Goff responds to my critique of “religious fictionalism”

I recently wrote a critique of philosopher Philip Goff’s TLS article on “religious fictionalism”, his idea that all of us, including atheists, might benefit from becoming religious fictionalists, embracing a practice that Goff describes as follows:

Religious fictionalists hold that the contentious claims of religion, such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are all, strictly speaking, false. They nonetheless think that religious discourse, as part of the practice in which such discourse is embedded, has a pragmatic value that justifies its use. To put it simply: God is a useful fiction.

Goff didn’t just say that we should forgather in lovely churchlike buildings and commune in a non-believing way, but we should also engage in religious activities like prayer (though he didn’t say to whom we should pray):

While many atheists will no doubt see the benefit of shared traditions, they may find it hard to see the point of prayer and worship. In response, the fictionalist will point out that we are not cold-blooded creatures of reason motivated purely by an accurate understanding of the world around us. Moral character is cultivated and sustained, at least in part, through emotional engagement with fictional scenarios. For the fictionalist, immersion in the religious ritual is akin to losing yourself in a book or a film, the only difference being that the effect is accentuated through our active and corporate participation in the act of worship.

He also argued that religious fictionalism was the mainstream trend in theology, with no literal belief in the truth statements of, say, Christianity, until the sixteenth century (here he relies on the ever-obscurantist Karen Armstrong).

Now, irked by my critique, Goff has responded on his own website Conscience and Consciousness; click on the article below:

Here Goff walks back his earlier claims, admitting that yes, fictionalism may not have been the dominant strain of even ancient theology, but that some theologians were semi-fictionalists. He then gives up that claim entirely and argues that his article was really about how adhering to religious fictionalism could make our society better. To wit:

The final move in [Jerry’s] post is to decisively reject the idea that fictionalism would or could be a good thing. Jerry says:

“Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route.”

In fact, I didn’t say this and I don’t think it. The humanist Philip Kitcher, in his excellent book Life After Faith (which I reviewed for TLS, accessible here), agrees with me that there are many crucial social roles religion has played historically, such as binding the community together and promoting positive social action. However, after a careful discussion of what he calls ‘refined religion’ (something like what I call ‘semi-fictionalism) he ends up arguing that humanists should work to develop alternative structures and institutions that could play the same role. I think that’s a great idea and I honestly wish him well. But it’s not an either/or. The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year. And the advantage of reinterpreting religion rather than starting again is that you get to keep the traditions, the beautiful buildings, and the structures and resources of a way of life stretching back thousands of years. I understand the objections to the beliefs of religion, but I find it hard to understand the concern if some people (such as myself) want to maintain the traditions whilst dispensing with some or all the beliefs.

Of course Goff said what he denies saying. As you can see above, he said this: “Moral character is cultivated and sustained, at least in part, through emotional engagement with fictional scenarios. For the fictionalist, immersion in the religious ritual is akin to losing yourself in a book or a film, the only difference being that the effect is accentuated through our active and corporate participation in the act of worship”. He’s arguing for professing belief and worshiping God, even if the beliefs you profess are fictions. 

But let’s leave that quibbling aside. The question is whether gathering together in a group and participating in quasi-religious activities like praying and worshiping a God in which you don’t believe (after all, we all know God doesn’t exist, right?), is a good way to satisfy the human need for cohesion. Goff argues that “secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year.”

Well first of all, do we really need weekly meetings of people? They don’t have them in Denmark, Sweden, or Germany, and yet these countries seem pretty sound. People have found other ways to cohere. As for celebrating rites of passage and marking changes of the year,” nonbelievers have found ways to do that, too. Is a secular wedding inferior to a religious one, or is the nonbelieving new couple somehow unsatisfied? And, of course, other rites of passage, like college graduation, don’t even involve or require gods. Does having a priest at a funeral, telling us that the deceased is with god, make that a more satisfying funeral?

But what about the religious buildings, the stained glass, the incense? Can’t we have those? Yes, of course; I bow to nobody in my admiration of the great cathedrals of Europe and the beautiful mosques of the Middle East. We can keep these as architectural monuments, or allow the faithful to maintain them, without having to use them as stone vessels to contain a bogus worship. These buildings are relics of a time when humanity in its infancy needed God, and needed these buildings to assure them that there was a God and an afterlife. But we can still admire them without signing on to the numinous feelings that brought them forth.

But numinous feelings are what Goff really wants to maintain, as he notes in another essay on his site, “Coming out as a liberal Christian“. Here Goff says that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the whole Jesus myth, and so on, but finds it hard to say what he really does believe in. Why does he consider himself a liberal Christian? His answer is this:

My positive creed is a little harder to state. I believe in what William James called ‘the More’; what Plato called ‘the Form of the Good’. That is to say, I believe that we are aware, in our experience of beauty and our deepest moral experiences, of something real, of great value, which goes beyond the reality which empirical science makes known to us. We are aware in these experiences of a certain depth and profundity to reality. I take religion to be a system of metaphor-involving, institutionalised practices, aimed at helping individuals and communities to live in greater awareness of this ineffable aspect of reality.

So it’s more than just an emotion, it’s a reality that eludes empirical science. (This connects with Goff’s “panpsychism,” which I mention below.)  Well, yes, sometimes even atheists feel part of something bigger than themselves, but what’s bigger is the immensity and awesomeness of the cosmos: stuff that is empirical reality and can be understood by science. Perhaps we’re not yet at the stage where we can understand the physical basis of that awe, but I am not convinced that it’s because we apprehend that there’s Something Out There that is real but “ineffable.”

At the end of his response, Goff does some psychologizing, just as Chris Mooney used to do. He must have hit a nerve if I was so irritated, right?. Here’s what Goff said:

This brings me to the final question I would like here to consider: Why did my article irritate Jerry so much? Why would you want to shut down so hastily the possibility of something that has the potential to bind communities together and direct their energies to a common ethical goal? The only sense I can make of this is that he likes the great Science V Religion war to be black and white and is irked by the introduction of shades of grey. Ideologies, whether communism or scientism or religious fundamentalism, bring a comforting certainty that allows us to avoid the messy complexities of the real world. If only life were so simple.

77 Comments

  1. Serendipitydawg
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Why did my article irritate Jerry so much?

    Not just Jerry, I was incandescent with rage at the sheer inanity that an academic could spew forth. Craig, Dembski et al make me laugh, this was pitiful and the TLS should be ashamed to have published such dross.

    • Serendipitydawg
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      And I am evidently still pretty ticked off that it was published. Oh well, maybe I should go off somewhere and mouth meaningless words to a non-existent deity. Nah! Beer, that’s the ticket (Fursty Ferret, recommended) 😀

      • Posted February 25, 2019 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        Bitter & Twisted for me.

        /@

      • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry to see you folks get so bent over it. Maybe Goff did hit a soft spot.

        Probably it is that Hard Determinism IS an extreme position and vulnerable in some of the spots he suggested. The experiences of Beauty and Goodness as Goff suggested have no standing in a Hard D position. I will add Truth, because, in my opinion, none of the debate — idea v. idea, logic, evidence — that occurs on this site has any logical grounding in Hard D position. From that perspective, all these words we are using are no different than the caused output of urine and crap that we humans do (are CAUSED to do) several times a day. Words are not caused like crap is! There is MORE logically to them than that!

        Sorry I joined the discussion so late! Wow, three exclams in a row, I must be enjoying this too!

    • Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      I’m not irritated at all. There are far worse ideas out there, and this one does no harm b/c it will never gain traction.

  2. Barry Lyons
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    “The Asylum of Woo.” Glad to see you’ve finally came up with a title for your next book.

  3. Dominic Stiles
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    “…the dismantling of our bullshit detectors, comes with all sorts of bad consequences”
    YES!
    YES!
    YES!
    That gets to the heart of the matter for me.

    • Serendipitydawg
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      At least bullshit detectors are more robust than irony meters… when will the manufacturers realise that they need to go all the way to 11 or their waranties are worth squat.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Requires Underwriters Laboratories certification.

  4. Greg Geisler
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Bravo. One of the main reasons I come to this site. Thank you.

  5. cottontail
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    If Goff were more intellectually coherent he would be advocating for the revival of the animistic religions and their rituals. They are much closer to his conception of “panpsychism” than the Abrahamic religions, which combine an elaborate legalistic framework(which easily leads to the dogmatic motivations Armstrong tries to downplay)with their bronze and iron age mythology.

    • alexander
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Goff is a representative of a large group of people (perhaps 50 percent of the members of “Church of England” in the UK, who consider the Anglican Church as a cosy club, “weekly meetings,” communal undertakings, beautiful chorals in beautiful buildings, etc… a kind of large and free country club for better people. A good example is Martin Rees, the former Astronomer Royal, who views himself an atheist, but likes to take part in activities of the Church of England (and accepts gladly a large sum, about a million pounds, from the Templeton club).

      But what happens to children being subjected to religious education? Are they told that the bible is just a fairy tale? Not in the Catholic world, and definitely not in the Islamic world! I was sent to Catholic schools (my father, when he was 60, admitted that religion was the biggest mistake in his life). But I was not told that the Trinity was just some metaphor, as a seven year old I was told that if you missed mass on Sunday and did not confess it, you would burn in hell forever. And sadistic and idiotic priests told us all the details of the obscene and absurd story of a father god who sent his son to be tortured to death in order to save us from what? Satan? If you were not baptised, you will never get into haven… etc. The nonsense, Adam biting the apple, being born with the original sin, etc. Stoning kids with this nonsense during the early years when they have to develop a critical mind is criminal, and it still happens in many countries. As a kid I believed the religious nonsense, but quikly I became aware that all this *was* nonsense. But some of my school friends never reached this conclusion and are still shocked today when I say that I’m an atheist. I think that these 50 percent of nonbelievers but members of the Church of England are hipocrites.

      • alexander
        Posted February 25, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, “hypocrites”

        • Posted February 25, 2019 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Was Augustine a hippocrite?

          /@

          • alexander
            Posted February 26, 2019 at 2:51 am | Permalink

            Well, around 400 not believing in a personal god did not send you to the gallows. Constantine the Great thought likewise, but he found that the new religion was a practical way to keep the Roman Empire united. Spinoza, however, had to move to avoid persecution for his ideas about a god.

          • TJR
            Posted February 26, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

            He was certainly a complete Hippo-crite.

            Sorry, but somebody had to take the bait!

            I’ve tried to think of a similar pun on Carthage, but its a tricky one…..

      • rickflick
        Posted February 25, 2019 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        “Stoning kids with this nonsense during the early years when they have to develop a critical mind is criminal”

        Religion is much like child abuse.
        Religion poisons everything.

        • alexander
          Posted February 26, 2019 at 4:25 am | Permalink

          Teaching religion to children *is* child abuse.

  6. GBJames
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    sub

    • John Dentinger
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Or a revival of the Olympian gods! The worshippers got to feast on the sacrifices, since the gods feasted on the aroma of the burnt flesh. It’s a two-fer!

      • CJColucci
        Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        The ancient Greek religion has always struck me as the one most consistent with observable fact: the universe is run by a committee whose members are working at cross-purposes.

      • Posted February 25, 2019 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Is there a Greek version of Ásatrú?

        /@

  7. CJColucci
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    It seems to be hard-wired into most people to think that there is Something More out there and that it relates, in some way, to some sort of cosmic justice that balances out the pain of life. I see no reason to believe that this is true, but I can see the attraction of it, and wouldn’t spend my energy trying to convince people who believe nothing more threatening than this that they are wrong.
    Communal rituals are all very nice, and it may be a genuine social and psychological weakness of secularism that while it’s relatively easy to set up a stamp collectors’ club, and good things might flow from it entirely unrelated to the merits of stamp collecting, it’s hard to set up a club of people who don’t collect stamps.

    • Posted February 25, 2019 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps it’s an innate consequence of consciousness. We create this internal narrative of agency to make sense of the signals from our subconscious mental processes and cannot but help project it on the world at large.

      /@

      • A C Harper
        Posted February 26, 2019 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        I suspect that it is a consequence of the way we process information, from the stuff that stays beneath consciousness up to the most salient, forming conscious thoughts.

        I’ve read that our brain works at many parallel levels of predictive processing – each incoming signal is matched with the most likely prediction and passed forward but is also subject to corrections by feedback from ‘higher levels’.

        So you don’t ‘see’ a chair – you receive many signals identifying edges and angles and colours and so on which predict (several layers later) that you are seeing a chair shaped object and predict that the best reaction (several layers later) is to sit down and rest your aching legs (aching legs, another chain of predictions). Of course if some bright spark pulls the chair away as you sit a whole host of errors and fresh signals work together to predict your next action…

        The thing with predicting god (as an explanation for thunder or disease etc.) is that there is no immediate error feedback to correct your predictions.

  8. docbill1351
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Which is why I am a confirmed Harry Potterist.

  9. darrelle
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    “Why would you want to shut down so hastily the possibility of something that has the potential to bind communities together and direct their energies to a common ethical goal? “

    Ahh, the old “have you stopped beating your wife yet” gambit.

  10. Jenny Haniver
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    You took the dude down!

    If I want religious fictionalism I’ll lose myself in “The Eccentricities of Cardinal Perilli” and “The Passion of Joan Paul II: A Pasquinade.”

    However, once in a while, just for the heck of it I used to go to Mass — Tridentine Rite (in Latin, the old stuff) and take communion, thus committing a cardinal sin according to the RC Church. Would Goff consider that acceptable religious fictionalism — to participate in rites exclusive to baptized members of that particular church, and who are in “a state of grace” after having confessed one’s sins, rites that the atheist explicitly rejects?

  11. TJR
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    No wonder Jerry is so hacked off after that last bit:

    “I’m so nuanced that I can see the grey areas, whereas people who disagree with me are all so simplistic and Manichaean. Mmmkay.”

  12. Historian
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    The root of Goff’s argument is a certain conception of human nature that parallels Jack Nicholson’s famous line in a “Few Good Men” – “You can’t handle the truth.” For Goff, most people, even professed atheists, need to escape the harsh realities of life by periodically retreating into a fantasy world. Religious ritual in a church venue provides the means. I do not know the extent to which Goff’s theory has empirical support, but I, for one, have never experienced the need to go down the religious road to achieve community since I abandoned religion in my early teens. But, to be fair to Goff, I do not know what percent of atheists find his argument appealing. I hope it is small.

    • TJR
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      “escape the harsh realities of life by periodically retreating into a fantasy world”

      We’ve got computer games for that now, so we don’t need churches any more.

      • Posted February 25, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        “We all have some emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that some fill with art, some with God, some with learning. I have always filled the emptiness with drugs.”
        — Bruce Sterling, Involution Ocean

        /@

  13. Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    If we had organized weekly meetings that reinforce connections within the community through group ritual, then those who choose not to attend will be made to feel as outsiders. They would be challenged to hold public office, for example.
    Those secular-ish meetings would start to resemble some of the bad parts of organized religion.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      I attend organized weekly meetings with friends at a changing list of brewpubs. Every Thursday evening I join The Brain Trust for a few hours. I get all of the benefits of church attendance and none of the woo and nonsense. And the beers are good!

      I don’t see the bad parts of religion creeping in. And I don’t need to get up early on a weekend morning.

      • Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        That’s because you are one of the faithful. 😉
        Actually, your church sounds like a lot of fun.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          Not a church! An organized weekly meeting.

    • DrBeydon
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      I was going to say something like this. To quote from Office Space: “You’ve been missing a lot of work lately.” “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it.” Perhaps we need to get past the need to go and have ourselves affirmed at regular intervals before we go and trash those who think differently. That strikes me as just being federated tribalism.

  14. darrelle
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Your list of irritants is spot on. Another thing that irritates me is how believers like Goff exclaim about the depth and profundity of reality and seem to think that nonbelievers don’t have experiences like that or surely they would believe. No, being moved to tears by the beauty of a fox sitting in a bedewed meadow in a fog at sunrise or a fine performance of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor, or any of the myriad kinds of experiences that move humans deeply, does not by any means lead inevitably to a belief that god(s) must exist or we couldn’t have such experiences. Nor is a prior commitment to god(s) necessary to have, and cherish, such experiences.

    I think that believers like Goff are scared by the smallness of human beings in the grand scheme of things and their religious beliefs allay that fear with a narrative that asserts that humans are special. Not just to ourselves but special in the context of the grand scheme of things.

    Oh, and name dropping Plato gets the bullshit detector twitching all by itself.

    • Posted February 25, 2019 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      I’ve certainly posted this before, but it’s apt:

      “So what shall I make of the voice that spoke to me recently as I was scuttling around getting ready for yet another spell on a chat-show sofa?

      “More accurately, it was a memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was OK and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace. Where did it come from?

      “Me, actually — the part of all of us that, in my case, caused me to stand in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, and the elation I felt on a walk one day last February, when the light of the setting sun turned a ploughed field into shocking pink; I believe it’s what Abraham felt on the mountain and Einstein did when it turned out that E=mc².

      “It’s that moment, that brief epiphany when the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet at least, beyond the grasp of Stephen Hawking. It doesn’t require worship, but, I think, rewards intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.

      “I don’t think I’ve found God, but I may have seen where gods come from.”

      — Terry Pratchett, interview, Daily Mail (2008)

      /@

      • Mark R.
        Posted February 25, 2019 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

        Back in the 80’s, I was attending a Grateful Dead concert very high on a gram of mushrooms. I wasn’t a dead-head, but the scene and music was really fun. Whilst tripping, I watched a red helium-filled balloon float up and disappear into the sky. It was an innocuous and common occurrence to be sure, but in my psilosybed-brain state, it seemed to me almost a miracle. I started laughing hysterically and babbling about “where dreams go”. I know, weird. The brain is capable of amazing ‘real’ feelings, especially when stimulated by powerful psychoactive drugs. I know the experience was meaningless, but I’ll never forget it. Hopefully Christians/Muslims/Jews et al. will never discover the “magic” of hallucinogens. They could be a powerful tool in conversion methinks. At the same time, adherents to these drugs think they will save us all by freeing the mind- a tall and unsubstantiated order. Either way, hallucinogens are another big question that should be studied and not criminalized.

      • darrelle
        Posted February 26, 2019 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        Excellent, and I’ve never come across that before. Thank you Ant.

        A couple of examples that were running through my mind are Feynman’s account of a conversation he had with an artist friend about a flower and . . .

        “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

        What is more amazing? That a god made our universe or that it just happened? Judging by how limited the imaginings of the great religious thinkers have been over the centuries regarding our universe compared to the never imagined wonders discovered by science of what actually is, there isn’t much of a contest.

  15. rickflick
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    The Unitarian Fellowship (not church) that I attended with my parents long ago was almost an ideal example of what Goff seems to think would be socially binding. It was that for some people who wanted it. The Fellowship They sang hymns in pews from a standard hymnal and they met in a small church building abandoned by Christians. They debated whether to have more or less ritual. They invited someone from in or outside the group to give a presentation about a moral or ethical or current affairs issue. They held a discussion with folding chairs in a circle. Beliefs varied around a center of agnosticism. It was a place to feel a community without having to relive early church experiences from which most members had fled. One of the strongest binding notions was – we are no longer one of them! I rather suspect many felt like refugees from a bitter experience and in the Fellowship they felt great relief. The place seems to have served a purpose, but as time goes on that motive will fade, it seems to me, and there will no longer be a need for such refugia.

  16. JohnE
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    The folks who seem mystified as to why atheists criticize religion either haven’t given the matter any thought, or haven’t been paying attention. Most of us do it because we believe that knowledge should be evidenced-based, and that it is dangerous to believe otherwise. While it is generally accepted that people who hear voices in their heads are exhibiting signs of mental illness, for some bizarre reason people are permitted to avoid that diagnosis simply by making the unsubstantiated claim that the voice they hear is “god” (rather than, say, Napoleon). Moreover, we find it especially worrisome – for obvious reasons – that many people actually believe they’ll be happier when they’re dead. As a result, those of us who value evidence-based knowledge are terrified by the fact that, in the 21st Century, a large swath of humanity makes decisions based upon divine voices in their heads or their particular interpretations of their choice of ancient fables written by primitive people who would have thought that a kitchen match was a miracle. These are the voices and fables that have told people to fly planes into buildings, to invade Iraq, to marginalize and discriminate against women, to justify slavery (as was done in the antebellum American South), to conceal evidence of child-rape and protect the rapists “for the good of the church,” to pray over their dying children rather than seeking medical help, to refuse blood transfusions, to murder abortion doctors, to play with (and die from) poisonous snakes, to impoverish themselves by contributing to religious con-men (the estimated loss to religious fraud is $50 billion dollars), to suppress the progress of science, and to block the dissemination of knowledge in our schools. If you’re an orthodox Jew it might lead you to harass women on the street who don’t comply with your dress code or to refuse to sit next to women on airplanes. If you’re an American christian your religion might lead you to hate gays and picket the funerals of dead soldiers to publicize that hatred, or to oppose vaccinating girls against the human papillomavirus, believing instead that it is morally preferable to ensure that the risk of cervical cancer is the price that sexually active women are required to pay. If you’re an African christian it might lead you to kill “witches.” If you’re a muslim it might lead you to join ISIS and participate in its campaign of ruthless murders, or to mutilate women’s genitals. I think those are damn good reasons to criticize religion.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      Well said!

  17. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    sub

  18. grasshopper
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I might join a religion if it had no rules. And I would form a committee to enforce the no-rule rule.

  19. eric
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year.

    Nobody needs “secular humanism” to have a birthday party. Or go to a football tailgater on Sundays, where you’ll meet lots of ordinary people of different backgrounds.

    Goff is still wrong-headed in thinking any such -ism or -ianity is needed to create social bonding. Humans are social animals. We’re perfectly capable of forming social communities and doing social activities without any overarching philosophical construct at all. We do it naturally. We do it because we like to, not merely out of some commitment to an ideological demand such as ‘I need to go to church’.

    • Posted February 25, 2019 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Re “rites of passage”: In Scotland the proportion of humanist marriages has grown rapidly since their legal recognition, overtaking Church of Scotland marriages in 2015. [Source: Humanists UK]

      /@

    • A C Harper
      Posted February 26, 2019 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      If you went to a solipsist meeting would anyone else be there?

  20. Andrew Lautin
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Consider what to add in response to Goff

    Re: Losing oneself in a book or a film, the danger is losing oneself.

    -) “What we will see is that man cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn’t bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does. He uses all kinds of techniques, which we will call the ‘character defenses’: he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out: he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him.” Becker

    -) Also if one is going to cite William James, then also cite James’s statement vitiating, if not fully debunking the ‘healthy minded’ argument’, as he (James) put it, “the worm at the core” of man’s pretensions to happiness.

    -) Finally, Goff’s position drastically minimizes, if not frankly denies the paradox of man’s existence that Kierkegaard’s forcefully put forth.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      The Becker comment reminds me of Hitch pointing out the masochistic drive in humanity that seeks out a totalitarian leader to own our lives. Rudimentary fear and the instinct for self preservation drives this, I suspect. Our goal, as enlightened human beings should be to throw off the shackles, take full responsibility, and courageously live our own live.

  21. Dave137
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “Why did my article irritate Jerry so much?”

    Why did Dr Coyne’s response irritate Goff so much?

  22. Wunold
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Well first of all, do we really need weekly meetings of people?

    While I won’t say that we need them for a healthy society, I enjoy a weekly meeting with some nonbelieving friends in a pub for over twenty years now.

    Humans are social animals and will band together over almost any interest or activity, or just for socializing. I see religion as an emergent property of this natural drive, not as a necessity in itself.

  23. Steve Pollard
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Every couple of weeks or so, I gather together in fellowship with some like-minded men and women. We garb ourselves in coloured raiment; we partake of communal beverages; we engage in ritual songs and chants; and we are united in our unshakeable faith that, dammit, it’s surely Harlequins’ turn to win the English Rugby Union Premiership this year. And we start all over again next September.

    It’s a lot more fun than Goff’s proposition sounds, anyway.

  24. Mike Anderson
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    There’s a term for adopting admitted fictions as an important and vital part of one’s life: cosplay. Live long and prosper.

  25. Filippo
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    “The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year.”

    Has religion brought together ordinary people from ALL socio(-cultural?)economic backgrounds? Not from my observations, experiences and reading of history.

  26. Sastra
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Moral character is cultivated and sustained, at least in part, through emotional engagement with fictional scenarios. For the fictionalist, immersion in the religious ritual is akin to losing yourself in a book or a film…

    If he’s going to bring up “moral character” in connection with pretending that religion is “emotional engagement with fictional scenarios,” then he’s going to run up against those of us who think moral character is cultivated and sustained by honesty and clarity.

    I think that’s one of the aspects of Goff’s essay which bothers me in particular — his striking a proud, lecturing stance when he ought to be making a humble little admission.

  27. Posted February 25, 2019 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I welcome this discussion, and thanks Goff and you, for writing back and forth about it. This religious fictionalism seems to be also what the Jordan Peterson flock subscribes to. I consider it bunk, too.

    I like to comment on Goff‘s and apparently Armstrong‘s point made here:

    How does this fit with the Armstrong’s distinction between belief and faith? Actually, there is no inconsistency here. Armstrong’s claim, as I interpret it, is that faith, and therefore religious identity, was not (from 30,000 BC to 1,500 CE) defined in terms of belief. Faith and belief, on this view, are two different things that can come apart.

    I don’t buy the distinction between faith and belief. In my native tongue it’s one and the same idea (glauben), cognate to belief, which is rooted in līefan, i.e. to believe, having trust in, relying on, having confidence in something. In German, it‘s thus unintelligible to believe (in God), yet not believe (he exists).

    Maybe the invading Frenchmen confused the Anglosaxons, as faith is a french import, from latin, fides, which means to rely on, but with the connotation of demanding something, or having an agreement of sorts that allows trust that something is done (consider “fidelity”). It’s also related to loyal or dependable. Going back further, you‘ll find the proto indo european root *bʰeydʰ- (“to command, persuade, compel, trust”), which in english also leads to abide, to bode (well), and similar terms, and somehow has to do with waiting, and in modern German leads to bitten (pleaing, please, ask with the understanding that it is done ) and beten (to pray, i.e. asking, pleading to God). The core idea seems to be the deep understanding that something exists or is done, and one has to wait for it to happen, but can have trust that it happens. And perhaps with the preceding step of asking for it.

    In conclusion, I consider this line of argumentation completely refuted. Faith and belief exist in English side-by-side, as do many terms, because of 1066, not because of different concepts. The former is the frenchmen term from latin, the other the common folk anglosaxon term, and they mean similar things with usual differences in connotations. The latin-speaking clergy had fides, the french rulers had fay, which became faith, and the common people did beliefan in something, believed it.

    Sophisticated Theologians can imagine anything, even 100 Thalers to buy something, and no doubt, they can imagine how to believe-not-believe (metamodernism?), but it looks totally implausible for everybody else.

    I use my second link to highly recommend this video called “The History of English in Ten Minutes”.

  28. Roo
    Posted February 25, 2019 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m not clear on why Goff would be particularly invested in a project such as religious fictionalism. It seems like an unusual middle ground. For example, if a high school had a losing sports team and took a “let’s dream it until it’s true!” approach – acting as if they were champions until they were – then ok, I think most of us would understand that intuition. If a high school had a losing sports team and made up very specific empirical claims – “Hey, let’s all act as if the quarterback’s dad died in a car accident, and we’re going all the way to the finals just for him! Chant it with me! “For Donny’s dad! For Donny’s dad! Even though we know his dad is an accountant who is alive and working happily down the street! Sing it again! For..””, we’d go “Um, wait, what?”. I’m not sure why he doesn’t just go the “spiritual but not religious” route and stick with sort of broad claims about believing in something bigger than himself. Or, if he sees truths that are specific to Christianity but untraditional – Christ as a very specific and important archetype that is needed in our mental repertoire regardless of what did or didn’t happen historically – I don’t know why he doesn’t just make those aspects clear. Not trying to be overly critical, I’m just wondering if he’s still hashing out this idea himself.

    Regarding panpsychism – is it really that ‘out there’? I might be completely misunderstanding or misrepresenting the concept, but I thought there were versions of it that weren’t so implausible – i.e., whatever wave function or configuration of quarks or whatever it might be that gives rise to self-consciousness is actually present in all things at much much lower levels, and becomes progressively stronger as you go up the ladder of self-awareness. So it’s not to say that a rock is self conscious, just that it contains the building blocks for consciousness at much lower levels. I’m not sure how much utility there is in such an explanation (it might be like saying “Consciousness is kind of everywhere in potentate form because consciousness is based on matter and everything is made of matter” – you could make a semantic argument that this is more or less true, but I’m not sure what it would actually mean. It would give rise to some interesting questions – do minerals become conscious when we take vitamins, as they become part of us and we are conscious?, but is probably not what most people have in mind when they think of the universe as conscious.) but don’t think it’s entirely implausible (again, depending on how broadly you define ‘building blocks’ of consciousness, it might be a totally unavoidable conclusion.)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 25, 2019 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

      Your entire speculative second paragraph. There’s three very good links in the same sentence around para 12 or para 14 in Jerry’s post above. If you dig into them & read you’ll see why the idea of a continuity of consciousness from quarks up to planetary consciousness up to a whole universe having consciousness, doesn’t hold water rationally nor observationally.

      • Roo
        Posted February 26, 2019 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        I think you’re misunderstanding my comment Michael. It’s much more about semantics than speculation. At its core, panpsychism seems to me to say that everything is made of the same core elements, which we know it very likely is. In that sense I’d say it’s not about whether or not it’s true, it’s about how much utility such a concept actually has.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 26, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Nah the first half of that para is physics – before you move onto semantics. Might be worth knowing what others have said about this rather than having to speculate. Rather than relying on what you think panpsychism means.

          • Roo
            Posted February 26, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

            You’re just being condescending and rude now Michael. I’m done responding to your comments, on this or any thread. I’d appreciate it if you’d return the favor.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted February 26, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

              Don’t worry about it Roo. I enjoy your stream of consciousness-style reports on reality as you see it. 🙂

        • Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          I think a more naturalistic approach is Dennett’s. He argues that from our place as Persons, we use the Intentional Stance and “see'” the rise and origins of Agency way back in even proteins, viruses, all living things.

          He contends that from our place as systems with limited limited self-con, that’s our source in nature and the part of us that USES information and has evolved to language, morality, and limited rationality.

          Or Something to that effect; its a more complex position than Hard Determinism. You can’t get too “wooey” like panpsych but you get close.

  29. Bill C
    Posted February 26, 2019 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    “And the weakening of our organs of skepticism, the dismantling of our bullshit detectors, comes with all sorts of bad consequences.”

    Thanks for the reminder of what’s really at issue here.

    “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.”
    Thomas Paine
    The Age of Reason
    1794

  30. Andrew Lautin
    Posted February 26, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a previous comment.

    I would like to expand on it; in a second comment.

    Goff’s numinous intoxication serves to deny the paradox that is an essential core element of man. That is to say the abnegation of all that was writ by Kierkegaard, Freud, Becker and so many others. This is an error, an omission that a philosopher cannot make, and should be taken to account.

    To Professor Goff: Do you know why man was thrown out of the Garden of Eden. The import of the Adam and Eve myth?

    Yes “man is a creator, and has a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet (this image made concrete by Carl Sagan). This immense expansion, this dexterity and etherality, this self consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god . . .”

    But he is also (a modified worm, Darwin) and is food for worms, Becker.

    As Montaigne put it, on the highest throne in the world – in the most elegant church, man sits on his arse … “But if we push this observation even further and say men sit not only on their arse, but over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement.”

    ((All cited or paraphrased from Becker.))

    Professor Goff engages in a peculiar (for a philosophy professor) denial of contingency, accident and anality – the duality or paradox at man’s core.

    You cannot have one (the woo) without the other.

    A. Lautin

  31. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 26, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Goff is just abysmal. Just a note:

    after a careful discussion

    In sophistry “a careful discussion” means producing arbitrary labels in order to cherry pick the category that lets you argue the point you want to argue. Which is exactly what Goff did.

  32. Posted February 28, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I joined this discussion so late, I could have vented some righteous indignation too, but on Goff’s side.

    I think Dennett is right, much of our everyday vocabulary has no place in the hard core Scientific World View. This site’s Hard Determinism sure classifies there. Goff is right that “awe” and “morality” and “beauty” have no reasonable foundation in the position that most of you espouse, even though you say you experience them. When you say “I’m awed (by nature, for example)” that is no different than you feeling the need to ‘take a leak”!

    Dr. Coyne and all, when you say you do not think people are “responsible” for their actions and that we have no “choice”, you take down far more of the way we think about ourselves than simple those two ideas. That logical boat is full of a lot of other acts and experiences, like awe and beauty.

    Dennett’s Soft Determinism allows (or at least tries to logically allow) a lot of what we say about ourselves to have a reasonable foundation, but then also gives causes more of a role than Libertarians or Religionists would. For example, when children really get the hang of language and cooperation with adults, they achieve a new level of complexity —- the “intentional stance”, “personhood”. This is where logic, evidence, morality, beauty have a place, between us persons.

    I think this makes some sense, I don’t think its too “wooey” because it tries to respect more of the world’s evolutionary achievements than just the physics level. There are “more limited descriptions of the world” than the physics level that are nonetheless true, as Sean Carroll argues.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Goff isn’t on your team either GregWW – when one gets down to it Goff thinks there’s some sort of thinginess [my word] that explains the world – something that puts consciousness back in the driving seat in a real [non-illusionary] way. He is as much a gappist believing in woo as the most ardent religious creationist is. That ain’t you.

      Your own ‘stance’ haha is not unconventional – non-Goddy feedback loops & emergence seem to account for values etc in your scheme. Do I have that right? There is no conflict there with hard determinism that I know of. If there is what is it? [I’m prepared to be shown that I’m wrong]

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      When you say “I’m awed (by nature, for example)” that is no different than you feeling the need to ‘take a leak”!

      That’s quite a bizarre (yet revealing) claim.


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