January 2007

Before I begin (you know, I have work to do, I can’t just sit around all day and debate theology!) I would just like to respond again to the hate-mail you recieved. I know I can seem scathing of religious peoples at times, but I like to think that this doesn’t carry over to my life. I am actually playing the bass guitar for my local church at a service on Sunday (and me getting out of bed before seven really is a service) and I am only known as “the polite guy who attempts to engage members of the congregation in theological debate” not as the “atheist who laughs sinisterly at innappropriate times during the reading of the scripture”.

I only really go for that sweet God-bread though.

Jokes aside, I am prepared to admit a certain inconsistency on my part in knowledge of the policies of various sects and religion. Having denied my hereditary Catholicism at the tender age of thirteen, and for the first couple of years of atheism gone through a violent anti-religious reaction whenever the word “God” was used (without being followed by dammit) I am only just now recuperating knowledge of the religions I previously scorned. That said, I have now realized the error of my ways and devoured much more of the Bible than I ever did when I thought it would save my eternal soul (ironic how it works like that, isn’t it?). So I ask for forgiveness when sweeping generalizations or claims upon my part are less than exact.

Ok! First I would like to talk about the Bible, and its relation to Christianity. I had previously hoped to base my analysis of Christian beliefs soley on the Bible as it is a solid text which can be referred and related to, and is – presumably – the basis of Christianity. However, I had not realized the scope of the discrepancies between the Bible and Christianity. I had no idea that the Catholics were not Creationists. The idea seems preposterous to me – I mean, if you say that Genesis is a load of cooked up fairytales, how can you continue to be convinced that every word of the rest of it is gospel? – but maybe the Catholics are trying to regain faith from the scientific community after that Galileo debacle a few centuries ago. So if the Christians don’t believe in the Bible – or sections of it – any more, what do they believe in? Are they, dareisay, thinking for themselves?

What I personally think is more likely is that they believe what their respective churches as institutions tell them they believe. I have to say this: anyone with access to the information of the atrocities and huge errors in judgment that the Catholic Church has committed, that STILL wants to follow their whim, is an idiot. I will make no qualifiers. That said – and in light of the fact that I love to generalize – I do realize that a lot of people aren’t subject to that information, or think it is lies. I’d like to draw on your wealth of religious information and experience here. I previously thought that the bond that tied the Christians together was belief in the plight of Jesus in the Bible annd the different sects were different interpretations. At which point did the Catholics (or any Christian group for that matter) start claiming parts of the Bible untrue (or not literal)?

As a side note, do biblically literal Christians think that that we just made up the dinosaurs, or what? That always bugged me.

OK! Back to the racist/sexist analogy. I realize that I was probably getting off topic with these digressions, but (I believe) my original point was this. If you feel that a Christian God exists, is that an intelligent reason for believing in the existence of said God? My first rationalist reaction would be no — I recall a faith is anathema to intelligence argument. However, your response “You can change their behavior, but you can’t argue them out of their emotions.” is valid. If you cannot argue with someone’s feelings, and it is that which convinces them of the existence of their God, how can you call them unintelligent? After all, it is our feelings, not our intellectual deduction that shapes the way we view our world: if you tell a lifelong colour blind person that what he sees as green is actually red, he will still be convinced that the way HE sees trees is what they should naturally be (our red) because that is what he feels. I still feel objects are completely solid even though science tells me molecules are mostly space. In this way, however, I would like to draw a distinction between faith and feeling. Neither the religious nor colour-blind example show faith. I feel that objects are solid, but I know they are not. I do not have faith that they are solid; I have been presented with the evidence and made a deduction which I have intellectually overcome but emotionally not.

Where this applies to religion is when a person feels that that a Christian God exists, yet intelligently knows the contradiction in the Bible make this highly unlikely (that is, makes it highly unlikely that the God that is described in the Bible exists; one that is infinitely good but punishes Mother Theresa to Hell, to quote yourself). That person may feel a Christian God exists, and might say the same to others the same way I say I feel objects are solid; but he/she would acknowledge that this is seems imposssible or is likely to be untrue. When a person feels that God exists, and has seen the same evidence in the Bible, but takes her feelings as sacrosanct, that person is – to me – at least ignorant, if not unintelligent, the same way I would be unintelligent if despite the tests proving molecular structure I have studied I chose to take my personal feelings as truth. Obviously my faith in solidity of objects would have little ramifications affecting my daily life, howev er the faith in feelings of a Christian God would cause this person (assuming their faith is drawn from the ‘Truth’ of the Bible) to live their life according to this Bible and decide owning slaves should be legal etc.

I have absolutely no quibble with the first person who acknowledges the unlikeliness and seeming impossibility for a Christian God to exist yet bases their belief on an immovable feeling. In fact, I doubt whether I would even consider this person religious in the first place, in that they would obviously not try to ‘spread the word’ or to enforce their beliefs on others. “Any belief based on feelings of this sort is necessarily limited. You can’t convert someone based on your personal feelings, and you are on morally shaky ground trying to pass laws or compel others to action based on these feelings” were your exact words which pretty much confirm what I’ve said; however, you were using this to describe the grounds of faith based religious people, and this is where I disagree. A faith-based religious belief could be used to describe anything: faith in the correctness of your feelings (which is, at best, irrational; what do the same people do when they feel like murdering some one because they took their favourite parking space?), faith in the correctness of those around you (a hereditary belief is part of this, which is also obviously irrational) or even faith that there is justice in the afterlife (possible the most irrational faith of them all: all we experience is injustice in the world, why would the after life be any different?!).

In this way (this is where I was getting unstuck before) the statement of yours is still basically true: “6) Non-scientific (e.g., emotional or “faith”) reasons for being religious are impossible to refute” I only strikeout non-scientific because it is too broad – me believing in God because the Pope tells me to is not scientific but I hope still possible to refute – but I understand what you meant by it: that emotion is subjective and therefore irrefutable.

I think I understand the difference between rationality and intelligence: although the example of your son is a little misleading because age is involved. But maybe your point is this: it is okay to be irrational as long as you recognize this irrationality, and show that you recognize it by changing your actions. Therefore our racist man recognizes that his belief in the inferiority of racial minoirties is irrational and thus makes sure he is never racist — I think I am mirroring another statement you made. The point of the analogy is this: the man recognizes his irrationality, and is thus still intelligent in my eyes. He lets his rationality overrule his personal feelings, as does the religious person who acknowledges the unlikeliness and seeming impossibility for a Christian God to exist yet bases their belief on an immovable feeling. The religious person who, to my mind, is an idiot, is the one that lets irrationality win and thus has to introduce the concept of faith to explain their stance.

“If a religious person recognizes that religion is based on faith as opposed to reason, it is completely possible for them to be intelligent and logical in their world view, actions, and treatment of others from that point.” If, in your quote, you substitute my changes to the concept of faith that has been used so far in the argument – as I defined it way back in my seconnd comment – the meaning is as follows, and succinctly sums up my arguement. If any religious person realizes the basis for their own belief, whether it be personal feeling, sincere logical argument, or faith in its many detrimental forms, and is able to admit this to themselves and others, that person will be clearly intelligent in my eyes (in the case of those with faith in justice, the others around them etc. being able to admit this to themselves will likely change their feelings outright — i.e. if you base your belief in faith in your culture which has dominantly chosen Christianity, you are likel y to change your mind when you realise you are just being a follower and not thinking for yourself.

So from this conclusion, me ever the cynic, how can we determine which religious people are unintelligent? Is it those who just don’t examine the basis for their beliefs? Is it only those that are capable of doing it and choose not to?

What do you think?

I, too, have read more about religion — and read more religious texts — since becoming an atheist than I ever did when I was religious. I wish more religious people took this kind of interest in their beliefs. I think we would all be better for it.

Yes, it’s true that there is a wide variety of belief in Christianity. Catholics believe in the Bible, but it is understood that some parts of scripture are spiritually true if not literally true. So, for example, the creation story was written for people who did not have a lot of scientific knowledge and therefore is not to be taken literally as science. Interestingly, it looks like the Catholic church has also taken a narrower view of miracles and such things in recent decades. They still say such things occur, but they are not quick to call something a miracle. As religions go, they’re fairly progressive and non-judgmental. By the way, there are some Protestant groups who do not consider Catholics to be Christians.

Regarding your statement that anyone who knows the Catholic Church’s past and still follows it is an idiot, I’d say in Catholicism’s defense that at least the Church is willing to admit its mistakes (albeit slowly). Also, the Vatican II council some decades back made sweeping changes to the church, so it is a very different institution than it was a century ago. The church also has a lot of ceremony and history that some people find attractive.

One last word about Catholicism: so far as I have seen, this is also the religion in which the largest percentage of followers specifically do not follow certain rules of their religion. For example, Catholicism condemns birth control, but use of birth control by Catholics is rampant.

You ask at what point did a Christian group start claiming that parts of the Bible were untrue. There has been disagreement since almost the beginning. There was disagreement about what books belong in the Bible (Catholics and Protestants still don’t agree). In the fifth century (if I recall) there was quite a famous controversy over the nature of Jesus. Today, there’s still disagreement among Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish beliefs about what the Ten Commandments are. So, to sum up, if you look at the history of the Bible — and at all the gospels and other religious texts that were written but didn’t make it into the official book — you can see that disagreement about what is holy word goes right back to the beginning of Christianity.

Do Creationists think we made up dinosaurs? No, they think dinosaurs were created along with everything else and went extinct.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled discussion.

I think we’re getting very close to agreement on how to look at people who are religious because of emotional imperative. You say that when a person has access to the facts but still goes with their emotions they are at least ignorant, if not unintelligent. I still say that there are many people whose emotions are so strong on this subject that they effectively are unable to use the information that you would have them understand. It would actually do them emotional harm to disbelieve because they have so much mentally invested in theism. Atheist bias time: I feel that these people use religion as a crutch, which, if pulled away, would cause them to fall. They could probably get back up again, but most of them aren’t up to taking the risk. There is also a certain segment of the population that is intelligent but that is either not intelligent enough to see the weight of atheistic arguments or does not find them sufficient (particularly in the area of the origin of the universe).

You are right that there is a danger of believing bad things or being led to immoral behavior once you put your trust in a religious organization. This is where, as I’ve said before, religious people have far less excuse for not behaving rationally.

By the way, there is disagreement about whether the Bible says that owning slaves should be legal (at least in the new testament). These days, most people would say it does not.

You say that you would have little quibble with someone who bases their religious belief on an immovable feeling and that you might not even consider such a person religious. We’re very close to agreement here. The big difference is that I think that most religious people fall into this category. The problem is, they don’t realize or won’t admit that they fall into it. I think we need to educate people so that everyone in this camp knows that they are in it and stops trying to say that they are religious for scientific or rational reasons. That will be a big step forward for everyone.

Another big difference remains our definition of faith. I consider belief due to emotional need to be faith. You mention other flavors of faith — faith in one’s own feelings, for example — that are irrational. I would agree, but then I consider all faith to be irrational, even when it’s pragmatic. I also don’t see faith in post-life justice to be any more irrational than faith in the existence of a deity. It’s something some people need emotionally so that they can face an unjust world.

Let’s look at the example of someone who has faith in the correctness of their feelings and feels that someone in their parking place deserves to die. If that person recognizes the source of their faith (emotion), then they realize that the source is not compelling, and although they may be convinced that the mal-parker deserves death, they will know that they are not justified in killing that person themselves. Once again, the problem isn’t the emotion that leads to faith, it’s not recognizing that faith is based on emotion.

You say, “believing in God because the Pope tells me to is not scientific but I hope still possible to refute.” Small quibble here — you can probably prove that the Pope’s word isn’t sufficient for belief in God, but I don’t think you can prove there is no deity. At best you might be able to prove that if there is a deity it does or does not have certain qualities.

You say, “But maybe your point is this: it is okay to be irrational as long as you recognize this irrationality, and show that you recognize it by changing your actions.” Exactly! My only caveat would be that one should strive for as little irrationality in life as possible.

I agree that the person who lets irrationality win in the face of obvious evidence might be called an “idiot.” I disagree that introducing the concept of faith to explain their stance makes someone an idiot (since that is what I’m doing ), but I will say that it is foolish to use faith to justify a religious stance. That is, to use faith as proof, to treat it as compelling, or (bias showing big time) even to say that it is something everyone should have.

Now we get to the big question: how do we determine which religious people are unintelligent. We’re getting into “lest you be judged” territory here, but what the heck .

I don’t think that there is any rule that is going to apply to everyone. However, you may have seen in my previous posts that I have two rules for acceptable philosophy, and I would say that anyone who disobeys these rules runs a serious risk of being called unintelligent.

The first rule is that your beliefs can’t contradict themselves. I see religious people contradict themselves all the time. For example, when a religious person says that killing a baby is bad, and God would never allow an innocent to come to harm, but when God kills a baby (say, in a natural disaster that was sent to punish sinners), it’s not bad (or it’s actively good). There are tons of examples like these.

The second rule is that you can’t blame others for thinking in the same way you do. If I believe in God because I have a strong emotional need, I can’t blame you for believing in Allah because you have a strong emotional need. Again, examples of violations of this rule are numerous.

Violators of these two rules include an enormous number of people. I hesitate to call anyone an idiot because idiocy implies an inability to learn, but people whose philosophy doesn’t at least meet these two criteria certainly have their work cut out for them if they want ot convince me that their beliefs make any sense.

Posted on January 31, 2007 at 9:07 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q, Dealing with religious folks, Discussion

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