left biblioblography: Who Can Second-Guess The Guessers?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Who Can Second-Guess The Guessers?

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasisjesusandmosciencereligion

It’s irritating, to find these puff pieces that are completely devoid of anything other than the good old “there-are-places-science-can’t-go” – broad appeals to ignorance that seem thoughtful to the thoughtless.

A Point of View: Can religion tell us more than science?

Too many athiests miss the point of religion, it's about how we live and not what we believe, writes John Gray.

And right out the gate, they misspell atheists, which pretty much strips out much of what the author thought of as ‘deep and insightful’

When he recounts the story of his conversion to Catholicism in his autobiography A Sort of Life, Graham Greene writes that he went for instruction to Father Trollope, a very tall and very fat man who had once been an actor in the West End.

Trollope was a convert who became a priest and led a highly ascetic life, and Greene didn't warm to him very much, at least to begin with.

Yet the writer came to feel that in dealing with his instructor he was faced with "the challenge of an inexplicable goodness". It was this impression - rather than any of the arguments the devout Father presented to the writer for the existence of God - that eventually led to Greene's conversion.

The arguments that were patiently rehearsed by Father Trollope faded from his memory, and Greene had no interest in retrieving them. "I cannot be bothered to remember," he writes. "I accept."

It's clear that what Green accepted wasn't what he called "those unconvincing philosophical arguments". But what was it that he had accepted?

We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.

This is just another ‘novel’ take on an approach to appeals to incredulity.

In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there's no longer any need for religion.

This irritating trope is what angers most atheists: the effort to put religion and science on equal terms, when they are anything but equals. There IS a fundamental difference between religion and science – religion is strictly guesswork, science is based on reproducible evidence.

This was the view presented by the Victorian anthropologist JG Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, a study of the myths of primitive peoples that is still in print. According to Frazer, human thought advances through a series of stages that culminate in science. Starting with magic and religion, which view the world simply as an extension of the human mind, we eventually reach the age of science in which we view the world as being ruled by universal laws.

Frazer's account has been immensely influential. It lies behind the confident assertions of the new atheists, and for many people it's just commonsense. My own view is closer to that of the philosopher Wittgenstein, who commented that Frazer was much more savage than the savages he studied.

I’d really like a show of hands on this one. Frazier? Surprisingly enough, despite my knowledge of mythology and religion, I’ve never read any of his work. And of course, the ‘new atheist’chestnut makes me think of paraphrasing the Who: “Here’s new atheist, just like the old atheist”. It’s garbage. We’re ruder now because being polite makes the religionist think they have a point.

I don't belong to any religion, but the idea that religion is a relic of primitive thinking strikes me as itself incredibly primitive.

Because of course, belief in the supernatural is…what? Advanced, complex thought? Is this guy kidding?

In most religions - polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions - belief has never been particularly important. Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.

Oh, I see – so all those pogroms and massacres and tortures and rapes were just a matter of difference of opinion about ritual, meditation, and how you live?

The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.

Newsflash – Judaism ran in asynchronous tandem with Greek philosophy – and while there were Hellenistic Jews, the Jews were severely insular. And yes, the root core is a list of accepted propositions. Nice try at re-framing, but no cigar.

This is where Frazer and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this western tradition says it is - a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.

Why, yes it is.

Obviously, there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important. Courts of law and medicine are evidence-based practices, which need rigorous procedures to establish the facts. The decisions of governments rest on claims about how their policies will work, and it would be useful if these claims were regularly scrutinised - though you'd be well advised not to hold your breath.

That’s because ‘belief’ in its broadest possible generalization, needs to be proven sufficient to the cause.

But many areas of life aren't like this. Art and poetry aren't about establishing facts. Even science isn't the attempt to frame true beliefs that it's commonly supposed to be. Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better.

Pointing out that science isn’t ‘perfect’ is a ridiculous talking point.

Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.

Bullshit. 4 out of 5 standard definitions specifically stipulate it’s about belief:

re·li·gion noun

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.

3.the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.

4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.

5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

I’m going to skip ahead to another lynchpin that blows this puff piece right outta the water:

If Darwin's theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren't built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life.

Evolution is more than ‘roughly right’ – it’s a proven set of facts, unassailable mountains of forensic evidence. There’s no ‘roughly’ involved, except how the author tries to play the diplomat and fails miserably.

Of course, the author marches out yet another idiocy:

Science hasn't enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths - chief among them, the myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world.

Why do people ‘believe’ science improves the world? It’s called track record. Res ipsa loquitor.


Because it's a human invention, science - just like religion - will always be used for all kinds of purposes, good and bad. Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that's far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that "humanity" can use science to remake the world.

Newsflash: it’s already happened. Several times, in fact. We’ve managed to remake the world on multiple occasions. As to whether it’s a better world, is another debate entirely.

Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.

This is really too much. It’s a thinly veiled “why-can’t-they-just-put-a-sock-in-it” coupled with a thoroughly bald-faced lie. We criticize religion – sometimes relentlessly. But dropping superstitious belief would obviously benefit the world at large. But ethics forbid that we do it by force.

The only thing I agreed with is the summation:

What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

And religions tend to dictate how we live. They try to tell us who to marry, what to do with our bodies, how to raise our children, legislate to gain the means to do all of these things. But somewhichway, we’re supposed to give them cart blanche to do this?

I think not.

Till the next post, then.

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