belief or reason! To claim otherwise is to put a Hebrew or Muslim gloss on those words.

 
At 9:53 AM, January 17, 2008, Blogger Rick and Gary said...

I like what Beastin says: "It's true that many people who believe in science don't really understand the scientific process, but their belief is not simply a matter of faith. Every day they perform an extremely crude experiment involving all sorts of technology and find that, practically speaking, science works."

In "The Beak of the Finch," a researcher talks about how he describes his work in Galapagos to fellow passengers on the airplane. They absolutely understand natural selection and physiological changes in response to environmental challenges to survival. It's only when he tells them that he's studying "evolution" that they shut down.

 
At 12:09 PM, January 17, 2008, Blogger rc said...

I agree completely with Dr. Friedman: otherwise objective people DO often act religious about their positions. Huben here even seems to justify it as a kind of defensive tactic - our intellectual opponents use emotional rhetoric and it works for them so we have to do it to fight back.

I think the most important difference between religious and scientific positions for the average thinker is simply the thinker's own belief about the nature of the support for the position. If I believe it because my "belief system" tells me it is true, I call it a religious position and I admit I have no logical way to support it but I believe it anyway. And you will too when you get saved/converted/enlightened/whatever. You get the idea.

I know that some religious folk strive to prove their beliefs with evidence but that is not the majority of religious thinkers. Most just say I believe this or that because I'm this or that and let it go - a fascinating element of humanity I think. (I suspect such groups of people are more effective at conquering groups of purely objective thinkers.)

I recall the Osmond son saying about his father's death how comforted he was that his father was now with his mother ***because of their "belief system"*** as if believing it made it true. The words "faith" and "belief" imply that the thing supposedly being believed is not supported by evidence.

 
At 2:07 PM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous Alexx Kay said...

arthur b: "A wrong testable hypothesis will have a much shorter lifespan than a testable one."

david friedman: "The anthropological view of humans as highly malleable, associated with Boaz and, famously, his student Margaret Mead, managed to survive quite a while despite massive evidence that it was false."

In general, a hypothesis *which makes a good story* will have a very long lifespan, regardless of its testability, or proven falsity. This effect is less pronounced within the scientific community, but far from absent even there.

As just one more example out of many, consider the experiment which "showed" that Planarian Worms could pass on learned behavior through cannibalization. That was an exciting story, and continued to form the basis for SF stories for decades (possibly to this day). This despite the initial experiment having been quite rapidly discovered to contain embarrassing experimental errors, and properly done experiments disproving the hypothesis.

 
At 4:18 PM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous js290 said...

Some of you may enjoy this program.

 
At 6:12 PM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous RKN said...

The average believer in evolution or relativity or whatever is no more able to provide a convincing account of the evidence and arguments for his position than the average religious believer--both of them hold their beliefs not because of rational investigation but because the people around them told them those things were true.

That's something I very much agree with. You see this - at least I have - all around the blogsphere, particularly relating to the theory of evolution (ToE), for instance. People who believe things they don't understand, what Stevie Wonder called Superstition. What other explanation could there be for this other than people feeling the need for membership in what they believe is the "rational group." Occasionally I've taken some amusement in revealing to some of these people how little they know about what they believe is true, and I can tell you this, it's no way to gain friends. People get really edgy when you start poking around their beliefs.

In the end, tho, I merely shrug. I've said before that if the ToE were incontrovertibly proven false tomorrow very little would change in the world. A few professors would be out of work, a change or two to some course curricula, but very little else - except maybe Dawkins would need to find a new group to ridicule.

I'm not saying being on the side of rationality and truth when you can find it isn't a worthwhile goal, but just as well there's a lot to be said for simply remaining agnostic on a variety of issues, the underlying truth of which wouldn't measurably impact your life one way or another.

About 5 years ago at mid-life I gave up a lucrative career as a private software consultant to return to school to pursue a PhD in a field that at the time I knew relatively little about. It's been a throughly enlightening renaissance; I'm absolutely convinced that in the area of micro- and macro- biology, real truths are few, and we understand with certainty far less than your average groupie believes we do.

 
At 8:33 PM, January 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of bad things inspired on religion... I am in an African art class and previous I was in an African history class and I must say that those who believe Islam is a religion of peace are way off. While Europe was facing long supply lines that evertually doomed its crusading enterprises (except in France and Eastern Europe), Muslim jihads waged across North Africa. The funny thing is that some seem to be motivated by the desire to loot and pillage and others where generated with the goal of destroying the infidels and purging impure muslims. So you get both problems with religion demonstrated in one action: using faith to justify immorality and commiting immoral actions in the name of faith.

 
At 12:36 AM, January 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The situation is easier to understand once you stop thinking in terms of groups and start thinking in terms of individuals. Some individuals are both Muslim and murderous, some individuals are both Muslim and peaceful. Hardly surprising, and not very useful either.

 
At 4:58 AM, January 18, 2008, Anonymous Brian Macker said...

Actually, Anonymous (and you should use a nick name), your thinking is simplistic.

The founder of Islam was a bad person and the rules he wrote were bad. He and his followers then went on a religiously imperialistic period of expansion through conquest.

Now after a while, if you are running such an ideology you run out of people to exploit by conquest. At least ones you can defeat. So you settle down into a period of inter-religious conflict. Mohammed had rules about that too, also not good rules.

Now after a while the nice people get tired of all this, and besides it's hard to tell who's a true believer when your policy is to kill apostates, so they stop obeying, reading, and even discussing the bad stuff about their religion.

So according to their own religion they are bad people for ignoring the rule. In fact, this tendency not to want to go on Jihad was apparent to Mohammed from the beginning so he explicitly says (he has Allah say) these "good" people are behaving badly and don't deserve heaven. He rants quite a bit about "hipocrites" in the quran. That's why Muslims have no problem killing other muslims who are not following the "bad" rules. They're given sanction by Allah himself.

Had Hitler been successful in setting up his thousand year empire then future generations would have been discussing the same issues with regards to them. The majority of Nazis would be "good" Nazis.

Problem is ever so often some followers will actually read the founding documents and go off an murder spree. Even when not the entire Islamic civilization is set up as a apartheid with non-Muslims serving the role of second class citizens. Very similar to what an Nazi civilization would look like.

 
At 8:26 AM, January 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner

Sorry about the naming problem (I'm not really computer savvy).
Sometimes I get the feeling that atheists and fundies are the only people who actually read holy books.

Your mention of the Nazis reminds me of another book (The story of B?) were the guy is making a similar analogy and he has these two students at a university long after the victory and one turns to the other and says "You know, I can't help but feel I am missing something, that we aren't being told something".

 
At 1:56 PM, January 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Friedman,

Thank you very much for taking time to answer my request. I hope you don't mind if I reply directly here. The reply is going to be long, so I have taken the liberty of using bold to highlight the key points. To make reading easier, I have also put this text online, formatted in color. Here, lacking color, I have prefixed each quoted paragraph with the name of its author (in particular, D for Dawkins, F for Friedman, H for Harris.)


It turns out that some of your arguments have already been answered by Dawkins and Harris. I did some research to find some quotes from them which seem relevant to your objections. I hope this will be an interesting read. I also apologize once again for my English.


F: Dawkins describes religious belief as due entirely to faith and almost entirely inherited from one's parents, scientific belief as due to rational and skeptical investigation. In doing that, he is implicitly comparing the average religious believer with the professional scientist--indeed, with the upper end of professional scientists.

This looks like the argument "you are comparing the worst of religion with the best of science", also known as "you are ignoring the more sophisticated believers". Here are some quotes that may be relevant:

1. Sam Harris (taken from here).


H: 500 years ago, life was difficult, there was a lot of despair, crops failed, disease spread, people suffered just instantaneous and catastrophic changes in their fortune; and the cause of all this actually was well understood: it was witchcraft. And happily, the church had produced some very energetic men who had the gumption to deal with this problem. And so, every year, some hundreds and sometimes thousands of women were burned alive or casting spells on their neighbors.

H: Now, imagine what it would be like to be among the 5 or 10% of people at most who recognized that the very belief in magic, the very belief in witchcraft, the very belief in good witches and bad witches, was a malignant fantasy. That the white witches who were helping people with medicinal herbs, and practicing midwifery, were on no firmer ground than the black witches, who were casting the evil eye. The whole belief system was at fault. Now imagine the kind of criticism you are gonna get: "No, no, your problem is just with fundamentalist witchcraft... the reality is that witchcraft is far more nuanced than that... and there's no conflict between science and witchcraft... I mean, science deals with physical law, and physical causality, but witchcraft deals with potions, spells, and the internal connections between things....



How is this weird discourse relevant to your objection? The point is that every religious person, however sophisticated, makes claims about the nature of the universe which are unsupported by evidence, and therefore unjustified. It's their method that is fundamentally flawed. And this applies to every believer, even the most sophisticated. Once you acknowledge this, your objection does not seems to hold. (Why is the method flawed? Because, if you don't use reason and evidence, then anyone can say anything; so there is no reason to believe that the conclusions you reach are true.)


2. Quoting Harris (from here:)

H: [Many people say that] the atheist critique of religion focuses on the most benighted and marginal and bible-thumping versions of the faith, and there's a far more sophisticated faith on offer that is untouched by these criticism. That's just not true. This criticism applies every bit as much to a sophisticated believer like Francis Collins. In fact more so, because he should know better. He should know that, if a frozen waterfall can testify the existence of Jesus, then anything can testify to anything.

H: Now, whatever is the subject under discussion, there are good reasons for believing things, and there are bad reasons. And the problem here is that religion has made bad reasoning into an art form...


The point is that believers and theologians, however sophisticated, nonetheless tend to identify themselves with some religious confession, and therefore accept at least a few articles of faith, such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, the trinity, that god is a designer, that god is a creator, that god listens to prayers, etc. Even believers who do not identify themselves with any confession, but claim that there exists a God without qualifying it in any way, are still making unjustified claims about cosmology, as Harris notices here:


H: You are making the positive assertion that the universe had a Creator. Doing so, you are attempting to make a substantial contribution to the science of cosmology. When the real cosmologists come back from their next conference and say things like, "spacetime may be a closed manifold and, therefore, may have no beginning or end" this would be one of many possible descriptions of the universe which would close the door on a creation event and, therefore, on a Creator. There are many ways that science could conflict with the "truth" upon which your faith now rests.



3. Quoting P.Z. Myers on the "you are not considering the more sophisticated version of faith" attack to Dawkins:


Myers: 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.

Myers: Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Myers: Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed --- how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry --- but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Myers: Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.



4. Another reply from Dawkins (from the new preface to The God Delusion):


D: If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholoy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.


5. This excerpt from "the god delusion" might also be relevant:


D: Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. Even if hard to test in practice, it belongs in the same TAP or temporary agnosticism box...

...

D: The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice - or not yet - a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful. Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no. Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Did he himself come alive again, three days after being crucified? There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods.


Harris on the same topic:


H: Many religious claims are at odds with science. The belief that Jesus was born of a virgin may be a cherished claim by most Christians. It is also a claim about biology.
...


H: the frequency with which you can hear religious people praise themselves for their humility --- while tacitly claiming to know things about cosmology and physics and chemistry and paleontology that no scientist knows.


__


F: The average believer in evolution or relativity or whatever is no more able to provide a convincing account of the evidence and arguments for his position than the average religious believer--both of them hold their beliefs not because of rational investigation but because the people around them told them those things were true.


Interesting objection. I suggest that there may be a difference. In the case of scientific beliefs, you can always ask for the evidence, and check it yourself, if you feel the need to. That is the reason why, in science, one can be reasonably confident that some claim is true without checking. So that kind of trust is not really an act of faith. On the other hand, in the case of religion, when you actually ask for the evidence, you regularly discover it is terrible or inexistent.

Consider the recent proof of Fermat's last theorem. Very few scientists can hope to understand the proof, but they just accept it as true; they trust the opinion of other colleagues which they deem more competent in those fields. The same, in some sense, happens in the relationship between ordinary religious people and religious leaders or scholars. But the underlying reality in the two cases is different: scientific claims could always be backed up by evidence, if you took the trouble of looking. In the case of religion, on the other hand, "the emperor is naked". You dig, and discover there is nothing there.

Philosopher Daniel Dennet has discussed the issue in more detail here. (I am not sure I have represented his position well.)


F: And religious leaders, at least some of them, offer arguments for their positions which are based on more than just faith, whether or not those arguments are correct--offer the evidence of miracles, rational arguments such as those of Aquinas, and the like.

But the classical theological arguments are very poor, and can be rather easily refuted. That would of course be too lengthy here. (I would suggest Dawkins' treatment in The God Delusion).

As for miracles, they too are very poor evidence, for reasons well stated by Harris in the first lecture you quoted:

H: The [reason] is that first-hand reports of miracles are quite common even in the 21st-century. I have met literally hundreds at this point of Western educated men and women who think that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers. The powers ascribed to these gurus are every bit as outlandish as those ascribed to Jesus. I, actually, remain open to evidence of such powers. The fact is that people who tell these stories desperately want to believe them. And all, to my knowledge, lack the kind of corroborating evidence we should require before believing that nature's laws have been abrogated in this way. And people who believe these stories show an uncanny reluctance to look for non miraculous causes. But it remains a fact that yogis and mystics are said to be walking on water, and raising the dead, and flying without the aid of technology; materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future. Right now. In fact all of these powers have been ascribed to Satya Sai Baba, the South Indian guru by an uncountable number of eyewitnesses. He even claims to have been born of a virgin, which is not all that uncommon a claim in the history of religion or in history generally. Genghis Khan, supposedly, was born of a virgin, as was Alexander. (Apparently parthenogenesis doesn't guarantee that you're going to turn the other cheek.) But Satya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. He is not the David Koresh of Hinduism. His followers threw a birthday party for him recently, and a million people showed up. So there are vast numbers of people who believe he is a living god. You can even watch his miracles on YouTube; prepare to be under-whelmed. Maybe it's true that he has an Afro of sufficient diameter as to suggest a total detachment from the opinions of his fellow human beings. But I'm not sure this is reason enough to worship him; in any case. So, consider, as though for the first time, the foundational claim of Christianity. The claim is this that miracle stories of a sort that today surround a person like Satya Sai Baba become especially compelling when you set them in the pre-scientific religious context of the first century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence. We have Satya Sai Baba's miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eyewitnesses. And they don't even a merit an hour on the Discovery Channel. But you place a few miracle stories in some ancient books, and half the people on this earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around them. Does anyone else see a problem with that?


Two quotes from Dawkins on miracles as evidence (from The God Delusion):


D: You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn't impress you.


and


D: David Hume's pithy test for a miracle comes irresistibly to mind: 'No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.'

D: [About the apparition of Fatima:] It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage (they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can't have done much for their eyesight). But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated.


F: If, after all, everyone got his religious beliefs from his parents, it's hard to see how multiple sects could come into existence. At some point someone, Luther or Calvin or the founder of one or another of the multiple Islamic sects, concluded that his parents' view was wrong, produced his own, and persuaded others to follow it instead of their parents' views.

On the other hand, prof. Dawkins, in his lecture, only said that religious beliefs tend to be transmitted with the family. (And that by itself should probably give a moment's pause to believers. )

F: 2. Dawkins complains about four year old children being labelled "Christian," "Muslim," "Hindu." What he is ignoring is that religious labels identify communities as well as systems of belief.

I guess Dawkins probably understands that the word can be given this meaning. But he wants to "raise our consciiousness" about the dangers of attaching labels to children.

...


F: It's tempting to blame religion for a good deal of past violence, but it isn't clear if the fundamental cause was religious beliefs or the tendency of humans to identify with groups. There's been lots of violence between Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Muslims, but also between English and French or French and Germans.

On the other hand, Dawkins, in the lecture, is very cautious with his claims: he notices that, without religion, there would be no way to distinguish protestants and catholics in Ireland. No label to attach to.

F: And the USSR, whose official religious doctrine was atheism, was also one of the most murderous states in history.

That is actually one of the most frequent attacks on atheism. In the first lecture you linked, Sam Harris replies in a way that is IMHO very convincing:


H: Finally, there's this notion that atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in the 20th century. ... It is amazing how many people think that the crimes of Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao were the result of atheism. The truth is that this is a total misconstrual of what went on in those societies, and of the psychological and social forces that allow people to follow their dear leader over the brink. The problem with Fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion. The problem is they're too much like religions; these are utterly dogmatic systems of thought. I recently had a debate with Rick Warren in the pages of Newsweek, and he suggested that North Korea was a model atheist society and that any atheist with the courage of his convictions should want to move there. The truth is North Korea is organized exactly like a faith based cult, centered on the worship of Kim Jong-il. The North Koreans apparently believe that the shipments of food aid that they receive from us, to keep them from starving to death, are actually devotional offerings to Kim Jong-il. Is too little faith really the problem with North Korea? Is too much skeptical inquiry, what is wrong here?

H: Auschwitz, the gulag, and the killing fields are not the product of atheism; they are the product of other dogmas run amok; nationalism, political dogma. Hitler did not engineer a genocide in Europe because of atheism; in fact Hitler doesn't even appear to have been an atheist, he regularly invoked Jesus in his speeches. But that's beside the point, he did it on the basis of other beliefs, dogmas about Jews and the purity of German blood. The history of Muslim jihad however does have something to do with Islam. The atrocities of September 11th did have something to do with what 19 men believed about martyrdom and paradise...

H: So I submit to you there really is no society in human history that has ever suffered because its population became too reasonable.


Harris does not explicitely mention Stalin, but he does here :


H: what we find with Nazism is a kind of political religion. We find this with Stalinism as well --- where claims about racial purity and the march of history and the dangers of intellectualism, are made in a fanatical and rigid and indefensible way. The people at the top of these hierarchies---Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Il Sung in North Korea --- these were not the kings of reason. These were highly peculiar individuals who had all kinds of strange convictions. The upper echelons of the Third Reich were filled with people who believed crazy things, like that the Aryans had been preserved in ice since the beginning of the world. Heinrich Himmler created a meteorological division of the Reich to test this ice theory. This is not what people do when they reason too carefully, or become too unwilling to accept mythology as fact. It's another kind of mythology, and one that is no less dangerous than religious mythology.


If I may add something about Stalin, it does not seem so hard to show that Stalin's regime was profoundly dogmatic. Collectivization, it could be claimed, was a dogma. There was no evidence it would work; there was substantial evidence it would not work. They went on by faith.

Another piece of evidence could be Lysenkoism. In 1928 An agronomist named Lysenko invented a new agricolture technique promising to quadruplicate the production of grain. In reality the technique was neither new nor useful. But, in the compromised political environment of Soviet Union, Lysenko won all the important political battles. Between 1934 and 1940 he had Stalin arrest, imprison and execute many of his colleagues. It was clear at the time that Lysenkoism was only dangerous nonsense. But few had the courage to state the obvious, and break what could be called a "state dogma".

Finally, quoting Dawkins:

D: if we accept that Hitler and Stalin shared atheism in common, they both also had moustaches, as does Saddam Hussein. So what? The interesting question is not whether evil (or good) individual human beings were religious or were atheists. ... What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.

I wonder if you had you ever considered the issue from that point of view.




F: 3. Harris, and I think also Dawkins, points out that there are lots of different religions, they disagree with each other, so they can't all be true. That's a persuasive argument against many religious positions taken literally. But it's not a very persuasive argument against religion in general, because there is an obvious rebuttal. One of the speakers, I think Dawkins, quotes J. B. S. Haldane's speculation that the universe may be too complicated for us to understand. Similarly, it might be that religious truth is too difficult for us to fully understand.

I guess it might be, but why should you believe that? I mean, also Russell's teapot, which revolves around the sun in elliptical orbit, might be too small to be detected by the most powerful telescope. Does this mean there are good reasons to believe it exists?

And the exact shape of the Invisible Pink Unicorn is, by definition, impossible for us to fully grasp. Does this give good reason to believe that it exists?

About your claim that religion and science could be complementary: scientific claims are supported by evidence, religious claims aren't. So, while there is reason to believe that science describes a part of reality, there does not seem to be any reason to believe that religion might be a complementary description of reality (as opposed to being completely void of real content).

F: Consider, for an obvious analogy, the scientific view of the nature of light. A critic could argue that some scientists describe light as particles, some as waves, and they cannot both be true. The response is that they can both be true--we can write down a mathematical description of light that is consistent with all of the experimental evidence.

Though this is surely a clever analogy, I am not sure it holds. Both theories of light you mention are supported by good evidence; so there's reason to believe they may be both valid description of reality (and that they may be reconciled in some future theory). But the evidence for religious claims is either inexistent or terrible, so religion cannot really be put on the same level of one of those theories.

Here is a claim about Dawkins which seems relevant (taken from here ) A person from the public question asked:


Person: You ridiculed the religious claims about Trinity, but ironically you finished your lecture with Quantum Strangeness, which in fact is the same problem for Science as Trinity is for believing Christians, who have a need to understand. [...]


Dawkins replied:


D: Quantum Theory is deeply mysterious, and you implied there is a sort of comparability with the Trinity: they are both deeply mysterious, so why should one prefer one over the other? The answer to that is actually very simple. Quantum theory yields experimental predictions which have been verified to an accuracy of N decimal places. It is so accurate that the great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman compared it to predicting the width of North America to the accuracy of the width of one human hair. That is why quantum theory has to be taken seriously. ... It doesn't matter that Quantum Theory is so mysterious that Feynman himself said "If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't understand quantum theory". I believe the reason is that the human mind evolved in the "middle world" where the strangeness of quantum theory never impinged upon human life. It is true that the human mind cannot grasp, cannot visualize, cannot imagine the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make; but human physicists doing experiments can verify the predictions of quantum theory, to an accuracy which is utterly stupefying, and which leaves one in no doubt that, in some sense, quantum theory must be right. Nothing remotely like that could ever be claimed for the doctrine of the Trinity.


It should be noted that that this argument does not apply only to very specific claims such as the Trinity, but to any religious claim.



F: Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to.

I don't doubt that for a moment. But is her thoughtfulness due to her religion, of is she thoughtful despite her religion? Stephen Weinberg claims:

Weinberg: " Without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. "

In the first lecture you linked, Harris notices that every human conquest in history is due to humans standing up against religious commandments that were written in their holy books. An example is the abolition of slavery, women's rights, etc. Elsewhere Harris also says:


H: As you know, there are an uncountable number of questions upon which religion once offered a faith-based answer, which have now been ceded to the care of science. Indeed, the process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture is relentless, unidirectional, and highly predictable. Some smart person begins to doubt received opinion-about the causes of illness, the movement of celestial bodies, the nature of sensory perception, etc.-he or she then observes the world more closely (often making shrewd use of technology and/or mathematics) and makes predictions that can be verified by others. What we see, time and again, is a general unwillingness for religious people to seriously interact with this discourse (and even an eagerness to subjugate or murder its perpetrators) whenever it challenges doctrines to which they are emotionally attached. Eventually, however, the power that comes with actually understanding the world becomes too seductive to ignore, and even the clerics give in. In this way, real knowledge, being truly universal, erodes the basis for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their holy books might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religion (or it should), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science (and rational discourse generally) delivers this understanding and offers a very frank appraisal of its current limitations; Religion fails on both counts.

--

I hope this long message has been interesting. Thank you very much for your attention and kindness.

Kind regards,

Maurizio

 
At 4:58 PM, January 19, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't know if I'll manage a full response to the very long comment, but I was struck by one part of your first quote:

"500 years ago, life was difficult, there was a lot of despair, crops failed, disease spread, people suffered just instantaneous and catastrophic changes in their fortune; and the cause of all this actually was well understood: it was witchcraft. And happily, the church had produced some very energetic men who had the gumption to deal with this problem. And so, every year, some hundreds and sometimes thousands of women were burned alive or casting spells on their neighbors."

That quote illustrates the risk of basing your historical arguments on faith rather than evidence. There's quite a good summary of the modern historical evidence on witchcraft trials at:

http://www.draeconin.com/database/witchhunt.htm

1. It is unlikely that there was any year about 500 years ago when a hundred women, let alone a thousand, were convicted of witchcraft and executed, since the large scale persecutions didn't start until about 1550.

2. Most executions were due to secular courts. Not only were witchcraft trials not the result of a campaign by the church, the church on the whole--most notably the Spanish inquisition--mostly acted to suppress witchcraft crazes, not to fan them. The major witchcraft crazes tended to be in places where there was religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant, hence where the church was weak.

Harris goes on to write:

"Now, imagine what it would be like to be among the 5 or 10% of people at most who recognized that the very belief in magic, the very belief in witchcraft, the very belief in good witches and bad witches, was a malignant fantasy."

That is to say, to accept the position widely held in the Catholic church since considerably earlier, that to believe that the devil could give witches the power to do magic was heretical.

Which does not imply that Harris' arguments are wrong, merely that one ought to be a little cautious about accepting his view of the historical facts on which some of them are based.

Let me respond to one other point you make--the claim that the record of the communist states is irrelevant. To begin with, you seem to think I was claiming that their murderousness was due to atheism. I think if you look at my original post, you can see that my claim was rather that it was not due to religion--hence that the fact that some (say) Catholic states had killed people didn't imply that their murderousness was due to their religion.

Along the same lines, you quote:

"Without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Unless you expand "religion" beyond its usual meaning, that's simply false. I think it's clear that a fair number of dedicated communist were good people, and that they did very evil things.

 
At 4:00 AM, January 20, 2008, Anonymous Rick said...

The Northern Ireland story, although often told as a joke, is actually more true than most people think. As part of Fair Employment legislation (whereby any company employing more than 10 people has to have roughly equal Protestants and Catholics), companies have to report their staff breakdown regularly to the government. There is no option for 'neither', so for a Jewish employee, you do indeed have to decide whether they are a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew.

(I haven't lived in Northern Ireland for quite some time now, so it's possible that this has changed, but that was definitely true when I owned a company there about 10 years ago)

 
At 6:54 AM, January 20, 2008, Anonymous Brian Macker said...

"1. It is unlikely that there was any year about 500 years ago when a hundred women, let alone a thousand, were convicted of witchcraft and executed, since the large scale persecutions didn't start until about 1550."

I think rounding is fine in this context. Fife hundred years ago is close enough to four hundred fifty eight years ago that we can get his meaning.

You miss the purpose of the story in the first place. It wasn't meant to be an accurate history of persecution. It was meant to be a "what if" scenario. What if we were transported 500 years ago and were presented with the same argument being presented today. This argument works because, in the past, faith based arguments were the prevailing view on topics where they are no longer accepted.

I hope one day these arguments will not be accepted all areas of human endeavor, including ethics.

 
At 2:44 PM, January 20, 2008, Blogger Bad said...

These are some good points, and I think a lot more worthwhile than the lazy tripe we normally hear lobbed at Dawkins and Harris.

1. This is a good point against Dawkins' rhetorical excesses, though I'm not sure it still quite makes sense by the time you get to the end of it, since I very much doubt that Dawkins really asserts that people only get their religious beliefs from their parents, end of story.

2. This seems more like a clarification than anything. Dawkins is in this case arguing against an actual government policy in England that labels kids that way, and in this context is point is that at the very least we should consider it a bad thing to encourage divisive labeling and grouping. And this also sort of hurts you point above: if people can change religions from that of their parents, and do, why is it a bad thing to be against such categorization at such an early age?

Your final conclusion I quite agree with in general, though I think in specific you are still magnifying your difference with Dawkins and Harris a bit much. There's a big difference from "your religious ideas might have some validity, but you are going to have to show this like everyone else" and "well, any belief is probably a window on the truth." Some views are baseless, some are wrong, some, like many scientific theories, are somewhat true but deeply misleading. We owe it to ourselves to keep asking questions and figuring out what's what, and I think in that, it's perfectly legitimate to point out that there are good reasons for thinking this or that belief is unfounded or mistaken.

Lots of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people believed in aether too. That we get different answers doesn't mean that it's a bad idea to continue to argue the matter (part of how liberal societies do figure out the truth is via adversarial debate, after all)

 
At 2:48 PM, January 20, 2008, Blogger Dr. C said...

The analogy between multiple religious beliefs and the wave/particle duality of light is terribly weak and does nothing to advance the reasonableness of religious belief.

1. Size matters - There are two approaches to understanding light. There are thousands of religions. There may be competing theories in science, but the number of credible explanations considered at any one time is always a small handful. (The only counter example in science I can think of is the so called landscape in string theory - a fact that causes string theory, rightfully, an endless amount of grief.)

2. That there are now two interpretations of light experiments does not mean that there will someday be only one. Who could say, without being laughed out of the room, that there will someday be only one religion (except if pronounced by fiat at the end of a sword)

3. Unless you subscribe to some extreme version of skepticism, certain conditions lead to "light as particle" as THE best explanation. The only thing Catholicism explains is Catholicism. It's a closed loop. Sciences cross pollinate and continually progress. Religion is little more than navel gazing.

 
At 7:32 PM, January 20, 2008, Blogger Chet said...

That quote illustrates the risk of basing your historical arguments on faith rather than evidence.

David, I have to ask - why is it only historical arguments that you object to being based on faith?

Since, in the same post, you praise this faith-based reasoning from the church:

That is to say, to accept the position widely held in the Catholic church since considerably earlier, that to believe that the devil could give witches the power to do magic was heretical.

But that's not at all the position Harris describes. Don't you see? The church wasn't rejecting notions of witchcraft for good, evidence-based reasons - but for by the same faith-based thinking that got people to believe in witches in the first place.

There's a great deal of difference between an argument that says "there are no such things as witches because the devil has no power to grant them magic" and the rational argument that says "there are no such thing as witches because there's no such thing as the devil." The former is the very faith-based thinking you objected to, when it seemed to support a historical argument. But when the church uses it, you don't bat an eyelash.

Why is that? Is faith-based thinking an appropriate means to knowledge of the real world, or isn't it? And if you contend that it is, or that it can be, how do you respond to the observation that faith-based thinking is invariably completely wrong?

 
At 8:43 PM, January 21, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Don't worry; rational thought is still a scare resource. Did you know they are still killing witches in Nigeria?
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2224553,00.html

It gets better; the witches are kids. Doesn't it give you a warm, fuzzy skin burning off your body feeling?

 
At 7:56 AM, January 24, 2008, Anonymous Mrs. P. said...

David Friedman said, "You can't test the claim that you go to hell if you sin..."

Well, actually, you can test it, you just can't report your findings back to the lab.

(And technically, or rather spiritually, you don't go to hell if you sin, because then everyone would go to hell. Actually, everyone is born headed in that direction anyway... It's if you reject Jesus - don't accept that he is who he says he is and thus reject his sacrifice for you, and don't repent and turn away from sin as a lifestyle...)

Anyway, an interesting post.

 
At 6:46 AM, January 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beastin (and others),

Given evidence and reasoning, a religious person is perfectly capable of changing his belief in matters such as, the morality of a behaviour, the specifics of a prophecy, even the exact nature of an afterlife. Their trust in God is no different than a scientist's trust in the objective nature of reality. There is, in logic, no reason to believe in science. Just because you have tested that a feather falls at the same speed as a bowling ball, doesn't mean that it will continue to do so in the future or that it has always behaved that way. It doesn't even mean you were right when you did the test. Think about it, when you board a plane you are not just trusting the scientist who developed the principles used to design the plane, but the universe itself. You don't -know- that the universe will continue to operate in a way that keeps the airplane flying, you simply have faith in it. Science requires a faith in a particular metaphysics, and then simply builds on that faith based on experience and reason, just like any particular religion.

 
At 6:35 AM, January 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because you have tested that a feather falls at the same speed as a bowling ball, doesn't mean that it will continue to do so in the future

This is false. There is (a lot of) evidence to believe that the feather will continue to do so in the future. Namely, the fact that it did so in all previous experiments. Therefore, the scientist's trust in the existence of that law is not faith. It is actually the very opposite of faith: it is belief based on evidence.

Their trust in God is no different than a scientist's trust in the objective nature of reality. There is, in logic, no reason to believe in science.

Again, this is false. The trust in God is not based on evidence, it is based on faith. OTOH, the reason for believing in science is evidence.

 
At 2:21 PM, February 06, 2008, Anonymous Catanea said...

After many, many years as a more-or-less, fairly analytical C. S. Lewis Christian [I said "Christian Anarchist" - I made that up] I rather suddenly, recently became a Douglas Adams [= Richard Dawkins? I haven't read any Richard Dawkins] atheist. I feel very relaxed, and wanted to say:
Bravo!
From that position.
BUT in my professional capacity as a medievalist, I still "believe" ALL the lives of the saints. And this doesn't bother me. Maybe the Red Queen was onto something.
x

 
At 8:04 AM, February 25, 2008, Blogger Ed said...

This is generally a good article except on point 2. Dawkins does not say that about Northern Ireland. He says that there never would have been any community divide if it were not for the religious divide. The two communities speak the same language [more or less], look exactly the same, have the same customs. It was not group division first and then religion; it was religion first and then group division.

 
At 7:58 AM, October 07, 2008, Anonymous Nathaniel Kain Hooker said...

An atheist or a believer in Jesus Christ has faith; the question just becomes what their faith is in. Everyone has faith, some trust man and others trust Jesus Christ. I prefer to trust Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died for me. You have a choice and only one life to make it (75 years), you can either trust a man or you can trust a Man (Son of God, Jesus Christ). Now taking into perspective the amount of self abasement and humility scientist have, I am a very leery to trust them. I also wonder if they would ever die for their beliefs in their own science. This willingness to die and end ones life (not through suicide) by the hands of another for the purposes of declaring and keeping ones Faith should be proof enough that God exist.

Science proves Nothing!

Science describes the order and processes that are needed to result in a specific outcome while sidestepping the question of why.

Atheists are illogical for the simple reason that everything a human see’s, needed a creator. A mathematical equation does not write itself upon a piece of paper. Nor does a house build itself. Why do atheists presume that they are the only thing capable of creating something. The shirt you wear or the shoes that cover your feet were all created. If someone cannot understand this logical step, no logic exist in them. Just look at everything around you and tell me, what do you use in your personal life that was not created. If something as insignificant as a T.V. or a phone had to be produced, why do we think that something involving much greater creativity like the human body can just form itself. The mere fact that homosexuality (life long companionship) exist among humans and not among any other animal proves the fact that we were created. If we evolved from a sub primate, and Darwinism is true, homosexuality should not be on the rise, but conversely, should be gradually lessening for the reason that homosexuality does not coincide with Darwinism or evolution. It is a gene or impulse that should have been wiped away through Darwinian Evolution. This fact can not be refuted without eliminating Darwinian Evolution or evolution of itself.

 
At 12:52 PM, October 21, 2008, Blogger Edgar said...

You're an Atheist, but you're an HONEST one.

People like Dawkins are just religious zealots, of a pseudo-Atheist, arrogant, misanthropic religion.

It's like trying to stamp out Sports, because of Hooligans:

Only anti-Sport people can act that way;
People that just don't believe in Sport...

They just don't care!

 
At 5:00 PM, December 08, 2008, Anonymous Nova said...

Surely you must realise that the majority of religions have died long ago and even many of nowadays could have, by a slight misfortune, not exist. It is hard to see how anyone then believes in them. But I guess it is the weird view you express towards the end. Your light analogy is misguided because light is on such a scale wherein it is hard to apply either concept, and they are just rough approximations of the way light works. You go into no detail on what you mean by "different religions might each be giving a partial and imperfect view of the truth, narrowed down to what a human can make sense of" firstly, how do you think they get this truth? Religion has never looked out truth, just claimed it. Secondly, the specific tenets of religion are completely inconsistent with any other viewpoint, and the idea that bits of information they provide is somehow true despite the fact that they seem to be a small minority of primitive human belief systems that survived to the present day and now lodge themselves in intelligent people emotionally (this is most probably why "a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God" btw) is beyond me. Again, where do they get it from? Your comparison of religion and science is very odd. Of course not everyone can explain every scientific theory, but we don't believe it on faith but on trust in a system which has provided us with everything around us, religion has contributed no advancement to society, some may cite good institutions in religions name but these are merely part of religions general control of every institution they can. You say criticise Dawkins when he says religion is based on faith because some religious people put forward justifications, but you must realise these are nothing in the grand scheme of things, they don't attempt to justify picking one ancient belief system survivor over another.

When you say that it may be the communities and not the actual beliefs Dawkins would partly agree with you, but you must see that Muslims, with many aggressive line (though yes many ignore them) and Buddhists with none have differing death rates that are so dramatic that they cannot simply be explained away by environment or situation. Dawkins argues religions are groups that are especially exacerbating to the problems of other groups and that they're unnecessary. The ending is especially odd, as according to polls the majority of religious people would have serious contention with it, even of those whom accepted evolution some would take contention with your scientific description of the brain, wanting to slip a soul in there. In answer to it, yes, it is true we struggled with out mental software with advancement going slowly with no process to speed it up, just believe the elders was how explanation systems developed. Then we invented an objective system of discovery, science, which massively advanced society on a colossal scale. With regard to getting the belief from parents, well it seems odd you should even bring this up, obviously Dawkins doesn't suggest people are then stuck with those beliefs for life, otherwise he wouldn't be trying to argue his case. However the intrcate ground rules are indoctrinated by parents; secular India stays mostly Hindu, secular Turkey stays mostly Muslim, secular America stays mostly Christian.

 
At 9:37 PM, December 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thank DDF for his thoughtful post, that expresses many of my thoughts over the years.

Science does not necessarily make one agnostic or atheist; look up "rare earth hypothesis," "fine tuned universe," and "Frank Tipler" in Wikipedia. The naturalism started by Holbach in 18th century France, and pushed much further by Dawkins and Dennett, is not as obvious as it once seemed.

David, you did a PhD in physics, and so you know about the fine structure constant and the ratio of the mass of the proton to that of the electron. Those 2 pure numbers form the bedrock of electromagnetism and chemistry. If their values changed by as little as 1-2%, life on earth, even the existence of stars and galaxies, would probably be impossible. We have absolutely no theory as to why those 2 numbers are what they are.

With the exception of Buddhism, religions require much more than granting the existence of an order of reality above the natural one. Religion requires that God not only exists but values all humans. Frank Tipler believes that he has devised a scientific theory bearing on this hypothesis.

Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism require that humans have a soul that continues to exist after the body dies, and that the fate of that soul after death is decided by how the living person conducts him or herself. This is the part of world religions that I have had difficulty accepting since puberty.

What is the monotheistic belief that is not committed to the existence of a soul and the afterlife? Judaism. Why have I not converted to Judaism? Because Judaism is quite cool to conversion, and requires accepting a complicated set of ritualistic practices, especially circumcision, whose origin is surely historical and not divine.

 
At 11:09 AM, December 09, 2008, Anonymous Nova said...

Anonymous: "If their values changed by as little as 1-2%, life on earth, even the existence of stars and galaxies, would probably be impossible. We have absolutely no theory as to why those 2 numbers are what they are."

Any god that was clever enough to think about what the values would be and intact them would himself be more complicated and thus less likely than the values. A multiple universe hypothesis, in which the vast majority are devoid of life, whether involving one after the other or parallel ones, requires no such extra complexity. I'm amazed how intelligent people who postulate such complexity arguments miss this, that the question of why there is an all powerful mind in the first place which would have to have billions of fine tuned values. This may be answered with a "how do you know of the complexity of god?" but if you simply think about all the abilities god would need to have, and how those abilities themselves would have specifics, and those specifics, details and so on, it is simply a logical deduction requiring no knowledge of how a god would work. Also remember that for beings that can contemplate their own existence all that has to be in place is some way that something replicating can come into existence naturally. Natural selection can take it from their. If the values were slightly different and stars and galaxies didn't exist, there could never the less be another setup of matter and energy in which natural selection can still build a mind. We could not conceive such a thing, many assume minds could only occur under ours or similar circumstances.

 
At 5:12 PM, December 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am quite open to the possibility that there is a supernatural order that fine tuned the laws of physics to make the existence of sentient life possible. I should add that I agree with the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which concludes that we humans are most likely the only intelligent species in the Milky Way.

But organised religions are about much more. They submit that this Supernatural Order (or "God" for short) should be worshiped and prayed to. And that this worship requires the aegis of a self-perpetuating nongovernment organisation called a religious denomination? This is indeed far more controversial.

There are two forms of religion that are typically absent from discussions such as this one. One is the Bahi'a faith, the fourth and newest world religion to emerge from the Middle East. The other is Celtic neopaganism, sometimes called Wicca. Both persuasions have a low profile, perhaps because of the major persecutions they have experienced.

Christianity is a theory of universal history.

1. Creation. God willed the universe into being a finite time ago. It has since gradually become more complex. We humans are the high point of this evolution.

2. Fall of Man. Something went wrong early in the history of our species.

3. Incarnation. 2000 years ago, in the Roman province of Judea, God took on human form as a baby boy. The child grew up to become a populist religious preacher among his fellow Jews.

4. Redemption. The religious and secular authorities in Judea arrested, convicted and executed the God-Man. That death was a turning point in the human condition.

5. Second Coming. The God-Man will come back to Earth some day. Some time after that, the universe as we know it will come to an end.

6. Trinity. God has 3 eternal manifestations: Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit.

Much, perhaps most, of Christian thinking did not emerge from the teachings of the God-Man Christ, but from those of a very early convert, the weirdly enthusiastic and entrepreneurial son of a rabbi, who took on the name Paul.

Much of the power of Christianity comes from its appeal to women and its exaltation of feminine virtues. The exclusion of women from the Christian clergy, which is still the case for Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and the occasional misoginy of Paul, disguise this important fact.

Science prides itself on its willingness to change in the face of evidence. Religions claim to be timeless, but in fact they too change over time.

 
At 9:17 AM, January 22, 2009, Blogger 海賊王 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 7:27 AM, March 14, 2009, Anonymous onscrn said...

I don't know if anyone will see this, given how old the original post was, but I'd like to call attention to a post of mine that might be of interest since it deals with funny parallels between the idea of the Trinity and the description of the proton presented by modern physics. It's Dante’s Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton.

 
At 12:52 AM, March 16, 2009, Blogger MIchael said...

"each of us is using the superb pattern recognition software that evolution has equipped us with"

Semantics maybe, but how can evolution equip us? equipping seems to be "action." so many times i see solid atheist's discussions turn towards characterizing evolution or some other force as a religious person would to a god. I guess im asking, "How can evolution equip us with X (in order to achieve the goal of living, reproducing, etc.) if it is not a thinking entity?"

Otherwise a very great piece.

 
At 8:57 AM, March 16, 2009, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael writes:

"Semantics maybe, but how can evolution equip us? "

How can a thunderstorm soak me? I can be affected by lots of things that are not thinking entities.

I could have written "the process of variation and selection for reproductive success has resulted in our being equipped with," but that would have been clumsier and no more informative.

 
At 11:17 PM, March 16, 2009, Blogger moto said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 7:13 PM, July 06, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nicely written, especially since this article isn't concerned with the ideology of religion, but rather its divisiveness and "group" mentality. The "group" mentality certainly is a problem intellectually and on an individual basis, but the real danger (in terms of conflict) comes from the divisiveness of religion. It's really two sides of the same coin though, because the group mentality in religion leads to divisiveness since there is more than one group--similar to Democrat vs. Republican, country vs. country, and so on. Therefore, people need to break out of these political-national-religious and other arbitrarily imposed divisions, so that they can see others as individuals, instead of as collective groups. That is one reason why atheism is so important--it's not another group; but rather, it's anti-group. Unfortunately, many people don't see atheism, agnosticism, and similar movements in that way.

For example, most people I know consider themselves "Christians" in order to simply get along, and not appear hostile--because in a lot of places to say you're atheist is hostile, not threateningly so, but people will look at you weird, like you are trying to create a problem. So in effect, in those places, saying you're Christian is really like saying you're agnostic--in that you don't really know anything, and don't want to appear as if you do, by calling yourself something other than the 'norm'. The problem though is that other parts of the world are doing the same thing, but substituting the word "Christian" with "Muslim", so actually there is a very divisive factor, which neither side really notices, but is very dangerous when utilized by politicians.

So I think the simple solution would be to tell religious people: "Keep doing what you're doing if you want, just don't label it as anything, because other people are doing the same thing but with a different label, so even though you probably subconsciously feel superior to those people, you're really the same as them, just with a different name. The only real division isn't really a division at all, but a measure of how religious you are--and that really is a matter of intellectual development, like studying the sacred texts and astrotheology, and spirituality etc.--not how often you sit in church...although that can be useful for community purposes."

 
At 8:16 PM, August 18, 2011, Blogger Commodore said...

Someone pointed out that if a society has two religions, the two will battle each other to the death. But where there are 30 religions, everyone lives together or apart in peace.

 
At 4:16 PM, November 27, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo (from a faltering Christian / fledgeling atheist)

 
At 1:02 AM, December 25, 2011, Blogger James Redford said...

God has been proven to exist per the known laws of physics, i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics. For the details on that, see my below article, which pertains to physicist and mathematician Prof. Frank J. Tipler's Omega Point cosmology. The article also concerns the Feynman-DeWitt-Weinberg quantum gravity/Standard Model Theory of Everything (TOE) describing and unifying all the forces in physics, of which itself is also required by the known physical laws.

James Redford, "The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything", Social Science Research Network (SSRN), December 22, 2011 (orig. pub. December 19, 2011), 185 pp. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1974708 , http://www.webcitation.org/647p0tJfa , MD5: 24ffbb18de793699141ac9ad34f56498

 
At 12:12 AM, September 19, 2014, Anonymous Joel Aaron Freeman said...

I realize I'm responding to a very old post, but I want to acknowledge the excellence of this piece of writing. Very well-reasoned. Very well-articulated. It takes a smart person to construct an internally-consistent worldview, but, more importantly, it takes a wise person to recognize the limits of human comprehension.

 

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