Friday, November 20, 2009

"The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful"

Is the title of a recent post on Greta Christina's Blog , and a good read. For my money, Greta is the best atheist writer extant, better than Dawkins because she writes with human insight and without venom- rare and treasured qualities in any deep discussion. However, being the best of her genre doesn't mean I agree with her.
To attempt to refute her argument, I have to begin a little earlier than that post- "The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful" is really a continuation of an earlier (equally excellent) pair of posts, The Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God , so I will handle it as she did, with a two-part answer to "The Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God", and then address "The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful"

Greta's Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God:
1. The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.
There's a lot of things I could say to this, but none are better than a poem by J Huger :
The day we learned that The Sun doesn't go around the Earth, The sunset was still beautiful.

The day we learned that Evil spirits don't make us ill, The sick still suffered.

The day we learned that Our hearts are not where we feel, We were still in love.

Our world is not a conjurer's trick. Knowing how it's done Doesn't make the magic go away.

2. The inconsistency of world religions.
"If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him/ her/ it/ them, why do those perceptions differ so wildly?"

Actually, it would be a lot more astonishing if the perceptions were consistent. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; ask anyone in law enforcement, or has been through one of those class exercises where a crime is performed right in the room, and then the class is asked to describe it- no two versions are identical. The effect is magnified when faced with something totally outside one's experience; odd cloud formations become UFOs, a rhinoceros becomes a unicorn. And these are physical phenomenon; how much more difficult is it to describe something perceived not by sight, but by internal direct perception? Consider the differing descriptions of love. All things considered, it is the amount of agreement between religions that is surprising, not the differences.

3. The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.
"The argument from authority. (Example: "God exists because the Bible says God exists.")"

Argument from authority is weak, which is why so many believers don't depend on it- especially Neopagans, who don't depend upon the Bible, and have little respect for any authority.

"The argument that religion shouldn't have to logically defend its claims. (Example: "God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.")"

Agreed- a weak argument... which is why good theologians don't use it. CS Lewis is famous for making a logical case for his God. Though I am no theologian, I have attempted to do the same for my own Pagan beliefs
here and here in posts, and intend to do more in the future.

"Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle -- so abstract that it can't be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: "God is love.")"

Agreed that this is incredibly weak; I have a lot of trouble respecting this argument myself. I have long held that theologians who do this are really atheists grasping for something that will allow them to keep drawing their stipend.

"The argument from personal experience. (Example: "God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.")"

Ah, here's the rub, the heart of the entire debate. This is not a weak argument, but the strongest argument of all- it is a primary source, and primary sources are the touchstone of logical argument... if it were phrased correctly. What's wrong with the way she stated it is the phrase "God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists."- there are tens of millions who don't claim "I feel in my heart that God exists", but "I know the Divine exists because I have experienced it directly." I "believe" in the Divine in the same way that I "believe" in the Earth; I have experienced both as concrete realities. John Franc describes such an experience; mine is similar in spirit, though not in exact detail.

I think Greta phrased it the way she did out of kindness; she didn't address it as a claim to have actually experienced the Divine to avoid saying "Those who have personal experience of God are psychos". Which, if you think about it, is a circular argument: "Those who have known God are psychotic. They are psychotic because they see things that don't exist. God doesn't exist because there's no evidence of God's existence. There's no evidence of God's existence no sane person claims to have seen God. There are no sane claims to seeing God because those who have seen God are psychotic."

4. The increasing diminishment of God.
"When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God himself, among believers themselves, has been diminishing. As our understanding of the natural, physical world has increased -- and our ability to test theories and claims has improved -- the domain of God's miracles (or other purported supernatural/ metaphysical phenomena) has consistently shifted, away from the phenomena that are now understood as physical cause and effect, and onto the increasingly shrinking area of phenomena that we still don't understand."

This is only a problem for the modern religions of Abrahamic descent. When you look at the history of religion, you actually see very, very few claims of omnipotence. World mythology is full of examples of Man outwitting the Gods- Prometheus and Arachne leap immediately to mind. Even the Bible is full of incidents of God testing men; why test, if you know the outcome- a clear lack of omnipotence. The extravagant claims of omnipotence are a medieval phenomenon, of the church asserting its dominance. Many of the World's religions, including my own Pagan beliefs and Christians of the "Process Theology" sort, do not now and never have made any such extravagant claims to diminish.

5. The fact that religion runs in families.
"Very, very few people carefully examine all the religious beliefs currently being followed -- or even some of those beliefs -- and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children."

I think this is a result of the perceptual difficulties referred to in point 2. If you have a religious experience, (and I agree there's little reason to believe if you don't), how can you understand what you experienced? As in my rhinoceros/unicorn example, you try to find a context for what happened... and if you were raised with such a context, why look further? The only reasons to look beyond what you have been taught is if your experience directly contradicts in an undeniable way what you had been taught, or if you had not had confidence in your initial instruction. (both, in my case)
End of part one.


ms. kitty said...

Woowee, Joel, this is good! I can't wait for the next installment.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel wrote:
"'The argument from personal experience. (Example: "God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.")'

Ah, here's the rub, the heart of the entire debate. This is not a weak argument, but the strongest argument of all- it is a primary source, and primary sources are the touchstone of logical argument ... "


There are good reasons that revelation isn't considered "evidence" in our legal system or in the sciences. Would you want to see a legal system where revelation could be enough evidence to convict a person?

The evidence from your direct revelation cannot be examined by others.

Although you may know what you've experienced, others may not have shared this experience.

When you report that you've had a direct experience of the divine, the most the neutral observer can conclude is that you believe you've had an experience of the divine -- not that this is actual evidence of the divine.

When a neutral observer hears your report, how does this observer distinguish between the various hypothetical causes for your experience -- divine and otherwise?

Your experience may be an accurate perception of the divine. Or it may be a neurobilogical epiphenomenon (a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary neurological phenomenon). Or there could be another explanation.

The problem here is figuring out which explanation applies to your experience and should one immediately jump to the divine explanation without examining other possibilities in this search for truth.

Joel Monka said...

Steve- in the second part of this post, (and other times in the past), I do say that personal experience is non-transferable, and not usable in convincing others. On the other hand, if one has 1) had a profound experience, 2) has had extensive psychological testing for sensitive jobs and nothing out of the ordinary found, 3) extensive medical testing (for other problems handled by surgery)and no unusual conditions found, 3) it is unlikely that these were some kind of dream state when at least twice I was standing and in the company of others, then how do you read it? The possibilities become: 1)I had a temporary, but repeating (I have felt the Divine presence more than once) mental illness that is severe enough to produce hallucinations but has no other detectable symptoms. 2)I have a recurring, severe, but undectable neurological syndrome that has no other effects or symptoms. 3) I have accidentaly, repeatedly ingested some drug or chemical that can produce such symptoms- and no others- and doesn't show up in ordinary bloodwork. 4) I have, by pure chance, been struck in the brain on multiple occasions in different locations, by Cosmic rays that induced these perceptions without any other side effects 5)what happened actually happened.

I grant that all five explanations are long odds- but is there any reason, other than a knee-jerk "There ain't no such thing" reaction, why explanation 5 is any less likely than the other 4?

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- an epiphenomenon hypothesis isn't saying that there is some sort of pathology in those who feel a divine presence.

Feeling that one has experienced a divine presence could be a secondary byproduct of another aspect of human neurobiology.

Right now, there are a lot of things that we don't know about neurobiology. Like you said, it's possible that one's experiences of divine presence could be just that.

But they could also be something else that isn't mental illness, pathology, stray cosmic rays, or other mental problems.

It would be interesting to see what differences there are in neurobiology between those report experiencing the divine and those who do not.

Joel Monka said...

Epiphenominology is well known in medicine- for example, in the way in which aspirin works. Aspirin doesn't actually relieve pain; it reduces inflamation and reduces swelling, which removes the cause of the pain and therefore relieves pain as a secondary effect- the term "epiphenomenon" means that the mechanism is counterintuitive; it does not mean that the mechanism is unknown. Using the term "epiphenomenon" without knowing the mechanism is like using the term "idiopathic"- which means "I don't know why it happened".

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel wrote:
"the term 'epiphenomenon' means that the mechanism is counterintuitive; it does not mean that the mechanism is unknown. Using the term 'epiphenomenon' without knowing the mechanism is like using the term "idiopathic"- which means 'I don't know why it happened.'"

I suppose one could say that the divine presence that some have felt is potentially an epiphenomenon. Right now, it's still idiopathic because we don't know what the cause of these experiences are (the causes may be plural and not singular too).

On the TV series House,, the title character says that idiopathic "comes from the Latin, meaning 'we're idiots, because we don't know what's causing it.'"

After the challenges that astronomy, geology, and biology have provided to traditional religious thought in the past 500 years, I think the next major challenge for traditional religious thought will come from neurobiology.

If a divine presence experience moves from the idiopathic to the category of explained naturalistic phenomenon, it will affect how we view religion.