Religion, Naturally

Beauty-of-nature-random-4884759-1280-800As with his previous comment on the histories of religion, I largely agree with Mackie when he turns to the question of what the origin of religion says about the truth of theism.

His answer: It says very little.

He rightly sees, as many in our current culture do not, that explaining the appearance of an idea does not tell us whether or not that idea is true. This is the classic genetic fallacy, after all. It may or may not be true that “you only believe in x because of your personal motivations”, but that tells us nothing about whether or not “x” is true. Mackie sees this, and dismisses the idea that natural histories of religion are, in themselves, reasons to reject the truth of theism.

He goes on, however, to argue that these can be used as a counter to the idea that the existence of religion cannot be explained apart from supernatural intervention.

Again, I agree with him, though I’m left wondering who it is that Mackie thinks has given this argument. He does not tell us, and even goes so far as to complain that theists often point out a fact that runs counter to it: that humans have a natural psychological desire for God.

Of course we do. And this should have signaled Mackie that theists, with very few exceptions, have never argued that the natural desire for God is itself in need of a supernatural explanation.

Mackie seems to think otherwise, and Daniel Denett dutifully informs us that the natural desire for God is a desire for God that is natural–as if that were a revolutionary concept.

In this, and many other places, it seems that those who argue against the truth of theism tend to have a very weak understanding of what theists are actually claiming.


Co-opting Science Shows a Lack of Respect

fiery_preacherThere are few people who disrespect science more consistently, or more flagrantly, than the fans of Richard Dawkins.

A real respect for science, in my view, includes a respect for understanding clearly what science does in general, and what a given experiment  shows in particular.

It makes me uncomfortable to sit in a church and listen to a preacher carelessly speak for God–simply assuming that the divine backs his particular social view without bothering to give a reason.

I have a similar reaction to those who claim to speak for science, insisting that it has shown things that it simply has not. Generally, this involves claims that science has never actually tested, and takes no position on.

As a lover of science, I find this disrespectful.

More often than not, it isn’t even a specific study that is being referenced. Rather, there is simply a vague wave in the direction of “science has shown” or “this is a scientific way of thinking”. It never seems to occur to people that science hasn’t “shown” anything that wasn’t demonstrated experimentally,  and not having tested a thing definitely means that there is no experimental demonstration.

This is typically how co-opting science for one’s purposes starts. When pressed, however, it begins to take a more targeted form: deeply distorting what a particular experiment concluded (or was even testing in the first place).

And sloppiness about what is being tested in an experiment, and, consequently, the wild extrapolations made by the New Atheists, are deeply out of touch with the scientific method.

They are also insulting to real science.

Science is powerful precisely because it is careful not to claim more than it has found. The New Atheists can be heard extolling this virtue all across the internet–yet the attempts to make science claim more than it does are every bit as common.

From glibly asserting that Libet’s experiments disprove free will (though Libet himself pointed out how careful examination of his experiments shows no such thing), to the general claim that God’s existence is somehow a scientific question (that has been tested experimentally) isn’t simply an affront to theology, philosophy, logic, and reason. It is also an affront to science.

By all means, let us enjoy the technologies science provides. And let us not forget to appreciate the hard work and brilliance of those who advance scientific knowledge.

But the fact remains that tacking on glib, untested internet memes as if they should enjoy the respect that real science has earned is worse than non-scientific. It rightly offends those who respect genuine science.

 


Secular Dogma

sj-sallyMoving on from individual religious experience, Mackie discuses religious histories. In particular, he discusses secular religious histories, and I find myself largely in agreement with his conclusions.

That is, Mackie rightly sees that all the most famous theories on the origins and social function of religion are far too reductionistic to be considered valid. They all seem to assume that, because they can point to a particular effect or use of religion, they have thereby explained all religion.

In pointing out these problems, Mackie makes a rather penetrating observation of Marxism:

“What is more, the characteristic Marxist over-optimism of expecting social conflict and alienation themselves to disappear after a proletarian revolution is itself best understood as a kind of secularized salvationism, the expression of a consoling illusion different, indeed, in specific content but not in general character from the vision of a supernatural ideal realm.”

This caught my attention, not because Marxism is terribly relevant to our current social context, but because similar observations can be made, in any time, of those who are most passionately anti-religious.

The current wave of anti-theists (the New Atheists) can be almost entirely understood as enlightenment-revivalists. Setting aside their lack of concern for what killed the enlightenment in the first place, the logical problems with its propaganda, and the horrific acts it spawned, it is worth noting that the same sort of secular salvationism does seem to have taken hold in this group.

There is a near-constant implication, after all, that the problems of humanity–threats of terrorism, oppression of the poor, lack of education–will be removed or greatly diminished so long as one can rid the world of religion. There is even, if one looks for it, an unspoken assumption that one can count one’s self one of the “brights”, one of the intelligensia, if only one can thoroughly embrace an atheistic way of thinking.

In both cases, we have a secularized salvationism–the first being social, and the second a matter of personal value and identity. This is not unlike the religious claim that devotion to God is beneficial to society and empowering to the individual.

Essentially, the emotional issues traditionally addressed by the world’s great religions are fundamental questions of the human condition. These needs cannot be removed from one’s nature simply by rejecting particular answers to them, or eschewing the trappings of religion.

A thoughtful approach, therefore, will not simply replace one consoling illusion for another–say, dogmatic religion for dogmatic atheism–but by taking an altogether more nuanced view of both these questions and the answers presented by the world’s great religions.

And that is where one must start (and where far too many refuse to start): asking these basic questions and examining the options available.

When one does this, the foibles, and sheer uselessness, of blunt materialism become much more obvious.


Materialism vs the Mind

maxresdefaultHow do you know that you are conscious?

It may seem silly to ask that question. That one is conscious is so obvious, there seems to be no reason to bother asking about how one knows it. Personally, I might have agreed, were it not for the number of times I’ve heard others insist that humans only know things through scientific investigation.

In fact, materialism is rooted in the idea that there is nothing other than the physical. It takes as its starting point that the sciences are the only legitimate form of investigation–because there is nothing other than that which science studies.

But there simply is no scientific test for whether or not one is conscious.

Most of us have never had a brain scan. And anyone who pauses to reflect on the situation will realize that it won’t tell you that you are conscious unless you already know it. Neurology reveals correlations between brain activity and behavior; it does not reveal consciousness to anyone who doesn’t already know that it exists.

In fact, there is no scientific test for whether or not consciousness really exists–or is simply a delusion.

Of course, one could insist that, while there is currently no scientific test for consciousness, there will be someday. While I’m sure that neurology will do amazing things, there are reasons why this won’t be one of them.

But that is a side-point. More pertinently, I don’t know anyone who claims to be unsure about whether or not consciousness exists–and is waiting for neurologists to get back to us on that.

And that, it seems to me, is the long and short of it. Those who know that they are conscious believe in something without scientific evidence for it.

And this leaves the blunt materialist (such as the New Atheists) in a rather difficult situation. Either admit that there are ways of knowing outside of science, or recant all belief that one is sometimes conscious.

Some, believe it or not, have chosen the latter view, which leads me to suspect that there are motivations for believing in materialism that have nothing to do with a desire to be rational.


If I’m Guilty, it’s Your Fault

Passing blame for guiltIn making a case against theism, Mackie offers a side comment that I think is worth attention–if only because so many keep making it.

That is, Mackie suggests that religions themselves create the very sense of guilt they claim to cure–and that the relief and elation they offer do not adequately compensate for this pain.

As in nearly every case, Mackie merely suggests this, making it unclear whether he’s actually claiming it (without defending the idea) or simply mentioning it in passing. It isn’t until the end of each section, when he often declares that a line of argument is completely defeated, that it becomes clear that he was actually making claims.

But others have been quite a bit more bold in making this accusation of religious traditions, if no more able to make a legitimate case for it.

Of course there are particular religious groups, sects, and leaders that have done this very thing. I don’t know of anyone who denies that guilt has been abused.

But to say that this is somehow universal strikes me as completely strange–and I’ve never seen a legitimate psychological study which supports the idea that religion in general increases feelings of guilt.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious that all thoughtful people realize that we can and should be much better than we are. It only makes sense that our belief systems will reflect this fact.

I suspect that part of the problem here is simple appeal to novelty. The common-sense idea that people aren’t as good as we should be just isn’t as exciting as conspiracy theories about evil Popes wringing their hands in glee over causing pain. But there is, I think, at least one more factor.

We happen to be living in a time where guilt is often scorned as one of the great evils. Like all eras, we make a point to remember those times and places which best illustrate our beliefs. We know all about excesses and abuses of guilt. We seem to almost studiously ignore the fact that a lack of guilt is also very dangerous.

Though it would be healthier to seek a balance here, it is much more in line with the popular narrative to demand that guilt is some unnatural thing foisted upon us by religion. But those who demand evidence before believing a thing should reject that view out of hand.

 


Only the Worst Positions Allowed

KwameJoseph-WorstEverThe list of ways in which the New Atheists misrepresent theism has gotten pretty long in recent years. Still, there are some major themes which seem to be at the core of most of the problem.

One would think that it would be a simple matter to clear up a few basic misunderstandings, but it is amazing how often proponents of this disinformation are utterly convinced that they are doing no such thing–even when they are in the middle of spreading it.

Enter the particular misunderstanding to be discussed:

If you’re demanding that the Bible be interpreted literally, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

It is incredibly common for anyone who interprets any passage of the Bible (not just Genesis 1-3) non-literally to be dismissed with a simple “well, you clearly reject real Christianity anyway”.

The first thing that needs to be said, I suppose, is that not even the most fundamentalist believer takes the Bible absolutely literally at every passage. To demand that one is simply not a theist unless one is even more literal than the fundamentalist is definitely a straw man fallacy.

So much has been said by others. What I’d like to add, however, is a note about how quick people are to deny that this kind of demand adds up to a claim about what Christianity is.

I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that atheists don’t try to define God, but merely respond to what the theist claims. I’ve been told this by people who promptly demand that I’m completely wrong to interpret a passage of the Bible differently than they do. This is a blatant contradiction.

Also, it is a false dichotomy.

Whether or not the New Atheist take on the Bible is correct (it isn’t), the point is that this is no reason to be an atheist. And the New Atheists are simply wrong to demand (as most of them do) that the only options on the table are their fundamentalist atheism or a religion even more fundamentalist than Falwell’s.

The simple fact is that none of the arguments for theism I’ve presented here have relied on trusting the Bible as authoritative, let alone literal. Yet attacks on such bad theology are frequently presented as irrefutable counters to them.

All this shows, then, is that one (very silly) understanding of Christianity is false. It doesn’t address theism, or defend the materialism that the New Atheists embrace.

So, let’s agree at the outset that the weird caricature of theism that the New Atheists mock is untrue. It seems reasonable that we should then move on to at least two other ideas:

1. The concept of theism that is actually being defended, and

2. The materialist atheism that has gone strangely undefended.

So far, the response I’ve received to the first is a perpetual bewilderment at what I’m saying. At every point, atheists claim to not understand my actual beliefs (leading me to wonder how they can be so confident that they’ve refuted my beliefs)

As to the second, that’s generally ignored. And, though I count it a victory in debate that materialists are so completely unable to defend their view, I’d hoped for more thoughtful engagement than a skirting of the issue.

That is to say, those who claim that we shouldn’t believe things without evidence should completely reject materialism.


Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter

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“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.


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