Academic theology: a big game of whack-a-mole

P. Z. Myers got it right in a terrific response to a Christian’s advice about how atheists should behave more nicely.

Christian sez: 5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing strawmen (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God – and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by “Christians” – but understand how they’re meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.

P. Z. sez: . . . .We atheists actually do address the claims fervently held by millions of people. The sneaky trick the theological wankers pull, though, is that once we’ve smacked them down, they announce, “Oh, no — we didn’t mean those millions of believers. They’re stupid. We meant these other millions of believers.” It’s a big game of whack-a-mole. What you call “obscure Old Testament laws,” someone else will call the core of their faith. What you value as the “Christological narrative,” a member of yet another sect will call pretentious confabulations.

Atheists just cut through all the noise and call it all sewage.

Yes, that’s it exactly. Whack-a-mole is what Terry Eagleton is playing, what Karen Armstrong is playing, what John Haught is playing — what the whole oleaginous and underemployed crew of academic theologians and their defenders are playing. But we needn’t address this bait-and-switch tactic any longer: we can just dismiss it as the WAM Argument.

Whack-A-Mole_1

Fig. 1. Oh noes, we’re talking about the faith over there!

124 Comments

  1. Brian English
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    we can just dismiss it as the WAM Argument.

    Yes, but it’s not that mole you need to whack. No one thinks that mole is worth whacking. You haven’t even begun to whack the real mole that people seriously consider.

    • Loc
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      LOL.

      Great reply! This wins the thread.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    The main issue is that the theists have nothing but a house of cards. They start out with outrageous superstitions and then build layers upon layers of apologetics, fictitious reasoning, conflicting rules and dogma into a cathedral of smoke. As soon as it is challenged, it falls apart.

    • Ian
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      If only it would come down like a house of cards, eh?

      Instead you point out an absurdity and it shrinks back, builds a new layer of post-hoc rationalization, and then comes back in a new guise. WAM is a great analogy.

      I’d love to know how to cut through that. Being able to help someone see the difference between a post-hoc rationalization and a reasonable explanation is something I struggle with.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink

        The WAM illustration is a good start. If the theist or faitheist objects to the analogy, use it to force them concretely define whichever religious idea they are defending.

        If they do, great. Whack it. If not, return to the WAM illustration and call them dishonest (or at best, muddle-headed).

  3. Ian
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    “Whack-a-mole is what Terry Eagleton is playing, what Karen Armstrong is playing, what John Haught is playing”

    I agree. Its frustrating.

    Actually I think Dawkins has it dead right when he says Armstrong is an atheist.

    “the whole oleaginous and underemployed crew of academic theologians … are playing”

    That’s simply not true. Not every academic theologian is confessional, indeed if you exclude specifically religious-chartered institutions, probably most theologians aren’t engaging in Eagleton or Armstrong-eque fripperies.

    I know many academic theologians who are agnostic or atheists. My local theology department, as one small example, is doing excellent work on the causes of Muslim radicalization in second generation Pakistani youth.

    My under-graduate degree was in theology in a secular theology department. Many of the people who went into that course as Christians, emerged knowing their former faith was based on half-truths and downright misinformation. In fact, it might just be a fluke of my academic trajectory but I know more people who’ve become atheists as a result of reading historical criticism of the bible than as a result of reading evolutionary biology.

    Writers such as Bart Ehrman I think belong on every atheist’s bookshelf alongside books by Hitchens and Harris.

    The argument over this is also well underway amongst academic theologians. Consider recent blog posts such as:

    http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2009/09/never-ending-confusion-about.html

    and

    http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ethics-of-Being-a/47442

    Both of which have a long inter-blog chain of debate, with a good number deal of supporting academics.

    Clearly there are problems, it may even be more noise than signal. But it is not true that there isn’t signal in there.

  4. Jeff Chamberlain
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    “Underemployed?” Did you mean “overemployed?”

  5. Jason
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    We’ll have to make a new entry in the Rational Wiki for the WAM Argument.

  6. Tom Johnson
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    “Atheists just cut through all the noise and call it all sewage.”

    And there you have the grand logical fallacy of Composition:

    “1.) Parts of the whole X have characteristics A, B, C, etc.
    2.) Therefore, the whole X must have characteristics A, B, C.”

    Or, applied to this situation:

    1.) Certain groups of religous believers quote Old Testament Laws as the core of their faith, promote creationism, blah blah blah wank-off in front of my computer, etc.

    2.) Because of the beliefs of these groups, all religion is rubbish.

    Sigh. I honestly expect more from a guy who touts logic and reason so much. (Well, I guess this IS logic…it’s just the faulty kind.)

    Now, composition doesn’t apply if you talk about all believers believing in a God or gods. Now there’s something with a little more of a foundation….

    • Tom Johnson
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      You could also apply one of my favorites (apparently Jerry’s, too), “Poisoning the Well,” to this one.

      1.) Look at these stupid creationists! They’re religious!

      2.) Those stupid creationists make all religion irrelevant. We can ignore the differences within – forget thost believers who want to work with us to combat creationism (they’re RELIGIOUS, after all).

      Jerry also employs this logical fallacy frequently in book reviews (“He didn’t say religon was bad!! EVERYTHING in this book is rubbish.”)

      I’m glad you keep this kind of crap logic out of your science, Jerry.

      Probably why you have to post this drivel on the internet.

      • Brian English
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        Tom, I believe Jerry’s argument is inductive, so it’s not a fallacy. Point out the religious people who hold reasonable beliefs that will convince a reasonable person and you win the argument. Otherwise, no sale.

        Your second comment appears to be a strawman. Nice fallacy there fella. :)

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      wow, an outtake from the towel of babble.

      Tom Johnson babbling along incoherently.

      • articulett
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the infamous Tom Johnson who promised not to read this blog because it was too petty for him.

    • Ian
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      I think the point of the post is exactly to do with composition.

      In particular that almost no theist is willing to define what they believe in in a way that isn’t mercurial.

      A very few are, but most shift and change. On one hand they make truth claims, but when pressed will say those claims are metaphorical, or real in a ‘deeper’ way.

      That’s the whack a mole.

      If you can find a theist who’s willing to make a ‘sophisticated’ argument for God that isn’t mercurial, it would be great to see a link.

      Either way, seriously, what’s with the angst?

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

        Brian-

        Induction (or, more specifically, projection) is what composition is all about. You take the beliefs/opinions of a subset and apply them to the whole population as damning evidence, ignoring other (and often contradictory) beliefs.

        Hence, the fallacy.

      • Brian English
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

        Tom, so what great arguments by believers have been ignorned?

      • Brian English
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

        It’s not a fallacy to say that all the evidence we have is that all arguments for supernatural thingies are crap. Yes, there might be supernatural thingies, but the burden of proof is on the person who says there are. Until then, and given the whole absurdity of the idea of supernatural and special pleading, how is this a fallacy?

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        Here. First, I’m pasting what PZ says (originally attributed to Jerry. My bad):

        “What you call “obscure Old Testament laws,” someone else will call the core of their faith. What you value as the “Christological narrative,” a member of yet another sect will call pretentious confabulations.

        Atheists just cut through all the noise and call it all sewage.”

        Now, simply replace the religious context with something else -say, conservative politics.

        “What you call “violent antigovernment extremism,” someone else will call the core of their political philosophy. What you value as “balanced, nonviolent conservative politics,” a member of yet another conservative leaning will call pretentious confabulations.

        Liberals just cut through all the noise and call it all sewage.”

        As much as you might agree with that, we know it makes shit for sense logically.

        At the end of the day, religion is still rubbish. But this argument against it is piss-poor, and we can do better.

      • Ian
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        @Tom

        That’s a better explanation. I think. Thanks.

      • Brian English
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        Tom, the point is, we can say that about politics, and we can study what policies work and don’t. So, they’re empirical questions or at least empiric in theory. How does that analogy work with supernatural claims.

      • Brian English
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

        Actually, that may not be the point. I need coffee. :)

    • 386sx
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      “1.) Parts of the whole X have characteristics A, B, C, etc.
      2.) Therefore, the whole X must have characteristics A, B, C.”

      I think it’s more like

      1.) The whole X has characteristics A, B, C.
      2.) Therefore, parts of the whole X have characteristics A, B, C, etc.

      Nice try though! Nice strawman fallacy thingymabob thing. Nice one.

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Oh yes, that “must” changes everything. *rolls eyes gratuitously*

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

        @386:

        It might be a strawman if I was using this instance to debunk PZs entire view on religion, but I’m not (check where I’ve asserted this multiple times now).

        Sorry.

    • H.H.
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      Tom Johnson wrote:

      1.) Certain groups of religous believers quote Old Testament Laws as the core of their faith, promote creationism, blah blah blah wank-off in front of my computer, etc.

      You really have no idea what our criticisms of religion entail, do you? Because the new atheists’ criticism of religion does not limit itself to fundies and creationists.

      We criticize faith itself, the foundation of theism and of all religions. So stop whining about us confusing you for with “those other” crazy religionists, because we’re not. We’re criticizing even what “moderate” theists believe. We’re saying there’s no such thing as reasonable religion or justified faith. Do you get it yet? We’re saying all religion is bogus because we really mean all religion, not just the crap that makes even you turn up your nose. We mean to include your unjustified beliefs as well. You’d understand this if you started paying better attention.

    • Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:22 am | Permalink

      PZ is not using this particular crap to demonstrate that all religion is sewage. He just follows up a typical crappy religious argument with a statement that the usual non/atheist view is that religion is all crap.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 2:55 am | Permalink

        BTW, the way to refute the assertion that all religious thinking is sewage is to provide examples of sound, reasonable religious thinking substantiated by evidence.

        Good luck with that.

    • moseszd
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Um, no, you’ve gotten it completely wrong. And wrong in the manner you have actually put words in some-one’s mouth while deliberately ignoring what they said.

      All religion is rubbish. Regardless of “Old Testament” beliefs. Or the belief in Xenu. Or the belief in Allah. Or El. Or Jehovah. Or Vishnu. Or anything else supernatural.

      We only point out that when you people make claims you refuse to stand by the claims you made. Actually, what you do is LIE (through denial) about the claims you make.

      Further, ya’ll are hysterically inconsistent within your purported meta-belief system. For example, Mormons are Christians, and have a whole extra book, but other Christians say they aren’t because of this extra book (and other things). And the Mormons say the same thing back. And we can do this for the Mennonites, Amish, Catholics (all varieties), Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.

      Heck, I’m an atheist Unitarian. One of our core principles is that Jesus was not God/Part-of-God or the “son” of God. In my church, about half the worshipers think of themselves as “Christians.” Even though, since we don’t believe in the ‘divinity’ of Jesus, we can’t be “Christians” in the eyes of virtually every other Christian.

      What PZ and Jerry have done is mere observation and reporting of the results of their observations. These are not fallacies per se. No matter how much you project and lie.

  7. Tom Johnson
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    There you go, Ian. Took three replies to get something useful.

    The wishy-washiness of believers is something that I loathe just like everyone else.

    But pointing out the silliest ones and going “SEE??!!! This is how all the religious are!!!!” is silly in and of itself. I’m not arguing for religion (although, simply by not agreeing with Jerry, most of you will invariably think I am). I’m just saying we can (and should) make better arguments ourselves that pretending the sillest and easiest arguments to debunk are the only ones.

    • Ian
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      I agree to a point.

      My question I guess follows on then, how do you think we should go about trying to get hold of the conceptions of God that we could analyze and consider?

      I used to think that religion is like a swimming pool – all the noise comes from the shallow end.

      But the more I try earnestly to find out what is at the deep end, the more I find I’m struggling to see.

      If there is no way to get at the (so-called) deep end, aren’t we condemned to say “the shallow end is obviously crap, and we’re not even sure there is anything beyond it”…

      I’m certainly not at that point, but I’d appreciate any insight you have on how to avoid going there…

      • Ian
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        Karen Armstrong is a great example. If you honestly and openly read her book, you get the sense that she’s saying: God is unknowable and utterly transcendent.

        Which is, of course, a non-theistic position. Deist at best, but she even seems to back off that.

        Yet Armstrong is often used as the poster child of a kind of ‘deep’ theism by believers who aren’t of the fruitcake creationist literalist bent. Our local catholic priest is a case in point. On Sundays and Wednesdays he tells people that a wafer is transforming into literal human flesh, and on Friday he’s tell me that his view of God is a ‘deep’ one, like Armstrong.

        If we aren’t to blanket condemn theism in the same terms, how are we to distinguish the fine-grained classes belief so that we can analyze them clearly?

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re still misconstruing what I’m saying. I’m with you on saying that God doesn’t exist, and I firmly believe that the wishy-washiness of some is perfect fodder for destroying credibility.

        What I’m specifically tired of is hearing the arguments that Jerry/PZ make about religion above, not the ones that others make FOR it.

        For example, this whole post’s exchange, boiled down simply to this: “Look at these wankers who hold Old Testament rules, out of context, as the core of their faith. They’re so stupid, we needent even consider other beliefs further. Because of these people, it’s all rubbish.”

        That is, for lack of any other word, a cheap and silly argument, and it wouldn’t hold water if applied to any other group or situation (and we all know it). The more I read the atheist blogosphere, the more these cheap arguments are cropping up, as if the rules that hold us to rigorous argument in any other sphere are relaxed 100-fold with religion. Jerry makes some beautiful arguments about the empirical nature of some beliefs and how they are destroyed by science, but then come these little ditties that are borderline nonsensical. I think they’re mostly built to get some “rah rah!!’s” out of the readership.

        We can honestly do much, much better than using faulty logic and cheap argument…because, well, we’re just better.

      • Ian
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        I must have been unclear, because I do think I got that from your message.

        I understood something different from the original (PZ) article though. I read it as being more akin to saying whatever we (quite rightly) criticize (e.g. OT laws), the theists who are willing to discuss retreat from and claim their truth lies in something else (Christology), and then something else (Post-modernism, say), and something else…

        That being the case its a game of WAM, and we need to call theists out on the meta-game they’re playing, rather than on the individual arguments.

        Of course, I might be reading PZ and Jerry with undue benefit of the doubt. But that is what I got from it, and it resonates with my experiences. And by the sound of it yours too.

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

        I agree with virtually all of the rest of PZ’s post. I’m just going against this whole “because of the people who believe Old Testament rules, we can debunk all religion” nonsense. We all know that doesn’t make sense – I just think many of us are afraid to say it because we’re slowly being taught that disagreement with an atheist (on even the most trivial point, such as this) means you’re aligning yourself with the religious. Deep down, I think we all know that this is stupid, too. It’s really the nature of the blogosphere, though: defend the bloggers you like until you die.

        I wholeheartedly agree with your point, though. We should go after those who play a little game of theological shape-shifting with all we’ve got. But at the same time, there are those who are always post-modern, always Christological, and always Old Testament hounds without jumping around. They still aren’t right, but we should learn how to argue against each position effectively – not by broadbrushing everyone with the most easy of them to debunk.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 27, 2009 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        I’m just going against this whole “because of the people who believe Old Testament rules, we can debunk all religion” nonsense.

        It is nonsense, but no one says that. What people do say is that, in terms of what beliefs are professed in their alleged holy books, fundamentalists are more consistent in their beliefs. And people also say, as PZ does above, that religious people often change their ostensible beliefs depending on the context, retreating from their day-to-day more concrete beliefs to a far more vague “transcendent” approach when challenged by atheists.

        But no one is saying that all of religion can be debunked because of fundamentalism. Indeed, it has been many times made explicit that Deism, as commonly conceived, can’t be debunked via science (although it is hard to know if it really even would count as a religion.)

      • Ian
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:28 am | Permalink

        @Tom,

        We should go after those who play a little game of theological shape-shifting with all we’ve got. But at the same time, there are those who are always post-modern, always Christological, and always Old Testament hounds without jumping around.

        In which case I agree with you. I didn’t get the sense that PZ would disagree on that point. I would only say that in my experience it is rare to find someone who is thoroughly one thing or the other though. Once you leave a particular kind of biblical literalism (that kind of evangelical dispensationalism) I find most people do shift and change and play the chameleon.

        I suspect someone like Simon Fuller at Warwick Uni in the UK is a thorough post-modernist (I seem to remember he doesn’t identify as a theist though – even though he gets wheeled out for creationism). But I can’t think of many folks who I can be as clear about.

        I, for one, would *love* it if people were. I’d *love* to understand what they really believe. But unfortunately that is very hard to find.

  8. Posted September 27, 2009 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    The problem with ‘sophisticated’ theology is that it has ‘transcended’ the old literal/metaphorical dichotomy into a way of argumentation that is completely foreign to the scientific mind. There are not an endless series of moles for us to whack. Sophisticated theology functions by using a limited series of arguments, but using a unique process of switching between literal and metaphorical to dodge the arrows of rationality. It is their ability to claim something is literal – and then immediately retreat into metaphor when challenged – that provides the elusiveness required for theology to survive in the modern world. The ability to keep one foot in the metaphorical world and one foot in the literal world – and effortlessly switch between them on any single point – is the hallmark of sophisticated theology.
    Jesus actually rose from the dead?
    ‘Doesn’t this fact demonstrate that the power of God can overcome anything?’
    So all trillion cells in his body reversed the laws of thermodynamics and overcame the necrotic cell death and reassembled themselves and regained all the appropriate connections to their neighbors, necessary for a functioning individual to re-emerge?
    ‘Don’t be silly, he didn’t literally resurrect.
    And yet know they will ‘bunt’ the same point back to a literal interpretation at a moments notice. Rational logic is treated like an isotope with an exceedingly short half-life – you know its going to decay but you cannot predict the exact moment.
    Remove their ability to ‘bunt’ the argument and you have defeated sophisticated theology.

  9. articulett
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    I cut to the quick. I don’t see any reason to suppose that consciousness of any sort can exist absent a material brain. This makes gods, demons, souls, ghosts, angels, invisible saviors, and sprites equally unlikely and indistinguishable from each other and all other mythological beings humans have fervently “believed in”.

    Should someone provide evidence that consciousness can exist outside of a material brain, then I may be interested in what they have to say about the qualities such an entity might possess. If there were any actual evidence that such a thing did or could exist, scientists could refine and hone that information. However, despite eons of such beliefs, there is … NOTHING,(–save the endless pedantry spouted by the likes of Tom Johnson– whiny words of little substance… smoke and mirrors to hide a god who isn’t there.)

    If your god is some invisible form of consciousness, I don’t believe in him. I don’t care how nuanced and ineffable he is or what you think he’s done for you. If science can’t “detect” him, then why would I think that a self-important believer could?

    History shows us that humans readily believe in the supernatural. History also shows us that nothing supernatural has ever proven to be real–instead science reveals a perfectly natural explanation, causing the superstitious thinking to fade.

  10. Posted September 27, 2009 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Mr Johnson, you’ve got it wrong.

    We can address literal interpretations of the bible by, for instance, pointing out that most Christians don’t pay much attention to the dietary rules.

    Then they back off and claim “God is love”.

    We can then point out that that’s a load of vapid rubbish in itself — not by claiming that God hates shrimp — and they’ll move on to some other interpretation.

    I am not making a claim that there is one refutation of one religious claim that demolishes them all. I’m saying that their claims are so vague and evasive that they have nothing specific to rebut.

  11. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Tom Johnson took nearly a dozen posts to make a minor point that is nothing but a straw man.

    Quite a way to go to hijack a thread from a troll who stated he will no longer post comments here.

  12. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that PZ Myers is wrong, but there is a sense in which he is not right either.

    Despite the fact that theology, in all its many guises, is based on a mistake, namely, belief in a god or gods or a realm of some kind beyond this terrestrial, material or physical one, theology is also a creative project, and the great theologians are, in many ways, like the great psychoanalysts, who may not actually succeed in presenting scientific evidence for the structure of the human psyche, but do, along the way, present bold creative confections about what it means to be human. And we need to understand these confections if we are going to replace them.

    Like great works of fiction, theologians do probe and limn possible ways of characterising the intricacies and nuances of being a human being, with all its subtleties and shortcomings. Consequently, God, in much theology, functions something like the unconscious in depth psychology, as a symbol of something that helps us to understand the painful complications and uncertainties of being human. As such, it certainly ducks and dives, and is never accessible to straightforward description or contradiction.

    This can seem as though theologians are setting themselves up for games of ‘whack-a-mole’, and, of course, some of them are doing precisely this, ducking and diving so as to escape the current style of anti-religious thinking. But there are some theologians who, whatever anyone might say about the foundations of their subject, which are, it needs to be said, woefully inadequate to support the structures built atop them, still have something to contribute to our understanding of ourselves, understandings which are, in fact, deeply embedded in our ways of living and expressing ourselves.

    For this reason it is unfortunate that some contemporary atheists, especially high profile ones, have not bothered to venture into the thicket of theological thinking, and are prepared, unfortunately, to dismiss it all as sewage without qualification. Venturing inside will not alter their view of the foundationless character of theology, but it might change their view of the human substance that is often to be found amidst the thoughts of the great theologians. It is probably important to remember Feuerbach’s point (or Xenophanes’ for that matter) that theology is, in a sense, humanism projected. Since so much of the thinking of the past is intricately involved with talk of gods, it would be a pity if we simply lost what is of value in theology, because its foundations are unsound. It would also be unfortunate if we did not understand the kinds of misdirections which have, in many cases, so deeply warped our sense of who we are.

    Nietzsche, for example, was very deeply influenced by theology, and had a highly developed sense of how theology had led us astray, though he was also conscious that it did not always do this. We will not realise how deeply our lives are shaped by religious ontology (which affects the whole of life) if we simply respond to theology with negation. We will still be shaped by religion, no matter how many moles we simply whack. Whacking theological moles, however, will never accomplish the deeper work of a critique of theology, which will, if successful, provide a more satisfactory understanding of what it means to be human, and will do this by providing an ontology of immanence, in place of transcendence.

    I’ve just finished reading through your book WEIT, Jerry (very quickly, I’m afraid). Thank you very much for a clear, cogent, convincing explication of evolution. A wondrous journey! You end your book with a quotation from Ian MacEwan, lamenting the fact that scientific culture has not replaced the supernatural thought systems of the religions. This is a vital task for atheism today, and in order to do that, atheists will have to begin to understand what supernatural thought systems do for people, and how they have affected our conception of ourselves, how they are so deeply embedded in our culture, that no one, not even atheists, escape them. This cannot be done simply by whacking theological moles, no matter how blinkered and subterranean they may be. If atheism is ever going to be a genuine cultural option, it will have to do this. And we need it as a cultural option, because the religions are destroying us.

    Sorry to be so long winded about it.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      You main argument is:

      God, in much theology, functions something like the unconscious in depth psychology, as a symbol of something that helps us to understand the painful complications and uncertainties of being human.

      and:

      …it would be a pity if we simply lost what is of value in theology…

      then by that reasoning, we need to accept the third Reich due to what it has taught us about the dark side of humanity.

      No, I do not buy it at all.

      Science is trying to “to begin to understand what supernatural thought systems do for people, and how they have affected our conception of ourselves, how they are so deeply embedded in our culture, that no one, not even atheists, escape them”. Theology has certainly done a bad job at doing it.

      • Ian
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        “then by that reasoning, we need to accept the third Reich due to what it has taught us about the dark side of humanity.”

        Why is that the analogy?

        To me a better analogy would be that we should accept WWII as a legitimate subject of study and consideration.

        One doesn’t have to accept theism to do theology. Many theologians I know are not theists.

        I’ve got a long comment above awaiting moderation (it had links) on this topic, with much more detail.

        I think Jerry’s lumping together of all academic theologians in this way is deeply counter-productive. Without academic theologians we wouldn’t have nearly the understanding we do of the history of religion, the issues in the biblical texts and the sociology and anthropology of religion. In my experience a very large segment of academic theology works according to scientific principles.

        And the practitioners who work that way get really pissed at the theologians who want to swan in and claim that the resurrection was a real event, or worse that it was a real event, but ‘outside real time’ – in the words of one blog post I read recently.

        In short – a large proportion of academic theology studies religion, it doesn’t exist to practice it.

        Twisting the Pope quote from Tulse below, the proper study of theology is man, not God.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        As Ian says, that is not the right analogy. Besides, you should notice that I think it’s important to pay attention to theology precisely because it is so deeply embedded in our way of thinking about ourselves, and it is as deeply embedded in the atheist project as the theological ones.

        However, I should point out that, in fact, in several things that Jerry has written lately, Jerry himself has shown himself to be quite knowledgeable about theological ideas, and can talk theology with the best of them, so I disagree with the idea that what Jerry is doing, in general, is counterproductive. His delving into Wright’s misdirections shows how remarkably attuned Jerry is to contemporary theological thinking. I think his siding with PZ here is uncharacteristic. He may indeed consider theology to be sewage, but he also knows that, in order to deal with sewage, there has to drainage somewhere.

      • Ian
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        @Eric,

        I agree that Jerry has enough theological sophistication when it comes to a certain segment of academic theology which is frankly a self-propagating edifice of sloppy thinking.

        But if he thinks that is what theology is all about, then he, or anyone else, clearly doesn’t understand the field.

        His comments are just plain naive when it comes to major theological areas such as historical criticism, textual criticism, church history, sociology of religion, anthropology of religion, ritual studies, diaspora studies.

        Of course some people will claim that those aren’t really theology, they are sociology or history or literature, etc. Or that they are really ‘science’ (i.e. an emprical and rational search for knowledge). And in fact some theologians also want to distance themselves from the ‘theology’ label and an increasing number of departments are renaming to call themselves ‘religious studies’. But still, the fact is that the majority of those activities go on in religion and theology departments.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Despite the fact that theology, in all its many guises, is based on a mistake

      You can stop right there.

      I don’t think that any reasonable atheist would argue that religion and theology have not had some useful effects, just that those effects do not in themselves justify the philosophical underpinnings of the enterprise. To suggest that somehow theology is worthwhile because it’s like depth psychology is to say that the space program is worthwhile because it gave us velcro. (And the analogy would be even closer if the space program were based on the notion that the moon is made of green cheese.)

      If you want a deep understanding of human nature, study human nature. As Pope said:

      “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
      The proper study of mankind is Man.”

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        I am with Tulse on this.

        What does understanding theology in depth add to out understanding that sociology, anthropology and psychology do not already give us, and with more rigour ?

  13. Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    The literal/metaphorical tap-dance described by Sigmund will always work because most people are unable to grasp how arbitrary semantics are, i.e. that the same word can be used to mean two different things. As I have blogged about before, there seems to be a popular idea that atheism is defined as “the disbelief in any concept to which the word ‘god’ is attached.”

    Atheist: I don’t believe in God.
    Theist: But God could be anything. God could just be a metaphorical description of the universe.
    Atheist: Well, most people don’t define God that way, but I suppose if you do then I would have to say I believed in “God”, because I do in fact believe the universe exists… duh…
    Theist: Ah hah! You DO believe there might be a God! Now all you have to do is accept Jesus as your Lord and Personal Savior….

    • Ian
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      That blog post is excellent. I think you’ve just found yourself a new subscriber!

    • moseszd
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      You win the thread!

  14. Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Kind of amusing to see a scientist say “I don’t have to account for every instance of something, or even most instances, just the ones I choose to direct attention to.”

    Can critics of science operate by the same standards? Or is “whack-a-mole” just the way things are if you are trying to explain something and you can’t come up with an encompassing general theory?

    Which, btw, neither Myers nor Coyne have. They yammer on continuously about a social phenomenon of which they have precious little understanding.

    And if you are going to complain about Eagleton, at least read Eagleton carefully: the interview SPECIFICALLY states that his push is not about whether God exists, but rather about the value and possibilities within the Christian tradition for a radical, liberatory political agenda.

    In short, he’s saying, in a world with 7 billion people most of whom live in poverty, this discussion is a complete waste of time. An irresponsible waste of time.

    Particularly if, as he would argue, religion might be adapted and used to address this situation.

    You can argue with this position, but it first require having read and understood it.

    As an atheist and someone who loves science I’m frankly appalled at the low, low level of intellect on display in blogs like this one.

    You complain about whack-a-mole, but where you be without it? It isn’t as if you are taking the argument any further or doing anything else particularly useful aside from repeating the same anti-religion arguments over and over even when they clearly don’t apply.

    You, who have done some great scientific work in the past, ought to be ashamed to have your name attached to this blog, which largely displays the very opposite of intellectual or moral leadership.

    We don’t need Jerry Coyne the atheist cheerleader when we can have Jerry Coyne the thinker. How about it?

    • Tulse
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      you are trying to explain something and you can’t come up with an encompassing general theory?

      A theory of what — religious phenomena? That’s not the job of atheists, and that’s not the concern that’s being addressed — it is the truth of religious claims that is at issue, and the way the specific claims change when challenged so as to make them more nebulous.

      You can argue with this position, but it first require having read and understood it.

      You’re missing the point — whatever secondary value religion might have, the question being addressed is whether its claims are true. You suggest that Eagleton isn’t interested in that issue, which is fine for him, but some of the things he says are germane to the wider debate for those who are interested in that aspect of religion.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        But the truth of supernatural claims is not what Eagleton is on about. He specifically says so.

        And what one needs a theory for is religion as a social phenomenon. Religion exists. Why? How?

        Why do I say you need this theory–because for you (most atheists) this is just not a matter of saying “religion’s supernatural claims are false” it’s about moving on beyond religion as a society, to that ideological future McEwen laments isn’t here yet.

        Well, if you want that, you have to understand religion as a social phenomenon (not as a collection of unsupportable claims). It exists and continues to exist because it serves some sort of function or functions.

        Those functions aren’t empirical, so let us not flog that dead horse anymore.

        So what does it do for people?

        Eagleton isn’t saying “Christ actually lived and died and rose again.” he’s saying this is a story with possibilities for those who might want to mobilize effort to solve problems.

        That is, he has some ideas about religion as an organizing force and as an ideological discipline, etc. etc. And he wants to use it.

        He, at least, has the beginnings of a theory about what religion IS (aside from not factually accurate in its mythmaking).

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Also: neither Eagleton nor Armstrong (also mentioned in Jerry’s addendum) are particularly interested in the literal truth of doctrine, they are interested in traditions, stories and ideals and how they are conveyed throughout a society and through time.

        Not that they are immune from criticism, just they aren’t concerned with what you seem to be concerned with . . .

      • Tulse
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        But the truth of supernatural claims is not what Eagleton is on about. He specifically says so.

        Sure he does, but then he makes the theological claims like these:

        http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/from-gods-mouth-to-eagletons-ear/

        Regardless of what Eagleton may see as his project, his statements on theology are worthy objects of discussion.

        And what one needs a theory for is religion as a social phenomenon. Religion exists. Why? How?

        That is completely separate from discussing the philosophical underpinnings of religion, which is what most of us have been doing. That said, there are plenty of people these days who do look at religion as a social phenomenon, and try to understand its origins and continued presence using the tools of science (such as evolutionary biology, psychology, and sociology).

        He, at least, has the beginnings of a theory about what religion IS

        A theory that no doubt would be opposed by the vast majority of actual believers, who don’t see religion as some a way to “mobilize effort to solve problems” or some “organizing force”, but as a true description of the world.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Also: neither Eagleton nor Armstrong (also mentioned in Jerry’s addendum) are particularly interested in the literal truth of doctrine, they are interested in traditions, stories and ideals and how they are conveyed throughout a society and through time.

        Not that they are immune from criticism, just they aren’t concerned with what you seem to be concerned with . .

        If the simply regard religious tales as nothing more than rather tenacious folk tales they should just come out say so.

        Do you really think both Armstrong and Eagleton would deny they discuss theology but instead historical anthropology ?

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        For him, religion seems to be the only likely candidate.

        Yes, well he will need evidence if he wants others to take his views seriously.

        You still have not offered a reason for why his arguments should not be dismissed for lack of substance.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      And if you are going to complain about Eagleton, at least read Eagleton carefully: the interview SPECIFICALLY states that his push is not about whether God exists, but rather about the value and possibilities within the Christian tradition for a radical, liberatory political agenda.

      The problem with this is that the evidence suggests religion is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

      Is it just coincidence that there is a strong correlation between how equal a society is, and how stable it is, and the degree of religiosity in that society ?

      Does anyone seriously want to claim that a significant amount of the conflict in the world is not because of religious tribalism ?

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        Tulse: I’m not so sure we completely understand how/what people believe about religion, or that what we know so far supports what you are saying.

        Certainly that’s not the feeling I get reading Atran, who seems to think belief is pretty complicated.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Matt:

        Well, that would be the opposing argument.

        Eagleton is very political and his first and foremost question would be “How do we get changes for the better made here.”

        He knows as well as anyone the deleterious effects of religion and ideology (see his very funny and interesting book Ideology), but I think his current take is that good things are much more likely to come about quickly by altering and using religion rather than by explicitly replacing it.

        His perspective in saying this is broad: he’s thing about the 7 billion and how to get a considerable number of them pointed toward general betterment, not just about TV preachers or Osama bin Laden.

        For him, religion seems to be the only likely candidate.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        On degree of religiosity vs. stability and equality.

        To a large degree this is a measure of whether you are a rich, Western-style democracy, isn’t it?

        There’s a lot more that goes to making this nice, stable countries than lack of religion . . . and it would seem to me that religion mostly dropped away after or as social problems were addressed.

        I don’t think, say, turning Malawi into a 100% atheist state would just make them poor unbelievers.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        I’m not so sure we completely understand how/what people believe about religion, or that what we know so far supports what you are saying.

        I think that if you ask people what their beliefs actually are and why they hold them, they would report beliefs that involve supernatural commitments, and reasons that involve claims of truth, as well as things other than “mobilizing efforts to solve problems”. You can argue that these reports are not in fact accurate, that believers are not able to introspect accurately on their beliefs and motivations, but I can guarantee you that if you go to practically any church, they will tell you what I wrote above (and would consider Eagleton’s theology and explanations to border on outright, literal heresy).

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        There’s a lot more that goes to making this nice, stable countries than lack of religion . . . and it would seem to me that religion mostly dropped away after or as social problems were addressed.

        True, but it does rather suggest religion is not the solution.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        True, but it does rather suggest religion is not the solution.

        Well, I’m not going to ventriloquize for Eagleton more than I have to because it isn’t really my point, but I’d suggest that an alternative interpretation might be that religion is about addressing major social problems.

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        The correct solution is that religion is directly responsible for the majority of the worlds problems.

      • Posted September 29, 2009 at 5:02 am | Permalink

        Really. I hadn’t thought there’d be anyone around here who’d want to say that.

        I imagine you’ve worked out a proof of that that’s too big to fit in the margin of that comment?

  15. Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    If the simply regard religious tales as nothing more than rather tenacious folk tales they should just come out say so.

    Two reasons come to mind: 1) Because for them stories can be valuable regardless of their empirical truth; and 2) If the attempt is to harness the power of religion for good, insulting the beliefs of the believers is probably a poor start.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Two reasons come to mind: 1) Because for them stories can be valuable regardless of their empirical truth; and 2) If the attempt is to harness the power of religion for good, insulting the beliefs of the believers is probably a poor start.

      I would argue the reason folk tales become folk tales is because they illustrate valuable truth. The are a way of teaching children what is consider acceptable and unacceptable in their society. Goodness gets rewarded, and evil gets punished.

      I still cannot see what is different between that and what you claim religion is to Armstrong and Eagleton.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        I think the difference may be contained in the fact that L. Ron Hubbard could go out and invent a religion, but he could not go out and invent a tradition of folk tales.

        The two definitely inter-penetrate, but somewhere there’s a distinction. In the areas of conversion and central authority, perhaps?

        It’s a very interesting question, though.

    • Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Why Eagleton’s ideas shouldn’t be dismissed:

      I get the sense that I’m the only one here with any idea of what Eagleton might be saying. He’s a very smart guy who has written very interesting things on these general topics. He might well be wrong now. In fact I suspect he is, but he is far more worth reading than PZ Myers, say. Eagleton at least advances the argument about what religion is and what comes after it a little bit. If you truly want to change the world, actually engaging with someone like Eagleton is at least a step toward it.

      The alternative is the eternal vigilance of whack-a-mole, which is what PZ actually seems to like.

      If atheism is going to actually have an effect, if McEwan’s new world is ever to come about, we’re going to have to drag ourselves away from the near-autistic obsession with the falsity of supernatural claims.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        Well, no they aren’t representative of religion as it is. They’d argue that they may have some insight into religion as it may be.

        But Coyne’s suggestion seems to me to be that these guys are somehow fundamentalist manques or somehow running interference for the literal believers, and they clearly are not.

        I would also suggest, too, that the prototypical fundamentalist is also a poor stand-in for the billions of believers out there.

    • Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Oran, you seem to be arguing for an ‘opium of the masses’ utilization of religion.
      Many of us here are scientists. Deliberately lying about something is completely beyond the pale of scientific discourse. There is no greater good down the line in science. We cannot take the sort of political shortcuts with the truth that religious figures find acceptable for the simple reason that we do not have any goal other than a better understanding of the laws of nature.
      As for your two reasons posted above they seem directly contradictory.
      “1) Because for them stories can be valuable regardless of their empirical truth;
      and
      2) If the attempt is to harness the power of religion for good, insulting the beliefs of the believers is probably a poor start.”
      Clearly the empirical truth is essential to the value of the story – otherwise the religious would not feel so insulted when the stories are revealed as mythology.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        I would add it also seems more than a little patronising to believers.

        Eagleton seems to be patting them on the head and saying don’t worry about people telling you your beliefs are without evidence. It someone who does not believe themselves assuming religious believers cannot cope without their beliefs.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Sigmund:

        The “them” in one are Eagleton and Armstrong, who clearly don’t care much about the empirical truth of doctrinal claims.

        Also, think about this: Do you become insulted if I say that e=mc^2 is completely false? No.

        The insult that the religious feel when told their beliefs are false is a direct result of their awareness of the vulnerability of their claims to skepticism. It’s much more complicated than the belief in an empirical truth.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        The “them” in one are Eagleton and Armstrong, who clearly don’t care much about the empirical truth of doctrinal claims.

        I agree neither seems to care about the empirical truth of doctrinal claims.

        Which is why they are such poor representatives of the vast majority of religious believers who do attach great importance to such claims.

        There really are Christians who think Mary was a virgin, and that Jesus died and rose on the third day. There really are Muslims who think Mohammed rode a flying horse.

        Eagleton’s and Armstrong’s theology might be of interest to other theologian, and to you. But it is totally irrelevant to most believers.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        As far as being condescending or patronizing regarding believers: that’s pretty much an occupational hazard if you are talking about why people persist in false consciousness and how to address it.

        As to asserting falsehood: when we get into the area of what ought we to do, we are no longer in the realm of science as currently thought of. Politics and social organizing–even good political and social movements–are filled with lies.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        As to asserting falsehood: when we get into the area of what ought we to do, we are no longer in the realm of science as currently thought of. Politics and social organizing–even good political and social movements–are filled with lies.

        And I would point out politicians are often one of the least trusted groups in society. You seem to have offered a reason why.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Re: Politicians and Lies

        People are weird about this too: demanding to hear lies and condemning them and then electing the bigger liar.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        I think Eagleton or Armstrong are the worst case scenario so far as a contemporary assessment of theology goes. This is certainly not what I had in mind earlier when I spoke about taking theology seriously as a cultural phenomenon. Eagleton and Armstrong are essentially apologists for their own interpretations of what theology might be about, meanwhile leaving religion in possession of the field (patting their heads and saying, ‘There, there: nothing’s really changed’) That’s certainly not what I had in mind.

        My point, put more simply than before, is that, as our societies now stand, religions are doing a lot of the heavy cultural lifting. If we want to propose something to take the place of religions – and I think we do – we need to know what cultural lifting is being done by religion.

        As Onfray says, just because there is no crucifix in a courtroom – or, I would add, prayer in a classroom – is no reason for thinking that what is going on there is not to a large extent determined by the underlying presuppostions of the dominant religious tradition in which those courts or classrooms are found. Until we understand that, denying the existence of a god or gods, while crucial, is not going to be enough, and the public rituals and the underlying presuppositions will remain religious.

        That’s why Eagleton and Armstrong are dead ends. They support the maintenance of religious understructure, no matter what they believe. I think there is a huge cultural change in the process of taking place – or at least might take place – but it will not happen unless non-believers are prepared to do some heavy cultural lifting of their own. And to find out what lifting needs to be done, someone is going to have to sift through the religious structures that are now performing the task, and performing it less well as science tells us more about how we actually came to be here, and what here is really all about. I suspect that more is involved in this than just saying that there are no gods. I essentially agree, in other words, with Oran when he speaks about the near autistic obsession with the denial of religious claims. Non-belief must take believers much more seriously than that, while maintaining their stance of non-belief.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        I essentially agree, in other words, with Oran when he speaks about the near autistic obsession with the denial of religious claims.

        It completely depends on what one’s project is. If one is concerned with empirical reality, and how far people stray from it in the name of supernatural beliefs, then it makes perfect sense to engage believers as to the veracity of their claims.

        If one’s goal is to somehow moderate the negative effects of religion in some socio-politically plausible and acceptable manner, then perhaps the actual truth value of the beliefs won’t matter.

        But it’s important to recognize that not everyone has the same goal. This discussion is simply another round of talking different tactics (and indeed is very similar to the exchanges on accommodationism versus “New Atheism”).

        And I completely agree with the various commenters here who point out that the Eagleton/Armstrong approach really is patronizing, and profoundly cynical, about humanity. It suggests that, despite the fact that some people can reject superstition, and can be convinced by rational argument, we can’t expect that of the great unwashed masses, and so we should work toward some sort of acceptable fiction, rather than strive to have everyone understand the truth. I’m not yet so misanthropic to think that is the only viable alternative.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        (patting their heads and saying, ‘There, there: nothing’s really changed’)

        That’s certainly NOT a fair assessment of Eagleton. I don’t see that he has much support for such a quiescent attitude: he wants to foment significant social and economic change using religion. It would make for a pretty big change and a pretty big challenge to religion as it is.

        For Eagleton there are other enemies than belief, if belief even is an enemy.

        What I’d point out to you is how other big social transitions have worked: the transition from feudalism to capitalism took a long time, went in fits and starts, and was led, in large part by representatives of the feudal order. It wasn’t quick and neat, and capitalism progressed, oftentimes, by trading on the remaining authority of the system it displaced.

        Social transitions can be very complicated and messy, so much so that it is not implausible to speculate that a kind of religion may not be the best path to a post-religious future.

        But we are in complete agreement about the necessity to understand religion (which word I’d use rather than theology) well in order to move beyond it.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        And I completely agree with the various commenters here who point out that the Eagleton/Armstrong approach really is patronizing, and profoundly cynical, about humanity. It suggests that, despite the fact that some people can reject superstition, and can be convinced by rational argument, we can’t expect that of the great unwashed masses, and so we should work toward some sort of acceptable fiction, rather than strive to have everyone understand the truth. I’m not yet so misanthropic to think that is the only viable alternative.

        Alternatively, how do you explain the persistence of religion and it’s well-established insusceptibility to reasoned argument? Jerry and PZ not having whacked quite enough moles?

        This isn’t misanthropy, it’s just the rejection of delusion and the granting of a reasonable amount of respect to religious believers. Many are educated, have heard all this before, and yet persist in their beliefs. Obviously, religion does something for them.

        We aren’t all alike–some people run marathons, maybe most everyone could do it–but that’s not an argument for most everyone ever actually doing it and it is delusional to think otherwise. That’s not to say that most people are fat-arsed couch potatoes, it’s just to say that they must have some other agenda in life than running a marathon.

        Truly, how else to you explain the persistence of religiosity in America except by saying that it performs some function for some people that apparently I can do without, or perhaps that expensive beer fills that void in my case, or whatever? We’re different, now let’s move on. I see no other way around it that doesn’t involve some serious doses of self-delusion. I prefer beer, myself.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        This isn’t misanthropy, it’s just the rejection of delusion and the granting of a reasonable amount of respect to religious believers. Many are educated, have heard all this before, and yet persist in their beliefs. Obviously, religion does something for them.

        The same argument could be made about smoking, or obesity: many are educated and have heard all the arguments, yet they persist in their behaviour. As I understand it, what you’re proposing would amount to coming up with cigarettes and french fries that are somewhat less unhealthy, and giving up on anti-smoking campaigns and healthy eating initiatives.

        No doubt you are right that some people cannot be reasoned out of their religious beliefs (although most atheists I know were believers at one time), and that religion offers comforts to them. That’s all well and good. However, even if we grant that point, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only solution is to create a de-fanged version of religion — it might also mean finding alternatives to religion that provide the same value and serves a similar enough purpose. (For example, arguably social clubs cover a lot of the same affiliative aspects as religion.) There is no reason at all to think that religion qua religion is a necessity, especially given that there are many highly secular societies. Indeed, given that those secular societies generally provide far more social support to their citizens, that might suggest that such support is one way to ameliorate the need people feel for religion.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Actually, I agree with you about the possibilities of secularizing the things that religion does.

        (This is about where I part company with Eagleton. I’m going to have to look at some of his later writings to see where his thinking took this particular turn.)

    • TheBlackCat
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying the best way to approach social problems is to lie to, trick, and deceive using known falsehoods in order to manipulate them into doing what you want? Yeah, that may work if only ideal, benevolent leaders are around, but in the real world this sort of power is extremely dangerous and numerous wars and genocides have resulted from it. It’s great in theory, but in practice I would not trust anybody with that sort of power.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying the best way to approach social problems is to lie to, trick, and deceive using known falsehoods in order to manipulate them into doing what you want?

        Well that method has worked very well in the past ;-)

        It is not just a theory: it’s how the US works right now and I am sure it’s not much different anywhere you look.

        Take a look at the propagation of lies in the health care debate–people clearly aren’t able to discern lies from truth, and simple lies are far better motivators than complicated truths–any marketing person on earth will tell you that.

        Mundus Vult Decipi. It’s how things actually work if you look closely enough. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

  16. SinSeeker
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    “Eagleton….wants to foment significant social and economic change using religion.”
    All he has to do is wait thirty or forty years (in Europe at least) – the moslems will do that for him.

  17. Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    The whole lack of evidence for god thing is certainly a comprehensive approach to pointing to the lack of soundness in religion.

    Yet you can’t simply stereotype all religious folk as fundamentalists or some such thing. It isn’t fair to individuals, nor is it fair to the religions themselves. But especially the former.

    After all, we make that point with Piltdown Man, as well as the other scientific frauds that almost no creationist knows about. Judge a belief, process, or discipline by its weakest link, and you can always make them look bad. But then you haven’t dealt with the alleged better case that others can and do (claim to) make.

    We know that all of theology fails in a very crucial sense, that of showing that god exists. That’s legitimate. Pretending that you’ve shown all religion to be wrong because some snake-handler’s an idiot is not an honest way of handling the situation.

    I really would not wish for my own position on evolution to be judged according to the frequent teleological views of evolution held by non-scientist supporters of evolution. Likewise with religion, we have to play by honest intellectual rules. That isn’t whack-a-mole, that’s honest intellection.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • Tulse
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Pretending that you’ve shown all religion to be wrong because some snake-handler’s an idiot is not an honest way of handling the situation.

      Honestly, Glen, who does this? Who has made these kind of claims? (Note that pointing out individual wacky religious beliefs does not amount to a claim that all religion is therefore invalid.)

      Likewise with religion, we have to play by honest intellectual rules. That isn’t whack-a-mole, that’s honest intellection.

      I think you’ve missed the point of the argument — the issue is not that there are a variety of claims about religion, but that individuals are, in a sense, arguing in bad faith by backpeddling on what they say their beliefs are, making them more nebulous in face of intellectual challenge. That point is the burden of PZ’s claim. The issue is not that there are a wide variety of theological perspectives, but that the religious seem to opportunistically shift what their philosophical commitments are, retreating to the vaguest of handwavy, deistic, apophatic theology when challenged, then returning to their far more concrete “God is a person who loves me” view in their personal lives.

      In other words, the religious themselves are not engaging in honest intellection.

  18. Posted September 28, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, Glen, who does this? Who has made these kind of claims?

    No one. Do you understand the role of hyperbole in language?

    That cheap shots are made against idiotic religious people as if it were telling about all religion is common. Just as cheap literalistic shots like yours are made to avoid the actual issue.

    Look at what PZ’s saying:

    What you call “obscure Old Testament laws,” someone else will call the core of their faith. What you value as the “Christological narrative,” a member of yet another sect will call pretentious confabulations.

    Yes, well, guess what, there have been intense fights over exactly these things without any of the participants paying the slightest heed to arguments with atheists. Yet PZ’s writing as if the fact that certain theists don’t make particular claims doesn’t matter. He does better elsewhere in the post, but it’s completely unfair to hold someone to “obscure Old Testament laws” when they consider these to have no claim upon Xians (there’s still the issue of why they ever existed, of course, but then there are various “answers” regarding that).

    I think you’ve missed the point of the argument — the issue is not that there are a variety of claims about religion, but that individuals are, in a sense, arguing in bad faith by backpeddling on what they say their beliefs are, making them more nebulous in face of intellectual challenge.

    Of course I didn’t miss that less-than-intellectually-honest “point.” You are yourself busily stereotyping by claiming that’s what they’re doing, when in fact the theists were pointing out that context matters:

    and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws

    PZ just brushes that all aside, no matter that these are matters that are considered to be very important by many theists.

    I don’t actually think that the context makes much difference to the important question, whether or not there is any evidence that any of this is true (in the vernacular sense). But I wouldn’t pretend that it’s fair to quote OT laws as if there were no “explanations” for these that make sense to believers, if I actually chose to move into the issues of narrower theological claims.

    You’re ignoring context as well, Tulse, and making up your own strawman to attack here.

    That point is the burden of PZ’s claim.

    Not only is it also an unsupported point, it is an unsupportable point for at least some theists. Why can’t you deal with the issues, instead of simply repeating the same false attacks, coupled with some unsupported and unsupportable claims about my lack of understanding the “points” which only make sense when you’re already stereotyping? I don’t stereotype like you do, so I don’t fall for your baseless charges.

    The issue is not that there are a wide variety of theological perspectives, but that the religious seem to opportunistically shift what their philosophical commitments are, retreating to the vaguest of handwavy, deistic, apophatic theology when challenged, then returning to their far more concrete “God is a person who loves me” view in their personal lives.

    Well, that wasn’t what the theists actually brought up. To repeat:

    and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws

    Then PZ noted the differences in beliefs, and implied that thereby the differences didn’t matter:

    What you call “obscure Old Testament laws,” someone else will call the core of their faith. What you value as the “Christological narrative,” a member of yet another sect will call pretentious confabulations.

    Atheists just cut through all the noise and call it all sewage.

    The theists say, well, deal with it in context, and PZ says basically that he doesn’t care because believers differ so much on the context.

    So once again you’re just making things up. As I said, PZ’s on solid ground when he points out the gaping hole of coming up with evidence for god, but he’s blustering as much as you are where the matter of addressing specific theological claims is concerned. One has to deal with the specifics that a believer claims, not with the specifics that another believer claims.

    If you want to argue (as PZ did not in the quoted paragraph) that they’re always moving around, then you’d better go ahead and actually argue that. Commenters on forums are hardly representative, so I don’t really care about impressions gained from them.

    The fact is that you’re basing your attacks upon your belief that theists simply opportunistically shift, without you at all bothering to show that this is “what they do.” Most importantly, you’ve not shown that they all do that, and I’m not going to accept the fallacy of the appeal to the majority (again, the majority of those who accept evolution may well have faulty beliefs about important matters involving evolution, and at the least a large minority does).

    My point there is not the true Scotsman fallacy, but the fact that specialists are considered to have better knowledge and arguments than the public in respect to theology, as is also the case for science.

    I think you’d do well to review the importance of evidence in making factual claims. You’ve got a long way to go to show that defenses of god rely upon the whack-a-mole approach, especially where the “experts” are concerned.

    As I said, the god-lacuna is legit for any religion that claims a god. Attacking the “weak case for god” is not, however, the same as attacking the “strong case for god,” so if you’re going for the “god is such an oger in the OT argument,” don’t expect those theists who basically agree to accept that as an honest argument against their position(s).

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • Posted September 28, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      OK, “ogre.” Somehow that misspelling calls for correction in a way that others do not.

      Glen Davidson

      http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

      • moseszd
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        Jesus himself sums up the ten commandments in Mark where he says:

        “Love God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”

        This is widely accepted within the vast-majorities of Christianity to be Jesus validating the 10 Commandments and was, in fact, his biblical response to the Pharisee’s that tried to entrap him with the question “Which is the greatest/most important commandment.” The response itself sums up the two main categories of commandments — those dealing with man’s relationship to God and those dealing with man’s relationship to his fellow man. (When I say “man” I mean Jew/Israelite, not humanity at large.)

        Further, within the four gospels, there are many, many instances of Jesus being quite clear he followed the “Law of Moses” and the commandments. He was quite clear that in order to get into heaven you needed to follow the commandments. (Lk. 10: 25-28) Other references to the necessity of following the Law of Moses are at: Matt. 4, 7, 10, Deut. 8: 3; Ps. 91: 11, 12; Deut. 6: 16; Matt. 23: 2, 3

        Jesus rebuked those who perverted the law of Moses: Mk. 7: 7-13; Matt. 23: 16-22

        So you’re looking “right” here. But there’s a problem.

        Jesus said, (Matt. 5-17,18) “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled”. Jesus was, according to the gospels, the person who fulfilled the law and inaugurated a new system or testament (Lk. 24: 44, 47).

        Anyway, this is why I think any discussion of the gospels is fraught with unintentional humor. What we have, today, is a colossal game of telephone-tag-fairy-tales interpreted willy-nilly by a bunch of people who want to interpret their fairy stories in ways that makes what they do ‘right.’

        And the bible, written, modified and edited by THOUSANDS of people over a THOUSAND YEARS, is a mish-mash of translation errors, transcription errors, deliberate changes, over-sights, etc. Nobody can, with any honesty, actually say ‘this is what the bible says and means’ because we don’t have an accurate bible. We’ve got a bunch of silly-old folk tales full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

        Which is one reason why so many athiests cry “bullshit” on the whole house of cards.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      …completely unfair to hold someone to “obscure Old Testament laws” when they consider these to have no claim upon Xians…

      No it isn’t. You do not know the NT then because it states that all the old OT laws still apply.

      You main argument is bogus therefore.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        I see that you carefully quotemined my statement, Bob, then attacked a strawman:

        He does better elsewhere in the post, but it’s completely unfair to hold someone to “obscure Old Testament laws” when they consider these to have no claim upon Xians (there’s still the issue of why they ever existed, of course, but then there are various “answers” regarding that).

        And it’s just your interpretation that the NT says that all OT laws apply, since Paul quite explicitly says otherwise, and Jesus got into plenty of trouble for ignoring or revising OT laws. You’re not much of a Bible scholar, I can see.

        Nor do you have the capacity to ascertain what my “main argument” was. That was only an example.

        Tulse at least got that part better, although apparently without any recognition that her claims have never been properly supported, only believed.

        Glen Davidson

        http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Ok, so you still get the NT wrong. I will let your inability to comprehend it go.

        Now you need to work on your communication skills since according to you no one understands your main argument fully.

        It never fails – those who spew a word salad by the hundreds of words are the ones who have the least to contribute. Useless.

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        Same stupid baseless accusations from you, Bob.

        Well, you’ve never really been able to do anything but attack without cause, knowledge, or intelligence, so I’m hardly surprised that you didn’t break your streak here.

        Glen Davidson

        http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        Once again, the pot calling the kettle black. What happened to your 10000 useless words?

      • Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

        Useless to certain people, I don’t doubt.

        Poor little engineer, doesn’t know why he doesn’t understand what others have studied and he didn’t.

        So he lashes out with unsupported claims, like any IDist or other charlatan. Dishonesty isn’t magically confined to the religious.

        And really, I’ve wasted enough words on your drooling incomprehension. If you’re ever teachable, rather than arrogantly ignorant like the IDists that you condemn, you’ll do more than resort to name-calling and false accusations. As of now, nothing can get through your bigoted ignorance.

        Glen Davidson

        http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • moseszd
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Crap, replied to the wrong post

      • moseszd
        Posted September 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        That should have been to NE Bob.

  19. articulett
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Ugh… Oran reminds me of the all-too-frequent mind numbing conversations I’ve had with believers– so many words, but no real point. He thinks PZ and Jerry should be more like him and respect religion more like Eagleton… but he never says why. (Or maybe he did and it got drowned out in the verbiage.) Eagleton doesn’t really have any coherent belief–his god is a “non-entity” (whatever that means.) Are we supposed to respect such beliefs more than, say, Greek Mythology or Sci-Fi writing or philosophy or the transcendent feeling one might have on hallucinogens? Religion might be of great interest to the theologian, but to me it’s like … opera– someone else’s thrill.

    The problem with religion is it makes claims about reality. Reality IS something I’m interested in. Religion pretends to provide access to some sort of “higher truth” about reality but it is no more a “higher truth” than Aesop’s fables as far as I can tell. Believers get peeved when you don’t respect their beliefs even though you don’t see them showing special respect for lovers of mud-wrestling or Star Trek convention attendees– which some might find equally edifying regarding the human psyche. Which theologians respect Scientology because of all the people who feel their lives are better because of it? I don’t know any. But I can’t tell why the religious beliefs they coddle are any more “useful” or “true” or worthy of the mental gymnastics they do to shield it from scrutiny and criticism. Do they feel like they are protecting the faithful or faith itself? And why? Why do they feel the need to be a “protector of the faith” on a blog like this? How do they see their argument as being more honest than the proverbial “courtier’s reply”? The emperor’s naked– who cares about the expert in “imaginary fabrics” and the tales they have to tell us?

    And this thread was just about the frustration of talking with such people. They ARE aggravating… in the same way Oran is aggravating… they keep moving the goal posts and never really making a point. They come here being obnoxious and then claim that we are divisive when we give our opinion of their opinion. They seem to expect respect they don’t give others here. From my perspective, they tend to spend most their energies making god ineffable (faith in that god ennobling) and marginalizing the atheist who finds this game dishonest so they can see themselves as some grand arbitrator.

    There is no reason for me to believe or respect a god belief more than I respect a belief in Satan, right At least I never hear of such a reason. The two beliefs often go together, in fact–and I think it’s cruel to scare people with hell. I also think belief in ALL supernatural entities is delusional and childish, I hate feeling like I have to walk on eggshells so that I don’t make someone feel weepy because I killed their imaginary guardian angel. I’d like to do my part in encouraging believers to keep their beliefs as private as their fetishes so I don’t have to feel embarrassed because they’ve given me “too much information”. I don’t think god belief requires any more energy or respect than belief in other superstitions or invisible beings.

    Faitheists seem to think they have some better way to be or some answer for something, but they sure as hell are never coherent as to what that something might be. And why do they never present evidence that their approach is better for that something? After all, they are the one’s coming here and telling us that we should be more like them. I don’t go to faitheist sites and share my unflattering opinions of them. I find them smarmy and humorless and feel obliged to share this opinion once they’ve inflicted their opinion upon me. (That’s why I don’t read such blogs. I can never understand their point anyhow.)

    Oran came here to chastize PZ and Jerry, but I think PZ and Jerry are much more coherent, honest, intelligible, and civil than Oran. Surely if Oran thinks his position is so admirable, he can woo others to his own website where he can pontificate on the wonders of the accommodating the right brands of religion. It does seems odd to me that Oran thinks of himself as some sort of advice-giver or referee in a conversation about maddening talks with theists/faitheists. Can’t we atheists commiserate a bit without some faitheist doing his Mooney impression? To me, Oran embodies the wack-a-mole phenomena to a tee. Does anyone have a clue why we should respect his opinion more than he shows respect to others here? Or is tit for tat the best strategy in playing wack-a-mole? Myself, I’d much rather read those he criticizes than him. When you can’t talk to people, you can always entertain yourself by talking about them.

    Why are the self-appointed advice givers so often the least likely person anyone would go to for advice? Why does Oran Kelly imply that he knows more about “social phenomenon” or has read Eagleton more thoroughly then Coyne and PZ? He sure doesn’t come across as a deep understander of social phenomenon and he doesn’t appear to know exactly how thoroughly Eagleton’s words have been digested and dissected by both Coyne and Myers.

    I do feel confident saying most religions are “wrong” in that they claim knowledge about something unknowable– an invisible undetectable entity that has revealed himself to them in a way that is indistinguishable from the god of the religions they reject. That’s arrogant. I also feel confident saying that they all tend to tell lies that they call “higher truths” whether they understand this or not. And most claim to have the secret to living “happily ever after” in some supernatural afterlife. Heck people of the same religion don’t even agree on what god is or does or wants, so why should I pay attention to any of their claims more than they pay attention to the conflicting claims of others. Let THEM argue about the “true” invisible guy they believe in. I think all gods belong in the “woo” magisteria with Thor, Xenu, and so forth. And, I guess theologians belong in the same magisteria as academics who study mythology, philosophy, and/or literature.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      Oran seems to think that deception, lying, fraud, trickery, educational deprivation etc are acceptable as tools for use by an arrogant elite.
      This is a very common approach in certain circles, (such as churches, advertisers, profit-seeking bodies and political parties), but is shunned by most scientists.

  20. Steven
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Maybe if you guys addressed the beliefs of Christians on a case-by-case basis, instead of assuming that we’re all equally programmed robots, you wouldn’t have situations where arguments that addressed one person’s belief were irrelevant to the next person.

    This subject reminds me of the conservatives who blame everything wrong in this country on some group called “the Left”. The only thing the members of this group necessarily have in common is disagreement with conservatives, yet that is enough to have them defined as a group whose opinions are meaningless and not worth exploring. This practice deters meaningful dialogue between “left” and “right”, so it’s hard to imagine why its practice by athiests against Christians should yield better results.

    • articulett
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      Should we review accusations of witchcraft and demon possession on a case by case basis? What about gremlins and sprite belief? Or are you just peeved that atheists don’t believe in your personal invisible friend? Do you judge each Scientologists beliefs on a case by case basis?

      Why should we take your god more seriously than you take Xenu? I mean I know your god makes you feel good, but are you as rich and successful as Tom Cruise? Maybe Xenu is the key to “the mystical truth”, and you’re just misguided like all the myth believers of eons passed. Bummer. Hey, would you want a Scientologist going to a Christian site talking about how mean you are not to judge each Scientologist on a case by case basis and then comparing it to some bizarre not analogous political rift. Because that’s what you did here. You know, the odds do say that you are more likely to be amongst the believers in the wrong thing than in the right one. If any one religion is right, most other past and present are very, very wrong. And no supernatural claim or being has compelling evidence in it’s favor, you know. You might all very well be equally wrong. I think you are. The evidence (or glaring lack of it) supports my contention. So does the eons of people inventing all sorts of fictions to explain that which they have no explanation for.

      Doesn’t it seem odd that you Christians can’t get on the same page when it comes to what your invisible savior wants. Why is the omnipotent god so vague? Do you take each superstition you run across on a case by case basis to determine if this time the magic might be real? There’s astrology and tea leaves and bigfoot and so many supernatural things to choose from. How do you decide which unbelievable things to believe in? Is it just the ones that make you feel saved or special or holier than thou? Or is more the ones that keep your from fearing you might be punished eternally for lack of belief. Or maybe it’s just the garden variety weird beliefs that you’ve been indoctrinated to believe in… transubstantiation? 3-in-1 monotheistic gods? Virgins impregnated without their consent? zombie saviors? Do tell so I can do my case by case analysis per your demand. Of course, you have no qualms about lumping atheists into a group.

      Oh, and atheists aren’t against Christians any more than you are against rain dancers or Scientologists. We just find your beliefs silly. Your analogy is fitting of your bias, not reality. Supernatural beliefs should be kept private and out of policy and politics. If you keep your magical beliefs to yourself, you never have to know who finds your beliefs silly. Keep your beliefs as private as you want Scientologists to keep theirs. That’s fair, right? And don’t ask for special privileges you’d never extend to Muslims. Deal? Do unto others…

      The “extreme” Professor Dawkins has weighed in on the subject and he finds theology a useless pursuit. http://richarddawkins.net/article,4382,n,n I have to say that I find his opinion far more intelligent and apropos of this blog post than yours. (Sometimes I think that seeping a brain in faith makes a person –not just illogical–but arrogant as he imagines himself humble.) You have a brain, why are you using it to defend a supposedly omnipotent dude who can, do doubt, defend himself just fine.

      Ahh–opinions. I’m sure you’ll respond to mine in the same manner you hoped others would respond to yours. Lead by example.

      • Steven
        Posted September 29, 2009 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

        You appear to be responding to arguments I haven’t actually presented. Consequently, points you have made that may well have been relevant to someone else are irrelevant to me. But let’s see if we can get back on track.

        The original topic is the accusation that Christians play a sort of theological “whack-a-mole”. I believe this is a result of critics incorrectly assuming that all Christians have identical beliefs. I honestly don’t know how much divergence there is among, as one of your examples, Scientologists–but I don’t need to, because I’m not making this accusation of them. And if you don’t accuse Christians of dodging your questions by denying their own beliefs for rhetorical purposes, you have no compelling need to consider my suggestion.

        Your question about the divergence of beliefs among Christians is a good one. Some of that diversity can be traced back to politics, of course. But if all of it had that same origin, that it was all a series of myths around which religious cultures formed–well, in that case, the entire faith would adapt to the politics of the time and place. I think we can all agree that this has not yet happened.

        There is something all Christians do have in common that also informs their beliefs, and this is considered the core of each Christian’s relationship with God. I generally refer to this quality as “spiritual observation”. We all feel something pretty similar in our hearts when we are “born again,” for example, and the commonality of that experience unites us. But this is difficult to discuss with a person who hasn’t had the experience. So from our perspective, athiests rule out a source of information that is highly pertinent to the subject, and are then critical of us for having that information that they lack. (Of course, there are many other criticisms that have more merit; I’m sure you’ll be happy to offer them.)

    • Posted September 28, 2009 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

      Steven, do you think that Christians address the beliefs of other religions on a case by case basis?
      Do the ‘sophisticated theologians’ seriously consider the truth behind Janism, Hinduism, Shinto, Greek and Scandinavian religions (which are still followed by small bands of ‘believers’) or various tribal religions?
      Why is there never a theology conference between say Hindu theologians, Catholic theologians and spiritual leaders of, say, a Native American faith?

      • Ian
        Posted September 29, 2009 at 5:08 am | Permalink

        I’ve read a fair bit of work on comparative religion and on Asatru. Like Biologists, theologians tend to specialize quite heavily in their research, but ‘sophisticated theologians’ most definitely consider other views. Its one of the characteristics of Karen Armstrong’s writing, for example.

        There have been and continue to be many inter-faith conferences. And inter-faith clergy conferences.

        I think its a valid point that Christianity isn’t the same thing as evangelical dispensationalism, which is the form that clogs the national arteries and makes most of the noise in the US.

        Not that I think the rest is healthy, but I do think your comment kindof makes the opposite point that you intended.

      • Posted September 29, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink

        Re: Ian’s point,
        I tend to regard Karen Armstrong as a commenter on religion rather than a theologian. I guess it comes down to how we define the term ‘sophisticated theologian’ but I was thinking more of the likes of those such as Alister McGrath who advocate one particular form of religion. He does tend to escape answering difficult questions by pleading ignorance of other religions when pressed on the question of inconsistency of competing religious theologies.
        I am aware of inter-faith conferences. They are strange occurrences from a scientific point of view. Scientists have conferences where they seek to inform each other of the latest findings – essentially informing and changing minds. Inter-faith conferences seem to be designed as a way of seeking solutions to the problem of religious followers of different faiths killing one another. Its more akin to cold war meetings between superpowers rather than serious intellectual exchanges.

      • Ian
        Posted September 29, 2009 at 6:07 am | Permalink

        @Sigmund,

        Yes, there’s an element of one true theologian about all of this, of course. I find the systematic theology side of the subject deeply tedious, but I am interested in other areas of theological scholarship (the bits that at least try to use the scientific method, mostly).

        Famously an interfaith conference in the UK that ended in an inter-faith worship service so angered the almightly that he burned down the cathedral.

        Is there an emoticon for sarcasm?

      • Steven
        Posted September 29, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

        I can’t speak for other Christians, but I do… when it’s pertinent. Any circumstance that would compel me to accuse someone of playing theological whack-a-mole would be a good example of pertinence. More frequently, I start asking questions along those lines when someone’s interpretation of their religion appears to differ from what I’ve heard about that religion. Some interpretations strike more of a chord with me than the teachings of that religion generally; some are more discordant. (Need I add that this applies to other Christians as well?)

        Regarding the theology conference, I think that has more to do with religious politics, on which I’m sure you and I have many shared criticisms.

  21. articulett
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t buy your explanations regarding your “inner knowingness” Steven because people like Tom Cruise clearly get the same type feelings, but he thinks they come from being cleared and in on the mystical truths of Scientology. So do young Earth creationists, and those who speak in tongues.

    Many of us were religious and once attributed such feelings to god or Jesus or New Age mysticism… but we came to understand that we had fooled ourselves just like eons of people before us of myriads of faiths.

    Some people have religious experiences from seizures in the temporal lobe– others from drugs. They is no way to tell a real spiritual experience from a more mundane experience that is interpreted as “transcendent” because we lack the words to describe it.

    Most people feel transcendent feelings and then plug in whatever they’ve been indoctrinated to believe in as the explanation for such feelings.

    Do you think people speaking in tongues are being visited by the holy spirit? What about people that are sure they’ve been reincarnated and have “memories” of past lives? What about people willing to die to get to their paradise like the hijackers? Do you think they weren’t feeling feelings that are similar to yours? Or do you tell yourself “only those people who believe like me were feeling the deep feelings I feel”?

    If so, I just think that is astoundingly arrogant and childish of you. And, unless you are very young, I can only imagine that this thinking is due to your indoctrination… to me, it’s as “crazy” as hearing Tom Cruise in his very public youtube video about Scientology. It’s so provincial and self aggrandizing– it sounds humble to you, but to this former believer you sound as wacky as believers in other wacky things sound to you. Do you think of Kirk Cameron as having the same “faith” as you?

    How do you manage to explain to yourself that you know the “real” unknowable mystical invisible guy while all those eons of people who believed differently were just fooled? What extraordinary quality do you imagine you have that you were born into or stumbled upon the really true unbelievable story? Despite millions of fooled people in the wrong religions over eons of time on earth, you happened to be in the small fraction of people who came upon “the truth”.

    So, did you pray to know if the Book of Mormon is true. I hear that god will give you a burning in the bosom to let you know it is. Mormons are so sure they have the truth that they devote 2 years of their life and income to go on a mission and preach the good news. If you’re not Mormon then you can use that example to understand why the atheist rejects your verbiage. Hint: it’s not because we haven’t had the feelings you have. We just don’t attribute equate those feelings with some “higher truth” about some invisible magic man. You do. And you feel saved for doing so.

    • articulett
      Posted September 30, 2009 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      And though Christians are quick to feel like martyrs… this article was about all theologies–not just Christians. In fact all believers in supernatural things dodge and weave when you try to pin them down on exactly what they believe.

      And it doesn’t matter, because no matter what the supernatural belief is, I don’t believe it. I don’t need to know the details to know that I don’t believe it, since I don’t believe in anything supernatural or “magical” or “mystical”.

      • Steven
        Posted September 30, 2009 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        Since you mention it, care to define “supernatural”?

    • Steven
      Posted September 30, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      If the same psychological influence sets in motion chains of events that results in me becoming a Christian, Tom Cruise acting like a lunatic, and you defending yourself against unproductive mythological beliefs, we know two things about the influence in question. One, that not everyone reacts to it in the same way. Two, that a lot of people seem to react to it, regardless of background or culture.

      I don’t take many arguments of “crazy things allegedly religious people do” seriously, because it is easier to blame an irresponsible act on an unfalsifiable proposition than to examine one’s own motives. Does anyone seriously believe that the “troubles” in Ireland were motivated by differences between Catholics and Protestants, more than whether the Irish or the English have sovereignity over Ireland? Or that the Inquisition was more interested in catastrophic attempts to save souls than in robbing their victims? If you prefer rational, non-religious explanations to superstitious ones, surely psychology is a better source of answers about suicide bombers and past life idolaters than spirituality.

      Now, you’re absolutely right that people plug in their own explanations about the origins for “transcendent feelings”. But we do this because we have the feelings and cannot explain them. Is the act of pretending that the feelings do not exist really the ideal solution? Or should we attempt to examine them however we can?

      One way I examine these feelings is through the model of a social instinct–that just as birds create formations to assist each other with the task of flying long distances, humans recognize morals and have measurable psychological reactions to them. Another way I examine them is through the body of lore generated by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Either model should presumably be judged by whether they generate useful observations; if we prejudge any as crazy, how do we choose one from another? Why study at all, in that case?

      I don’t claim to know anything about the inobservable. I do not, for example, have any opinions regarding existence after death; how the hell would I know that? That Jesus promised “life eternal” could be a parable that describes a strictly psychological phenomenon, just as it could have no merit at all. What I do know is that, whether for reasons psychological or spiritual, those feelings are best translated into a productive impulse when I associate them with God, rather than some unexplained instinct. Ignoring this observation seems silly.

      If you can do something better with these instincts, that’s great. Only you can decide whether your way is best for you. For that reason, I can’t say that I am more correct than athiests, agnostics, or people of different faiths; I only know that my way works for me, and has worked for many others.

  22. articulett
    Posted October 1, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I really do think that the “troubles” in Ireland were motivated by religion. And I think 9-11, the crusades, and the inquisition were motivated by faith as well. I also think Andrea Yates killed her kids because she really believed that that was the best way to ensure they’d live happily ever after in heaven instead of growing up and risking the prospect of hell. I think you can make anybody do anything at all if you can convince them that their “happily ever after” depends on it. I think all religious people are vulnerable to interpreting the voices in their head as “god” or some other person as his prophet or spokesman.

    But, then again, I haven’t been brainwashed to look the other way and make excuses for faith while, at the same time, crediting my faith for all that is good in my life. Or,

    On the other hand, I think that you (Steven) make an excellent example of the “whack-o-mole” reasoning of all believers in all woo. You had no real point to the conversation. You just wanted to feel martyred and reassert your belief so it could feel more “true” in your head and you can feel “holier than thou”.

    It must take a lot of mental energy to keep on trying to convince yourself that your magical beliefs are true and worthy of your semantic shenanigans.

    I don’t see any reason to take your religious tangents any more seriously than I take the rantings of Tom Cruise. All woo seem like they are playing a game a “whack-a-mole” in order to keep from understanding that they may be as wrong and fooled as the legions of other wrong and fooled people.

    See, I’m not really so interested in what makes me “feel best”– I’m interested in what is true. And I’m not talking “true for me”– I’m talking “objectively true”–the kind of stuff that is true whether anyone understands it or not. Religions have no more to offer than myth as far as that sort of truth is concerned.

    • Steven
      Posted October 2, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      “You had no real point to the conversation. You just wanted to feel martyred and reassert your belief so it could feel more “true” in your head and you can feel “holier than thou”. It must take a lot of mental energy to keep on trying to convince yourself that your magical beliefs are true and worthy of your semantic shenanigans. I don’t see any reason to take your religious tangents any more seriously than I take the rantings of Tom Cruise.”

      Presumably, you do see a reason to make assumptions as to my beliefs and mental state. What makes you think that I have a need to feel martyred? What have I said that implies a sense of superiority in my “holiness”? Where have you heard me argue anything at all that relies solely in a belief in magic?

      You seem to hold that even when people have obvious political or material motives for their actions, the religious explanation they give is always the truer one despite observable evidence. I’m afraid that the religious tangents to which you object are yours, not mine. I fear no communication will be possible if you are unwilling to set those aside. Ironic, I know.

  23. articulett
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    So, what WAS your point?

    See this was your first comment on this thread:

    Maybe if you guys addressed the beliefs of Christians on a case-by-case basis, instead of assuming that we’re all equally programmed robots, you wouldn’t have situations where arguments that addressed one person’s belief were irrelevant to the next person.

    You didn’t really comment on the topic; you were just expressing ire at being lumped in with other Christians and tsk-tsking the posters here for imagined flaws on our part. No one called you all “programmed robots”. That’s YOUR straw man that you use to feel superior to those who point out that your beliefs are as unsupportable as the supernatural beliefs you reject.

    And how can we judge you or anyone else on a case by case basis when you never really say anything we can pin down, and you just make your god more and more nebulous? Didn’t you read Jerry’s post?? You exemplify what Jerry was talking about!

    So what IS your case exactly? Give us an example of clarity so we can judge you on the individual merits of your argument. Far be it from me, to make an argument that is irrelevant to you. (Unless, of course you just want to support your faith-based assertion that atheists think all theists are “programmed robots”)

    Who you directing that peevish comment at and where are the examples of these people saying you all are programmed robots? (Or was that just a message from the voices in your head?)

    By the way, we CAN lump all theists together in that they all believe in one or more invisible forms of consciousness they call gods (or demons or souls or angels or thetans.) In my case, I consider theists the equivalent of all believers in magic, mysticism or the supernatural, because there is NOTHING which differentiates them from such. In the same way, you can lump atheists together in that you can be we don’t believe in your god(s) to the same extent that you don’t believe in Xenu.

    You can calm the voices in your head, however– we are well aware that there are as many different types of believers as there are different types of non-believers(and we also know that believers tend to get miffed when they are not seen as individuals while hypocritically lumping all non-believes together). But you all ARE indistinguishable from each other in that you all believe something for which there is no measurable evidence– whereas the atheist doesn’t make claims of knowing “divine secrets” or “higher truths”. Believers make a sort-of pact with each other in that you agree not to mention the crazy stuff about other’s beliefs and, in return, they don’t mention the crazy things about yours. As far as I can tell, you all play semantic to justify your beliefs so that they seem more real than the beliefs you cavalierly dismiss (e.g. Xenu), And you all get peeved at atheists because they have no dog in the race so-to-speak. We don’t have magical beliefs we are trying to support via bullshit, so we won’t play the game (faitheists will, however).

    I think it’s obvious to most people, that you came here to do what so many woo do– you started off by tsk-tsking others because that’s the only means you have of feeling good about whatever belief you think people out here are attacking.

    That isn’t irony. (In fact, you seem not to understand the meaning of the word –a true Dunning-Kruger like many a theist.) It’s just plain old observation. Moreover, I remember being similar when I was a believer in “mystical” things. If you are lucky, you’ll look back at your “old self” and chuckle and your former hubris one day.

    Instead of wasting time supporting your preferred delusion, go exercise your brain. You might want start by looking up the word “irony”, learn a bit about logical fallacies, and figure out what your point is BEFORE posting. Because, from where I sit, it looks like you are trying to put others down so that you can feel “superior” about whatever religious belief you feel so super duper for believing in. If you are young, this is normal, but if you have been an adult for any length of time, it’s positively buffoonish.

    And, because you were responding to something that no one actually said, your post came across as a non-sequitur. It doesn’t make you look coherent. I’m not saying you come off as a “programmed robot”, but you do come off as a tad untethered and very defensive in regards to your invisible buddy who is supposed to be more than able to fight his own battles. (The triune god is omnipotent, right? and he already knows how this conversation will end up because he’s omniscient too! -So why do you think he needs you to stick up for him?)

    If you really believed your god was real, why in the world would you care if people thought you were a “programmed robot”? You get to live happily ever after just for believing! Isn’t that enough to dismiss any hurt feelings that arises because of such beliefs… (–or are you secretly afraid the atheist might be right?)

  24. articulett
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    (Ugh… my typos… I’ll assume the readership will be bright enough to understand what I meant to say despite missing words and typos like “from” instead of “for”.)

    And Steven, no communication is possible because YOU lack the basic skills needed for dialogue. I’m referring to this bizarre paragraph of yours which must sound much more intelligible in your head than it actually reads:

    You seem to hold that even when people have obvious political or material motives for their actions, the religious explanation they give is always the truer one despite observable evidence. I’m afraid that the religious tangents to which you object are yours, not mine. I fear no communication will be possible if you are unwilling to set those aside. Ironic, I know.

    Again, that’s not irony. And when people tell me they do things in the name of “god” or “Allah” or to “reap their final rewards”, I believe them. You’re the one who believes in invisible entities– why in the hell do you imagine YOU are an expert in “observable evidence” about what motivates people!? Does anyone else share this opinion of you!? Is this “observable evidence” the kind you use to justify your belief in your god(s)? Wouldn’t YOU do anything your god asked you to do?

    Oh, and you’re the one who went off on those tangents too. In fact, every post of yours has been tangential to the subject of this blog! So, rather, than being “afraid” of my supposed “religious tangents”, your fear might be better applied to the fact that you may be losing your marbles from seeping your brain in faith. See, you started the tangential craziness from the very first post where you accused all the posters on this blog of holding an opinion that NO-ONE actually holds!
    You really did. I quoted it for you above. See, THAT is “observable evidence” (another term you have no clue about.)

    The criticism you apply to others might be better applied to you.

    • Steven
      Posted October 3, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      I’d love to know the basis of your accusation of how I “never say anything you can’t pin down.” I’d also like to know what “invisible forms of consciousness” are, and what other types exist; what you have inferred about my beliefs that makes them indistinguishable from magic; how you have managed to evaluate evidence I have not presented; why you think I believe in some “ever after” when I’ve explicitly told you that I have no such belief; how I have said or implied that I am an expert in “observable evidence” (and how that is distinguished from some other sort); and how my replies to your comments to me are any more tangental to the original post than those very comments.

      Sadly, it is overwhelmingly clear at this point that we are not communicating, and that attempting to pursue answers to these questions will result only in more questions. Likewise, I am unable to explain how my actual theological beliefs differ from the judgment (though I fear that prejudgment may be the better term) you have formed of them. As such, I have no further interest in this discussion.

      • articulett
        Posted October 3, 2009 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

        You claim that “you’d love to know the basis of my accusation…” and though I don’t believe you, I will tell you (even though I think it’s obvious), but I’ve seen no evidence that you have any real desire or skill in conversing with any one. You seem to think more highly of your conversational skills than is warranted by the evidence presented here.

        But here goes: Do you think you’ve said something that we could “pin down” so that we wouldn’t be guilty of “assuming that Christians) are all equally programmed robots”. If you do nothing to distinguish yourself from the Christians who we supposedly think are “equally programmed robots”, then how can we treat you as an individual case (your opening complaint, remember?) Or are you purposefully keeping your beliefs nebulous so you can feel righteous in your complaint about us as you move the goalposts in the exact manner PZ was talking about?

        Invisible forms of consciousness are things like gods and devils and spirits– immeasurable entities that people “believe in” but are indistinguishable from delusions. Xenu, for example.
        He supposedly exists– but he’s indistinguishable from a myth.

        Again, it’s your first paragraph that lets us know that you are Christian and that you feel “martyred”– you said: “Maybe if you guys addressed the beliefs of Christians on a case-by-case basis, instead of assuming that we’re all equally programmed robots…” I didn’t come up with my assessment of your beliefs or motives by psychic powers–YOU laid them out in your opening address to us.

        Also, in a later post you claimed to have some sort of “evidence for god”– a feeling or whatever– and you claimed to have evidence that religious wars had nothing to do with religion– both are inane statements from my perspective. That’s where I came up with my allegations that you are clueless about “evidence”. Another irony– which you’d giggle at if you actually understood irony. You are imagining that you have evidence for god or that religious wars are not caused by religion– but you have no more evidence then the people who believe crazy things that you don’t believe. That’s not even circumstantial evidence in science. It’s anecdote at best–hearsay– opinion.

        If you are a Christian, then you do believer in an “ever after”– or, rather, most Christians do– eternal souls, heaven, hell, possible rapture. Of course you could be like Eagleton and have nebulous beliefs that no one can pin down– a belief in a god who is a “non-entity” (whatever that means). Of course most Christians think that other Christians who have differing beliefs are not “real Christians” so who knows what the term means to whom. I don’t know any Christian that doesn’t believe that Jesus floated bodily up to heaven (even though there is no “up” on a round planet) and lives forever as some sort of invisible, undetectable being that they’ve managed to “detect”. I was indoctrinated to believe that as a Christian… along with the idea that life was a test that determines your eternity. And it seems safe to say that the majority of Christians believe such a thing–along with the crazy notion that god premeditated the murder of his son (who was really him) to atone for the sins of the first humans he created… or something like that.

        These are easy assumptions to make about anyone calling themselves Christian. What is a Christian to you? Or are you going to leave your “case” vague so you can accuse us of not understanding your “special individual case”. And why should we respect your claims about your religion more than you’d respect Tom Cruise’s claims about Scientology? You don’t have a reason do you? Instead you pretend that we’d be judgmental. Of course, Tom Cruise could say the same thing about all those not “open to” Scientologist belief, right? So it’s a crappy argument for any true belief.

        But, don’t worry, I don’t expect an answer– just miffed mock offense and assorted accusations and tangents– par for the course for whack-a-mole– You woo never give us any good reasons as why you think your woo is true… so naturally, we treat you the same way you probably treat people who are trying to inflict their nutty beliefs on you.

        How did you think we’d respond to a group insult from a hubris-filled Christian? Do you think you’re some kind of great example or special case for Christianity? How do you see yourself as more worthy of respect than Oran Kelly (above), for example? Do you think you’re coming off better than him?

        I think that you can’t explain how why anyone should take your beliefs more seriously than you take equally unsupportable claims. That makes you uncomfortable, so you are going to pretend to be “sad” about not being able to communicate because of MY supposed prejudice– even though you have exhibited far more prejudice against atheists in general in your opening post than I have shown against any believer in “woo”(i.e. supernatural claims indistinguishable from “magic”). You’re just peeved because I referred to your beliefs as “woo” and you want to believe they are more than that– but you have no more evidence then the believers in beliefs you reject.

        Bummer for you. I feel your pain. I suspect most people find out some of their beliefs are wrong during their lifetime. But if you ever decide that you are tired of trying to believe lies, and are more interested in what is actually true, then this is a great blog.

  25. SMo
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    A little off-topic, but this little tidbit of faitheism in the book i’m reading really peeved me:

    “If you happen to have ever worked in scientific research, then you were or you remember a certain type of researcher. This type is the orthodox, inerrant atheist, who gives no quarter to a thought of anything supernatural, or anything that is not specifically allowed in the present physical model of the universe. These researchers keep you thinking straight, and prevent you from wandering off the path and down some rabbit-hole, and as such they are invaluable. However, they are worthless if you want to discover something. They make fabulous lab assistants; but if you want to do some research out on the edge, they will only hold you back. If our present model of everything is absolutely correct, then there is simply nothing else to discover, and anything that would question the model’s correctness is not allowed. To push the model forward you must be able to think that the impossible may be possible.

    Consider Sir Issac Newton, the man who invented calculus, formulated the laws of motion, and founded the science known as physics. He was a prolific writer, and three quarters of everything he wrote concerned spiritualism and the occult. Dr. Albert Einstein, world famous for his theories of relativity and the photoelectric effect, shook physics to its core and changed it for all time. He spent the last decades of his life pursuing the unified field theory, which was so mathematically abstract it seemed closer to a religion than physics, and at the same time he wrote papers on theology. These are extreme examples of genius, to be sure, but the point is that without at least a slight allowance for an awe of the supernatural, the known laws of physics would have likely remained primitive.”
    (emphasis added)

    James Mahaffey Atomic Awakening: A New Look At The History And Future Of Nuclear Power (2009 pp.XVII-XIX)

    • articulett
      Posted October 2, 2009 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      That irks me too.

      First of all, he presumes his conclusion, so his argument is circular.

      Nothing true or useful has been discovered in science by believing in the supernatural– supernatural beliefs tend to lead people astray, in fact–and it makes them imagine faults in those who threaten their sacred beliefs. Moreover, such beliefs make a person prone to confirmation bias exactly as the author is doing in asserting his premise that great scientific discoveries are more likely to be made by those who “believe in” the supernatural.

      Newton lived in a time where much was not explained, so we can understand why he would believe in supernatural explanations, just as we can understand why people naturally presumed the earth was flat. This was the “common sense” of the era and the best we had until science found the real answers.

      But the great scientists of today have no need for supernaturalism. They find all the “super” they need in the natural world. Understanding the facts is far more awe inspiring than any unsupported belief. Which great scientist of today is a believer in the supernatural?

      All of my favorite scientists and discoverers and communicators of science are naturalists. I don’t think I’d trust someone who is bent on lying to themselves.

      I think that whack-a-mole (or more like “whack-a-weasel”) dialogue. Faitheists use lots of words to imply something smarmy without really saying anything at all.

      Mahaffey may be convincing himself that naturalists curtail discovery while magical beliefs enhance it, but he’s failed to provide any evidence for this assertion.

      Whack! Whack! Whack!
      (a good game of whack-a-mole is great stress relief.)

      • SMo
        Posted October 2, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

        My thoughts exactly! What really got me flustered was that he seemed to imply that if you don’t believe in the supernatural, you have no capacity for imagination!

        I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, and I think it helps to have a healthy imagination. I’m sure most, if not all, research assistants (aka atheists) have a more than adequate capacity for thinking outside the box and questioning what is known to conjure new ideas.

        Also, LOL on the whack-a-kitteh!

      • articulett
        Posted October 3, 2009 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

        I saw the Mahaffey book at the library today in the “new book section– I decided not to get it. What is it with this weird need to denigrate atheists? I think it must just be a way to feel superior when one has no evidence that his beliefs or opinions are superior.

        For example, this guy, Steven, came to this blog and said the following right out of the starting gate:

        Maybe if you guys addressed the beliefs of Christians on a case-by-case basis, instead of assuming that we’re all equally programmed robots, you wouldn’t have situations where arguments that addressed one person’s belief were irrelevant to the next person.

        That’s weirdly rude. Isn’t this just a backhanded way of insulting the group as a whole so he can feel super duper about his imagined superiority–similar to Mahaffey’s implication that believers in the supernatural are more imaginative? It’s a vague statement where evidence is not provided and the premise is assumed in the “argument”. They are words that are meant to leave a “bad taste in ones mouth” about atheism. It doesn’t really take much of a stretch to draw this conclusion from such a lame opening does it? I often wonder if skeptics post dreck like this on a “woo” site? (e.g. “Maybe if you folks addressed the non-beliefs of skeptics on a case-by-case basis, instead of assuming that we’re all equally unimaginative androids, you wouldn’t have situations where arguments that addressed one person’s non-belief were irrelevant to the next person!” *giggles* –I’ve never heard an atheist say such a pompous thing, but I’ve heard similar statements from believers in all sorts of things.)

        So Steven is clearly berating us for something he is never clear about and then he goes on to act like a martyr because we don’t evaluate him as an individual– even though he does exactly what Jerry and PZ were talking about!– he is indistinguishable from the Christian in the example! He’s whining that we have dismissed his belief along with all the others without ever hearing what his belief is. But when asked specifically about his beliefs he flings more straw men and whinging words.

        Like Mahaffey, he NEEDS to see atheists as bad guys –so he provokes their ire and then pretends that their responses proves his “point”. And the weird thing is, no atheist needs to say anything at all to produce such responses. The faitheist and theist KNOW that the atheist feels the same way towards towards faith-in-general that they, themselves, feel towards the myths they dismiss. And part of them must understand that the atheist feels this way for a good reason–so rather than examine that reason, they “kill the messenger” by making him into a bad guy who is not worth listening to. At least I think that is what is going on. Because what else would be the reason to say such goofy things? What do you think Steven or Mahaffey or Mooney would say that their reason was?

        Isn’t Steven whining about not being treated as a single case while his very first post lumped atheists together as a group who don’t take Christians on a case by case basis! That’s ACTUAL irony. And then he pretends to know what irony is. Double irony! Does Steven imagine himself an example of someone who evaluates people on a case by case basis? Does he think we would want to be more like him or that anyone here thinks his opener was a real invitation for discussion? Has his verbiage been at all distinguishable from the whack-a-mole semantics described by PZ? What sort of hubris allows someone to insult a group and then play the martyr when opinions are returned in kind? Isn’t that a far greater example of “irony” than whatever it is that Steven claimed was ironic? That’s what’s so funny to me– so “Dunning-Kruger”. The incompetent folks are too incompetent to KNOW they are the incompetent folks… and so they cannot correct their errors.

        Aren’t all gods “invisible forms of consciousness”– is that really such a hard concept to understand? –they don’t have material brains, but they think and feel and remember and want– just like people who have material brains do. Doesn’t everyone who believes in any supernatural being or story believe in the equivalent of “magic”–the idea that consciousness of some sort can exist absent a material brain and be detected by them while, at the same time, being immeasurable by any scientific test? Is there anything that separate Christian supernatural beliefs from supernatural beliefs in general or belief in “magic”? See, I don’t think there is, but I think it pisses off a believer to say such. And yet it’s a fact, isn’t it? If a believer in the supernatural wants to be treated differently than HE would treat a Scientologist or other crazed believer, then doesn’t it behoove him to give evidence as to what distinguishes him from the delusional person? Or perhaps he ought to just shut his mouth on the topic in the same manner he hopes other superstitious people shut theirs.

        Does Mahaffey distinguish a believer in the supernatural from the delusional? I’m sure he doesn’t think all supernatural beliefs are good for imagination and discoveries. Suppose someone believes in animism or The Matrix… are those equal ways of producing awe or doing whatever it is he imagines supernatural beliefs do for a person? What about Santa belief?

        That’s the ugly secret behind all the apologetics… these folks are really just asking you to respect THEIR woo–to coddle their brand of faith. They’re fine with your criticisms of all other woo since they exercise similar judgment to dismiss it and elevate their own beliefs onto “higher truth” pedestal.

        I think this bullying language is a method religions have used for eons to make faith or belief seem like something noble and respectable– something worth defending. But I can’t help but see it as people defending a lie– unwittingly defending the idea that the proverbial emperor could be wearing magical robes that only “special people” can see.

        They must be playing these word games to make themselves feel superior about an unsupportable premise–which means someone must have used similar mind games on them to get them to spread the “faith in faith” meme. They’ve come to feel “humble” for defending faith even when they no longer have faith themselves. They imagine themselves to be some sort of peacekeepers or moderates when they are, in fact, furthering a prejudice and then crying “no fair” when called on it.

        I think I may have done such a thing at one time. (Thankfully, it was before the internet could record such silliness for posterity.)

        Jerry’s right– we can dismiss such arguments as WAM arguments. (Or we can play a few rounds of whack-a-mole if we need the exercise.)


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  1. [...] Academic theology: a big game of whack-a-mole [...]

  2. [...] theology: a big game of whack-a-mole Academic theology: a big game of whack-a-mole September 27, 2009 – 7:37 pm P. Z. Myers got it right in a terrific response to a [...]

  3. [...] Jerry Coyne adds his voice to the theological whack-a-mole criticism here. [...]

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