1/23/2007

Religious blog debate

There is an interesting argument being had between two bloggers right now over religion. The first is antitheist Sam Harris, a well-known critic not only of religious fundamentalism, but more controversially, of religious moderation. The second is Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and a fiscally conservative Catholic.

I frequently read both of these men and it's great to see them spar over an issue that is all too pervasive in our lives, culture and politics, yet still isn't discussed enough: faith.

15 comments:

Jeff Hudecek said...

I read up to a little after this snidbit:

"Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally."

-Sam Harris

I suggest he take a look at this:

http://www.paragonhouse.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=387

I don't understand his claim that religious moderates do not question and/or revise their faith, or refuse to. Historical logic and the fact that there are over 2,500 versions of the Greek New Testament alone speak to the contrary. Also, his use of the Leo XIII quote seems counterintuitive. It emphasizes the difference between a fundamentalist and a moderate. As many Christian moderates will tell you (at least those I've spoken to in the Episcopal Church), they don't subscribe to that sort of thinking.

That said, I'm no Christian, but I believe many of the world's major religions are infused with messages of morality and life lessons that have contributed to the survival of humanity to this point. Many good things to come from religion (see almost any faith based charity organization, the conglomeration behind savedarfur.org is a great example) are overlooked in favor of religious flaws.

Patrick Boyle said...

I agree with you about the remark that religious moderates refuse to question the actions of fundamentalists. I am an admirer of Harris, but he has made this point before and I think it falls flat. To me, it just seems wrong on its face.

Just something to consider in response to your remark about all the good things religious charities do. This is undoubtedly true, but it seems to presuppose that these same people would not do the same if, let's say, religion was outdated and no one believed it any more. This is not reality, so there is no way of knowing if they would or would not. In general, though, I don't believe there is that strong a link between religious faith and selfless action/charitable activism. I believe humans are moral with or without religious faith and there would be roughly the same amount of good deeds done in a universally secular society. If fundamentalism does not discount religion totally, then conversely why does the good actions of a few make it acceptable? Do the secular organizations dedicated to saving Darfur show us that this is a question of general goodness and not rightousness? I say so.

Jeff Hudecek said...

Pat,

As a humanist I could not agree with you more, secular morality certainly has the potential to be as copious as faith-based good will. However you can't deny that religion, if anything, is a fantastic tool for organization of such good deeds.

Patrick Boyle said...

More often though, it's a fantastic tool for dividing people. So no, I'm not willing to applaud it on that merit.

Anonymous said...

As far as the good that Religion does:

It is certainly true that religion does some good, but, in the larger debate over the validity of a belief in the supernatural, I ask: so what? Some organizations widely viewed as terrorist organizations build hospitals. Some brutal dictators have had wonderful social programs. The US military has simultaneously destroyed Iraq, yet if you read todays time, you see how some of the soldiers have saved young childrens lives.

But one still has to look at the larger issues.

Harris said it better than I ever could, so I will just cherry pick this line:

"As you may know, I've argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available"

Accordingly, I think that sans religion, people woul dbe just as giving. And in fact, perhaps more so, as they won't waste time praying (putting random thoughts into your head, waiting for some supernatural being to act on them)and instead do practical things.

I have seen a quote once that said:

"Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Give a man God, and he will starve to death while praying for a fish. "

Or, a famous atheist credo:

"Rather than promote dead theology,we [atheists] promote living ideas. We would build a hospital instead of a temple, a library instead of a church."


Mike

Jeff Hudecek said...

Though I don't subscribe to any major faith, I do believe that there is a perpetually unknown realm outside of human existance. It's difficult to assume that reality is simply what we percieve with our five senses and that there's nothing outside of that. It contests logic to deny that there are things we will never know or understand fully in our lives.

As such, I find it more practical to believe that people should be allowed to worship what they wish in this perpetually unknown realm so long as they also subscribe to that tolerant ideology. We have a gap that cannot be filled with science, and people should be allowed to fill that gap as they see fit within the law.

The first ammendment gaurentees freedom of religion, and I think its the best public policy we can hope for. It sounds like you guys feel we would be better off banning it (as convincing the the religious population to give it up is extremely unlikely, the psychological dependance it fosters is far too powerful). I acknowledge that you may instead feel that we would be better off without religion (which I certainly doubt, economics lead to as much if not more misery. Why not advocate removing money too?). However, I see literally no realistic means of instantaneous religious removal (aside from publically banning it) without allowing it to socially work itself out (which it slowly but surely is in this country).

I don't think one should attack religion as a concept. I think it's perfectly acceptable to attack certain sects or religious movements that advocate amoral actions. However, don't use them to lump all religious believers into a single catagory. I might as well blame you both for attocities committed by the KKK simply because you're both white. Or blame all Americans for anything horrible our government does.

Patrick Boyle said...

Jeff,

Talk about a straw man argument. Neither Mike nor I have ever once advocated some sort forced ban on religion. Certainly I agree that people should be "allowed," to us your word, to believe what they want about the nature of the universe. It's baffling that you would go out of your way to announce your support for this. Who would not?

It is entirely different to argue that the world would be better off without religious belief -- belief which causes sect to turn against sect, religion against religion, the faithful against the secular, etc. Just look at the micro example of American politics. The only opposition to complete funding for stem cell research is based on the concept that a clump of about 150 cells is a God-granted life.

Your example of economics is bizarre. Economics itself, or money specifically, don't cause the problem of economic injustice, or an unequal distribution of wealth. So money itself is not even a necessarily evil. It's just a physical thing, tangible currency. The analogy is so deeply flawed that I can't find a way respond to it beyond that.

You might make the case that I am throwing the baby out with the bathwater, i.e. dismissing religion entirely because of the actions of a few. You would be half right. I am arguing that faith drives people to do very bad things and think things that are provably false. I think that the good things religious people do are not a testament to how great religion is, or to God's grace, but to the goodness of those people. It's pretty simple, and economics and the KKK need not apply.

Anonymous said...

“ … I do believe that there is a perpetually unknown realm outside of human existence …”

There are of course things we will never know. Their may even be limits to what we are capable of finding out. Still, there is still plenty of reason to debate the plausibility of what may exist, beyond our realm of knowledge and inquiry. And I think it is not very plausible to say that those gaps are probably filled with some kind of supernatural being that created the universe.

Jeff Writes: “As such, I find it more practical to believe that people should be allowed to worship what they wish …”

I am glad you use the term gap. Throughout history there has been gaps in knowledge, and throughout history the most pious among us have filled those gaps with God. We didn’t understand the cosmos, the stars – and these gaps led to all sorts of theology that were proven wrong as humans learned more. While I cant prove that these gaps are not filled with God I can look at the overwhelming pattern of human inquiry and realize that so much dogma that was created/invented due to gaps has been proven untrue as we learned more. So I think it is most reasonable to assume that these gaps are a byproduct of our inability to comprehend everything, as opposed to a supernatural explanation for which there is not one iota of evidence, and never has been.


“The first ammendment gaurentees freedom of religion … “

I,of course agree—and cant find one instance in either of our posts where we say otherwise. This is an intellectual argument – not a matter of personal freedom. I doubt you will find many bigger defenders of the first amendment than Pat and I, and I have the utmost respect for people of fiat. (Just not their arguments) Hell my Mom is a proud catholic, believes in the whole bit.

Interestingly enough atheists/humanists are the most persecuted religious group in the country, and without freedom of religion, I suppose I could be stoned for my disbelief in the supernatural. If anyone would lose from ending religious freedom, it would most assuredly be us. But that amendment is not relevant to the intellectual merits of belief in supernatural explanations for the universe.

And in favor of banning religion? Talk about jumping to such an absurd conclusion.

I don’t believe in God. I think religion does more harm than good. We have both politely an honestly reflected these views, without once advocating a ban on dissenting views. I am sorry, but that statement is just not credible.

“I acknowledge that you may instead feel that we would be better off without religion ...”

I just understand this statement at all. The belief in God and the existence of currency as a means to exchange goods have no equivalency as far as I can see. I will just gloss over this part, unless you can further clarify the relevance


“However, I see literally no … “

One would have to be insane to assume that we could, or should quickly change the world’s religious beliefs. But I don’t think any of us advocated any such thing. (Again, enough with the straw man arguments here) What I do think is that we should have open debates about the validity of religion, the likelihood of God—and that it should be open to intellectual challenges. I would like rationalism and logic to spread. There will always be religion, and believers. But maybe with more open debate on the issue and maybe we wont have to deal with statistics like the one Harris notes: “Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.”

"I don't think one should attack religion as a concept ..."

Interesting, I think all people should be free to attack—and by attack, you mean give intellectual scrutiny-- all ideas, especially ones that have serious implications on how we live. Its called freedom of speech a concept which you earlier accused us of not subscribing to.

MC

Anonymous said...

two things:

1) Jef i had to truncate your quotes since blogger limits space ... I left the intos in so you knew which grapsh I was addressing.

2) I see Pat just posted, and in reading on sentence, I see that we made some of the same points. Apologize for the redundancy, but I guess that happens.

Word,

MC

Jeff Hudecek said...

I apologise for insinuating that you both advocate banning religion. I was certainly incorrect about that and agree that dialogue should be encouraged. However, a few of my other points still hold true.

As far as I understand it, your dislike of religion in based on the belief that religion gives people false reasons to hate, even condone violence against one and other. If I am incorrect on this, please let me know.

If I couple this with the assumption that you both feel that all faith is falsified and that there is no God (any of them), then it's safe to assume that you feel that people are in conflict for no good reason based on religion.

Here is where my analogy to economics rings true. Note that I was not referring to "an unequal distribution of wealth". I was referring to specific cases where wars have begun in persuit of financial gain, people have been killed/hurt in robberies, and morality has been compromised for greed. If one looks at the literal truth of money, it is just ink on paper. Humans attribute value to it psychologically, creating the concept of wealth or value. People have killed for it.

Religion, according to atheist/agnostic belief, functions in the same manner. Concepts with value attributed to them by the human psyche motivate people to do things for what they feel is their own spiritual well being. As such, I don't see the flaw in my analogy. Arguing that religion shouldn't exist based on its potentially amoral consquences is like saying we shouldn't believe in money for its potentially amoral consequences.

Now on to Mike:

"I am glad you use the term gap. Throughout history there has been gaps in knowledge, and throughout history the most pious among us have filled those gaps with God. We didn’t understand the cosmos, the stars – and these gaps led to all sorts of theology that were proven wrong as humans learned more. While I cant prove that these gaps are not filled with God I can look at the overwhelming pattern of human inquiry and realize that so much dogma that was created/invented due to gaps has been proven untrue as we learned more."

I'm not talking about those sorts of gaps. I'm referring to the gap created outside of human perception. No matter what we do, we cannot understand our own existance outside of our five senses. We have a set plane of reality that we understand, but outside of that will forever remain beyond our grasp (as we are now).

I think it's entirely fair to let people plug that gap with God, so long as, once again, they do so under the principle of the first amendment.

"Interestingly enough atheists/humanists are the most persecuted religious group in the country, and without freedom of religion, I suppose I could be stoned for my disbelief in the supernatural."

Actually I believe that would be American Muslims currently. The other day my girlfriend had an interesting conversation with an Iraqi student at Emerson about just how fun it is for her at the airport (not very). I can't think of a single example of an atheist being stoned in this country within the past three decades, so I can't really agree.

PS. It's good to see you posting Mike :)

Anonymous said...

I'm not talking about those sorts of gaps. I'm referring to the gap created outside of human perception. No matter what we do, we cannot understand our own existance outside of our five senses. We have a set plane of reality that we understand, but outside of that will forever remain beyond our grasp (as we are now)."


I have to ask, how do you know, with such certainty, that there is a "gap created outside of human perception."

If it’s beyond human perception, then how can you --as a human, to my knowledge--know that it exists?

I don't even understand how this qualifies as an argument.

"I think it's entirely fair to let people plug that gap with God, so long as, once again, they do so under the principle of the first amendment."

The question is not whether it’s fair. The question is whether it’s logical. This is why religion can be so dangerous--believers argue that it is beyond intellectual challenge.

And again, we all believe in the first amendment. Let get past that.

"Actually I believe that would be American Muslims currently. The other day my girlfriend had an interesting conversation with an Iraqi student at Emerson about just how fun it is for her at the airport (not very). I can't think of a single example of an atheist being stoned in this country within the past three decades, so I can't really agree."


Well the good news is that there are actual studies done on this. These are nice because then we can look at a wider pool of examples than one person at an airport (which only proves that Muslims are persecuted, not that atheists are not, and doesn’t account for the fact that one can't tell an atheist by the color of their skin) and simply "thinking" back about three decades for examples of things.



http://www.ur.umn.edu/FMPro?-db=releases&-lay=web&-format=umnnewsreleases/releasesdetail.html&ID=2816&-Find

(Note, interestingly enough, I became aware of this link from Andrew Sullivan.

He wrote:

"According to this study, atheists are the most distrusted minority in American society. They're lower down the totem poll than Muslims, gays or recent immigrants. (Gee, I'm two out of three.) I'm not an atheist but my last boyfriend was; and he was and is a great and moral guy. If you were to listen to O'Reilly, you'd think atheists run this country and Christians are persecuted. The opposite is closer to the truth. Religious freedom must emphatically include the right to believe in nothing at all. I wish our president said that more often."

(Thanks by the way, I am eager to post, when time permits)

MC

Jeff Hudecek said...

I have to ask, how do you know, with such certainty, that there is a "gap created outside of human perception."

I suppose I don't, but I don't think you can dismiss the possibility either. Doing so would be overtly short-sighted. Like earlier humanity believing that there was nothing outside of the earth.

Your url isn't working, but here's one that does:

http://www.cair-net.org/asp/execsum2005.asp

I would love to read your study too, though. I was not implying that Atheists are not persecuted, but I certainly have never felt persecuted or threatened for not being of any major religious denomination. I've also experienced absolutely nothing like what I see in the above link. Hence I can't help but question your statement based on personal experience.

Jeff Hudecek said...

PS. That mention of the first amendment in that last post wasn't directed at you, Mike. It was directed at Religions. I, like you, believe that religions intolerating other religions is wrong and must be addressed.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the link; blogger cut off half the URL.

Just to be safe I will link you to The American Sociological Association

http://www.asanet.org/page.ww?section=Press&name=Atheists+Are+Distrusted

In case that doesn’t work (BLogger seems to cut off long URLS) I will cut and paste the text.

I find especially interesting that parents don't want their children to marry atheists.

MC
-------------


Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According Sociological Study

Washington, DC—American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity does not extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology. The study will appear in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry. Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong,” she said. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”

The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts. The study is co-authored by assistant professor Joseph Gerteis and associate professor Doug Hartmann. It’s the first in a series of national studies conducted the American Mosaic Project, a three-year project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family Foundation that looks at race, religion and cultural diversity in the contemporary United States.

The American Sociological Review, edited by Jerry A. Jacobs (University of Pennsylvania), is the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

Anonymous said...

Two more things, Jeff:

1) That poll you gave was evidence that Muslims are victims of discrimination -- which is something I obviously agree with. (I have specifically gone after pat on this blog on the issue of Muslims in airports)

But your study doesn't mention atheists. My study asks about all minority groups and concludes that Atheists are less trusted than Muslims.

You don't ave to convince me that Muslims are persecuted against. I am well aware of the xenophobia in this country, and I find it utterly loathsome.

2) I should also say that I am glad to see you are posting; I had been pushing Pat to include you this semester, as we finished up last year.

MC