Monday, November 23, 2009

"The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful" Part Three

In my previous two posts, I addressed The Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God , as a lead-in to discussing The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful by Greta Christina, my favorite atheist writer. Here, finally, is my direct answer to "The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful"

The heart of Greta's thesis is this: "I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing. It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

It therefore has no reality check.

And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality."

She correctly notes that religion is not unique in having true believers- any institution does. But, she argues, other intuitions have a reality check: does it work? Communist countries adopt capitalism to increase wealth; capitalist countries adopt socialist policies to better serve the public, etc. But, she says, "Religion is different. With religion, the proof is emphatically not in the pudding. With religion, the proof comes from invisible beings, inaudible voices. The proof comes from prophets and religious leaders, who supposedly hear these voices and are happy to tell the rest of us what they say."

The flaw in this argument is in the difference between "religion" and "faith" They are separate things, and the difference is crucial.

"Faith" is what people believe. It is in fact "...ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die." Faith changes little, if at all, over the centuries. Faith has no objective reality check. But faith is NOT religion.

Religion is not what we believe; religion is what we do. For example, the Catholic faith can be communicated in the Bible and the catechism. But the Catholic religion is much, much more. Nothing in the Bible tells you how to conduct a mass, how to organize the hierarchy, how to ordain a priest, or what color smoke to use when you pick a Pope. Or even whether you should have any of those things. The Bible describes a church as "Wherever two or more are gathered in his name"- it gives no instruction on how to build a church, or whether you should have a standing church at all. It doesn't tell you whether you should be led by elders, or by elected leaders, or whether you should just sit still until the spirit moves someone. The Koran tells us to be modest; whether that means wearing a space suit or just "For God's sake, will you put a shirt on already?" is a matter of culture, not faith. Religion is a culture.

Faith doesn't deal with these things. Faith tells you how to retain your humanity in the face of pressures that could break you. Faith gives you a reason to go on when you are despairing. Faith is about what you are.

Why is this important? Because cultures ARE subject to reality checks. Cultures DO evolve. You may decide that your religion requires celibacy. Reality check: last I heard, there were only four Shakers left on earth. Faiths are directed by doctrines that only change, if they do, by new prophets and revelations; religions are directed by rules, habits, and traditions that may be admittedly hard to shake, but are, in the final analysis, recognized as such and changed as necessary. This is why Greta is also wrong when she says, "Yes, Even Moderate Religion Still Does Harm". Moderating the behavior of a culture is a good thing- and as I said, religion is a culture. Saying that moderate religions, even if not so bad themselves, are bad because they perpetuate bad institutions reminds me of the anarchists and communists of the last century who fought against social reforms because they would perpetuate the system.

God is not the problem. Belief in God is not the problem. In the final analysis, everyone is devoted to something larger than themselves. A secular humanist is devoted to humankind- that's why atheists are as moral as theists. But that, too, is an irrational devotion; no one has ever presented me with a purely logical reason why I should give a damn about my fellow man. We're both irrational- why claim that your irrationality is better than mine?

Friday, November 20, 2009

"The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful" Part Two

6. The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.

This is confusing hardware with software. If you damage a computer, the software won't run- but that doesn't deny the separate existence of the software. The mind, and presumably the soul, are dependent upon the brain for existence, yes- but then, I think the Divine may have a physical presence, too, as I speculated here . Please keep in mind, however, that it is only idle speculation to explain observed phenomenon, not a doctrine.

7. The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.

Scientific testing assumes a consistency of result you don't always find when dealing with autonomous sentient beings. For example, if tested under laboratory conditions, one might conclude that my cat doesn't know his name because saying "Here, Garfunkle" has erratic results in producing said cat. Calling "Here, Goddy Goddy Goddy" is unlikely to be any more reliable. But that doesn't mean that neither one has ever responded when addressed.

8. The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.
"If things go the believer's way, it's a sign of God's grace and intervention; if they don't, then, well, God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don't understand, and it's not up to us to question his will. That sort of thing. No matter what happens, it can be twisted around to prove that the belief is right."

As with "The increasing diminishment of God.", this is a problem with certain specific religions, not all religion as a whole. Those of us who believe that the Divine does not punish by causing natural disasters, nor rewards by salvation from natural disasters, don't have this problem.

9. The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.

There's a lot of things in this category, not just religion. We have no better understanding of love or life or even how to live together without oppression and war than we did 35,000 years ago. Like all of these things, the Divine is something experienced personally, new and different for each person. Centuries of trying in this arena is meaningless, because your experience- the only one that counts for you- is only decades old. All of Man's literature on love doesn't tell me how to live with a broken heart, and neither the Bible nor the Bhagavad Gita told me how to deal with my own religious experiences.

10. The complete and utter lack of solid evidence for God's existence.

Greta, I'll agree with you completely if you rephrase it: You have no solid evidence for God's existence. In fact, I'll even say you'd be a fool to believe in a flying spaghetti monster if you've never seen one. I'll also agree that it's not up to you to prove that God doesn't exist. I agree that it's an extraordinary claim. But I'm not trying to convince you. I know I cannot convince you; my evidence is non-transferable. Moreover, I don't care what you believe; I do not proselytize. Since I don't believe in the inherent depravity of man, or Hell, I don't even have the altruistic motive of trying to "save" you.

So what do I want?

I want atheists to stop saying "there is no evidence", when what they mean is "I haven't seen any evidence". First of all, it's not logical to say that because you haven't seen it, it doesn't exist; the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. (I'm not speaking here of the existence of Divine itself, but of the existence of the evidence- the personal experience) This is why some theists get angry at the more activist of the atheists- if the theist has explained that his or her belief is based on actual experience, than repeating "There is no evidence" is a personal insult, an accusation that the theist is either lying or insane. A corollary to this is saying things like "Faith is believing what you know ain't so", as some of us know it is so. Why do atheists find it so hard to understand that calling someone a liar, a crook, or a kook makes them angry? I fully acknowledge that my proof is non-transferable and unconvincing to anyone else; why can't atheists acknowledge that there are those who have experienced the Divine and yet, by actual medical evidence, are not schizophrenic, nor have any neurological pathologies, and are not of subnormal intelligence?

I want atheists to be more specific. If you have a problem with fundamental Christians, say so; stop using the term "religion" if you mean Christianity. Funny how some of the atheists who are the most insistent on precise definitions of the words "atheist", "agnostic". etc., are the biggest offenders in painting all faiths with a broad Abrahamic brush.

These two concessions alone- and surely they are not too much to ask for- would take most of the heat out of the discussion. And by doing so, atheists might be surprised at how many allies they'd find among even the strongest of theists on issues such as Evolution, keeping religion out of schools, etc., just as I have been surprised sometimes by Christians supporting me, a Pagan, when attacked in forums by aggressive atheists.

Next: why religion is not harmful.

"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.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

If you don't mist up at this,

there's something missing in you.

Note- my posts are going to be erratic for a while; dontcha hate when real life intrudes into important things like blogging and surfing? Seriously, it's a good thing; details at a later date.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I guess it wasn't only me

who kept thinking of President Obama while watching "V" last night- look at this montage from Breitbart TV

Monday, November 02, 2009