Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

The God Delusion, Final Thoughts

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

Much of Dawkins’ section on the evils of fundamentalism is, like his attack on the Bible, recycled from other authors. I didn’t find much worth blogging about — other than the specious contention that there is no moral difference between aborting an innocent fetus and killing a convicted murderer. But Dawkins closes by claiming that moderate religion enables the extremism and so is equally guilty.

I wonder if he would agree that, by that logic, socialists bear responsibility for the crimes committed by their extreme brethren in national socialism or communism. Granted, he’s claiming faith encourages people not to think — apparently having never met a conservative rabbi or a Jesuit teacher. But most socialists don’t think about their views either. They buy into the nonsensical mantra that an egalitarian society can be created by the force of government despite ample evidence to the contrary. They base a lot on feelings and intuition — especially guilt. It’s no accident that clergy tend to be very socialist.

A refusal to think is not the exclusive domain of religion.

Again, there are other ways to pursue faith than blind obedience to a doctrine. And indeed, we are moving in that direction. In the most dogmatically religious country in the west — America — the vast majority of religious people believe that others faiths can be equally valid. I’m sure the idea of deeply religious people being tolerant must stick in Dawkins’ craw.

The evolution of religion gets to heart of the entire “religion is cruel and evil argument”. I strongly suspect that religion reflects society more than it drives it. As the wag once said, we tend to make God in our image. When we were a cruel people, we made a cruel God. When we were an intolerant people, we made an intolerant God. Now that we are moving forward — a subject (The Changing Moral Zeitgeist) that Dawkins devotes a lot of time to — religion is following. it’s a trailing indicator, but an indicator nonetheless.

The history of science follows a similar intellectual pattern moving from the deterministic world if Newton to the uncertain world of quantum mechanics. But he world didn’t change; our understanding of it did. As we have moved from a cruel and jealous God to a tolerant one, God hasn’t changed. Our understanding has.

—-

Overall, as you can tell by my putting up of eight long posts on one book, I found The God Delusion to be stimulating. The section that deal with biology and intelligent design are outstanding. The sections that attack faith less so. And while some of my arguments are addressed in the book, they aren’t addressed very well.

Atheists like Dawkins like to believe they are open minded. To use his phrase, their consciousness has been raised above that of us unenlightened folk. But I have a final thought. Early in the book, Dawkins asks if there is any scientific evidence that would ever make a theist abandon their belief in God. I have to wonder: is there any evidence that would cause an atheist to accept belief in God? I can’t think that there would be.

If that tenet is agreed to, then the God question moves beyond science. Science can tell us what God isn’t. But I’m not convinced that it tells us that God isn’t.

All Dawkins, All The Time

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I know I’m blogging about the God Delusion non-stop but it is stimulating a lot of thought. Today, I’ve been reading the worst part of the book, in which Dawkins tries to show that religion is immoral. I blogged earlier about the specious claim that certain violent conflicts wouldn’t be happening without religion. Dawkins also takes some time to bash up the Bible itself, pointing out how jealous its God is, how immoral its characters are, etc.

The problem is, this is territory that has already been trod — and better — by people like Robert Heinlein or Mark Twain. And the really real problem is that you can’t analyze the Bible in a vacuum (this applies to biblical literalists as well).

First, any analysis of the Bible has to take into account the thousands of years of commentary and interpretation that has been layered onto it. Dawkins is nastily selective in his analysis, which makes me thinks he’s merely quote-mining from other atheists. But thousands of years of thought have produced an interpretation that is modern, humane and rational. As my rabbi said to me, the Bible is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.

Religion evolves too, Dr. Dawkins.

Second, you have to consider the context in which the Bible was written. The hebrews were a savage, illiterate people to whom the injunction not to throw their kids into a bonfire to make a stone god happy was revolutionary thought. In its time, the Bible was incredibly liberal.

For example, Dawkins goes on about how many Biblical crimes merit the death penalty, failing to note the Bible later requires two witnesses for execution — a requirement that exceeds that of present-day America. He ignores the later commentary that effectively outlawed the death penalty and ignores the Jewish and Catholic leaders that today oppose the death penalty even for murder.

Also ignored in his selective analysis of the Bible: humane restrictions on slavery, restrictions on criminal punishment, demands to treat strangers fairly and justly, the edict of one law for everyone (Dawkins is completely wrong when he claims the ten commandments only apply to how you treat other Jews), inheritance rights for women, protection for accidental killers, an organized system of justice, etc., etc.

For a much more sympathetic and intelligent view, I recomend Blogging the Bible in which David Plotz reads his way through the book for the first time.

Bible-bashing is the ultimate straw man. It’s fun. Hell, I do it whenever some right moron starts yammering about killing gays. It’s a great way to respond to the legions of Highlighter Fundamentalists, who site the Bible as their justification for whatever narrow viewpoint they’ve wedged themselves into. But it is not a reasonable approach to mainstream religion or to religious history. You can’t prove God doesn’t exist or that religion is bad by analyzing what it was doing 3000 years ago. It doesn’t work that way.

Let me turn this around. Suppose I were a religious nut who hated science. What would Dawkins think if I dismissed the entirety of modern scientific thought by noting that:

  • Aristotle was wrong about almost everything.
  • Newton’s laws of dynamics do not work in relativistic situations.
  • Darwin’s understanding of evolution is outdated and he didn’t know anything about genetics.
  • Lord Kelvin once proved the Sun could not be billions of years old.
  • Almost everything that Tycho Brahe thought about cosmology was wrong.
  • Data in the 1990′s indicated that globular clusters were older than the Universe itself.
  • Dawkins would laugh. If I were to try to discredit science by attacking discarded ideas that were even ten years old, he’d say that I was being unfair. That I have to account for all the work, research and advancement that has taken place since then. And if I dragged out Aristotle and pointed out how wrong he was?

    You can’t disprove religion by bashing a document that is at least 3000 years old. It is unfortunate and stupid that a recent wave of Christian fundamentalism has elevated the Bible back to inerrancy. But you don’t win the argument by playing the lunatics’ game.

    The Peaceful Delusion

    Sunday, June 29th, 2008

    I’m now at the point in The God Delusion where Dawkins is arguing that religion causes violence and bloodshed that otherwise wouldn’t exist, such as in Northern Ireland. This is a common argument for the vileness of religion.

    Two problems:

    1) It is a classic cost-without-benefit analysis. Zero credit is given to violence that religion might be preventing. An enormous amount of pacifism is inspired by religion (think Buddhists or Quakers) and religion unites nations that might otherwise have strife (such as Saudi Arabia). Maybe the bad outweighs the good. But it’s hard to tell when you’ve only weighed one side and are dividing by zero.

    2) I’m pessimistic about human nature. Without religion, people would find something to fight over. In Northern Ireland, it would be the purity of their Irish decent or, more likely, class and wealth.

    I just don’t think you can point to religious conflict, claim that religion was the only cause, not give any credit to violence prevented by faith and proclaim faith to be evil. It’s a standard argument. It’s a straw man. It’s bullshit. And it’s unworthy of the rest of an otherwise well-reasoned book.

    The height of silliness is argument about how religion uniquely spurs violence because it labels children, segregates schools and forbids marrying out. Gee, Dr. Dawkins. Can you not think of anything else that does all three of these things? Something that is responsible for bloodshed and violence than faith? Maybe … is it … race?

    Oh, and for the record? My mother never warned me about blonde shiksas lying in wait to entrap me. She probably likes the one I did marry better than she likes me.

    The Morality Delusion

    Saturday, June 28th, 2008

    One of the best parts of the God Delusion is Dawkins’ systematic destruction of the notion that Darwinian evolution is inherently amoral or immoral. In fact, he argues persuasively that most of our moral precepts can be traced to evolution.

    The problem is a misunderstanding of what “selfishness” means in the evolutionary sense. Evolution is not about the individual trying to survive and dominate and therefore push everyone else down. Evolution, in fact doesn’t really care about individuals at all because every individual is going to die. Evolution is about the species. It’s about the group.

    Cooperative behavior and altruism are absolutely essential to the survival of any species. If we were to ignore the suffering of those in the Indonesia tsunami or the Louisiana floods, we as individuals might be better off. But the species is worse off. For one thing, there are fewer of us.

    Some will say this takes the morality out of morals, that it reduces it to some cold calculation of what is best for humanity. Perhaps. But I can’t see that thinking morality only arises from the fear of hell fire is any better.

    The God Delusion, Part IV

    Saturday, June 28th, 2008

    I said earlier that Dawkins is good when he’s on his home turf. I just read the section where he is talking about religious belief as a by-product of evolution — i.e., the unfortunate offshoot of a useful aspect of humanity. In this case, he believes our tendency to believe what we are told.

    I disagree with him. For one thing, a significant fraction of humans refuse to believe what they’re told as anyone who has worked with kids can tell you. For another, the Jesuit line about “give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man” is demonstrable bullshit. The communists believed this and would educate kids in the glories of communism from the time they were two months old.

    Didn’t work. The human mind is too mushy and flabby to be programmed like that.

    I think, if anything, religious belief flows out of our comfort with ritual, with familiarity, with generational continuity. When I go to synagogue, I feel a kinship with my younger self, with my dad, with my dead-grandfather. There is comfort in knowing that I’m reciting the same Aleinu prayer or the same levitical blessing that Jews all over the world have recited for the last 2-3000 years. That’s powerful. And if you want to put it Darwinian terms, there is a survival value in doing what previous generations did, since it obviously worked for them — they bred us. There is survival value in doing the things we’ve done before, since it obviously worked for us — we’re still here.

    I also think there’s a connection to our almost pathological need for explanations, our refusal to believe in randomness. We don’t want to believe that crops failed or someone died because … it just happened. Humans are biologically programmed to look for a cause to every effect — see the recent green vaccine controvery. A lot of the time, we lump that cause under the aegis of God.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. In physics, certain phenomena were or are lumped under electromagnetic effects because you can use E+M to do whatever you want. That does not mean it doesn’t explains some things.

    The God Delusion: The Anthropic Principle and Complexity

    Friday, June 27th, 2008

    Dawkins should stick to biology. He’s now supporting the multiverse theory to explain why we live in a universe so finally tuned to the needs of life. The idea is that there are many universe, all with different physical properties and we happen to occupy one of those suitable to life.

    Problem: the multiverse theory, while pretty, is not scientific. It’s just not. It sounds scientific. It speaks the language and does the dance. But it’s not scientific at all because it is not testable. A lot of evolutionary psychology is unscientific as well by virtue of being untestable.

    Well, maybe I just need to have my “consciousness raised” so that I can be an uberman like Dawkins.

    He can really come across as arrogant on that account.

    Dawkins’ most convincing anti-God argument is the complexity argument — that any God who controls the Universe must be more complex and difficult to explain than the Universe itself.

    This is only true if you believe in a God who controls the path of every electron and the fall of every sparrow. However, a God who set the Universe in motions and guides it from time to time is not very complex.

    Thinks of it this way. Let’s say I start an avalanche in the mountains. Thousands of boulders crash into the town below. According the Dawkins, a thousand boulders means at least a thousand people throwing them. But it was only one person doing something simple.

    Suppose, in the future, we were to figure out how to start evolution on a lifeless planet. Occasionally, we would go in and adjust. Change some genes, wipe out a useless creature, save a good one. It doesn’t even take God to do that. Because comparatively simple acts — starting life, adjusting a gene — become massive complex operations once the machinery of evolution grinds them.

    We see complexity growing out of simple process in nature all the time. In fact, the entire fucking universe is the outgrowth of a set of very simple principles. From crystals to nebulae to galaxies of billions of stars to life itself, we see dazzling complexity being guided by very simple, sometimes singular events.

    So yes, a God who makes sure that the gravitational constant is always the same is too complex. But a God who laid down the laws of the Universe and set them in motion does not have to be very complex at all.

    The apotheosis of this line of reasoning is Dawkins’ argument against prayer, in which he says that God hearing our prayers would require he be the most sophisticated computer ever built. This is a *slight* exaggeration in the age of the internet and Moore’s Law. But is also assumes that God and humanity are two different things. The entire idea of an immortal soul is that it is a piece of the divine within our flesh. I don’t need a sophisticated computer to sort and interpret the millions of signals I am receiving from my body every day. My brain is sufficient to take care of that, without my higher brain functions even being aware of it.

    I’m not advocating a religious view here. I’m just saying that Dawkins, like most dogmatic atheists, fails to understand that there are ways of thinking about God that are different from the fundamentalist garbage. Ways that incorporate science. A simple God who creates a Universe on simple principles. He evolves with it, growing more complex. His own divine spark begins to grow in the form of evolving life.

    There are other ways to think. Other ways to go. Yes, it is time for us to put away some of our myths and legends. But it’s not yet time, if it will ever be, to assume that we know everything. That there is nothing beyond the physical world. We just don’t know that much yet. Maybe, we never will.

    The God Delusion, Part II

    Thursday, June 26th, 2008

    One thing I will say about Dawkins’ book. His deconstruction of Intelligent Design is outstanding and very entertaining. You would expect this, since biology is his field.

    The God Delusion: One Way Peer Pressure

    Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

    I’m reading Dawkins’ God Delusion and, while parts are interesting, parts are unintentionally hilarious. My favorite example today is when he’s talking about religious scientists. Apparently:

    1) Any scientist born before the 19th century was probably an atheist who concealed his beliefs because of peer pressure. Even Gregor Mendel was a monk only so that he could do research. Dawkins’ ability to read the minds of those long dead is indeed astonishing. Especially as Isaac Newton, in particular, left an enormous amount of evidence that he was, in fact, very religious.

    2) The lack of religion among modern scientists, however, is absolutely genuine. No scientists conceal their religious beliefs because of atheistic peer pressure from their colleagues. Because we all know that atheists never badger people for their beliefs. My wife must have imagined that awkward lunch.

    To be sure, the fact that Brilliant Person X believed in God means little. But that argument works both ways. That so many distinguished scientists don’t believe in God doesn’t mean anything either. The vast majority of scientists used to believe in ether, too. The vast majority believed the cosmological constant was zero. The vast majority thought it perfectly acceptable to tend birthing women after dissecting corpses without washing your hands.

    Sorry. Channelled Michael Chrichton there for a second.

    Anyway, the nature of existence is not up for a vote. And if it were, the votes of Einstein and Newton wouldn’t count any more than Cletus Spunckler from East Bumblefuck. Being brilliant in one field does not make you omniscient.

    This argument is typical of what I’m finding in the book. I’ll be sure to post more.

    Easter Movies

    Monday, March 24th, 2008

    It tells you a bit about how I think about religion that on Easter I watched both Life of Brian and Ben-Hur. I’m both awed and amused by faith.

    While I’m on the subject, atheist guru Richard Dawkins was in Austin last week. I didn’t seem him speak — partly because the line was around the block an hour before hand.

    Faith and Stars

    Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

    One of Sully’s readers:

    Why is astrology any less respectable than religious belief? Believers in both suspend reason to help explain the randomness of human existence.

    The reason that astrology is less respectable than faith is that astrology is not a religion and doesn’t claim to be. Astrologers claim that what they do is science. They have charts. The look at planets. They claim to make predictions based on the positions of heavenly objects. They claim that someone’s personality is determined by what time of the year he is born (never mind that they have not corrected for the precession of the equinoxes and so all their astrological signs are one month off). But in the end, it is a sham. Astrologers either make prognostications that are deliberately vague. Or, for personal readings, they perform what amounts to a cold reading.

    It possible, in fact very easy, to disprove astrology. It’s so easy, in fact, that Penn and Teller have yet to devote an episode to it. Faith is far more difficult. It is wrapped in the general and possibly unknowable mystery of who we are and why we are here. Faith attempts to answer those questions but — with the exception of deluded ID people — it doesn’t claim to have scientific proof. It asks for belief.

    There is also, I would add, more evidence supporting the tenets of Judeo-Christian faith than astrology. There was a nation of Israel. Many traditions described within are supported by contemporaneous external accounts. There is ample evidence that there was such a person as Jesus Christ. That the history of the region was determined by God, that Jesus was the Messiah, that there is an afterlife — these are matters of faith and belief.

    There has never been, in 2000 years, any evidence that astrology is based on anything other than shamanism.

    Inerrancy

    Thursday, January 17th, 2008

    You know, this sort of nonsense annoys me.

    Those of you uninterested in religion can skip this. I’m debating Biblical inerrancy on its own terms, not slamming fundies on scientific ones.

    (more…)

    Why I Fight

    Monday, November 19th, 2007

    I sometimes get asked why I post so often at Right-Thinking about creationism (although once every now and then doesn’t seem very often to me). Am I beating a dead horse?

    Perhaps. But I’m passionate about science. I have always loved science, knew I was going to be some kind of scientist and have spent the last 15 years of my life doing science for far less money than I could make in industry. I love to teach science. Seeing the excitement that science creates in people; sharing that sense of wonder; seeing how excited they get when science works and makes sense; this is special.

    To me, science is, if you like, the very voice of God. Our attempt to understand the universe in which we live is the great endeavor of our race.

    I’m not interested in dissuading people from their religious beliefs. I’m sympathetic to religious views. I’ve repeatedly slammed Hitchens, Dawkins and other idiots on this blog for ignorantly criticizing religion and proclaiming ultimate enlightenment. I read the Bible, have a mezzuzah on my door and light candles on fridays.

    Moreover, I understand that in a world gone mad, many people have a need to fall back on the familiar. And nothing is more familiar than the Bible.

    I have no problem with people believing in whatever myths they want. What I object to is pretending this is science. What I object to is using the trappings of science to indoctrinate people to what is, at its base, a religious view.

    Creationists are classic pseudo-scientists. They know the words, they wear white coats, they spin their fancy theories. But they are not scientists. They ignore evidence they don’t like. They make things up. They misread. And, most importantly, their theories are not falsifiable. Any theory that can not be disproven is, by definition, not scientific (note, this applies to pseudoscientific multiverse and string theories as well).

    What really gets my boxers in a bunch, however, is the demonization of science that is illustrated in things like Ben Stein’s ignorant blog post and the Creation Museum. I think religious people are wrong, but I don’t think they are evil — that’s the difference between Hitchens and I. But, for creationists, it’s not not enough that science is wrong, it has to be evil. And not just evil in the ignorant way — but evil in a leftist, atheist, secular humanist cabal attempting to destroy society and make gays marry way.

    So yes, I will respond to this poison. And yes, I will ridicule their pseudo-scientific garbage, the same way I ridicule Michael Bay’s pseudo-movie entertainment, Joe Morgan’s pseudo-sports-analysis and the LA Dodgers’ pseudo-managing of a baseball franchise. Ignorance and dogmatism annoy me.

    Update: One last thing. The main reason creationism annoys me is that it illustrates the greatest cost in the human experience — opportunity cost. The time that kids spend learning religion-based pseudoscience is time they aren’t spending learning useful things like physics and chemistry.

    The Creation Museum is very well done. But just think if all that money, passion and effort had been invested in a planetarium. Or a Museum of Paleontology, Archeology or Anthropology.

    Moderates

    Sunday, October 14th, 2007

    Remember how there are no Muslim moderates? Well, maybe there are:

    In a 29-page letter, representatives of many facets of Muslim life have petitioned their Christian counterparts to help find steps to be taken toward erasing the misunderstandings about each other that often lead to violence.

    Scores of Muslim clerics, theologians and academics issued an open letter yesterday to all Christian leaders saying the two religions need to work more closely together, given that they share the basic principles of worshiping one God and loving thy neighbor.

    No mention of the Jews, of course…

    The Dog Is Dead, Part II

    Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

    Thinking a bit more about my diatribe on atheistic fundamentalism, the thing that creates bloodshed, horror and oppression in our world is not religion — as ably demonstrated by atheistic mass-murderers like Mao. What creates suffering is dogma, the absolute conviction that one is correct and all others are wrong. Dogma certaintly plays a part in religion, but it is not unique to it. Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot were plenty dogmatic on, respectively, culture, economics, race and all three.

    What we are seeing in the vilification of all religion and the pronouncement that the religious are objectively disordered while the areligious are enlightened is something truly frightning — dogmatic atheism. I’m not saying Richard Dawkins will be loading people into boxcars anytime soon (he’d call ‘em a taxi). I’m saying the intellectual process is one guaranteed to produce stupidity from otherwise smart people.

    On a related note, the dogmatic atheists often use the oft-quoted by usually misquoted and misunderstood Occam’s Razor to “prove” that religion is silly.

    Occam’s Razor is a useful tool in the “did terrorists fly planes into buildings or did George Bush [insert insanely complicated conspiracy theory here]” sense. But it is a blunt instrument and not a fantastic one at that. The theory of evolution and our understanding of physical cosmology are insanely complex. To be honest, Occam’s Razor favors the religious.