Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dueling Absurdities

Umberto Eco opines on the debased state of religion in Europe:

Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death. We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining.

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.

I've often winced at reading that quote attributed to Chesterton. Is the credulity of the post-Christian any greater than the credulity of the Christian? So people now believe in strange and bizarre faiths. They are only strange and bizarre in comparison to what came before. Christianity was once strange and bizarre. Is it any stranger to believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and went to France as it is to believe that he rose from the dead?

Chesterton's statement is somewhat disingenuous. It would be more accurate to say that "people who don't believe in god will believe in something else". To say that they believe in "anything" makes them out to be foolish simpletons, the spiritual equivalent of rubes in the big city who will be scammed out of their savings by fast-talking confidence men. But Chesterton somehow feels that his faith, the faith of the Christians, is totally different from this "anything", when in fact it is one of the many "anythings" that this simple rube, Man, will believe in.

All faiths, or things believed in but not seen, appear ridiculous to outsiders. The person who will "believe in anything" doesn't exist in reality, for once a faith becomes real to a person, it forms a defensive shell around his psyche that will drive out competing faiths. Very few people will believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Wicca at the same time. It is the feeling of being in posession of the one Truth that gives religious faith its power over the mind's skeptical side, and engenders the sense of awe and wonder that fulfills the longing of the believer. The fact that it is a hidden truth, not obvious to the immediate senses, that adds to the value of posessing that truth. A truth that was acknowledged by all people would lose that power.

On what basis can one determine that one faith requires more credulity than another? Why is it hard for a traditional Christian to imagine that the DaVinci Code could inspire such enthusiasm and belief? The Christian is buttressed in his faith by a historical tradition measured in millenia, and a worldwide fellowship of co-believers. Yet it is the earliest Christians, who were a minority cult persecuted and ridiculed for what was at the time the strangest of faiths, in a God who was killed like a criminal, that earns the most admiration among modern Christians. How credulous must these early Christians have been?

To be present at the birth of a faith is heady stuff. New faiths and cults have that over Christianity, the power of newness, the specialness of small numbers, of secret knowledge not available to others. Looked at in this fashion, is it any wonder that religions are constantly splintering into competing sects, or being born out of whole cloth?

I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

A clear and coherent absurdity? Now there's a shot in the arm for Christianity! With friends like Mr Eco, Christianity needs no enemies. Religions are the most personal of things. Even within a church or sect there are as many varieties as their are believers. We all construct personal systems of meaning out of our experiences, even secularists. Those systems cannot possibly be deciphered without access to those experiences, which, like the iceberg, remain mostly submerged under the surface of the visible person. Leave each man to his own absurdity, and with luck he will leave you to yours.


Blogger Brit said...

Two separate things here:

First, it is true that with the decline in the West of the Christian monoculture, there does seem, anecdotally anyway, to have been a corresponding proliferation of ‘new age’ mumbo-jumbo and superstitious claptrap – crystals, horoscopes, ‘spirituality’ etc. (But there is more to say on this – see below.)

Secondly, it is also clearly false that a person ‘who ceases to believe in God’ will necessarily ‘believe in anything.’ I produce the wise Duckians as evidence. Eco’s story of the rational scientists holding séances by night is just the kind of apocryphal tale needed by religious types who cannot comprehend that a body can live a quite happy and fulfilling life without at least one supernatural weakness.

But here’s where we might set Skipper’s Irony Meter spinning again. Like all people who profess to holding no religious tents/supernatural beliefs/conspiracy theories whatsoever, I am often accused by more ‘spiritual’ beings of being ‘close-minded’.

My standard reply to this used to be: “My mind is open all right, just not so open that any old rubbish can crawl into it.” But lately I’ve realised that a much better and more accurate response would be: “My mind is completely open to literally anything, but there are strict rules for entry – there must be evidence or a good reason to believe it, and even then the belief is only on probation in case a conflicting belief with a better reason comes along. Within these rules, absolutely anything is allowed in.”

Consequently, I believe in all sorts of weird and wonderful things, from bee dances to black holes, all of which make unicorns and angels seem positively dull by comparison.

What's more, it requires a peculiar and very stubborn close-mindedness to persist in a religious or spiritual belief, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Going back to the supposed growth in mumbo-jumbo, Duck is of course right that the New and Old Testament stories (loaves and fishes, Noah’s Ark, Adam’s rib, talking snakes) are no more or less crazy than any other set of religious tenets. They all require a leap of faith, or at least a suspension of disbelief. Chesterton, if he said what he is alleged to have said, said it because he grew up in a world where Christianity was the norm, the default, and familiarity made him less sensitive to its weirder aspects.

But also, during even the heaviest periods of blanket Christian monoculture, local superstitions, supernatural folk tales, ghosts, ghouls and curses have never died out (Eco might want to ask himself why today’s priests are so seldom required to carry out exorcisms – since the decline of demand for that practice seems to directly contradict his central theory).

Ultimately, I think that it comes down to different personality types. Chesterton, Eco, and Orrin Judd all like to draw universal conclusions from their own experience: because they have a supernatural need, everyone must. But they’re just plain wrong: some people just don’t have a superstitious bone in their body– it’s as simple as that. And that has been true throughout history: there have always been believers and sceptics, even if the latter have had to be quieter in some periods than in others.

Chesterton’s quote might be more accurate if it read: "When the type of man who has a need to believe in some supernatural phenomena or explanation ceases to believe in the traditional Christian God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything."

The interesting psychological question is: why do Chesterton, Eco and Judd feel the need to insist so strongly that we must all have a “God-shaped hole” in us? Why do they refuse to accept that some people just don’t?

December 05, 2005 3:28 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Perhaps because they have some need to believe that they are the norm.

However, I feel fairly sure that in fact they ARE the norm, and those who truly have no urge towards the spiritual are outliers.

If most people were apathetic towards the spiritual, shouldn't there have been at least a few cultures and societies throughout history that DID NOT have strong religious components ?

But, starting with animism, and through monotheism, we've ALWAYS had religions to accompany society, and in some cultures, religion was THE central focus and point of life.

December 05, 2005 5:03 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

No, you're right: having supernatural belief is certainly the norm.

But I would think that there has always been a fair proportion of any society (perhaps a minority, but by no means a tiny one) that is largely indifferent to the supernatural in day to day affairs - eg. who do no more than pay lip service at church.

Those who are positively anti-theist or anti-supernatural are obviously a much smaller minority.

December 05, 2005 5:22 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

ps. I've just spotted an amusing typo in my first comment: a 'religious tent' is like a religious tenet, but wigwam-shaped.

December 05, 2005 5:28 AM  
Blogger martpol said...

A fascinating discussion, and one which prompts my first comment at the Daily Duck.

As a pretend Catholic (i.e. raised Catholic, now moved on but still essentially Christian), I'm the first to admit that belief in the Christian God requires a fair amount of credulity, not to mention the ability to accept the fundamentally absurd. The Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth provide just two very good reasons for positing that Christians (or early/fundamentalist Christians at least) will believe in anything.

To save us at least some credibility, there is nonetheless a clear difference between the 'superstitions' of a major organised religion and those of the Dan Brown followers. Christianity is based on a real person (and to some extent real events), with spiritually motivated holy (in quotes if you wish) texts as its lynchpin. The Da Vinci Code is of course conscious fiction, and if anything intended to exploit, for commercial gain, the very credulity and ability to believe in 'anything' experienced by those who have lost their faith or who are looking for something to believe in. Brown himself is famously uninterested in defending the more dubious history that informs his work, since he recognises himself as novelist (and, by extension, recognises many of his detractors as obsessives to whom he's unaccountable).

Brit's point that religious types need to be "stubborn and close-minded" to persist in their beliefs is only fair to those who continue to believe in aspects of a religion which can be historically or scientifically disproved. This is clearly true of the consciously fictional. But where science has cast doubt on religion, most of us move on, accepting (for example) natural selection, the merit of rival moral systems, the philosophical strength of Occam's razor. It's only those must wrapped up in mumbo-jumbo who can't do so.

December 06, 2005 12:36 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


But where science has cast doubt on religion, most of us move on, accepting (for example) natural selection...

You're new here, aren't you? :-)

I tried and failed to find the Chesterton quote, but I'm fairly sure you guys are mischaracterizing his argument. Chesterton wasn't warning against a rise in paganism or competing religions. He was talking about the unguided mind of the secular rationalist that, having discarded the idea of eternal human nature bound by anything external, and the authority of experience, will gravitate to just about any fancy or popular new idea that comes along, no matter how inconsistent it is with the rigorous materialism he professes to believe in. Although dated, here is a good example of Chesterton at his best on this:

He has no loyalty;therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it.
As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life,
and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.
A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant,
and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school
goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages
are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist,being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality;
in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men.
Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless
for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has
lost his right to rebel against anything.

The horrors of the marxist and Nazi regimes stem from this mindset---we can remodel sciety on rationalist lines because all is possible and all is permitted. Think for a moment about the following nonsense propositions and how deeply they run among today's trendy leftists and even the mainstream middle;

A) Man is "just" an evolved primate on his way to extinction and nothing special, but a denial of human rights is a moral outrage that should inflame the decent everywhere;

B) The more you teach young people that sex is a personal matter that each must determine for himself, the more restrained and cautious they will be about it;

c) The U.S. is a dangerous, oppressive force in today's world, thwarting the natural inclinations to democracy and human rights in the rest of the world;

d) Preaching and practicing fidelity and sexual abstention is undermining our collective efforts to fight AIDS;

e) Man-induced global warming is a proven scientific fact and we can halt it if we all just cut back a little on our conspicuous consumption.

These are all very unscientifc and irrational propositions. Yet those who hold them with great tenacity are proud of their modern, rational approach to life and feel they have progressed far beyond the voodoo of irrational religion. Yet they are nuts and either inconsistent with or at least outside of a materialist world view , so how did these "brights" come to hold them? That's what Chesterton was addressing.

December 06, 2005 3:11 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


A very entertaining read, that post. Thanks for the Chesterton quote. Ultimately, he's only railing at paradoxes, ironies and nearly-ironies-with-a-bit-of-a-stretch, which you can do about anything, but he does it very well.

You can hardly accuse even the three unreligious Duckians of holding trendy leftist views, like the ones you so eloquently reduce ad absurdum in points (b) to (e).

And as for (a), yes man is an evolved primate, but there's nothing 'just' or unspecial about him, and who knows whether he's headed to extinction?

December 06, 2005 6:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Welcome to the Daily Duck. You make an excellent point regarding the DaVinci Code. There is critical credulity and uncritical credulity. I wonder how many DaVinci Code enthusiasts buy into the whole fiction versus just parts of it. Brown's book is built upon some actual historical facts and places. Some might be thinking "okay, maybe it isn't exactly as Brown says, but the truth may be closer to his story than it is to the Christian gospels".

Yet I think the comparison still stands. To be Christian is to accept some highly questionable propositions. It is easier once you accept the existence of the supernatural. The supernatural really is the gateway to belief in anything. You can't apply any Earth-bound rules of evidence, or probability, or critical thought to it.

December 06, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


I understand where the idea for the "God-shaped hole" comes from. I think that it is a combination of innate cognitive tendencies to see intent and agency in random, undirected events coupled with the cultural influence of Judeo-Christian theology. It isn't an automatic thing in human perceptual development, but I thing there is a strong bias for it in our psyches.

The atheist isn't necessarily someone who was born without this tendency, but is someone who sees it for what it is, a perceptual bias rather than a true "sense". He will look at his internal thoughts which see patterns of agency in random events as he looks at optical illusions which project a three dimensional bias on two dimensional images.

December 06, 2005 7:43 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Larkin described religion as "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die."

These days the theory among anthropologists seems to be heading away from the "desire for immortality/fear of death" idea of religion, and towards what Duck describes.

Being on guard and suspicious - looking out for agency in everything - carries an evolutionary advantage. The spin-off effect is to see supernatural agency where there is none - rain gods, volcano demons, spirits in the forest etc.

(This is just the sort of thing that Peter loves...)

December 06, 2005 7:55 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Speaking of mistaking fiction for fact, our good friend OJ never ceases to amaze.

December 06, 2005 10:19 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Ultimately, I think that it comes down to different personality types. Chesterton, Eco, and Orrin Judd all like to draw universal conclusions from their own experience: because they have a supernatural need, everyone must. But they’re just plain wrong: some people just don’t have a superstitious bone in their body– it’s as simple as that.

Well, that pretty much says it all.

In Nature via Nurture, Matt Ridley presents a fairly compelling case that our tendency towards religious belief is largely inherited. Which, if true, means it isn't something over which any of us have any particular control. (NB: IIRC, Orrin Judd's grandfather was a renowned missionary, and his father a minister ...)

It is also worth noting that, since there have been at least tens of thousands of Gods over human history, religionists are only one God away from being atheists (or deists, or agnostics -- the difference is only in the spelling).

Which is quite ironic, when you come to think of it. Religionists are atheistic towards all gods except their own for the same reason atheists don't believe in any god, yet religionists can't comprehend the atheists lack of faith.

Go figure.


I submit that Nazism and all Marxist regimes are religions, pure and simple.

If they weren't, if they were in fact relying upon reason (instead of, eg, German tribal nationalism and 20 centuries of ingrained anti-Judaism. Nazism is no more an indictment of reason than is one monkey clubbing another over the head with a computer keyboard) they would have realized that our heritage as evolved primates completely defeats any attempt to remodel society on "rationalist" lines.

December 07, 2005 5:10 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Nazism is the very pinnacle of irrationality, and Marxism is a utopian religion.

Britain has become increasingly secular since the latter part of the 20th Century. The consequence has not been genocide but the opposite: political correctness.

Our brand of secularism has nothing to do with ideal futures, it is about toleration and religious freedom.

December 07, 2005 5:54 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The atheist [...] will look at his internal thoughts which see patterns of agency in random events as he looks at optical illusions which project a three dimensional bias on two dimensional images.

And yet, three perceived spatial dimensions actually exist, and many more as-yet unperceived ones probably exist.

While I agree that it's difficult to ascertain which "sixth sense" impressions are "real", and which are false, and that most people do it badly, nonetheless I submit that it's irrational to believe that the Universe consists ONLY of what can be perceived by our five dominant senses.

If (for instance) eleven dimensions actually exist, why NOT believe that God resides in one ?
If (for instance) string theory actually DOES bear a passing resemblance to how the Universe is constructed, why is it irrational to believe that there might be a Being plucking the strings ?

I happen to know a precog, and although her talent is only marginally useful, (since it cannot be summoned at will, and hasn't yet revealed any winning Lotto numbers, nor helped anyone avoid death), if she told me not to board a particular flight, I would not do so, regardless of what the consequences of not doing so might be.

Now, you might think me particularly credulous and softheaded, but you'll have to take my word that although I firmly believe that the so-called supernatural is really just a dimly-perceived part of the natural world, I don't believe in very many specific claims of supernatural or paranormal manifestations or activity.

Perhaps when the price of crude oil stays under $ 100/bbl for all of '06, my analytical bona fides will be more firmly established, and skeptics can take more firmly to heart my claim that some people really do have paranormal abilities...

Although they don't seem to have much survival value, or else are somehow not genetically passable, for otherwise we'd ALL have ESP, eh ?

December 07, 2005 7:06 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


Yes, there is more to our universe than meets the eye. The question is, how can one know any more than what meets the eye? Are sixth senses real, or illusions?

I look at the incredible variety of claimed supernatural or paranormal experiences throughout times and cultures and conclude that they are, for the most part, and probably in toto illusions. If such claims were rare then their very rareness would argue for some level of serious consideration. If no cultures but one developed a religion based on divine revelation, then it would present a more powerful testimony that would be harder to dismiss. But that isn't the case.

December 07, 2005 10:34 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


But where science has cast doubt on religion, most of us move on, accepting (for example) natural selection, the merit of rival moral systems, the philosophical strength of Occam's razor.

Typically, that "moving on" means divorcing implementation details as irrelevant to what the religion holds as core truths, typically by treating previously sacrosanct portions of revealed text as allegory.

Where religions are able to do so (e.g., the Catholic Church and naturalistic evolution), then the institution is easily able to continue teaching those core truths.

Where religions don't do so (e.g. the Church and Galileo; fundamentalist Christians and naturalistic evolution) they open themselves up to ridicule, and risk intellectual fraud rather than concede an inch of ground.

In other words, the less religions worry about implementation details, the less difference those details make.

Its an irony thing.

December 07, 2005 11:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


I submit that Nazism and all Marxist regimes are religions, pure and simple:

Yes, I'm well aware you do. Which is why guys like you and Brit, good moral chaps for sure, are actually so blinkered and and why you are the fanatics. No serious religious person is unaware of how religion can potentially be warped and abused with disastrous consequences. Just ask the Muslims. What do you think the Catholic Church's take on authority and obedience is all about?

No such humility or even fretting for you guys. You seem to sail through life believing your brand of secular rationalism is the sole true path and brings nothing but light and good, or at least that any downside outweighs the upside by definition. No matter what horrors are done in its name or by its adherents, or what the obvious consequences, you just define the bad stuff right out of your creed and pin it all on the other side. Clever.

December 08, 2005 3:59 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I look at the incredible variety of claimed supernatural or paranormal experiences throughout times and cultures...
If such claims were rare then their very rareness would argue for some level of serious consideration.

I take the opposite tack.
I am ENCOURAGED by the vast numbers of supposed paranormal experiences, and I would assume that if only a hundred people on Earth believed in God or ESP, they'd all be crazy.

As y'all were discussing in the "Economics and the Believing Mind" thread, the mean perceptions of a large group of individuals can be startlingly accurate.

Brit wrote, echoing the thoughts of Bret and Skipper:

The wisdom of the crowds is the result of many people making an individual, independent decision based on their own judgement. In other words, they don't know they're in a crowd.

Many religious (or alien abduction) manias can be summarily dismissed, since they were the product of "revival" type atmospheres.

However, what about the millions of reports of paranormal or supernatural experiences from people who were NOT in situations where their conclusions would be reinforced or amplified, and in many cases where those reporting felt that their reported experiences would be ridiculed or disbelieved ?

It's still entirely possible that millions of reports could be generated by a common human misperception phenomenon, but the more reports, the less likely.

Besides, although this helps you not at all, since I know a person with such abilities, it's a bit like reading past predictions that Pike's Peak would never be climbed, a century after it was.

December 08, 2005 4:01 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Your response is internally contradictory.

To the extent "rationalism" exists, it is not based upon revealed texts and arguments from authority. Marxism, Nazism, Christianity, Islam are all absolutely identical in these regards. It is simply a category mistake to group Marxism and Nazism with rationalism -- they just don't fit.

As a card carrying secular rationalist, I am, without irony, perfectly happy to admit that rationalism is completely incapable of accomplishing any Marxist, Nazi or society tranforming goal. FA Hayek, in the Road to Serfdom, (written in the late 1930s; Orrin reviewed it and gave it an A+) made the completely correct argument that those Marxism and Nazism were irrational at their very core. (He also pegged them as religions, as have any number of historians)

As did any number of other commentators at the time made material, secular, rational cases why Marxism was doomed to failure. It simply isn't possible for those arguments to be correct, and Marxism/Nazism to be "rational."

Therefore, for example, religionists damning reason by forging a chain starting with "Darwinism" and going through Nazism to the Holocaust is simply wrong. It denies the fertile ground 20 centuries of anti-Judaism had plowed, and ignores the fundmentally religious characteristics of Nazism (Mein Kampf, argument from authority) that are identical in nature to the very basis claimed by the religionist.

So it simply doesn't make any sense to blame a secular rationalist for the outcome of a religious belief system.

You say Brit and I are fanatics. You lost me there (NB -- but just like an alcoholic, the last person to detect fanaticism is the fanatic himself).

If by that you mean I am pretty committed to the idea that the combination of a salvational/utopian revealed text, argument from authority, and government power always lead to horrific outcomes, then you are right. And, if by that you mean I am pretty committed to the idea that religious belief is indispensable to a healthy society, so long as it is pluralistic, and the government itself is avowedly secular (which means being neutral towards religion, not hostile to it -- there's a difference), then you are right again.

But that is a very tepid fanaticism, indeed, that subjects itself to such crippling limits.


While I have never met a precog, I knew a lawyer (a singularly decent guy, BTW) once upon a time whose wife was absolutely certain she routinely saw ghosts.

In all respects other than that, she was completely normal, the kind of woman any well adjusted guy could be happily married to.

Which put me in something of a bind. On the one hand, it is extremely difficult to disgard as nonsense one particular thing about a person who is otherwise completely sensible. On the other, it is very difficult to take on board such an observation that absolutely does not square with personal experience.

My response, possibly fanatical, was to place it in the box labelled "Hmmm..."

December 08, 2005 5:11 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Can we drop this one? It's pretty lame.

I subscribe to Duck's position: "Leave each man to his own absurdity, and with luck he will leave you to yours."

I don't have any desire for religion to be crushed. I don't think religion is intrinsically evil. I think evil people can do evil things in the name of absolutely anything, religious or secular.

I blame neither you nor the congregation of old ladies at my local church for the Spanish Inquisition. I don't blame the congregation at my local mosque for 9/11.

I happen to be non-religious. Both Stalin and Hitler died before my birth, and while they may or may not also have been unreligious, neither of them subscribed to Duck's formula, so I also refuse to take any responsibility for the gulags and the holocaust.

December 08, 2005 5:15 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Sure, that's all, but no one is talking about individual blame for things done by others. I thought we were talking about where beliefs that capture the zeitgeist lead.

December 08, 2005 5:32 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

We are. It's irrelevant whose 'name' evil deeds are committed in. Virtually all evil deeds say everything about the perpetrator of those deeds, and nothing about the supposed principles behind them.

How are the actions of the Nazis related to a zeitgeist which insists on tolerance for relgious and secular alike?

December 08, 2005 5:36 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

You are heartless. First you ask me to drop it and then you dangle my dream question in front of me.

The short answer is that the tolerance of which you speak sits uneasily and not very logically on the top of a theory of existence that vastly exaggerates human nobility and malleability and leads to the inexorable conclusion there is nothing stopping us from doing what we want except the restraint of others who are in no better position than we to know what is right or good. Classical liberal or secular tolerance is fine and dandy when seen as a corrective to a brutal or suffocating orthodoxy, but not so innocent when they themselves run the show

December 08, 2005 6:08 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Tolerance sits beside secularism, not on top of it, just as it sits beside religion.

Do you think religion guarantees toleration better than secularism? Neither guarantees it, and neither inevitably leads to its abandonment. That is abundantly clear from history.

I flatly deny your 'inexorable conclusion' as nonsense on the face of it. I expect the 'secularism leads to genocide' kind of argument from Orrin, but not from any other adult, and I don't think even Orrin really believes it.

December 08, 2005 6:35 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


The beauty of the tolerance regime, when correctly applied, is that it leaves no one group "running the show". You can't point to the Stalinists as exemplifying tolerance, they exemplified the opposite: the uncritical application of an ideological orthodoxy to its extreme.

You've quite correctly pointed out the tragedy of the human condition when you stated "there is nothing stopping us from doing what we want except the restraint of others who are in no better position than we to know what is right or good". You trust in your Bible as the way out of that impasse, by providing that knowledge of what is right and good. At best it offers wisdom on how to find hope and meaning amidst the tragedy. At worst it offers would be tyrants and evildoers the authoritative verbiage upon which to construct a rationalization for their crimes. But in the end I don't think that it offers an escape hatch from the human dilemma.

December 08, 2005 7:39 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

OK, progress. You say tolerance is outside of both religion and secularism, and I agree. There is no particular reason to argue religious folks are any more tolerant, empathetic, nice, etc. than the non-religious, or that religion preaches these any more than secularism. Certainly I've never seen evidence that would substantiate that.

But what is different is that one says there is no reason man can't fashion his life and his pleasures and, indeed, his whole world to the full extent of his material limits, and the other says there is. The hundreds of thousands of Russian Bolsheviks did not start out by all saying--"Let's talk peace and equality while secretly plotting to kill the Kulaks and starve the Ukrainians." They started out with a righteous and not unjustified indignation about poverty, class and injustice and THEN convinced themselves they could completely remodel society unconstrained by faith or tradition or anything else. All they needed was to declare man was free, noble and infinitely adaptable once unshackled and put modern rationalism and science to work. Frankly, the early Nazis weren't all that different, as much as we've come to pretend they were. When the glorious project failed or met resistance, the only way to explain such irrationality was either junk to theory or find subversives and class or racial enemies. Guess what they chose? The rest is ugly history.

Brit's faith in the clarity of the lessons of history leads me to suspect he is either a genius or not a big fan of history. All this delving back into the Middle Ages to find religiously inspired outrage is fun, but we don't live in the Middle Ages. If we did, I might be singing a different tune, I don't know. We live in a world of astounding scientific and technological development and an increasing sense of mastery over nature, want, disease, ignorance, etc. The potential for both good and bad is phenomenal and all we on our side are saying is that your philosophy gives no guidance and no contraints and that the reality of human nature guarantees there will be --yes--inexorably disastrous conclusions. Not all the time, not eveywhere and certainly not at the behest of every secularist, but inevitably all the same. I can't figure out why you guys think it is an answer to say: "Religion did bad things too, and we are just as nice as you guys." No one denies that.

Look there are millions out there who have convinced themselves that the West and especially the US are frying the globe for fun and baubles and that, democracy schmocracy, with proper planning and controls, we can reverse it and save THE ENTIRE PLANET. Just how far do you think they would go to put that madness into effect and what do you think they would be prepared to do to those they saw as the cause and who wouldn't respond to their persuaive efforts? And Skipper's answer seems to be: "Oh, your science is bad, which makes you a religion."

This whole dilemna has driven the Catholic Church for about fifty years and was certainly well-understood by the Founders, even the ones who weren't particularly religious, so why are you guys so dismissive? Freedom, democracy, family, community--all require a great deal of self-denial and restraint by a species that bores easily and is not particularly grateful about being restrained. So, how does your creed keep it on the right path, or even decide which way that path heads?

December 09, 2005 7:14 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

What creed? What path? I assume by the former you mean secularism, and by the latter tolerance.

Well, how does your creed propose to do it, Peter? The threat of Hellfire?

What this particular historical genius objects to is your continual evoking of Hitler and Stalin when discussing secularism or rationalism, as if your ever-thinning red line of irrational Believers was all that is now standing between civilisation and genocidal oblivion.

That might stand up to at least the briefest and most shallow scrutiny if you could show that evil deeds and genocide were invented in the 20th century. Besides, I hardly have to hark back to the days of old when kinghts were bold for examples of evil carried out in the name of religion. 9/11/01 will do it.

Nor does it require any great stretch of my genius to observe that Britain at least has somehow managed to simultaneously reach both its most tolerant period in history and its most secular.

December 09, 2005 7:48 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

OK, Brit, sorry to put you off your biscuits. I promise from now on I will never raise Hitler or Stalin on the Daily Duck. Nor Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda, assorted African atrocies, North Korea, Cuba, Somalis, etc, etc, or anything else done in the name of rationalism, secularism or materialism. You are all just great and should be in charge for sure. Let's get to the heart of the matter and talk about the Middle Ages.

BTW, I'd like to see you elaborate on the case that Britain is more tolerant than, oh say, in Queen Victoria's time or even Shakespeare's time. Reserving right of reply, of course.

December 09, 2005 3:29 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Oh, by all means raise that crew of megalomaniacs and their butcher bills.

Additionally, pay very careful attention to the nature of the belief revolving around each: religious.

In what name something is done is meaningless. What is meaningful is the nature of the belief underlying the action. Every case you mention relies upon masses of people completely suspending disbelief in favor of one narrative or another that would immediately collapse under even half serious inspection.

I would love to hear the argument that, say, the cult of personality revolving around North Korea's Dear Leader isn't a religion, pure, simple, and awful.

Or that this would be any improvement.

December 10, 2005 5:16 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Now Peter, do we have to bring out.. The Spanish Inquisition!!!! (dah-dah-dommm) Yes, secular and theist regimes both have paid, as Skipper says, the butcher's bill. And where you get the idea that we believe our philosophy promises some worry free utopia is beyond me.

Neither has anyone on this blog suggested that you put "us" in charge of anything. A regime founded on religious freedom, tolerance and democratic rule puts no religion or anti-religion in charge, it puts free people in charge of their own destiny (ideally).

You just can't bring yourself to agree with us! That's okay, agreement is boring.

December 10, 2005 7:44 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

That's okay, agreement is boring.

I completely agree.

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