Baggini moves closer to the Gnus, totally derides sophisticated theology, MacDonald dissects

Slowly but surely, Julian Baggini is moving closer to the New Atheist position, one he’s strongly derided in the past. His conversion is taking the form of very strong critiques of religion, including the newest at the Guardian, ” ‘You don’t understand my religion’ is not good enough.”  It has a deep resonance with me because of my debate with John Haught, who maintains that his faith is above criticism by those who haven’t been grasped or “personally transformed” by it.  As Baggini notes, that kind of “in-group” thinking, designed to render faith immune to criticism, is bogus:

Most obviously, it cannot be the case that the views of someone who is most immersed in or knows most about a religion always trump those of a relatively uninformed outsider. People who live and breathe a faith know more about it than those who do not – but this quantitative advantage does not guarantee better qualitative judgements. If it did, by the same logic, we should take the word of the earnest astrologer of 40 years’ standing over the clear evidence that it’s all baloney. Indeed, being deeply immersed may be a positive disadvantage, in that it might make it impossible to take a clear-sighted, impartial view. . .

But embracing this mystery comes at a price. If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, your faith is a kind of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, then think very carefully before you open your mouth. Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.

Baggini promises more articles on the “religion debate” in the next few weeks, and I’ll be interested to see where he’s going.

I was going to post on Baggini’s piece (he is a bit sympathetic to this kind of obscurantism), but over at Choice in Dying Eric MacDonald just put up a long analysis, “Julian Baggini on mystification.”

Here’s just a snippet:

Baggini says that “[t]oo often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively.” But if, at the heart of faith, there is something that passes understanding, then there is nothing more to be said. The thing that distinguishes religious belief from a kind of pure, meditative spirituality, is that it is about something, and even if, with Tillich, we want to say that that something is not really a “thing” at all, but something beyond existence, if belief is to be belief that something is true, then it must have some ontological status, however that status is described. But if it does really disappear into mystery, then even saying as much as Tillich does about the “Being beyond Being” becomes meaningless twaddle. And what would a religion, at least an institutional religion, be, if it had no beliefs? But if those beliefs are to be based on something that disappears into mystery, then how are we to distinguish beliefs which are worthy of belief from those which are not?

I await with interest the coming articles in Baggini’s series on the new heathenism, but it seems to me that this is what the new atheists have been saying all along. So far as I can tell, people like Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, Hitchens, Dennett, Myers, and so on, have been demanding clarity from the religious. What is it that you believe? On what do you base your belief? Why should we believe what you believe on this basis, when others (say, Jews, Muslims and Hindus — since so far the new atheist challenge has been directed mainly towards Christianity) believe quite different things on arguably a similar basis?

In the end, it’s all about evidence, and whether one has good reasons for holding one’s beliefs.   A constant demand for those reasons is the hallmark of New Atheism, which in the past Baggini has excoriated.  But now he’s by our side, criticizing the lack of good reasons for believing that God has certain traits, or even exists.

And, as Eric points out, if your God, like Haught’s, is so ineffable that you can’t say anything about it, then you have no reason to accept the tenets of your faith.  That’s especially true for Haught’s Catholicism, which has many official positions on the soul, marriage, Jesus, heaven, divorce, homosexuality, and so on.  I would love to ask Haught which of those positions he agrees with, and why.  Does being “grasped by your faith” give you the answer? If so, why do Catholics differ so much in their answers?

78 Comments

  1. Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    “It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.”

    I suspect the process involved is something like:

    1. Theist is asked question.
    2. Theist sends question to black box inside own head.
    3. Theist reports back answer.

    The mistake the theist makes here is to think the output of the black box is indicative of an external mystery, rather than an evolved bundle of responses and cognitive biases that don’t have to make any other coherent sense at all to do their job, which is just to increase gene propagation.

    tl;dr the essential error is taking philosopher’s intuition as a fundamental entity, rather than as a thing that can be (and is being) dissected.

    I’m sure someone’s already said this before and better …

    • Another Matt
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Sometimes it’s even more explicit than this:

      1) Theist is asked question.
      2) Theist asks god and attends to internal monologue.
      3) Theist reports back answer.

      The mistake the theist makes here is to think that their internal monologue is in fact god speaking to them after they’ve asked god a question.

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Sometimes, I wonder if it’s closer to this:

        1) Theist is asked question.
        2) Theist thinks about various answers and selects the one that produces the least feeling of guilt or the highest feeling of elation.
        3) Theist reports back answer.

        It seems to me that a big component of religious indoctrination is about hijacking normal social feelings of guilt, fear, disgust, pity, suspicion and respect… then hooking supernatural explanations in there wherever possible until they become deeply associated such that experiencing emotions pop out the drilled-in explanations.

        With hooks in one’s psyche like that, people might just look to their emotions as their conduit to God – just think something and see how you feel, and that’s God telling you the answer. “Should I go out with Bobby?” “Mm, God says no” “Should I slap this child?” “Mm, God says yes”

        • Kharamatha
          Posted November 9, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          Huh.

          • Mark
            Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

            What do you mean by guilt?

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, that’s basically what I meant :-)

        I know a lot of theologically sophisticated Christians. They’re very close friends and very dear to me. They’ve actually read the Bible, unlike most Christians. They actually acknowledge how the thing was written. AND THEY STILL COME OUT WITH THE MOST CONTORTED NONSENSE. So I start with assuming that they are not lying, but are as sincere and decent as I think I know them to be, and try to work out what would produce this.

        I do think that “reading your inner feelings as God” or “taking philosophical intuition as revealing facts about the universe rather than facts about your cognitive biases” is at the core of Haught’s talk. He starts with “my intuitions reveal cosmic truth” and elaborates from there. And he’s smart and sincere, so he elaborates into ridiculousness ripe for reductio ad absurdum. All because he started from a faulty premise.

        So here’s a tagline for Science vs Religion: “Your philosophical intuitions are not a magical truth machine, but the product of evolved cognitive biases!” Not snappy. But it’s a basic point and I’m sure someone can rephrase it better.

        • Posted November 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          hey most of my friends have delusional belief systems as well…no biggee

        • Julien Rousseau
          Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          “Your philosophical intuitions are not a magical truth machine, but the product of evolved cognitive biases!”

          How about: God is the anthropomorphisation of cognitive biases”.

          • Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            Specifically, the bias to see agency where there is none.

  2. Julien Rousseau
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Haven’t finished reading the article but this struck me:

    “Indeed, being deeply immersed may be a positive disadvantage, in that it might make it impossible to take a clear-sighted, impartial view.”

    Which is why the outsider test of faith is so important.

    • Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      That phrase actually bothers me a bit, because it’s too close to the accusation made by pseudo-scientists and other kooks that those who are in the field (say, evolutionary biology), too immersed in the details and the group-think to stand back and take an objective view (so ain’t it great that you’ve got me to show you the error of your ways). I don’t think for a minute that Baggini is guilty of that here, but there needs to be a way to distinguish between the honest and dishonest uses of that trope.

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        One useful difference is results.

        “Your ‘physics’ is just an opaque priesthood!”
        “Maybe, but our priests can walk on the moon. What can yours do?”

        • Posted November 8, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          I like “Using my religion I can talk to people on the other side of the world. (And they answer me intelligibly.)”

          • Posted November 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

            Sure, since magical thinking is caused by our brains and our brains, like all organs of the body, is universal.

            However, songs/music, science/data/math, English do the same thing without fostering delusional beliefs — if they even matter. Prob not.

          • Marella
            Posted November 8, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

            And what’s more they arrive home on the plane they specified while talking!

          • Posted November 8, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            If you mean the internet, the “intelligibly” part is rather hit-and-miss ;-).

            • Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

              More intelligible than answer to prayer!

              • Kharamatha
                Posted November 9, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

                Intelligibility?

                I get packages full of stuff when I “pray”!

      • Julien Rousseau
        Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        Like David says, the difference is that when applying the outsider test of faith to evolution (or science in general) you can see that it works.

        And if a part of science does not work when taking the outsider test of faith (say, cold fusion) scientists can abandon it or modify it and see if it works then.

        • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          By the way, I’ve found “Our priest can walk on the moon, what can yours do?” is a marvelously useful answer when someone claims science is another religion. It’s like Ultimate Fighting Championship for epistemologies. C’MON IF YOU THINK YER ROBUST ENOUGH!

          • Kharamatha
            Posted November 9, 2011 at 5:46 am | Permalink

            Indeed. When we say our fathers can knock them out with a laser bazooka, we can demonstrate the laser bazooka.

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Well, here’s the deal. If you can learn the basics of biology you can begin to test the ideas. As you test the ideas, and they pass muster, you can then choose to rely upon those with greater educations vis the more difficult areas and the claims contained therein.

        Or, you can further your education and work to disprove these ideas. Or further prove these ideas if that’s how you roll.

        A classic example of an outsider belief challenging science and, eventually, gaining wide acceptence is Wegener’s theory of Continental Drift. Now, Wegener doesn’t get the credit for modern plate techtonics because he failed to propose the correct mechanism in his theory of continental drift. But he gets an honorable mention. And he did do a good job in gathering evidence to the extent it could be gathered.

        OTOH, how you you do this with people who refuse to even define their beliefs so you can talk about them? Who refuse to acknowledge you can comprehend their beliefs. That place impossible demands on you for your participation, one of which is the a priori assumption of God’s existence.

    • Stephen P
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      “Indeed, being deeply immersed may be a positive disadvantage …”

      A vivid example of that was apartheid. Three or four times in the 1970s/80s Afrikaners explained to me with great earnestness how one could only properly understand the situation in South Africa if one had grown up there. Of course being a white South African was in fact pretty much a prerequisite for *failing* to understand apartheid.

    • Scote
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      “Which is why the outsider test of faith is so important.”

      I agree, but I also think that the “outsider test of faith” isn’t quite possible as such, since you can’t make yourself an outside if you aren’t. In that sense it is more of a concept or thought experiment than any actual test. The crux of it is to use *consistent* standards of evidence for all religious claims–yes, I know that is part of what the outsider “test” is getting at, but the test isn’t a test, per se, it is a concept or methodology.

    • Barbara Necker
      Posted November 10, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      Ah,but outsiders have their OWN biases! Just wanted to toss that one into the pot. I’m an atheist, but only because I fins god impossible.

  3. KP
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Baggini: “Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.”

    Exactly. Pinning them down on this stuff is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      I’ve seen this happen again and again — most recently in a discussion with a New Ager, who alternated between insisting that she claimed nothing, nothing — her primary belief concerned the acceptance of Mystery and the Unknown — and statements about cosmic consciousness and the power of the mind to create reality. Such statements, I pointed out, were claims. She WAS making claims. Upon which she would suddenly deny that she had meant any of them: she knows nothing, nothing.

      In addition to visions of Sergeant Schultz, I was reminded of those people who say outrageous things and then try to brush aside criticism with “Oh, I’m kidding” or “I’m just sayin,’ is all.” Theists and supernaturalists of all stripes seem to play the It’s-All-a-Mystery rebuttal like the ultimate ‘Get Out of Jail Free” card.

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Or “You have your reality, I have my reality.” (Now given pseudo-academic standing through Post-modernism and social constructionism.)

    • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I can nail jello to the wall. It can be done. However, I can’t nail ineffable to anything because, like God, it doesn’t actually exist…

  4. DGNCL
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Yes but you need to go through a ‘personal transformation’ to know god… remember how Neo suddenly sees the Matrix code? That’s Haught’s personal transformation. He suddenly sees intent in the random noise of life, purpose in chaos, and hears quiet voices in the back of his mind…

    • Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Either that, or it’s like where John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) sees vast and mysterious plots in displays of random letters ;-).

    • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I used to have schizophrenic clients when I was still a practicing CPA. Haught’s beliefs (and underlying rationalizations) and theirs are, frankly, a lot closer than Haught would like to think…

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        Wow, accounting is more interesting than I thought.

        ;)

  5. DGNCL
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Oh and to add, before you can go through the personal transformation you need to commit yourself to believing in the first place.

    Sounds like the greatest con-trick of all time doesn’t it?

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Only if you can collect money out of it. … oh.

  6. Occam
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    “Baggini moves closer to the Gnus”

    The heading of this post is phylogenetically confusing, immediately after the previous one.
    Is Julian Baggini an okapi now? Closer even? Does he belong to the Moschidae? The Cervidae? Is he a wildebeest by any other name? Will his coming series in the Guardian run under the ‘artiodactylography’ column?

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      If your phylogeny is confusing, you need more fossils for resolution, right?

      Haught has been proposed… maybe Giberson?

      • Stephen P
        Posted November 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        After a long hard day in the office, those two comments were just what I needed. Thanks!

  7. Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    The first paragraph of Baggini’s quote reminds me of this article on Less Wrong: Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People. The most insightful (as in, describing sophisticated theologies) statement seems to be this one:

    If you’re irrational to start with, having more knowledge can hurt you. For a true Bayesian, information would never have negative expected utility. But humans aren’t perfect Bayes-wielders; if we’re not careful, we can cut ourselves.

    I’ve seen people severely messed up by their own knowledge of biases. They have more ammunition with which to argue against anything they don’t like. And that problem – too much ready ammunition – is one of the primary ways that people with high mental agility end up stupid, in Stanovich’s “dysrationalia” sense of stupidity.

    You can think of people who fit this description, right? People with high g-factor who end up being less effective because they are too sophisticated as arguers? Do you think you’d be helping them – making them more effective rationalists – if you just told them about a list of classic biases?

    Seems a bit fitting; smart people are better at rationalizing positions that they arrived at via initially irrational reasons.

    • Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Maybe so, but it comes down to this: there’s a set of objective facts about the world out there, that we’re trying to discover. The truth is consistent with itself, and a correct observation or deduction will fit neatly with all the other correct ones. The false ones will, sooner or later, stand out as false. Hence: we make progress.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      The last point is something I have come to by myself (yes, from example), and it can be a bit of an eyebrow raiser in discussions. What fun! =D

      [Another looser way of thinking of it is that a better optimization routine can get stuck deeper into a suboptimal valley.]

      However, I have to agree with Peter N, the existence of fact (and theory, btw) means that bayesian relativism can’t run rampant. We _do_ have general and robust knowledge way before and without bayesian recursion.

      In fact it is practically impossible to recurse on observations, parameters, variables and models all at the same time. It isn’t a universal method at all.

      [Moreover, it equates to eager parsimony, which as we all know from biology isn't always the correct answer. Phylogenies can be perverse, such as the mitochondrion endosymbiosis.]

  8. Dermot C
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “Why should we believe what you believe on this basis, when others (say, Jews, Muslims and Hindus — since so far the new atheist challenge has been directed mainly towards Christianity) believe quite different things on arguably a similar basis?”

    Firstly, the God in which you believe is contingent on the era and place you happen to have been born in. And secondly, given the choice you have between different gods nowadays, your belief in your God must depend not only on faith, but also on something else, and that other element can only be evidence. To say that you have faith in the Christian god, when you know that there are others you could believe in, simply undermines the whole concept of faith. It isn’t credible in a well-educated theologian for any of them to say that they come to their god, any god, through faith alone. You have to consider why others believe in their god, and the only way to differentiate between the two sets of belief is to weigh the evidence for the one or the other. Faith makes no sense unless one has heard of no other god but one’s own.

    What’s more, I fail to see the difference in principle between the consolation you feel, as a member of a church which has huge historical and intellectual status such as the Roman Church, and that of, say, a Jehovah’s Witness, an Amazonian shaman, Sathya Sai Baba or any number of charlatans one could think of through the ages. The faith that you have must be particular to you and to your religion, and it must entail certain rights which appertain to you for you to hold to it, rather than to another religion. It must, in a broad sense and amongst other advantages, have a utilitarian aspect to it, otherwise different systems of belief would be more attractive to you. So, Catholicism must offer you a carrot, as it were, and that, beyond your self-professed faith, you must have some evidence for believing it to be the truth.

  9. Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Just thought of this — if the sacred books are the product of an all powerful and all knowing something, why is there no references to future events beyond when they were written?

    Also why aren’t dinosaurs mentioned in scripture?

    Just asking.

    • dunstar
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      lol. dinosaurs ARE mentioned in the scriptures. just ask kent hovind.

    • Marta
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      “why is there no references to future events beyond when they were written?”

      Nothing–and I mean, absolutely nothing–so completely disproves the God concept as this.

      Untold lives could have been saved if God, all knowing, all powerful, had cared enough to make this one of the commandments.

      • Marta
        Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        hand-washing. Made HAND-WASHING one of the 10 Commandments.

        I’m so freaked out by the personhood thing going on in Mississippi, I can’t concentrate.

        • PB
          Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          Note: Continuous washing is ordered by Islam, in a very specific way.

          (some would say that Muhammad had OCD, obsessed with cleanliness)

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        Well of course, Christians especially claim the Bible is full of prophecy, some in the Hebrew (“OT”) fulfilled in the Greek (“NT”) – but if you look at it the least bit critically the fit is not good at all. And in the Greek (especially Matthew) you’ll see things done in order to fulfil prophecy, suggesting a) they were interpolations and/or b) there was no free will.

      • Aidan Karley
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink

        Untold lives could have been saved if God, all knowing, all powerful, had cared enough to make this one of the commandments.

        You’re making the common mistake of believing that “god”, of whichever description, is a caring AND “loving” god, as described by their various sects of followers. IF there is a god (a proposition which I consider to be laughably unsupported by any evidence), then the evidence of history and the adherents of such gods, along with their own scriptures, is that such a god is an evil, malicious sadist.
        Once seen in that light, the aparrant behaviour of a “god” becomes less surprising. Scarier, but less surprising.

    • Greg
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      • Lynnh Wilhelm
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        Yuck.

        • Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          If you think the bible is crazy (and I do), click on Greg’s link above & find the photos that supposedly have been hacked from NASA. They look like out-takes from all the science fiction films that have been made since the ’60s. Very entertaining.

      • Chris Booth
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        Oh, that was revolting.

        Wow.

        I know they have that post hoc interpretation, but the whole–make the happy white kids clap and sing while the country good-ol’-boy sings brainwashing lies to the innocents–shocks anyway. It boggles me that they actually want, and act to prevent children from getting an education in the 21st century. That and the lying to children.

        Wow.

      • Steersman
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        How is that not teaching creationism in school? If that was a recent video then somebody – a whole bunch of somebodies – needs to lean rather heavily on the school and teacher and school board responsible for that.

  10. Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Just thought of this — if the sacred books are the product of an all powerful and all knowing something, why is there no references to future events beyond when they were written?

    In 2k years since you think the all powerful thang would include references to something.

    Also why aren’t dinosaurs mentioned in scripture?

    Of course, it’s all just silly fairy tales anyway…lol

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      There are references to future events, although I can’t say that they have or ever will take place.

  11. Sastra
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Slowly but surely, Julian Baggini is moving closer to the New Atheist position, one he’s strongly derided in the past.

    I’m not so sure he’s actually changing his mind: from what I’ve read in the past by Baggini, I would have placed him in the New Atheist position in the first place. Perhaps he’s starting to notice that he was railing against a straw man in his anti-gnu essays.

    Had I not read them, I would have considered him a gnu; after reading them, I ended up confused.

    • Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Same here. I’ve never understood Julian’s animosity toward the gnus. It seems to be weirdly pure – a pure meme, uncontaminated by any actual substantive disagreement.

      • Steersman
        Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        Not having read all that much of Baggini, yet anyway, I might surmise that he is attempting to give some benefit of the doubt to the religious as a method of promoting dialog – rather difficult if there isn’t at least some common ground, although that objective seems quite clear from his recent articles and series in any case.

        • Posted November 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Sure, that’s one possible, general explanation for why someone would talk smack about new atheists, but Julian has written a lot on the subject (and I know him), so it’s the particular explanation that’s elusive.

    • PB
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Some people just cannot stand something in which they are not considered the leader. In academics and politics ..

  12. Steersman
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I would love to ask Haught which of those positions he agrees with, and why. Does being “grasped by your faith” give you the answer? If so, why do Catholics differ so much in their answers?

    Exactly.

    And I would love to be able to ask him – and receive an honest, non-evasive answer – about the Church’s volte-face on the question of the literal existence of hell: was this an actual communiqué from the Man Himself while the Pope was wearing his “Cloak of Papal Infallibility”? Was it notarized by St. Peter? Or was that just the Pope recognizing the writing on the wall? Any possibility of him doing likewise on Adam and Eve for one, and Original Sin for another?

    I figure Haught should count himself lucky that he wasn’t laughed off the stage in Kentucky during your debate with him. Although maybe his nose was so far out of joint because he realized that was the subtext.

    • Dermot C
      Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      What volte-face on the literal existence of hell? Have I missed something?

      • Steersman
        Posted November 8, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Maybe not quite a volte-face; maybe more a case of sweeping their previous position under the rug, although the upshot seems the same. From Wikipedia:

        A place?

        Catholic teaching has not defined whether hell can be considered a place: “The Church has decided nothing on this subject.”

        Many have considered it to be a place. Some have rejected metaphorical interpretations of the Biblical descriptions of hell, and have attributed to hell a location within the earth, while others who uphold the opinion that hell is a definite place, say instead that its location is unknown.

        But Aquinas, whom the Church champions as the soul of their theology, was quite certain that it was a real place whereat the damned would be “entertaining” the saved with their torments (you really do meet a better quality of people in Catholicism):

        I answer that, Nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. [For the benefit of ToF, Dawkins’ statement in The God Delusion (pg 360) being a reasonably close approximation]

        Someone here observed, I think, some similarities between such behaviours and kids sneaking across the room with a blanket over their heads and thinking that because they can’t see anyone else then no one else can see them. Entirely charming in children but in ostensible grownups with guns for toys not quite so much.

        • Dermot C
          Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          I find this in Wikipedia:

          “In a homily that he gave on 25 March 2007, Pope Benedict XVI stated: “Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in heaven and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love.”

          2007 counts as a minute ago in the Catholic Church. Yes, various Catholic theologians are rather slippery about the real existence of heaven and hell, but I take Herr Ratzinger to believe in its material reality from the above.

          The gloating of the saved viewing the damned in hell is mentioned Tertullian and in the Koran and is a recurrent theme of the monotheists.

          The argument over whether heaven is real or a place of the spirit takes the Church right back to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century arguments with the Gnostics: I’d like to see Catholic promoters of the metaphorical hell and heaven disprove the charge of Gnosticism. Heretics!

          • Steersman
            Posted November 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            … rather slippery … but I take Herr Ratzinger …
            ;-) “Sig Heil, Mein Fuehrer!” Really kind of a fascist organization in its rather black heart ….

          • Sigmund
            Posted November 8, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

            There was a great example of this kind of catholic sadism on view in the comment section of the ‘Irish Independent’ the other day.
            The context was a terrible article written by the odious catholic apologist Mary Kenny, who was moaning about the fact that the Irish Government had decided to close down the Irish embassy to the Vatican. The embassy is actually based in Rome (there’s no room in the Vatican city for embassies) so Ireland had, in fact, two embassies in Rome – one for Italy and the other for the Vatican. Economic tightening is the name of the game in Dublin so the Vatican embassy was deemed surplus to requirements. The commenter was a furious catholic who looked forward to his death so that he could see the punishment dealt out by Jesus to the Irish polititians who closed the Vatican embassy.

            “I can’t wait until I’m dead. So that I can see the fate of Enda Kenny, Gilmore, Shatter et al, and how Jesus judges them. Most of all, the vindication of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church instantiated and continually renewed by Christ, a Church against which ‘the gates of Hell shall not prevail’, and which Christ would never abandon. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see. “

            • Dermot C
              Posted November 8, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

              I am afraid Mary is going to have to wait a long time to see the fate of her political leaders.

              Had she understood her Catholic doctrine, she would know that the soul goes to heaven, purgatory or hell after death. Only after the resurrection of the dead and the reuniting of the person’s soul with their physical body will the Last Judgement occur. For that to happen, we await the Second Coming. Only then would she be able to “see the fate of Enda Kenny…”.

              Given the unanticipated procrastination of the Anointed One, I would start doubting Jesus’ promise, if I were her.

              • Dermot C
                Posted November 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

                “I can’t wait until I’m dead. So that I can see the fate of Enda Kenny, Gilmore, Shatter et al, and how Jesus judges them. Most of all, the vindication of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church instantiated and continually renewed by Christ, a Church against which ‘the gates of Hell shall not prevail’, and which Christ would never abandon. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see. “

                Just spotted that it wasn’t Mary Kenny who couldn’t wait to be dead; oops. Still, the principle in my previuos post applies to our necrophiliac sado-masochist.

            • Christian
              Posted November 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

              “I can’t wait until I’m dead. So that I can see the fate of Enda Kenny, Gilmore, Shatter et al, and how Jesus judges them. Most of all, the vindication of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church instantiated and continually renewed by Christ, a Church against which ‘the gates of Hell shall not prevail’, and which Christ would never abandon. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see. “

              I’m sure he could already see himself Walter-Huston-dancing as they get thrown in hell by Jesus.

  13. eric
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    In the end, it’s all about evidence, and whether one has good reasons for holding one’s beliefs.

    Its worth pointing out that even if there’s no direct evidence for a belief, indirect evidence of sufficient quality can be fine, too. I don’t have to see God actually speaking to you, if you can predict the next 5 lottery draws.

    Haught’s claim about needing transformation fails on this criteria. We untransformed don’t need it to see if its real; we can watch how transformed people act to see if its real. Do they consistently make predictions that surprisingly turn out to be right? If so, there may be something to this transformation. But if they violently disagree with each other, make no useful predictions, etc… then we have prima facie proof that this tranformation is not providing them with any knowledge.

    We can, IOW, demand a “calibration” – pass a test for which we know the answer and which you shouldn’t be able to pass without your special knoweldge. If you can do that, we will be more inclined to believe your other answers (to unknown questions) are correct.

    Haught, of course, dodges the calibraton issue the same way theologians have always dodged it. “Oh, the sort of knowledge we are talking about isn’t like that.”

    But if no calibration is possible, their instrument’s accuracy cannot be determined.

  14. PB
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Good to hear some conversions :D

    Jerry, hope your misspelling of Baggini’s name is not intentional:

    “… Eric MacDonald just put up a long analysis, ”Julian Babbini on mystification.” ”

    Heathenism ?!?

  15. Posted November 8, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    “People who live and breathe a faith know more about it than those who do not”

    Has he ever actually *talked* to a Christian? They know squat about their own faith.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  17. Aidan Karley
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    So, what happened to the post about a firebombing?
    Ah, there’s a link to Index on Censorship. Hey, I subscribed to that when I was a student!
    Let’s have a read of …

    http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/11/charlie-hebdo-bomb-bruce-crumley-james-kirchick/

    Well, that’s a surprise. Not.
    I only discovered the “jesusandmo” cartoon strip a couple of days ago, via this blog. And when commenting on it on my FaceBook page, I said “I can see this turning all Danish!”
    That wasn’t a difficult prediction, was it? And it seems that there are plenty of others who think the same. It’s just as well that the “Mo” in jesusandmo is actually a body-double.

  18. abb3w
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    In the end, it’s all about evidence, and whether one has good reasons for holding one’s beliefs.

    Well, evidence, how you define the ordering relationship for “good”, and a bit more pure mathematics. But the evidence seems the main element sticking in their craws….

  19. InfiniteImprobabilit
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    “Most obviously, it cannot be the case that the views of someone who is most immersed in or knows most about a religion always trump those of a relatively uninformed outsider. People who live and breathe a faith know more about it than those who do not – but this quantitative advantage does not guarantee better qualitative judgements.”

    While I agree with Baggini’s point here, I’d just note that this isn’t the universal case – the extent of the faithful’s knowledge isn’t always as described. It seems to be quite commonplace that many of the religious are, in fact, remarkably ignorant (or choose to ignore) many parts of their holy book, as some of the better-read atheists are in the habit of pointing out.


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