John Gray: religion isn’t about truth (and science ain’t so hot, either)

Here’s a short list I quickly concocted giving some religiously-based attacks on science used by accommodationists and others to debase science, dragging it down to the level of faith (readers: feel free to add others):

1. Science is a faith: it depends on “philosophical naturalism” and on on faith that universe is comprehensible (and can be described by mathematics), as well as assumptions that we’re not just “brains in vats” or computer simulations run by aliens

2. Religion isn’t about truth but about ritual, solidarity, etc.

3. Early scientists were religious, so religion had a hand in early science

4. The scientific method and science came from religion

5.  Science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist

6  Science fosters scientism (see yesterday’s post)

7. Science gives us no moral grounding

8. Science has been misused

9. Science is not the only route to knowledge

10.  Science isn’t a good route to truth because it’s often been wrong

Over at the BBC News “Point of View” site, many of these are evinced by political philosopher and accommodationist nonpareil John Gray in his essay “Can religion tell us more than science?” (his BBC show on the topic, of which essay is a transcript, can be heard here).  His points

  • Religions aren’t about particular beliefs or truths, so New Atheist attacks on religious verities are misguided.   Gray:

We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don’t believe. It’s an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism. [JAC: really? I doubt many would call the debate "dull"]. . .

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

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

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

Unfortunately, “practice” is rarely kept private, and that’s the problem. If religious people wanted only to go to church, meditate, do proselytizing-free charity work and so on, that would be fine. But they do have beliefs derived from their faith, and they often try to enforce these on society.  That, I think, is the big problem the New Athiests have with religion: not just the false beliefs, but the need to enforce those beliefs on others (that, of course, is also what political belief engenders, but religion produces a more irrational form of belief).  If you want to see what some religious beliefs do to society, look to Ireland a few decades ago or parts of the Middle East today.

And even if religion doesn’t depend on belief so much as ritual, it’s still divisive and a cause for xenophobia and horrible crimes. Gray mentions Buddhists and Hindus, but religion played a role in the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka (granted, religion was conflated with ethnicity), and especially in the violence that followed the partition of India in 1947.  In the latter episode, millions were slaughtered on the basis of their religion alone.

  • Science ain’t so hot either because it’s often wrong.  Gray:

Obviously, there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important. Courts of law and medicine are evidence-based practices, which need rigorous procedures to establish the facts. . .

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

Yes, science progresses, and earlier ideas are often replaced.  But some things aren’t likely to be: a water molecule has two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, birds descended from dinosaurs, life began about 3.5 billion years ago, tuberculosis is caused by a specific bacterium.  Place all that knowledge of science against any verities produced by faith—there are none of the latter. It’s simply odious to pretend that there’s something wrong with science because it produces a better and better understanding of the world with time, and is sometimes wrong.  Religious “truth claims” are always wrong.

  • Religious myths give us truths, and can be more truthful than science.

Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories.

Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

Note the implicit slur on science in the last sentence, which undoubtedly inspired Gray’s title about religion telling us more than science.  In Gray’s view, religion performs the function of art, literature, and fiction: giving us solidarity with fellow humans, validating ourselves, and so on.  And that’s fine—I’ve never been one to dismiss the value of the arts in this way.  But you don’t need religion to do that, especially those forms or religion based on beliefs that are palpably false.  But Gray shouldn’t pretend that what these stories convey are “truths,” especially because, earlier in his piece, he says that religion isn’t in the business of providing truth!

  • Humans didn’t evolve as animals that can find truth:

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

Through science humans can lift themselves beyond the view of things that’s forced on them by day-to-day existence. They can’t overcome the fact that they remain animals, with minds that aren’t equipped to see into the nature of things.

Darwin’s theory is unlikely to be the final truth. It may be just a rough account of how life has developed in our part of the cosmos. Even so, the clear implication of the theory of evolution is that human knowledge is by its nature limited.

This is extraordinarily stupid stuff.  Begin with his questioning of evolution.  Yes, evolution may be wrong, but I highly doubt it.  It has had a million chances to be disproven (fossils out of place, and so on), but has passed every one. As I show in WEIT, the major tenets of the modern theory of evolution (which, granted, doesn’t understand everything) makes that theory as close to a scientific truth as we can get.

More important, humans have evolved to be generally reliable detectors of truth—at least those truths that enabled us to survive on the savanna:  our eyes tell us what is real, our ears tell us real sounds, and so on.  Our brains evolved to enable us to reliably calculate what others might be thinking and to communicate our feelings and desires to others.  That’s all it takes for our evolved brains to be coopted into a reliable device for seeking truth in other realms, i.e., science.  And if we weren’t evolved to find truth, how come science has found out so many things that work well (e.g., medicines) and can make predictions that are verified?  Yes, our brains are limited, but Gray doesn’t realize that his criticism applies with even more force toward religion than toward science:  we evolved to detect real things in our environment, and to suppose that those senses can be coopted to detect spiritual “realities”, like the nature of God, is simple nonsense.  Religious “verities” depend on subjective factors like revelation.

Gray goes on to make other ludicrous comparisons between science and faith; here’s one:

Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that’s far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.

Yep, saving the world demands not only the facts about the world and what we’re doing to it, which come, of course, from science, but wise guidance and ethical behavior.  You don’t need religion to get the last two, for many of the people engaged in saving the world: conservation biologists, doctors without borders, etc., have no religious belief at all.  And there’s no saving the world without science.  If Gray looked at our modern world for five seconds, and compared that with the world of 1700, he’s see that the world has indeed been remade by science: we eat better, live longer, are healthier, don’t have to toil so hard for our bread, have computers to help us with nearly everything, and so on.  ALLL of that comes from science and none from myth and religion.  It is truly science and not “myth” that has remade our world.  And only a moron can maintain that that observation can be equated with the “truth” of the resurrection of Jesus.

  • Only New Atheists and religious fundamentalists deal with the notion of religious “truths” (the former to dismiss them):

Human beings don’t live by argumentation, and it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.

Well, do Catholics and Anglicans count as “religious fundamentalists”?  How about non-extremist Muslims?  How about American Protestants, 70% of whom believe in a literal heaven, and 63% in angels.  Gray certainly needs to get out more.  He finishes his piece this way:

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

What he doesn’t realize is that so very often what religious people believe determines not only how they live, but how they try to make the rest of us live. Why else is abortion outlawed in Ireland, women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, and Catholic children are regularly terrorized by thoughts of hell?

I’m not familiar with John Gray, but rarely have I seen a nonbeliever (Gray says that “I don’t belong to any religion”) amass so many stupid arguments against science.  Gray seems to enjoy a high reputation in England, but, based on this essay alone, I’m baffled.

134 Comments

  1. JG
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Gray seems to enjoy a high reputation in England

    The multitudinous comments on the BBC site very preponderantly give Gray short shrift, so it may be just among the cocktail classes that Gray enjoys the “high reputation”, if at all.

  2. Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Only New Atheists and religious fundamentalists deal with the notion of religious “truths” (the former to dismiss them):
    Human beings don’t live by argumentation, and it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.

    As any average Christian off the street if it is “true” that Jesus rose from the dead. The vast majority of them will say “yes”; this makes the vast majority of Christians (at least in the US) “religious fundamentalists”.

  3. Tulse
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    “The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion.”

    Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. — John 14:6

    “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” — John 11:26

    And if the notion of creeds doesn’t come from religion, why did I have to recite the Nicene every Sunday at mass?

  4. Egbert
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but I disagree. John Gray is saying a lot of sensible and honest stuff. And it’s about time we listened to it rather than shut out criticism.

    He says “Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works” And he is exactly right. Science gives the best explanation, but doesn’t deal with truths, logic does.

    What makes new atheists justified in their criticism of religion is that religion oversteps its domain into that of politics, ethics and science.

    That justification is political, since we’re political beings in the modern world, and nothing to do with atheism. It has nothing to do with afairyism either.

    We need to grow up fast, and differentiate between politics and science, because we really are in danger of overstepping them.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      subscribing…

    • Juggler_Dave
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      “And it’s about time we listened to it rather than shut out criticism.”??? Who is shutting out criticism? How is responding to something one disagrees with shutting out criticism? How is linking back to the disagreed with article shutting out criticism? I guess I’d better just agree with everything I read. Wouldn’t want to shut out any criticism.

    • AlT
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Egbert says
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
      We need to grow up fast, and differentiate between politics and science, because we really are in danger of overstepping them.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      It is the lack of science in politics that characterizes the primitivity of all socio-political systems, democracy and capitalism included.

      We therefore are better served not by “differentiating between science and politics” but bringing science _INTO_ politics

      This task seems to be rather difficult givent the slow pace with which science replaces institutionalized ignorance as the basis for human condition.

      A good example is the fact that even some so-called “scientists” still entertain the language of “faith”; not to mention the state of the affairs with evolution acceptance by general public

      The general situation regarding the ‘foreseeable’ future
      of man on the planet -‘viability, well-being, 2005-
      forward’- is that because it is ‘a world democracy of
      ignorantly autonomous peoples and nations in primarily
      still-diasporative mode of econiche/earth invasion’,
      there is a certainty of at least continuing, widespread
      and very likely increasing poverty, disease and warfare
      resulting from continuing, widespread and irrecoverable
      resource/environment degradation thru at least 2040-50.
      What is not foreseeable is the degree to which that
      situation may be ‘meliorated’ by how scientists evolving
      intellectually during that period may come to impose the
      ‘dirigiste heurism’ of government that is inevitable in
      any case.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Science gives the best explanation, but doesn’t deal with truths, logic does.

      What nonsense is this?

      Science deals in facts, not truth values. Logic doesn’t assign truth values to empirical facts, only science does that.

      And don’t get me started on the just so “truths” of philosophy…

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      I’m curious to know why you believe that science doesn’t deal with truths. Do you object to the use of the predicate “true”? Am I allowed to say “Evolutionary Theory is true.” At bottom, that doesn’t say anything more or less than simply making all of the claims of evolutionary theory, and it a hell of a lot more concise.

      You have mischaracterized the New Atheist claims about the tenets of religion. As Russell said in the preface of Why I am Not a Christian, religion is both “untrue and harmful”, and the New Atheists all agree. It’s not simply the claim that religion is harmful, but also that it is untrue, totally lacking in evidence, and concocted for reasons having nothing to do with evidence.

  5. Jim Jones
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Science: Antibiotics

    Religion: Pigeon blood.

    How many devout ‘believers’ would choose the latter over the former if infected with leprosy?

  6. Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Religion and Science are not enemies. I believe in God but I don’t believe in Mysticism and Hocus-pocus. Truth is very much an integral part of Religion AND Science. It shouldn’t be ignored by religion or owned by science. Thanks.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      Eh, gods are the very epitome of mysticism and hocus-pocus.

      I’ve been at masses where the celebrant invoked Jesus to cure somebody’s cancer. The only difference between what he did and a voodoo priest compelling a zombie to cast out the evil spirits causing somebody’s cancer is the names of the deities in question and the fact that the voodoo priest uses chicken blood where the Catholic priest uses wine and pretends it’s human blood.

      That’s all there is to differentiate a spell from a prayer, after all — a prayer is what you do to nicely ask your gods to bend the universe to your will, while a spell is what those evil heretics do to order their gods to bend the universe to their wills.

      Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Tulse
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Truth may be an “integral part” of religion, but no religious claims are actually true.

      • Posted September 21, 2011 at 12:41 am | Permalink

        “no religious claims are actually true.” Well, they may be, but the likelihood of that is no better than chance, and religion has no way of determining whether its claims are true or not.

        What is stiking is the lamentable failure of religion to provide an ethical guide that works any better than chance. What would Jesus do? Would he bomb an abortion clinic? Invade Afghanistan? Fight Hitler? Maybe or maybe not, but he would make us feel better about doing what we were going to do anyway, by imagining that is what he would do.

        I guess the one thing religion is good at is making people feel guilty about doing the same kind of thing that humanistic ethics say they shouldn’t do (as well as a whole lot of other stuff that does nobody any harm).

    • vel
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      But you do believe in something that has no evidence and if you are a Christian, then you beleive in some magical man who rose from the dead which is indeed “mysticism and hocus-pocus”. You pick and choose what you want to accept from your suppoed “holy book”, and you self-edit out the parts that are ridiculous to *you*.

      Science, at every turn, has demonstrated your god to be imaginary but then you scramble to redefine your god so it fits into the current gaps. That’s why they are “enemies”.

    • BilBy
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      Hocus-pocus. Hoc est corpus meum…

    • Kevin
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      So, please explain to me one “truth” that religion has arrive at which overturned a scientific finding.

      You’re using a non-standard (theistic) definition of “truth”. In fact, whenever a theist uses the word “truth” in this way, it is defined to mean nothing like “truth” at all.

      Go ahead, I’m waiting. What “truth” has religion discovered that overturns a scientific finding.

  7. Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    What really boggles my mind is how, in this day and age, somebody can question evolution and not be immediately dismissed as a flat-earth astrology-huffing nitwit looking to cure cancer by using a Philosopher’s Stone to turn phlogiston into a humor-devouring aether.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • daveau
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Wait. So you’re saying the earth isn’t flat?

      • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

        Of course not, silly!

        It’s a cube. Duh.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Kevin
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

          Wow. Someone seriously is off his meds over there.

        • daveau
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          Thanks. That makes complete sense now.

        • CarlosT
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          Okay, so I know this is TimeCube you’re linking to, but I’ve often wondered what gravity would be like on Bizarro World. In other words, how would the surface of Bizarro world feel like?

          • Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

            Like a world with eight very tall mountains!

            /@

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

            Light. You can’t make a very large planet before it succumbs to gravity and attains hydrostatic equilibrium. (Roughly: spherical shape.)

            But then, what Ant Allan said.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

              Oops. _You_ would feel light; the surface would feel dusty (regolith due to no atmosphere).

            • Scott near Berkeley
              Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

              I was musing about information that can never be found “true” or “not true”, and I considered:

              Is it possible that a planet could be 100% H2O, in liquid form, perhaps in vacuous space, but maybe in some sort of “gas cloud” that encompassed a particular star system? Or, would it be beyond “knowing” if such a planet existed?

              A hypothetical planet that was 100% H2O would eventually become contaminated, eventually, and lose its special status as “pure water”. But, is it physically possible?

              • Posted September 22, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

                From what I understand – and physicists can correct me – liquids (with the possible exception of helium 3) are all due to pressure. Hence a pure liquid planet is impossible. You could, I suppose, perhaps, have a planet made of *gaseous* water, though, but it would likely have to be in a pretty weird location relative to its star, or it would evaporate/freeze.

  8. vel
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    the utter dishonesty by theists and some accomodationists amazes me. The pathetic attempts to redefine words so their claims are “true” are probably the most ridiculous, and this one “Religions aren’t about particular beliefs or truths,” takes the cake.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’m sure all the people Calvin burned at the stake will be very much comforted to know that they did not die because of their particular beliefs.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      It may be something other than dishonesty. I am getting more convinced (h/t to Gerald Edelman for introducing this phenomenon to me) that some people have a form of Anosognosia:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anosognosia

      Rather than dishonesty, it is more akin to mental illness.

      It has been discovered that every human has a degree of Autism, but a high degree of it is debilitating. Perhaps religious practice evolves into a form of Anosognosia?

  9. Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    As I said on the other thread, this piece is hopeless in almost all respects.

    I occasionally find snippets of Gray that I like, but mostly his thinking is so chock full of antipathy for new atheism and science that it colours almost his every paragraph. I had to give up on Straw Dogs because of his incessant pessimism, mostly backed by ungrounded assertion. Where his claims are true they are not remotely original, and he seems to think they’ve not been considered by anyone, or that people haven’t thought through what science tells us about ourselves. And his conclusions are non sequiturs.

    Once again, a ‘serious’ thinker attempts to defend religious thinking, but laughable arguments just make the case against it stronger.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      I should clarify, I mean Gray’s piece! Jerry is right on the money.

    • Marvol19
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I too had to give up on Straw Dogs after what, a chapter or so. It was so full of logical fallacies, unbased assertions and plain nonsense it was unbearable.

      John Gray knows absolutely nothing about how science works, and unfortunately it shows. I honestly do not know where his apparent esteemed reputation comes from. Or maybe it’s that the people that esteem him know even less about science and take his opinion for gospel.

  10. FTFKDad
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    “Evolution may breed skepticism, but its adherents have continued to make religious proclamations. Indeed, those proclamations are really no different than those made by Darwin and his fellow Victorians.”
    “Richard Dawkins is driven by his metaphysics which he then proceeds to deny.”
    “all of this rests on their non scientific premise. Without the premise, all we are left with is the ludicrous, junk science that cells spontanously transform into elephants.”
    “Evolution is the right conclusion given a gnostic starting point.”

    A few quotes taken from recent posts by Cornelius Hunter at UD.

  11. NoAstronomer
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    So much wrong, so little space to type.

    “Religious myths give us truths”

    Other than accidentally, no they don’t. If Gray is choosing to equate religion with art and poetry I’ll point out that they don’t give us truths either.

    That’s the trouble with art. A particular piece of art might tell us about ourselves or about the world. Or it might not reveal anything useful. Or it might tell us something that seems to be the truth but is actually wrong.

    How are we supposed to tell the difference?

    Science.

    It’s the only way to be sure.

    Mike.

  12. Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    No relation!

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Well, to be fair, I’m sure the two of you must have at least one common ancestor in the past hundred million years or so….

      b&

  13. Sastra
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Ah, I see. Atheists don’t understand religion because they think it’s just a bunch of (scornful voice) “myths.” When instead religion is really (impressed voice) myths. You can argue for atheism while sounding like you’re supporting religion, and vice versa. Just change the place you place your approval and no one will be the wiser.

    How bizarre that he apparently thinks one’s subjective attitude changes objective facts from true to false. Or “true” to “false.” Accomodationists must walk around carrying bags of scare quotes.

    You forgot one of the most popular of the religiously-based attacks on science:

    You can’t see love with a microscope.

    You can see variations of that one all over Gray’s essay, though. Once belief in God is turned into an approach or a value or a practice or an attitude — instead of a conclusion inferred from evidence — using scientific analysis — or any kind of analysis at all — is as foolish as trying to measure preferences against each other.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      These are priceless…(and hit just a tad too close to home for my comfort) :-)

      “Ah, I see. Atheists don’t understand religion because they think it’s just a bunch of (scornful voice) ‘myths.’ When instead religion is really (impressed voice) myths.”

      “Accomodationists must walk around carrying bags of scare quotes.”

  14. Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    We’ve had a running argument with a Jewish convert who is using Gray’s article as evidence that Judaism, and indeed religion in general except for ‘fundamentalists’, has very little to do with belief. We non-Jew atheists who objected to this were dismissed as just not understanding Judaism.

    I was pleased to introduce Dr. Coyne’s post as another “Jewish” view on the subject. Strangely enough, it seems very similar to my goyish, godless view.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      So the convert didn’t actually change his/her beliefs? It was just a matter of not working on Saturday and having a nifty meal every year?

      It seems very hard to argue that a religion founded on the alleged direct contract between a deity and a people doesn’t have “beliefs”. So Passover is just a nice story, like Paul Bunyan and his blue ox? The land of Israel really wasn’t given to the Jewish people by their god, but instead that’s just a cultural thing?

      Seriously?

      • Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        I know it’s hard to believe…but, yes. Seriously. There’s a significant current in modern Judaism that’s pretty much exactly as you describe it.

        I suspect the days of such are numbered, though, as more and more people come to realize that, as wonderful as a Seder is, the story of YHWH opening a can of biowarfare whoopass on the Egyptians and slaughtering all their children really isn’t something to celebrate after all. Even if they know it’s all make-beleive.

        In time — and not much time, I think — it’ll be like American Thanksgiving.

        I hope.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          I certainly can see how people can continue to practice religious rituals while not believing in their underlying myths very much (or at all).

          What I couldn’t see is how an outsider could possibly “convert” to a religion without sharing any of its beliefs (even if the existing members did not always hold to those beliefs anymore).

          I also didn’t buy this guy’s assertion that Christianity (aside from fundies) wasn’t dependent on belief. Heck, even in liberal Anglican circles, you had to recite the creeds (I believe …) at every service. You certainly couldn’t join or be confirmed without swearing to those beliefs.

          • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

            Well, with rare exception, Judaism isn’t a proselytizing religion. There are even those who don’t consider conversion valid.

            And, in contrast to Christianity’s fascination with loyalty oaths, every rabbi with whom I’ve ever had the discussion has been quick to observe that, far from belief being a necessity, atheism is perfectly compatible with being an observant Jew. I think there’re probably significant numbers of rabbis who would acknowledge being atheists, though they probably wouldn’t advertise the fact.

            (Yes, Wolpe is not in that number.)

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

              Would someone be welcomed as a convert to Judaism without sharing any of its beliefs (however defined)?

              I understand that once you’re in (either by birth or conversion), you’re in.

              • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

                I’m not quite sure how such a situation might arise…maybe through marriage?

                It would depend on the congregation, of course, as well as the professed reasons for desiring conversion. It’s probably not entirely out of the question.

                You would, of course, have to got through the motions — whatever that particular congregation demanded of converts. There’d at least be some Hebrew study, and there might even be a need for a certain elective cosmetic medical procedure, if you get my drift….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Vicki
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                Anecdata, admittedly, but I know someone who is very definitely in that situation. I’m still not clear on why she wanted to convert, but the rabbis were okay with her saying that she didn’t believe in God but wanted to. (I don’t really get this, either, I’m just describing.) Same Hebrew study and such as would be asked of any would-be convert.

        • Sajanas
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

          And also, when you don’t believe in a God, the stories in the Bible are just so sad. People credit every good thing that happens to them to a nonexistent entity, and blame every bad thing on themselves, and their inability to live up to the standards set by a nonexistent thing. The parts of the Bible that actually have real historical events in them (like the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and Judah by the Babylonians) spend a lot of time blaming the successful, long lived kings who had tolerant, multicultural kingdoms for the failures of the zealous, intolerant warrior kings. And the whole book celebrates the notion of having an insular, ‘pure’ culture, without intermarriage or cultural exchange for… what reason exactly? Because the people are ‘chosen’ by some God that doesn’t exist?

          • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

            Indeed, modern Judaism’s finest virtue is that it’s even more divorced from its foundational scriptures than modern Christianity.

            We’re coming up on Rosh Hashana, so it’s worth noting that the Jewish notion of repentance and forgiveness is quite sophisticated. Forgiveness is granted by the aggrieved party, not by any deity, and one may only ask for forgiveness after completing a complicated series of steps that include making amends and ensuring that whatever-it-was won’t happen again. Contrast that with the Christian version in which invoking a zombie with a magic spell is all one needs to forgive literally anything and everything….

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Sajanas
              Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

              Or asking a man in a black robe who has you say random phrases as a way of redeeming yourself. I like that Jewish redemption at least involves doing something with the aggrieved party.

              • Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

                Yes, making it dependent on the aggrieved party is important, but even more important are the bits about fixing what you broke and making sure you don’t break things again in the future.

                Really, it’s a recursive recipe for reducing transgression.

                (Of course, only when it’s actually applied….)

                Cheers,

                b&

            • daveau
              Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

              Stephen Colbert annually trots out his “Atone Phone” (1-800-OOPS-JEW) so that people can call and ask for his forgiveness. He also has a list of people who owe him a call.

        • Tulse
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          There’s a significant current in modern Judaism that’s pretty much exactly as you describe it.

          But is that religious Judaism, or merely cultural and/or ethnic Judaism? I like Christmas, and am happy to get off work for Easter, but I’m not a Christian.

          The question is to what extent one can call a set of practices a religion if there is no supernatural belief involved. If it’s just a bunch of cultural practices, how is that different from Thanksgiving, or New Years, or Yankee’s fandom?

          • Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

            It really is religious Judaism. As in, there are openly atheist rabbis who still lead congregations, such as Sherman Wine — and he’s not the only one. You’ll find other “out” atheists who regularly attend schule.

            If it helps, think of them as “spiritual” brethren to the Unitarians, but nowhere near as wishy-washy.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Tulse
              Posted September 21, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

              It really is religious Judaism.

              But what makes it religious? How is this different than me staging a play called “The Catholic Mass”, with me in the role of “The Priest”, wherein the actors perform all the words and actions of a Mass?

              If I as an adult mailed letters to North Pole every December listing gifts I hoped to receive, and went to malls to sit on the laps of bearded men there and related that same list, and put out milk and cookies on December 24, while ensuring my chimney flue was open…yet at the same time vehemently denied belief in an actual Santa Claus, you’d think I was crazy. I don’t see how atheist rabbis are any less crazy.

              • Posted September 21, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

                I don’t know what else to add.

                If somebody is the rabbi of an active congregation, it seems silly to not describe that person and his or her activities as religious, even if the rabbi is an out atheist.

                Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no craziness involved….

                There’s another way to look at it. I’m sure you’ve heard the one about seminaries being the best atheist factories there are. And you should by now be familiar with Dan Barker’s Clergy Project. If a closeted atheist can be a priest and be religious, why can’t an out atheist be a rabbi and be religious?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted September 21, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                If a closeted atheist can be a priest and be religious

                I don’t they can, at least not as I define “religious”. I can appear to be religious if I am a closeted atheist, but if I am in the process of no longer believing in the particular tenets of faith, then, as REM says, I am “losing my religion”. The common-sense notion captured by that phrase is meaningless if belief is not a necessary component of religion.

                I suppose one could define religion solely in terms of its external trappings, its rituals and behaviours and cultural accretions, without any reference to beliefs. But in that case, you’ll have a hard time distinguishing religion from other sociological activities.

                If religion doesn’t involve belief, then I don’t see what makes it “religion”.

              • Posted September 21, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                I suppose it does come down to definitions. So, how would you describe an atheist who leads a religious congregation?

                Insane, yes. And perhaps more than a bit dishonest.

                But “secular” sure doesn’t fit the bill, and you’re opposed to “religious.” So what’s left?

                b&

              • Posted September 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                “So, how would you describe an atheist who leads a religious congregation?”

                The Pope.

      • Kevin
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        Yes, I’m sure the Palestinians will be very happy to know that the Jewish people regard that piece of land to be nothing more than real estate, not “promised” to anyone by anyone else.

        Would make the entire peace process so much simpler, wouldn’t it?

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        Both practice and belief are important, although the particular religion may be largely about the former with very little of the latter.

        There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud of Rabbi Hillel’s being asked to teach an unbeliever about the meaning of Torah while the latter stood on one leg. Hillel was reported to have said, “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” So, this seems to be advocating a practice based life. At this most basic level, Hillel didn’t even mention God and the need to believe in him. Of course, observing the substantial amount of daily rules and regulations without some form of belief would be most peculiar. There are some who do this and who describe themselves as orthoprax, but they’re in a distinct minority.

        My suspicion is that in some forms of Christianity, the relative amount of practice and belief may be reversed.

        • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          If that’s all there is to the Torah, why do people still bother with the Torah? I’ve read the damn thing, and most of it doesn’t help much with the ‘don’t do unto others what you find hateful’ thing.

          • Llwddythlw
            Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

            What Hillel meant, I think, was that that was the most important feature, as far as how to live your life was concerned. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, this approach may not have originated with Judaism.

            Also, when Hillel said “Torah” he was including the written and oral law. He did go on to suggest that one needed to study the rest of it.

            • Posted September 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

              My point was that this adage might be a summary of a good thing from the Torah (although it’s quite a stretch from Leviticus 19 to there), but there’s a helluva lotta things in there that aren’t compatible with this golden rule variation at all. It’s not the ‘whole Torah’ — it’s a tiny piece of it, cherry picked and refined.

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

                The point is that Hillel was put in the unenviable position of having to provide a summary of such a large document (written and oral). It’s an impossible task, and maybe the sensible answer was to say “go away”. According to tradition, this is exactly what Hillel’s rival teacher Shammai said to the non-believer.

                What I take from the episode is that Hillel was really saying, “if you can only take home one thing from studying Torah, it’s this.”

        • Tulse
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

          And how well do you think Hillel’s lesson is being observed by the state of Israel? It is just silly to say that Judaism is just the Golden Rule with lots of eating — the most powerful and important representation of Judaism on the planet is embroiled in deep political and social trouble precisely because it claims divine right to a chunk of land, and is willing to grossly violate Hillel’s injunction for the current residents of a portion of said land.

          • Llwddythlw
            Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

            This is totally irrelevant. I was responding only to the point about whether or not religions are founded on practice or belief, as in the article.

            • Tulse
              Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

              It is not at all irrelevant, as it indicates that while one famous rabbi argued merely for the Golden Rule, the main representation of Judaism on the planet clearly argues that belief in divinely ordained land trumps that Rule. It is an existence proof that belief is far more important than practice.

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                That isn’t what “Israel” is arguing. Even if they were, it would not violate that rule. Explain to me why the disputed territories should be Judenrein, which is what the Palestinians and their supporters are arguing.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                Why does the current government of Israel think that it deserves to have all of the disputed land it claims, except that it was part of historical Israel granted them by their god?

                Explain to me why the disputed territories should be Judenrein, which is what the Palestinians and their supporters are arguing.

                Explain to me how that has any bearing on the issue of not doing unto others that which is hateful to you. Are you saying that those in the government of Israel would not find it hateful to be treated in the manner that they treat the Palestinians?

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

                I’m running out of reply space. The government of Israel is committed to a negotiated settlement of the disputed territories. It is not claiming that it should have all of them. However, there is no reason why there should be no Jews living in those territories. Are you disputing that?

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

                The Israelis would find it hateful to behave towards the Palestinians in the manner in which the Palestinians or any other of their neighbours behave towards Israel.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                You still haven’t responded to my claim that there is a religious belief at the heart of the claim for Palestinian land. I believe that it is incontrovertible that there is (if for no other reason that the minority Orthodox parties have enormous sway in the Knesset, and they most clearly do believe that the land was given to them by their god).

                The Israelis would find it hateful to behave towards the Palestinians in the manner in which the Palestinians or any other of their neighbours behave towards Israel.

                Yes, but that wasn’t the question, and wasn’t what Hillel said was the meaning of the Torah. Do you think that Hillel would have found the treatment of the Palestinians by the government of Israel to meet his criterion?

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

                Some people, no doubt, believe that part of their claim for the disputed territories is based on the Bible. That, however, is not what the government will use during negotiations, if negotiations take place. I am certain of this.

                Accordingly, it is not relevant to ask if Hillel’s rule applies to the deliberations of the government over the territories, because they will be political deliberations not religious deliberations.

                Now, please answer my question. Do you think those territories should have no Jews living in them?

              • Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                Do you think that Hillel would have found the treatment of the Palestinians by the government of Israel to meet his criterion?

                Obviously, that would depend entirely on whether or not he thought of the Palestinians as people. He might well not have.

                Whenever the Arab / Israeli conflict comes up, I feel compelled to observe that there’s far too much blame to go around. Both sides have perpetuated unforgivable horrors upon each other.

                But the only way we’ll ever see peace in the Middle East is if they all forgive the unforgivable. The Irish figured it out, so I have hope. But there’s not much going on on the ground there to justify my hope.

                Had President Carter won reelection, I think we actually would have had that peace by now — and, as a result, no Gulf Wars, no 9/11, and on and on. His energy conservation measures would also have taken hold, and the disproportionate dominance of the entire region would not exist today.

                b&

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

                Ben, I hope you are right, but like you, I don’t see much evidence that there’s going to be a fair resolution any time soon. Conor Cruise O’Brien compared the two situations in “The Siege”, but I’m afraid he wasn’t particularly confident of a happy outcome, at least in the near future.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

                Some people, no doubt, believe that part of their claim for the disputed territories is based on the Bible. That, however, is not what the government will use during negotiations

                Of course not, but that is not the issue — the issue is why they believe they are entitled to the land to begin with, and that entitlement is most definitely due to a religious belief.

                Accordingly, it is not relevant to ask if Hillel’s rule applies to the deliberations of the government over the territories, because they will be political deliberations not religious deliberations.

                So you think that one does not have to act in accordance with one’s religiously-determined morality in politics? Do you think that Hillel would have been willing to be so hypocritical?

                Now, please answer my question. Do you think those territories should have no Jews living in them?

                No, I don’t think that. But my personal opinion on this matter is of course completely irrelevant to the issues we were discussing.

          • Llwddythlw
            Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

            ..and I’ve no idea what Hillel would make of Israel’s treatment of a group that still holds on to the idea of Israel’s destruction.

            • Tulse
              Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

              Does Hillel’s injunction say anything about the behaviour of others? Do you similarly think that Jesus taught to turn the other cheek only in situations where people are nice to you?

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Not directly, no. It’s very terse and is a good basis on which to build, I think, but it doesn’t go beyond this. For this reason, he advocated that the person standing on one leg “go and study”.

                I assume Jesus meant that particular teaching to apply in exactly the opposite situation.

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure if I’m answering the right thread, but the territories in question were captured after the 1967 war (either from Jordan or from Egypt depending on which territories you’re refererring to). It is the intention of the government to negotiate over the land because it is far from clear who owns it. If you go back and look at the sequence of events, starting from the British mandate and Balfour Declaration, the hiving of Transjordan, the Partition Plan, the subsequent War of Independence, Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, and so on, I don’t think there is a legal owner of the land. I can only say again that you are wrong to suppose that the government of Israel believes they have a right to that land because of a religious belief. They will observe the provisions of UN Resolution 242. What they want ultimately is to live within secure borders. If that had been available to them pre-1967, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

                So you think that one does not have to act in accordance with one’s religiously-determined morality in politics? Do you think that Hillel would have been willing to be so hypocritical?

                I don’t know, but this is a matter of my personal opinion and is not relevant to the decisions which the government of Israel will have to make and which will be dictated primarily by considerations of security and not religion. Furthermore NONE of this is relevant to my original point about Hillel which was simply intended to show that he summarized the Judaism of his day into a matter of practice without explicitly mentioning belief. That was all.

    • cnorman18
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      I am the Jewish convert to whom Ray is referring. Just for the record, he has, over and over, characterized me as a convert who “does not share any of their (Jews’) beliefs.” He has been rather resistant to correction on that point, in spite of numerous attempts.

      I have said (over and over) that ONE of the things I value about Judaism is that it specifies and/or requires no theological beliefs in particular, including the objective existence of God. That does not mean I have none, and it does not mean that I do not share Jewish “beliefs.” My own THEOLOGICAL beliefs, which seem to be the only kind admitted to discussion here, are not particularly well-defined; but that is perfectly acceptable in Judaism, because “beliefs” are not the point in that religion.

      Here’s a news flash: When going through the conversion process, particular theological beliefs are not taught; a spectrum of beliefs are presented and left up to the individual to choose from, or ignore. One’s personal beliefs are neither examined nor inquired into. Belief in or of any particular theological or metaphysical concept is OPTIONAL in Judaism; “the only dogma of Judaism is that there is no dogma.” Theology is not necessarily central to many other faiths as well. THAT seems to be the point that so many atheists find difficult to comprehend or accept.

      Religion does not NECESSARILY entail supernatural beliefs that are not objectively provable, and such beliefs are certainly not all there is to religion, even where they are present. What’s so hard about that?

      • Tulse
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        ONE of the things I value about Judaism is that it specifies and/or requires no theological beliefs in particular, including the objective existence of God

        So one can be a religious Jew and not believe in a god? One can be a religious Jew and think that the Passover is just a nice fairy tale? One can be a religious Jew and not think that one is part of a people chosen by a god?

        If so, what the heck does the “religious” part mean?

      • Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        Just for the record, he has, over and over, characterized me as a convert who “does not share any of their (Jews’) beliefs.” He has been rather resistant to correction on that point, in spite of numerous attempts.

        Citation needed, please.

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        May I ask what type (I mean denomination) of conversion you went through?

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Actually, I would argue that the doctrine of “Torah from heaven” (Torah min hashamayim) is probably the only dogma to be found in orthodox Judaism (but it’s completely absent from Conservative or Reform Judaism).

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Religion does not NECESSARILY entail supernatural beliefs that are not objectively provable, and such beliefs are certainly not all there is to religion, even where they are present. What’s so hard about that?

        “That, I think, is the big problem the New Athiests have with religion: not just the false beliefs, but the need to enforce those beliefs on others (that, of course, is also what political belief engenders, but religion produces a more irrational form of belief). [...]

        And even if religion doesn’t depend on belief so much as ritual, it’s still divisive and a cause for xenophobia and horrible crimes.”

        What’s so hard about that?

      • vel
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        “Religion does not NECESSARILY entail supernatural beliefs that are not objectively provable, and such beliefs are certainly not all there is to religion, even where they are present. What’s so hard about that?”

        another attempt to redefine religion in this context. Rather sad. I would love to know what you think religion means when discussed by theologians and atheists?

  15. Peter Hoffman
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the response, to the fact that science does revise quite often what are then called “errors” by some, is weaker than it could be, in particular that by Coyne is, but perhaps he feels the following is not important enough to warrant the words. I’d disagree with that.

    Of course, scientists are human and actually make mistakes. And of course, there are scientific frauds which can take time to uncover. I’m not referring to these easily provided responses.

    But, more importantly, we also have fundamental changes, such as the move from Newtonian physics to quantum and relativistic physics (the latter themselves to be eventually revised, since they would appear to be logically inconsistent with each other in what we at present term ‘extreme’ cases such as quantum gravity). I realize that the philosophers have had many tons of paper written on this sort of thing, though I’d be inclined to regard Kuhn’s much discussed “paradigm shift” as far more a contribution to the philosophy of scientists sociology, than to the philosophy of science itself.

    However, it is claimed that Newtonian physics is ‘false’, is an ‘error’, etc., and used by the opponents of the perfectly reasonable claim that any genuine truth can only be found by a suitably general version of the scientific method. They are wrong about this ‘error’ claim, coming from what almost always seems to be ignorance of the fact that Newtonian physics is completely accurate to the extent that measurement accuracy will permit within the context where it applies. In more logical (i.e. mathematical) terms, it is a mathematical limit of each of quantum physics and relativistic physics. I know there is nothing new at all in what I just said. And I know that philosophers have all sorts of (always silly, to my knowledge) ways of arguing about this.

    But I do think the old arguments, but correct ones, in the above paragraph need to be emphasized more often than they are, in response to the tired old thrusting forward of the so-called ‘errors of science’ as an argument against its uniqueness in arriving at what is true.

    • eric
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Peter, NM is wrong about Mercury’s orbit, a context (i.e., celestial mechanics) it was specifically intended to apply to. It makes no sense to say that a discovery in 1905 means we’d been using it out of the proper context for 180 years. That’s a very post-hoc way to defend the notion that it’s ‘completely accurate.’ Better to say that its highly accurate but not completely accurate.

      I didn’t think much of Gray’s arguments. Seems like the same ‘ol thing: a philosopher redefining religion to be completely different from the concept normal people actually use, in order to defend it. This is an extremely poor defense. Sort of like defending a claim that dogs have six legs by saing most people incorrectly use the word “dog” to refer to canines when they philosophically ought to use it to refer to insects. See, now ‘dogs have six legs’ is perfectly defensible! Nobody should fall for such a lame argument.

      • Peter Hoffman
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        Well, at the time, Newtonian physics “was specifically intended to apply to” everything, so to speak, and to quote your words. This is as it should be with any general scientific theory, which of course we expect to eventually be ‘false’, in that same sense that its ‘true’ context must be made explicit as possible, and the new theory, of which the old would be an approximation, is now taken to be true in complete generality, again not being surprised when it gets replaced.

        As for the orbit of mercury, the general, not special, theory of relativity pointed out how that problem did in fact lie outside the range within which Newtonian calculations would be valid. Of course, the latter was known well before ‘old Albert’ (as our silly fundraising vice-pres once termed him!) was even born. It was not the major motivation of Einstein for generalizing from “special” to “general” I expect, but I don’t know to what extent it was some motivation.

        I didn’t claim that ‘believers’ in the “old theory” necessarily did not begin to see problems with it well before a new, more accurate, one had arrived. But I still believe what I said to be correct. However, perhaps you have a counterargument or/and another counterexample.

        I agree entirely with your second paragraph. But surely we’re always doing the “post-hoc” in science.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

          This is as it should be with any general scientific theory, which of course we expect to eventually be ‘false’,

          That is contextual, I would say.

          One example is biology where theory is inclusive, so evolution will remain ‘true’ but getting better.

          Another example is outside of effective theories. Quantum mechanics are known to be minimal in both number of variables (no “hidden” variables) and parameters (minimize the parameter set, IIRC). It simply can’t be ‘false’. (But of course possibly as in biology be included in some larger theory set.)

          • Peter Hoffman
            Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            I largely agree, with a couple of provisos.

            The general theory, when it comes to biology, would seem to really be evolution driven by natural selection. The tautological part of natural selection, as with any other correct mathematics/logic, is immune from being ‘false’. But the claim that the theory is inclusive could change if life of some kind is discovered somewhere away from the earth. And who knows what status the non-tautological, the really important, aspect of natural selection would have. Maybe environmental variation would be too tiny for it to be of any importance there.
            And there may be all sorts of other things which I fail to have any imagination about. But Dennett is very convincing when discussing Darwin’s “best idea anybody anywhere ever had”. I cannot imagine how anything we would call “life” anywhere could arise except by natural selection, but that isn’t enough to exclude the possibility.

            As for quantum theory, in the more natural sense, nobody seems to understand it, and I’m not likely to ever be in a position to second-guess Feynman. In the purely mathematical-recipe sense, I guess it is very well understood, but I don’t follow the argument that it couldn’t become ‘false’, though likely that’s my fault, not Torbjorn’s.

  16. daveau
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    “Art and poetry aren’t about establishing facts.”

    And they aren’t about oppressing anyone, either.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      I think you’ve started to explain why it’s commonly asserted that a scientific approach isn’t appropriate for the arts, but that it may have quite a lot to say about morality. The stakes aren’t as high in the arts.

      Although, knowing that stumblebums like Morten Lauridsen are so successful is profoundly detrimental to my well-being.

      • daveau
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        I don’t think the arts run contrary to facts. If I did, then I’d question poetry and music too.

  17. Rick
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    “We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don’t believe.”

    Wait. Has he never seen all the sects of Christianity? Doesn’t he realize that ALL of those splits occurred over differences in belief?

    Has he not seen the Beliefnet.com Belief-o-Matic that accurately assesses what religion you should be based on your stated beliefs?

    I can’t wait to read more of his out-of-touch ramblings.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      Why does Emo Philips come to mind at this time?

  18. R.W.
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Sounds very much like John Gray is seriously lacking in gray matter.

  19. Mirik
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Newsflash; John Gray says something utterly nonsensical & self-refuting.

    Nothing new to see here, moving on.

  20. Outlier
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    … the need to enforce those beliefs on others (that, of course, is also what political belief engenders, but religion produces a more irrational form of belief).

    That last is sure not clear to me. At least religion has a certain stability to it, whereas politics seems to be chaotic (in the technical sense). You seem to assume that the meme flow is one-way. But it seems to me that politics drives (organized) religion at least as much as vice versa.

    … and I don’t think Gray is saying evolution is wrong, just pointing out that it doesn’t answer all human concerns. If you think it is the complete answer, I wonder, what do you think is the question?

    • eric
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      Stability is not the positive you think it is. To show that, let’s rephrase it: would you rather have a system that enforces a set of behaviors on the community without feedback from that community, or one with feedback? Keeping in mind the one with feedback will be a lot less stable. :)

      it seems to me that politics drives (organized) religion at least as much as vice versa

      Totally agree with you there. Though I’d say culture rather than politics. IMO religion is often the justification given for cultural beliefs, But it is not really a justification at all, it’s really just a thin veneer. A Parisian is much more likely to have many beliefs about government, law, justice, etc… in common with another Parisian of a different religion, than they are with an Afghani of the same religion. Even though both believers will claim God agrees with them on such topics. People invoke God’s support even on trivial matters: in Dallas he’s a Cowboys fan, in D.C, a Redskins fan. Imagine that!

      • Outlier
        Posted September 21, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        Stability is when things have a tendency to return to some sort of median; chaos is when the sequence of excursions can’t be predicted, and the magnitude of excursions can’t be limited. And yes, I do think stability in social trends is a good thing. And politics is chaotic, which is why we have wars, although “everybody” knows that they are terrible horrible things and it’s much better to keep social violence at some low value.

        I see religion as a storehouse of cultural beliefs; not justification. There is more to life than justification, what I said before.

  21. Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Science & scientists have an ethical commitment to think along rational lines. They hypothesize, challenge the evidence, and never accept that that a question has been answered as well as it ever will be.

    Religion, and those dependent on a deity, come up way short in comparison, and are thus more vulnerable to irrational influences that can often lead to aggressive assaults on those with dissimilar beliefs.

  22. John Robinson
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Gray’s real beef is with the philsophy of the Enlightenment, and his thesis is that there is no progressive trajectory in human affairs. Most of his non-academic writings are on this theme.

    Whilst he cannot personally accept a religious belief, he is happy enough to join in any argument that adds to his existing stance on progress, or lack of it, even to the exent of praising what he actually does not believe in.

    He rather enjoys creating controvery for the sake of it, I suspect, and perhaps, in trying to stoke that controversy, commits errors of argument that would not be allowed to pass in his academic output.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Bravo! Thorough and thoroughly correct, what I can see.

  24. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    There’s true as in factual – science

    There’s true as in logical -mathematics

    There’s true as in meaningful – religion

    There’s true which shifts between all meanings, often in the same sentence – apologetics and accommodationism and the seriously confused.

    • eric
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Could you give an example of a true-as-in-meaningful that is derived from religion?

      To be clear, I don’t mean a statement people find meaningful and which various religions agree with. I mean a statement that can reasonably claimed to be a discovery of religion as a methodology or discipline, the same way F=ma is credited to science.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Hmm… in what sense is religion meaningful?

      /@

      • Kevin
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        Meaningfulness does not equate with truth.

        Example: Most Christians find the concept of eternal afterlife “meaningful” (for many, it’s the only thing that matters). That doesn’t mean it’s true. It may be useful (for the preachers and the politicians), but in the end, it’s a lie.

        The only intellectually honest approach should be:

        Scientific truth: That which can be objectively verified within the context of model-dependent realism.

        Religious truth: That which can be objectively verified within the context of model-dependent realism.

        Except that by confining yourself to a single definition of “truth”, the set that contains “religious truth” turns out to be a null set. There is no such a thing.

        Each and every “religious truth” someone claims is, in fact, nothing more and nothing less than a lie. Or a secular truth dressed up in a funny hat.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      “True” does not mean “meaningful”, not in its philosophical, scientific, or common usages.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      True as in meaningful?

      I would’ve thought that for something to be correctly described as “true” it would have to be “true” for everybody, i.e. objectively true.

      Meaning, however, is utterly subjective regardless of the faith-status of whoever sees it. It may be the case that many atheists see meaning (if meaning is even something they think about) inherent in the various parts of their lives and some will say they give their own lives meaning – but sources of meaning won’t be the same for every atheist. Likewise with religious believers, although the stark differences between religions (and even within them) will always present different and even diametrically opposed sources of meaning.

      No, I don’t accept that “true” can be defined as “meaningful”, unless of course you redefine “true” such that it’s meaningless.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    If we know anything, it’s that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better.

    If we know anything, <ait’s that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with very little error; “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood”.

    Yes, effective theories will be replaced (physics) or transformed (biology), but that doesn’t mean the old ones are abandoned or hugely incorrect inside areas of applicability. Classical mechanics is a good and _practical_ approximation to special relativity and quantum mechanics both, in regimes of everyday life; gravity field theory (newton gravity) is a good and _practical_ approximation to general relativity, in regimes of everyday life; and so on.

  26. Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    His attack on poor old Charlie is totally unwarranted. I am getting highly irritated with the sniping at the sciences by a selection of arty people who clearly have the ear of the media in the UK (BBC and Guardian in particular) and little understanding of scientific truths. Bet Gray is buddies with Eagleton…

  27. MadScientist
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I found Gray’s article incoherent and exceedingly dimwitted. He throws up a lot of lies and incorrect assumptions and offers those as truth and imagines that his cornucopia of crap somehow supports his thesis. I was telling my wife that if I were editor I’d scream at him to grow at least half a brain and go back to school to learn how to write (among other things).

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      Righto:

      – incoherent
      – exceedingly dimwitted
      – lies
      – incorrect assumptions
      – cornucopia of crap

      Might I add “bog-standard pig-ignorant accomodationist uber-drivel based on very little but a breathtaking lack of understanding of reality that bears no resemblance to anybody or anything that he’s describing”?

      Good, carry on!

  28. MadScientist
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    ‘Gray says that “I don’t belong to any religion.”‘

    That’s a ‘tell’ for an apologist or a christian in agnostic clothing. Here are some more similar ones:

    “I am an atheist but …”
    “I am not religious but …”

  29. Wowbagger
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    What Gray is pushing is so far removed from what actual religious people think about their religion you can’t just say he’s moved the goalposts – a more accurate metaphor would be that he’s cut them down and built himself a swing-set out of them.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Looks to me like he’s chopped up the goalposts and worn them as enormous stilts so he can look down on everyone who’s actually playing the game and shout “You’re ALL doing it wrong”.

  30. Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Well Gray’s right about comparing art & religion:

    – both are often participated in by madmen, predators & hypocrites
    – both are often participated in by cynics, conmen & liars for purely commercial/political reasons
    – both are often sold to the gullible for far more than they’re worth
    – both inspire factionalism and bitter rivalries
    – both frequently deal with pure fiction (although only one would admit it)
    – both are uniquely open to subjective interpretation of their truth and value
    – both artists and believers are often incapable of differentiating between criticism of their work/faith and personal attacks
    – both inspire great debates about what actually constitutes “art” or “religion” (e.g. is a poster of canned soup art or advertising? is science or atheism religion?)
    – both inspire people to hate & to hurt each other (one more than the other)
    – both can also inspire great love & brotherhood (among people who share the same personal tastes, anyway)

    While there are obvious similarities and crossovers, at least scruffy hipsters aren’t rolling up to my feckin’ front door on a Saturday morning trying to sell me their latest ironic screen prints (which is mostly because artists are too lazy to get up early/work on weekends, but at least they respect personal boundaries) and at least the busker juggling flaming machetes on a 10-foot unicycle in Rundle Mall isn’t threatening children with Hell if they don’t give him more than a couple of bucks.

    And while the differences between the two are legion, one leaped out at me festooned with neon: art doesn’t routinely try and censor out of existence any religion that disagrees with or pokes fun at it.

    \m/

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      I mean, really, every time I see some robed/cassocked/collared clown trying to ban or burn a book or movie or video games it’s like they’ve never heard of the sodding Streisand Effect!

      By contrast, I think more than a few artists depend on such exposure to get bums on seats :)

    • Posted September 21, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I think that, if you’ll take more than two seconds to think about it, you’ll realize that most artists are regular working stiffs, and that your life is filled with far more art than you realize.

      All those pretty icons on the computer screen you’re looking at? An artist created them.

      Everything you buy where the packaging is something other than a plain brown wrapper? An artist was responsible.

      Every book cover was created by one or more artists.

      All advertising and billboards are created by artists.

      Every logo was designed by an artist.

      Save for the most primitive examples, every exhibit — museum, trade show, whatever — that you’ve ever been to was designed and laid out by a team of artists. Artists were responsible for all the displays, signs, and the rest.

      A movie is nothing but one large multidisciplinary collaborative work of art.

      All music you hear, including jingles and interstitials and everything else, was created by at least one if not hundreds of artists.

      All fonts were created by artists. You have some artist somewhere to thank for the shapes of these letters you’re looking at this very instant.

      Really, the rock-star artists you’re bitching about are combined but a tiny pimple on the ass of the world of art, for there’s no way for you to even make it out of bed in the morning without being literally immersed by art. Or who did you think it was responsible for the pattern of your bedspread?

      Cheers,

      b&

  31. Gayle Stone
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Looks like a “Gray area” to me and he lives in it, can’t shake it, can’t live without it; so I say let him pour a little water on it make a wallow and wallow in it. Science is fact, religion is a myth, so let us go forth and let him stagnate.

    • Dominic
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      +1

  32. Dionigi
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with the statement that our eyes and ears have evolved to allow us to see and hear the things which are real. They have evolved to give us the best chance to escape predation even though this means we see and hear things which are not there. It is better to run away for no good reason than to stand and get eaten because we did not understand the significance of what we see.
    This is why science gives us a tool to discern the truth from the fiction that our eyes ears and brains feed us. Science tries to weed out the bias that our brains have. To allow us to see the reality beneath the evolutionary forces that allow us to see things and hear things which are not there and to get our findings cross checked by others who can repeat the tests we have carried out.
    Religion relies heavily on the disadvantages that our brains have to convince people that their fiction sounds real.

  33. Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of the piece I read today over at HuffPo. “Spirituality and Religion Intersect” or something along that line.

    Here is the link to my response: http://teachingthecontroversy.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/science-and-spirituality-intersect-um-no-they-dont/

    If anyone reads it, please do let me know what you think. As well as telling me about any corrections I should make.

  34. Robin Brown
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Speaking as an Englishman, I regard myself as reasonbly well informed but I had not heard of John Gray till very recently.

    I’m not sure he has much of a known reputation, good or otherwise,

  35. Posted September 21, 2011 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Who cares whether he has a “known reputation”. Join the conversation and let us know how you feel re: his attitudes toward religion/evolution, etc. Just speaking as a Western Hemispherian, of course!

  36. Kharamatha
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    “1. Science is a faith: it depends on “philosophical naturalism” and on on faith that universe is comprehensible (and can be described by mathematics), as well as assumptions that we’re not just “brains in vats” or computer simulations run by aliens”

    Irrelevant. We can still describe the simulation.

    “The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.”

    I remade the world today.

    There’s no there there.

  37. abb3w
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    For 1, I’d say “philosophical naturalism” and “faith that universe is comprehensible” can be condensed down to a single premise (skipping the math: that experience has a pattern). Ruling out “brains in vats” and “computer simulations run by aliens” falls out as a probabilistic inference, not an assumption.

    2 isn’t completely groundless. I’d suggest putting some sophisticated anthropology ahead of the sophisticated theology, and move Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways” up in the reading list (if you’ve not read it). I don’t think his framework is falsifiable; contrariwise, I do think it allows parsimonious description. That said, #2 is clearly attempting to sweep under the rug the religious claims to truthful answers about “is” questions.

    3 and 4: “So? The loyal handmaid has grown to a rebellious teenager, and may soon have no dependence on the parent.” It’s a cheesy metaphor, but seems to resonate.

    5: “Depends on whether you’re using the same sense of the word ‘prove’ that you can prove you’re not a cabbage.”

    6: True; the solution to that would seem to be a better grounding in mathematics and the other solid philosophy foundations underlying science.

    My standard response to 7 is “Correct: science deals with is questions, while ought questions are the domain of Engineering.” Rebuttal tends to be incoherent.

    8: “So has everything else, including religion; and design choices of how to use something are a problem in engineering, anyway.”

    9: Sure, there’s also mathematics. Science is the only route that allows inferring the character of pattern that underlies experience, however.

    10: It’s only not “good” by that criterion if you can produce something that by that criterion is better. The understanding from Science has enabled Engineers to reliably harness the making and use of lightning; hows that for Way of Shamanic Mediation?

    Yes, I’m a little odd.

  38. Al West
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Bit late to the game here, of course, but Gray could learn a little something from Aristotle. Aristotle, in Donald Davidson’s interpretation at least, believed that practices were themselves based on beliefs – as they must be – and that the belief is simply that practice constitutes a principle of its own in accord with which one acts. That is to say, a person considers that it is right to act in a particular way, and interpolates various other beliefs into the process. There is no simple division between ‘practice’ and ‘belief’, unless we choose to believe, against the evidence, that humans are automatons, and other beliefs held by practitioners alongside the practice principle have effects on practice and action – so belief is hardly inert, and emphasising it is not simply a product of the Greek tradition. Belief and practice both require rational justification, simply put.

    Gray is presenting a sophistical, but unsophisticated, position with regard to practice, and it’s a disappointingly common one, both in philosophy (sophistry, more like) and the social sciences.

    People do things for reasons. Those reasons can be rubbish reasons, and sometimes they can be downright harmful. I can’t see the purpose in defending non-rational activity, nor the sense in it.


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