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The joy of freedom,
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This review is from: New Atheism (Paperback)This is what Robert G. Ingersoll experienced when he became convinced that the universe was natural, that there were no gods and "no prohibited places in all the realms of thought". It is a wonderful way for Victor Stenger to open his latest book, because it captures what many of us feel having made the positive step from either belief or vague agnosticism into the clear air of atheism. It is also extremely vexing to believers. The "old-school atheists" like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre at least had the decency to wander in the "disorienting wilderness of nihilism" and to indulge in "angst-ridden anxiety and serious soul-searching". Miserable atheists, like the poor, are there to be pitied and then forgotten. The smiling confidence - sorry, "arrogance" - of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine seems to threaten those who mistake the quicksand of faith for solid ground.
In a world in which we already have denominational overload, where you can be a theist, deist, Buddhist, spiritualist, agnostic, and (so long as you're not running for public office in America) atheist, why on earth introduce another category of "new atheist" to confuse the punter? "Perhaps the most unique position of New Atheism is that faith, which is belief without supportive evidence, should not be given the respect, even deference, it obtains in modern society. Faith is always foolish and leads to many of the evils of society." Stenger identifies an important principle - don't respect the unjustified beliefs of others - that is unproblematic in most areas of life, except where religion is concerned. While religious folk fondly imagine they're dealing with the "big questions", they can't even handle the smaller ones to do with, for example, the historicity of Jesus. (See how they respond to Bill Maher in the excellent Religulous [DVD] .)
In one sense, I like the term New Atheist, even the Victorian indulgence in capitals. Stenger is clear as to what the real differences between nonbelievers and believers are. Is nature all there is or is there a supernatural dimension? Do theists have a "superior channel to reality, provided by God's revelations"? One man who "claimed the authority of divine revelation" was Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. He "had a taste for women, and one of his most important revelations was that God wanted men to have multiple wives." How convenient. But is it any less strange to believe in a walking corpse? At least we know Smith existed.
In another more important sense, however, the term "new atheism" is inaccurate because it occludes historical figures, such as that great champion of free thought W. K. Clifford, who declared over a hundred years ago that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence". This is, if anything, even stronger than Stenger's denunciation of faith as "belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence". Faith communities often bang on about their traditions, even if they've involved "slavery, the oppression of women, ethnic cleansing, serfdom, the divine right of kings, and extraction of testimony by torture". The long and honourable and often courageous opposition to faith should also be recognized and celebrated and used in the war against unreason.
The religious like to talk about the spiritual world (for the existence of which they can provide no evidence) but they also "make claims about the real world" including, for example, how prayer heals. Since "science and reason can be applied to anything and everything that involves some sort of observation" these claims "are thereby open to scientific testing." It cannot be repeated too many times that, just as for so-called paranormal events, there has never been any satisfactory scientific confirmation of these claims. Stenger disagrees "with the National Academy of Sciences... that science has nothing to say about God or the supernatural. The gods most people worship purportedly play an active role in the universe and in human lives. This activity should result in observable phenomena, and it is observable phenomena that form the very basis of scientific investigation." Less surprising than the Academy's blind spot is the "ignorance of science that is pervasive among theists and theologians" who "try to argue that science operates on faith". Stenger spells it out in terms simple enough for a theologian to understand. "Faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Science is belief in the presence of evidence."
Ah, but absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence! Actually, sometimes it does. Why isn't there "a single piece of independent historical evidence for the existence of Jesus or the veracity of the events described in the New Testament"? Another huge God-shaped hole is the lack of evidence to support the efficacy of prayer. Together with the straightforward "logical deduction that an omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent God does not exist given the gratuitous suffering in the world" Stenger concludes "beyond a reasonable doubt that the God worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims does not exist." (See also his excellent God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist for a fuller treatment.)
So, all those still proselytizing the world over for religion are wasting their time. Why should the rest of us care, if we're lucky enough to live in a secular society? Because not everyone in the world is free from the malign influence of religion and a good humanist value is to reduce suffering where possible. Because nonbelievers are seen as less than human by some believers, and history tells us the fate of some groups so regarded. And because time and again "believers ignore the evidence and make up facts to suit their own prejudices. That's the way faith operates and that's why it should be challenged."
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Showing 1-10 of 54 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Oct 2009 15:26:07 BDT
C. Collins says:
I've got Stenger's 'God: The Failed Hypothesis' but have yet to get to reading it. I'm presently reading (amongst other things) Harris's, 'The End of Faith', which is also chock full of great quotes, such as:
"It is time we recognized that the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. This spirit of mutual enquiry is the very antithesis of religious faith." (The End of Faith, p.48).
In reply to an earlier post on 23 Oct 2009 08:50:19 BDT
Thanks for the post - and I'm sure you'll enjoy the book when you get around to reading it! It's an easier read than GTFH (fewer equations) - perhaps worth reading first?
One thing I didn't have space to go into was Stenger's discussion of the prominent "New Atheists" - he has a lot to say about Sam Harris, for example. Although I gave the End of Faith a five-star review, one aspect I felt a little uncomfortable about was his use of the terms "spiritual" and "mystical", which to many suggest a reality beyond matter, or the supernatural. Stenger has a whole section on "Sam Harris and Spirituality" in which he quotes an email exchange in which Harris clarifies his position - he is a materialist scientist, with an interest in Buddhism.
Posted on 11 Feb 2010 11:25:38 GMT
In reply to an earlier post on 12 Feb 2010 10:14:47 GMT
This would be the "good" book in which god incites a father to murder his son, makes birth control a capital crime, smites all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, in which Jesus publicly spurns his family, rips his followers away from their families, advocates the execution of rebellious children, steals from the property and work of others, accepts slavery without comment, accepts poverty? The "good" book in which Jews are described as not the children of god but the children of the devil and in which it is written that happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones? I could go on.
Have you actually read this book? Or just "read" it?
Posted on 13 Feb 2010 19:05:53 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Feb 2010 21:41:52 GMT
Dear Sphex, you've complained that many religious people see nonbelievers as 'less than human', despite displaying religious people as malign, stupid and bigoted and thus lesser beings than us nonbelievers. Pot, kettle, black? You also haven't noticed that Stenger has given a ridiculous definition of 'faith' which of course is not what the religious mean by the term at all (see Mcgrath's book 'Dawkins' God' and you'll see this is a common straw man used by the 'new atheism').
There's nothing wrong with atheism. There's a lot wrong with anti-religious hate, it carries the same vices as condemning forms of religious fundamentalism. Its not good to dehumanise and take the mickey out of anyone, no matter how different their beliefs are to yours. The point is to understand the other, not ridicule them.
In reply to an earlier post on 18 Feb 2010 13:02:57 GMT
Last edited by the author on 19 Feb 2010 16:12:35 GMT
I hope I have never said that religious people are "lesser beings" than nonbelievers. I don't believe that for one minute and would criticize any atheist who made such a ridiculous claim. You're right that we shouldn't go around belittling people, although where we draw the line between taking the mickey out of ideas and taking the mickey out of people is often a difficult and contentious issue. In a society that values freedom of speech, however, we must be careful not to pander to those extremists who find it convenient to shut down and shout down debate.
On the vexed question of just what faith is, we first need to bear in mind the two common but opposite meanings (elucidated by Robert Park in Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science): unjustified belief and confidence borne out of experience. I have faith that I will the Lottery and I have faith in my wife's support illustrate the two meanings. Now, whatever a professor at Oxford says about it, those are widely accepted by speakers of English. The question is, when a Christian says he believes on faith that Jesus died and rose again, he is referring to a historical event for which there is not a shred of evidence: the belief is unjustified. It may be true, but the chances are, it's not. We now know too much about how myths developed in the ancient world, about human cognitive biases and psychological flaws, about the textual history of the Gospels themselves, about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, about our propensity to be fooled by magic and illusions in general, and so on and so forth.
You're also right about the need to understand religious beliefs. The irony is, it is not necessarily the religious believers themselves who make the most progress on this front, but atheists like Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Bruce Hood (Supersense: From Superstition to Religion - the Brain Science of Belief), to name but two.
(In St Paul's epistles, faith is belief in the Christian revelation, which requires not only some evidence that this particular god exists, but that there are reliable channels of communication capable of carrying the revelation.)
In reply to an earlier post on 21 Feb 2010 14:51:26 GMT
Last edited by the author on 21 Feb 2010 14:53:37 GMT
Dear Sphex, It may surprise you that I actually quite like your response. I'm glad to hear you weren't intent on ridiculing religious people (I think if you read your review through, you'll understand why I thought that). Unfortuneately, like your original review, you still display a positivism I can't accept. It would take me too long to go into detail here, but I recommend looking into the history/philosophy of science, in particular, Kuhn, Popper, Midgley and, (my personal favourite) the physicist David Bohm (I strongly recommend his book 'on creativity' - see my review). This has little to do with religion, but I think you actually see religion as indefensible because you have a truimphalistic view of science, as a light of truth dispelling myths (as Dawkins and Stenger do).
So you don't feel that the 'new atheism' display religion unfairly? Has Stenger made any effort to understand why people hold religious beliefs and what they mean to them? You mention Dennett, but 'breaking the spell' addresses religious belief from a biological rather than a ethnographic angle. Thats fine if you're trying to 'explain' the mechanics of it, but, what I'm saying is needed is to 'understand' what belief means to them and why they see it as important. Thats a task for social research, and has been undertaken by some great sociologists, e.g. Emile Durkheim.
One last note - Dawkins' describes those who believe in evolution but don't dislike religion as the 'Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists', implying the religious are like Hitler. 'The Root of all Evil? was also disgustingly caricaturing of religious belief - largely, hate-fueled fundamentalists or bigots were given a voice - in fact Dawkins' interviewed Mcgrath for the programme but didn't include it!
What I dislike certainly isn't atheism, or even the belief that the world would be better off without religion. What I dislike is unfair representations of groups 'other' to one's own, and I'm familiar enough with 'new atheist' movement to know its quite common here. Newton, James, Buber, Jung, Polkinghorne, MacIntyre, Armstrong etc weren't/aren't stupid, and their religious beliefs bare little resemblance to the God attacked by the New atheism. Why are the more intellectually rigorous forms of religious belief so rarely addressed by the 'new atheism', or when they are, they're caricatured?
In reply to an earlier post on 22 Feb 2010 11:58:42 GMT
Last edited by the author on 22 Feb 2010 14:26:39 GMT
Excellent post! I'm grateful you don't use terms like "militant" or "fundamentalist" to characterize the new atheists. Those who do would perhaps agree with John Locke, who proposed that the freedom of atheists be curtailed, since atheists could not be trusted to keep their promises and so posed a threat to society: "Promises... can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all."
I am a meliorist. I believe we have improved the world by human action and have the potential to continue improving. This belief is not falsified by the unpleasant fact that we also have the means to destroy ourselves. I do have a triumphalist view of science in that science is a triumph of the human imagination, with the added bonus that it has generated truths about the world. The way in which it does this is not mysterious, but it is counter to many of our deeply ingrained ways of thinking. To take just one cognitive bias - confirmation bias - we prefer to look for evidence that backs up our views and ignore that which contradicts them. Popper highlighted the importance of falsification in certain areas of science, but it would be a mistake to take him or Kuhn for that matter as the last word on how science is done.
I think you need to separate people's motives for believing something and the truth content of their beliefs. I hope I'm not being too presumptious in assuming that you think certain beliefs held by other people to be false. Let us say, you believe astrology to rely on fasle beliefs. How would you feel to be told by an astrologer that you had no right, no business indeed, in exercising your freedom of speech to declare such beliefs false because you had not enquired sufficiently into their personal motivations for holding such beliefs? What would constitute sufficient enquiry, anyway? Do the holders of such beliefs have reliable enough introspection to even determine their own motivations? How would you feel if you were a neighbour of the devout Christian couple who relied on prayer to heal their daughter? Would you contradict their sincerely held faith in the power of god? How would you feel if the daughter subsequently died, as Madeline Neumann, the 11-year-old who died of an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes, did?
You have to remember that for centuries criticizing a religious belief was simply not an option. Wars were fought, friends fell out (Calvin had his best friend Servetus burned at the stake over a difference in word order), progress was put into reverse. New atheists are only doing what we all expect to be able to do in every other walk of life, which is to question beliefs we think to be wrong, however sincerely held. Whatever view we take on the Iraq war, for example, most people ought to regard Tony Blair's continued self-belief as somewhat pathological: self-belief and conviction are crucial for making plans and implementing policies, but if there is no subsequent analysis or examination of where things went wrong, then hope turns sour.
What I'm becoming more and more interested in is how religion may rely upon complex valid (in the technical philosophical sense) arguments which themselves contain perhaps only one or two faulty premises that get lost in the complexity or are simply dogmatically asserted as true. So, there is plenty of room for intelligent people to exercise their intellects - think of Newton spending vast amounts of time engaged in biblical studies. However, why do we remember Newton? For his theology or his physics? What will Polkinghorne be remembered for? The science that got him elected to the Royal Society or his explanation of why god allowed the 2004 tsunami to kill so many people? Actually, it may be the latter, for it is an example of how an intelligent man can be led to make an argument that I find both unsound and offensive. Similarly, Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project, tells us that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses and the historical evidence for his Christian beliefs unassailable.
Durkheim's argument that magic and religion have a rationale that is quite different from that of science is challenged by Robin Dunbar, who shows how so-called primitive (certainly pre-scientific) people actually depend on the scientific method for their survival. There's not enough space to explore this fascinating idea, but I think it's important to acknowledge that science is not just what's done in a laboratory or published in journals - hypothesis formation and testing is everywhere!
You say that Dennett ignores the "ethnographic angle". I don't know that he does, and I would caution against making such a judgement: looking at the bibliography of these writers I realize how little I've read and how little I know. In general, it's far better to focus on the arguments made than point out what someone hasn't done: we all fall way short when it comes to what we haven't done!
I could, and probably will, go on...
In reply to an earlier post on 24 Feb 2010 20:49:51 GMT
Last edited by the author on 24 Feb 2010 21:24:32 GMT
Thanks sphex, I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Good reply. I agree that locke's comments were dreadful.
I agree that science can be seen as a triumph of the human imagination (can the same not be said, for example, of buddhist ethics, or, maybe the sermon on the mount? Is religion never a triumph of the imagination?). I also agree that Popper and Kuhn don't have the last word (I previously mentioned Midgley and Bohm). But you seem to imply that there are some static scientific facts immune to future transformations in scientific discursive practice (e.g. when you say science has "the added bonus that it has generated truths about the world"). I may have misunderstood you here, but language, or any methodological practice doesn't 'reflect' nature in a straight-forward way, my view is that we interpret from within a socially mediated 'thought style'. I like to think in terms of science producing more or less 'coherent' accounts for our visions of the world, rather than generating static, reflective truths.
On these terms, your astrologist would be, at least as far as I'm aware, someone holding a 'less coherent' vision of the world, than a vision consistent after a great deal of rigourous scientific testing. You asked, "How would you feel to be told by an astrologer that you had no right, no business indeed, in exercising your freedom of speech to declare such beliefs false because you had not enquired sufficiently into their personal motivations for holding such beliefs?" I don't want to deny people the freedom to challenge other beliefs. what I mean is that an engagement with what the beliefs are and why their held is important. The new atheism is notoriously poor at that. Dawkins, for example, openly refuses to make any attempt to understand what theology entails. How can anyone produce a strong critique of something they won't engage with? Equally, if I criticised Astrology without an understanding of what it is and why some believe it, my critique would be vacuous.
Next, after criticising Calvin (rightly) you say, "New atheists are only doing what we all expect to be able to do in every other walk of life, which is to question beliefs we think to be wrong, however sincerely held." Both many thiests and athiests want, and do that. Can it really be said that Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins etc ONLY want to question sincere beliefs? Don't they in fact condemn and often ridicule people for not conforming to their own rationale? In the God Delusion (paperback preface) Dawkins is even hostile to athiests that don't conform to his anti-religionism! This I think is our primary difference of opinion, you see the new atheism as a needed challenge to dogma. I agree, but I see it as going beyond that, often convinced of the infalliblity of its own reasoning, and condemning those who don't concurr, including those with religious ideas that deepen the depths of people's lives and who promote openness and dialogue (e.g. Martin Buber). These thoughts can benefit non-believers too (I am greatly influenced by Buber's book 'Between Man and Man').
I like your idea that religions may only have a few faulty premises, that get 'lost in complexity'. But I'm disappointed by your comments about Newton, Polkinghorne and Collins. Think back to when I said "Why are the more intellectually rigorous forms of religious belief so rarely addressed by the 'new atheism', or when they are, they're caricatured?". Your reply was a case in point. You don't engage with most of my list, remark only that Newton's theological beliefs are not as memorable as his science (which is not an engagement with his theology), and pick out weaker spots in Polkinghorne and Collins. Polkinghorne openly admits that suffering is the biggest problem for his christianity. If your going to dispell ALL religion (or, at least, all theistic religion, as the new atheism generally seeks to) you must engage with its most coherent visions, and most thought provoking attributes or else those like myself feel cheated out of a good debate. You seem unconvinced by the very idea that a religious belief could be well thought through. Perhaps you tend to recieve such ideas in a form filtered through new atheist critics? e.g. Dawkins' misleading accounts of Tertullian, Aquinas and Jung.
I agree that religion and science don't have a completey separate rationale. Many forms of discourse bleed into each other. This doesn't mean that religion should be treated as a scientific proposition as stenger believes, thats trying to make one discourse play by the rules of another. Why did humans ever think the universe was intrinsically intelligible and orderly? There are no sharp borders between language games.
Your last point was about Dennett. I actually see Dennett as the new atheism at its best. He recognises the difference between healthy aspects of religion and pathological strands of religion - more than can be said for Hitchens. I've haven't read much of his work, so on your tip I may well dip into a few more - I noticed that 'Content and Consciousness' has just been re-printed in the routledge classics series.
In reply to an earlier post on 25 Feb 2010 16:09:17 GMT
Last edited by the author on 25 Feb 2010 16:15:19 GMT
To be clear where I'm coming from metaphysically, I believe there is an objective reality existing independently of my mind, about which certain facts and truths can be known, and the best, indeed the only, way of discerning these truths is by means of the scientific method - broadly understood. In The Trouble with Science Robin Dunbar gives perhaps a surprising example: the !Kung tribe have a fine-tuned sense of the reliability of knowledge: they are reluctant to make inferences on the basis of hearsay, preferring direct observation whenever possible. Only if we make the mistake of assuming that science is a particular body of theory can we argue that these peoples are not engaged in science. Even witch-doctors change their incantations or preferred gods after a string of failures - a form of hypothesis testing. "Science as we know it in the Western world is the product of a highly formalized version of something very basic to life, namely the business of learning about regularities in the world."
In short, science is simply not just another discourse.
Ray Tallis in this week's Times provides a very clear example of the kind of "triumph" I mean: "Evidence-based scientific medicine represents not only a triumph over nature but also over human nature in the very place where the temptation to deceive others and one's self is overwhelming." Now, priests and witch-doctors and homeopaths and chiropracts have all been known to claim healing powers, and some of them will take you to court if you suggest these powers are perhaps not all they're cracked up to be. If I were on an operating table and the reassurance offered was either "God tells me this will work" or "The truth of this has been proved in a court of law" - I would be very afraid.
Only scientific medicine is reliable. Why is that? The relativist who believes that science is socially constructed or a complicated language game cannot explain why quantum electrodynamics can predict the Lamb shift to an incredible number of decimal places. Predictions that are (i) clear and precise, (ii) true, and (iii) surprising are what differentiate science from pseudo-science. Religion loves prophecy - how many times has the end of the world been predicted, including by Jesus himself? - but its track record is terrible.
I'm not sure if your only objection to astrology is that it is not coherent or whether you also think it untrue? The trouble with coherence is that all sorts of nonsense can be coherent. I'm not sure I would place very much faith in my surgeon if all she had going for her was coherence. I want her to have a clear understanding of the facts of human anatomy and the how all the bits work together. Can you give me an example of what you mean by "socially mediated" in this context?
Religion may have been a triumph of the Bronze Age imagination, but I don't think it continues to serve that purpose, and of course it was never intended to be a means of exercising the imagination. My beef with religion is that it claims to know things that it cannot possibly know. It confuses fact and fiction.
I admit that I am not doing justice to the views of theists like Polkinghorne and Collins in the sense of not dealing with the entire range of their views on religion and science. That would be a tall order. But it is important to point out where their views are not intellectually rigorous, where they are lapsing into pseudo-profundity and obscurantism, and this can be done without analysing their every word. Can you give me an example of one of their religious beliefs that you consider to be well thought through, to be intellectually rigorous, even if you don't personally think it true? It always a good idea to deal with specifics rather than generalizations, which is why I gave those examples - but they didn't seem to carry any weight for you?
I would also admit that I do read a lot about religion from a critical stance, although I do also read a lot of religious writing as well, as much as I can stomach. In the case of Polkinghorne and Collins I heard them both speak mediated by nothing other than my own unbelieving brain!
When you say that religion shouldn't "be treated as a scientific proposition", how do you respond, for example, to the Resurrection? Whatever is claimed for this, first and foremost it is claimed to be a historical event. If it didn't actually happen, Christianity falls. (We could argue about why it had to happen in such a bloodthirsty way, and so on, but that's not relevant to the question of historical truth.) Whether or not something happened in history is a scientific proposition, pure and simple. We apply the rules of logic and inference, combined with what we know through documents and testimony (being aware that even eyewitness testimony can be unreliable), and proceed carefully to approach the best possible account.
Apologies in again falling short of dealing with every point - time and space are running out - but I am thinking of starting a blog to give lots of these issues more consideration.