New (& Improved?)

My confession from the previous post not withstanding, it is time for a few links.

If you’ve corresponded with me at any point from the last century onward, you’ve likely noticed a link to something called “pantheism” in my signature. I’ve no idea how many people have clicked through, but I thought it was an easy way to potentially share something that has been important to me since even before I knew there was a word to express it. I didn’t want to force anyone to read about it, and I certainly wasn’t aiming to proselytize. The same goes for what follows, and I guess everything on the blog as a whole.

Perhaps it’s just my human mind emphasizing what I choose to be interested in, but I cannot help but be hopeful when I note that pantheist and secular humanist ideals have been getting a lot of press within the last few weeks. Why? Though Judge John Jones’ decision regarding the place of intelligent design within the American classroom is almost a year old, global conflict has ensured that media are still focused on religious fundamentalism both at home and abroad. More than this, though, religious moderates and “unquestioning agnostics”¹ are increasingly coming under criticism from a group who argues in favour of other things with which I agree. Wired’s cover story this month is about just these same “New Atheists.”

The Wired article specifically, and the increased press in general, is in no small part attributable to the release of Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion. Though Dawkins was also interviewed for the Atoms & Eden series that I linked to in an earlier post, I passed on pointing out his article specifically. Again, I didn’t want to offend, I guess. While Shermer (whom I did link to) has still accomplished a great deal in dispelling the evils of pseudoscience, Dawkins is much less, erm… polite in working towards much the same ends. Rather than suggesting pantheism/secular humanism as but one valid choice from a wide spectrum², Dawkins argues it as the necessarily the only alternative if we are to act in the best interests of all. For a very good summary of many of his points, I recommend his essay “Why There Almost Certainly is No God.”

I feel the need to close this post with some sort of definitive statement regarding my own beliefs, but I’m afraid I can’t. I’m still thinkin’ about this stuff.

To be sure, there is a difference between stating “religion is the root cause of humanity’s problems” and “action must be taken against religion in order to benefit humanity,” but how great that difference is, I’m not yet certain. If one is able to embrace the first statement and agree with Dawkins, what does that mean? What naturally follows? How does one then do in order to serve the best interests of all?


1. Can someone smarter than me tell me if I can use that term to refer to those without faith who don’t really wonder it?
2. I’m not suggesting that this is Shermer’s approach, though whether Shermer places more emphasis on the battle for evolution, rather than war for science over religion, is perhaps open to discussion.

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8 Comments

Filed under Philosophy (Natural or otherwise)

8 responses to “New (& Improved?)

  1. The Wired article’s title, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” says it all: The New Atheists are also the New Fundamentalists.

    I like science; I guess I even consider myself a scientist (albeit in a slightly nontraditional way). But I don’t think appeals to Enlightenment rationalism as the final arbiter of truth are going to solve anything. In fact, I think that acting like Science has privileged access to truth is totally undemocratic. I mean, do we decide things through public debate through officials accountable (however imperfectly) to an electorate, or do we let a bunch of laboratory workers and statisticians tell us what reality is? (This is a point Bruno Latour makes in his difficult but excellent book, The Politics of Nature.)

    Now, this isn’t to say that sciences and scientists don’t tell us all kinds of interesting and useful things. The point is that when one group of people can come out and say, “you have beliefs; we have descriptions of reality,” it short-circuits the political process. I’m not anti-science. But I’m just as nervous about Science Fundamentalists as I am about the religious sort. Whether you want to trace the origins of humanity to God or to australopithecines (or to both) is a lot less important to me than whether you want to blow people up — and being rational doesn’t preclude this (in fact, it’s the alleged ethical neutrality of science and rationality that lets them subvert due political process).

    So, in the article you’ve linked to, Dawkins is right to point out that science and religion can’t just be assigned to different social or cognitive compartments; they’re both doing cosmology, and they both try to make definitive claims about what reality is. Where he misses the mark (in my view) is in his unwillingness to recognize that this is a political, not just a “scientific,” problem (this may partly be a case of, “When you’ve got a hammer…”). Detailing a scientific argument against the existence of God might be appropriate when dealing with the intelligent design crowd who claim that they are doing science–“my science is better than yours” arguments are appropriate when both parties are framing the issue in those terms. But casting the existence of God as a question for science to answer is inappropriate when we’re talking to people who adhere to alternative views of knowledge and how it’s generated. We wind up seeing the same argument again and again:

    Science Guy: Belief in God is unscientific.
    Religion Guy: Sure–which proves that science is bogus.
    Science Guy: No; science is the best account we have: it’s based on observed reality.
    Religion Guy: No; religion is the best account we have: it’s based on divine revelation.
    Science Guy: But the bible is erroneous; science tells me so.
    Religion Guy: But science is erroneous; the bible tells me so.
    Science Guy: You’re being irrational.
    Religion Guy: You’re being heretical.

    Admittedly, this is a caricature; but really, the nuances of the debate are mostly either scientific claims about religion’s falsity or religious claims about what’s true according to religious beliefs, both of which ultimately do no more than raise rousing cheers from one’s allies and the ire of one’s opponents. Or am I the only one who sees more similarities than differences in the positions here?

    Just to be clear here: I’m not saying that no amount of science is going to convince a “deluded” religious person, or that those godless scientists will never see the One True Way. What I’m saying is that we might want to be careful about the kind of authority we give to *any* knowledge system. The important thing is due process. The content of a science class is less important than the political process through which that content gets decided. I’m not going to short-circuit democracy so that my son doesn’t learn about intelligent design, even though I’d prefer his science class to focus on legitimate science (by which I mean the knowledge produced by a particular kind of process, not “ultimate truth”).

    Am I opening the door for intelligent design to be taught in science classes? Maybe, if that’s what comes out of a democratic public discussion. Am I saying religion ought to be given a place in government? Frankly, it already has one, and it would be better to demonstrate a willingness to engage with the concerns of religious groups than to scream at them that there’s no place for their worldview in public life. Religion and science are both already politics; let’s stop kidding ourselves, quit talking about cosmological stories we’re not willing to give up on and turn the conversation to concessions we *are* willing to make. At least then we’d be moving on with the business of living together, instead of all demanding that someone else give up their most cherished beliefs so that one group doesn’t have to have to hear about someone else’s different version of reality.

    It’s either that, or those of us who value diversity might suddenly find ourselves uttering the ultimate hypocrisy: “Be more tolerant, or I’ll shoot!”

  2. Dan, that is one monster reply! I am not even sure where or how to begin, but I will certainly try.

    [Readers are advised that Dan is a Ph.D. candidate and much, much smrter than me.]

    The Wired article’s title, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” says it all: The New Atheists are also the New Fundamentalists.

    As Amy pointed out on her blog, atheism is to religion what not collecting stamps is to having a hobby. That said, I’m not sure that Dawkins has in fact gone too far, and I’m thus afraid that the title is unfair.

    I like science; I guess I even consider myself a scientist (albeit in a slightly nontraditional way). But I don’t think appeals to Enlightenment rationalism as the final arbiter of truth are going to solve anything. In fact, I think that acting like Science has privileged access to truth is totally undemocratic. I mean, do we decide things through public debate through officials accountable (however imperfectly) to an electorate, or do we let a bunch of laboratory workers and statisticians tell us what reality is? (This is a point Bruno Latour makes in his difficult but excellent book, The Politics of Nature.)

    Why shouldn’t rational and critical thinking have privileged access to the truth? Provided this privilege can be protected from by, for, and from the democracy, all is good.

    Science is very undemocratic, and I think that’s part of why science is so awesome.

    Scientists are not usually elected, and I’m quite thankful that the masses don’t decide who might be the next Astronomer Royal.¹ I think the masses are happy with the arrangement, as well. Sure there are still fallible humans making hiring decisions, but potentials are selected for and against based on inherent and acquired traits.

    As well, “winning” a debate on evolution (or voting on any scientifically observable event) does not in turn affect reality. In this way, science is not subject to democracy.

    So, in the article you’ve linked to, Dawkins is right to point out that science and religion can’t just be assigned to different social or cognitive compartments; they’re both doing cosmology, and they both try to make definitive claims about what reality is. Where he misses the mark (in my view) is in his unwillingness to recognize that this is a political, not just a “scientific,” problem (this may partly be a case of, “When you’ve got a hammer…”). Detailing a scientific argument against the existence of God might be appropriate when dealing with the intelligent design crowd who claim that they are doing science–”my science is better than yours” arguments are appropriate when both parties are framing the issue in those terms. But casting the existence of God as a question for science to answer is inappropriate when we’re talking to people who adhere to alternative views of knowledge and how it’s generated.

    I think Dawkins is arguing that we shouldn’t try to let the existence of God be disguised as a political problem. On Penn Jillette’s radio program of October 25 (and likely elsewhere), Dawkins went so far as to say that because of this, it is silly to leave religion unquestioned or unbothered, to allow it some sort of escape clause or special respect.

    Just to be clear here: I’m not saying that no amount of science is going to convince a “deluded” religious person, or that those godless scientists will never see the One True Way. What I’m saying is that we might want to be careful about the kind of authority we give to *any* knowledge system. The important thing is due process. The content of a science class is less important than the political process through which that content gets decided.

    I’m sort of just arguing for arguments sake on all the other issues of this post, but on this point, I have a real and firm belief. The content of science class is very important, and ideally there should be no political process involved (at least involving the public). Baring abuse, curricula for science, math, grammar, etc. at government funded schools should not really be subject to the whims of tax payers–at least as regards broad examples such as intelligent design.

    Am I opening the door for intelligent design to be taught in science classes? Maybe, if that’s what comes out of a democratic public discussion. Am I saying religion ought to be given a place in government? Frankly, it already has one, and it would be better to demonstrate a willingness to engage with the concerns of religious groups than to scream at them that there’s no place for their worldview in public life. Religion and science are both already politics; let’s stop kidding ourselves, quit talking about cosmological stories we’re not willing to give up on and turn the conversation to concessions we *are* willing to make. At least then we’d be moving on with the business of living together, instead of all demanding that someone else give up their most cherished beliefs so that one group doesn’t have to have to hear about someone else’s different version of reality.

    I can’t deny that religion and science are both subject to political processes. We gotta find a way to undo that.

    I also don’t want to stop talking about cosmological stories, because that’s a concession that in itself defeats the entire process of the dialogue. With just the same gusto, I will fight to ensure that nobody has to give up any part of of their beliefs in order to make someone else more comfortable.

    _________________________
    1. I was agast to learn this summer that Americans waste time and money with elections for silly things like coroners. It makes so much more sense as a hired position. You know, based on qualifications. Experience. That kind of stuff. Not signage.

  3. Mitch "Tuxador" Haggman

    I don’t think I have the time to wade into the banter between Chad and Dan just at the moment, sitting in front of my computer at lunch, but I’ll share a viewpoint I’ve been working on the past few months:

    If there is a supreme being (and I’m not saying anyone’s ever come close to proving such a point), and he’s a groovy as everyone who beleives in him claims he is, then he should be pretty happy with me being a good person, doing good deeds for my friends and improving the world around me. I don’t need religion (or faith in anything supernatural) to do any of those things.

    If god cares about which way I face when I pray (or even if I pray at all), if he cares about what kind of hat or magic underpants I wear, or if he cares what building I spend my Sundays in, then he’s a petty asshat who doesn’t deserve my worship.

    -Mitch

  4. Science provides us logical answers for the questions about the world we live in, while religion provides us with comfort for questions we can’t answer with science.

    I don’t pretend I have the answers for either side, nor do I think answers are necessarily required. We have a path we follow in life, and we are the sum of our experiences. It is very human to want to define our lives, but in the end, is it necessary? Perhaps it would be better to focus on living our life for the better instead of attacking the basis for other people’s lives?

    Can’t we all just… get along? 🙂

  5. If god cares about which way I face when I pray (or even if I pray at all), if he cares about what kind of hat or magic underpants I wear, or if he cares what building I spend my Sundays in, then he’s a petty asshat who doesn’t deserve my worship.

    I love it!

    Haggman’s Gambit: it’s like Pascal’s Wager, but with slack.

  6. Science provides us logical answers for the questions about the world we live in, while religion provides us with comfort for questions we can’t answer with science.

    I disagree. I would argue that there is signifigant overlap in the answers provided by science and religion. I also believe that the existence of God is an inherently scientific question.¹

    Rather than take comfort in what science can’t tell us, I think we should look to this uncertainty and be encouraged to learn more.

    I don’t pretend I have the answers for either side, nor do I think answers are necessarily required. We have a path we follow in life, and we are the sum of our experiences. It is very human to want to define our lives, but in the end, is it necessary? Perhaps it would be better to focus on living our life for the better instead of attacking the basis for other people’s lives?

    I thinking seeking the definition of our lives is a corollary of life, living itself, and doing our best to benefit others. I don’t think it’s necessary to divide these four things, and in just the same way, I don’t think it’s necessary to search far or deep for some mystical definition. Life is living–exactly the path of which you speak.

    Can’t we all just… get along? 🙂

    Hippie. 😛

    _______________________________
    1. These are two points where I definitely do follow Dawkins, and thus disagree with Gould and his concept of “Nonoverlapping Magisteria.”

  7. Mitch "Tuxador" Haggman

    So, of course, I’ve quickly looked up what Pascal’s Wager is (as I am likely to do with any nugget of brain-food from Chad).

    Pascal says:

    Pascal argues that it is always a better “bet” to believe that God exists, because the expected value to be gained from believing that God exists is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief.

    I call fallacy! Also, mine is cooler because Chad says it generates sweet sweet slack.

    If this life is the only one we are guaranteed to have, to waste our time here trying to make sure we get into a place we have no guarantee exists is an utter waste of what we do have. We should spend our time making this world the best it can be, instead of complicating what’s already a pretty complicated world with all sorts of mumbo-jumbo rules about what we must and must not do.

    Would you rather your neighbour be friendly to you because he genuinely beleives that by sharing and working together we can both have better lives, or would you rather a neighbour who’s only nice to you because he’s afraid he’ll go to the magic -burny-hot-place if he isn’t?

    Haggman’s Gambit: saving the world one slacker at a time.

  8. Okay, I know things have moved on since the discussion started here, but I don’t think I communicated my point particularly well, and I wanted a chance to think about the best way to say it better. Then, I realized that Saint Bruno said it better anyway, so I’ll just cite him and then shut up.

    Carl Schmitt contends that only where there is no common mediator to whom both sides can turn for arbitration, is there an enemy against whom one could declare war. If this is true, then one can indeed say that the modernist civilizers never had enemies and modern history has never really witnessed a proper war. Even when fighting fiercley, they always deferred to the authority of an indisputable arbiter, of a mediator far above all possible conflict: Nature and its laws, Science and its unified matters of fact, Reason and its way to reach agreement. . . . As a result, of course, they cannot even begin to understand the demands of peace, the writing down of war aims, the necessities of diplomacy, the undertainties involved in negotiation. “What negotiation? What diplomacy? Which war aims? What peace talks? There is no war! We are just tidying things up, that’s all. We are expressing the reality of the order that has always been there, but which collective representations have somewhat obscured.” (Latour 2005. War of the Worlds: What about Peace? Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, p. 26-7.)

    This sums up my point nicely. Chad, I agree with you that religion and science are both competitors in a way, since they both purport to describe what’s really out there in the world–they both do cosmology. My point, and I think Latour’s too, is that so long as we assume the existence of a unified and universal Nature that Science, and nothing else, has privileged access to, there’s really no hope for the reconciliation of worldviews. The point isn’t that religion is a fantastic basis for a worldview; but the objection is to the unilateral imposition of one particular point of view, not to the specific content of that point of view–and in this respect, capital-S Science is every bit as problematic, and has had a free pass on the political process for long enough. We need diplomats; Nature has to be made negotiable in order for us to gradually and painstakingly build a common world. As Latour puts it:

    Whereas rationalists would not know how to assemble peace talks, as they will not give seats to those they call “archaic” and “irrational,” diplomats might know how to organize a parley among declared enemies who, in the sense of Carl Schmitt, may become allies after the peace negotiations have ended. . . . If you oppose rationalist modernizers to archaic and backward opponents, there is no war, to be sure, but there is no possible peace either. Negotiation cannot even start. Reason recognizes no enemy. But the outcome might be entirely different if you pit proponents of different common worlds against the other. Because then diplomats could begin to realize that there are different ways to achieve the goals of the parties at war, including their own. Nothing proves in advance that modernizers might not be willing to achieve their cherished goals if they were shown that the cult of nature makes it impossible to reach them. (ibid., p.38.)

    Okay, now I’m really going to shut up, at least for this thread . . .

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