An increasingly common argument of religionists and faitheists

As science advances at the expense of religion, the faithful evolve new strategies to keep to the trenches and avoid a retreat. One of these runs something like this (not a literal quote; I’m confecting the argument):

“The New Atheist accusation that religion rests on literal beliefs is bunk. Dawkins and all you miltant atheists are always oversimplying things, and assuming that, for a believer, literalism is important.  It isn’t.  The faithful run the whole gamut from almost complete Biblical literalists who take scripture at its written word, to those whose belief in the divine is deistic-—indeed, almost atheist.  But what you are too militant and blind to see is that religion plays an important role in people’s lives—a role infinitely more important than just believing in some “truths” of scripture.  The problem with New Atheists is that you think that by eradicating false beliefs, the problem is solved. But you can’t improve human lives that way! The onus is on you atheists to first descry the real role that religion plays in the lives of believers, and then use that knowledge to show people how they can live without faith. Dispelling falsehood is not enough. The failure of New Atheism is that it doesn’t provide a transition into secular humanism, and so is a failure. Making religion go away is not enough.”

This is, for example, the argument of Alain de Botton, who wants us to have secular worship services and cathedrals. And we’ll see this argument become increasingly common as the truth claims of religion are dispelled. “You tear down, but don’t build up in its place.”

An extended example of this argument is Gary Gutting’s piece, “The way of the agnostic,” published two days ago in the New York Times section “The Stone,” a section devoted to “the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. In August of 2010 I critiqued another NYT piece of his claiming that New Atheists never dealt with the “best arguments” for God, that there were some arguments that had convinced smart people, and that atheists should at least be agnostics rather than disbelievers.  It was basically the “Courtier’s Reply” argument gussied up with philosophy.

In his new piece, Gutting still claims there are valid arguments for God, but admits that maybe they’re not so absolutely convincing. But at least they’re better than tales about Santa and the Easter Bunny! And atheists have no support for their case, either!

Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false.  Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them.   The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.  This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.

But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people.  (For some powerful contemporary examples, see the essays in “Philosophers Who Believe” and “God and the Philosophers.”)  Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them.  But  believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion.  Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny.  We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.

The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories.  Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects.  Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion.  Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative.  The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.

Well, I’ve read a lot of Plantinga, Swinburne, and van Inwagen, and, to someone who isn’t already convinced, their arguments are not only “not decisive”, but not even remotely convincing.

As for Gutting’s claim that these philosophers make it “very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do,” well, that’s a red herring. Those “people” believed before they concocted their silly arguments (e.g., Plantinga’s ludicrous “naturalism-gives-us-no-reason-to-think-that-our-beliefs-are-accurate-ergo-we-have-a-God-given-sensus divinitatus), and although these folks seem like rational academics, their beliefs did not result from their arguments, but gave rise to their arguments.  Theology, after all, is the post facto defense of things that you already believed. There’s a reason it’s called “apologetics.”

And of course atheists need no case for denying theistic religion beyond this: “We see no evidence for a theistic God.”  The same argument supports a disbelief in Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Loch Ness monster. The only reason Gutting finds these latter fictions not comparable to God is because there are no theologians who write on Santa or the Easter Bunny.  But believe me, if the human mind turned its enormously creative powers to Christmas, there would no doubt arise a Plantinga for Santa.  After all, people are convinced of the equally ludicrous fables of Mormonism and Scientology. If agnosticism is a “viable alternative” concerning God, then it’s an equally viable alternative for Santa, UFOs, Zeus, Krishna, and Aphrodite.

But Gutting’s main point is the one I discussed above: the “deep truths” of faith reside not in its epistemic claims, but in its ability to foster love and a community of kindred souls. Truth claims about God, Jesus, transubstantiation, the Resurrection, and so on, don’t really matter:

Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims.  This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support.  But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause.  Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge.  But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.

Gutting then goes off on scientism, saying that “art, literature, history, and philosophy” also contribut to human understanding, and as for religion, well, it brings us moral understanding:

Every mode of understanding has its own ontology, a world of entities in terms of which it expresses its understanding.   We can understand sexuality through Don Giovanni, Emma Bovary and Molly Bloom; the horror of war through the images of “Guernica”; our neurotic behavior through Freudian drives and complexes; or self-deception through Sartre’s being-for-itself, even if we are convinced that none of these entities will find a place in science’s final causal account of reality.   Similarly, it is possible to understand our experiences of evil in the language of the Book of Job, of love in the language of the Gospel of John, and of sin and redemption in the language of Paul’s epistles.

The fault of many who reject religious ontologies out of hand is to think that they have no value if they don’t express knowledge of the world’s causal mechanisms.  The fault of many believers is to think that the understanding these ontologies bring must be due to the fact that they express such knowledge.

Gutting winds up by reiterating that the true value of religion is almost completely independent of whether its epistemic claims are true:

To evaluate a religion, we need to distinguish the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy: love, understanding, and knowledge.  Doing so lets us appreciate religious love and understanding, even if we remain agnostic regarding religious knowledge.  (For those with concerns about talking of knowledge here:  I’m using “knowledge” to mean believing, with appropriate justification, what is true.  Knowledge in this sense may be highly probable but not certain; and faith—e.g., belief on reliable testimony—may provide appropriate justification.)

A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them.  Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular.  Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. . .

Knowledge, if it exists, adds a major dimension to religious commitment.  But love and understanding, even without knowledge, are tremendous gifts; and religious knowledge claims are hard to support. We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims.  We should, for example, countenance those who are Christians while doubting the literal truth of, say, the Trinity and the Resurrection.  I wager, in fact, that many professed Christians are not at all sure about the truth of these doctrines —and other believers have similar doubts.  They are, quite properly, religious agnostics.

Now I have a marvelous response to Gutting’s piece, but the margins of this post are too narrow to contain them.  It does involve the fact that though religion can motivate good behaviors (and we should not deny that), it also motivates bad ones.  Secular humanism, on the other hand, can promote the good but not the bad.

But what I’m most interested in is my readers’ response to Gutting’s argument, and to my own hypothetical objection to New Atheism raised at the top of this post. How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?

h/t: Michael

396 Comments

  1. Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Rather than atheists needing to emulate the social and community aspects of religions, it is my experience that religions are increasingly emulating secular activities.
    On a recent Sunday, I spent several hours at a local church. While services were going on (which were broadcast on monitors around the church campus), there was a food stand selling tacos, a hall with recruiters from local charities, a separate building for youth activities.
    It seemed more like a local fair than a church.

    I think it just another lie from theists that atheism needs to find something to fill the gap left by religion. People will find plenty to do, they just won’t claim it has anything to do with an imaginary sky daddy.

  2. Bob Carlson
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I have just finished reading Susan Jacoby’s The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, and I see it as a refutation of everything that Gutting claims. In his eulogy for his like-minded brother, who was two years his elder, Robert said “He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.” According to Jacoby, Robert had used the same lines in many of his speeches. The paragraph ending her book is:

    You “new” atheists should consider it your special duty and privilege to work tenaciously for the restoration of this old American freethinker. You owe him. So does every American, religious or nonreligious, who enjoys and takes for granted that liberty of conscience is meant for thee as well as for me&emdash;the greatest secular idea of all.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      +1

      (I, too, just finished reading this book.)

    • Bob Carlson
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Tested the html before posting, but WordPress didn’t handle the emdash as it should have.

  3. Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    There are benefits to the trappings of religion, but these aren’t tied to any specific beliefs–they’re just elements of human culture used by religions to perpetuate themselves.

    The cultural activities provided by religion aren’t unimportant to those in those religions, and I know of a lot of people in them who appreciate having a peer group they have close ties to that isn’t a work relationship, who they see regularly, and who they could count on if they encounter hardship. It might even be more important to people, with smaller and more dispersed families being more common.

    As an atheist and former Catholic, I’m sympathetic to these desires even while I’m hesitant about attempts to just copy religious services. But I also think, why not build monuments and buildings that reflect our current state of knowledge? Imagine for instance a ‘cathedral’ of sorts focused around electromagnetic energy–prisms, refraction and reflection, interference patterns, solar panels… A mix of art and a science museum, where events could be held.

    There’s nothing wrong with, as an atheist, embracing cultural activities. All I care about is that they reflect reality and not ancient stories.

  4. Vaal
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    We are often supposed to accept the idea that religion fulfills basic human needs and “what do we do without it?”

    But even if you grant religion arises in response to certain human needs, it’s just as important to point out it also CREATES more needs in the process: the need to worry about our eternal souls, the needs to worry if we are pleasing a God, the need to worry about whether we have worshiped enough or correctly, the need to proselytize, to reign in others by persuasion or force to tow the line of one’s particular religious beliefs, the need to adhere to various religious practices, to adhere to often outdated morals, inflexible understandings of the world, the need to square all the suffering in the world with the Good God who is supposed to answer all these questions…the list goes on and on.

    What happens when formerly religious people drop their religion? Plunged into existential hell and disorientation? No, once they are truly out of their religious mind-chains they are typically RELIEVED both of burdens they had become conscious of, and burdens and religious “needs” and concerns they only now realised they had bore.

    I live a happy life and when I look at Orthodox Jews for instance rocking at a wailing wall or Muslims churning by the thousands around Mecca I sure don’t think “Well, I feel I’m missing out on that!”

    I’d previously given the example of my Christian mother who lost her husband to illness, vs my father in law the atheist who lost is 1st and 2nd wife to cancer. Was it any harder on my father in law for having a more realistic view of reality vs my mother’s praying and beliefs in an afterlife?
    Not at all. He got along fine. Whole countries get along fine mostly being non-religious.

    As some have already pointed out, the issue of needing religion for meaning, community etc is like needing it for morality. We already had and have the basis for morality – it derives from the very nature of creatures like ourselves. Social life, meaning, value, purpose also naturally arise from human beings…no magic required.

    Vaal.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Er..”and concerns they only now realised they had borne.”

      Vaal

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      That’s a very good point. The role religion plays in the life of the believer puts them in some very difficult positions, and gives them worries which have no basis.

      Even the so-called ‘liberal’ religions require a lot of mental contortions and rationalizations which can get very wearing psychologically. If “all things happen for a reason” and “there are no coincidences” then the cosmic drama revolves around its main character being able to figure out the plot, pick up the cues, and make all the right choices. What if you’re not spiritual enough? What if your instincts don’t feel magically guided? What if God is silent — or, worse, misunderstood?

      And what if the deep important lesson which you are supposed to learn from suffering doesn’t seem like it’s worth it? Being human is a failure if your aspiration is supposed to be towards what is Higher and Better than that.

  5. Ken Pidcock
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    But what you are too militant and blind to see is that religion plays an important role in people’s lives—a role infinitely more important than just believing in some “truths” of scripture.

    I think that people maybe map aspects of their lives to religion that are, in fact, totally independent of it. When they let go of the superstition, they might realize this and see that nothing is actually missing.

  6. FormerComposer
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Coyne reiterates at the end, “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?”

    I think the meme seen around the Internet is appropriate: “Science — it works, bitches!”

    Over the centuries, a wide variety of activities have replaced parts of religion and religious thinking because they ended up being a better explanation or a more exploitable method for people to get what they wanted. Religion becomes irrelevant in some sphere when something more effective is found. And people want results, not the spinning of just-so (or kinda-sorta-so) stories. Increased observation of the heavens revealed mechanisms of weather, thunder/lightning, planets, moons that undercut the fairytales and had actual predictive value. Similar trajectories have been followed by what we know call sociology, anthropology, biology, philosophy, literature, etc.

    As much as I sometimes agitate for the destruction of religions, I often think that they will end in the whimper of irrelevance to human needs. The dust-ups we see now are just the final death throes of something that is already dead at the core.

    Back in the 60s, a common poster was “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” The parallel for today is “Suppose they gave a religion and nobody followed?”

    • FormerComposer
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      … what we now call …

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      I agree with you. I see science as the natural successor to religion over time, and it’s only a matter of time even though that might be hundreds of years. But I am positive it is a one-way ticket. We are all impatient here but I don’t think we can rationally persuade those already too far gone, so we might miss out on passing the winning post. The key is education, education, education – to quote quoting Blair, as did Dawkins – and just continuing to knock at the door as much as we can in our time on this planet.

  7. JimV
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    How would I respond?

    Sweden.

  8. Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne channels Fermat…. :-)

  9. Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Seriously, I just shrug when I get arguments like these. I think that Mano Singham (physics professor at Case Western) said it well:

    “What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.”

  10. purvis
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    The Templeton foundation is interested in scientism too:

    http://www.ph.vu.nl/en/Images/Science-beyond-scientism-PHD-positions_tcm59-307723.pdf

  11. Larry C
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    My response is much less academic than those I’ve read here. I think the intellectual arguments are important and most of the above arguments are well thought out and more clearly articulated than they would be if I had written them. However, as a former Catholic, I admit that it felt good that I was part of something bigger; there was a sense that we Catholics had a worldview and ways of dealing with things that set us apart from others. We were close knit. We took care of each other, watched out for each other and, when push came to shove, we’d fight for each other. Although very authoritarian and paternalistic, the church also felt like a brotherhood to me. But when my doubt turned to disbelief, my sense that there was wrongdoing by the leaders of the church turned to anger and then resentment. When I realized during my ninth or tenth year of religious education that their arguments for belief and their justifications for the behavior of the church were fabricated from fables, I stopped participating almost completely. And I didn’t miss anything even though I used to enjoy it. Going to mass became intolerable. I came to terms with the fact that the sense of brotherhood I thought was so important and felt so good to me was based upon self deception and very quickly understood that I had no desire to be brothers with a group that avoided reality as policy. Furthermore, as I turned away from them, I began to be treated as an outsider, former “brothers in Christ” were full of anger and even hatred toward me. That continues today. As social media has put me in contact with old school mates I have found that, although many have open minds and some even disbelieve as I do, though forty years have gone by, many still become angry when they find out I no longer believe what we were taught by the nuns and priests. It’s pathetic. And I am grateful that my fellow atheists haven’t substituted anything for the rituals and mindless behavior associated with belonging to a “brotherhood” of fearful freakish phony followers of faith. I enjoy reading and studying different points of view and deciding for myself what is true and what is not true. I have my code of morality based upon my sense of truth and reality that I’m able to change and grow as my understanding and knowledge grows. I no longer have to engage in any sort of “groupthink” and it’s okay with me if you or anyone else disagrees with me. I can learn from you but I’m not forced to think what you think because we’re “humanists” or “atheists” or any other “ist” with a formal set of beliefs. And that doesn’t mean I think I can make up any rules I feel like making up to justify my aberrant, perverted behavior. Societal norms and my evolved sense of morality are my starting points. There are those among us who would tell us what a “real” atheist is supposed to think. The times when I hear or read those people are the times my gratitude for not having to follow a set of beliefs (or a set of non-beliefs) is reinforced. The day atheism becomes a kind of religion with rules and structure and formal arguments in order to substitute for religion as we know it is the day I change what I call myself.

  12. corio37
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s for people like Gutting that I wrote the Accommodationist’s Anthem:

    http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/global-the-accommodationists-anthem/

  13. LW
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    What the New Atheists movement seems to be demonstrating is that reason and debate are getting us nowhere. Both sides have their best men on it. Literally. And yet neither side is losing adherents to the other side in any significant measure.

    Time to try something else? Maybe so. But what?

    Sometimes I think our civilization’s best option would be the emergence of a very compelling new religion. A religion that takes all of today’s most humane and progressive values as its doctrinal starting point.

    Maybe that would give us the headroom we need to evolve into a more rational civilization in the long run.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Your premise is false.

      http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

      • LW
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        The numbers are definitely trending in the right direction, in my opinion. But they seem to be carried by more by the changing youth demographic than by the winning arguments of atheist debaters.

        (The very small sample of kids personally known to me indicates that the growth of atheism in the youth cohort is fueled by the musical and video memes of iconoclastic youth artists. In other words, kids are finding their own ways of subverting the dominant paradigm. They may know who Ricky Gervais is, but they are surely not paying any attention to Dawkins, et al.)

        • gbjames
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          I might ask “and how do you know that?”

          But I’ll point out that “winning arguments” and “youthful demographic” are not mutually exclusive components of the change.

        • Gary W
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          The very small sample of kids personally known to me …

          “Very small sample.” That’s the basic problem with your argument right there.

          • LW
            Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            “A very small sample of kids personally known to me” was my attempt to use humor to qualify an opinion that was clearly limited to my own experience. I guess it fell flat. Even though closely followed by wording like “in my opinion” and “they seem to be”.

            I’ll try to resist the temptation to be funny next time.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes I think our civilization’s best option would be the emergence of a very compelling new religion. A religion that takes all of today’s most humane and progressive values as its doctrinal starting point.

      It’s been tried. Wait 500 or 1000 years, and that compelling new religion is what’s holding society back.

  14. Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?

    That hides a lot of cans of worms. There’s the distinctions between “faith” versus “religion”, “needs” versus “desires”, “meeting” versus “seeming to meet”, and what exactly is meant by “rest on”. But anyway…

    First, one of the needs humans have is for an internally coherent worldview; cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. And in so far as knowledge of empirical truth tends to allow more effective goal seeking (looking at the cards in draw-five poker doesn’t guarantee winning, but seems to help), the lack of truth to religion’s claims acts as a detriment; and may in fact hinder their ability to recognize detriment.

    Contrariwise, a simple ecological model suggests that yes, the most effective means for getting rid of religious institutions is to introduce competing alternative secular institution(s) that more effectively provide for human needs.

    Nohow, the existing trend suggests secular institutions may already be doing exactly that, producing the current “rise of the Nones”. This shift long precedes the arrival of the New Atheists, but they’re a continuation of pre-existing trends. There’s likely room for introducing more effective competitors, to allow the shift to accelerate; and “New Atheist” variants that do this seem likely to come to predominate over “New Atheist” variants that don’t.

    Of course, that probably won’t ever drive religion all the way to extinction; but the niche in the social ecology may be radically reduced.

  15. Sastra
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    You know, I see an uncomfortable parallel between “you won’t make a dent in religion until you can replace it with institutions which fulfill certain human needs” and “you won’t make a dent in the acceptance of evolution until you can reassure people that they won’t have to give up their religion.”

    Although they deal with different things and one is pro-religion and one anti, both arguments seem to think that the REAL goal is the end-point. We have to reduce the numbers of people who believe in religion; we have to increase the numbers of people who believe in evolution. Okay. Let us come up with a strategy for doing what will work, given who we are dealing with. Let’s be practical.

    But those end-points aren’t the real goal. The actual goal is inextricably wrapped up in the method: rational, critical thinking in the pursuit of truth. The truth matters, and we want to make it matter. “Getting” a bunch of atheists or evolutionists who only come to the correct conclusion because we figured out how to make the conclusion less “threatening” seems … cheap. It seems like missing the point. It seems like putting the cart before the horse. Or something…

  16. Andrew Fredriksen
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    The last argument by the Religious is to posit the human side of religion. God and religion are a human invention and at the core of just about every religion is a kernel of humanism. As human understanding of the natural world continues to grow, religion’s central humanist core continues to expand, while the trappings of religion and concept of God diminish. Left alone, the humanist core will eventually crack and break through the vestigial carapace of superstition, dogma and wishful thinking. In fact, the cracks in the mantel of faith are already obvious.
    With God and religion out of the mix nothing in the “human-verse” will really change, that much – we will keep most of our institutions, ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage – they will just be reframed. Perhaps we will return to a simpler informed appreciation of the natural universe and the joy of living.
    Unfortunately those vested in religion – for reasons of livelihood, for power and control, for money, or for just plain zealotry – don’t want to go the way of Santa Claus. They have dug in their heels, turned religion into a political agenda to try and maintain their power base. This is what we have to challenge and fight against while this transition takes place, and to help those who ask, to transition from God and religion.

  17. DV
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    The arguments for the benefits of religion sound to me essentially an argument for the benefits of superstition.

    There is no need for a replacement “institution” at all. Superstition works as well without institution. Just look at how Shinto works in Japan or how ancestor-worship works in China. No formal institutions, just disorganized set of folklore and mythologies. None of it is true of course, but at least they don’t have a rigid set of dogma. It is easier for folklore to evolve so to speak with the times, so you don’t see much if any resistance to the idea of old earth or evolution in Japan or China.

  18. gillt
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    our neurotic behavior through Freudian drives and complexes

    How about the ontology of understanding our lucky lotto numbers by way of a horoscope?

  19. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I think scientists and other writers have pointed out the survival benefits of a community knit together by a strong common belief that calls for some sacrifice. De Botton’s Religion for Atheists seems consistent with that view, and my own limited experience of church is similarly that its community of people is its most striking feature, with rituals and the fine points of the creed as less important for most members. Perhaps church congregations will continue on with a steadily narrowing basis in supernatural truth and a growing implicit acceptance of humanism. A movement toward Unitarianism but with enough magical thinking to help members feel they have some control over their lives. My own interest is in our broad picture of the history of life on the planet and how it can, more than it currently does, point us toward surviving and thriving as our purpose and toward a shifted perspective on dying. Scientists in the future may not be completely comfortable with what people, looking for belief, come away from scientific description with. But that’s not the worst thing.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      …but with enough magical thinking to help members feel they have some control over their lives.

      I just can’t see that as a good idea.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        Sure you can! Quantum physics tells us that consciousness controls physical reality and therefore our thoughts have the power to attract whatever we visualize. So if you just make up your mind to believe that magical thinking is a good idea — then you will see it become a good idea!

        There is no conflict between science and spirituality.

        • Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          I have mixed reactions to the magical thinking stuff myself, but the case for its benefits, including survival ones, is pretty strong. I’m looking at Matt Hutson’s book on The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. He writes that if you accept that the brain constructs reality and its role is to help the owner survive and reproduce, “it follows that the brain constructs reality in the most useful way possible… Useful does not mean accurate.” Huttson’s countless examples include beliefs like “everything happens for a reason” and “whatever goes around, comes around.”

          • truthspeaker
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

            Huttson’s countless examples include beliefs like “everything happens for a reason” and “whatever goes around, comes around.”

            In what way are those beliefs useful? They seem detrimental to me.

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted January 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

              To me they seem to be pithy expressions of basic truths (macroscopic events have causes, instances fall within a statistical distribution) that may also be misunderstood or abused. YMMV.

          • Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

            I can also recommend Stuart Sutherland’s book Irrationality on this subject.

  20. Cremnomaniac
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Forgive my comment if it duplicates anything others have said, as I didn’t read them all.

    faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs

    It is always somewhat odd to me that so much credibility is given to those who argue for religion. Its as though people, even atheist, are subconsciously allowing god to exist in their arguments.

    I see it this way. Everything about culture, morality, religion, all those “other” ways of understanding are derived from mankind, period. Since they are already the product of man, then everything claimed to be the from other sources is a non-sequitur.

    The correct conclusion is that mankind already meets its basic needs, and is the primary source no matter how hard the faithfool try to disclaim credit.
    Hence, we don’t need religion for anything as its simply a mythical cognitive structure, of mankind.

    Personally, I feel philosophy as interesting an exercise as it can be, and as a useful framework from which we began to consider the universe, has about run its course. It no longer tells us anything “about” the world, anymore than religion tells us about human nature or morality. Again, the source for any of it is us.

    • Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Granted that all our ways of understanding are derived from mankind, as you say, but if you are really including all people in all their mix of cultures, capabilities, problems, successes, and tragedies, it’s not farfetched to think that portions of mankind would find understanding and reassurance in religion of some kind, whether it is deity-based, nature-based, even science-based!

      • Cremnomaniac
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        Reassurance is likely despite being a false comfort. But understanding, of what? religion starts with erroneous beliefs, and ends with erroneous conclusions. Garbage in, garbage out.

        So what “understanding” could it possible provide? Certainly, nothing based in reality, and most likely false. Sounds like misunderstanding at best.

        It seems that your comment, does in fact, hint at my earlier suggestion that assumes some underlying truth to religious claims.

  21. MorsGotha
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    My answer to your final question Prof ceiling Cat is this:

    When I stopped believing in santa, I still got presents. If I were a believer and stopped believing in God, I would still have other social situations.

  22. Ludo
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    - “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?” -

    My first reaction would be to dissect the wording used in this statement, and point out how manipulative it is. This is by no means a neutral (objective) statement, because of the use of tendentious (biased) words like ‘benefits’ or ‘needs’. This statement departs from the point of view that faith has (unspecified) ‘benefits’ and somehow fulfills (unspecified) human ‘needs’. Furthermore it implies that such needs are universal. The manipulative of this proposition is that it is tacitly and implicitly oriented towards a pro-faith point of view.
    A more neutral statement would avoid colored concepts like ‘benefits’ and ‘needs’. Instead of ‘benefits’, try ‘effects’. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘basic human needs’ supposedly fulfilled by faith, try thinking in terms of evolutionary and cultural processes explaining the fact that so many (but certainly not all!) humans adhere to some religion (since ‘faith’ as used in the above proposition has (again: implicitly) the meaning of religious faith, a subjective belief in supernatural agencies.

  23. Jane
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    We atheists ARE busy filling basic human needs of “community”. Just look at the number of atheistic, humanistic, agnostic, freethinking organized groups around the USA that meet and greet every month. These organizations provide their members (and usually, the public, at large, is invited to attend any of their meetings and social gatherings) with comraderie, a sense of belonging to a “community”. I feel heartened by the thought that one day, in the not too distant future, these groups will be as prolific as, say, the Knights of Columbus or the Masons.

  24. RandomCommenter
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne says: “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?”

    (Context: I am a militant antitheist.)

    I’d say I think it’s pretty remarkable that when Alain de Botton suggests that something should replace religion, he’s vilified in the global atheist blogosphere, but when Daniel Dennett says essentially the same thing, his comments are met with resounding silence.

    We’ve got to face the fact that people do religion for reasons that have nothing to do with belief in antiquated (and possibly always allegorical) truth-claims about the universe, and everything to do with shared traditions and the reinforcement of community.

    Dan Dennett on “What Should Replace Religion” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5tGpMcFF7U

    • gbjames
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      I think you have a point although I’m not sure that Dennett and de Button are quite advocating the same thing.

      • RandomCommenter
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        Not exactly the same thing, no. But it is recognizable that religion provides things that people consider valuable, and even that they are particularly good at that, compared to other forms of institutions. Dennett nearly argues, ALL other forms of institutions.

        Maybe we should ask the Norwegians what they do instead of church.

        (Before everybody piles on a load of flames, pretend I repeated all the usual tropes about how false and harmful the central beliefs of religion are. Stipulated, OK?)

        • gbjames
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          “Dennett nearly argues…”

          It is the “nearly” part that saves it for me. All of the things he uses as illustrations can be, and are, available in non-religious forms already. (Example, although I don’t do this myself, in my neighborhood there are secular choirs I could join, amateur theater groups I could participate in, and so forth). His TED example is well stated. But all of these things exist already. They can grow. And they will grow as more people abandon church going… they will have time for it.

          De Botton, on the other hand, seems to be arguing for some sort of unspecified ersatz ritual. That’s why he rubs me the wrong way. I have no need for a humanist chaplain in my life although in hard times it might be good to have easily available social support services available… counseling, etc.

          • RandomCommenter
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it takes ersatz religious faith, either. But what does it take? And to do what? Here’s one thing Dennett says in the video:

            “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” [Quoting Robert Frost.] Most of us have a place like that, but not all of us. There are a lot of people — and they live in houses and may even have families — but they don’t have a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. But churches do that very well. They are a safety net of last resort for many people, and not just poor people, not just the homeless in the traditional sense, but people who have simply lost hope, who’ve lost any sense of self-respect or confidence. And churches open their doors to those people. And they can do a better job at this than government agencies. Not necessarily than private, atheist agencies, but this is a task that a good society should make sure gets done one way or another.

            It’s just one example of many.

            So I guess that I would just point out that your objection presupposes that that that is offered by religions is being replaced. Ergo, religions do offer something worth replacing, and I think that it’s worthy to think about that, as such. I’ll say this: when I was hungry, no one opened their doors to me but the Catholic Church. NO ONE. Are there secular charities that I might have found? Sure, and more all the time — and they replace a function traditionally served by churches. What about the less tangible services provided by churches? Are they ALL completely without merit?

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

              Nobody is claiming that services provided by churches are ALL without merit. Or even MOSTLY without merit. What is at issue is wether these things are UNIQUELY provided by churches or not.

              Nor is anyone I am aware of claiming that existing secular services are sufficient. Everyone I know would advocate for more of them.

              So that leaves you having to defend the proposition that if religion evaporated the world would be a worse place because (presumably) ONLY they can provide a place to go if you are hungry.

              • RandomCommenter
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

                So that leaves you having to defend the proposition that if religion evaporated the world would be a worse place because (presumably) ONLY they can provide a place to go if you are hungry.

                That is not at all what I’m saying, so it’s probably time to bow out here :-)

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps one or both of us have fallen prey to communication gremlins that lurk here on the interwebs.

              • RandomCommenter
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                I think so.

                One says what one says; some understand, some don’t. Better sometimes to part friends than spend a week parsing grammar, prior to a flame war ;-)

  25. gr8hands
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Drug pushers artificially create a “need” for their particular drug from their clients — people don’t come pre-wired with an addiction to drugs (BOCTAOE). And you don’t have to “replace” their addiction with something else in order to help someone off their addiction.

    Similar to religion. You don’t need to replace religion with something else — because what it has given people is artificial (false hope, false “answers”, false “peace”, etc.). The religious were pushers for their drug, hoping you’d become addicted to it, using fear as a constant threat to keep you using.

    • Jim Bradley
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Science is giving a false hope if it cannot (mostly) remove the corruption in men … in other words, there will be no science if we live in a dictatorial (Marxist, Communist, etc) society — and there can be no science with a society of people who will lie for gain. Given the fact that we use money created by elite finance, we are in their service, however indirectly. That continues to be a polluting effect on our country and will destroy it, as it has every country before ours that went down this path.

      So the rise in immorality (organized theft, lack of honesty, loss of self control, decline in charity as a percentage of income, etc) will absolutely kill science. The whole idea that science is “it” in terms of organizing society, is breathtakingly foolish. Moral living is the organization of society, and it precedes (and has preceded in history) any use of science for the betterment of humankind.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t think anyone was proposing science as a tool for organizing society.

        • Jim Bradley
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          It was implied that secular humanism is the organizing philosophy – in conjunction with science.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted January 24, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

            Secular humanism does not equal science.

  26. Jim Bradley
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you can support the claim that secular humanism promotes the good and not the bad without some theory behind it – and then we’re getting pretty far afield of science. All normative theories ultimately rest on sociological, experimental, and environmental realities – so objectively true ways to organize societies do not exist, they rely on *someone* at *some time* making decisions what is better versus worse and that is subjective … i.e. the fact/value dichotomy. After all, where’s the starting point? The definition of what/who is human? And how would that be decided (and by whom?).

    I also thing “Plantinga’s ludicrous “naturalism-gives-us-no-reason-to-think-that-our-beliefs-are-accurate-ergo-we-have-a-God-given-sensus divinitatus” is the same error that scientists make when they assert atheism … So it is somewhat ironic that it is used in the effort to point out the foolishness of the theistic position. I can’t perceive God using sense-data (or an extension of them), therefore he ain’t … I find the idea that our sense data, however extended by machines, are the ultimate in information, and literally nothing else can be discussed as influencing our existence because we can’t see it, to be patently unsupportable. I find that also to be alarmingly foolish in light of current knowledge. We can’t “see” subatomic particles or gravity, yet we are reasonably sure they exist.

    And of course, I find the lack of imagination a real impediment as well. Consider that perhaps the regularity of nature’s laws are in fact the presence of God, rather than the reverse. After all, chaos and randomness seems to be the “natural proclivity” of the universe (or at least “heat death”). The “evidence” in this case simply depends on the point of view one chooses to take and neither side can claim an ultimate authority as neither side has any ability to separate themselves from the universe and look from the outside-in.

    And it is impossible to do anything
    with raw data anyway. Scientists try on theories and THEN interpret data to see how well it works out. They don’t “gather data” without any theory and then attempt to spring ex-nihilio, a theory from it. They bring to bear all other acquired knowledge (which may be true or false or in-between). All thinking is interrelated, and there is no pure separation of theory and data – and in fact, we cannot ever observe their separation either (we cannot observe a situation that we are not observing). Hence the claims of atheism, etc, are just not worth making.

    What might be worth making is the claim that certain things in the Bible are actually false or not literally true – getting us back to using real-world data, rather than an imaginary state of affairs. I think the U.S. Christian community is very much in that camp already. One can always find crazy believers in any group (including scientists – that believe science is “it” — the final frontier of truth), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us, that hold a middle-ground position should be ignored.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      We can’t “see” subatomic particles or gravity, yet we are reasonably sure they exist.

      We are reasonably sure they exist because we can detect them, either directly or we can detect their influence.

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        And how do you know that what you are seeing now (natural law, mathematics, etc) isn’t evidence of God’s existence?

        • gbjames
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          The same way you know that it isn’t evidence of Kinich Ahau.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            “God” is a generic term for an entity outside of our conceptual limits because of our limited nature. A conceptual being, such as Zeus, or in your example, the Mayan sun God, wouldn’t qualify.

            Even a casual thinking experiment (such as “flatland”) clearly shows that we do have limits. Science makes an assumption that what is “true” stays within the boundaries of our limits, an assumption I find particularly foolish given the amazing nature of the universe from what we know already.

            (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland)

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

              “God” is a generic term for an entity outside of our conceptual limits because of our limited nature

              So you’re playing the “redefine God” game.

              A conceptual being, such as Zeus, or in your example, the Mayan sun God, wouldn’t qualify.

              So that would be all the gods ever believed in by humans. These are the gods atheists don’t believe in.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

                Nope. It’s an open question, but there are some that have already made up their mind.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

              Fine. Play with language so that the word “god” becomes meaningless. But don’t pretend that you are doing anything more valuable that the emptiness of your definition. And don’t ask the rest of us to pretend that your particular infinite-fuzz-ball version of god is any more real than Zeus or the other of thousands of gods humanity has invented. We are as confident of it’s imaginary nature as you are of Ranganātha.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                *Pretending* is of course starting with an assumption (such as a theory) and seeing where it leads – something that scientists do every day.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

                No. “Pretending” is nothing more sophisticated than making believe. It is important to know when one is engaging in make-believe.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                Scientists do make believe, of course – but they don’t stop there. I think the problem is that you’re hung up on having an open question in regards to God. You’ve got to have it one way. I don’t feel that I do. If it turns out another way, that’s okay.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Jim Bradley: “You’ve got to have it one way. I don’t feel that I do. If it turns out another way, that’s okay.”

                We keep telling you this, and you don’t seem to be listening:

                *We don’t have to have it one way.*

                If it turned out there actually was a god or something, we’d be completely fine with that.

                All we are saying is that in the absence of evidence pointing in any particular direction, it makes no sense for anyone to talk about what lies in that unknown realm as if it were true.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                It isn’t a question of me “having to have it one way”. It IS one way or the other. The two points of view are mutually exclusive. I might be wrong, but either I am or I am not. And the evidence is all on one side.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Because that would be drawing a conclusion not supported by the evidence.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

            As true as it’s contrapositive statement – there is no God …

            There are indeed many things in this universe that you, I, other scientists, and the human race have not ever seen, directly or indirectly. We simply cannot assert either their absence or presence.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              Really? What if I assert that there is a small invisible dragon living in your closet? Are you open minded enough to tell me with a straight face that I’m quite possibly right? Are you open to that? If not, why not?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

                I cannot assert it’s presence or absence. However, if you were to make a claim about it’s nature, THEN I could possibly test that claim.

                The problem comparing this example with “God” is the “composition problem” … i.e. you are asserting a being within the natural universe that is unseen, while theists assert there is a being outside the natural universe (or at least unconstrained by it) that is not seen – entirely different. Hence the disprovability of the “invisible dragon” is far easier than that of God. And of course, if you make said dragon with characteristics that simply cannot be falsified, then one asks whether the dragon makes any difference at all. Whereas the existence of God, if ever shown to be a consideration, would make a profound difference in how we view humankind.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                Theists believe in gods that can interact with the universe. Such interaction should be detectable.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                I did make a claim about its nature. I claimed its nature was to live in your closet. I claimed it was a dragon. To clarify I’ll claim that it breathes a very particular kind of fire that is neither hot nor cold and travels between gas molecules in the air. I assert that this dragon has lived in your closet since the home was built and that it only comes out when you are shopping for groceries. This kind of dragon is responsible for potato blight and leukemia.

                I assert that all of this is part of the nature of this particular class of dragons.

                If the existence of this class of dragons is ever shown to be a consideration, it will make a most profound difference in how we view humankind.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                Gbjames, Okay, so then how can it be detected?

                But ultimately this is going to fail, because the question of God is more along the lines of “how do we interpret the evidence we have” not “where’s the evidence”?

                In other words, it seems you might already be stumbling by making your dragon “undetectable” when in fact, there are, according to theists, already good reasons for believing in God … atheists simply reject that evidence. So to be a better example, your dragon should have ambivalent evidence as to it’s existence.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Here you go: someone a thousand years ago wrote that the dragon briefly appeared to him and gave him leukemia, and every now and then people claim to see dragons in grilled cheese sandwiches.

                People claiming that there is compelling evidence isn’t sufficient to make something compelling evidence, by the way.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Gbjames, Okay, so then how can it be detected?

                It can’t. That’s the point.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                The reasons for believing in my dragon are precisely as good as those you credit theists for providing as reasons to believe in their deity.

                Perhaps the regularity of nature’s laws are in fact the presence of my dragon, rather than the reverse. (I can’t remember where I heard that logic.)

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                Lamberh’s argument from inherency is that chaos, order, regularity and its laws inhere in Nature, such that they are the primary cause, and He could only be a secondary one!
                He fails as the Aquinas Shelley superfluity, the ignosticOckham and the Flew -Lamberth the presumption of naturalism all hind Him a useless redundancy, despite Dawkins’ nemesis, Alister Earl McGrath.
                WEIT, he and haughty John Haught delight in faulting us naturalists with their sophistry.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                Well I don’t credit theists for having good arguments, but I certainly make the claim that atheists have very bad arguments. As far as evidence goes, the nature and structure of the universe is apparently enough evidence for some people (quite a few, historically) to believe. The problem with science is that it – at the outset – says that “what we cannot conceptualize” is “outside of science” and then goes on to say that “God doesn’t exist because there’s no *scientific* evidence” … a circular argument to be sure.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                Jim, do you know what science is? Because this statement is false:

                “The problem with science is that it – at the outset – says that “what we cannot conceptualize” is “outside of science””

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                bioturbonick – I doubt that we can observe events that are logically contradictory – say an event where A and not A exist at the same time. Hence we may be necessarily limited in our ability to see patterns which obey a rule-set of “non-logic” — consider the rotation of a 5 dimensional cube collapsed into 3 dimensional space, etc. While we may have tools that describe such states, we in fact, may not be able to loop back and provide the evidence, being unable ultimately to affirm it.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              In the absence of evidence, we can indeed assert their absence.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

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

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                The argument from ignorance is a fallacy when their is evidence, but the arguer is unaware of it, not situations where there is no evidence.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                ^there

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                Read it again, truthspeaker. I am not making an assertion, the atheists are. I am simply pointing out that there are alternative views with no way to mediate between them, given the fact that we are ignorant. Another way of saying this, is we have no real way to interpret the evidence we have, because we do not have experience of “multiple universes” or “universes with God” or “universes without God”. Hence ANY argument either way necessarily fails.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                There’s no evidence of unicorns, so I don’t believe in unicorns.

                There’s no evidence of god, so I don’t believe in god.

                Atheism really isn’t more complicated than that.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                bioturbonick, and you may never have seen a black swan, so they don’t exist, do they?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                That depends. Is there credible evidence they exist?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

                We also have no experience of “universe with Ubik”. Does that mean we can’t rule Ubik out?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker, don’t go round and round … science simply cannot assert the non-existence of something unless there is a fact that is falsifiable. In the question of God, there aren’t facts, so far of which we are aware, that definitively makes such an existence impossible. Until then, no statement can be made.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

                The only reason why “god” is even in our lexicon as a possibility is because of ancient peoples which believed in deities they could interact with, that controlled the weather, that controlled their fates, which could be angered or made happy. There is no reason otherwise to seriously entertain the concept as a reasonable explanation–certainly not above all other infinite ideas one could come up with–for anything except that there are people who strongly want it to be true.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            truthspeaker, maybe the interactions are detectable … we just don’t recognize them as such, at least that seems to be a theistic argument that is made. I think there are questions that we leave open because of our limits, and this is one of them. Plus, “where does knowledge come from” is also a good question. The whole idea that “an arrangement of atoms” can yield something so disparate as “knowledge” is truly an interesting question – one that pushes the boundaries. Energy and matter are the same thing, I wonder how knowledge and matter are related?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          The same way we can reject all magic beyond reasonable doubt – local energy conservation tests for no influence from non-physics.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

            Ahhh, but we are not talking the same thing are we? We are not talking about something inside this universe, but something outside it, and we do not know the conditions.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

              We’re talking about something outside of the universe that influences the inside.

    • Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      It makes no sense to assert something without evidence that it exists. All we can conclude from there being laws by which the universe works is that there is some reason for those laws to be there. To go and call this reason a deity is ludicrous. It is of course formally possible that things exist beyond what our “sense-data” can provide, but the number of possible things that exist beyond our “sense-data” is essentially infinite. Picking out one version and believing in it above all else makes little sense. Atheism simply points out the absurdity of that kind of reasoning. It’s better to leave a blank than to fill it with what is probably fantasy.

      By the way, entropy is one of those laws by which the universe works. It’s not some ‘natural proclivity’ that is overridden by laws. Every law of how the universe works is part of its ‘natural proclivity’, and you cannot rightly separate some out as “defaults” and others as “must have come from some special source”.

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Ludicrous to who? Scientists? And why should they decide? After all, we are not talking about scientific questions, or learned observation, but pure speculation at this point.

        Your last paragraph is indecipherable. The question is whether the universe needed something to “wind it up” as it is most clearly (at least from our point of view – not being able to step outside of time), winding down. There is a lot of work underway to “show” that the universe needs no intervention (methodological materialism, of course: I guess the question is decided ahead of time, no?) … but of course, that is foolishness as it is an impossible task. Start with the same data and reach different conclusions depending on the beliefs.

        And I find the statement “there is some reason for those laws to be there” to be an unsupportable statement. There is no way for us to “step outside the universe” and observe circumstances of natural law as anything but what they are. To say that there is a reason (or not) is not possible. I offer the argument that natural law *could be* evidence of God in the context of people that might choose to believe such a thing. But ultimately, those claims rest on the same sand as the contrary claim. All sorts of assertions are popping up from the new atheists and those assertions are just another religion with unfalsifiable claims, and apparently a worshipfullness of “scientific authority”, some claims of which you and I have no chance of truly verifying, even with a Phd (such as Stenger’s numerous assertions about how a universe would look if there were no God – how is that possible to know?). If we are going to dispense with religion, then let’s do that. I think what we are seeing is a new religion under the guise of “science”. These questions simply are not scientific ones. They cannot be falisified, and we have no method of determining the veracity of either side.

        So it is a fair bet that humility is in order, something I find distinctly lacking in the aggressive tone of the “New Atheists”. They are as strident as the dogmatic theists, and perhaps share more in common than either side cares to admit.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          After all, we are not talking about scientific questions, or learned observation, but pure speculation at this point.

          Which is precisely why we can rule it out.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

            Wrong – you cannot claim something is false because it is speculative! You can make no claim at all. Someone did speculate about the existence of atoms before additional evidence confirmed their existence (or what we regard as “atoms” … after all – who knows what “they” really are?)

            Scientists can make no claims about a variety of things using the rubric of science. Scientists speaking of their own opinion is a different matter, and that of course means that scientists are no authority at all on “whether God exists” – none of is.

            Hence the claims of atheists (and theists) about the existence of God are empty. Plus, there may be good reasons for God to remain outside the universe – given that such a being would necessarily alter the nature of universal reality, and use “messengers” instead – who knows? And there may be good reason that man is limited in his knowledge – given that he is corrupted when he gains power (very evidence based, that claim). I find the “Christian view” has quite a few useful concepts which are sociologically true.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

              Wrong – you cannot claim something is false because it is speculative

              If there is no evidence for it despite looking, or no way to find evidence, then yes, you can.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                I am not sure anyone could ever assert that there is “no way to find evidence” … that is a claim outside the boundaries of knowledge … although I think I see your point. How would one know that an entity is God (and not an advanced alien race) even if presented with the evidence? Of course, if God were real, then it is likely that such a being could produce evidence that would satisfy – in the end – the critic.

            • Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

              Epicyles upon epicycles. You’re making up stories completely unsupported by anything to explain why a being you can’t even be sure exists doesn’t seem to exist.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                Not at all – I am asserting that both sides: theists and atheists, are incorrect in their stridency.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          Jim Bradley…. you left out “shrill”. Please, when calling atheists strident also include the word “shrill”. Otherwise we are diminished.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

            “Atheists” in general are neither strident nor shrill … I cannot make a claim for a group. What is referred to as the “New Atheists” such as Dawkins and Harris and the late Hitchens were indeed strident, but I would not call them shrill, especially Hitchens whose argumentation was very good, although I sometimes got the feeling that his rhetoric replaced argument.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

              All of our feelings are hurt.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

                I know that’s a sarcastic comment – but I’ll add that truly it’s better to acknowledge the truth of ignorance than to run about asserting some position without evidence – don’t you think so?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                Yes.

                And in the case of every single God ever described by humans, we have enough evidence to confidently assert they do not exist.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                However, truthspeaker, we cannot assert that “God” (i.e. the concept) is false.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                Which concept?

                Every god concept every invented by humans can be considered false, because there is no evidence for any of them.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Asserting positions without evidence seems to be what you are advocating in a great many of your comments on this page.

                I don’t know what you mean by “truth of ignorance”. If you are calling people ignorant of something then you should just say what you mean. If you are claiming that in ignorance one finds truth, then you are just slinging words together without regard to advancing communication. If you are claiming that someone here claims to know something that they don’t then you should provide reference where someone went awry.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

                “Truth of ignorance” which means we are ignorant, and that is a true statement. As far as assertions, I think we are all making them, but we try to focus on the essentials. Going over every minute claim is going to bog down the conversation terribly. I’ve tried to focus on the basic theme that, without evidence, we have no basis of making any claim, that there is some acceptable evidence for God – at least for some people (what type of evidence would you personally accept? – Not a miracle of course, but what type of regular, repeatable, testable evidence would be acceptable: an interesting question I wish we had explored), that the “New Atheists” are at least in part guilty of the same ‘argument without evidence’ that are the theists (or that the evidence is equivocal), and that science is a social construct which is as important a fact as the conclusions with which it presents.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                We are not asserting the existence of something without evidence. We are asserting the non-existence of something because there is no evidence for its existence. Do you really not understand the difference?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                Yes I understand the difference, I understand that the statement “black swans do not exist” illustrates well the fallacy.

            • Jim Bradley
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              … meaning we have no data with which to make a decision – we don’t observe universes with and without God and thus aren’t able to make a distinction between one and the other, nor are we able to step outside this one and observe other possibilities. The arguments of theists and atheists both commit this composition fallacy. And as far as evidence, you reject the evidence given but other accept that evidence: so who is right? How to decide?

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

                How do you decide which evidence to accept? I’d go with the method that has consistently and steadily increased our knowledge of how the universe works over the other approach, which doesn’t even try to remove biases or apply rigorous standards of inquiry. You know, systems that resulted in homeopathy, psychics, astrology, the humors, etc.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

                It’s probably more important to cast weight on the conclusions that are best supported rather than side with a particular group – and of course when no conclusion can be had, then to freely admit it.

            • Jim Bradley
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

              Oh, and by the way, deism still seems to be well within the realm of current scientific thinking – so the claim that “every God posited by men is necessarily false” is not true.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that the concept of deism is basically null and, again, only exists by virtue of the prior ancient beliefs in a god.

                Sure, it is formally possible for there to be a deist god that created things but has no interaction whatsoever with the universe. It is also formally possible that we are living in a Matrix-type world. These may be true, but if we have no way whatsoever to detect anything, it may as well be false, and we are right to treat it that way.

        • Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          Tell me, if you found a horn-like object lying in the woods, would you conclude it must have belonged to a unicorn? That is precisely the type of ludicrosity (to coin a term) involved in your claim “there are rules, therefore god”. Of course it is speculation–that’s exactly the point. It is speculation that people give the weight of knowledge.

          Atheists in general do not simple say “there is no god”. It is a statement contingent on absence of evidence. If there’s a gap in knowledge, don’t fill it with an imagined creature or entity far beyond what the evidence says.

          “And I find the statement “there is some reason for those laws to be there” to be an unsupportable statement.” — You just said that “god” could be that which put the rules there. Do you use some exotic definition of “reason” that the rest of us aren’t privy to?

          Winding up, winding down–all of it are behaviors of the universe. Why would you assume that one is default and the other requires cause?

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

            First, I didn’t make the claim that natural laws point to God, just that there is, on these talks, a failure to use enough imagination to make the best argument on either side. A horn in the forest is hardly in the same league as “natural law” encompassing mathematics, and construction of the universe, etc. Some people take that as evidence, as that’s fine – just as it is fine to assert that it is the “stopping point of regression” and that God is not necessary. For now, we cannot mediate between the two views due to lack of sufficient knowledge.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

              A horn in the forest is hardly in the same league as “natural law” encompassing mathematics, and construction of the universe, etc.

              What league they’re in is irrelevant to the analogy. The purpose of the analogy was to demonstrate that it’s not rational to speculate beyond what the evidence suggests.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                Oh it’s perfectly relevant, because it’s a failure of considering the composition of argument. We are not talking about a single data point indicating a being not ever evidenced before, but the totality of knowledge (and our limits, as well as potential) being evidence for a being unconstrained by the present universe – and that is not reasonably compared to an isolated fact indicating the presence of a mythological animal. On the one hand there is clearly an unjustified conclusion, on the other hand, there is the universe itself as being the evidence — which is pretty darn big and amazing.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                Oh it’s perfectly relevant, because it’s a failure of considering the composition of argument. We are not talking about a single data point indicating a being not ever evidenced before, but the totality of knowledge (and our limits, as well as potential) being evidence for a being unconstrained by the present universe – and that is not reasonably compared to an isolated fact indicating the presence of a mythological animal.

                Why not?

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                The universe itself is not evidence for a BEING outside the universe. The MOST anyone can say is that there is some thing that existed that explains the universe. You cannot ascribe anything else to it, including the idea of it as a being and not a thing.

                We have an n of 1 universe and a mythological being said to explain its presence. How are they different?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                bioturbonick – it’s not evidence to *you*, but it might be reasonable evidence still the same. I am not sure that, if you ask a number of scientists, given our current state of knowledge, and excluding any of the Gods in history, that any tentative statement can *scientifically* be made about the existence (or non-existence) of any reasonably possible God.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                Evidence isn’t subjective. It either fits or it doesn’t. The fact of the matter is that there is no evidence whose explanation requires a self-existing supernatural being to have existed over all other possibilities.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                Au contraire – evidence is always at least partly subjective – and what passes for science is consensus – in other words, the practice of science is a social construct, with all of the foibles, shortcomings, inaccuracies, and problems of such entities. Bottom line, the practice of science is far, far from the “pure ideal”.

                I think a good argument can be made that the advance of science cannot be made without a difficult-to-dismantle legal commitment to personal freedom (personal property, restraint on theft), a moral society (interested in truth and non-violent), and markets (which constrain activities to wealth-producing behaviors). Any other combination would cause disintegration of the foundation upon which science relies. So it is ironic to hear that science is “IT” when the practice is very much dependent on other sociological realities.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                What’s your point, other than getting completely off topic?

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

            “Of course it is speculation–that’s exactly the point. It is speculation that people give the weight of knowledge.”

            And similarly, it is that assertion that God does not exist, despite our own vast ignorance of the universe (which seems to grow larger with every discovery), that is unsupportable.

            “Atheists in general do not simple say “there is no god”. It is a statement contingent on absence of evidence. If there’s a gap in knowledge, don’t fill it with an imagined creature or entity far beyond what the evidence says.”

            And the universe itself is not evidence? Why not? You can make an argument from parsimony, but even then it is not a very strong argument.

            ““And I find the statement “there is some reason for those laws to be there” to be an unsupportable statement.” — You just said that “god” could be that which put the rules there. Do you use some exotic definition of “reason” that the rest of us aren’t privy to?”

            I didn’t make that claim – remember. I made the claim that is it not a supportable position to affirm or to deny such a being. We simply don’t know what is outside our universe – if anything.

            “Winding up, winding down–all of it are behaviors of the universe. Why would you assume that one is default and the other requires cause?”

            I don’t make those assumptions. Atheists make the assumption that the universe does not require “God-like” explanation, even given the extraordinary appearance of life.

            • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

              “And the universe itself is not evidence”
              “extraordinary appearance of life”

              I smell an argument from incredulity.

              You said the exact words I quoted. You can’t claim that you didn’t say the words I quoted you as saying, because it’s right there!

              “And the universe itself is not evidence? Why not?”

              Can you point to one reason why the existence of the universe should be evidence of anything other than that the universe exists?

              By the way, if a piece of evidence fits infinite possible answers, it isn’t evidence for any of those answers.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

                You can call it “incredulity” if you want, but that would be inaccurate. An argument made by theists is that the regularities of the universe require an explanation – and indeed they may. If they do, then the question is how to explain those regularities. Scientists have to stop there, as the rest (so far at least) isn’t a testable theory (and neither is the “multiverse”: a completely untestable theory which is, philosophically, religious). My beef is that, picking up an edition of Scientific American, you’ll find all sorts of wildly speculative assertions under the guise of “science”, but if a theist comes out and says they believe in God, then that’s a huge faux pas. So “religion” is okay if it doesn’t include God. In either case, I see the stridency of both sides an error. We simply don’t know where the boundary of knowledge will lie in the future and we cannot make claims beyond that boundary.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

                Scientific American is not a scientific journal. It’s whole point is to draw fancy figures and sell magazines to lay people interested in science, not reflect actual, testable, scientific investigation. But I’m willing to bet that almost every one of those people saying those speculative things 1) knows that what they are saying is speculative, 2) their speculation has at least some foundation in facts about the world and some sort of mechanism, and 3) would be quite happy to find out that they were wrong. Which is exactly the opposite of what people who propose religious ideas do: They hang their entire life’s meaning on god existing, they treat it as a near certainty, and they will fight tooth and nail to not shed their belief, no matter what the evidence says.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

                The point wasn’t that scientists don’t make speculative arguments (they do, and they do so in scientific journals even moreso perhaps, because that venue is more restrictive than Scientific American, so unevidenced assertions are more readily self-identified as speculative), but that speculating on the existence of multiverse, or 10 dimensions, or exotic matter, or other such unobservables is okay, while speculating on the existence of God (at least publicly) is a quick ticket to mockery, at least here and on other atheistic boards. Bottom line, I’ve heard little on these boards respecting people of religion or taking them seriously enough to “go and find out” … the fundamental activity of science; and that attitude persists even to the point that “there should be so little respect for theists that all attempts at taking any of them seriously should cease – or at least be on the level of believing in fairies” … and the general attitude that religious people are stupid, vapid, unintelligent fools that know nothing. Frankly, what I have been seeing does not enthuse me at all about the movement of “New Atheists” (at least the ones that post on this and other boards) but instead makes me wonder what would happen to theists should the atheists get an upper hand legislatively. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the same in theism (although I think that theists, at least Christians, can be called on it, because they have a moral code which dictates they respect other people even to the point of death). I don’t believe the critical activity against theists is from a deep seated need to improve society, but from a need to externalize hostility. But surely that is anti-scientific – as it closes the ability to observe and understand phenomena.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                Every time you type something, this comes to mind:

                http://www.xkcd.com/774/

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                while speculating on the existence of God (at least publicly)

                Theists don’t speculate on the existence of gods, they assert their existence, and many of them tell you you’re going to hell if you don’t believe in their particular god.

                Bottom line, I’ve heard little on these boards respecting people of religion or taking them seriously enough to “go and find out”

                Go and find out what? Atheists have been asking for good reasons to believe in gods for over two thousand years. So far, bupkis. The main author of this blog has made a concerted effort to read what are presented as the most advanced, sophisticated arguments for the existence of various gods, and written about them here. We’ve tried to find out, and discovered nothing.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                the general attitude that religious people are stupid, vapid, unintelligent fools that know nothing A very disingenuous straw man.

                /@

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                Some of the comments on these boards lead me to believe that there is an unfamiliarity with the philosophical questions that are brought up … it’s not like this is the first conversation in history along these lines, and fantastic observations have been made throughout history; I might remind some that the university was once a religious institution. In other words, it was in the service of knowledge and that religion was considered part of it. While I, unfortunately, can’t claim professional historical knowledge of philosophy, I have read enough to encounter some sophisticated arguments. And the argument that “so far each God has been false, therefore there is NO God” is not a good one. It might be a working hypothesis that the universe needs no cause, but perhaps it does. It is hard to say where our search for knowledge will lead us, but surely having an opinion one way or the other (which includes those dedicated to theism) is going to reduce the likelihood of recognizing the truth when it is found.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

                bioturbonick – I don’t feel superior to either – I think we need rigorous pursuit of truth and part of that is to respect our own ignorance and to keep the door open to our own inability to see the truth. That is one reason I enjoy arguing multiple sides of a debate (hence on other boards I’ve argued the other side), just to keep that “it can go any way” faculty alive. In any case, I’ve enjoyed the exchange.

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                Mr. Bradley, I respectfully request that you do NOT “argue either side” on this site to keep debate alive. That not only gives you the appearance of being smug and superior, as someone has note, but it could be seen as trolling (“keeping the debate alive”). From now on I’ll ask that you restrict your posts to 10-15% of the total thread AND argue what you really believe for the benefit of my other readers.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                “And the argument that ‘so far each God has been false, therefore there is NO God’ is not a good one.”

                But that’s oversimplifying the argument. Again, everything in science is provisional. But while epistemic humility is all very well the sheer success of methodological naturalism – and it’s well to reflect for a moment upon the real magnitude of that success, the vast reticulation of knowledge that it has provided, the richness and reliability of science – justifies philosophical naturalism as a rational conclusion and makes the possibility of supernatural explanations – and certainly any explanation that invokes an “intelligent” “personal” supernatural agent – vanishingly small. Yes, there may still be a “god” but the only possible “gods” that remain has to be so unlike any historical conception that the best that the religious can hope to cling to is a vague deism.

                So, when we claim that there is no “God” that is certainly true of any conception of the god of Abraham (or others) that intercedes in the world and tells people who can have sex with whom, &c. Which for the purposes of gnu atheism is more than enough. (Others will go further and claim that even deistic agencies are incoherent, but since no deist has used their religion to foist arbitrary standards of behaviour on society, that doesn’t really matter.)

                /@

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

              The universe is evidence for the existence of the universe.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                The question is whether it is contingent or not, not whether it exists…

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

                Any god which is posited to explain the universe necessarily has the same potential problems as the universe–there is no fundamental reason why the universe *must* be contingent and a god *must not* be contingent.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

                You asserted that the existence of the universe is evidence for something besides the universe. You have yet to support that.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

                Since we don’t know the mechanism with which the universe “sprang into existence” it would be foolish to take either side of the argument and scientists in fact, not having data either way, cannot legitimately do so. But in either case, we can see from evidence that all things have prior causes that brought them to their current state, and by extension, the universe either (1) had a cause or (2) caused itself or (3) some state-of-nature of which we are yet not aware where existence is not what we think it is and we will discover this later or (4) a state-of-nature which we will not discover.

                Honestly, none of us can make a claim either way, so if one posits the presence of a universal cause, it is as good as it’s absence. To say that the cause is not necessary, is begging the question.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

                But that has nothing to do with the existence of any gods.

                The question you are proposing is a scientific question. Currently there is no way to determine the answer. There may never be. But we can rule out all the religious explanations, because the people who came up with those explanations don’t have access to any data that we don’t.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                truthspeaker, In one paragraph you have managed to contradict yourself several times.

                “The question you are proposing is a scientific question. Currently there is no way to determine the answer.”

                >> Then how can it be a scientific question? That’s the point. If is is unfalsifiable, there is no scientific statement possible.

                “But we can rule out all the religious explanations, because the people who came up with those explanations don’t have access to any data that we don’t”

                >> Other than those explanations that are already falsified (presence of Zeus, etc), we cannot rule them out. It is also possible that those people that “see” God have only seen a part, whichever they are more inclined to see. The idea that personal experience is to be negated and replaced with group experience (consensus) is fraught with problems. Truth isn’t nearly so simple, and brave individuals have persuaded others of truth despite that mass of humanity feeling otherwise.

                I just see the “New Atheists” doing a lot of the same stuff (while, ironically dissing philosophy, which might inform them of the error) that the theists do.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

                It’s not about personal vs. group, it is about having *demonstrable evidence*. If your “personal experience” is completely inaccessible to anyone else, why should anyone believe claims you make based on that experience?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

                It’s not that it can’t be falsified, it’s that we don’t have the technology to gather evidence from outside the universe. That’s what makes it a scientific question that we currently can’t answer.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

                bioturbonick and truthspeaker,

                I guess I’ll close on a note of agreement. While I don’t think it’s a scientific question (no falsifiable theory, etc), I do agree that evidence matters – which is why I’ve been (off-site) critical of the theism position. It’s a fine opportunity to have to discuss with you. Thanks for the conversation.

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    My response is contained within the larger context of agnostics and/or accommodationists driving “Atheism + something else, that we can’t define”.

    As for the in-group needs, skeptic and atheist organizations can do whatever they want. There are also attempts to further secularism at large, which is splendid.

    As for the out-group, there may be no need.

    That functional societies diminish religiosity is rather well tested.*

    Another tested theory is that all we need to do to extinguish religion is to make it more socially costly than secularism. (I recently linked to that research on WEIT.) Showing that religion is non-factual and/or morally dubious (the good but also bad morals mentioned) and therefore laughable is then enough. And something similar appends to agnosticism and accommodationism, the first is non-factual (we _can_ make likelihoods here as elsewhere) and the latter is … non-factual (lacks evidence that accommodationism works and that atheism doesn’t).

    Maybe the above outline isn’t enough, but it is a reasonable strategy for the time being.

    Still 0-1+ accommodationists-atheists.

    unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative.

    Well, yeah, the standard cosmology means all universes has to start spontaneously. Ask Krauss.

    —————————

    * Which is why it heartens me that UK discussing voting on EU prompts a discussion whether or not EU needs a common social security platform. There is such, but of varying quiality and no guarantee for its existence. Changing that would mean even less room for religion!

  28. Justin
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    //How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs…//

    That’s it’s an implicit admission of falsity.

    //…and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?//

    That such an argument merely stems from the cruel co-dependency of indoctrination.

    Atheism merely addresses religions’ claims of truth. Acts of good will are not dependent on those claims and can easily be continued by those who wish to do so, without having to bear the burdens of falsehood or piety.

    The fact that these people refuse to simply commit to doing good works without using them as a vehicle to spread their belief system tells me that they are more interested in the beliefs than the works. So no, I really don’t see why criticism of the beliefs necessitates a replacement for the works of the institutions, when the beliefs are more important to the institutions that are being criticized.


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