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The New Atheists

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
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09 May 2019 12:42
 

Dan Dennett argues that religious belief is, in part, the result of our agency-detection module gone awry; pointing out this and other cognitive misfiring is sufficient for him to explain away all the truth and any of the benefits that might accrue to religious belief.  But he goes even further.  Not only do benefits not follow from false belief; religious belief as such propagates itself through religious believers and like a parasite benefits itself at the host’s expense, making religion maladaptive.  In case there is any confusion on this point, it’s the opening metaphor of his book.  Yet one has to wonder: if the mis-ascription of agency is sufficient to explain away all of the truth and any of the benefits of religious belief, why then is not the mis-ascription of agency to religious belief as such sufficient to explain away the truth and benefits in Dennett’s own explanation?  Religious belief, obviously, has no agency; it can’t possibly derive a benefit for itself through propagation.  So, both Dennett and the devout demonstrate a mis-firing agency module, one to many things and the other to belief itself.  A consistent scientist can’t but wonder how a scientific explanation can be based on the error described in the theory used to explain the truth and benefits of being religious away.

For his part, Richard Dawkins thinks religious folks are deluded; that belief in God is a delusion.  Fair enough.  R.A. Fisher, the founder of the genetic theory of natural selection—the man on whom Dawkins’ intellectual bona fides depends—was a devout Anglican all his life.  He wrote more articles for his church newsletter than he ever wrote in evolutionary biology.  Was he deluded?  Was Newton?  Galileo?  Almost without exception the thinkers of the Enlightenment—Dawkins’ paragons of rationality—were devout men.  One wonders: if these rational scientists were religious, maybe there’s more to God than delusion.  And in any case, do we really need another caricatured Guy-in-the-Sky version of religion, one that scarcely needs refuting by anyone?  Are we seriously going to ignore the overwhelming number of examples indicating there’s more to belief than the caricature, even if some believers are the caricature?

Speaking of caricatures, enter Sam Harris.  I imagine Sam applying to Stanford.  To that end he takes a tour, where an administrator shows him around the campus.  At the end of the tour, Harris asks: “So which one of those buildings is the university?”  No, he doesn’t just ask: he points and says “I’ve got it.  There, that one is.”  Religion is like a university.  It is many things bearing relations to one another in a family resemblance of interactions.  Theological propositions are but one of these elements, and probably not the most important one (if they were, so many different false ones wouldn’t serve the same functions, and so forth).  In any case, one wonders why anyone would take seriously a critique of religion based on a category mistake, i.e. taking one element under the category for the meaning of the category itself—a fallacy so elementary one first encounters it in an intro to philosophy class (and Harris was a philosophy major).  If the professional literature is any indication, serious thinkers don’t take Harris’ mistake seriously, and when they bring Harris up at all, they do it to indicate his error, to wit—it makes no sense to reduce religion to false propositional belief.  But god damn he persists in the error, and this says something, I suppose, about his status as an especially rational guy who represents the antidote to religious belief (and on that antidote, don’t get me started on him grounding objective morality in a universe of infinite suffering no less preposterous and fictional than he thinks the existence of God is).

Christopher Hitchens [sic] criticism of religion amounts to an adolescent tirade that every parent dreads once their teenager starts to challenge their authority.  “Mom, you are ruining my life!”  The Hitch: “Religion, you poison everything!”

My take home message: taken individually and collectively, the New Atheist [sic] critique of religion is so juvenile, mean-spirited, and where original silly that one wonders how anyone can take it seriously (I confess to being captivated by it to some degree, until I actually thought through what they are saying for myself).  Even their basic mantra is absurd—that religious belief represents some kind of existential threat to the future of civilization.  But let’s grant a grain of truth to that; a small grain.  Whatever [sic] threat religion represents is easily solved.  In fact, the solution was proposed by one of the major world religions at its founding: ‘Render unto Caesar that which Caesar’s, render under God that which is God’s’.  It took a while for this to sink in (a long, bloody while), but we eventually got it right: the separation of church and state; religious belief belongs in private, not public life.  If one wants to plant a flag, why not plant it there?  This way there is no conflict to be had, only peaceful co-existence, and against the push-back from some of the devote who seek to undermine this solution, one just pushes back and reminds them that the legitimization of public life in the space of reasons and not the dictates of God is just the way it has to be.  For the most part, people seem pretty happy with this.

(And to this point of separation, Harris is sort of onto something that Islam presents a unique problem.  It’s not jihadism and martyrdom, and it’s not just the lack of separation of church and state; it’s the positive admonishment against it.  The unity of church and state is both the historical origins and lasting legacy of Islam; it is enshrined in their most sacred traditions.  This unity of secular and religious authority is a problem unique to Islam, and it is almost certainly the core of all the other problems we see (some were recently mentioned in a thread).  That is, one can no more separate out the political motives of jihadists than one can exclude their religious convictions.  And so on.  In any case, the most populous Muslim country in the world seems to get the separation right, so there is more hope for Islam than might at first appear—assuming, of course, one can predicate singularized hope on something as diverse as “Islam.”  And likewise for any religion “as such.”)

May the Anus rest in peace.

[ Edited: 11 May 2019 03:44 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
icehorse
 
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10 May 2019 09:05
 

It strikes me that the new atheists are using rhetoric in order to shift the Overton window. From that perspective, criticisms such as yours seem to fall into the “distinctions without a difference” category, or something like that.

Specifically, TAP said:

Religion is like a university.

This is a common apologist strategy. This strategy would have us believe that religion is at once beneficial, but at the same time so ineffable as to be unassailable. Nice work if you can get it.

 
 
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10 May 2019 09:22
 
icehorse - 10 May 2019 09:05 AM

It strikes me that the new atheists are using rhetoric in order to shift the Overton window. From that perspective, criticisms such as yours seem to fall into the “distinctions without a difference” category, or something like that.

Specifically, TAP said:

Religion is like a university.

This is a common apologist strategy. This strategy would have us believe that religion is at once beneficial, but at the same time so ineffable as to be unassailable. Nice work if you can get it.

I’m certain Dennett and Harris and probably Dawkins would resent the idea that their criticisms of religious belief reduce to rhetorical strategies, not rational arguments.  Maybe you should read them as charitably as I do, in that I give them the benefit of the doubt that their argument stands or falls on the grounds of logic and evidence, independently of the rhetoric they use (if they would even admit to using it).  In other words, they themselves would insist on the distinction you say makes no difference.

As for your failure to appreciate the text you cite, I don’t know how to help you.  Maybe the fact that you didn’t quote the explanation is a clue on how to help yourself.  Obviously it’s not about arguing religion is beneficial but at the same time unassailable because it’s ineffable. 

 

 
icehorse
 
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10 May 2019 14:04
 

TAP:

I’m certain Dennett and Harris and probably Dawkins would resent the idea that their criticisms of religious belief reduce to rhetorical strategies, not rational arguments.  Maybe you should read them as charitably as I do, in that I give them the benefit of the doubt that their argument stands or falls on the grounds of logic and evidence, independently of the rhetoric they use (if they would even admit to using it).  In other words, they themselves would insist on the distinction you say makes no difference.

My argument is not as black and white as you’re making it. IMO their criticisms are both logical AND rhetorical. Do you really think that Hitchens believed that “religions poison everything” ? That is clearly a rhetorical device.

TAP:

As for your failure to appreciate the text you cite, I don’t know how to help you.  Maybe the fact that you didn’t quote the explanation is a clue on how to help yourself.  Obviously it’s not about arguing religion is beneficial but at the same time unassailable because it’s ineffable.

Perhaps. Can you summarize your argument in a different way? Because to me your argument falls into the general category of “you can’t criticize religion because it’s part of culture, or it’s an aspect of society, or it’s not monolithic”, and so on. Which to me boils down to: you can’t criticize religion because you can’t define it. Which circles back around to my earlier thought which is that this defense seems to boil down to: “it’a an amazing thing that can be defended, but not criticized”.

 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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10 May 2019 14:45
 

icehorse

I omitted Hitchens from my list because I agree with you.  His was a rhetorical tract more than an argument.  That is why I simply characterized it as “adolescent” and didn’t refute any arguments he made.  None, as far as I can tell, rise to anything more than what an angry high school student would use to justify the idea that “religion poisons everything.” 

I agree as a statement of fact that Harris uses rhetoric to bolster his arguments.  I’d even go so far as to say as a statement of fact Harris often confuses his rhetoric for an argument.  Harris might admit to the first point, but he’d vehemently deny the second.  In any case, he would deny that the validity of anything he says about religion depends on rhetoric, which is why I ignore it when challenging the validity of his main argument against religion.

As to that validity, I don’t know how to summarize my point any more clearly than it’s already stated.  Taking propositional belief as the defining feature of religion is like taking a specific building or even building as such as the defining feature of a university.  Obviously the university is comprised of buildings, but it’s also comprised of faculty, staff, a curriculum, students, and so forth.  To take any one of these things for the category “university” itself—i.e. the family resemblance of how these elements interrelate in order “to be a university”—is to confuse, colloquially, the ‘part’ for the ‘whole’.  Technically the category mistake is different, but maybe that way of looking at it will help. 

And maybe this will clarify the point as well. Anyone who said religion is intrinsically good because it fosters social bonding would be guilty of the same category mistake, just this time in favor of religion, not against it.

I am in no way saying the role of religion in society can’t be criticized, any more than I would say the role of the university in society can’t be criticized.

[ Edited: 10 May 2019 14:54 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
icehorse
 
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10 May 2019 15:51
 

Hey TAP,

Okay. When I hear these guys making their criticisms, I infer that they understand that they are talking about “universities” and not “a building on campus”. To take your analogy further, I would say that they’re not attacking a building on campus, they are attacking the civil engineering that all the buildings rest upon. So the civil engineering also is not the university, but if it’s flawed, the whole she-bang is flawed.

For example, it strikes me as more than fair to say that if Islam has any meaning at all, it means these two ideas:

- The Quran is the perfect, timeless word of god.
- Muhammad’s life provides the perfect role model for Muslims.

If we cannot agree on at least that much, then it seems that the apologist is attempting a shell game of sorts.

So to connect the dots: I see these critics as attacking the civil engineering, with the assumptions that:

- the civil engineering isn’t the whole thing
- if the civil engineering is flawed, the rest doesn’t really matter.

 
 
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10 May 2019 16:35
 

When I hear these guys making their criticisms, I infer that they understand that they are talking about “universities” and not “a building on campus”.

 
I don’t know why you infer that.  Harris makes it quite clear in Chapter 2 of The End of Faith that the sole criterion through which one needs to criticize religion is the falsity of its theological propositions, and the causal role these propositions have on behavior. 

I would say that they’re not attacking a building on campus, they are attacking the civil engineering that all the buildings rest upon.

Focusing on the civil engineering of the buildings is still a category mistake because focusing on the buildings as the nature of the university is the category mistake.  A university could exist without buildings at all, though it would hardly be a very useful, much less efficient one.

And anticipating…just because theological propositions are necessary for religious belief doesn’t mean they sufficiently explain what religious belief is.

 

[ Edited: 10 May 2019 17:04 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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10 May 2019 17:12
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 10 May 2019 04:35 PM

When I hear these guys making their criticisms, I infer that they understand that they are talking about “universities” and not “a building on campus”.

 
1 - I don’t know why you infer that.  Harris makes quite clear in Chapter 2 of The End of Faith that the sole criterion through which one needs to criticize religion is the falsity of its theological propositions, and the causal role these propositions have on behavior. 

I would say that they’re not attacking a building on campus, they are attacking the civil engineering that all the buildings rest upon.

2 - Focusing on the civil engineering of the buildings is still a category mistake because focusing on the buildings as the nature of the university is the category mistake.  A university could exist without buildings at all, though it would hardly be very useful, much less efficient one.

3 - And anticipating…just because theological propositions are necessary for religious belief doesn’t mean they sufficiently explain what religious belief is.

1 - I think your perspective is largely in keeping with mine.
2 - I was making an analogy.
3 - Agreed. But if a system has a fatal flaw, that renders even the positive aspects of the system inoperable.

 
 
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10 May 2019 17:22
 
icehorse - 10 May 2019 05:12 PM
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 10 May 2019 04:35 PM

When I hear these guys making their criticisms, I infer that they understand that they are talking about “universities” and not “a building on campus”.

 
1 - I don’t know why you infer that.  Harris makes quite clear in Chapter 2 of The End of Faith that the sole criterion through which one needs to criticize religion is the falsity of its theological propositions, and the causal role these propositions have on behavior. 

I would say that they’re not attacking a building on campus, they are attacking the civil engineering that all the buildings rest upon.

2 - Focusing on the civil engineering of the buildings is still a category mistake because focusing on the buildings as the nature of the university is the category mistake.  A university could exist without buildings at all, though it would hardly be very useful, much less efficient one.

3 - And anticipating…just because theological propositions are necessary for religious belief doesn’t mean they sufficiently explain what religious belief is.

1 - I think your perspective is largely in keeping with mine.
2 - I was making an analogy.
3 - Agreed. But if a system has a fatal flaw, that renders even the positive aspects of the system inoperable.

As a principle I agree that if a system has a fatal flaw, then the system itself is inoperable.  But I don’t see how that applies to religion.  As a student of religious belief, I have not been able to find a singular fatal flaw that renders the whole dysfunctional.  Elements that render it dangerous, for sure.  But I could say that about many secular belief systems as well.

To a point you make about Islam, I won’t speak for the Koran, and I haven’t read the Bible recently or frequently enough to say for sure, but I am reasonably sure there is nothing in it that says it is the literal, unerring word of God.  The Catholic Church, which composed it from composite sources, certainly doesn’t think it is.  Ergo, it seems rather ridiculous to me to assert that literal Biblical fundamentalism is the ‘most intellectually honest’ and only real defensible version of Christianity—essentially Harris’ argument.  This is not so much a category mistake as an unwarranted imposition of the premise he needs to get his “fatal flaw” argument off the ground.

 

[ Edited: 10 May 2019 17:26 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
icehorse
 
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10 May 2019 18:01
 

The Quran is shockingly and repeatedly self-referential. It declares its own origins and perfection (and ease of understanding), many times.

I’m not making a similar claim about the Bible, I’m not sure either way.

 
 
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10 May 2019 18:27
 
icehorse - 10 May 2019 06:01 PM

I’m not making a similar claim about the Bible, I’m not sure either way.

“The Bible” is 66 books written by multiple authors and covers over 1000 years. It’s really not one book. It is not “self-referential” because it has no internal sense of being one book. It was put together in its current form centuries after the last book was written. The Quran claims to be written by one author written over a few decades. They really are not comparable. The Bible is clearly not “perfect”.  I don’t think the Quran is, either, but I haven’t analyzed it like I have the Bible.

 
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10 May 2019 19:36
 

icehorse

Now that you mention it, I remember vaguely being exasperated with the repetition and self-referentially in the Koran; a whole lotta praising the greatness of god and not a lotta substance, as I recall from so long ago.  I ended up reading more summaries of it by recommended authors than the text itself. 

That it claims its own perfection is troubling; such literalness adds mightily, I think, to the toxic potential of religious belief.  If what you say is true, I would add this to separation of religious and secular authority as problems Muslims need to come to terms with.  I wonder what percentage of Islamic sects take the Koran literally, as unerring?  Of practitioners? 

EN

I would be especially interested in your thoughts in this thread.
 

 
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10 May 2019 19:46
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 10 May 2019 07:36 PM

EN

I would be especially interested in your thoughts in this thread.

I completely agree with you that religion should be private, not public. Everyone should believe what they want and practice whatever religion/non-religion they want, but don’t try to make that the basis of any public policy/law.  Separation of church and state is good for the church and good for the state.

 
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10 May 2019 20:32
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 10 May 2019 07:36 PM

icehorse

Now that you mention it, I remember vaguely being exasperated with the repetition and self-referentially in the Koran; a whole lotta praising the greatness of god and not a lotta substance, as I recall from so long ago.  I ended up reading more summaries of it by recommended authors than the text itself. 

That it claims its own perfection is troubling; such literalness adds mightily, I think, to the toxic potential of religious belief.  If what you say is true, I would add this to separation of religious and secular authority as problems Muslims need to come to terms with.  I wonder what percentage of Islamic sects take the Koran literally, as unerring?  Of practitioners? 

EN

I would be especially interested in your thoughts in this thread.

Back to the OP - I heartily agree that secularism is the way to go. I don’t think Christianity poses much of a threat to secularism, but roughly half the world’s Muslims think theocracy is the way to go. I think that is a big, big problem.

As for Christianity, I would encourage you to watch this debate:

is christianity a force for good?

 
 
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11 May 2019 02:47
 

icehorse

Without a context, I am not sure what to make of that disturbing half of Muslims wanting theocracy.  Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has a secular government with constitutional religious freedom that permits any but officially recognizes six religions (e.g. the different major world ones).  The country is 87% Muslim.  Logically this shows there is no necessary connection between Islam and theocracy, whatever textualism argument one uses; as a statement of fact, Muslims can be both practicing Muslims and separate church and state.  If this can happen in Indonesia but isn’t happening elsewhere, that means that more than the propositional content of the scriptural beliefs causes political behavior.  It also means that the theocracies of ISIS and the Taliban (and Saudi Araba, which is more or less ISIS-made-it-big, with a twist) require more explanation than theological belief (though obviously theological belief will still be causal in those cases, just not sufficiently so). 

What Harris—as a scientist, not an ideologue against religion—should be asking is: what causal factors account for the different political behaviors between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban?  Instead, he invokes horrors and says voila: beliefs in theological propositions taken literally from scripture are sufficiently causal for horrendous political behavior like theocracy and jihadism (if, in fact, he will even acknowledge that jihadism is at all political, as opposed to being exclusively religious; sometimes he seems to insist it’s not).  In any case, absent this examination of causes, half of Muslims wanting theocracy is disturbing but not terrifying.  My guess: a proportionally disturbing number of American Christians want government to be overtly religious.  Yet what are the chances of that ever happening here…?  So again: why not here, given the dense number of propositional belief holders who favor it?  Given the realities on the ground, there must be other causes for when theocracy does and doesn’t take root than the theological doctrine calling for its establishment.

Thanks for the link.  I am about to watch it now.  If I have any comments, I’ll post them. 

EN.
 
Thanks. 

[ Edited: 11 May 2019 03:48 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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11 May 2019 07:53
 
icehorse - 10 May 2019 08:32 PM

I heartily agree that secularism is the way to go. I don’t think Christianity poses much of a threat to secularism….

Looking at the new raft of abortion bills in the southern US and the fact that Pence and his folks are in deep in the whitehouse, I think you may be mistaken about their influence in the US…

 
 
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