More on The God Delusion

Seems like you can’t shake a stick lately without stumbling on a discussion about “the new atheism.” Kids’ birthday parties, water cooler conversations at work, barbershop, discussion lists. Sparked by the release of new books by Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett, all of a sudden it’s OK to talk about atheism. We’ve had some great conversations here recently on the subject, but it seems like the topic is bottomless.

In a recent Wired cover story, the state of modern atheism was compared to that of homosexuality slowly emerging from the closet a few decades ago. When pressed, many people who publicly claim agnosticism turn out actually to be atheists afraid of offending the present company. Because to declare yourself an atheist is to say “All that stuff that means more to you than anything, that belief system you hinge your life upon? I reject it entirely.” In other words, it’s not polite to declare yourself an atheist. That’s what the “new atheists” want us to move beyond.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, does an amazing job in this BBC interview of summarizing the views of contemporary atheism in ten minutes. Dawkins is extraordinarily well-spoken and charming, though some theists will no doubt find him strident.

Dawkins also has a great essay up on Yahoo: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God. Also worth listening to him describe the stunning predictive capacity of quantum theory to a Christian. If you’ve got an hour to spare, catch NPR’s interview with Dawkins. I found it fascinating and illuminating; a friend found it annoying.

iSquub is struggling with the paradox of feeling agnostic but agreeing with Dawkins’ line of reason:

Still, to me the most gripping part of this discussion keeps boiling down to that one thing: why is he an atheist, and I an agnostic? Why do I care? The god I’m agnostic about makes no perceivable difference in my life, yet I get frustrated when Dawkins uses what is pretty much an identical chain of reasoning to the one I use but suddenly leaps to an entirely different conclusion.

My take is that, for many of us, this is not a matter of being committed to agnosticism, but rather of not being prepared to make a positive statement that it’s insensible to base our personal or political lives on what amounts to myths. When quantuum theory can make predictions about our world with breath-taking accuracy while the story of the Trinity can make none, what are we waiting for? As Harris says, in no other field of human endeavor are we so willing to accept with indifference the possibility that an outrageous claim might have merit (as agnostics are). We’ve accepted agnosticism as safe and non-committal. It’s not impolite to be an agnostic, and agnosticism allows us to walk on the razor’s edge. Why not stand up and say “Fairies aren’t real?”

Perhaps agnosticism is just a “well, maybe” sort of allowance that we give. An allowance we would not allow in any other field of discourse when evidence is shaky.

Lighter side: Dawkins on Colbert. And Salon.com recently called Dawkins one of the sexiest men alive. On the other side, Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief promises to present equally convincing reason in the opposite direction. I’m interested.

I was going to link to Dawkins’ interview with fallen angel Ted Haggert, but YouTube has “Removed the content at the copyright holder’s request.”

Oh, and Daniel Dennett recently had a brush with death (to which he says “Thank goodness!”)

Music: Talking Heads :: The Book I Read

16 Replies to “More on The God Delusion”

  1. “in no other field of human endeavor are we so willing to accept with indifference the possibility that an outrageous claim might have merit (as agnostics are).”

    Part of my trouble boils down to this: I do reject outrageous claims as unlikely enough to be false. But the claim that an intelligence might’ve created the universe we inhabit doesn’t seem more outrageous to me than the claim that we know anything at all about what put everything everywhere.

    But still there’s a very true and important point here: I’m surrounded by superstitious people, my mother’s entire family are practicing Catholics and I’ve got an uncle who’s a Deacon in the church. I work in an office of about 12 people where no less than four are practicing Catholics. I don’t fully trust myself to say that my reason for saying I’m agnostic and not atheist ISN’T about feeling like I might hurt/alienate a lot of people who are close to me. And this is why I’m glad to be watching Dawkins and Harris and Dennett ought on the front lines, introducing the discussion on a wider stage, clearing some ground.

  2. what’s wrong with superstition? what’s wrong with myth? isn’t science itself creating a self-mythology with robots like dawkins? Doesn’t science use the same tools as religion to create a hegemony over cognitive capital?

    how can you argue against squub’s summation “I do reject outrageous claims as unlikely enough to be false. But the claim that an intelligence might’ve created the universe we inhabit doesn’t seem more outrageous to me than the claim that we know anything at all about what put everything everywhere.”

    it’s as preposterously arrogant and anthropocentric (in that it’s logocentric) to claim vehemently pro-atheism as it is arrogant and theocentric to stand by fundamentalism.

    here’s the thing: truth is ellusive, and we have as much chance finding it through myth as through science. feel free to prove otherwise.

    add Wilson’s _the new inquisistion_ to the reading list suggested above. and re-take your korzybsky correspondence course… this IS the new fundamentalism that all free thinkers should fear rather than welcome.

    baald
    (the friend that was annoyed by the dawkins interview)

    ps – in the middle of scrambling fora work deadline else would write more gooder

  3. what’s wrong with superstition? what’s wrong with myth?

    Nothing at all – they’re part of the magic of life. The problem is when people can’t distinguish between superstition/myth on one hand and the pursuit of knowledge on the other. An even bigger problem is when superstition/myth drive policy that harms humans. Such as opposition to stem cell research, or opposition to gay marriage.

    isn’t science itself creating a self-mythology with robots like dawkins?

    What’s robotic about Dawkins? He seems like a warm and wonderful human to me.

    Doesn’t science use the same tools as religion to create a hegemony over cognitive capital?

    No – that’s pretty much the crux of all this. Religion uses tools that don’t allow for verification and don’t allow for self-correction. Fundamentalists will believe what they believe no matter what, no matter the evidence, while science is in a constant process of self-revision on its (perhaps asymptotic) approach to verififiable consensus reality. It’s *because* the tools differ so radically that it’s not OK for religion to drive public policy or to be mistaken for an “equivalent” form of truth.

    (Squub): But the claim that an intelligence might’ve created the universe we inhabit doesn’t seem more outrageous to me than the claim that we know anything at all about what put everything everywhere.

    I guess I believe in Occam’s Razor – that the simplest solution is generally correct. It’s not about whether we “know anything at all about what put everything everywhere” but about whether it’s more difficult to swallow the idea of a creator or of physics and self-generating systems (note I didn’t say random-ness – physics is not random, and neither is natural selection). Laws of physics are quite simple, though they give rise to great complexity. But the idea of a creator is almost impossible for me to imagine – seems hugely improbable. This is territory of “neither can be proven,” so we have to go with what feels plausible. To me, the idea of no creator is far more plausible than the idea of yes creator.

    it’s as preposterously arrogant and anthropocentric … to claim vehemently pro-atheism as it is arrogant and theocentric to stand by fundamentalism.

    I don’t see them as equivalent. Fundamentalism is a belief system that is unable to question itself. Science is, above all, about approaching truth by evaluating and re-evaluating, constantly questioning and correcting oneself. To me, it’s like the difference between an examined and an unexamined life. Fundamentalism is not about self-examination – it’s about unquestioning acceptance. Say what you will about atheism, but there’s nothing fundamentalist about it – atheism is about questioning and discovery. Even of itself.

    here’s the thing: truth is ellusive, and we have as much chance finding it through myth as through science. feel free to prove otherwise.

    I think that rather the burden would be on you to prove that myth provides a path toward truth as useful or plausible as that of reason.

  4. Fundamentalism is not about self-examination – it’s about unquestioning acceptance.

    Now would you call a Buddhist monk a fundamentalist (in the broad sense)? I certainly would. He follows and accepts ancient scripture. BUT, can the road of liberation be taken without self-examination? Methinks not.

    Say what you will about atheism, but there’s nothing fundamentalist about it – atheism is about questioning and discovery. Even of itself.

    How do you verify logic itself? With logic? Face the fact that logic requires the same sort of leap of faith as does belief. It is simply easier and more appropriate to believe logic because you have been trained to. Fundamentalists find it easier to believe scripture because they have been trained to.

    Use both, believe in neither.

  5. Nate – What ancient “scripture” do Buddhists follow? Buddhism is in a funny category. It has a tradition and some historical texts, but no “scripture” to speak of it – it’s more a philosophy than a religion. It’s religion in the sense that it’s spiritually based and has many branches that are organized similar to religion, but not religious in the sense that it doesn’t have a scriptural foundation or any particular dogmatic foundation.

    How do you verify logic itself?

    That’s just the thing – logic verifies itself by its results. If I say “All fruit has seeds / an apple is fruit / therefore an apple has seeds”, the statement is self-verifying. One can argue with its premises, and if a premise is false the syllogism is accepted as disproven. But there is no “leap” required to accept the integrity of the logic. But if I say “God looks like a Man,” the statement provides neither logic nor empirical verifiation, and thus requires a leap. They’re very different.

  6. I once spent a week in a Buddhist centre where the monks did follow a fairly fundamentalist philosophy. Not based on ancient scripture, but based on one indiividual’s interpretation of Buddhism, and the many books he had written to promote this interpretation. This order valued learning and the search for knowledge above all other things, and yet strangely their small library contained only books by this one writer.

    I’m not in any way suggesting that all Buddhists are like this, but I was quite taken aback by the discovery that Buddhism could be “just like any other religion”.

  7. What ancient “scripture” do Buddhists follow?

    Scot: There is no single text to point to in Buddhism, true. This is because of its (geographically) fractured evolution. But there are some very old texts followed by most branches of Mahayana and Theravada. The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc. appear (originally) in the Pali Canon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pali_Canon), for instance. I would call that scripture, certainly.

    …not religious in the sense that it doesn’t have a scriptural foundation or any particular dogmatic foundation.

    Dogma comes from the ancient Greek for “opinion.” In that sense, how are the Four Noble Truths not dogma? If you’re looking for a religion to strictly conform to the “modern” definition of dogma, that use has only been around since the sixteenth century, and was invented for obvious reasons.

    it’s more a philosophy than a religion.

    Every religion is a philosophy. Explain to me how Christianity’s Ten Commandments are more religious than philosophical.

    That’s just the thing – logic verifies itself by its results.

    I just did a rain dance, and guess what? It’s raining.

  8. Dan, that’s a very weird experience you describe. I don’t expect there are many Buddhist organizations in that position. But point taken.

    Nate, you’re right about there being scriptures in Buddhism. I think I’ve been thinking of the term “scripture” in too literal a sense, as in “the word of God.” I shouldn’t have used scripture as a reason for why Buddhism counts more as a philosophy than as a religion.

    The important point is that Buddhism is non-theistic. I would say that some sort of theism is a necessary condition to call something a religion. Note that there are no mentions of divinity of any kind in the Eightfold Path.

    In general, I think Buddhism is more widely regarded as a philosophy than as a religion, even by Buddhists themselves, though it certainly does share some traits with religion in that it involves belief, etc.

    What etymology “dogma” may have, Buddhism is definitely NOT dogmatic in the general sense of the word. Dogma is that which is “not to be disputed or doubted” — but, from the wikipedia entry on Buddhism as a philosophy:

    Other arguments for Buddhism “as” philosophy may claim that Buddhism does not have doctrines in the same sense as other religions; the Buddha himself taught that a person should accept a teaching only if one’s own experience verifies it and it is praised by the wise.

    Anyway, I think the general view of Buddhism is that, if it qualifies as a religion, it’s different from most religion in that it is non-theistic, and has questioning built into itself. Of course it has its own system of ethics — the Eightfold Path — but these are not written in the form of “You must do/not do X because God says you should/should not.”

    I just did a rain dance, and guess what? It’s raining.

    That’s an example of superstition. How does it connect to the point I was making about logic proving itself / verifying itself in the world?

  9. How is it, that in our infinite wisdom of today’s world we cant do the simplest of things? By this i mean create what was so easy to create back Billions of years ago…?
    Yes that’s right why can’t we create a single celled organism? From what the earth only had apparent at its time e.g. gas’s, water, heat, sunlight?

    I mean it’s strange, the world governments and independent financers can come together to “try” prove the big bang theory with whets going on in Geneva! But yet they wont spend Billions to prove what looks like an easier route and that is creating a single cell organism from jus water, gases, heat ect ect?

    I think you will find because they can’t! And there for creationism is a must! None the less even more baffling as to prove “how” we where created!

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