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One time several years ago in graduate school, I simply could not remember the word "syrup", so I called it "pancake gravy". That title was already taken(!), so I added "cane" because when I was a child in the Panhandle of Florida (aka Lower Alabama), my family grew sugar cane and made our own cane syrup.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Response to "Religion? You Just Made That Up!"

Fr. Dwight Longenecker had a recent post "Religion?  You Just Made That Up!" on his blog Standing on My Head.  My response has become a bit long for a comment, so I am providing it here.

An atheist probably "believes in" (in some sense) science, yet science is clearly man-made. That is to say, we humans did not create nature as she is, but we do generate hypotheses, formulate plans of study, and develop theories. Light existed before mankind, but there is no reason to believe that Maxwell's Equations existed before mankind -- especially since they are very, very slightly wrong (certainly at the quantum level). But although they are man-made, they are not exactly arbitrary, either; a different human culture or an intelligent species on another planet would almost certainly derive exactly the same Maxwell's Equations (expressed in their own language) at some point.  The process by which mature theories are developed, on the other hand, and intermediate approximations along the way are likely to be much more varied.  For example, there have been countless scientific papers trying to explain high-temperature superconductivity -- none of them, to my knowledge, quite succeeding -- yet the diversity of conflicting theories does not mean that high-temperature superconductivity does not exist.  

Well, theology is much the same. Not all religions are all man-made, but a case could be made that all theology is man-made. After all, theology is also a science.  Anyone with the most basic understanding of Christian theology knows that the full reality of the Holy Trinity is beyond the understanding of any finite being; we can make a few basic statements with confidence, but anything beyond them is at best a good, man-made approximation -- sort of how the approximation π ≈ 3.14 is both reasonably accurate and also convenient for our calculations in the decimal system. 

And then, of course, there is pseudoscience. Alongside the descriptions of the interior of the earth given by serious geology one can find (especially on the Internet) the "theory" that the earth is hollow. Some claim that Admiral Byrd flew through a hole near the North Pole and briefly entered the hollow earth; others claim that the hollow earth is populated by technologically advanced reptillians, or by humans living in a sort of hippy Shangri-La.


Why do so many people find pseudoscience credible?  Ultimately, I think this usually comes back to the "mystery religion" aspect that I wrote about earlier:  the Gnostic thrill of feeling that you are one of the elite few to be smart enough (or brave enough) to know (or face) the truth.  Much of the diversity in religious belief comes originally from the same Gnostic thrill.

So, by the way, does most of atheism. Someone who simply doesn't believe in God or who doesn't care is not likely to find the question worth arguing about.  Most likely he will just play golf (or watch football, or whatever) on Sundays.  He may even give lip service to the ambient religion, perhaps to gain approval from his neighbors or as an assertion of ethnic identity.  He may occasionally do this as a cultural exercise -- if you watch travel programs, it's not uncommon for the show's travelers in the Himalayas to burn incense to the Hindu god of the mountain, or for visitors to Maya pyramids to obtain the blessing of a local shaman, etc.

That type of unbeliever is unlikely to think of himself as an atheist and is even less likely to proclaim his atheism to the world, except perhaps as the result of a direct question.  No; the kind who draws attention to his disbelief does so because he enjoys feeling that he belongs to a unique and highly exclusive club of the bright and brave.  In this he is like the sedevacantist Catholic and the neopagan, though they may have little else in common.


  1. I feel I should point out that most of the atheist activists that I'm aware of make the effort to proclaim the unlikelihood of the existence of gods not to feel like they belong to a unique club of the brave, but because they are convinced that religions cause, on balance, more harm than good, and that those harms could be reduced if more people could be persuaded that the supernatural beings that they are based around are imaginary.

    Most atheists I am aware also don't believe in astrology or fire-breathing dragons, but there is very little suffering to actual humans caused by belief in astrology or fire-breathing dragons. And most people who don't believe in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic god also don't believe in the Mesoamerican gods Xipe Totec, Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl and the rest ... but they devote their time and efforts to rebutting the case for the Judeo-Christo-Islamic god and not the Mesoamerican gods, or astrology or fire-breathing dragons, precisely because it's the Judeo-Christo-Islamic god that underpins much of the religious conflict in the world, and almost all the legislative efforts in the west to deny, say, the rights of gays and women (especially reproductive rights), or to enact programs that perpetuate poverty and ignorance. They focus their skepticism on the forms of irrationality that cause the most harm, and you can bet that if there were still people in the world making human sacrifices to Xipe Totec, or if there were people trying to get laws passed so that only those people with compatible star signs were allowed to marry, then there'd be as much opposition to those from the current generation of atheist activists as there is to the harms done in the name of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic god.

    As to theology being a science, I have to take issue with that. It's a science only in the same sense that astrology is a science. Theology is the study of gods (as opposed to the various branches of anthropology and literary criticism that are the study of what people believe about gods) ... and astrology is the study of how the relative positions of the stars and planets affect your fortune and your personality.

    Theology has yet to come up with convincing evidence that any gods actually exist, and astrology has yet to come up with any convincing evidence that the relative positions of the planets and the stars actually exert an influence on our lives.

    In any real science, experts seek consensus, they do experiments to determine which of several competing hypotheses is most likely to be correct, they revise those hypotheses as more evidence comes to light, and eventually end up with explanations which all reasonable people can agree on as being overwhelmingly likely to be correct on present evidence. Theology doesn't work like that. If there really were theoi to do -ology on, then we would see the various religious traditions of the world converging on the same answers. We would see Hinduism revising the number of gods downwards in response to new discoveries showing that there were fewer gods than they'd originally assumed. We'd see Mormons and non-Mormon Christians developing experiments to determine whether the Book of Mormon really was the product of divine revelation. We'd see Muslims and Jews devising tests to see whether God prefers to be addressed in Hebrew or Arabic. We'd see Catholics and Protestants settling on a way to work out whether the sacrament literally turns into the body and blood of a 1st Century Jew, or whether it merely symbolises them. And so on. But none of this is actually happening. Religions, and their theological traditions, remain resolutely separate. This doesn't remotely look like what normally happens when people do science. It looks like what happens when people expend a great deal of intellectual capital on rationalising belief in myths.

  2. I'm going to be brief in response to this. There is no real point in each of us repeating arguments and counter-arguments that have been made countless times, besides which I have to get ready for work. Unfortunately, even a brief response turns out to be rather long.

    First of all, my characterization is based on those atheists, both practical and professed, that I have met. I acknowledged that there are any number of unbelievers who do not attempt to proselytize for atheism; those are not the ones I am talking about. Every atheistic proselytizer I have ever met has been pretty full of himself. You will notice I do not say that they are the only people full of themselves.

    Secondly, I am not interested in defending all religions as being true.

    Thirdly, there is something ironic in the very name "atheism". Two thousand years ago, Christians were called atheists because they refused to worship the pagan gods that were popular at the time; some Christians saw these gods as frauds perpetuated by demons and others saw them as frauds perpetuated by men. The claims made of the Christian God are completely different than those made of Osiris or Poseidon. What makes this especially ironic is that atheists are not, in general, offended by the idea of powerful beings able to do things that seem nearly impossible to us -- which is pretty much all the pagan gods were. Most atheists believe that there MUST be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the lack of evidence notwithstanding, and that some of this life will be much more technologically advanced than mankind in 2013. Atheists would not be shaken by the existence of such beings; they would simply refuse to worship them. (And by the way, they would be right to refuse to worship them.)

    As for the role of religion in wars ... get real. Almost every party in almost every war has had some kind of religion, just as they have had some kind of language. They may have used their religions to try to justify their wars, just as they have used words to try to justify their wars. And words can be weapons themselves, so maybe you think this is an argument for an end to words. It's a silly argument one way or the other.

    It's even hard to decide how to count things. What, to take a prominent example, are we to make of Hitler? He had been baptized as a Catholic, so in a certain sacramental sense, he always remained Catholic. He did not remain Catholic in his beliefs, though -- he very explicitly rejected the Church and the Christian God. It is hard to say what he really believed as opposed to what he found convenient to say. The same can be said of many, if not most, national leaders.

    Comparing arguments for the existence of God to arguments for the existence of fire-breathing dragons is completely bogus, and you should be ashamed of trying to pull such a stunt.

    1. My point about religion in warfare was not that it underpins all conflict, just that it has a role; sure, wars are fought over land and resources, but religions, being divisive ideologies that separate people into 'saved' and 'damned' or like categories, are an extra factor contributing to conflict. Would the Partition of India have been so bloody (or even happened) if not for the ideological divide between Hindus and Muslims? Would the Christian Nazis have been so ferocious in their persecution of the Jews if not for two millennia of Christian-inspired demonisation of Jews? Would the Israel/Palestine problem be so intractable without the heartfelt antipathy between Jews and Muslims, each claiming a God-given right to the same territory? Would the European Wars of Religion have gone on so long at such cost without the mutual fear and suspicion between Catholics and Protestants? Possibly. But I am inclined to doubt that the artificial extra incentive that religion provides for dividing in-groups from out-groups could have had no effect at all on these matters.

      Re the dragon, I'm afraid you've completely lost me here. Sagan's dragon is an entity for which the skeptic tries to come up with ways of verifying whether the claims are true, and the believer continually deflects the question - rather than agreeing to some way of demonstrating the dragon's existence, he continually defines it in such a way as to be indistinguishable from the imaginary. This is exactly what most religious people do when challenged to come up with verifiable evidence that a god or gods exist(s). I don't understand why the comparison is bogus, and I particularly don't understand why I should be ashamed of bringing it up.

  3. Sorry about the late reply, and sorry also for the double post; even after wrestling this down into fewer than 4096 characters, Blogspot is still telling me I'm over-limit. Here goes:

    Firstly, if most of the atheists you have met are in fact trying to belong to a unique club etc, then fair enough, but you may be seeing an unrepresentative sample, since most of the atheist activists that I know of appear to be genuinely motivated by the dangers of religion, rather than self-aggrandisement. There certainly are some, but I'm skeptical that they are typical.

    Re. the term 'atheism' … Of course, people who claim that only their gods are real are capable of misconstruing the word to mean someone who doesn't believe in my god or gods (indeed, words like 'infidel', 'kaffir', 'goy' etc are interchangeable in this sense) ... but an atheist properly defined is just someone who doesn't believe in any gods in the same way that an a-fairyist or an a-unicornist is someone who doesn't believe in any fairies or unicorns.

    The Judeo-Christo-Islamic claims are a bit different from Greek or Egyptian polytheism ... but all religions are a bit different from each other, and looking from outside, surely you understand that they appear to be basically engaged in the same sort of activity ... i.e. praying to, and trying to propitiate powerful supernatural beings whose existence can’t be proved? Christians may define their god as infinitely powerful, polytheists may say that Poseidon only has power over the sea, but until they can produce good evidence that either the biblical god or the lord of the oceans actually exist, others are entitled to conclude that they are on an equal footing.

    Re. aliens ... some atheists will tell you that statistically, given the sheer number of stars out there, they consider it very unlikely that ours is the only planet with intelligent life. I don't think this is an unreasonable position, but we will revise our view as new evidence arrives. Surely you can see that saying "On the basis of the likely opportunities, my best guess is that we are not alone" is a very different proposition from "Poseidon / God / Tlaloc / Allah is real, and can hear your prayers, and this book was written with his divine input". No atheist that I'm aware of makes claims to know the nature of aliens comparable to the claims that most religions make to knowledge about their gods.

  4. Yes, it is true that my sample is undoubtedly atypical. So is yours. One of the most widespread mistakes is to think, "I am a typical person, so the people I meet are a good representative sample."

    I in fact know that I am not really typical -- as I have said elsewhere, I'm more like some character in a Dostoevsky novel -- and my circle of contacts is heavily weighted towards people with Ph.D.s in the sciences. Some of these are seriously religious, some are halfheartedly religious, some don't care, and some are atheists; but pretty much all of them have had both the time and the inclination to think out their positions a bit better than is probably typical, and we are all veterans of dorm-room debates. I don't recall a serious religious discussion with an atheistic colleague since becoming an assistant professor in 2000. We have all heard most of the arguments on all sides, and simply hearing them again won't make a difference.

    I have, however, been through this two or three in graduate school and as a postdoc. These were the enthusiasts who were the most -n-your-face about their atheism. They still thought that bumper-sticker slogans would be convincing, and they conformed to the picture I drew earlier.

    My experience is that the people most likely to think themselves exceptionally smart are those who have not had much exposure to the larger world of learning: the kid who was smartest in his high school and is off at college for the first time, or the kid from a community college who has never been to a university before. The people I most commonly interact with have all been exposed to this larger world, and we can each name a long list of people living and dead who are (were) smarter than we are. The fact that the few zealous atheists I have met still seemed so full of themselves makes me even more suspicious of the attitudes of those who have led more isolated lives. You have every right to question this extrapolation, but there is at least a reason for it.

    I'll have more to say later.

    1. OK, here's just a bit more.

      First of all, you are not looking at all closely at religions if you think the Christian concept of God is particularly similar to that of the pre-Columbian Aztecs. They are markedly different in every aspect: Did they come into being, or have they always been? Are they a part of the universe, or did they create the universe? Are they of limited power, or are they omnipotent? Do they intend the good of mankind, or not?

      But let's say you have no interest in these questions; you're more "practical". OK. Because different religions have different beliefs about their gods, they likewise have different beliefs about human beings. It makes a difference if you think someone is born with a karma debt from a past life that must be atoned for, or if you believe he is born innocent of personal sin. It makes a difference if you believe someone will be reincarnated after death, or if you believe we pass through this life only once; it also makes a difference if you believe in a judgment after death. It makes a difference if you believe God made humans in His own image and even went so far as to become a human being, or if you believe God is aloof from us both in this life and the next. It makes a difference if you believe the proper end of each human is an intimate communion with God, or if you believe we will never be more than His slaves. All these theological differences -- and more -- make a difference in how the individual human being and human society are viewed, and over the long term they have important ramifications in cultural and political development.

      Finally, you keep repeating that religions are dangerous, but I think that in doing so you are smuggling in Christian assumptions to which you are not entitled. Stripping the question of all "superstition", what business is it of yours to complain about wars unless they (a) reduce genetic diversity for the species, (b) stifle progress, or (c) reduce the population to dangerously low levels? I doubt seriously any war in recorded history has had much effect on overall genetic diversity -- including World War II and the hateful eugenics that both preceded and accompanied it. From the Crusades to the World Wars (at least), it could be argued that wars have stimulated technology, opened up trade routes, and cross-pollinated cultures. And few atheists are complaining that the worldwide population is dangerously low. You might also be upset if the war affects YOU directly, or the likelihood that your genes will be passed down by you or by relatives, but you have said nothing about this. So what is your basis for complaint? An arbitrary emotional attachment? But aren't those just as dangerous? Something else? What?

  5. I actually would like to hear back from you on that last point. I am not trying to construct a straw man, but the philosophical arguments in favor of an objective, binding moral order tend to be qualitatively similar to those in favor of the existence of God. If you reject all the philosophical arguments for the existence of God so casually, even to the point of suggesting that there is no more evidence for the existence of God than for a fire-breathing dragon, then I must assume you also deny the existence of an objective, binding moral order. Without such an order, though, you have no good grounds to criticize religious wars. You may dismiss them as being in bad taste, the sort of thing that YOU PERSONALLY don't like, but that is hardly compelling to anyone other than yourself.

    Your very distaste for bloodshed is due to the fact that you were reared in a society strongly influence over centuries by Christian thinking. Such an attitude is far from universal and cannot be taken for granted. For instance, if you had been reared by the Thugs -- I mean the historical practitioners of Thuggee -- you may have come to disbelieve in the existence of Kali and yet fail to see anything intrinsically wrong with murder. Quite a number of cultures -- possibly the majority -- did not see warfare as merely an unavoidable part of life, but as a positively GOOD thing -- especially if they won.

    Mongol General: What is best in life?
    Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

    What evidence would you present that Conan was wrong?

    As I said yesterday, what one believes about God has an impact on what one believes about humans, and this has consequences that you would agree are practical. Christians (among others) believe that every human has a soul that will endure forever, long after states and cultures have crumbled. These souls, then, are more important than an empire, culture, or race. It is not, then, entirely by coincidence that those who deny both the existence of God and the immortal soul have frequently concluded that nations, political parties, cultures, or races are the really long-lasting things and of greatest importance, and the fates of individual people who would be dead in a century anyhow are of no comparative importance. This may not be the way you think, but it has its own internal logic. How would you prove them to be really, objectively wrong? After all, this is not a mere hypothetical challenge; these things have really happened in history.

  6. Ah; you are talking about atheists that you have met personally; I am talking about atheist activists on the internet. I live in the UK where the majority of people my generation are atheists (and possibly a majority overall, depending on how you cut things), and the proportion of people that actually take religion seriously, rather than as just a cultural marker, is fairly small, so it just doesn't come up in conversation here much; but I follow some blogs and most of the 'public faces of atheism' in America - people like PZ Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Greta Christina, Adam Lee, Aron Ra etc are clearly motivated by genuine concern about the harms that religions cause, in terms of hindering science teaching, holding back womens' rights (especially reproductive rights), opposing gay rights, promoting climate change denialism, efforts to overturn the separation of church and state, etc, and generally balkanizing people into rival communities when there is no good reason to.

    Re Christian gods and Aztec gods (I use the plural in both cases because Christians vary wildly in the properties they ascribe to their deity) ... sure, I'm not denying that there are important differences; just that the differences are not that important in the long run; we're still dealing with supernatural beings that it is asserted are worth praying to, that allegedly have the power to affect the physical universe, and yet for whose existence there is no good evidence.

    Obviously the specific differences matter - if you believe in a god who wants you to massacre the infidels, you're going to be a lot more dangerous than if you believe in a god who wants you to avoid harming any living thing - but my point is that on the grand scale, Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Greek Polytheists (apparently there really are some on the go today ) are all engaged in the same kind of exercise by comparison with atheists; contrary to your claims that the Christian god is totally different from those other gods ... and that, until good evidence can be produced that any of these gods actually exist, they all have the same ontological status, and therefore the act of worshipping any of them should be considered of equal usefulness.

    Re wars ... I'm afraid you've lost me here. Why should it not be my business to complain about wars. Are you really trying to suggest that because I don't believe in supernatural beings, I am therefore somehow logically disbarred from being entitled to care about the welfare of natural beings such as my fellow humans? Why should I care more about the reduction in genetic diversity that wars cause than about the suffering to the victims that wars cause? I'm really at a loss as to what you're getting at there.

    Also, the second part of my earlier reply didn't get through the system, so I'll repeat it here: I am also baffled as to why Sagan's dragon is bogus. It's a pretty good metaphor for gods, ghosts, unicorns, angels, and any number of supernatural or cryptozoological beings. The point is not that gods are like fire-breathing dragons. The point is that the people who believe in gods, when challenged to produce good evidence that gods actually exist, very often resort to claims just like the dragon-believers that amount to a series of increasingly implausible excuses for why we shouldn't expect there to be any evidence, which, if taken far enough, ends up with a gods, or a dragon, that is defined in such a way as to be indistinguishable from the imaginary (thus meaning that other people are entitled to provisionally conclude that they are imaginary). I don't understand why anyone should be ashamed of bringing that up.

  7. I have no objection with you giving all religious claims, including atheism, the same a priori credibility, but when you fail to recognize the differences between them it seems that you have never taken the question very seriously. If you have never taken the question seriously, there is no good reason to entertain your thoughts on the subject.

    As for fire-breathing dragons, they were widely thought to be real on the basis of traveler's tales. Some of these tales, like the unicorn, actually had a basis in reality; the unicorn is what is left of the rhinoceros after the tale has been repeated and distorted umpteen bazillion times. However, to the best of my knowledge NO ONE ever produced a philosophical argument that a fire-breathing dragon *MUST* exist. By contrast, some of the greatest philosophers of history have produced philosophical arguments for the existence of God. You do not like these; you do not consider them "good". It takes more than that to prove them fallacious, though. One way or the other, this is one reason why belief in dragons is a poor analogy for belief in God.

    So, you want me to accept that if you saw a miracle happen in front of you, you would believe? I'm not convinced. To be OFFICIALLY regarded as a miracle usable for beatification, any healing must meet several stringent requirements laid down by Benedict XIV in 1734 (I take this list from HEALING FIRE OF CHRIST):
    1. The malady must be grave and impossible or very difficult to cure. (This is probably the reason why the cure of a psychological illness is not considered a verifiable miracle.)
    2. The malady was not in a state of decline.
    3. There was no use of a possibly effective medicament.
    4. The cure was instantaneous.
    5. The cure was complete (a perfect cure of the malady).
    6. There was not beforehand any noteworthy decrease of symptoms or a "crisis" that might provide a natural explanation.
    7. The cure was permanent.

    Whenever you hear that someone is being beatified or canonized, it means that the Church has documented cases that She is confident meet these criteria to anyone with an open mind. If you're really interested in evidence, do you investigate that documentation? Could anything you read there convince you? Would it make a difference if you could speak with the person who was allegedly healed, or the doctors who saw the patient before and afterwards?

    Not likely. You would probably assume that someone was trying to dupe you, or that the cause of the cure, though unknown, *MUST* be purely natural, the lack of evidence not withstanding. Finally, you might even decide that even if there were some non-human intelligence who had effected the healing in some way we could never understand, you still would not worship.

    The presence of absence of such marvels has at most an indirect relationship to faith.

  8. Christians sometimes fight wars; Christians sometimes eat licorice. You do not like wars, and you might not like licorice. You would probably not consider licorice-eating to be an argument against Christianity because you know that it is not universally agreed that licorice is a bad thing. You also realize that your distaste for licorice is nothing more than a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

    But as I pointed out above, it is also not universally agreed that war is a bad thing. The Norse, for example, reputedly considered death in battle the only way to get to Valhalla; everyone else went to Hel (not quite the same as Hell, but still less desirable). Many peoples were less enthusiastic, but still considered the risk of death in war to be acceptable, perhaps like climbers of Mt. Everest consider the risk of death on the mountain to be acceptable. In fact, about 2.5% of US military personnel were killed in World War II -- a rate that is comparable to the percentage of people killed on recent attempts to summit Everest.

    So if you wanted to convince Harald Bluetooth that Christianity is wrong, you would either have to abandon that argument or else attempt to convince him that wars are ALWAYS a bad thing, and that this is not just some ethnocentric prejudice that you have resulting from being a part of early 21st-century Britain. Which would you do, and how would you do it?

  9. Dang! I just realised that I had somehow omitted to include the
    link to the talk about Sagan's dragon. Sorry. That's what I was talking about re gods and dragons being indistinguishable from the imaginary.

    And yes, many more philosophers have burned many candles thinking up arguments for the existence of gods than dragons. This doesn't make gods more likely to exist than dragons, it just shows that more people are keen to defend belief in gods than belief in dragons. And of course, many other philosophers have burned candles refuting those arguments in favour of gods. If you can name one argument for a god that hasn't been met by an equally strong counterargument, then please go ahead, but in the meantime, I'd be wary of citing the field of philosophy in support of gods, considering how philosophers are overwhelmingly less likely to believe in gods than the population average.

    And note that in no other area of human discourse do we content ourselves with mere arguments in favour of a position. In every field of genuine research about the world, we seek evidence. Geologists do not rely on arguments to support the dating of rocks or the movement of tectonic plates, they can do radiometric dating, strata analysis etc; biologists don't rely on arguments about cell division and species distribution, they can put living things under the microscope or analyze DNA samples from related species to compare them, physicists don't rely on arguments for the Higgs Boson or the curvature of light in a gravity field; they build gian machines like like telescopes and particle accelerators to test their arguments against the real world; historians can compare artifacts and primary-source texts and at least come up with some estimate of the probability they assign to a particular version of events being true.

    Religion has nothing like this. Arguments are all it has, and arguments that fail to convince not just most non-religious people, but also most religious people of other faith traditions. Like I said above, the fact that religions are not converging on the same explanations, the same model of reality, as a result of inter-faith discourse, but are instead politely agreeing to disagree, is exactly what you would expect if it was all made up, and exactly what you wouldn't expect if they were genuinely discovering true facts about the nature of reality. The chances of gods being more real than dragons, based on what we have come up with so far, appears pretty slim indeed.

    Re miracles, the simple answer is that, like David Hume, one should only believe that a miracle has occurred if the chances of the person relaying the story being mistaken or lying were so slim that its falsehood would be even more miraculous. Obviously, medical miracles are unconvincing in a world where, even today, our knowledge of the natural course of disease and remission is pretty incomplete. And you are right - even if a healing were to be beyond the normal scope of our credulity, that would still not prove that it was done by a god. But even if I would have difficulty articulating what it would take to make me believe in such an implausible thing as a god, then you should remember that a god, almost by definition, and certainly by definition if it is a Judeo-Christo-Islamic style omnimax god, must both know what it would take for it to persuade me of its existence, and be able to do so. The fact that many people go through their lives without this happening rules out any reasonable possibility of an omnimax god which wants us to believe in it (though leaving open the possibility of an omnimax god that doesn't care, or a god that does want to be believed in but is unable to make itself known to us). The most reasonable thing to conclude, though, in the absence of good evidence for any gods at all, is that they are all imaginary.

  10. I think that the answer to Conan's proposition is obvious; he is utterly failing to consider things from his enemies' perspective. If Conan could be prevented from killing them (assuming that they would not be killing him otherwise, i.e. absent a genuine self-defence excuse) then it is obvious that allowing Conan to have his way causes much more suffering overall than not allowing Conan to have his way. This is the thing about wars. Sure, sometimes it may be necessary to fight in order to avoid being killed, or it may be on balance ethically right to intervene militarily to prevent someone else being killed, but the only realistic excuse available for going to war is that someone has already started, or is about to wage war against you or others. In every case, it would be better for all concerned if war could have been averted. Seriously. You name me one good thing to have come out of a war that it would not have been better if we could have achieved it without going to war. Death and destruction is not like licorice, for the rather obvious reasons that war imposes death and destruction on unwilling victims in a way that no one is imposing licorice on anyone, or frogmarching unwilling mountaineers up Everest, and even the people that consider the risks acceptable would, if they were being reasonable and counting everyone's interests fairly, have to concede that it would be better yet not to have to run those risks. The only way to make war someone's best option is for them a) to have a callously low regard for the value of other people's lives - what we would in layman's terms call a psychopath, or b) believe something utterly daft and unsupported by the evidence, such as the Norse belief in Valhalla, or indeed the Islamist jihadis' believe in a martyr's paradise.

    The immorality of unnecessary violence does not stem from a god, obviously, and it does not stem from any other absolutist source; rather, it is contingent on the properties of human beings. We generally have a very strong aversion to being killed, and to seeing our loved ones killed. The fact that we exist, and that we are capable of wellbeing and of suffering, and that there are events and actions that reliably either increase our general wellbeing or increase overall suffering, is all you need to have a discussion about morality. If we were different animals entirely - if we were all utterly indifferent to the prospect of our own destruction or those we cared about, if we actively enjoyed being injured and maimed etc, then war wouldn't be a big deal. But that is not the universe we live in, and it's a matter of some bafflement to many atheists that the nature of reality, and the nature of sentient beings in that reality, is somehow insufficient for us to have any footing to begin a discussion about how to make existence as fulfilling as possible for as many of those sentient beings as possible.

    For another thing, I'm going to make a book recommendation to you: Steven Pinker's Better Angels Of Our Nature which makes the case that we have, as a species, been converging on the conclusion that war and violence is on balance better avoided, and that we have been, on average, over the centuries, with some notable temporary setback, actually been getting better at avoiding it. It's quite a hefty tome, but it's well worth a read. And of course, that convergence on the desirability of war has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing awareness of our own nature, our common descent as a species, and our fundamental cognitive more-or-less-the-sameness across cultures and times. This is exactly the sort of convergence that I was talking about earlier as something which happens in fields of genuine inquiry about reality, but fails to happen with religions.

  11. I'm afraid I con't consider everyone who teaches philosophy on a university campus to be a philosopher, let alone those who are hired shills whose corporate (or government) function is to tell there bosses it's OK to do whatever they want. That latter group is not very relevant to this conversation, except as an illustration of the sorry state of philosophy today. So no, I'm not putting any stock on either side in polling data of philosophy grads.

    In the remainder of your reply, you bemoan the lack of evidence, and then indicate that you are not actually interested in evidence. If you won't hear of evidence, you have no right to complain of being ignorant of it.

    I know you don't think much of philosophy, but let me direct you to the first few propositions of Summa Theologica, because all your arguments are actually contained there -- though written in a more persuasive form. Specifically, in Part 1, Question 2, Article 3:

    Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

    Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.

    Objection 1 is MUCH stronger than your objection that religious wars are "dangerous", because (1) Christians do not worship other Christians, so their bad behavior, however disappointing, does not cut to the heart of the Faith, and (2) these wars no more prove that God does not exist than a war over an oil field proves that oil does not exist. The problem of evil, on the other hand -- the Theodicy problem -- is much more serious. It is, in my opinion, by far the strongest argument against the existence of God. Frankly, there has probably never been a better statement of it than is found in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky -- a serious Orthodox author.

    As for Objection 2, it does a better job in arguing for the insufficiency of evidence than your attempts. In fact, it highlights one of several problems with "Intelligent Design".

    At this point, I think we are starting to repeat ourselves. It's been an interesting conversation, and I've certainly enjoyed it, but I've got a stack of tests to grade and 2 reports to write by the end of the week. I think we could debate some other interesting questions later on, but I think, to mix metaphors, that this horse is pining for the fjords.

    By the way, you are correct: God can get through to you in a way that you will recognize, though probably no one else will. You will still be able to dismiss this, though not honestly. To quote Battlestar Galactica: All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

  12. I could bring up the Nazia just as easily as an example of an atheistic promotion of the state as the chief "god" -- something that no insignificant number of atheists have done. Such claims rapidly deteriorates into mere name calling, so let's not go there.

    I think at the time you wrote this you had not yet read my last post, so I'll only briefly restate a relevant item: The fact that some people who believe in God, let alone gods, behave badly is a completely different question than whether God exists. When US Marines raped a girl in Okinawa just before my trip to Japan, it was shameful to me as an American, but it scarcely proved that President Clinton did not exist. It didn't even say anything about Clinton's moral character.

    Incidentally, I've let a lot of slander from you go, not because it can't be refuted, but because if we get into all of the causes, intentions, and actions of all history, we would never finish. Even recommending some books you could use to get started on the subject would be a major undertaking, since I usually find it easier to remember the ideas from books I read a decade ago than which books I read them in. So statements like "if you believe in a god who wants you to massacre the infidels, you're going to be a lot more dangerous" are, if you mean to apply them to Christianity, nothing more than offensive ... crap, and it impedes any attempt to have a civilized conversation.

    Back to Conan: Really, there are some cultures that think that daring deeds of war ARE a good. Telling Conan that if there were no wars, no women would need to lament, will not make him into a pacifist. He already knows the IS you are talking about, but he denies the OUGHT.

    You are implicitly appealing to something like Natural Law -- moral rules that, in some vague form, we all know implicitly, and which every person knows, at some level, to be binding. You are at least implicitly claiming that murder is REALLY WRONG, not just something you don't like, or something that is unpopular in the UK in 2013. Many of those same modern philosophy grads who dispute the existence of God would also dispute the existence of a real right and wrong, though.

    Part of the reason they do this is that it is impossible to perform an experiment to determine what SHOULD happen. Experiments can show what DOES happen, and how people feel about the things that happen, but they can never justify a jump from the indicative mood to the subjunctive mood.

    1. "You are implicitly appealing to something like Natural Law"

      Yes I am. In order to make any sense, morality must depend on the existence of beings that are capable of conscious experience, and can thus feel pain and suffering; morality is broadly defined as our philosophical investigation into how to minimise the pain and suffering of conscious beings, and like all reality-based investigations that humans do, it is a work in progress, just like physics or geography, that we are continually refining, and the fact that there are people who don't care about it doesn't invalidate the project any more than the fact that some people don't care about physics invalidates that project. So yes, given the nature of human beings (and other sentient entities), there are things that are more likely to increase suffering and things that are more likely to increase wellbeing, whether we have figured them out yet or not. If you want to call that 'natural law', I don't have a problem with that; I just have a problem with the idea that we already know all of what the natural law is, and the idea that it comes from a supernatural entity whose existence is in doubt, rather than the natural properties of the beings that are the proper concern of ethics in the first place. And I don't have a problem disagreeing with those philosophy grads about that either.

  13. "I could bring up the Nazia just as easily as an example of an atheistic promotion of the state as the chief "god" -- something that no insignificant number of atheists have done. Such claims rapidly deteriorates into mere name calling, so let's not go there."

    Well, you kind of already did, so I'll just point out that a) very few Nazis were atheists; certainly not Hitler, so far as we can tell (though he may not have been any kind of mainstream Christian either), and b) even if he were, Nazism was a deranged ideology based on claims of German ethnic supremacy, full of blood-and-soil mythology and fanatical antisemitism; there is literally nothing about not believing in gods that compels you to take that sort of thing seriously. If you can name me one country or regime whose leaders were not religious which did not hold some other reality-deficient dogma, such as Communism, or the Kim personality cult, then you would have a point. But my point is not that religions are the sole cause of wars, rather that they are on average a contributing factor. You can persuade people to hate their neighbours without supernatural justification, but if you are able to leverage supernatural justification then your task is made easier. And I take it that you concede my point about the other harms that are caused by, or exacerbated by religion, that I listed in my comment of June 23, 2013 at 2:46 PM.

    And of course it has no bearing on whether gods actually exist. But given that we live in a world where lots of people believe in gods that almost certainly don't exist, it has considerable bearing on whether we should invest our time and effort into arguing against those beliefs (rather than, say, less obviously-harmful false beliefs like astrology). That was exactly my original point - atheist activists tend to be genuinely concerned about these harms, and not just in it for some ego trip.

    Re slander: some people really do believe in gods that want them to massacre the infidels. Most of these people seem to be in the Islamic world today (though Burmese Buddhists have been in the news lately behaving very badly towards their Muslim minority) ... and some Christian thinkers have in the past made no secret of their support for
    the killing of those who disagreed with them. Luckily, no major Christian groups advocate that today (apart, perhaps, from a few fringe Dominionists), but you can't claim that the horrors of the Inquisition in its various forms didn't stem from explicitly theological justifications, and you can't reasonably argue that the horrors perpetrated by modern Salafist or other Jihadi groups don't also flow directly from their belief in a god who explicitly commands them to kill infidels. Of course these people don't represent all religious people. But they are people who kill or have killed explicitly in the cause of their religion, and it's not at all unreasonable to posit that if they did not have any religious beliefs, their reasons for killing their neighbours would be greatly attenuated. Jihadists really are more dangerous on average than Sufis; Catholic Inquisitors and Lutheran witch-hunters really were/are more dangerous than Quakers. And if all religious people were as peaceful as the Quakers, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation, but unfortunately there really are lots of people who want to get laws passed restricting other people's rights purely on the strength of their belief in an imaginary maker of arbitrary and anti-human laws, and these people are worth arguing against.

  14. Regarding the Nazis, it is of course hard to make generalizations. Most of them were baptized, which means that in a sacramental sense they remained Christians, even if in no other sense; however, I would not expect you to accept this sense as even having any meaning. Then there are the questions of orthodoxy (which we can take to mean whether or not they BELIEVED basic Christian dogma) and orthopraxis (did they act in accordance with Christian teachings). By those two standards, the Nazi leadership, along with their most fervent supporters, were emphatically NOT Christian. They had made the Reich and/or the "Aryan Race" their de facto god. In some cases this was explicitly religious, in others they play-acted a kind of Germanic neo-paganism, and in other cases they were entirely irreligious, whether or not they were atheists. Add to this the fact that any given person's thoughts and behaviors will likely vary over time and what is left is a hopeless jumble.

    Something similar could be said about the Soviet Union. Officially, the Soviet Union *was* atheistic. It can certainly be argued that again, they made their party and their state into de facto gods, in the sense of receiving a kind of adoration, unquestioning obedience, and a right to the very lives of the people, in which case you might claim they were not atheists at all. If they were not, though, I still question whether some sort of lapse into ersatz religion is not inevitable for all but a tiny fraction (at most) of atheists. *Something* will take the top spot.

    I don't have time this morning to go into the Inquisition, so I'll just say that yes, there were terrible excesses, but these were not only characteristic of the age, the excesses by the Inquisition were fewer and lesser than those of their contemporary secular powers.

    From your "natural law" response, I take you are a kind of Utilitarian, and that you see morality as something like Bentham's felicific calculus. I can't really agree with that, but the important thing is to believe that morality does indeed have a kind of reality, though a different one from that of, say, an apple.

    Along the same lines, what do you think of numbers? I'm not really a Platonist, but I do think that ideas like numbers -- or for that matter, the laws of physics -- have a kind of "reality".