EXPERIMENTAL PAPER ON DISBELIEF
posted on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM
In a new site connected to this blog:
** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).
Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.
Mamet and Moses
posted on 11.04.2006 at 3:58 PM
In his new nonfiction book, The Wicked Son, playwright David Mamet rebukes, with a gusto and combativeness found in many of his characters, irreligious or anti-Zionist Jews -- "self-hating Jews," seems the term he prefers.
Where to begin? Perhaps with this interesting point Mamet made while discussing the book on WGN radio recently:
If you look at the five books of Moses, the Torah, it's a complete record of the people, the Jews, who don't like it.... The Abrahamic text is about this desert people who had this revelation and fought it tooth and nail every page until the end of Deuteronomy.
Mamet wants us to see this as evidence that faith has doubt under control. That the irreligious can find themselves -- and answers to their doubts -- in the Bible. We might instead wonder if faith can ever escape or subdue doubt -- even among people who claimed the most intimate experience of God. We might wonder if the whole miraculous production wasn't hard to credit even then.
Consciousness: Descartes' Error
posted on 10.20.2006 at 2:33 PM
The philosopher John Searle wades, with some confidence, through the swamp of attempts to make sense out of the forum in which we attempt to make sense: consciousness. Some of the issues in question are technical: "perception" versus "sensation," for example. But one of his points echoes one of the more significant moments in the history of disbelief: Descartes cogito ergo sum -- "I think therefore I exist."
Here's Searle saying "my consciousness exists":
Consciousness is real and ineliminable. It cannot be dismissed as some kind of an illusion, or reduced to some other phenomenon. Why not? It cannot be shown to be an illusion because if I consciously have the illusion that I am conscious, I already am conscious.
Descartes reaches this moment at the end of a brave effort to confront skepticism at its most scathing. Is there anything we could know, could believe in, even if some evil god were purposely trying to deceive us? This is not Searle's issue, at least in this article. But it is a very important issue in this history. For skepticism of this intensity, as Descartes understood, certainly includes among its targets the belief in a just God.
The place where Descartes manages to take a stand against skepticism is, as Searle is acknowledging, a reasonable one, though some would fiddle with the tense or a couple of the words. The problem comes when Descartes tries to move on from there. Having proven that there is something that we -- or more properly he -- could know, he makes a move that seems as clumsy as his original point was brilliant (unless it was somehow, shockingly tongue-in-cheek). Descartes concludes that since something he thought was true -- his own existence -- proves to be true, the rest of what he thought to be true must be true. Here's what he writes:
Accordingly it seems to me that already I can establish as a general rule that all things which I perceive very clearly and very distinctly are true.
Among those things that are, therefore, true, according to this odd reasoning, is, of course, God -- the precise Christian God that Descartes apparently perceived "clearly" and "distinctly."
Reason and Religion: II
posted on 10.12.2006 at 12:54 PM
The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.
Does not something of this "logic" lie at the heart of all religion?
George W. Bush -- II
posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:09 PM
The basic text on the religiousity of the current president of the United States and its influence on his policy remains Ron Suskind's article two years ago. Here he tried to explain Mr. Bush's remarkable confidence in his "gut" and his "instinct":
All of this [as well as] the certainty and religiosity -connects to a single word, ''faith".... That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness.
It is, of course, deeply upsetting to contemplate the wrongness of all the decisions Mr. Bush has thusly made.
All We Have Gained by Our Unbelief
posted on 09.26.2006 at 8:16 AM
This from Robert Browning's poem, "Bishop Blugram's Apology." The Bishop is holding forth before a skeptical journalist:
All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt:
We called the chess-board white,--we call it black.
They're Not in Kansas Anymore?
posted on 08.08.2006 at 5:35 PM
Could the faction's rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become? Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals.
Frank emphasizes the ongoing "war against elites...against the professions" -- doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators -- that has helped power this crusade. Of course, such a rebellion against expertise is an old element in the struggle of faith versus reason. In Greece in the 5th century BCE, while the Hippocratics were trying to take the "sacred" and the "divine" out of the practice of medicine, Athenians were constructing a temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, featuring a holy snake with a healing bite.
How can the experts strike back? By showing that they're just folks with their own faith, as has Senator Barack Obama? Or by continuing to stand up for what they do know? The latter strategy, I suspect, triumphed, at least for the moment, in Kansas:
The curriculum changes, coming after years of see-sawing power struggles between moderates and conservatives, drew widespread ridicule and, critics complained, threatened Kansas's high standing in national education circles.
Religion and Foreign Policy
posted on 05.02.2006 at 2:41 PM
Here are three (consecutive, I believe) sentences from President Bush, speaking in California last week:
A. "I base a lot of my foreign-policy decisions on some things that I think are true."
B. "One, I believe there's an Almighty."
C. "And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."
Bush has said these sorts of things before. But perhaps it would be useful to look closely at a few of the words he uses.
"True" is not, on the face of it, an ugly word -- especially when tempered, as it is in statement A, by "I think." The problem, particularly when the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth is at stake, is how truth is determined. Statements B and C indicate that Bush sees truth not as the product of investigation, analysis or discussion but of belief or revelation. So we seem to have foreign policy based on faith. (To be fair, the United States was founded on the assumption that a few "truths" are "self-evident.")
"Free," too, is an attractive word. However, in statement C it is removed from the realm of politics and assumed -- based on belief or revelation, for how else could this be determined? -- to have been placed in "everybody's soul." Freedom here is not an "unalienable Right," like "Liberty" in the Declaration of Independence; it is an inescapable "desire." We no longer need to ask people how they weigh various "rights," whether they might upon occasion prefer tyranny to war or lawlessness, "Life" to "Liberty." We don't need votes or public-opinion surveys. We know what they "desire." We can look into their "souls."
Perhaps the most interesting word here is "Almighty." This is no mere "Creator," limited to endowing. This is not Tony Blair's God, who, along with history, will judge. Bush names a can-do Deity -- All Mighty. His God runs the whole show. That (although I am unfamiliar with the president's thinking on the question of free will versus determinism) would seem to take lots of pressure off Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al. The key is not whether there really were WMDs, whether civil war was likely or how many troops should have been sent. Align yourself with the wishes of the Almighty -- and the "desire" He has implanted in "everybody's soul" -- and, in time, He'll take care of the rest.
I don't know enough about the religious pronouncements of other presidents or other world leaders. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric has not been that exceptional. However, for the man (ostensibly) running the United States today -- with its resources, with its power -- these three statements strike me as deeply, deeply disturbing.
Religion and Historical Truth
posted on 04.13.2006 at 4:58 PM
New York Times columnist David Brooks uses "the Exodus story" today as an argument for a transformative idealism (in a debate with himself):
The Exodus story reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and their situations. It reminds us that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones, because they are the ones who see all the possibilities the future contains.
Forget for a moment that the "idealistic" position, as presented by Brooks, involves undertaking the Iraq War. My question is why an event as historically unproven as the Israelite exodus from Egypt can be treated as fact, when any use of a similarly sketchy history, not backed by religious testament, in a newspaper like the Times would earn a barrage of critical letters. Or are we to think of the Exodus as a "story" -- as in fiction?
Prayer Worthless! -- 4
posted on 04.04.2006 at 12:29 AM
Yes, we want to carry on about how ridiculous it was to waste time proving the blindingly obvious: that a stranger's prayer can't improve your health. But maybe we're forgetting the time and place in which we live. Watching the Final Four (Okay, so I did prove susceptible to March Madness after all), I've seen ads for a TV show (CSI) about a psychic and a movie (didn't catch the name) about demons.
Prayer Worthless! -- 3
posted on 03.31.2006 at 3:47 PM
Let's forget for a moment the "faith-is-not-something-that-can-be-investigated-by-science" talk that will inevitably follow reports on this study showing that prayer by strangers does not help before a heart operation. What does the fact that the study was done tell us about the moment in which we live?
1. That ours is a time when many people still take such ridiculous assumptions seriously enough so that money (including US government money) and energy are devoted to studying them.
2. That, despite all the talk of religious revivals and resurgent orthodoxy, the relentless assault of science and scholarship upon superstition continues.
Prayer Worthless! -- 2
posted on 03.31.2006 at 2:53 PM
A few additional notes:
-- $2.4 million was spent on this study to see if strangers praying for you could actually improve your chances when having heart surgery. Perhaps it was worth it just to get the headlines in the papers today (USA Today: "Study shrugs off prayer's power to heal"), but surely there is more worthwhile medical research to be done.
-- According to the New York Times, the US government has spent "$2.3 million on prayer research since 2000."
posted on 03.31.2006 at 1:55 AM
No fooling. We now have a study.The New York Times :
Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.
Surprised? How about this:
And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.
Is this not further evidence -- sorry Ms. Bunting, sorry Mr. Archbishop of Canterbury -- that science ain't healthy for faith? Is it also a sign, and this is a bit surprising, that faith ain't healthy? (Thanks to Bret and Lauren.)
posted on 03.01.2006 at 8:51 PM
Just one more post coming on them:
Before we get, belatedly, to her:
posted on 02.25.2006 at 1:33 PM
Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important.
On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.
Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.
Faith and Knowledge -- Complications
posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:01 AM
Had occasion once (in my role of ace reporter) to ask Monsieur Derrida whether atheism is where we begin. He looked at me uncomfortably. He said something about complexity or the difficulty of "improvising" on such a matter. We moved to a different subject.
Here's one way the subject gets difficult for Derrida: He sees (and others have certainly stumbled upon this) all our utterances resting, at bottom, on a certain, primordial "faith" -- faith that an attempt to communicate is being made and will be acknowledged. Reason, Derrida argues, is impossible without this "trust."
(The "text" from which this mixmaster of a line is extracted can be found in a collection of Derrida's writings on religion.)
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part III
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:42 AM
While all right-thinking folk want the violence that has broken out in response to the satiric drawings of Mohammad to end, this awful incident does at least have the virtue of reminding us that this is a world that is sharply divided -- between humanistic, tolerant pluralists and true believers in one or another faith.
The views of Danish newspaper editors and devout Muslims may indeed be incompatible. No religious testament with which I am familiar tempers its "Thou shall not"s with an "unless it is an expression of some individual's right to free expression." And no self-respecting child of the Enlightenment is eager to hand mullahs, priests or rabbis significant control over what they do, say or print.
Orthodox Muslims are correct in suspecting that some Western intellectuals find their beliefs (like most orthodox beliefs) rather silly. Western intellectuals are correct in suspecting that some orthodox Muslims (like orthodox members of other faiths) think they are damned or damnable. And orthodox Muslims and Western intellectuals increasingly find themselves occupying the same neighborhoods, using the same media.
These are not friendly differences. These are not worldviews that can easily share a smaller and smaller world.
Yes, end the violence. Yes, let's all try to be sensitive and understanding. But it is also worth remembering that a crucial struggle is going on in the world today: between devout faith and freethinking. This struggle is inevitably going to cause some pain.
Irreligious Epiphanies -- A Question
posted on 02.06.2006 at 4:03 AM
Some often profound tales of the onset of disbelief have been shared here.
Is it hard to admit to yourself that you've lost your faith?
Come Off It!
posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM
Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.
Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?
On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism
posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM
Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.
Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)
However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."
Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."
Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?
Pain or Liberation?
posted on 12.28.2005 at 10:17 PM
Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's dad, suffered two major crises in his life: one -- a subject of To the Lighthouse -- when he lost his wife; the other when, while a tutor at Cambridge, he lost his faith. "I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly" he wrote in his journal in 1865. Stephen, according to a friend, contemplated suicide.
Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?
Salman Rushdie is among those who have found freedom in the evaporation of religion: "Imagine there's no heaven," he has written, "and at once the sky's the limit."
Is it easier to feel that now? Is Rushdie right?