Religion and Science -- 8
posted on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM
Science has not replaced religion.
If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.
But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.
Religion and Science -- 7
posted on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM
A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.
1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:
"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)
Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:
"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"
Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.
2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:
Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."
"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist
Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.
posted on 10.31.2006 at 10:39 PM
An American student asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' Well, if that's what you choose to mean by religion, fine, that makes me a religious man. But if your God is a being who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, wreaks miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare and raises you from the dead, you are unlikely to be satisfied. As the distinguished American physicist Steven Weinberg said, "If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal." But don't expect congregations to flock to your church.
Do those of us who rank high on the waxing-ecstatic scale (and myself I can get pretty exuberant about summer breezes and all sorts of landscapes) really meet some definition of religious?
Religion and Science -- 6
posted on 10.31.2006 at 1:57 AM
Should proponents of evolution allow some space for religion in their schema or reject it entirely? Richard Dawkins, writing on Edge, labels the two sides in this dispute the "Chamberlains" and the "Churchillians," which gives away which side he's on:
The Chamberlain tactic of snuggling up to 'sensible' religion, in order to present a united front against ('intelligent design') creationists, is fine if your central concern is the battle for evolution. That is a valid central concern, and I salute those who press it.... But if you are concerned with the stupendous scientific question of whether the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence or not, the lines are drawn completely differently. On this larger issue, fundamentalists are united with 'moderate' religion on one side, and I find myself on the other.
The intellectual case for accomodation with religious moderates has been made by Stephen Jay Gould -- arguing that religion and science occupy two different "magisteria" -- teaching domains (Shermer's "separate-worlds model"). Dawkins, taking the hard line (Shermer's "conflicting-worlds model"), will have none of this notion that religion might deserve a "magisteria" of its own:
Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle -- and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't. It is a fact, one way or the other.
Relgion and Science -- 5
posted on 10.29.2006 at 11:31 PM
1. CONFLICTING-WORLDS MODEL. This "warfare" model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing, where one is right and the other is wrong. In this model, the findings of modern science are always a potential threat to one's faith and thus they must be carefully vetted against religious truths before acceptance; likewise, the tenets of religion are always a potential threat to science and thus they must be viewed skeptically.
2. SAME-WORLDS MODEL. More conciliatory in its nature, this position holds that science and religion are two ways of examining the same reality; as science progresses to a deeper understanding of the natural world it will reveal that many ancient religious tenets are true.
3. SEPARATE-WORLDS MODEL. On this tier science and religion are neither in conflict nor in agreement. Today it is the job of science to explain the natural world, making obsolete ancient religious sagas of origins and creation. Yet, religion thrives because it still serves a useful purpose as an institution for social cohesiveness and as a guide to finding personal meaning and spirituality.
Shermer, like Richard Dawkins, seems a natural partisan of the first and more aggressive model. However, he gives some credit to the third model. Too much?
The problem with attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism.
The Separate-Worlds Model is the only way to do this. Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science.
Religion and Mark Foley
posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:33 PM
An addition to our ongoing discussion of religion (or its absence) and morality (or its absence):
This Republican congressman, who seems to have exchanged some "predatory" emails with teenaged male House pages, supported the interests of the Christian Coalition 84 percent of the time in 2004 (the last year I could find). He is a Roman Catholic and may have some connection to Scientology (thanks Operation Clambake). According to the Herald-Tribune in Florida, Rep. Foley supported the Defense of Marriage Act, "a measure intended to ensure that only heterosexual couples may wed."
Rep. Foley's other hypocrisies -- attacks on former President Clinton for his affair with an intern, support for tough laws against child porn and seduction of children on the Internet -- have, of course, been well reported.
The Big Bad Wolf
posted on 09.17.2006 at 10:16 AM
1. We have found the one, true way to heaven, salvation, righteousness, enlightenment, whatever.
2. And therefore (this is occasionally implicit but usually explicit) everyone else is wrong and, consequently, lost, deluded, damned, dangerous, whatever.
In settling into pluralistic democracies religions have tried to deflect attention from their big teeth by putting on bonnets and skirts. But then they open their mouths and.... The current example, of course, is the line now making headlines and causing riots from that speech by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope was quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor:
''He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'''
Of course, Benedict's slap at atheists in the same speech, which we have discussed, has failed to cause any riots.
posted on 09.12.2006 at 10:51 PM
Some numbers from a large survey of Americans' religious attitudes by Gallup and Baylor University (via USA Today):
** 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force.
Not surprising. That would leave 8.2% of Americans not believing in God or the equivalent. But then the survey includes this:
** About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%.
Is this evidence that the religious revival is real? Or might this represent a difference in the surveys? And when asked dead on:
** only 5.2% of Americans say they are atheists.
This could be bad for book sales. The next number sounds ominous:
** 45.6% of all Americans say the federal government "should advocate Christian values."
Not clear, however, whether that means helping the poor or requiring prayer in school.
Morality and Evolution
posted on 08.20.2006 at 9:16 PM
Collins, plumping for the idea that morality comes straight from the Big Guy in the Sky to his Chosen Species, writes:
Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.
Harris, after noting that humans have perpetrated an immoral act or two over the millennium, responds:
Just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins--who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes--begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?
What Ann Coulter Knows
posted on 08.17.2006 at 3:46 PM
So far, with one minor lapse, I've done a pretty good job of avoiding mention of Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism . Has, even with the gigantic sales, something of the fish-in-a-barrel about it. I've held off despite what Ben Vershbow calls the book's "Bizarro World" version of the title of this blog. (Were it, for the sake of my own sales, only intentional.)
However, this recent New Republic review of the book by Jerry Coyne (forwarded by Ben) is not only big fun but raises some interesting questions.
Here Coyne wields, against Coulter, among other things, the so-why-are-there-so-many-religions line of attack (the argument Darwin credits for his own disbelief):
What's annoying about Coulter (note: there's more than one thing!) is that she insistently demands evidence for evolution (none of which she'll ever accept), but requires not a shred of evidence for her "alternative hypothesis." She repeatedly assures us that God exists (not just any God -- the Christian God), that there is only one God (she's no Hindu, folks), that we are made in the image of said God, that the Christian Bible, like Antonin Scalia's Constitution, "is not a 'living' document" (that is, not susceptible to changing interpretation; so does she think that Genesis is literally true?), and that God just might have used evolution as part of His plan. What makes her so sure about all this? And how does she know that the Supreme Being, even if It exists, goes by the name of Yahweh, rather than Allah, Wotan, Zeus, or Mabel? If Coulter just knows these things by faith alone, she should say so, and then tell us why she's so sure that what Parsees or Zunis just know is wrong. I, for one, am not prepared to believe that Ann Coulter is made in God's image without seeing some proof.
posted on 07.23.2006 at 3:41 PM
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the only country today founded specifically for people of one religion: Israel? We know the hugely compelling historical reason for this. Still, sometimes it is hard nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, (as my friend Dan Lazare argues) not to think that this sort of thing is a bad idea.
Religion and Science -- 3
posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM
Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.
Gould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:
the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.
So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.
Religion and Science -- 2
posted on 07.18.2006 at 11:20 PM
Leonard Lopate had an interview this afternoon with Francis Collins, a former head of the Human Genome Project, on "how he reconciles his scientific knowledge with his religious faith." Collins has a book out on the subject, entitled, The Language of God. Stimulating fellow:
God is outside of nature. Science studies nature. Its tools are designed to study nature. So it is totally inappropriate to take scientiific conclusions and draw any particular conclusions about God.
posted on 07.17.2006 at 9:05 AM
An obvious thought: How often are these two words -- "sectarian" and "violence" -- paired. (It's "sectarian bloodletting" on the front page of the New York Times today.) The Oxford Compact Dictionary defines "sectarian" as:
concerning or deriving from a sect or sects. 2 carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect or other group.
The dictionary then gives this example of usage:
Are there any "sects" that are not based on religion? What if they dropped the euphemism and simply wrote "religious violence"?
How often are the words "nonsectarian" and "violence" paired?
Religion and Happiness, continued... -- 2
posted on 07.12.2006 at 7:56 PM
The study (thanks Popp) is an ex-hippie's delight. Give psilocybin, the active ingredient in some "magic" mushrooms, to certain religiously inclined people and see what it does for them. But this premise is not likely to cheer nonbelievers:
The Johns Hopkins researchers were interested in inducing a mystical experience because of the widely recognized value of creating a sense of spirituality to help people overcome fears and psychological problems.
That the case?
And, oh yeah, the folks behind this study claimed it worked -- in creating a mystical experience and in that experience improving outlooks on life:
The subjects were surveyed two months later and reported that they continued to feel a sense of well-being. Some said they had the same feelings a year later.
Religion and Science
posted on 06.30.2006 at 5:44 PM
And just one more from Edward O. Wilson, in which he fails to take the why-can't-we-all-be-friends?, it's-all-just-different-perspectives-on-the-same-thing position on faith and reason:
So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.
Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.
Oddly, this is an argument based not, as you might expect from a scientist, on truth, on the wrongness of religion, but on consequences: religion being ungood for societies.
The Angel of Death
posted on 06.14.2006 at 2:58 PM
A blond woman in a white raincoat wanders through the Garrison Keillor/Robert Altman film "Prairie Home Companion" -- occasionally cozying up to someone...who subsequently expires. She contributes a few religious/philosophical platitudes as she makes her rounds.
The film -- which is warm and folksy but slight and a bit deficient in, of all things, irony -- contains, according to Catholic Online, some "mild irreligiosity." (The Church did not insist, however, that it be labeled "fiction.") Certainly, it does not seem another one of those There's-A-Meaning-Behind-It-All, which-if-we-weren't-so-cynical-we-could-see, films. Hence, the Angel of Death here is probably to be taken as a literary device, an allusion, a metaphor.
My question is whether religion-reduced-to-metaphor qualifies as belief's last gasp or as a harbinger of disbelief's triumph. Is it, in other (very different) words, the pathogen or the vaccine?
Death and Religion
posted on 06.09.2006 at 11:57 PM
The prospect of evading death is supposed to be a great moral force: providing incentive -- the largest, longest possible of incentives -- for good behavior. Whether the logic here in any sense works is very much an open question, as is the issue of whether the carrot/stick of heaven/hell has in fact increased the world's supply of doing good. But this blurring of the line between life and death has surely had at least this cost: a cheapening of life and, on occasion, even a celebration of death.
Extreme figures make weak examples, but I can't help but note this reaction to the death of the great death merchant Musab al-Zarqawi:
"We herald the martyrdom of our mujahid Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and we stress that this is an honor for our nation," a statement signed by one of Mr. Zarqawi's deputies, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, said.
Religion as Shameful?
posted on 05.17.2006 at 12:00 AM
W.H. Auden was, Wilfred M. McClay writes in the Weekly Standard, "forthcoming in lamenting what he called the 'prudery' of 'cultured people' who treat religious belief as the last remaining shameful thing, and find theological terms 'far more shocking than any of the four-letter words.'"
"The immaculate conception." "Jihad." "The chosen people." "Intelligent design."
Religion and Politics -- A Comment
posted on 05.10.2006 at 9:58 PM
This critique of Bush's injection of his religious beliefs into his policy decisions comes from a record from China, dated 662 BCE:
It is when a state is about to flourish that [its ruler] listens to his people; when it is about to persih then he listens to the spirits.
Religion and Foreign Policy -- 2
posted on 05.07.2006 at 10:16 AM
When I began this book I looked at President Bush as an anomaly. But in working on the book I found that all American Presidents in one way or another invoke God.... President Bush is a little different because he's so sure about what religion is telling him.
posted on 05.04.2006 at 9:36 AM
Even if religion has been making a comeback against secularism in recent decades, hasn't much (not all) religion been transformed by its exposure to secularism? This from A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian:
In its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles.
"I'm Not Religious, Just Spiritual"
posted on 04.22.2006 at 1:19 PM
"I have no spiritual practice. The word spirituality should be banned from the English language for at least 50 years... Talk about a word that has lost its meaning! You can't walk your dog without doing it in a 'spiritual 'manner, you can't cook without talking about spirituality!"
To the Lighthouse
posted on 04.20.2006 at 11:13 PM
If the question is what, post religion, might satisfy the human need for meaning without itself becoming a form of religion -- and that may very well be the question -- then we have yet another reason for reading Virginia Woolf's resplendent To the Lighthouse. Woolf, as has been noted here, was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an early and important agnostic, and the model, we assume, for Mr. Ramsey in this novel.
To the Lighthouse seems a post-God novel. Mrs. Ramsey, perhaps its most compelling character, finds herself thinking, at one point, "We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that.... She had been trapped into saying something she did not mean." And Mrs. Ramsey sets about "purifying out of existence that lie."
Woolf certainly doesn't downplay the tug of religion:
It was impossible to resist the strange intimation which every gull, flower, tree, man and woman, and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once to withdraw) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules; or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the processes of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure.
The parenthesis in the above quote is, perhaps, key. Does Woolf discover any such diamond in the sands?
What is the meaning of life? That was all -- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. the great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark... In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here....
Are these pint-sized revelations little diamonds, little pieces of the absolute? Is this "stability" a religion-like attempt to find a place to stand, a solid foundation for constructing meaning? Is this "shape" amongst "chaos" a metaphysics? Or are we safely in a scientific, naturalistic universe of ebb and flow? Is Woolf just, as one of her characters acknowledges:
Telling herself a story but knowing at the same time what was the truth.
Might the "lighthouse" represent meaning? Or rationalism? Being in a novel, not in one of the essays her father wrote, we don't get clear answers; the matters aren't reduced to clear answers. In any case, the emphasis here is on the dream of the "lighthouse," the story of it. Does that enable Woolf to escape the fall back into religion?
Can Believers Be Believed?
posted on 04.17.2006 at 3:10 PM
Accusations of fraud are often leveled by practitioners of one religion against another. European missionaries were quick to see quacks and fakers amongst the wizards, shamans and medicine men they observed in preliterate societies.
An early 18th century text of uncertain provenance, entitled The Three Impostors, claimed that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all frauds.
I'm curious to what extent disbelievers today believe that believers are faking it -- that the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world are -- Elmer Gantry-like -- frauds.
Can Nonbelievers Be "Religious"?
posted on 04.07.2006 at 4:06 PM
Thomas Huxley, who invented the word agnostic to describe his and his friend Charles Darwin's variety of disbelief:
"Religion ought to mean simply the reverence and love for the ethical ideal and the desire to realize that ideal in life.
"That a man should determine to devote himself to the service of humanity...this should be, in the proper sense of the word, his religion."
The Defanging of Religion
posted on 03.24.2006 at 9:32 AM
Religions, in recent centuries, are being housebroken (though sometimes it seems like trying to domesticate a wolf). They're being taught that it's not polite to burn "heretics," not neighborly to go to war with "infidels." Of course, as is the case with all such world-historical movements, some areas, some sects, have been slower than others to accept the new order. Some believers still have difficulty grasping why those who scorn the One True God must be tolerated. These laggards have been making a lot of our news lately. The latest example is the case of poor Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam to Christianity in that new beacon of democracy, Afghanistan (our part of Afghanistan), and is now on trial for his life.
posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:36 PM
In a corner of Victoria Park in London in the middle of nineteenth century speakers would mount soapboxes to disclaim on any number of radical, or not so radical or anti-radical, causes. Crowds would cheer, hiss or answer back. The area was known as Bonner's Field. On Sundays most of the speeches and debates related to religion.
Representatives from half-a-dozen of Britain's splintering Christian faiths could be found there -- preaching, arguing, handing out tracts. And in one corner of Bonner's Field the latest addition of the country's religious smorgasbord gathered: freethinkers. Among those mounting their soapbox was a 17-year-old former Sunday-school teacher named Charles Bradlaugh, who will be one of the main characters in the book I'm writing.
It is difficult to think of a time or place where the discussion of religion was as open and as robust.
New Genes -- I
posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM
The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)
We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.
This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.
God as Metaphor
posted on 03.06.2006 at 11:52 AM
Listening, on a too-long car ride, to Lucinda Williams singing (only faintly ironically, I suspect), You know you've got to get right with God.
Perhaps the most "wan" argument for religion (one even arch rationalists might buy) is that it has philosophical or psychological uses when seen, like fiction, as metaphor, as parable. (Bit of a switch: Jesus uses parables from life to make points about religion; the argument here is that parables from religion can illuminate life.) From this perspective, Lucinda's get right might be read as adjust your view of life to better accord with. And her God (There are, of course, others) might be seen as the world, the universe, fate or the way things are.
It gets tougher when Lucinda sings (with whatever degree of irony) about the deep darkness of Hell. But, okay, life can seem bleak. Her reference to Satan's slaughter, however, threw me. Not sure Lucinda's beliefs are that wan. Not sure my ability to find something in parables is that powerful.
Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.
posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM
Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):
"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."
God in Prime Time
posted on 03.03.2006 at 11:18 PM
Alert as usual, I have just focused on the fact that prime-time American network television featured a program in which God was a regular character. This realization arrives, apparently, well after that program -- Joan of Arcadia -- was canceled:
"Daughter Joan (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenager, has been acting a little strange. Most don't know that it has to do with the unusual way various people keep popping up, introducing themselves as God and then giving her specific directions to do things, such as get a job, join the debate team or volunteer with children. The appearances are hard for her to believe, even more so as she never knows who's going to turn up next. One minute it's a cute boy her own age, the next it's the lunch lady or a little girl."
'Twas on Fridays at eight on CBS. Here's a selection from "Joan's diary":
"On top of this, You Know Who pays me a visit. And guess what he tells me to do? Clean. Like he's my Mom. I'm going through this horrible crisis and all he can come up with is to clean?"
God as "You Know Who"? What, for God's sake, are we to make of this updating of Joan of Arc with the Joan Osbourne song as its theme? Would be nice to see this as part of the religious revival. But sounds as if it was quirky. Could religion be coming back quirky?
I should say something here, too, about "Touched By An Angel" and the, apparently edgy, "Book of Daniel." Unfortunately, I know little about these canceled shows either. Must I learn? Has the religious revival been canceled?
Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction
posted on 03.02.2006 at 5:30 PM
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.
Dennett's book argues that there are biological explanations for the human inclination toward religion. Wieseltier, instead of arguing, as so many have for so long, that religious belief is the product of revelation or good sense, never disputes this point.
Instead, he repeatedly and heatedly insists that Dennett, in his flattening "scientism," is missing the essence of religion. However, when it comes time to indicate what that might be, Wieseltier's claims for religion turn out to be remarkably feeble or, to use his term, "wan." Note the grand defense of religion contained in this question:
"Why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?"
So the truth that Dennett is missing is that religion is just another form of "human" -- not superhuman -- "expression"? And that religious texts should no longer be taken as "literally" true but just read as allegories or mined for metaphor? My God! Wieseltier has forced Dennett and all them other reason-besotted atheists to view Genesis as sometimes compelling...fiction.
Is this where the debate now stands? If God is no longer the literal god of the Bible; if God is no longer making covenants or sending a son; if God has no beard, no form, no gender; if God doesn't punish the wicked or reward the righteous; if God doesn't offer a Kingdom, with eternal life; what's left? A rich tale?
Has the recent history of religion, despite all the noise now being made by the increasingly desperate orthodox, not been a poorly camouflaged retreat?
The Greatness of God
posted on 03.01.2006 at 9:17 AM
From a New York Times article on bombings in Iraq:
"On Tuesday, blast after blast rocked the capital. After one car bomb exploded at noon in a Shiite district of downtown Baghdad, firefighters and witnesses struggled to pry two blackened bodies from a charred sedan. The wailing crowd lifted the bodies out, shouted, "God is great!" and marched down the street bearing the bodies aloft."
So God is great when innocent people are killed. And God is also great, presumably when people avoid being killed. Can't lose. How does this work?
God and Science
posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM
From a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species."
"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."
Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.
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.
Religion as Emotion
posted on 02.23.2006 at 11:38 AM
Is it possible to be emotionally religious without being intellectually religious?
This is a notion that would have offended me as recently as a couple of days ago. Then I began mulling over the analogy between religion and love. Surely, it is possible to experience all the ecstasy and pain of love without believing in Aphrodite or Cupid or even the perfection of the beloved. Can't I (in some sense, don't I) similarly experience the feelings normally associated with religion -- submission to fate, awe at the universe, joy in existence, hope for the future, reverence for life -- without swallowing the whole supernatural thing?
Is this religion? Is it possible to be religious without religion? Am I missing something?
Wieseltier' on Dennett II: Religion and Love
posted on 02.22.2006 at 1:16 PM
Here's something I find hard and interesting to think through. It is an analogy that is never fully made in Leon Wieseltier's surprisingly scatter-shot and shrill attack on Daniel Dennett's new book. The analogy is between religion and love.
Dennett has tried to explain why human societies end up believing in supernatural beings. We could come up with similar explanations -- biological, cultural -- for why humans fall in love. But such explanations would not negate the power, the beauty and the reality of love. (Here I would agree, in other words, with Wieseltier that a merely evolutionary or scientific explanation would fail to capture the whole messy, glorious, infuriating thing.) Do the power, beauty and reality of religion survive, similarly unscathed, attempts to give the causes of religion?
They probably do, don't they? Religion -- as emotion: as piety, awe, humility, sense of the sacred or sublime -- can certainly grip and can certainly be, in its way, lovely. Such responses, even a firm unbeliever would have to acknowledge, are real.
The problem, I think, is that religion wants to be more than just a pretty and deep emotion. It wants to have its view of the universe accepted as fact, just as some lovers insist in trying to persuade us that their beloved really is the most attractive or the only one for them. And here we can rebut with facts: "Moses could not have written the first five books of the Torah since his death is described in them" or "You said the same about your previous lover." Or we might note the factors that have led to the erroneous assertions -- their causes: "False ascriptions of authorship are characteristic of the oral tradition" or "Of course this feels special; you hadn't dated anyone for two years."
Religion also wants to be taken seriously as philosophy. This is what Wieseltier, in his clumsy way, seems to be claiming for it. In which case, we have a right to question biases, premises, groundings, internal consistency, etc. And I fear that by serious philosophic, not poetic, standards the treatises of starry-eyed prophets do not stand up much better than the treatises of starry-eyed lovers.
Science and Religion
posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM
Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:
All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?
Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?
posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM
It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending in his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:
"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."
It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?
Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?
Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)
posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM
A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."
This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.
Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:
"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."
Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?
Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." A "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?
And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.
The Causes of Belief
posted on 02.18.2006 at 11:35 AM
In a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:
"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."
But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.
One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.
Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.
Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.
(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)
posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:18 AM
In his interesting opinion piece on the Danish cartoons, Robert Wright includes this observation:
"Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious."
Certainly, this is true. Wright thinks it's good -- a sign of civil "self-restraint." But, when it comes to religion, isn't this reticence -- this reluctance to discuss and debate -- why so many odd, seemingly un-thought-through notions survive? Isn't it why religious (or anti-religious?) beliefs sometimes seem to lurk in dark corners of otherwise well-lit minds?
Is Atheism Simple?
posted on 02.15.2006 at 11:10 PM
Religion definitely has pretensions toward simplicity: good/evil, sacred/profane, saved/damned. Atheism, I think, wants to be the opposite of all that: open to the world's tangles and shadings. Still, I sense a kind of impatience among some readers of this blog, as if we ought to be able to boil all this ratiocination down to something like: religion is stupid, and then leave it at that.
Can atheism be on the side of complexity while maintaining that the issues it itself raises are simple: God/no god, meaning/meaningless, science/ignorance?
Are the issues it raises simple?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part VI
posted on 02.09.2006 at 8:17 PM
I'm not sure how I myself would answer the question raised in the previous post. This seems one of those occasions when I've been writing to learn what I think.
Of course nonbelievers will be quick to line up with those who champion free expression, diversity of opinion and "peace, love and understanding." That has seemed almost too obvious to require much saying.
But I read myself as having been writing about the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion. The nonbeliever's contribution may be to remind that even though you can teach most religions proper table manners and sit comfortably with them over tea, there is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules.
I think I want to say that this incident -- along with what has been going on in the red states lately -- should remind us that monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.
posted on 02.03.2006 at 11:45 AM
The demon with a water-buffalo head, on the right in this frieze cut out of rock at Mahishasuramardini Cave in southern India, is Mahisha -- a fellow with a bent for disturbing the balance of life. Durga, the mother of the universe, is fending him off -- riding a lion, wielding a bow and arrow.
This sort of thing certainly has its attractions, especially on rainy days sitting under a laptop, when the balance of life can seem a touch off. Metaphor. Analogy. Poetry. Beauty. With these religion has certainly been well endowed. And let us not forget meaning -- some way of getting a handle on the balances and imbalances of life.
We can gape. We can smile. But to believe? In Durga?
Times on Itch for Meaning
posted on 02.02.2006 at 8:13 PM
The New York Times editiorial page is not known for discussions of the validity or usefulness of religion. But how about this line from an editorial this morning:
"This is human nature at work. There is nothing we love better than finding order where we suspect it may not exist and deciphering meaning where meaning may not be intended."
Not a bad explanation for why so many believe an intelligence lurks behind the universe. However, it appeared in an editorial on the effort to find a pattern in Academy Award nominations.
posted on 02.01.2006 at 8:52 PM
A few quotes from Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (first recommended to me in a comment on this blog):
** "Religious behavior appears to be unique to man among all the animals."
** "Religious behavior is present in all known human societies, past and present."
** "The basis of all religion in both North and South America [and by extension, La Barre believes, everywhere else] is the shaman or medicine-man."
And La Barre believes that these shaman -- in the role of "master of animals" -- actually predate gods. Which may complicate the which-came-first-belief-or-disbelief question slightly.
Religion Is Like Sex?
posted on 01.24.2006 at 2:45 PM
And what do you make of this surprising analogy from Bunting on Dawkins?
"Dawkins seems to want to magic [Bunting does have a way with verbs] religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilized by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on."
I feel bad for sad John Stuart, but aren't there rather obvious reasons why his task would be more daunting than that of Dawkins? And isn't it odd for a theist to try to score points by accusing an atheist of being anti-sex? And aren't there differences in the epistemological claims made by sex and those made by religion (which, last I checked, pretended to be something more than the pleasurable satisfaction of an itch)?
India -- Variety of Irreligious Experience
posted on 01.14.2006 at 12:38 AM
This country sure will chase notions of cultural homogenization out of an American's head.
The Indian street (as alive as any I've seen): where a thousand and one collisions are poised to happen -- between honking car and weaving bicycle, putt-putting auto-rickshaw and intent pedestrian; where a thousand collisions are, with a last-second swerve or stall, avoided.
Skinny women squat on the dusty ground in brightly colored sarees. Skinny men wrap and unwrap loose fabric around their midsections. (No doubt leaving them more comfortable than my jeans leave me.) At the restaurant where I find myself, the men eat their white rice and spicy sauces with their fingers.
And then there's Indian religion. Polytheism is just some quaint historical fact back where I come from. Here in India it's easily visible in the colorful gods, with reassuring smiles, that decorate a shrine in the parking lot of my hotel.
This crowd of Hindu gods, with their different talents and personalities, seems pretty distant from the stern, lonely god-of-all-trades of the Abrahamic tradition. Sure sounds like unhomogenized cultural difference to me.
Somewhere in the comments on another entry on this blog we were discussing whether Jewish atheism, say, is different from Christian atheism. What about atheism here ("rationalists," I believe they're called)? A Hindu nonbeliever has an awful lot of gods to not believe in. Does that make it harder or easier? In what exactly would a Buddhist be disbelieving?
I have a fair amount invested in the premise that it is possible to talk in one sentence about atheism in, for example, India and in the next about atheism in Paris (where only baguettes, grapes and Le Quick hamburgers are eaten with fingers).
That is probably still possible. Nonetheless, It is clearly going to be necessary for me to acknowledge the variety of religious experience in order to make sense of a good variety of humankind's irreligious experiences.
On my plane a gaggle of preternaturally sincere Americans and Europeans, in loose-fitting clothes, whispered about the best rooms in this or that ashram. They didn't come all this way just to experience unfamilar ways of eating or to ride unfamiliar kinds of taxis.
One Holy Man
posted on 01.05.2006 at 6:01 AM
The first time I visited India, almost five years ago, I saw a holy man sitting on a rug on a sidewalk in downtown Delhi. A small crowd had gathered. I stood off to the side.
The grey-haired man began performing some impressive gymnastic stunts on a branch of an overhanging tree. I surreptitiously took out my video camera. He was alert. He saw. And he more or less demanded that...I come onto his rug to get a better shot. Then he announced that he was going to do "penis tricks."
And this holy man proceeded to wrap his flattened penis around a broomstick, which he then slowly twirled.
Of course, I don't mean to imply that this is any way representative of modern India. Still, it is there. And maybe I do mean to imply that it is, in some tenuous way, representative of an element that survives in modern religion..... Can't say I've ever replayed that videotape, though.
posted on 12.30.2005 at 4:12 PM
All of us would qualify as atheists by the definition that, as I've been reading, mostly applied in Greece and Rome: not honoring the residents of Mt. Olympus. For Zeus/Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, the sacrifices, lately, have been few and far between.
Have we been in the process of moving beyond the angry, meddling, jealous god of, say, Exodus? "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"
Is Jesus, the worker of miracles, beginning to seem a little distant? "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." Is this what they're so nervous about out in the red states? (A friend reports seeing a billboard decorated with flames somewhere in Indiana upon which is written: "Hell Is Real.")
Might societies someday look back even on our more retiring god -- who provides meaning, hope and a beginning but stays out of the way of evolution, planetary motion and football games -- the way we look back on the notion of Apollo chauffeuring the sun?
posted on 12.27.2005 at 12:23 PM
Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.
"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."
There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?
Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.
Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?
Judge Jones' decision, continued
posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM
Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?
"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow
Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?
Religion and Happiness, continued...
posted on 12.23.2005 at 8:03 PM
"Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence: 'the evil is transitory, the good eternal: our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties'? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognize the facts? ...Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities" -- Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf (who is said to have contemplated suicide with the fading of his belief)
Religion and Happiness
posted on 12.22.2005 at 9:51 PM
"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.
Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?
Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?
I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?
Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts
posted on 12.21.2005 at 11:30 PM
** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.
** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?
** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?
When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.
Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."
One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.