Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Richard’s Awfully Big Religious Adventure (part 1)

The inestimable Richard Dawkins – without whom, let’s face it, this world would be a duller place – has a new two-part documentary on the UK’s Channel 4, entitled The Root of All Evil.

Predictably, it’s a merciless tirade against religion. I watched a tape of the first episode last night. Here’s my review:

First, the positive news: one thing is for sure, Dawkins is certainly not afraid to enter the lions’ den and start gleefully waving juicy chunks of meat.

He visits Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, at his gargantuan (12,000 people!) multi-million dollar, state of the art New Life Church in Colorado Springs, and his opening conversational gambit is to tell the pastor that the flashy hi-tech service he has just witnessed reminded him of the Nuremburg rallies.

Haggard – who is weirdly charismatic and looks like he’s been modelled in plastic based on a Thunderbirds character - laughs this one off, since he’s still in ‘Welcome to America, my quaint little eccentric English friend!’ mode. Haggard also magnanimously declares that his evangelicals approve of the scientific method. But he stops laughing pretty sharpish when Dawkins informs him that the scientific method clearly points to the Earth being about 4.5 billion years old.

Haggard then suddenly and without provocation launches into a good scoff about the notion of the human eye developing entirely by accident. Dawkins informs him that no biologist he has ever met thinks the human eye developed entirely by accident. A few minutes later, our hero is being firmly escorted from the grounds of the New Life Church with Haggard yelling at him for ‘calling his children animals’ (which puzzles Dawkins as of course he did no such thing, but it turns out to be a reference to evolution).

Having thus warmed up, the intrepid Dawkins toddles along to the Holy Land, to see if there might be anybody there whose wrath he can incur. Oh dear, thinks the viewer.

Now we all know that Jerusalem is the world’s largest outdoor lunatic asylum (with typical bluntness, Dawkins introduces it as ‘the least enlightened place on the planet’) and it doesn’t take long for him to locate and duly upset a couple of bona fide lunatics.

The most frightening of these is a young American-born Jew who migrated to the city and somehow ended up converting to Islam. Dawkins – in his own admitted naivety – arranged an interview thinking that this fellow might be able to offer ‘both sides of the story’. But just two seconds after Dawkins professes to being an atheist, the converted Muslim launches into a vicious rant in a broad American accent, praising Osama bin Laden and damning Dawkins for ‘allowing his women to dress as whores and fornicate in the street.’ Our Richard initially argues back with equal vehemence that essentially, they ain’t his whores and they dress themselves, but after a while even he has to concede that arguing with this guy is like trying to nail jelly to a ceiling, and hastily departs.

All very entertaining, but hardly earth-shattering. Dawkins wants to conclude that all religious belief is A Bad Thing because faith breeds ignorance, which breeds intolerance, which leads ultimately to suicide bombers. But his method in this episode - showing that fundamentalist lunatics are lunatics - is no more useful than Michael Moore’s trick of picking mad or senile interview targets and mocking them.

He has yet to interview, for example, a tolerant, mild-mannered, churchgoing scientist. Or any of the old ladies in my local parish. Perhaps he’ll explain how these fit into the slippery-slope to suicide-bombing in the next episode. I’ll let you know...

69 Comments:

Blogger Bret said...

There is no doubt in my mind that for Dawkins, atheism is a religion (as opposed to a lack of religion) and evolution is its creation myth. As long as loud mouthed fools such as Dawkins are on the loose, the IDers and Creationists have little choice but to match the volume (and foolishness) of their opponent. You call it a merciless tirade against relgion. However, the sheer foolishness of his approach and even the whole endeavor provides a good deal of mercy.

What strikes me about the anti-religiousness of Dawkins and like-minded scientists who buy into the evolution thing, is that generally, when encountering a trait that's nearly universal in a species, they might hypothesize that the trait has some survival advantage. Yet when they encounter a human trait such as a predisposition to believe in deities, creation myths, and other metaphysical stuff, it's the root of all evil. This implies that they think that the survival of humankind is evil and therefore humans must themselves be evil. Perhaps that's why they have so few children.

January 11, 2006 7:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

But they do have more children than say, monks. I think Dawkins has passed on his selfish genes to offspring, anyway.

Bret, there's nothing inconsistent about observing that something has a genetic origin, and arguing that it should be abandoned. The former is a description, and carries no prescriptive element.

You go overboard in your criticism - painting the religious as victims under threat of extinction is nonsensical - but beneath it is an interesting point. Has Dawkins considered that part of the cause of what he sees as a growth in fundamentalism, might be the very challenges to the authority of religious dogma posed by sceptics like himself?

January 11, 2006 8:12 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I have not seen this show, but I have read some Dawkins, so I think I know his attitude.

People who have seen it have posted some generally enthusiastic comments at pharyngula.org.

No one, not even Dawkins, thinks that little old ladies in the Altar Society are individually threats to outsiders.

The problem of religion is that it ALWAYS generates leaders who will use doctrine to gather groups whose mission will be to kill innocent people.

The only good thing you could possibly say about religion is that it could provide the little old ladies with a mental armamentarium to resist these dangerous kooks.

That is, you could say that if it were true, but it isn't. I am reading a particularly horrible example of how it really does work, Colvin's 'Evil Harvest,' about the Rulo, Nebraska, murders.

Somebody here recently raised the issue of balancing the good religion does against what were alleged to be merely occasional excesses. (Sorry, forgot who posted that.)

My response is, as always, how many little old ladies do you have to help across the street to make up for burning one alive?

Or in the Rulo case, for torturing, raping and skinning alive a heretic?

If religion were evaluated on the same standards as, say, vaccines or arthritis medicine, it would be banned outright.

January 11, 2006 8:33 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Harry:

I don't doubt for a moment that if religion were to vanish from the planet overnight, it would be a Good Thing all round.

It's not going to vanish overnight, so the question is, what to do?

The problem - as specifically identified by Dawkins in the programme - is fundamentalism and intolerance. But you'll have a hell of a job trying to remove fundamentalism and intolerance by telling intolerant fundamentalists that science and reason demonstrate their religion is all nonsense. And if you tell the same thing to the moderates, so what? The moderates already know it, really.

Part of Dawkins's problem in this programme is that he doesn't have a natural audience. If you haven't visited in the last few decades, you might find it hard to appreciate just how utterly secular Britain is these days. By telling us that fundamentalist religion is mad, he's very much preaching to the converted.

But in America he'd likely be lynched for this programme - it pulls no punches and administers kicks into the bargain. And show it in the Middle East and he'd be under a fatwah before you can say 'Salman Rushdie'.

January 11, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

brit wrote: "I think Dawkins has passed on his selfish genes to offspring, anyway."

Dawkins is thrice married but only one child. Not replacement rate - thank heavens!

brit then wrote: "there's nothing inconsistent about observing that something has a genetic origin, and arguing that it should be abandoned."

True, there's nothing inherently inconsistent. Yet, I think your statement dismisses something important, so let me try again. There are several possibilities for a widespread trait in humans:

Case 1: The trait is a random artifact. In other words, it didn't help or hurt human survival (and still doesn't). In this case, one could argue for conscious suppression of the trait, except a cost/benefit analysis should still be done because such suppression takes energy since it is, by definition, fighting against human nature.

Case 2: The trait did and continues to help humans survive. In this case, it would be foolish to surpress it.

Case 3: The trait did help humans to survive, but the effect at the present is unknown. In this case, I would think that it would be best not to surpress the trait - in other words, assume past results are somewhat indicative of future returns (yes, I know the fine print always says you're not supposed to do this :-). I think this is the best description of the current situation.

Case 4: The trait did help humans to survive, but is counterproductive now. A cost/benefit analysis still needs to be done because, like Case 1, it requires energy to overcome human nature.

In none of the cases is it clear to me that the trait should be surpressed or abandoned. It's not inconsistent to argue for that, but it is likely, in my opinion, to be counterproductive.

brit also wrote: "You go overboard in your criticism - painting the religious as victims under threat of extinction is nonsensical"

Never overboard!!! But I don't see how I painted the religious as victims under threat of extinction!?!? I certainly didn't mean that, so let's just ignore it.

Lastly, if we took random samplings of religious fervor over the last few millennia, would the current level of religious fundamentalism and fervor be an outlier? I think not. On the other hand, I do think that sceptics like Dawkins have created a backlash that have made people much more conscious of the role of religion and science in the public sphere.

January 11, 2006 8:59 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Incidentally, there was a really excellent series by Jonathan Miller on the BBC recently called 'A History of Disbelief'. There was a spin-off series of half-hour interviews called 'The Atheism Tapes' in which Miller discusses God and atheism with a whole bunch of intellectuals, including Dennett, Dawkins, some Philosophy bods and a Divinity Professor from Cambridge, who has to be seen to be believed.

Details here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/atheism-tapes.shtml

If any Duckians are interested, I might be able to get you some dodgy DVD copies sent over the Pond.

January 11, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Bret:

I imagine that Dawkins accepts that the instinct towards believing in the supernatural has evolutionary origins.

But Dawkins also argues that this instinct as expressed particularly in belief in any of the three mega monotheistic religions is positively harmful, and should have been replaced by reason and evidence long ago. Flying planes into skyscrapers isn't good for any population, after all.

That seems a reasonable argument to me, but it doesn't strike me that superstition is going to disappear any time soon.

January 11, 2006 10:13 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It's not only not going to vanish overnight, it's not going to vanish ever.

It can be tamed, with difficulty.

It may be that religious moderates understand the kookiness of fundamentalism, 'really,' but I don't think so.

If they did, they would not kowtow to criminals like Robertson (among Christians) and they would recognize the danger of Islamic moderates (who are not unlike Christian fundamentalists).

It is the question of old ladies again. How much criminality are you willing to tolerate?

Christian moderates, at least in America, have shown that they will tolerate any amount of crime, as long as it is presented in a Christian package.

The occasional exceptions like Bakker and Swiegert were really driven by secularists (that is, by reporters and editors); and Swiegert (and just this month, Lonnie Latham) transgressed by commiting 'crimes' that were only crimes to Christians, not to secularists.

Bret, I don't think your 4 tests are complete.

Besides, they are based on a wrong premise. (One that Dawkins spends many, many pages on in 'Climbing Mount Improbable').

That is, that Course of Action A will add survival value in the long run. Maybe it would, but selection operates only on the short run.

Killing off all the big packages of meat had short term survival value for American Indians but didn't work so well in the long run.

Religion probably adds in-group fitness most of the time, and certainly reduces out-group fitness nearly all of the time.

There comes a tipping point, when the minor in-group antifitness effects take over, as has happened to Islam.

And, of course, for out-groups, other people's religion has no value whatever. It can be ignored, but only as long as it is not aggressive, and only to the extent that the force backing up the aggression is weak.

In 2006, in the entire infidel world, neither exception exists, as regards Islam.

For Christianity, the equation gives a more equivocal answer just now.

Brit, never been to Britain, except in books. Are you saying chapel has lost its hold on the masses? Anglicanism, as an emotional faith, has been dead for over 200 years (but I am reading Jonathan Clark, who appears to be arguing that it maintained social/political power much later, which seems right to me).

Was the to-do about 'house churches' in England a few years ago a damp squib? It was presented here as a New Awakening.

January 11, 2006 10:22 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit wrote: "Flying planes into skyscrapers isn't good for any population, after all."

Harry wrote: "There comes a tipping point, when the minor in-group antifitness effects take over, as has happened to Islam."

Are you two saying that you think that the religious are less fit than the rest of the population in the evolutionary sense (because their population is growing slower)? Simply not true. Islam has the highest birth rates and most rapid population growth of any religion. Religious people in general have higher fitness than non-religious in the evolutionary sense. It doesn't work to say that there's in-group fitness but not out-of-group fitness since there's only two groups - the religious and non-religious. Demographic trends seem to generally support the correlation between religion and population growth (or at least lack of population decline).

January 11, 2006 10:59 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

And the other thing I don't buy. Many people seem to think that humans would be naturally wonderful, kind, peaceful, etc. and that their leaders would have the same dispositions if only there wasn't organized religion. I don't think so. Man is a nasty, hugely aggressive animal, and would still be a nasty, hugely aggressive animal even if religion didn't exist.

My guess is that man has always been warring, whether pre-organized religion or post. Wars are fought at fronts (or at least they used to be). The size of the front is proportional to the size of the perimeter of the area occupied by those at war. The number killed/wounded is proportional to the size of the front. The ratio of the perimeter to area decreases linearly with the size of the perimeter. The population supported increases linearly with the size of the area occupied. Thus, the percentage of people killed/wounded drops linearly with the number of people in the occupied area. Therefore, any organizational advantage that allowed a larger number of people to coexist saved lives. Organized religion provides that advantage.

January 11, 2006 11:06 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Harry:

By "they know it really", I meant the moderates really know that science and reason have shown that their religion is all nonsense.

So damp a squib have house churches been that I had to google the term to work out what you meant.

There are plenty of stats about declining church attendance, but I'll give you my anecdotal impression: the cultural shift towards secularism has been so massive that whereas 20 years ago you kind of assumed people were CofE until told otherwise, now you kind of assume people are (not overtly atheist but) unreligious, religion-neutral, until told otherwise.

I'm not sure how or why that happened, but there's no doubt it has.

January 11, 2006 11:33 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Yes, it takes helping A LOT of little old ladies across the street to make up for torturing, raping and skinning alive a heretic.

However, there are literally billions of people whose lives are enriched by their religious beliefs, and outside of the Muslim world, and the influence of the Muslim world*, not too many religiously-inspired slayings, not much religiously-inspired tormenting going on.

If we want to quantify and balance the good of religion vs. the bad, there are some very heinous crimes associated with religious nuts, and a vast number of small good deeds associated with the common religionists, as well as all of the improved-quality-of-life benefits that many religionists experience.

As always, your milage may vary.

* Modern Christians, Jews, and Hindus sometimes commit violent acts, some of which might be called "massacres", against Muslims, but almost always in response to some barbaric and incredibly stupid provocation and/or massacre by Muslims.

The problem of religion is that it ALWAYS generates leaders who will use doctrine to gather groups whose mission will be to kill innocent people.

That's a universal human problem that also penetrates religious organizations, not one unique to religious communities.

Some people who seek power will use religious rhetoric, and co-opt religious fervor, to accomplish their self-centered goals - that falls into the "dog bites man" category, does it not ?

I imagine that Dawkins accepts that the instinct towards believing in the supernatural has evolutionary origins.

But Dawkins also argues that this instinct as expressed particularly in belief in any of the three mega monotheistic religions is positively harmful, and should have been replaced by reason and evidence long ago.

Yeah, except that humans are hard-wired to behave in ways that inevitably result in religious belief, and also, what percentage of humans are really capable of living their lives in strict accordance with conclusions based on "reason and evidence" ??

In looking at the behaviors of the general population, cultures, and society of the U.S., I would have to say that a guess of 25% would be optimistic, and to be sure of being in the correct range, an answer of 10% would be necessary.
How else can one explain the prolonged American Social Security programme crisis projection, the popularity of SUVs, large internal combustion engines, oil wars, the ban on marijuana/legality of tobacco, and the illegality of prostitution ?

None of those can be justified by any reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence.

Humans crave predictability and order, so much so that we often "detect" patterns in what are essentially random orderings.
In addition, in order to avoid having to cognate everything, all the time, we make hundreds of assumptions daily, based on limited experience and knowledge.

These shortcuts allow us to perceive and manipulate our environment without being overwhelmed, but they also cause us to ascribe meaning to random and uncontrolled events, like disease or the weather.
Even before organized religions, we had shamens whose job was to interpret for, and to placate, the spirits of the natural world.

THAT is why Harry is correct to say that we will NEVER be rid of the religious impulse, as long as we are "human".
Further, that impulse is very strong in those who don't have a strong grasp of cause-and-effect, a large body of knowledge to draw from, and an intellectual and emotional understanding that random chance and coincidence cause bad things to happen to good people, and other unusual-but-potentially-explainable events and biographies.

In other words, the impulse is very stong in most humans.

It's also why most people believe that market movements will continue; if the stock markets, or the cost of homes, is increasing, most people believe that such will continue for decades, and if they're falling, people then believe that they'll never recover - despite ample historical evidence that contradicts both positions.
Dynamic systems tend to revert back to a mean trend line.

[Other people's religion] can be ignored, but only as long as it is not aggressive, and only to the extent that the force backing up the aggression is weak.

In 2006, in the entire infidel world, neither exception exists, as regards Islam.

As we discussed in the thread inspired by the Hanson piece, the reason that the "Muslim problem" is difficult is precisely because they ARE weak.

If they were stronger, we'd simply bomb 'em back to the Bronze Age.

Since they're already living in the Bronze Age, we'll need more provocation before we stop with the attempted reformation, and proceed to the extermination.

Opinion on whether they'll provide that provocation varies; my own is that they probably won't - if they had any ability to nuke us, or use bio-warfare, then they already would have done so.

Being the possible victims of genocide in a future Europe seems to me to be a regional problem, and not a universal "Muslims vs. the West" dynamic.

Switching gears, I find pharyngula.org to be very much NOT my cuppa, although other Duckians will enjoy it much more than I did; I did like this bit from PZ Myers:

"I'm dreadfully vain. Not the kind who looks deeply into mirrors (mirrors make me vaguely uncomfortable, actually, and I avoid them), but the kind who is still convinced that he possesses a stunningly spectacular self, a virtual Adonis hidden away only a few millimeters from where anyone would be able to see it. I have this job where I have to perform in front of audiences fairly regularly — teaching is show business, you know — and one of my little confidence-building rituals before I have to go out on stage is to take a moment and visualize [inside] myself: firm tubes of smoothly streaming, rich red blood; cartilages like oiled pearl; a liver with the sheen of polished mahogany; intestines coiled and rippling; plump and furrowed brain carefully swaddled in delicate arachnoid and tough dura. That's me. And damn, but I'm splendid, and I can strut out there and do my job."

So, I second Mr. Eagar: take a gander at pharyngula.org, and see what you think.

January 11, 2006 3:38 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Also, PZ Myers led me to Gary Farber's Amygdala, which is my cuppa, and it was Mr. Eagar who directed me to go to Myers' site, so...

Thanks, Harry.

January 11, 2006 3:48 PM  
Blogger David said...

If science replaces religion, it necessarily follows that people will find scientific reasons to kill each other.

Brit: I would say that you're whistling past the Mosque. The next fatwah is likely to come from London.

Harry: 42.

January 11, 2006 5:37 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

You could be right. Frankly I'd advise Dawkins to tighten up his security after this programme.

You can doubt his wisdom, but not his bravery, I suppose.

January 12, 2006 1:33 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Poor Richard.

January 12, 2006 2:49 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I second O's comments. I don't see a person's religious status as a worthwhile predictor of whether he/she is likely to commit or assent to evil acts. Our capacity for good/evil comes with our natures, men have found just as many non-religious excuses for their evil as they have found religious ones.

Harry's "little old lady" exception comes from my objection to his call to tar & feather all Catholics in an earlier post. I apply the exception more broadly than that. You can't hold someone accountable for an act commited by someone else just because they have religious faith in common. This is what happens to athiests when we're held responsible for all the atrocities commited by Stalin & Mao.

If there is such a thing as the Athiest Cause, then Dawkins isn't helping it. You don't convince religious people that they have nothing to fear from the non-religious by telling them that their church services remind you of the Nurenberg rallies. I see him as the athiest version of Pat Robertson, a self-important blowhard.

January 12, 2006 7:04 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

42 what? Not getting something here, David.

The reason we need Dawkinses and (in the 19th century) Ingersolls is that without them, the religious selfwit-aggrandizers will set themselves up as moral arbiters, without any effective counterweights, and then you get the morality of Pat Robertson or the Temperance League.

A good mix of socially respectable religions that don't even pretend to honor the same deity can give the same result, but secularism is more efficient.

The one thing you must avoid at all costs is a dominating religion.

The bad social effects of sclerotic civic morality need not be overtly religious, tho' they usually are and even the ones that don't seem to be probably have a religious core.

Tom Wolfe, in 'The Right Stuff,' wrote about the press as the 'Genteel Beast,' and he got that exactly right.

The Genteel Beast (of whatever form; in England it was the assumption that everyone was CofE) stifles freedom by bringing down social condemnation on behaviors that are really inocuous.

You really get a sense of this growing up in the American South before civil rights legislation. And it can be possible, sometimes, to counteract the effects by fairly simple methods. Canceling the Jim Crow laws changed the behavior of Southerners for the better without, in most cases, changing their opinions about race at all.

(As I write this, I am listening to Bessie Smith sing 'BoweaviBlues.' She was from my hometown, or perhaps I should say I am from her hometown. She died after a car wreck because the hospital would not accept a black woman. That sort of behavior is no longer acceptable in Chattanooga.)

No doubt Muslims and Hindus feel this stifling even more intensely. (Gotta throw in that Hindus kill an awful lot of people every year who are other Hindus. A society that assents to torching people for standing in the wrong ticket line is a violent society.)

January 12, 2006 12:05 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Harry:

"In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (published in 1979), [...] a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings [build] a computer named Deep Thought to calculate the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. When the answer was revealed as 42, they were forced to build a more powerful computer to work out what the Ultimate Question actually was, but their plans never come to fruition.
The computer, often mistaken for a planet (because of its size and use of biological components), was the Earth..."

More about the late Douglas Adams, and his multi-media works...

January 12, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ah, I had forgotten. My wife and son are big Adams fans, but he never interested me much.

I, for one, have no doubt what the question is, at least in regard to this topic: will some religious nut kill me, or do I die with my boots off?

January 12, 2006 3:42 PM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: The Bessie Smith story is an urban (rural?) legend and, in any event, happened in Mississippi.

January 12, 2006 4:00 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

It doesn't pay to be gone for a couple days.

I note many references here to religion being an evolutionary result. That might well be. However, I suspect it is more accurate to refer the capacity to form supernatural explanations, and, similarly, mathematical ability, as emergent properties of the brain itself.

That is to say, if evolution happens to spin off a brain sufficiently large and densely interconnected, that brain will be able to analyze and form explanations, as well as gain sufficient self-awareness to be cognizant of mortality.

The capacity for religious belief, then, as opposed to belief in any particular instance of religion, simply comes with the territory.

So, look to evolution for why we have brains, and look to the brain for why we have religion.

In case that makes any difference.

Bret, way up there, said:

There is no doubt in my mind that for Dawkins, atheism is a religion (as opposed to a lack of religion) and evolution is its creation myth. As long as loud mouthed fools such as Dawkins are on the loose, the IDers and Creationists have little choice but to match the volume (and foolishness) of their opponent.

Caveat Ignorantor: I have never read a word Dawkins has wrote, nor seen him in any form.

That said, I don't think what motivates Dawkins is atheism, and his attitude towards religion has nothing to do with "the evolution thing." Rather, what motivates him is, in his view, the jaw dropping mass delusion that is organized religion. And even that wouldn't be much motivation, except that delusion so often turns murderous. One should be able to at least understand that monumental annoyance could accompany the prospect that beliefs, made sane only by numbers, completely justify flying airplanes into skyscrapers.

Why does it turn murderous? Because, for those who aren't inclined to selectively ignore portions of their revealed-by-God texts, those texts contain explicit directions to do just that. No one who has read of the Quran can conclude other than that it is as murderous a book as ever received wide readership. I think it likely that if one were to compare Mein Kampf and the Quran evil-for-evil, the race might well go to Mohammed.

Nor does the Bible come off particularly well by comparison. Great swaths of Deuteronomy, for example, are still Divinely operational. Yet, if followed, would lead to bloody mayhem.

All revealed religions contain do-it-our-God's-way-or-else clauses; proper acts are nothing without proper beliefs and obsequiousnesses.

All revealed religions direct their believers to kill non-believers and apostates.

One would think that such consequences, the root of a great deal of evil, should ride on rather more than "on account of this book said so."

Bret, you also wrote:
Case 4: The trait did help humans to survive, but is counterproductive now. A cost/benefit analysis still needs to be done because, like Case 1, it requires energy to overcome human nature.

How about a little thought experiment. What do you think would happen if a nuclear weapon got into al Queda's hands?

Whatever one thinks how productive the capacity for religious belief might once have been, the obvious answer to that question is that very same capacity, instantiated in the form of perfect believers, becomes, very quickly, very, very, counterproductive.

And Dawkins' anger would suddenly seem quite prescient.


Oroborous, you wrote:

what percentage of humans are really capable of living their lives in strict accordance with conclusions based on "reason and evidence" ??

Good question, and good answer. I might also suggest that the reason the numbers you cite are so low is not due so much to inability to reach conclusions based on reason and evidence -- after all, we do it all the time; I'm sure there are plenty of successful evangelist auto mechanics -- rather, there are few people willing to accept the sometimes unpleasant answers reason and evidence yield.

David:

I think you would have to look pretty hard before you would find a non-religious text advocating mass slaughter.

Perhaps rational inquiry would take up that slack should revealed texts ever fall into disfavor. I doubt it, though.

Duck:

In this:

If there is such a thing as the Athiest Cause, then Dawkins isn't helping it. You don't convince religious people that they have nothing to fear from the non-religious by telling them that their church services remind you of the Nurenberg rallies.

I suspect you miss Dawkins' central point.

It isn't that the religious have anything to fear from the non-religious.

Far from it. Instead, the religious have a great deal to fear from the religious.

The Bessie Smith story may well be rurban legend, but the Biblically sourced reluctance of Christian doctors to allieviate the pains of childbirth (before Queen Victoria) are not.

January 12, 2006 6:35 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Skipper:

I have never read a word Dawkins has wrote, nor seen him in any form.

You really might want to do so, before defending him personally, as opposed to defending some of his ideas. "Some", because he has some simply indefensible ideas, along with other, merely controversial ones.

He's an attention-addicted, rodeo-clown-like figure.

[W]hat motivates [Dawkins] is, in his view, the jaw dropping mass delusion that is organized religion.

Another jaw-dropping delusion is that a human activity, present since humans first had language, and a central feature of EVERY organized human society since, no longer serves a purpose in human affairs.

We might as well claim that human sexuality no longer serves any purpose, that all children ought to be products of artificial insemination, and that people ought to give up sex-for-pleasure.
(Although of course we know some people who would sign off on that in a heartbeat).

[B]eliefs, made sane only by numbers, completely justify flying airplanes into skyscrapers.

Or firebomb hundreds of thousands of civilians on multiple occasions, or use nuclear weaponry...

There are many bad reasons to go to war, or to commit violence, and religious belief doesn't hold a monopoly.

How about a little thought experiment. What do you think would happen if a nuclear weapon got into al Queda's hands ?

If used on the West, the Muslim world would be destroyed.

But, from a social standpoint, why do the bad actions or intent of ONE nutty faction, composed mostly of dysfunctional people who would have latched onto some other anti-social movement absent al Qaeda, condemn ALL religion, or even just all organized religion ?

It's quite unfair to judge Mormons, for instance, by the splinter groups of family-abusive polygamists that live along the Utah - Arizona border, despite the fact that they call themselves Mormons, and are scorned but tolerated by both Mormon Church authorities and civil authorities.
Similarly, the non-religious among us would mostly shrink from being lumped in with Dawkins.

Whatever one thinks [of] how productive the capacity for religious belief might once have been...

Again, "true believers", radicals who put end over means every time, are simply a human archetype, and are certainly not confined to the religious sphere.

Criminals might end up in possession of a nuke too, and use it to extract ransoms from various governments...
Would that prove that non-religious people can't be trusted ?

Religious belief still has the same utility for promoting good that it ever did.
It will never be an unalloyed activity or philosophy.

The capacity for religious belief, then, as opposed to belief in any particular instance of religion, simply comes with [large and densely interconnected brains].

Doesn't that kind of negate the examples that you give, of the liabilities and negative consequences of religious belief ?

If we're hard-wired to be prone to religious belief, then such belief is just a fact of life, and should simply be channeled as much as possible into good ends, is that not so ?

[T]he reason the numbers you cite are so low is not due so much to inability to reach conclusions based on reason and evidence [...] rather, there are few people willing to accept the sometimes unpleasant answers reason and evidence yield.

Yes, denial plays a big role, but also most people just don't think much about what the likely secondary and tertiary effects of their everyday actions are.
They could analyse it, most people have the ability to do so successfully, they just DON'T.

And, of course, when they do, they're likely to find that some lifestyle changes are necessary, in order to bring them into accordance with "best practices", and few sane people relish change.

Take smokers, for instance.
Virtually all American smokers know that they should quit, and most plan to do so... Later.

But, I merely describe, I don't condemn (much).
In my own life, I have thought things through much more than has the average person, and more of my lifestyle is "best practices", but there are areas where I struggle to do as I ought, and not what's easiest, so I empathize to some extent with other "wanna-be's".

January 12, 2006 10:11 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper:

For someone who hasn't seen Dawkins or read him, I think you're uncannily accurate in your assessment.

You should read him though. He doesn't really touch on religion at all in most of the books - the anti-theism is a sideline for him. I wouldn't bother with the Selfish Gene at first though - start with Climbing Mount Improbable or River Out of Eden. Trust me, you'll be impressed.

Oroborous:

[Dawkins is] an attention-addicted, rodeo-clown-like figure.

I think that's very harsh - much too harsh. He's extremely eloquent and as an explainer of darwinist science to the layman he's in a league of his own, really. (The only problem he has is that he's very fond of the extended metaphor, which makes him an easy target for quote-miners).

He's also polite and soft-spoken, for the most part, though he will argue his case vehemently when he gets going. But - and this is why my review carries a somewhat mocking tone - he is also a man on a hopless, almost Quixotic mission.

He identifies extremism and fundamentalism as the cause of most of the world's violence and suffering. But he thinks the way to combat this is not to beg the religious to be moderate and tolerant and to keep their noses out of science - which I think would be the more sensible approach - but to inform them that all religion is tosh and that they ought to abandon their delusional faith immediately in favour of reason and evidence-weighing.

January 13, 2006 2:36 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Speaking of evolution, it is interesting how quickly the tone and popular presentation of this debate from the science side has evolved from Gould to Dawkins. I assume everyone here is familiar with Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), his effort to accord both faith and science their own respected spheres in intellectual inquiry. It’s not without problems, but it’s not bad either and one can’t help but be struck by his modesty as a scientist and his basic decency as he probes the conflicts, and especially his fearless confronting of the arrogance and dangers of scientism.

Gould testified in Arkansas at one of those Darwin vs. Creationism trials Americans can’t seem to get enough of, and not surprisingly was appalled by the ignorance of the creationists and the dangers they posed to scientific inquiry and basic reason. That led him to study the Scopes trial carefully and confront what he saw as an extremely troubling question–-how could such a decent, compassionate, reform-minded hero like William Jennings Bryan let himself be captured by such palpable ignorance? So he delved into his formative influences and discovered Bryan and certain mentors had been personally and directly exposed to the use of Darwin by German militarists in World War One to defend what we now call social Darwinism, and he saw that the perversions were not being promulgated by popular demagogues but by professional biologists. He foresaw the horrific consequences long before they actually occurred and was determined to fight them.

Gould comes close to heroic status in my book by facing the problem squarely and concluding that scientific inquiry applied to all questions and untempered by faith has been and will be disastrous. He refuses to hide behind shibboleths about “value-free” or “self-correcting” science or any self-exculpatory, Skipper-like rhetorical tricks whereby misunderstood or perverted Darwinism isn’t really Darwinism anymore and communism and German nationalism are really religions. Here is a quotable J’accuse directed at his colleagues:

I wish I could stop here with a snide comment on Bryan as Yahoo and a ringing defense for science’s proper interpretation of Darwinism. But such a dismissive judgment would be unfair, because Bryan cannot be faulted on one crucial issue. Lord only knows, he understood precious little about science, and he wins no medals for logic of argument. But when he said that Darwinism had been widely portrayed as a defense of war, domination, and domestic exploitation, he was right.

We now come to the crux of this story. Such misuses of Darwinism stand in violation of NOMA, and have also perpetrated much mischief in our century. But who bears the responsibility for such misuse? If scientists had always maintained proper caution in their interpretations, and proper humility in resisting invalid extensions of their findings into inappropriate domains of other magisteria, then we could exonerate my profession by recognizing the inevitable misuses by non-scientists as yet another manifestation of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

But NOMA cuts both ways and imposes restriction and responsibility on both magisteria. The political campaigns of American creationists do represent–as usually and correctly interpreted–an improper attempt by partisans of a marginal and minority view within the magisterium of religion to impose their doctrines on the magisterium of science. But, alas, scientists have also, indeed frequently, been guilty of the same offense in reverse, even if they don’t build organized political movements with legislative clout.

Many people believe that evolution validates this or that moral behavior because scientists have told them so. When we view the behavior thereby justified as either harmless or benign, we tend to look the other way and give the scientist a pass for his hubris. But fashions change, and today’s benevolence may be tomorrow’s anathema. The average American male reader in 1900 probably accepted racism, with his group on top, as a dictate of nature, and probably supported imperial expansion of American power. The claim that evolution justified the morality of both conclusions probably seemed, to him, both evident and reasonable. And if a prominent biologist advanced such a statement, then the argument became even more persuasive.

--
Rock of Ages
, Ch 3.

Gould then goes on to say that all scientific inquiry into moral and ethical questions is pretty much a crock.

Well, it is a long way from “The Magisterium of Religion” to “The Root of all Evil.”, just as it is a very long way from “there is no place for the non-natural in scientific inquiry” to “the religious should keep their noses out of science”. Dawkins may be clever and oh-so-polite, but he is an evil man promoting hatred and contempt and it is very sad to see you guys sit back, give him a pass and watch history repeat itself.

Nice, Oroborous.

Duck:

I don't see a person's religious status as a worthwhile predictor of whether he/she is likely to commit or assent to evil acts.

I really do hope you will find a way to post a separate thread on that question, trying to answer which is a little like trying to grab mercury. But, to get you thinking, does that mean ideas don't have consequences?

January 13, 2006 6:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Harry,

As I recall, Wolfe's charactization of the press as that "Victorian gentleman" in The Right Stuff was in reference to the way they ignored or covered up the extra-curricular hanky-panky of the Mercury 7 astronauts. You can hardly say that about the press nowadays.

Skipper,
Dawkins point in equating the meta-church service with Nurenberg rallies is hysterical and offensive. It is the kind of moral equivalence nonsense that infects the Left, the seeing of Nazis under every bed. You don't win points with the larger culture for being rational by labeling the average church-goer a Nazi.

More comments a little later.

January 13, 2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Duck:

Dawkins did mention the Nuremburg rallies, but I dropped that fact rather flippantly into the review mostly for comic effect.

Let me put it into the context:

1) Dawkins did not compare the average churchgoer with a Nazi.
2) He specifically referred to the trappings of the service: the giant flags and screen, the huge close-ups of Haggard testifyin', the mass swaying and hands-in-the-air...not the content of the lesson
3) he said it in a cheeky sort of way, not as an accusation, and Haggard laughed about it - claiming it was more like a rock concert
4) Frankly, it WAS a pretty weird and cultish set-up - not your average church ceremony at all (at least, it was weird if you're used to seeing old-fashioned CofE services rather than US-style evangelical ones)

But it was, sadly, yet another gratuitous Nazi reference.

January 13, 2006 7:07 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Well argued. Our positions are not so very far removed from each other. But they are just far removed enough…

Gould comes close to heroic status in my book by facing the problem squarely and concluding that scientific inquiry applied to all questions and untempered by faith has been and will be disastrous.

I don’t quite agree. Untempered by moral consideration, common sense, and respect for human life and values, yes. Faithful people have been sometimes very bad at supplying these things, and often very good. Faith might sometimes be sufficient, but it is not necessary.


He refuses to hide behind shibboleths about “value-free” or “self-correcting” science or any self-exculpatory, Skipper-like rhetorical tricks whereby misunderstood or perverted Darwinism isn’t really Darwinism anymore and communism and German nationalism are really religions.

You might accuse Skipper of being wrong, but you cannot accuse him of ever knowingly employing a “rhetorical trick”. That’s nonsense and would go completely against his innate Skipperism. Skipper compares communism and Nazism to religions specifically in the aspect that they are idealistic and irrational, which they surely are.

Of course perverted and misunderstood interpretations of darwinism are not darwinism – by the definition of ordinary words.

Gould then goes on to say that all scientific inquiry into moral and ethical questions is pretty much a crock.

Depends how you approach it. To take a descriptive-only line – ie. to ask how moral and ethical sensibilities have come about – is perfectly valid. It’s taking a prescriptive line – therefore we ought to do x – that is pretty much a crock.

Well, it is a long way from “The Magisterium of Religion” to “The Root of all Evil.”, just as it is a very long way from “there is no place for the non-natural in scientific inquiry” to “the religious should keep their noses out of science”.

Yes in the former case, not so far in the latter. Don’t over-interpret my meaning. Plenty of good scientists are also religious. They’re religious in one part of their lives, and scientific in another. My problem is pretty much exclusively with the attempt to get Intelligent Design classified as ‘science’. To do so is to utterly bastardise and misunderstand how science works, and what it is supposed to do.

Dawkins may be clever and oh-so-polite, but he is an evil man promoting hatred and contemp and it is very sad to see you guys sit back, give him a pass and watch history repeat itself.

That’s somewhat OTT.

January 13, 2006 7:31 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Brit,
Thanks for the clarification. You can compare something to the Nurenberg rallies in its aesthetic and production qualities alone, and maybe that is what Dawkins was doing, but as you say, any allusion to the Nazi regime is problematic. People will come away from it, as I have, only knowing that Dawkins compared Christian worship to the Nuremberg rallies. Knowing of past over-the-top statements by Dawkins, I don't find it hard to attribute a direct Nazi comparison to him.

I agree with your explanation of Gould's characterization of science's crock-ness in the area of moral value prescription. Science's original value was in its ability to separate the realms of empirical investigation from religious or moral considerations. A scientist's only job is to discover objective facts about the world. He has no more or less authority in prescribing moral values than any other citizen. Noone should heed the advice of a biologist as to how we should as a society assign moral value to racial differences to any greater extent than we should heed the advice of a cab driver or bartender. That's not in the job description.

January 13, 2006 7:56 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
We can get into a whole discussion about the consequence of ideas, and maybe I should write up a separate post on the topic. I've had this debate with OJ on a few occasions.

But my statement was more to get religionists "off the hook" that Dawkins and other secularists would hang them on regarding their propensity to commit evil. Of course as a religionist you would see my neutrality as letting the secularist off the very same hook.

I'll try to post something this weekend.

January 13, 2006 8:34 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

Of course I accuse Skipper. He and I have had several rounds at this one. A pleasure as always, but that doesn't change the fact that he steadfastly refuses to lay responsibility for any social evil at the feet of darwinism or even scientific rationalism. Come to think of it, so do you. With Nazism, we keep bouncing back and forth between evil scientists who got carried away and neo-pagans-baying-in-the-forest, but communism is so obviously an atheistic doctrine built on materialist, rationalist principles that to call it a religion is just appropriating language. You don't get out of it simply because they got a little excited and messed up the implementation. Sometimes I wonder whether you guys have ever seriously pondered a society that rejects all tradition and transcendental truths and tries to solve all its problems rationally. Do you really believe decency and niceness are just going to emerge naturally and logically?

The key to your confusion is Of course perverted and misunderstood interpretations of darwinism are not darwinism. You would laugh me out of the blogosphere if I argued that anti-semitic pogroms had nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity because they perverted or misunderstood the original message and were rejected by lots of Christians, so don't blame me. But because you can't see your beliefs as a belief system on a roll that is heading in predictable directions--just a bunch of independent, stand-alone physical truths floating out there in glorious isolation from the madding crowd and safe in the hands of you civilized brights--you find artful ways to do just that with scientism. That's why you guys can be so scary, cute and cuddly as you may be.

January 13, 2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Oh, I might surprise you there. Lots of thoughts, but I'll save them.

January 13, 2006 8:44 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

You would laugh me out of the blogosphere if I argued that anti-semitic pogroms had nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity because they perverted or misunderstood the original message and were rejected by lots of Christians

No I wouldn't - I'd agree with you.

I'm not denying that people have used warped and lunatic interpretations of darwinism to justify evil acts. I'm denying that that says anything about darwinism.

Anti-semitic pogroms have nothing to do with the philosophy and teaching of Christ, as interpreted by any sane human being.

Christ did offer prescriptive teachings - but not those. There's even less justification for using darwinism because it is solely descriptive. Using it to justify genocide is like using a maths textbook to justify murder. 10 minus 3 is seven, therefore I ought to kill three people.

That hasn't ever stopped lunatics from interpreting it to suit their lunatic ends. I've said many a time: evil people can and will use absolutely anything to justify evil acts.

January 13, 2006 8:52 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

No I wouldn't - I'd agree with you.

Then you would be missing the point. "Garbage in, garbage out" is fine for math problems and computer programming, but it is no basis for ignoring the fallibilities of human nature and closing one's eyes to predictable human behaviour or distinguishing the theoretical purity of the ideology from what is done in its name on the grounds that the assistant director of programme implementation did his sums wrong or misread the text. As I am unaware of any religion, philosophy or ideology that promotes murder, rape and mayhem as a first principle, shall we excuse them all from the world's evils and just blame those few "evil" humans. I believe you hold most people are naturally good and the evil are a small, puzzling minority. If so, doesn't it bother you how they sure seem to punch above their weight?

I suggest you know what is likely to happen if an ascendent faith that defines a race or class or other faith as condemned or even less deserving in the eyes of the Divine gains temporal political power. Why do you have so much difficulty in understanding what is likely to happen when an aggressive scientism that declares all belief in the transcendent somewhere between childish and evil, and all morality relative and self-defined, rules unchallenged? How many disastrous utopias do you need before the penny drops?

January 13, 2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Here is another critique of the Dawkins program, via BrosJudd, who has a thread discussing the program.

January 13, 2006 10:34 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

What exactly is it that you think I'm advocating, or want to happen, re: religion?

Or alternatively, do you think there is some sense in which I am neglecting to take a position, the adoption of which is necessary to prevent some evil consequence?

January 13, 2006 11:36 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I am not aware that 'lots' of Christians ever objected to antisemitic pogroms.

There were 'lots' of Chritians in Poland, but that did not prevent beating up Jews from becoming the national sport.

In fact, I cannot think of any Christians in the period around 1900 who explicitly stated that Jews did NOT deserve persecution. All the objections to czarist (and other, such as Turkish) pogroms was based not on their immorality as such but on their 'excess.'

Certainly, you'll not find any clear denunciation of antisemitism coming out of the Vatican.

You are making the error I used to bring up to an uncomprehending Orrin so often: the difference between common or garden-variety antislavery and moral antislavery.

No one (hardly) wants to be a slave himself, but that is a merely selfish, not a moral position. Objecting to ANYBODY being a slave is the moral stance.

This is an extremely rare moral position. I doubt one in 10 among the world's inhabitants is morally opposed to slavery. Very few Christians are.

++++

I think the problem Gould was attacking is misstated.

It is not true that scientific knowledge cannot dictate morality. Racism is a case exactly on point.

The problem is the one my brother points out to his engineering students: An engineer never has all the information he needs in order to make a decision. The difference between a good engineer and a bad one is that the good one knows when it's time to go ahead anyway.

In the late 19th-early 20th centuries, biologists got way ahead of themselves in applying experimentally derived knowledge and theoretical constructs to human behavior.

The positions they took, however (contra Orrin and Peter), were not radical or revolutionary. They simply added the prestige of science to the teachings of the ancien regime. Spencer, after all, published his theory of survival of the fittest before Darwin did.

And the forgotten Samuel Smiles, more popular than either of them, preached the same tale in a wholly traditional format.

+++++

I can think of ideologies and religions that promote rape and murder.

Islam leaps to mind, with its prophet who was a rapist and murderer (and thief, liar, pervert, child molester and all round bad dude).

The political ideology of the Mongols also.

January 13, 2006 12:21 PM  
Blogger David said...

The Supreme Pontiff.... as Head of the Catholic Church, which, faithful to its divine doctrines and its most glorious traditions, considers all men as brothers and teaches them to love one another, he never ceases to indicate among individuals, as well as among peoples, the observance of the principles of the natural law, and to condemn everything that violates them. This law must be observed and respected in the case of the children of Israel, as well as of all others, because it would not be comformable to justice or to religion itself to derogate from it solely on account of divergence of religious confessions.

-- Pope Benedict XV, 1916

The Church "just as it reproves all rancours in conflicts between peoples, to the maximum extent condemns hatred of the people once chosen by God, the hatred that commonly goes by the name of anti-Semitism."

-- Pope Pius XI, 1928

Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.

-- Pope Pius XI, 1938

January 13, 2006 8:27 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oh, well done, David. And before our friends here tell us this is only very recent and was unknown before modern times--

Gregory, bishop, servant of the servants of God, extends greetings and the apostolic benediction to the beloved sons in Christ, the faithful Christians, to those here now and to those in the future. Even as it is not allowed to the Jews in their assemblies presumptuously to undertake for themselves more than that which is permitted them by law, even so they ought not to suffer any disadvantage in those [privileges] which have been granted them. Although they prefer to persist in their stubbornness rather than to recognize the words of their prophets and the mysteries of the Scriptures, and thus to arrive at a knowledge of Christian faith and salvation; nevertheless, inasmuch as they have made an appeal for our protection and help, we therefore admit their petition and offer them the shield of our protection through the clemency of Christian piety. In so doing we follow in the footsteps of our predecessors of blessed memory, the popes of Rome Calixtus, Eugene, Alexander, Clement, Celestine, Innocent, and Honorius....[...]

Since it happens occasionally that some Christians lose their Christian children, the Jews are accused by their enemies of secretly carrying off and killing these same Christian children and of making sacrifices of the heart and blood of these very children. It happens, too, that the parents of these children or some other Christian enemies of these Jews, secretly hide these very children in order that they may be able to injure these Jews, and in order that they may be able to extort from them a certain amount of money by redeeming them from their straits.

And most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away these children and killed them, and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children, since their law in this matter precisely and expressly forbids Jews to sacrifice, eat, or drink the blood, or to eat the flesh of animals having claws. This has been demonstrated many times at our court by Jews converted to the Christian faith: nevertheless very many Jews are often seized and detained unjustly because of this. We decree, therefore, that Christians need not be obeyed against Jews in a case or situation of this type, and we order that Jews seized under such a silly pretext be freed from imprisonment, and that they shall not be arrested henceforth on such a miserable pretext, unless-which we do not believe-they be caught in the commission of the crime. We decree that no Christian shall stir up anything new against them, but that they should be maintained in that status and position in which they were in the time of our predecessors, from antiquity till now.

--Gregory X (1271-76), repeating similar instructions from Innocent III and Innocent IV and referring to previous papal directions.

January 14, 2006 1:48 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

Another jaw dropping delusion is that a human activity, present since humans first had language, and a central feature of EVERY organized human society since, no longer serves a purpose in human affairs.

We need to separate purpose and effect.

As I noted above, ALL revealed religions have worship-our-way-or-else clauses. Combined with Divine Command morality, this invariably leads to forming exclusionary moral communities. By that I mean scriptural texts always contain within them direction to exclude those not of the religious community from the same moral considerations accorded to those within the community.

The Quran is particularly noteworthy in this respect; I trust no one here will contest that Islam's holy text contains explicit direction as to heretics, apostates, non-believers and heathens, and is no less evil in this regard than Mein Kampf.

The Bible, while less egregious in this respect, is hardly blameless, as even a cursory examination of Deuteronomy 13:12-16 will demonstrate.

Regardless of religion's purpose, or its inevitability as an emergent property of any brain sufficiently complex for self-awareness, it is religion's effect that is of primary concern.

Until nuclear weapons, Perfect Believers, that is those with both encyclopedic knowledge of their scriptures, and the determination to take that knowledge seriously, could be the cause of ongoing, but relatively low-level slaughter.

No more.

For those with the wind of Perfect Belief at their backs will find all the scriptural justification they require to rejoice at the prospect of using nuclear weapons on cities full of non-believers.

You are quite correct that should such a thing come to pass, the Muslim world would be destroyed.

But all of that horror, the act and its consequences, would be directly traceable to Perfect Belief in Divine Direction, and the inevitable consequence of exclusionary moral communities.

NB the distinction between Perfect Believers, and the rest. It is only the degree to which the the latter, those who use reason to selectively ignore significant parts of their god's directives, predominates over the former that stops revealed religion from being a mutual suicide pact.

True Believers are NOT putting end over means; they are doing as they are told, because plenty of scriptural passages direct not only ends, but means as well. So long as religion insists on proper obsequiousnesses, regardless of proper acts, this will always be the case.

January 14, 2006 5:03 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

While not having read Gould's book advancing the notion of NOMA, I am familiar with it. And while comforting at first glance, and no doubt at least partially valid, I doubt the notion stands up particularly well in any discussion far removed from the easiest topics.

[Skipper insists] misunderstood or perverted Darwinism isn’t really Darwinism anymore and communism and German nationalism are really religions.

For the record, I freely acknowledge there was a period stretching from, roughly, Newton through to Heisenberg where scientific hubris led directly to Scientific Determinism. I freely acknowledge that within such a milieu it was inevitable that Darwin's ideas, their degree of their correctness aside, would be fertile ground for all sorts of pernicious ideas. Darwinism would both confirm preconceived notions of superiority, as well as for the justification for more well intentioned, though no less repugnant for it, things like eugenics.

In other words, during the period of Scientific Determinism, those applications of Darwinism could scarcely be considered perversions, because those applications were consistent with the wider material knowledge at the time.

But that was then, and this is now. You would have to look long and hard, and I suspect futilely, to find any contemporary scientist, or scientific text, advocating slaughter of any form, especially upon the particularity of some belief.

With regard to Communism and Nazism, just like their North Korean Dear Leader contemporary, they really are religions. All rely upon argument from authority, have revealed texts, a priestly caste, and establish exclusionary moral communities. It doesn't matter how they came to be, their sustenance required belief that can only be characterized as religious. FA Hayek, in Road to Serfdom, compares Nazism and Communism to religions with regard to the moral fervor they exert from their followers.

That is not appropriating language, it is grouping things according to their most salient characteristics. As it turns out, with respect to the nature of religious belief, the presence of a supernatural deity, while common, is hardly essential.

but he is an evil man promoting hatred and contempt and it is very sad to see you guys sit back, give him a pass and watch history repeat itself

As I said above, I have no brief for the man personally. But, ignoring the arguer for the moment, his argument is that all revealed religions contain within themselves directives that would be considered positively evil under any other guise.

So I'm not giving him a pass; I am concluding his core argument is valid, and am waiting to be convinced otherwise.

January 14, 2006 5:37 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

His core argument, Skipper, which he advances ceaselessly with great gusto and wrath, is that religion is evil, all religious people are fools or mendacious and that all children should be raised and taught to believe that. If that is what you have concluded is valid "until otherwise shown", you have validated all my fears about modern scientific rationalism.

Brit:

What do I think you want to happen? I think you want all notion of the transendental to disappear and scientific rationalism to reign triumphant.

January 14, 2006 6:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blaspemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must pratice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengenance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly - and I myself was unaware of it - will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses (Deuternomy 17 [:10 ff.]) in which he commands them to obey their teachers on penalty of death, although Moses clearly adds: "what they teach you in accord with the law of the Lord." Thoses villains ignore that. They wantonly employ the poor people's obedience contrary to the law of the Lord and infuse them with this poison, cursing, and blasphemy. In the same way the pope also held us captive with the declaration in Matthew 16 {:18], "You are Peter," etc, inducing us to believe all the lies and deceptions that issued from his devilish mind. He did not teach in accord with the word of God, and therefore he forfeited the righ to teach.

Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let they stay at home.

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. The reason for such a measure is that, as said above, they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess. Such money should now be used in no other way than the following: Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest. With this he could set himself up in some occupation for the support of his poor wife and children, and the maintenance of the old or feeble. For such evil gains are cursed if they are not put to use with God's blessing in a good and worthy cause.

Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3[:19]}. For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.

Martin Luther, "On the Jews and Their Lies" (1543)

January 14, 2006 8:42 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

What do I think you want to happen? I think you want all notion of the transendental to disappear and scientific rationalism to reign triumphant

Nope. I'm not the least bit interested in some epic battle between reason and faith, with one side ultimately emerging truimphant. That's cloud cuckoo land stuff. Hence my criticism of Dawkins's absurd project.

I think the massed moderate faithful should be left to their beliefs unmolested. But equally, science should be left to be science unmolested - hence my objections to the ID project.

It is fundamentalism and intolerance on all sides that I would wish away.

I think you get too hot under the collar. You're in danger of playing the paranoid religious mirror image role to Dawkins.

January 14, 2006 10:28 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yes, Christians heard mixed messages. By their actions, we have no doubt which one they heard.

January 14, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Any period before the end of WWII in the West makes for particularly nauseating reading with regard to Christian anti-Judaism.

Islamic countries, led at the moment by Iran, seem quite content to follow that lead.

January 14, 2006 1:44 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

Complimented as I am by your reliance on Ontario authorities, uh, it's a big internet and you might want to be a litle more discriminating with your links to historical authorities. I recommend peer review.

Brit:

So, let's hear you attack him. Host a party. Tell your friends. I don't ask or expect you to change any beliefs, but I am hoping you will start to see parallels with those
sophisicated progressives of the '30s who gradually came to ignore the hard realities of human nature and what was before their eyes in favour of abstract gobbledegook to the point that they completely lost the ability to say why Stalin was wrong (and, for a minority, Hitler). We all have to make a stand some day. If you want us to take on Pat Robertson, the least you can do is come clean loudly on Dawkins. Gould did it, so it's not exactly like you don't have mentors. I'll be happy to help.

Duck:

Sure, but we know that and much more, and you know we know that. Do you think David and I are arguing that the Christianity has always been Judaism's best friend? It's Harry's and Skipper's straightline historical simplicities that are at issue here, without which most of their arguments collapse in a mess. So far, I just see tired "religion bad, science good" shibboleths that they repeat ever more loudly in the face of inconvenient evidence.

January 14, 2006 3:34 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Although, I suppose Harry's comedown from "Christians were commanded to slaughter everbody" to "Christians heard mixed messages" is some kind of secular equivalent to being born again.

January 14, 2006 4:33 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

So far, I just see tired "religion bad, science good" shibboleths that they repeat ever more loudly in the face of inconvenient evidence.

What you have seen here, from me anyway, is that revealed religion is bad.

For you, the Quran is inconvenient evidence, as is Deuteronomy.

The link I cited had a pretty extensive historical summary. Are they making it up? Or is its major fault one of omission?

I doubt this Catholic Online article is.

This article strongly indicates that insisting the Holocaust was the unique result of 20th century materialism amounts to denial.

Christianity is not Judaism's best friend because there is plenty of grist in that textual mill to cause that exact result.

Because you have caricatured my argument, I shall repeat it:

Revealed religious texts contain passages that, when combined with Divine Command morality, direct Perfect Believers to commit any manner of atrocities at anyone outside the exclusionary moral community.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with "science." In this respect, science is a bystander.

So, tell me, which is it:

Is there nothing to Divine Command morality, in that followers get to pick and choose which parts of their scripture they may ignore?

Or are there no elements in revealed texts that direct all manner of mayhem against non-believers?

January 14, 2006 4:53 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Revealed religious texts contain passages that, when combined with Divine Command morality, direct Perfect Believers to commit any manner of atrocities at anyone outside the exclusionary moral community.

Nice soaring words, but tell us, when exactly has that happened in our civilization in the last four hundred years? I'm very glad you included revealed religious texts in the mix, as that would seem to clearly exclude just about all atrocities in the West since 1648 at least, and even most of those those before were ambiguous.

Napoleon, Armenia, Hitler, Stalin & co, Mao, Pol Pot, Japan, India-Pakistan, numerous colonial slaughters, mainly by the French, Dutch and Belgians, Castro, marxist/inter-tribal war in Africa, blah, blah. See a lot of revealed religious texts behind those?

January 14, 2006 5:36 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Gee, I see revealed religious texts behind almost all of those, even without adopted Skipper's definition of marxism as a religion.

And, no, I'm not backing down an inch on my complaint about Christianity.

You went off quote mining and came back with some meaningless boilerplate.

We know what Christians heard. Read the Nun's Priest's Tale. Chaucer was not some isolated bumpkin.

Had there ever been a doctrine of leaving Jews alone, the expulsions of 1291 and 1492 (only the biggest) could never have happened.

Had the Piuses actually believed what they said for the consumption of naive public opinion, they would not have hidden Croat Jew-murderers in their monasteries.

You cannot go around preaching that the Jews murdered GOD for 1,800 years without people coming to conclusions.

January 14, 2006 8:19 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Das Kapital (the revealed text for all instances of communism), Mein Kampf, and The Little Red Book are revealed texts in every sense of the word.

The invocation of a supreme being is not the most salient characteristic of a revealed text; rather, it is the use to which it is put.

Do you have any doubt that if humanity had the misfortune of tolerating communism for three hundred years, instead of three generations, that Marx, Engels and Lenin would have achieved supernatural deity status?

For a contemporary example, see North Korea.

As for India-Pakistan, that entire shlamozzle, and don't forget Bangladesh, is religiously inspired, in the sense that a Divinity directs it.

January 15, 2006 4:49 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

So, let's hear you attack him. Host a party. Tell your friends.

So a gently mocking review on a blog isn't sufficient? Should I be issuing a fatwah?

I think I'm right in thinking I'm the only one here to have seen the programme - though I stand to be corrected.

I disagree with Dawkins's idea that religious faith is the root of all evil. I think it is the root of some evil, and a lot of good, and even more stuff which is neither good nor evil.

I don't see him as a menace to society - I see him as someone with an over-cooked opinion, which he has every right to express. He's not advocating violence, or brainwashing - he's damning them. His message at the end of the programme was that it is thinking for oneself that is under threat - he thinks every person should weigh up the evidence before deciding for themselves, instead of leaving the thinking to authority and faith.

In other words, I think he's harmless. Well, maybe that puts me in same category as the German people in 1939. Just say the word, and I'll add myself to the list.

I though the Juddian line was that the zeitgeist was heading inexorably away from Dawkins and darwinism anyway? Why are you so worried?

January 15, 2006 7:22 AM  
Blogger David said...

I wasn't arguing that anti-semitism -- even violent anti-semitism -- didn't or doesn't exist. But I am arguing that you guys can't let yourselves off the hook by pretending that it is a particular sin of the Catholic Church. (And I wanted to help Harry out with his statement In fact, I cannot think of any Christians in the period around 1900 who explicitly stated that Jews did NOT deserve persecution.)

January 15, 2006 6:33 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

The invocation of a supreme being is not the most salient characteristic of a revealed text; rather, it is the use to which it is put.

Really? I guess that makes the Declaration of Independence, The Selfish Gene and the election platform of the Liberal party of Canada revealed texts.

If you keep going this way, Skipper, you'll soon have everybody in the grip of an irrational religious mania except the hosts of The Daily Duck.

January 16, 2006 12:48 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

His message at the end of the programme was that it is thinking for oneself that is under threat - he thinks every person should weigh up the evidence before deciding for themselves...

Oh, give me a break. No, you don't go on the list. You are lacking that certain fiery je ne sais quoi. But how about a job in the Ministry of Silly Walks instead? :-)

January 16, 2006 1:01 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Did you see the programme then?

I've heard John Mortimer express sentiments precisely the same as those of Dawkins in 'The Root of all Evil?'

Are you going to boycott Rumpole?

January 16, 2006 1:51 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Incidentally, "You are lacking that certain fiery je ne sais quoi" is great.

Reminds me of a school report I once had that went down in family history. My history teacher said of me: "Andrew displays a not-displeasing mixture of cooperation and sedition."

January 16, 2006 2:28 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

You have once again caricatured my argument.

The Bible, Quran, Mein Kampf, and The Communist Manifesto are all utopian/universalist documents relying solely upon argument from unassailable authority, and contain do-it-our-way-or-else clauses.

Another sure sign one is in the realm of revealed texts is the inevitability of violent schism. Every one of those instances I cite, save Mein Kampf (and that due only to insufficient time) resulted in persistent, murderous, divisions within the universe of believers.

That clearly distinguishes them from merit based belief systems. The Declaration, election platforms, and rational inquiry must all subject themselves to merit tests in order to survive. All of them are meritorious belief systems in that their assertions' validity are continuously in thrall to material results.

That distinction is quite clear.

My argument will not have everyone, save signed-up Duckians, prone to bouts of religious mania.

January 16, 2006 4:37 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Given that, up until Luther, the Catholic Church and Christianity were synonymous, and that up until the Enlightenment, all European societies were pervasively religious, violent anti-Judaism was a particular sin of Christianity.

Perhaps more accurately, it is a particular sin of Abrahamic religions. Well, two out of three of them, anyway.

Asserting, as some do, that the Holocaust was the hellish consequence of reason in the form of Darwin amounts to monumental denial (NB -- the term anti-Semitism, where it isn't the result of mere sloppiness is a sure sign of that denial); there simply is no hook for "us" to let ourselves off of. The fertility of a freshly plowed Iowa farm field in the spring has nothing on what Christianity had long prepared for anti-Judaism.

The Holocaust was the result of German tribal nationalism combined with the long, religiously inspired tradition of Jew hatred. It is no more an indictment of reason than one monkey clubbing another over the head with a computer keyboard.

January 16, 2006 5:06 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
Well, I wrote down some notes this weekend, but it will be awhile before I can post a full-blown article on the consequences of ideas. Original writing is so much harder than commentary!

But I think I flushed out the gist of my opinion on BrosJudd. Robert Schwartz also wrote an admirably concise take on the subect that I agree with.

Ideas do have consequences, but not in the simplistic "man is bitten by meme, man comes down with bad idea, man turns into killer/relativist/nihilist" line of diagnosis that seems to rule these ideological finger-pointing sessions. This model would suggest that we are the hapless victims of ideas, which use our brains merely as hosts for reproducing themselves.

But worldviews are more than just singular ideas, they are collections of many different ideas, and they evolve in a person's mind through time as experience puts them to the test. They have to "work" for the individual, they have to represent the world in a way that allows the "user" to make sense of his observations and experiences.

It is not uncommon for people to hedge their ideas against each other. Most people come to realize that there is no single abstraction that can explain everything, but that there are exceptions and contradictions to every way of looking at the world. So people become comfortable with ideas which are "mostly true". As with government work, mostly true ideas are good enough for the tasks facing most people.

So it is with religion. Most religious people are not expecting their faith to answer all questions or to bring about Heaven on Earth. They accept the received wisdom of their faiths as a mostly true account that satisfies their need to know "what it's all about" but don't expect it to rule every decision in their life.

Same is true of the average materialist. The materialist explanation seems to make the most sense in explaining the world to him. If he can make sense of the world without alluding to spirits, then he'd rather just dispose of the whole supernatural schmeer. He doesn't become beholden to it in the way that the religionists imagine, giving up every sense of wonder and meaning just because, as you like to say, it's all just atoms.

Does this help?

January 16, 2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Come, come, David. Using your standard, we would all have to agree that the 1937 Constitution of the USSR was, indeed, the most perfect instrument of democracy ever written.

Or that 'compassionate conservatism' has some meaning aside from 'cut taxes.'

Everybody else 'got it.'

January 16, 2006 8:34 AM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: My "standard" of using three statements by the Pope to disprove the statement that "no Christian" had made a that particular statement? I'm not sure what everyone else got if they got something other than "Christianity bad; reason good" is an oversimplification.

The Constitution of the USSR is a noble document setting forth a wonderfully democratic scheme. This is simply my old point about our Constitution made in a different context: a piece of paper cannot make a great and good nation, only a great and good people can to that.

Skipper: I'm a little at a loss as to how you can think that the Declaration isn't a statement of faith based on absolute authority. That is, after all, what it says it is. When they say We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness they weren't just whistling Dixie.

You seem to be setting up a scheme in which your religion is good because it works while everyone else's is bad because it doesn't work. This obviously works for you at the moment, but when dealing with religion you must deal with millenia. Do you think that there will be a "United States of America in 1000 years?

As for Germany, prior to WWI it was much more hospitable to the Jews than was the contemporaneous United States, though both (as well as the Ottoman Empire) were heads and shoulders above Tsarist Russia. Those German Jews considered themselves Germans to a surprising extent.

January 16, 2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, the Jews may have thought of themselves as Germans, but the German Christians did not, did they?

Popes say lots of things everyone understands to be meaningless boilerplate.

The recent sordid history of Vatican-sponsored child rape -- and the mound of obviously insincere statements deploring it -- is a case in point.

And this morning I heard a very, very funny one, on NPR, though as it was passed through NPR I cannot say that it is indubitably reflective of the opinions of the purported speakers. But here goes.

Thousands of Pakistanis demonstrated against the U.S., decrying the 'bombing of civilians.'

OK. How do you take that? Do you understand they are 1) against bombing civilians; 2) OK with bombing civilians as long as Muslims do it; or 3) actually part-time bombers of civilians themselves.

Call it textual criticism, but I go for 2. But it could be 3. What it could not possibly be is 1, and no one right of Michael Moore would be confused about that.

January 16, 2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: One of the joys of debating with you is that I never have to lower myself to a reductio ad absurdum.

January 16, 2006 4:47 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

We hold these truths to be self-evident

That's not absolute authority. If it were based on absolute, divine authority it would say "We hold these truths to be revealed by God".

To say something is self-evident is to appeal to reason and common sense, not to authority.

January 16, 2006 6:07 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I didn't say "statement of faith based on absolute authority," which, BTW, is not simply an axiomatic statement.

Rather, I said this:

" ... utopian/universalist documents relying solely upon argument from unassailable authority, and contain do-it-our-way-or-else clauses."

Which involves a whole lot more than just unassailable authority. (Besides, you have your authorities mixed up. In the context of which you speak, the authority is "We," the people making the statement, not a Creator.)

You seem to be setting up a scheme in which your religion is good because it works while everyone else's is bad

I'm not setting up a scheme. I am putting forward an argument that belief systems relying upon divine command means all scriptural directives have divine imprimatur.

Most believers selectively ignore them, but reliance upon divine command morality means all such religions are held hostage to the most perfect believers.

That argument does not establish any religion of my own; rather, it seconds Dawkins' view towards religion: much in it is indefensible, except for God's say so.

As for Germany before WWII ...

Not according to what I have read elsewhere. Starting in the mid-1800s, there was public discussion advocating, ideally, the expulsion of all Jews; less ideally, extermination.

Those German Jews may well have considered themselves German to a surprising extent (although not surprising to me; I'll be, until ostracized, most Jews considered themselves part and parcel of their host society.), but far too non-Jewish Germans didn't see it that way, for reasons firmly based in Christian theology.

January 16, 2006 6:54 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Most political statements do reduce to absurdity. If made by Muslims, all of them. (See anything coming out of Iran this year.)

I have since checked, and in fact the Pakistanis were simply inveighing against 'bombing civilians.' Don't tell me you believe them?

If they meant what they said, it would make life easier for everyone, wouldn't it?

I'm already on record as saying I place no importance in what people say, only to what they do.

By that standard, the pre-war German Jews were whistling past their own graveyard.

It is otherwise impossible to understand how there could be antisemitic parties, in the sense that antisemitism was their ONLY plank.

Even more significant, these parties collapsed. (They were most prominent in Vienna.) They did not collapse because German Christians objected to, or were indifferent to, antisemitism; but because they offered no electoral advantage: all German Christian parties were antisemitic.

German Christians have always been crazy evil in ways American Christians only rarely aspire to. We may contrast the failure of the Austrian antisemitic parties to the failure of the Antimasonic Party in pre-Civil War America. In that case, the party collapsed because everybody was indifferent, not because everybody wanted to exterminate the Masons.

January 16, 2006 9:09 PM  
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