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matt

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[Oct. 11th, 2007|08:19 am]
matt
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Contemporary religion's lack of intellectual depth is also one of the reasons that contemporary atheism is having such a good ride. The recent sensations by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are all as predictable and shallow as the religion they spend so much time mocking. Serious atheism of the head should challenge serious religion of the head; but most contemporary atheists prefer to demolish the coarse superstitions all around them, and to call them religion, and to enjoy the applause. And how could it be otherwise? If you do not have serious belief, it is hard to have serious non- belief. Unlike Diderot and Voltaire, today's polemical skeptics are battening from the absence of hard targets, of philosophically sophisticated targets. It is surely not the business of American religion to supply its critics with their weapons; but it would strengthen both American religion and American atheism if the critics had something at which they could fire.

-- from Alan Wolfe, "Brains and Beliefs", 8Oct07 TNR, review of Gary Wills' "Head and Heart: American Christianities"
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 04:00 pm (UTC)
There's not much reason to go into battle against philosophically sophisticated targets if coarse superstitions are the problem.

TNR is an excellent example of how rancid the philosophically sophisticated can get, though.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 04:23 pm (UTC)
That would be the strong atheist position, that all theism is coarse superstition. It's a position I'd like to hold, except that I have not been able to begin to answer the central thesis of my investigation on the subject, put simply, "why smart people believe stupid things" There's a couple of reasons to reject the working thesis, e.g. of a form "there are no smart people", "smart people don't believe stupid things, stupid beliefs make non-smart people", etc.

I'm trying to collect (published) instances of people, atheist or not, uncomfortable with the fact that most atheist writing of late consists of repeated apparent straw-man-knocking.

I've subscribed to TNR for a couple of years because I read an interesting article once in it, thought the magazine useful, and have largely been disgusted by the lack of other worthwhile content. Yet for some reason I have not had the impetus to actually unsubscribe from it. I suppose I can catalogue it in the list of stupid things, if I could have reason to believe I were a smart person.
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[User Picture]From: twoeleven
2007-10-11 05:14 pm (UTC)

a few hours in the library...

why smart people believe stupid things
there's a book w/ a similar title which might be worth your time. i haven't read it, but i'm pretty sure there's a copy in my to-read pile.

[Coarse superstitions are the problem] would be the strong atheist position, that all theism is coarse superstition.
i'm not sure that's what what st_rev meant, and it's not what i would mean by a similar statement. most of the opponents of reason these days (mostly xian fundies, but also a fair number of treehuggers) have little depth. it doesn't mean tho that all theists are merely superstitious.

the sophisticated ones have the sense not to make claims that that are easy to shoot down (the earth is 5700-odd years old, "chemicals" are evil, etc) and to the extent that i keep up w/ them, i've found their positions (god of the gaps, say) by and large concede the rational viewpoint.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 05:54 pm (UTC)

Re: a few hours in the library...

I would agree that the modern Deist viewpoint is quite careful to make claims that are not easy to shoot down. As such, they're uninteresting to me, in the sense that the marginal usefulness of claims that are nearly impossible to test should be asymptotically close to zero.

What interests me is religion like Mormonism (to set up my own straw man for convenience and time's sake), which makes claims (Israelite origin to "Native" Americans, for instance) that are not only absurd, but obviously so. At some point, you begin to take a look at things and the people who believe them and say, "this person is no dummy- they must realize that this statement makes no sense. So, why are they saying it?" There's something which seems a lot more honest about the position a la Russell to state unequivocally that any axiom which leads to contradiction must be false, but "they're not doing that... why?"

Treehuggers and fundamentalists come and go- to typically little effect long-term. What is more enduring, IMO, is the thought processes of smart people (like Pope Benedict) who accept things (like Trinitarianism) that have a profound effect on the ethical systems that these large groups of people follow and whose followers impinge upon my life. I will never likely understand this, but it does not hurt to invest a small amount of time in understanding it. I just wish that smart people like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, et.al. were more helful to me in that program, and spent less time on what seems like foolish mockery, hot air.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 05:59 pm (UTC)

Re: a few hours in the library...

the marginal usefulness of claims that are nearly impossible to test should be asymptotically close to zero.

I'm not sure I believe that. Isn't it possible for a belief to be false but useful? There are certainly people whose religious belief seems to help them in various ways. We can't say with certainty that any particular person's beliefs are false, but we can say that someone's beliefs must be, since there are so many mutually contradicting beliefs out there.

Sorry if I seem quarrelsome, I'm pretty sick today.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 06:18 pm (UTC)

Re: a few hours in the library...

There's a difference between useful false beliefs and narrowly drawn, impossible to test claims. A useful false belief (I would include the Huckel method in there) can indeed have utility because although it is often in direct disagreement with theory (e.g. Huckel method says we can throw away orbital overlap, which if you put into practical terms means "no atoms form bonds"), approximating it later) it is often in agreement with practice in useful ways- predicting trends when you're careful about how you use it. E.g., it can be tested, and shown to be useful. If you can't test it, it can't be "useful".

If signal is what science owns, and noise is what God owns, the "god in the gaps" god doesn't seem very worth worshipping of late. Mind you, as a Jew, I don't fear an afterlife the way most Christians do.

Quarrelsome is better than quiet. It's helpful to me. Thanks.

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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 08:48 pm (UTC)

Re: a few hours in the library...

I was thinking more about beliefs like "Jesus loves me, this I know". This is pretty clearly not testable, but it may well alleviate suffering. Pain, notoriously, is very difficult to verify, but seems important.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 05:32 pm (UTC)
That would be the strong atheist position, that all theism is coarse superstition.

That may be the strong atheist position, but it's not what I was talking about. I meant what I said--coarse superstitions are the problem, and they certainly deserve to be demolished. To pick a particular pair of examples I am familiar with: Stephen Batchelor's thoughtful, philosophical take on Buddhism is not coarse superstition and doesn't need to be demolished. Robert Thurman's howling mad psychedelic Tibetan Buddhism, on the other hand, heartily deserves all the mockery that can be marshalled against it.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 05:35 pm (UTC)
to what extent is mockery useful, in that it assists a program of demolition? As far as I can see, it is useless, or even perversely helpful.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 05:42 pm (UTC)
Mockery is one of the many moves in the game of opposition. Sometimes it's a good move, sometimes a bad one. It is useful, for instance, for calling attention to an opponent's unusually weak position in a surprising place; Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and a howling fruit loop.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 05:33 pm (UTC)
I do think Dawkins has rather gone around the bend, mind you.
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[User Picture]From: shoutingboy
2007-10-11 05:57 pm (UTC)
Bob Dylan once complained that rock critics "want you to make three great albums, then die". (To which a critic responded, "Well, so many musicians are willing to oblige us!")

Dawkins is kind of in the same boat. I'll enthusiastically recommend The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, and give a qualified recommendation to The Blind Watchmaker. (TBW is a first-class introduction to Darwinism, but it definitely shows a lot of hints of the Dawkins-the-cranky-village-atheist we've got nowadays.)

Anything later than that (i.e. anything he's written in the last 20 years)? Not worth the trouble, from all I can see. He's on an endless reunion tour, getting ready to settle into a long-term Vegas contract.

He was good on South Park, though.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 06:00 pm (UTC)
He was apparently quite irritated and squawky about that South Park appearance.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 06:01 pm (UTC)
KYGER LITOR? Oh man.
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[User Picture]From: shoutingboy
2007-10-11 06:08 pm (UTC)
The Great Mother hungers...
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[User Picture]From: shoutingboy
2007-10-11 04:48 pm (UTC)

There is nothing new under the sun...

The thing is, the strong, intellectual Christianity is there. The Catholics just picked an intellectual--and a top-flight one, by all accounts--to wear the pointy hat. And there's plenty of serious thought going on. If Hitchens or Harris wanted to take on Aquinas or Calvin or Theophan, nothing's stopping them.

They'd probably say--which I assume is Wolfe's point--that most Christians, including most in positions of secular authority, aren't any more engaged with Calvin than Mr. Dawkins is. But I think that's always been true, and for all schools of thought and realms of activity, not just religion and theology. Most people have always been content to say, "I know what I need to do, and I'll leave it to other folks to do the deep thinking". I do that myself, in lots of areas (I don't know enough about cars to change my own oil, and I'm okay with that).

So a serious-but-ignorant Catholic can listen to Mr. Hitchens's tirades and say, "Well, I'm sure Pope Benedict knows what he's talking about." And that's a perfectly rational position for him to take--because even in a position of ignorance, he can tell that Hitchens doesn't know what he's talking about, so can't really be judged much of a threat to the magisterium.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 05:23 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

I agree that strong intellectual Christianity exists- but my suspicion is that it's not in a Protestant flavor, which I believe was the point of both the author and reviewer.

Hitchens and or Harris (and or Harbowy), should be taking on Aquinas et al, not the straw man. What bothers me is that they don't, and more likely, can't. This isn't like changing oil... or maybe it is. You can go without changing oil and see that your car doesn't make it. It's experimentally verifiable. You can see, even though I may not know how to do it, I know that if I don't leave it to someone with more skills, there's a definite bad result.

Atheism is a relatively new position. Furthermore, there's good evidence to suggest that adopting a "I don't need to change my oil" position about religion can be argued to have some negative effect, a la (iirc) the Enlightenment's effect on Europe. What that says, I don't have answers to. Hitchens' position, as best I understand it, is that the short track record of abuses of atheism is overwhelmed by a much longer track record of abuses by the Religious, but that's not comparable time frams, in my opinion.

The answer to that question, "what do I need to do", is obviously a very personal one. For me, as a Jew and (ostensibly) an Atheist, "tikkun olam" makes some sense, but as to what is the world and if or what needs healing is not always perfectly clear. Where I deviate from most people is that they seem to muddle through, taking whatever sounds good and syncretizing it. I'm much more cautious, in general, much more conservative.

Christianity is an interest, partly because I was raised Catholic and I respect Catholisism far more that most modern Protestant flavors, but I don't pretend to have any stake in the debate between the varieties of Christian and cannot judge. But, I'm interested, as an external observer, inasfar as it may have something useful (not in content so much as in method) to say.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 06:07 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

Atheism as it is understood in the modern era is a relatively new position, but no more so than Mormonism, Wahabbism, modern low-church Anglicanism...take your pick. And like most other religious stances, it has roots that go way back--there are strong atheist/agnostic/skeptical currents among the ancient Greeks, Daoists, and Buddhists.

One could argue that the Catholic lockdown on western Europe for the last few millenia is the historical anomaly.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 06:30 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

I'm not sure I buy that. I think atheism meant something very different before the modern era. When you're a kid, you can look up to Daddy to protect you, and the impression I get is that calling someone an athiest back then is kind of a form of calling them an orphan. The heresy of athiesm, in that sense, would seem to be a form of nihilism or some such- to claim that there is no Cause, whuch is very different from modern atheism/ science whuch says there is Cause, but that it is not Deified.

I'm not an expert on Daoist or Buddhist philosophy, or even much more than a casual peruser in terms of Greek philosophy, but if you can point out a good reference which attempts to summarize why there is a solid atheist current in ancient cultures, I'd be willing to read up. I've just not been terribly convinced by any writer so far.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 09:00 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

There have always been disbelievers and nonbelievers; local conditions have strongly affected the forms in which that disbelief could or could not be expressed. Catholicism made it very dangerous to be one in their areas of control, but the Chinese, for example, are notoriously irreligious; China has had three religions for most of its history, two of which are essentially nontheistic (Confucianism and Buddhism) and one of which is polytheism (Daojiao/folk Daoism) based on massive accretion over a nontheistic/skeptical base (Daojia/Lao-Zhuang Daoism).

There's a fast overview of atheism in ancient Greece and India in the Wikipedia article on atheism. For something much meatier (probably unreadbly so), consider Relativistic Skepticism in the Zhuangzi.

It's important to avoid to the trap of reading ancients as either atheist or not-atheist, of course.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 09:10 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

Oh, and it's worth stressing that when I say "China has had three religions", that means that they exist in parallel, and the average Chinese (historically) picks and chooses from each according to inclination and context. Chinese religions aren't totalizing the way the Abrahamic religions are.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-11 10:17 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

I am of the opinion that being irreligious is something distinctly different than atheism, as expressed. Saying "I don't care about that" is definitely a valid belief system, but that's different than taking an active stand on the problem of evil, or some other philosophical point, in favor of not attributing the problems of society to flying spaghetti monsters.

e.g., taking a stand for or against the axiom of choice is a very different and distinct thing to saying "i don't care".
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 11:10 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

What about those of us who take an active stand on not caring? The Buddha would be one such.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2007-10-12 12:30 am (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

I'd concede it as a distinct philosophical stand if I could distinguish it, other than allowing the extra adjective. Any more so than I distinguish, say, ultra-orthodox as philosophically distinct from orthodox. There's obviously a difference, but to me it's like a distinction of redness rather than a different color altogether.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2007-10-11 06:08 pm (UTC)

Re: There is nothing new under the sun...

Anyway, sorry to be cluttering up the discussion here, going to stop now.
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