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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Religion, science, and eternal verities

(So much for my blog break. Well, it can start tomorrow. I wrote this long comment over on John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts blog, and thought it was worth being a post in its own right - here it is with tiny alterations. Please comment, as the theory, when expressed like this, is provisional and could do with some kicking around.)

It does seem that traditional cultures have their "eternal verities" - things that seem to be immutably true about fundamental aspects of the human condition. I put the words "eternal verities" in scare quotes because some of these things may not be verities at all, and certainly not eternal ones. And they won't be identical across all cultures. In modern, pluralistic societies, you'll get different verities believed in by different people - some may still be operating with an "eternal verity" that women are intellectually inferior to men, for example, even though this is neither true nor even a universally-shared illusion. Nonetheless, there are various fundamental "verities" that are likely to be widely accepted even within a pluralistic society. Sometimes, philosophers challenge them directly by arguing that they are not true or well-founded. Sometimes science and technology challenge them less directly. Either way, many people are going to be made very uncomfortable. They execute Socrates, try to deny women the vote, ban human cloning, beat homosexuals, get queasy about interracial marriage, etc.

There may be some deeper explanation as to why the world is like this, but in any event I think it probably is like this.

The theory isn't mine by the way; I borrowed it from Richard Norman. It's Norman's theory of background conditions, or my restatement thereof. I wonder whether it's compatible with Gigerenzer's work, with which I'm unfamiliar. Maybe there's a way of putting Norman's theory on a more rigorous basis.

What role does religion play? I'm not sure that I have the full answer, but I think that a culture's religious beliefs and its pet "eternal verities" will co-evolve. As a result, the religion will be heavily invested in the local set of eternal verities. It will have influenced them and been influenced by them. It tends to preserve them and to resist challenges to them, whether from science or from experimental lifestyles, or wherever else. Religious images of the world will be chock full of these eternal verities, whether it's the eternal verity of human exceptionalism, the eternal verity of free will (in a very strong sense), the eternal verity that women should act in such and such a way in relation to men, the eternal verity that sex is nasty and only redeemed by its procreative potential, the eternal verity that we have only three score years and ten, or whatever it is that the locals believe to be an immutable truth about the world and our condition within it.

Any attack on the local eternal verities, even if not actually intended as an attack on religion, is likely to receive strong counter-attacks from religious sources. Moreover, because religion has picked up a whole lot of these traditional fundamental beliefs that made some sort of sense once but are largely not true, it is always likely to imagine the world in a different way from the way it is imagined by the majority of people who are highly scientifically literate and are keeping up with the developing scientific image of the world. (This para and the immediately preceding one are my addition to the theory.)

If we really want to challenge the eternal verities (as they are imagined to be in our place and time), we can expect opposition from at least some - probably many - religionists. If we are serious, we may feel that we have to counterattack our religious opponents head-on, by pointing out that the religion that gives them their mantle of seeming authority is just not true in the first place.

E.g. to defend the morality of homosexuality, it may not be enough to argue that, by some secular principle, it does no harm. It may not be enough to put pressure on religion to reinterpret its doctrines to accept homosexuality. The best way of getting homosexuality socially accepted, and to stop people defending the local eternal verity that "homosexuality is evil", may be for at least some people to stop talking so much homosexuality itself, and about secular moral theories, or new theology ... and to spend more time promulgating scepticism about religion.

If you really want a transvaluation of values, according to which many things once considered virtues in your society (such as chastity and certain kinds of pietistic humility) are now considered vices, and certain things that were once considered sins are now considered good or at least neutral (e.g. homosexual acts; so-called scientific "hubris"), one of the best things you can do is spread scepticism about religion.

Of course, the fundies and the Vatican are already well aware of this last point, but whereas they call spreading scepticism about religion bad, I call it good.

39 comments:

Greg Egan said...

... one of the best things you can do is spread scepticism about religion.

This does invite the question "spread it how?"

And given that there are plenty of atheist xenophobes, sexists and homophobes, I'd say the best thing to (attempt to) spread is critical thinking and self-awareness in general. If some religious ideas are collateral damage in that process, so be it, but sometimes trying to cut the knot at the thickest point on the rope is not the best way to see it unravelled.

Needless to say this is all easier said than done; critical thinking is not something that can be dispensed from crop-dusting planes (well, not yet; I'm still working on the nanoware).

Russell Blackford said...

I actually do think that it's important to spread ideas specifically critical of religion. Of course, there's no one perfect way to do this, and I'm not suggesting it's the be-all and end-all.

Spreading more general ideas about critical thinking is important - sure. Likewise, spreading ideas about many specific issues is important. Yes, people can be as secular as I'd want and still be all those things you mentioned. All that scepticism about religion does is remove one set of bad arguments and one set of motivations for rationalising nonsense.

Stephen said...

L’étude des mathématiques est la plus pure application de l’esprit à Dieu. Malebranche, a translation:
"In our ‘disenchanted’ world,
we might ask what replaces God."
Hobbes is often seen as the beginning of public intellectual acceptance to Atheism. But I haven't seen a growth in the emotional prescription, morality, to keep pace with the stability once provided by a church dictated morality. I've understood the term "eternal verities" to mean having an origin in Divine Provenance. Or, at the least, Theosophy. Maybe the term is now used in a wider context. The question arises, is there an objective, scientific basis to an absolute morality, rather than always relative and contingent to the era of the cultural milieu? The basis most nominated is evolution, some type of precepts mandated by survival of the species social cooperation. Thus far, there is no convincing argument for such derivable precepts, although I would like that. Also, since evolution has no goals, no end purpose, it seems like it would be hard to organize anything from it but a self-imposed morality, which would be relative.
My next view, I suppose could be considered circular. The values which have been eroded by the decline of religious dogma don't seem to have been replaced by values which work as well. The intellectual freedom and maturity offered by Atheism don't seem to have been accompanied by improved ethical values or societal stability. I think Relativism has made things worse. Again, I have to judge by my values, but there has been a huge surge in New Age ideas which thinly veil their religious core. Hundreds of million dollars spent on Ascension technology (crystals marked up a few 1,000 %)
and a cult which mass-suicided in order to catch the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet to reach a new level of consciousness. In many US big cities the high-school dropout level has reached 50% and I think that is attributable to the decline of moral structure for kids, parents and their grand-parents which has disappeared along with pernicious influences of religion. The pope condemning pedophile priests seems like so little compensation. Churches also maintain the value of feeding the poor and homeless which leads to less crime, practically. So how to separate the wheat from the chaff? I don't think they teach critical thinking until college. And as a subject, it would need to be required before students drop out,
which means starting early, well,
like religion does, teaching to recognize the devilish Sophist devices of logical fallacies rather than 'thou shalt have no other god before me'. So I agree, easier said than done and I think if you 'disenchant' something which has been fundamental for ages then a replacement needs to be ready to nudge into place since nature abhors a vacuum. :-)

Brian said...

L’étude des mathématiques est la plus pure application de l’esprit à Dieu. Malebranche
The study of mathematics is the purest application of the spirit of God.
Malebranche was a Cartesion, no?
MMM, no wonder I suck at maths....

Brian said...

That should've been: the spirit to God, not of God. Anyway, je ne parle pas francais. :D

TechTonics said...

L’étude des mathématiques est la plus pure application de l’esprit à Dieu. Malebranche
brian said: The study of mathematics is the purest application of the spirit of God.
Malebranche was a Cartesian, no?
MMM, no wonder I suck at maths....
SH: I'm glad I put quote marks around that translation by a prominent Philo of Mathematics guy, David Corfield. I was looking for a universal basis for morality and was wondering about the notion of symmetry. If one could derive a moral calculus from a true logical mathematical description of the physical universe since Math has a provable truth concept. Well, I didn't get very far and only managed to salvage that quote which seems to be tinged with poetic license, and it wasn't in German.

Stephen said...

I was trying to edit my post, not make two duplicates. Russell, could you delete two of the posts which begin with "L'etudes"? I don't know how to do that from my end.

Coathangrrr said...

If one could derive a moral calculus from a true logical mathematical description of the physical universe since Math has a provable truth concept.

I know a great number of philosophers who would heartily disagree on that count.

Stephen said...

SH: If one could derive a moral calculus from a true logical mathematical description of the physical universe since Math has a provable truth concept.
Coathangrrr replied...
I know a great number of philosophers who would heartily disagree on that count.

SH: I tried to cram to much into that sentence. I meant that a physical Theory of Everything would have a mathematical description. But that Godel's Incompleteness Theorem wouldn't apply since it is seen as a formal mathematical result and not a limitation on discoveries in Physics. And that Math does prove theorems in a way not applicable to subjective morality. I gave the idea up because there isn't a consistent enough connection between Truth, Beauty and symmetry. The mathematician is likely projecting his own subjective criterion for beauty on the entity and that entity may or may not own that property but beauty is not inherent to that entity. Somebody else's idea that I liked. So that is why I didn't get very far with the idea. Also my intuition was too much like some vague Spinoza or Leibniz idea.
Well, you can see why I didn't want to write out what I really meant. I'm not really sure what error you meant.

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, I deleted your repeat comments as requested.

Your long comment troubles me, partly because you seem (if I understand you) to have a view that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket with the decline of religion's authority. However, your examples are from the US, where religion's authority has, if anything, been increasing over the last 30 years. Moreover, all the statistics that I see suggest that the problems you mention are worse in the more religious states of the US than the more secular ones.

For genuinely post-religious states look at those of Scandinavia and nearby - Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Germany to some extent. Also look at the UK, Australia, Canada. Then there's Japan. I mean, really, it's very difficult to say that the countries that are moving the most into a post-religious world are doing badly. All countries have their problems, of course, but the Scandinavian countries provide an enviable social environment for their citizens, while also being, arguably, the most globally responsible nations in the world.

I'm afraid that the US is going to have to solve its own unique problems, which are doubtless a product of its history. I'm not sure that it has many lessons for the rest of us. Not anymore.

As for "eternal verities", this expression belongs in scare quotes. I simply mean those basic ideas about the human condition that prevail in a culture and are widely thought within the culture to be things that cannot be changed, or which it would be "unnatural" to change. They may pre-date religion as we know it, though religion as we know it has its own pre-history, and it's likely that religion and these ideas have co-evolved. Or it may be more that the religions of human civilisations embrace and protect ideas that are older, and whose roots we'll never be able to trace back into prehistoric culture. I don't want to go out on too many limbs with this.

What are the ideas I mean? Well, they might include such ideas as that there is something "right" or, ahem, "fitting" about a link between sex and procreation (even though that link can be broken in many ways, of which homosexual acts are just one); or the idea that we all grow old and die, which is in fact true, but even now the baby boomers are not growing old in quite the same way as previous generations, thanks to modern sanitation, medicine, dentistry, and doubtless cultural changes as well; or the idea that women should have different sorts of work from men, perhaps together with the idea that women are men's intellectual and/or moral inferiors. The latter is not true, but is probably deeply believed in many past and present cultures.

There's a lot of work to be done to make the theory more rigorous and testable, but there does seem to be a good prima facie case that cultures develop such ideas, even though they are not necessarily true, and that religions tend to assume a whole lot of this stuff - and to base their detailed doctrines on such assumptions. It's also true that religions can always be reinterpreted (e.g., Christianity can survive without its in-built misogyny or its heterosexism; it has certainly survived without the geocentrism that seems to be assumed in at least one biblical verse, and despite the trauma of the 17th-century Galileo affair).

Given, however, that I'm pretty convinced that all the extant and historical religions are false, I'd rather just say, "Your religion is no authority for (say) the sinfulness of homosexuality in any event, because it's actually no authority for anything."

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said...
"Your long comment troubles me, partly because you seem (if I understand you) to have a view that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket with the decline of religion's authority. However, your examples are from the US, where religion's authority has, if anything, been increasing over the last 30 years. Moreover, all the statistics that I see suggest that the problems you mention are worse in the more religious states of the US than the more secular ones."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki
/Religion_in_the_United_States

"The U.S. religious marketplace is
extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey found February 25, 2008.

Despite its status as the most
widespread and influential religion
of the US, Christianity is undergoing a continuous relative decline. While the absolute number of Christians rose from 1990 to 2001, the Christian percentage of the population dropped from 88.3% to 78.5%

Recent census information indicated
that "no religious identification"
has had the greatest increase in
population in absolute as well as
in percentage terms."
--------------------------------
SH: Not that your comment about the authority of religion increasing in the US is that big of deal, but the Wiki evidence contradicts what you say. Actually you didn't understand me that well, because your reply reads as a strawman to me. I said that religion imposes morals early in life which help to curb the violence which happens when there is no moral structure at all. That if the 10 commandments are not available to restrain behavior then something else needs to take their place, and that can be secular.
The root problem is that 95 to 99% of US society is dysfunctional, nearly all of us suffer from addictive thinking. Critical thinking is the only solution that I have since I don't think God is going to fix it for me. The level of addictive thinking is not so high in other countries but certainly over 50%. ...
From my point of view, our povs are closer rather than farther apart. I think you see me as too cynical. You seem to me to be too charitable. I think some of the reason for that is that you are more insulated than I am, and also more busy, so that you don't have the time to investigate your sources like I do. When I said Yudkowsky was a crackpot, I had already read his manifesto. I don't think you did that before forming your opinion of his "theory" and his motives. I haven't read the data that you used to support your position about states and religion. I doubt that you took the time to see if there was statistical bias.
For instance, a high percentage of Latinos are Catholics, they are more religious on average than the average white folk. So take a state like California with a large Hispanic population. That is going to raise the profile of Cal. as a religious state compared to other states. So with poverty on the rise which impacts Latinos before the average white folk, you can expect to see more crime reported even if it is a more religious state, some of which will arise from a younger population that has been raised with a religion imposing less moral boundaries. When I read your comment, my thought was that the study would have to be quite detailed and that it would be fairly complicated to correlate religious decline and say increase in crime without a lot of information about the race demographics. Anyway I haven't seen the statistics you've seen. ...
I technically an Agnostic because I don't know the nature of true reality so I can't prove religions or cults (even Scientology) are false. For practical purposes I am an Atheist. I think religions have some value because teaching ethics through education doesn't start early enough. In the US, there are now atrocities committed by kids in grade school. Would you go so far as to claim that kids shouldn't be educated about what religion is and that there are various peoples who believe in various gods? Well, some of the kids are going to choose to adopt a religious faith. I found your remarks about other countries informative as I don't get out much. :-) Religions are not an authority for morals, but what is?
I don't think mankind is mature enough for some kind of benevolent self-imposed anarchy.

Stephen said...

Russell wrote:
"As for "eternal verities", this expression belongs in scare quotes. I simply mean those basic ideas about the human condition that prevail in a culture and are widely thought within the culture to be things that cannot be changed, or which it would be "unnatural" to change. They may pre-date religion as we know it, though religion as we know it has its own pre-history, and it's likely that religion and these ideas have co-evolved. Or it may be more that the religions of human civilisations embrace and protect ideas that are older, and whose roots we'll never be able to trace back into prehistoric culture. I don't want to go out on too many limbs with this."
-----------------------------
I was thinking about a genetic basis for morality. Bees use symmetry to pollinate flowers, picking the flowers with more symmetric petals first. Other cases are humans find faces in which both sides are symmetric more attractive or beautiful usually. Even the ration between hips and pelvis (I think) is perceived at an instinctual level as better for child bearing. A lot of our instincts are passed down genetically. Except for the first commandment, the ten commandments seem designed to regulate instinctual impulses so that the group survives better. These rules were probably a matter of trial and error. I think that American civil law is based on English common law which was worked out by merchants over several hundred years. Maybe trial and error is as good a way as any to develop a morality code. In prehistoric times there was a lot of presssure in a clan to reproduce because of the high death rate. Homosexual pairs that led to lower birth rate were probably taboo. Sex between all genders nor age, might have had very few taboos though.

Nathan Cravens said...

This “eternal verities” business is ravenously interesting! I'd prefer to call it social norms; the conception of truth I find burdensome and debatable. Social norms, I'd rigidly argue page after page, doesn't need scare quotes.

Religion I consider a social artifact, a culture, (also called a “meme” by CRACKPOTS! ;P) though I think it an amazingly important and useful flavor. It created the way of life we've stumbled upon today.

Martin Luther's breakaway from the Catholic church helped spur individualism and the protestant ethic. This gave invigoration to the capitalist spirit once discovered and was the fuel for U.S. dominance and technological sophistication until the past few decades. To argue this appropriately would take a good deal of rigorous research of various studies and presentation of historical findings.

The protestant ethic has gone far enough. Labor is becoming less valuable. Wages in the U.S. began to stagnate overall in the early '90s, and for college graduates, stagnation began in the early '10s. This has forced people further into indefinite debt, yet the banner is still “GO TO COLLEGE” and “GET A JOB” both of which are becoming anachronistic statements. This debt gave rise to an investment bubble that has now burst, crippling banks to ruptcy and forcing governments to feed the old machine. I would say this market collapse is largely due to income disparity in countries like the United States. Presidential candidates of this country either are not aware of these facts or are ignoring and not discussing these issues for vote counts. The only contemporary economist who seems to know what's going on is Jeremy Rifkin. He is at least bold and ingenious enough to relate technological advancement to economic conditions. It looks as if I'm his contemporary.

Stephen, you've implied that a lack of religion and morals are the reason for the decline of the overall well being of people in the United States. Historically and based on comparative analysis, like comparing homicide rates to income disparities, you'll see that economic activity largely has to do with the decline of well being. There are also higher divorce rates, premarital child births, and increases in overall violence in countries with greater economic inequality. Contemporary economists today work on an ethical framework not any more sophisticated than Adam Smith's 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments' (1759). So it looks like the camel's back will need to be broken before economic policies are put into place to foster a better way more ethically sound than that of Smith's time, who did not foresee technological change replacing the worker. An economist who did, Karl Marx, was rather ahead of his time, though unfortunately, those 'in control of the means of production' where not as smart as he was, and now we are seeing the toil of man yet again. The Technocracy movement, transhumanists of their day, if taken seriously, would have made great economic advancements, though perhaps Thorstein Veblen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_Alliance) was too densely written for the majority of economists, I guess. Technocracy as a movement quickly disbanded with the rise of Nazism for which they where often contrasted.

Evolution, however, has a way of maintaining equilibrium, some of which religion has attempted to do. It did a good job for its time. I can't predict with any accuracy how this bumpy ride will go. The last economic equilibrium we had was during the Victorian era. Even if we knew what was done right in the 1800s, I don't think that information would apply to our current state of affairs. We can only do our part to facilitate a good life for all as social systems (like technology) evolve. If the good life is but for the few, it backfires (as expressed with abundant fatality in the French and Russian Revolutions). Information wants to be free as Stuart Brand has said, and that statement is true to all domains; because we want it to be free; all of it.

Stephen:
In many US big cities the high-school dropout level has reached 50% and I think that is attributable to the decline of moral structure for kids, parents and their grand-parents which has disappeared along with pernicious influences of religion.

Response:
Dropout rates are largely because knowledge has become considered unnecessary. I think it's rather impressive that as information becomes more abundant and consistent on the Internet, those in the United States are getting dumber and dumber. Its not that they lack intelligence any more than they did before, they just lack the will to learn, amusing themselves with the spectacle, an item Aristotle placed near the bottom of his list of qualities for Greek Tragedy. So if Aristotle where here and viewed the United States as a Greek Tragedy, I doubt he'd find it very interesting, and I would agree with him if he thought so: all flash, playful spiteful sarcasm based on past oppressions by those who lack introspection to root out the cause of such playful, spiteful, and deplorable sarcasm. I see many children at play, and that play is harmful, and so too is it to be a child... For now...

College education has taken the brunt of this burden also. A retired professor friend of mine who taught Mythology for at least fifteen years (a faculty member for over 30) looked back to tests he gave and realized that if his current students where given the same tests they couldn't answer half the questions, because he was only able to teach half of the information to his students, and this was so, I can only assume, because they where not willing to soak it in, and so in response, he compensated over the years. Also, the majority of the English students he graduated to go on to teaching positions where C students. So if you factored in previous standards of the English department, all English teachers who teach, beginning roughly in the early 2000s onward, would be considered failed students by the standards once held in the early '90s and prior.

Stephen:
The root problem is that 95 to 99% of US society is dysfunctional, nearly all of us suffer from addictive thinking.

Response:
So are you saying 95 to 99 percent of the populace are like zombies?! Oh my! That makes a whole lot of sense now! More sincerely though, what do you consider “dysfunctional?”

Stephen:
From my point of view, our povs are closer rather than farther apart. I think you see me as too cynical. You seem to me to be too charitable. I think some of the reason for that is that you are more insulated than I am, and also more busy, so that you don't have the time to investigate your sources like I do. When I said Yudkowsky was a crackpot, I had already read his manifesto. I don't think you did that before forming your opinion of his "theory" and his motives. I haven't read the data that you used to support your position about states and religion. I doubt that you took the time to see if there was statistical bias.

Response:
That's what they call flame bait, cowboy! Naughty, naughty! Unless you'd like to get shots fired, but I think Russell is easy on the trigger.

So instead of, “...you are more insulated than I am, and also more busy, so that you don't have the time to investigate your sources like I do.” you could say, “I'm not sure your sources are accurate. Would you explain your claims further?” and so on.

Stephen:
I technically an Agnostic because I don't know the nature of true reality so I can't prove religions or cults (even Scientology) are false.

Response:
'True' and 'reality' (and other words like 'rational' and 'democracy') are dirty words in my book (if the words mentioned are not defined after thrown into the wordplay; that's my taste though, I guess); both are contingent upon the individual and the environment. I think we can prove the Christian god does not exist, because industrial societies are ethically superior (mostly) to the God described in the Christian bible. So does God exist? Why not give him a call and ask? Its not that there is or is not a god; there just isn't one to answer; rather, there are no answers; instead, there are choices (perhaps); and they may or may not have a point. What does your heart tell you? I have a term for my religious beliefs, its called 'indifferent agnosticism'. What's your brand of bullshit?

Brian said...

stagnation began in the early '10s.
Why did my parents encourage me to go to uni if graduate wages have been stagnant for nearly a century? Or did you mean the noughties (00s)?

Stephen said...

Nathan wrote:
I have a term for my religious beliefs, its called 'indifferent agnosticism'. What's your brand of bullshit?
SH: 'technically agnostic'

Nathan wrote:
So are you saying 95 to 99 percent of the populace are like zombies?! Oh my! That makes a whole lot of sense now! More sincerely though, what do you consider “dysfunctional?”
SH: Behind the dysfunctional is the growth of addictive thinking which is why the phenomena you report has happened, not middle class demise:

"A retired professor friend of mine who taught Mythology for at least fifteen years (a faculty member for over 30) looked back to tests he gave and realized that if his current students where given the same tests they couldn't answer half the questions, because he was only able to teach half of the information to his students, and this was so, I can only assume, because they where not willing to soak it in, and so in response, he compensated over the years."

Nathan wrote:
Dropout rates are largely because knowledge has become considered unnecessary.

SH: To paraphrase Hillary, 'by their words shall ye know them'

Nathan wrote:
Stephen, you've implied that a lack of religion and morals are the reason for the decline of the overall well being of people in the United States. -------------

SH: Did you draw that conclusion because I gave an example of California where religion may be correlated with crime, but that the cause was poverty impacting low income Latinos who also happen to be more religious as a group? I said that some morals (religious) were better than no morals. I think in some cases 'thou shalt not steal' will be overcome by hunger for instance, but that 'thou shalt not kill' might mitigate a robbery from becoming a robbery and murder.
Russell is very critical of religion. My point is that religion still has some useful functions.
Russell wrote:
(you)have a view that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket with the decline of religion's authority. --------
SH: I said that was "strawman" summary; you can read that I thought religious inspired morality was better than no morality, and that the Church still fed homeless which IMO, leads to less crime. Instead of blaming "religion's authority" I blamed "hell in a handbasket" on addictive thinking creating a dysfunctional society. If people choose not to read earlier posts in a thread, then that virtue is its own reward or maybe I ought to mean no good deed goes unpunished.

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, those figures that you cited, and similar ones, are often dragged out to show that religious belief is declining, but I doubt that they show any such thing.

In any event, before we get to that, my point was that religion's authority has increased in the last 30 years. I.e., it is again exerting real power in influencing the activities of the state. That began to happen as recently as the 1980s, when the religious Right regrouped with great success. Nearly 30 years later, Christian conservatives have sufficient clout to be influencing government at all levels from the President down. Every day - particularly in the current election campaign - we see the enormous difficulty that anyone has in obtaining political power without professing religion and making concessions to the Christian lobby. I call that a rise in the authority that religion is able to exert.

It's not just direct political impact - organised religious lobbies have had success in other areas as well, including within the academy.

Now it's true that the number of people who profess Christianity is down as percentage in the US but it's still nearly 80 per cent, far larger than in most other Western countries. The number of non-Christians has grown by about 10 per cent, but it would be very optimistic to think that the percentage of people with more or less naturalistic views has doubled from its historical level of about 10 per cent to about 20 per cent (even if it had, this would still be a small proportion of the population in absolute terms). The 10 per cent that the Christians have lost must be allocated among several other groups, of which those with a truly naturalistic worldview provide just one, and assigned to a range of factors. However, note that the slightly over 20 per cent of the population that is not Christian includes all the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and practitioners of various neo-pagan supernaturalist systems. You'll find that some, if not all, of those other groups have grown and eaten up a fair bit of the 10 per cent that the Christians have lost.

It's also true that the "no religious identification" category has been increasing. But that fact needs more research, since this group includes a range of disparate sub-categories. It is not the same as "atheist" or "naturalist" or "religious sceptic". Those categories may well have grown (I hope so), as more sceptical young people have come through. But "no religious identification" category will probably include a lot of syncretists, or people who are non-denominationally "spiritual", or belong to the New Age in some sense or whatever. Those sub-categories are almost certainly growing - you yourself mentioned the rise of New Age thinking.

So, it's certainly possible that the percentage of people in the US with a naturalistic worldview has grown (along with the absolute number of course). In fact, it would amaze me if that were not the case. But all the figures I see from time to time suggest that that figure has long been about 10 per cent, and while it may now be a bit higher, on closer inspection we can be pretty sure that it's still nowhere 20 per cent, that it might not be very much more than it was historically, and that it is having little influence on any moral or social malaise in the US.

The speculation about how familiar I am with Eliezer Yudkowsky is a distraction, but I'll deal with it briefly in the hope that we can put it to bed, since you obviously drew certain inferences from the other discussion.

Your comment that I disagreed with on the other thread was the suggestion that certain unnamed people were insincere and running a scam. I gave the example of Yudkowsky not as an example of someone who is not a crackpot (he may be or not) but as an example of someone whom I judge to be sincere. There's a big difference.

It seems to me that I had some basis to make that judgment, not based on familiarity with any particular document but because I've been reading drafts of his material for many years. I first encountered him in the virtual world when he was just an enthusiastic (but obviously brilliant) teenager making a name for himself on the Extropians mailing list. In fact, I'd learned a lot about him by reputation and by having stuff of his pointed out to, even before he actually crossed my path. I'd say that I've been pretty familiar with his developing views for about twelve years.

No, I haven't read much of what he's written lately, but there's a reason for that: I formed the view some time ago that he's on his way down a path that I'm not interested in. But I've also long been convinced that he's going down his particular path in perfect sincerity. Indeed, he's passionately convinced of the importance of what he's doing.

In making such judgments, it also helps that I've met him in person and had the interesting experience of appearing with him on a panel about the Singularity. On that occasion, I had enough dealing with him at close quarters to form certain judgments about his character and at least some of his abilities.

Now, you might be able to tell me that you've known Eliezer since he was a tiny baby and have appeared on multiple panels with him, but that's not the point. I'm not interested in rank-pulling (and I usually avoid arguing in such a way). The point is that my judgments may sometimes have more experience behind them than you might assume. You may disagree with my judgments, but they don't necessarily come from being "insulated". When I do feel a lack of sufficiently broad knowledge and experience, I'll often comment on it.

Getting back to the decline of America thing, any malaise in the US can't be caused by a decline in the authority that is accorded to religion. I also argue that it has little to do with whatever rise there has been in the number of philosophical naturalists. In fact, without getting into it too deeply - more deeply than I'd be qualified to do - I think that it is probably caused, in part, by complicated reasons relating to America's social makeup and cultural values, and the history behind them. I also suspect that America's historical and continuing religiosity is more a hindrance rather than a help. I agree that it would be hard to prove that last point, but I didn't go that far: what I was arguing is that blaming (part of) any malaise on the decline of religion would be simplistic. There's no pattern that supports it. I doubt that whatever sort of decline in religion (if measured in some ways) there has been has much at all to do with America's problems.

I have no theory at all about the level of "addictive thinking" in the US versus other societies. I find myself a bit sceptical about the thesis, as it sounds simplistic, but I'm prepared to give it a fair hearing if you want to support it in some way.

Frankly, I'm sceptical about this American malaise thing. Doubtless some things really are worse, but it would be interesting, for example, to see reputable statistics on how many people in the US now die from violent crime compared to, say, 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and 10 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if the figure was actually going down of late, although I don't know. Whether it's going up or down, it's very difficult to know how to measure a moral or social malaise.

Do we measure the amount of violent death in a society, the amount of racism, the amount of sexism, the amount of homophobia, or what? If the above are some of the indicators, are they all going up in the US? Should we measure the number of teenage pregnancies? But is that really a good measure, even if it's going up (in less moralistic societies it might not be such a terrible problem if there are quite a lot of teenage pregancies; do we know how many there are in Sweden? do we know how the problem is handled over there?)? What about divorce rates (I sometimes think that the rise in divorce rates is a good thing ... better than people being trapped in loveless marriages)? Do we measure literacy rates (but are these actually going down in the US? and might some other skills actually be becoming more widespread, such as skills with computers and electronic communications)? Do we use a measure of high-school drop-out rates? But isn't that a crude measure, and anyway what's the full picture (you didn't give a definition and you said "in many big cities", which is pretty vague; and, really, what is the average age for leaving school now compared to earlier decades going back, say, to the 1950s for a good long-term comparison)?

I'm not actually convinced that there's such a malaise in the US at all, let alone that it is contributed to in any way by a lack of religious teaching to children. Yes, the US has a lot of problems - no one disputes that - but they undoubtedly have complex causes that arise from its unique history. Again, I doubt that religiosity has played a very positive role.

Oh, and I certainly don't think that children should not be taught about religion. I think they should get the best grounding in comparative religion and mythology that we can fit into the limited time in the curriculum. What they should not be taught at school is that any religious doctrines are actually true.

How, you ask, do we teach kids to be morally virtuous? Well, there's a huge literature on that in which I'm not expert (though I've read some of it), but it doesn't require them to be taught religious doctrines. I'm pretty confident that the average Swedish or Norwegian kid grows up to be just as honest, kind, non-violent, able to love, able to plan, able to display courage and determination, and so on as the average kid from a religious culture. She may also be less burdened with fake virtues such as piety, chastity, and demeaning kinds of humility.

Nathan, I've obviously totally failed to communicate if you think the background conditions or "eternal verities" that I'm talking about are just social norms. They are related to social norms, but they are not the same thing (and there are various kinds of social norms, some more basic, and more related to the society's fundamental beliefs about the human condition, than others). The difference is important. We want to be able to analyse questions about why some kinds of social norms resist change, why some innovations are resisted even though there's nothing that could be a social norm that relates to them. And so on.

However, that's a matter for another time as I'm now exhausted from replying to Stephen.

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, those figures that you cited, and similar ones, are often dragged out to show that religious belief is declining, but I doubt that they show any such thing.

In any event, before we get to that, my point was that religion's authority has increased in the last 30 years. I.e., it is again exerting real power in influencing the activities of the state. That began to happen as recently as the 1980s, when the religious Right regrouped with great success. Nearly 30 years later, Christian conservatives have sufficient clout to be influencing government at all levels from the President down. Every day - particularly in the current election campaign - we see the enormous difficulty that anyone has in obtaining political power without professing religion and making concessions to the Christian lobby. I call that a rise in the authority that religion is able to exert.
--------------------------------

SH: I think these are two different topics. 1)Religion exerts moral authority on large populations.
2) Religion exerts political authority primarily on government.
I think we were discussing how much moral decline resulted from a decline in religion, measured by the moral codes of a large group.
I think you are right about religion having a strong influence politically but that is a different concept from authority. For instance I notice Obama has started closing his speeches with "God Bless America". Most likely he is bowing to political expediency and pandering to religious supporters. But I don't think his core moral values have been changed by adopting expediency. He likely already believed "God Bless America", a moral value, but his reason for saying it has become politically influenced. The morality of a community is the aggregate belief of its members and those beliefs have been imposed by religious parents sending their kids to Sunday school which serves as a religious moral authority. They make the rules. At a governmental level, they influence the rules. The degree of religious influence does seem to have increased. Yes, there are quite a few laws which have a religiously tainted basis, and I think you want to use the word authority for that. I've been talking about the day to day basis for making moral decisions, where law isn't the basis, but the inculcation of moral values by religion from early childhood on does serve as the basis. Also evidence for the increase of belief I don't think is measured by political power. I don't mean this as a precise analogy, but look at Microsoft. Belief in the supremacy of the Windows OS has dwindled with the surge of Linux. But that has hardly negatively impacted the political clout that MS exercises, especially on the judicial branch of govt.

RB: "It's not just direct political impact - organised religious lobbies have had success in other areas as well, including within the academy."

SH: Again I agree. Your focus is more on political/laws such as opposition to gay marriage or cloning humans, while mine has been about the worth of teaching fundamental moral values like
"thou shalt not steal" early on..
------------------------

RB: Now it's true that the number of people who profess Christianity is down as percentage in the US but it's still nearly 80 per cent, far larger than in most other Western countries. The number of non-Christians has grown by about 10 per cent, but it would be very optimistic to think that the percentage of people with more or less naturalistic views has doubled from its historical level of about 10 per cent to about 20 per cent (even if it had, this would still be a small proportion of the population in absolute terms). The 10 per cent that the Christians have lost must be allocated among several other groups, of which those with a truly naturalistic worldview provide just one, and assigned to a range of factors. However, note that the slightly over 20 per cent of the population that is not Christian includes all the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and practitioners of various neo-pagan supernaturalist systems. You'll find that some, if not all, of those other groups have grown and eaten up a fair bit of the 10 per cent that the Christians have lost.

It's also true that the "no religious identification" category has been increasing. But that fact needs more research, since this group includes a range of disparate sub-categories. It is not the same as "atheist" or "naturalist" or "religious sceptic". Those categories may well have grown (I hope so), as more sceptical young people have come through. But "no religious identification" category will probably include a lot of syncretists, or people who are non-denominationally "spiritual", or belong to the New Age in some sense or whatever. Those sub-categories are almost certainly growing - you yourself mentioned the rise of New Age thinking.

So, it's certainly possible that the percentage of people in the US with a naturalistic worldview has grown (along with the absolute number of course). In fact, it would amaze me if that were not the case. But all the figures I see from time to time suggest that that figure has long been about 10 per cent, and while it may now be a bit higher, on closer inspection we can be pretty sure that it's still nowhere 20 per cent, that it might not be very much more than it was historically, and that it is having little influence on any moral or social malaise in the US.
-----------------------------
SH: Yes, and secular humanism has a moral structure. I'm going to quote again what I already wrote:
------------------------------

Russell wrote:
(you)have a view that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket with the decline of religion's authority. --------
SH: I said that was "strawman" summary; you can read that I thought religious inspired morality was better than no morality, and that the Church still fed homeless which IMO, leads to less crime. Instead of blaming "religion's authority" I blamed "hell in a handbasket" on addictive thinking creating a dysfunctional society."
---------------------------------
SH: "with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether,..
Recent census information indicated
that "no religious identification"
has had the greatest increase.."

SH: I read this as meaning that a large segment of the population 25% is giving up religion altogether. I don't think that means they become "considered" atheists who instill secular humanist (meaning moral) values in their kids. I think they have turned to apathy, 'I don't know, and I don't care'. So the kids get apathetic parental supervision and that includes moral instruction. The parents don't bother to bundle their kids off to Sunday School and they don't replace that their own teaching. I don't fit into a stereotype where some Christian says, the nation is turning into a collection of godless heathens so that the country is going to hell in a handbasket, the allusion didn't escape me. I've mentioned before that I didn't see a replacement for disappearing religious moral values which are better than no values at all. So "apathy" and your nice choice of "malaise" are words to describe what's wrong. I think they are too mild. I've written enough so will address some of your other comments in a different post. To end on a positive note, I read your monograph(?) about Damian Broderick and it seemed very well written with some critical evaluation and I learned from it. My list of books would rate LOTR, Childhood's End, City (by Simak), City and the Stars is a good enough choice for #4. Cheers.

The speculation about how familiar I am with Eliezer Yudkowsky is a distraction, but I'll deal with it briefly in the hope that we can put it to bed, since you obviously drew certain inferences from the other discussion.

Your comment that I disagreed with on the other thread was the suggestion that certain unnamed people were insincere and running a scam. I gave the example of Yudkowsky not as an example of someone who is not a crackpot (he may be or not) but as an example of someone whom I judge to be sincere. There's a big difference.

It seems to me that I had some basis to make that judgment, not based on familiarity with any particular document but because I've been reading drafts of his material for many years. I first encountered him in the virtual world when he was just an enthusiastic (but obviously brilliant) teenager making a name for himself on the Extropians mailing list. In fact, I'd learned a lot about him by reputation and by having stuff of his pointed out to, even before he actually crossed my path. I'd say that I've been pretty familiar with his developing views for about twelve years.

No, I haven't read much of what he's written lately, but there's a reason for that: I formed the view some time ago that he's on his way down a path that I'm not interested in. But I've also long been convinced that he's going down his particular path in perfect sincerity. Indeed, he's passionately convinced of the importance of what he's doing.

In making such judgments, it also helps that I've met him in person and had the interesting experience of appearing with him on a panel about the Singularity. On that occasion, I had enough dealing with him at close quarters to form certain judgments about his character and at least some of his abilities.

Now, you might be able to tell me that you've known Eliezer since he was a tiny baby and have appeared on multiple panels with him, but that's not the point. I'm not interested in rank-pulling (and I usually avoid arguing in such a way). The point is that my judgments may sometimes have more experience behind them than you might assume. You may disagree with my judgments, but they don't necessarily come from being "insulated". When I do feel a lack of sufficiently broad knowledge and experience, I'll often comment on it.

Getting back to the decline of America thing, any malaise in the US can't be caused by a decline in the authority that is accorded to religion. I also argue that it has little to do with whatever rise there has been in the number of philosophical naturalists. In fact, without getting into it too deeply - more deeply than I'd be qualified to do - I think that it is probably caused, in part, by complicated reasons relating to America's social makeup and cultural values, and the history behind them. I also suspect that America's historical and continuing religiosity is more a hindrance rather than a help. I agree that it would be hard to prove that last point, but I didn't go that far: what I was arguing is that blaming (part of) any malaise on the decline of religion would be simplistic. There's no pattern that supports it. I doubt that whatever sort of decline in religion (if measured in some ways) there has been has much at all to do with America's problems.

I have no theory at all about the level of "addictive thinking" in the US versus other societies. I find myself a bit sceptical about the thesis, as it sounds simplistic, but I'm prepared to give it a fair hearing if you want to support it in some way.

Frankly, I'm sceptical about this American malaise thing. Doubtless some things really are worse, but it would be interesting, for example, to see reputable statistics on how many people in the US now die from violent crime compared to, say, 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and 10 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if the figure was actually going down of late, although I don't know. Whether it's going up or down, it's very difficult to know how to measure a moral or social malaise.

Do we measure the amount of violent death in a society, the amount of racism, the amount of sexism, the amount of homophobia, or what? If the above are some of the indicators, are they all going up in the US? Should we measure the number of teenage pregnancies? But is that really a good measure, even if it's going up (in less moralistic societies it might not be such a terrible problem if there are quite a lot of teenage pregancies; do we know how many there are in Sweden? do we know how the problem is handled over there?)? What about divorce rates (I sometimes think that the rise in divorce rates is a good thing ... better than people being trapped in loveless marriages)? Do we measure literacy rates (but are these actually going down in the US? and might some other skills actually be becoming more widespread, such as skills with computers and electronic communications)? Do we use a measure of high-school drop-out rates? But isn't that a crude measure, and anyway what's the full picture (you didn't give a definition and you said "in many big cities", which is pretty vague; and, really, what is the average age for leaving school now compared to earlier decades going back, say, to the 1950s for a good long-term comparison)?

I'm not actually convinced that there's such a malaise in the US at all, let alone that it is contributed to in any way by a lack of religious teaching to children. Yes, the US has a lot of problems - no one disputes that - but they undoubtedly have complex causes that arise from its unique history. Again, I doubt that religiosity has played a very positive role.

Oh, and I certainly don't think that children should not be taught about religion. I think they should get the best grounding in comparative religion and mythology that we can fit into the limited time in the curriculum. What they should not be taught at school is that any religious doctrines are actually true.

How, you ask, do we teach kids to be morally virtuous? Well, there's a huge literature on that in which I'm not expert (though I've read some of it), but it doesn't require them to be taught religious doctrines. I'm pretty confident that the average Swedish or Norwegian kid grows up to be just as honest, kind, non-violent, able to love, able to plan, able to display courage and determination, and so on as the average kid from a religious culture. She may also be less burdened with fake virtues such as piety, chastity, and demeaning kinds of humility.

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said ...
The speculation about how familiar I am with Eliezer Yudkowsky is a distraction, but I'll deal with it briefly in the hope that we can put it to bed, since you obviously drew certain inferences from the other discussion.

Your comment that I disagreed with on the other thread was the suggestion that certain unnamed people were insincere and running a scam. I gave the example of Yudkowsky not as an example of someone who is not a crackpot (he may be or not) but as an example of someone whom I judge to be sincere. There's a big difference.
--------------------------------
SH: Yes, there is! The story about L. Ron Hubbard and the bet with RAH are probably not true. But Hubbard did make comments like, 'I'm tired of writing for a penny a word'. And 'the way to get rich is to start a religion'. I think it is likely Hubbard was not sincere about his collection of borrowed ideas as a genuine path to clarity. But suppose he was. Is the right word to describe an originator of a cult "sincere", or deluded/delusional?
I see Greg Egan's description of Yudkowsky's version of the Singularity (cargo cult) under dispute on your blog. On the SL4 list he was attacked by Yudkowsky and a few from your blog. The dividing issue is whether there is a qualitative aspect of intelligence or is it strictly quantitative, speedup and memory.
I think that belongs on the Transhumanism thread so I'll end that part of the discussion here.
-----------------------
RB wrote:
But I've also long been convinced that he's going down his particular path in perfect sincerity. Indeed, he's passionately convinced of the importance of what he's doing.
--------------------------------
SH: Let me ask you about the excesses committed in the name of religion. Were the perpetrators "sincere"? Maybe you will say yes. But I think that leaves a soiled notion of the value of sincerity. I think that his (EY) ideas are less extreme doesn't change impurity.
-------------------------------
RB wrote:
In making such judgments, it also helps that I've met him in person and had the interesting experience of appearing with him on a panel about the Singularity. On that occasion, I had enough dealing with him at close quarters to form certain judgments about his character and at least some of his abilities.

Now, you might be able to tell me that you've known Eliezer since he was a tiny baby and have appeared on multiple panels with him, but that's not the point. I'm not interested in rank-pulling (and I usually avoid arguing in such a way). The point is that my judgments may sometimes have more experience behind them than you might assume.
---------------------------
SH: I can see that Greg Egan is experienced with Yudkowsky. Another frequent contributor to the Transhumanist lists is named Phil Goetz. Goertzel describes him:
"This post is motivated by an ongoing argument with Phil Goetz,
a local friend who believes that all this talk about "accelerating change" and approaching the Singularity is bullshit -- in part because he doesn't see things advancing all that amazingly exponentially rapidly around him."
Phil Goetz stated:
"Peter Thiel (Paypal): Donated
$500,000 to the Singularity
Institute for Artificial
Intelligence. I can't recommend
SIAI as an organization to
contribute to for actual AI
research, because they're too
secretive for me to be able to
evaluate their work. (That in
itself would disqualify them to
me.) In fact, they're
ideologically somewhat torn
between promoting AI research
and preventing it."
----------------------------
RB wrote:
You may disagree with my judgments, but they don't necessarily come from being "insulated". When I do feel a lack of sufficiently broad knowledge and experience, I'll often comment on it.
-------------------------
SH: OK, you know Yudkowsky much better than I do. I'm not going to get into judging his strong AI claims here. I will put a seedy character to rest.
-----------------------------
RB wrote:
Getting back to the decline of America thing, any malaise in the US can't be caused by a decline in the authority that is accorded to religion. I also argue that it has little to do with whatever rise there has been in the number of philosophical naturalists. In fact, without getting into it too deeply - more deeply than I'd be qualified to do - I think that it is probably caused, in part, by complicated reasons relating to America's social makeup and cultural values, and the history behind them. I also suspect that America's historical and continuing religiosity is more a hindrance rather than a help. I agree that it would be hard to prove that last point, but I didn't go that far: what I was arguing is that blaming (part of) any malaise on the decline of religion would be simplistic. There's no pattern that supports it. I doubt that whatever sort of decline in religion (if measured in some ways) there has been has much at all to do with America's problems.
----------------------------
SH: I think the decline of religion which did a small amount of good by teaching kids some moral values is a symptom. I think the cause is more than a malaise, because that word doesn't imply an epidemic.
------------------------------
RB wrote:
I have no theory at all about the level of "addictive thinking" in the US versus other societies. I find myself a bit sceptical about the thesis, as it sounds simplistic, but I'm prepared to give it a fair hearing if you want to support it in some way.
-------------------------------
SH: By "insulated" I meant that in my brief perusal of the books you recommended, that I didn't see one on psychologically oriented mental health, or maybe even by a psychiatrist, no Alice Miller type.
You've probably read about the rise and fall of civilizations, Roman, and England recently. I think the US is collapsing as a world influence, most likely with inner dynamics like other empires collapsing. That is the kind of Singularity I can believe in, or from global warming or from over population. Rogue super-intelligent AIs supported by evidence reasoned from the Fermi Paradox seems like such a distant, frivolous Singularity, like living in denial.
-----------------------------
RB wrote:
Frankly, I'm sceptical about this American malaise thing. Doubtless some things really are worse, but it would be interesting, for example, to see reputable statistics on how many people in the US now die from violent crime compared to, say, 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and 10 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if the figure was actually going down of late, although I don't know. Whether it's going up or down, it's very difficult to know how to measure a moral or social malaise.
----------------------------
RB wrote:
Do we measure the amount of violent death in a society, the amount of racism, the amount of sexism, the amount of homophobia, or what? If the above are some of the indicators, are they all going up in the US? Should we measure the number of teenage pregnancies? But is that really a good measure, even if it's going up (in less moralistic societies it might not be such a terrible problem if there are quite a lot of teenage pregancies; do we know how many there are in Sweden? do we know how the problem is handled over there?)? What about divorce rates (I sometimes think that the rise in divorce rates is a good thing ... better than people being trapped in loveless marriages)? Do we measure literacy rates (but are these actually going down in the US? and

[This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not "able to locate information in text", could not "make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were unable to "integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.]

might some other skills actually be becoming more widespread, such as skills with computers and electronic communications)? Do we use a measure of high-school drop-out rates? But isn't that a crude measure, and anyway what's the full picture (you didn't give a definition and you said "in many big cities", which is pretty vague; and, really, what is the average age for leaving school now compared to earlier decades going back, say, to the 1950s for a good long-term comparison)? [The dropout rate was part of an Obama speech.]
-------------------------------
SH: Crime in the US declined until 2006. However the decline in education has been a scandal for some time. SAT scores are used for gaining entrance to college. Several years ago, the scores were so low that they gave everybody an automatic increase in their score.
*snip*
-------------------------
RB wrote:
How, you ask, do we teach kids to be morally virtuous? Well, there's a huge literature on that in which I'm not expert (though I've read some of it), but it doesn't require them to be taught religious doctrines.
---------------------------
RB wrote:
I'm pretty confident that the average Swedish or Norwegian kid grows up to be just as honest, kind, non-violent, able to love, able to plan, able to display courage and determination, and so on as the average kid from a religious culture. She may also be less burdened with fake virtues such as piety, chastity, and demeaning kinds of humility.
-------------------------------
I did look up Sweden later, but kids from Norway are from a religious culture, so I don't think that helps to make your point:

http://www.britannica.com/
About nine-tenths of all Norwegians
belong to the Evangelical Lutheran
national church, the Church of Norway, which is endowed by the government."
SH: Another source said Norway was 86% Lutheran with about 4% other religions, and 9%-10% were identified as atheistic or, chose "no religious preference". You raised other questions which I don't have statistics for and don't know the answer. The Sweden info before closing:
"The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden was the official state church until 2000; about four-fifths of the population remain members of this church."
Cheers
You need not make a detailed reply, this can be tiring.

Russell Blackford said...

It is tiring. :)

Look we agree on a lot of things. It's even possible that, in the special circumstances of some parts of America, your hypothesis might be testable and might be corroborated. I'm sceptical, but who knows what odd features have fed into American culture? It's just possible that some parts of the country were so dependent on religiosity to provide the community glue that they can't get along when it's challenged. Who knows? But I think that's a hypothesis that a batch of sociologists should be testing, if it hasn't already been tested and reported in the sociological literature. It's not something we can conclude by trying to join dots between what look (to me) like pretty random data points like the Hale-Bopp cult.

But let's stipulate that there's some truth in a thesis something like that. It's not what I was reacting to. I.e., I was not reacting to a narrow claim about what might be happening in some parts of the US. What you said originally, which I responded to, was:


My next view, I suppose could be considered circular. The values which have been eroded by the decline of religious dogma don't seem to have been replaced by values which work as well. The intellectual freedom and maturity offered by Atheism don't seem to have been accompanied by improved ethical values or societal stability.


As written, this seems to be a very broad claim.

Although some of the examples you gave were American, the para I've quoted seems to be making a general point that is just not substantiated by what we see happening in post-religious cultures.

And I can assure that Norway is a good example of a post-religious culture. The figures on nominal denominational allegiances aren't to the point. The question is, how religious are the Norwegians? I.e., how much is their life, these days, based around religiosity, how many of them actually believe in traditional doctrines, etc. I'm surprised that this is controversial, but I actually don't have time, with this one, i.e., time to go trawling for studies of the culture of Norway. Nor can I expect you to pay much regard to anecdotal impressions from my one and only visit to Norway quite some years ago now. So I guess you'll just have to believe me, or not, that the whole of Scandinavia is effectively a post-religious society. Or you could investigate it further.

But really, you could say the same about the UK or Australia. Seriously religious people are now the minority. None of these societies suffer from excessive violence, dishonesty, discriminatory attitudes, or other symptoms of moral malaise, either by historical standards or compared with the (still) much more religious society of the US. To the extent that they have social problems (and they certainly do ... e.g., I could tell you a bit about Australian cultural xenophobia directed at refugees), it's not from too much atheism or too little capacity for atheists and sceptics to find values that work as well as religious dogma.

I actually think that secular values such as the rule of law and separation of government powers; freedom of speech; religious toleration; the Millian harm principle; racial equality; and women's emancipation - all values that the churches have (often, not always) tended to fight against - are greatly superior to religious dogma by any measure that we are likely to agree on.

So if, on some measures, there has been a decline of religiosity in the US (and given that on others there has certainly not been), and if it really has had some negative social effects, that is a peculiar fact about the US rather than a fact about atheism or religious scepticism.

As far as I can see, looking across the world, the decline in serious religiosity in the rest of the Western nations has been pretty much an unequivocal good.

But you're right that I'm mainly worried about the influence of religion on politics - and particularly its growing influence on politics in the US. I don't usually care what other people believe as long as they don't attept to influence the state to impose it on me and others by force. Actually, it's slightly more complicated because I sometimes think that governments should be doing positive things, like actually funding stem cell research - not just declining to criminalise it - but are impeded by religious sentiments and influences.

Given the view of the world that I have, which I think you largely share despite this discussion, I continue to think that promulgating scepticism about religion is an unequivocally good thing to do. That doesn't mean that it's the only thing we should do. For example, I also support the provision of better social safety nets to give people more economic security. Though the thesis requires more testing, there's some indication that such a benevolent use of secular power, through the tax-transfer system, to give citizens greater economic security makes citizens less inclined to find comfort in religiosity. (Barack Obama made a somewhat similar point recently, and paid dearly for it, but I think he was probably right.)

To branch off, I have no idea how to solve America's problems, and it would be presumptuous of me to offer one. But I'll continue to question the extent of the malaise, as I believe it's one of those many things that easily get exaggerated.

Often we form conclusions based on evidence that is dramatic and is very salient to us (and the TV and internet are fantastic at bombarding us with such evidence), but which may not prove much at all: we really need robust, professionally-analysed statistics rather than anecdotes. E.g., if the crime rate has actually been falling in America until 2006 and has moved upward very recently, that suggests a couple of things. First, any dramatic evidence that we thought we had, prior to 2006, that the crime rate was going up was misleading us. Second, if the crime rate has only started to go up again in the last year or so it sounds as if it's too early to draw any conclusions, and if something is now happening it may be something very specific and recent (I'm in no position to speculate about what it could be). It doesn't suggest any long-term trend for Americans to be growing more violent and dishonest, or to be morphing into nastier people.

Russell Blackford said...

By the way, I should comment on the claim that this (from Wikipedia)) ...

Most U.S. adult citizens adhere to Christianity (78.5%). A 2001 survey found 15% of the adult population to have no religious affiliation, still significantly less than in other postindustrial countries such as Britain (44%) and Sweden (69%). According to ARIS and other studies, non-Christian religions (including Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and others) collectively make up about 5.5% of the adult population.

The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey found February 25, 2008.


... somehow means that 25 per cent of American are giving up religion altogether. I can't see how that figure of 25 per cent is derived from the above. If the poll itself suggests it, fine, but the quote from the Wikipedia article doesn't seem to say so, and it's not consistent with the 15 per cent non-affiliated in the other poll that it cites.

What we can synthesise from the above is that about 78 or 79 per cent are affiliatied as Christian. Of the rest, 5 or 6 per cent are Buddhists, Muslims etc.

15 or 16 per cent are not affiliated. However we don't know how many of them have some kind of religious belief (e.g. New Age, neo-pagan, spiritual, syncretist, an undefined Creator or Creative Force, etc). We certainly don't have evidence from the Wikipedia figures alone that the number of actual atheists is higher than, say, 10 per cent.

The fact that a lot of people have changed their affiliation doesn't prove much at all. We need a definition. Many people change affiliation from, say, the Anglican (Episcopal) Church to the Uniting Church. If the definition is broad enough to include that kind of thing, what is represented may not reflect a lot of people dramatically changing their worldviews. Even conversion from Christianity to Islam would not be a total change in worldview, as both claim to worship the same deity.

It would be nice to see the detail behind the bland figure mentioned in Wikipedia to get an idea of how many actually change from a traditional religious worldview to a naturalistic one. The figure could be near zero, for all I know, consistently with the material I've quoted.

In short, the number who have some kind of philosophical atheistic position is at the highest something around 15 per cent - and it may be much lower. The 15 per cent includes too many sub-categories and one I haven't even mentioned yet is non-philosophical atheists: some people may think that belief in God is bullshit - they just don't "get" it - but they are not philosophically inclined at all and have not reasoned their way to a naturalistic worldview.

Still, it's true that some of the older polls show the number of admitted atheists at single figures, so there probably is some change here, as one would expect.

So, here's a real possibility. It's possible that the proportion of atheists was only 6 per cent, a decade or two ago, and is now 12 per cent (a 100 per cent increase, and even more than that in absolute numbers!). But that would still be a lot less in percentage terms than many other Western countries and is unlikely IMHO to be the cause of any of America's problems.

More promising for me is evidence that the total number of atheists plus agnostics may indeed be quite high. But that's from an online poll, so one must wonder a bit about how reliable it is. Also, we don't have enough longitudinal data broken down in the way that the relevant Harris poll breaks it down - it's possible (and, to me, intuitively likely) that there were always many agnostics among the ranks of those with a church affiliation of some kind.

Which brings me to the point that getting really solid statistical evidence is difficult. We can be pretty sure that the US is vastly more religious than the UK, but that's because we can triangulate evidence of various kinds. How much less religious either is than, say, 15 years ago will also need different kinds of evidence to give the full picture. Likewise, it may be difficult - the way questions are asked - to compare the US with a place like Norway.

No matter where the question is asked, religious affiliation in itself may be purely nominal, or half-hearted, or based on very moderate beliefs, etc. How much people declare a religious affiliation even if they are not believers will vary from country to country, depending on local factors. For example, in Australia many people still put "Anglican" on census forms because that's the denomination they were confirmed in ... but they may actually have no strong religious beliefs at all. It's purely nominal.

(Australia really is at least very close to being a post-religious country, if not quite there. Unfortunately, some political deference is given to the views of the major religious groups and leaders, and there seem to be a lot of religious parliamentarians.)

None of this complexity destroys the claim that there are more atheists around than there used to be in all countries, including the US. I think that's true, and I think it's a good thing.

But I'm still sceptical about the idea of any dramatic decline in grassroots religiosity in the US. There may be more atheists, as well as more Buddhists and Muslims, but in raw numbers there are more Christians as well - and qualitatively there seems to be a shift to more of them being radicalised.

And if what we care about is their political influence, well, they seem to be better organised and more influential than they've been for a long time, and at many important levels within the society. They've really worked at this. But on that point we're agreed.

Btw, thanks, Stephen, for your kind words about Hyperdreams. A lot of work can go into a short, small-press monograph like that, so it's gratifying when someone expresses appreciation.

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford wrote:
And I can assure that Norway is a good example of a post-religious culture. The figures on nominal denominational allegiances aren't to the point. The question is, how religious are the Norwegians? I.e., how much is their life, these days, based around religiosity, how many of them actually believe in traditional doctrines, etc. I'm surprised that this is controversial, but I actually don't have time, with this one, i.e., time to go trawling for studies of the culture of Norway. Nor can I expect you to pay much regard to anecdotal impressions from my one and only visit to Norway quite some years ago now. So I guess you'll just have to believe me, or not, that the whole of Scandinavia is effectively a post-religious society. Or you could investigate it further. ....
I actually think that secular values such as the rule of law and separation of government powers; freedom of speech; religious toleration; the Millian harm principle; racial equality; and women's emancipation - all values that the churches have (often, not always) tended to fight against - are greatly superior to religious dogma by any measure that we are likely to agree on. ...
--------------------------------
SH:Russell wrote, "The question is, how religious are the Norwegians?"
Yes, my impression is that Norwegians are more moderate or balanced in accord with your anecdotal evidence. Despite the fact that there is a higher % of reported religious affiliation with the Lutheran church. The article also said that this state church received endowments, which I took to mean some money at the least.
Now look at the US which in comparison with Norway is less religious(maybe Australia is also less religious than Norway). The US also has separation of Church and State in the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that the words "under God" had to be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance recited in public schools.
I'm trying to make the point that the environment for religion to exert a pervasive (and more intense)influence has a much more fertile possibility in Norway.
But that is not the case. Norway is "enlightened" and is more moderate in its application of religion to public policy. I don't think the answer is that the Church of Norway is a really great religion. I think the reason Norway is more enlightened and much less rigid about religion (as you asserted) is
therefore not religion. Though you might see religion as a cause, as a cause it is downstream to the attitudes which people bring with them when they decide upon the intensity with which they embrace some religion. Attitudes are changing rather than doctrinal changes within religion which is most static at this point.
------------------------------
RB: And if what we care about is their political influence, well, they seem to be better organised and more influential than they've been for a long time, and at many important levels within the society. They've really worked at this. But on that point we're agreed.
------------------------------
SH: I'm saying that Norway is an example where religion is being practiced that does not lead to an unenlightened society, so how can religion be the primary cause? The cause rests in the psyches which people bring to how they practice religion. Becoming better organized, focusing so that as a group they are more politically influential is an example of attitudes being polarized, being crystallized into extremes. It is similar to why cults are on the rise, because there are more zealot mindsets. Addicts tend to behavioral extremes. As addicts increase within a society, that makes the society behave more like its composition. There is religious addiction as well as romance addiction which can include mood altering by imagining such things as riding down a desert hill towards an tomb rumored to hold the Emerald Tablets of Trismegistus, or occult style fantasies, and not restricted to relationships with frequent pursuit and changin of relationship human partners.
Anyway, I see Norway as a reason that *religion* itself, as not the cause of people practicing religious extremes. Religion is just one channel for people to indulge in extremes, as philosophy could be practiced, for that matter. That's why Eastern religions are also described as Eastern philosophies. I do think religion is better suited for practicing extremes than pursuits which value evidence. I'm a big fan of Naturalism, but of course not too much! :-) Lastly, I also define a difference between Atheists who reason their way to that position and those who sort of fall off the truck into Atheism due to apathy.
Cheers

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, I'm afraid that as long as you keep trying to argue from a premise that Norway is an example of a society that is more religious than the US, this won't get very far. You may as well be arguing from the premise that black is white.

If you think that, for Poseidon's sake, go and talk to some Norwegians.

Having an official church may deliver huge numbers of people who are nominally church members, but ironically it doesn't deliver a more religious society. Indeed, it's widely believed that America is anomalously religious compared with other Western nations precisely because (among other reasons) of its free market in religion and its official separation of church and state. In countries with an official church, religion can come to be an institution with no strong passion attached to it by most people. It can keep going in the absence of much genuine belief. It may well be partly because of their official churches that countries like the UK and Norway are so lacking in religiosity and are pretty much post-religious societies.

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, I'm afraid that as long as you keep trying to argue from a premise that Norway is an example of a society that is more religious than the US, this won't get very far. You may as well be arguing from the premise that black is white.
-------------------------------
SH: I *never* argued that. I argued
precisely the opposite. I said that although religion was in a position (more of the population identifying themselves as religious, and approved by the government) so that it could be much more influential than religion in the US, that it was not! I said Norway was less serious about religion. I used the word "enlightened" to describe their thinking. That word doesn't mean to me more serious about religious practice, it doesn't mean more pious or devout, or religiously dogmatic. Enlightened, was intended to mean more rational with less toxic impact on society. The Christian religions are pretty static when it comes to introducing new doctrines; that means the Lutheran religion in Norway is pretty much like the Lutheran religion in the US, and even other Protestant religions and Catholicism. So that religion itself, considered as an entity is basically the same in the US and Norway. But the interaction of religion and people in Norway produces a much different result than the interaction of religion and people in the US. Since the religion (as an entity) is basically the same/static, the difference in the result of religion between the two countries, is the variable = societies, which are composed of individuals. That means people bring their mindsets to religion and the difference in results between religion/Norway and religion/US is in the mindsets. Any way you look at it, it is at least possible for mindsets to interact with religions without toxic repercussions. Norway proves that.
Religion has been around in the culture of Norway for a long time. That didn't prevent Norway from achieving a more enlightened status, nor has that progress been strewn with atrocities committed in the name of religion as with other countries who wielded religion cruelly. My point is that religion can interact in society without a lot of malignancy, Norway proves that now and in its past. People have made religion a weapon, not religion itself, except for traces of patriarchy, and that interpretation isn't mandatory.

My premise was that Norway was not more religious than the US, although certain circumstances favor religion to be taken more seriously. I used Norway to contrast to the US, Norway not harmed by religion, the US and others injured by religion. But since the religion is the same quantity, it is how people have applied religion (or taken it seriously) into society that has produced dismal consequences. We know the fault lies in people and not in religion because people are born with Original Sin since the Bible tells us so. I'm a little irritated that you completely misunderstood my other post, actually the reverse of what I
said. I believe in critical thinking. This discussion seems to have run its course, but I should thank you for the work in making the valuable resource of your blog available.

Stephen said...

"Singer's Plea for Selflessness"
"According to Singer, to lead a life according to ethical standards is essentially to be prepared to give an ethical justification for our actions."
Russell Blackford said ...
"Moreover, because religion has
picked up a whole lot of these
traditional fundamental beliefs
that made some sort of sense
once but are largely not true,
it is always likely to imagine
the world in a different way
from the way it is imagined by
the majority of people who are
highly scientifically literate
and are keeping up with the
developing scientific image of
the world. ... one of the best
things you can do is spread
scepticism about religion."
------------------------------
SH: I was thinking about the roots of religion. We don't believe in God, so we don't believe that God created Man and divinely inspired religious texts to be written. That means Man is responsible for creating religion. And since religions and or creation myths have been around forever, even in widely separated tribes, it would seem that creating a symbolic construct to answer why Man is here and what's his purpose is a drive intrinsic to Man. There have been religions which sacrificed children surely an eternal verity violation for most other religions. I saw a film about chimps and when the tribe became large enough, they split off into two tribes, one moving to another part of the forest. In the ensuing weeks, the original tribe hunted down and killed all of the second tribe. I think that indicates that our religions are expressions of primal instincts, at least partly. Since we know there was no God to tell Abraham to wipe out the Canaanites, that decision was reached by priests who were worried about the tribes of Israel being weakened by the Canaanites competing for members and resources. It appears to me that Singer's Utilitarianism is at odds with basic human nature.
A word to describe Utilitarianism might be altruistic.
I think politics has much in common with religion. They like to make rules for others to live by, often with a byproduct of making their own lives more convenient. Division of church and state hinders religious pronouncements being instantly converted into political policies. Theocracies were usually less tolerant of others also. Since nearly all our ancient forebears had chiefs and shamans they seem to fulfill an alpha purpose. If you extirpate both of them, which seems like an unannounced requirement for utilitarianism to work then Plato's Philosopher Kings will have to have a very large supply of perfection to meet the needs. What made me think of this is the catastrophe in Burma. All these emergency workers with food to share with their less well off third-world brethren, thwarted by the chiefs (military junta). I suppose it to be politics taking over the function of a similar religious segregation tactic. My conclusion is that we should not leave out spreading skepticism about politics as well as religion since they are intertwined. It was that other blog "Rudd blocks civil unions bill in ACT" that encouraged me to think about both problems.

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, regarding your second last comment, you can be as irritated as you want, but since your exact words were ...

Now look at the US which in comparison with Norway is less religious(maybe Australia is also less religious than Norway).

... I'm puzzled.

If, as you state here in so many words, the US is "less religious" in comparison with Norway, it follows by logical necessity that Norway is more religious compared with the US. Since you say that Australia is possibly "also" less religious than Norway, your claim that the US is "less religious" than Norway is quite clear (and I'm not taking it out of context or reading it in some perverse, uncharitable manner).

The fact that you think it's a different kind of religiosity is noted, but the fact remains that you were including as part of your thesis a claim that, out of the US and Norway, the US is the "less religious" country.

When you make seemingly crystal clear statements such as that, it's a bit rough getting irritated with someone who tries to interpret your comments on the basis that you mean what you say. In such circumstances, rather than getting annoyed it's often a good idea to question whether you conveyed your point well.

Anyway, I'll go away and think about the ideas in your later comment.

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, regarding your second last comment, you can be as irritated as you want, but since your exact words were ...

"Now look at the US which in comparison with Norway is less religious(maybe Australia is also less religious than Norway)."

... I'm puzzled.
----------------------------------
Stephen writes: I'm quoting below the larger portion of what I wrote, the context of the remark you find puzzling.

SH:Russell wrote, "The question is, how religious are the Norwegians?"

Yes, my impression is that Norwegians are more moderate or balanced in accord with your anecdotal evidence. Despite the

SH writes:
1)The first thing I do is make quite clear I agree with you about religion being less significant to Norway than in the US.
--------------------------------
Despite the
fact that there is a higher % of reported religious affiliation with the Lutheran church. The article also said that this state church received endowments, which I took to mean some money at the least.

SH writes:
2) I use the word "despite" to indicate I'm showing a contrast.
The US reported 78% affiliated with religion and Norway, 86-90%, nearly all of them Lutheran. This leads into my follow up sentences.
---------------------------
Now look at the US which in comparison with Norway is less religious(maybe Australia is also less religious than Norway).

SH writes:
3)I am stating that in a way that makes sense and is consistent with what I've written so far. The US is less religious in comparison to Norway in terms of the percentage of the population which identifies itself in a poll as religious. I also point out that the US enforces separation of Church and State by law, whereas Norway gave government endowment to the *state* Church.
----------------------------

The US also has separation of Church and State in the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that the words "under God" had to be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance recited in public schools.
-------
continuing the original context:
I'm trying to make the point that the environment for religion to exert a pervasive (and more intense)influence has a much more fertile possibility in Norway.
But that is not the case. Norway is "enlightened" and is more moderate in its application of religion to public policy.

SH writes:
4) Norway has more people affiliated with religion than the US and state endowments. Contrast this to the US which has fewer people affiliated with religion and separation of Church and State.
That means one would expect those factors to exert an influence which would make Norway more religious and conversely the US less religious. But, I say, "that is not the case" "Norway is "enlightened" and is more moderate in its application of religion to public policy."

Stephen writes:
5)So I agreed with you again, and in that light it points you to understanding that the US, as less religious, is part of my argument referencing a higher religious population % for Norway *not* resulting in greater religious significance in contrast to the US.
So your saying my writing is puzzling, meaning poorly or obscurely worded. I think I give enough of a clue that, 'less religious' in the US meant less religious statistically, since the prelude is a statistical reference,
"Despite the fact that there is a higher % of reported religious affiliation with the Lutheran church." I clearly agreed with you twice about Norway being less influenced by religion, so that you should have looked for an interpretation that made sense. I don't think a sense-making view is that hard to find. I mentioned Australia because it also has fewer people associated with religion (by poll) than Norway, but it seemed like you indicated that Australia was not so post-religious and that religion influenced politics in the Rudd case. And that is a bit odd.

I was leading up to saying that religion, like politics, is a human invention, and that these inventions can be inflicted cruelly or moderately. Child sacrifice and ruthless dictators versus what can be benevolent forms, they arise from human thought first. I'm not sure that attacking these institutions at the same level provides enough leverage for change. I think Norway is different because of its people, not because Lutheranism in the US and Norway is much different.

Russell Blackford said...

The thing is that if you mean that there are less people in the US formally affiliated with a church you can simply say that. If the percentage who are formally members of the Lutheran Church is something like 85 to 90 per cent, it's not a controversial claim. However, as I've pointed out this doesn't mean that Norway is, as you originally claimed:

a religious culture

Since you never withdrew that claim I'm not sure why you think I should take you as meaning something other than your literal words when you later say:

Now look at the US which in comparison with Norway is less religious

But okay, can I now take it that you don't consider Norway to be a religious culture or to be more religious than the US?

Unless some new data comes in, I think we can be confident that Norway is just as post-religious as the neighbouring Sweden and Denmark. Both of the latter have far larger percentages of non-believers than the US ... though Denmark is like Sweden in that a very large number of people are formally affiliated with the state church.

In the case of Denmark, Austin Dacey gives some good, concise analysis in his book The Secular Conscience. On Dacey's figures, over 80 per cent belong to the Danish People's Church, but 80 per cent say that religion is unimportant in their lives, while over 45 per cent do not believe in the Christian God. So, we have a situation where Denmark has a higher level of formal affiliation with a church than in the US, but it would not be true to say that Denmark is a religious society or that it is more religious than the US.

I don't have similar figures for Norway, but it's likely that the picture in Denmark and the picture in Norway are very similar. I'll see whether I can dig out any specific figures on Norway, but I've been operating on the basis, which is usually accepted as true in the literature I've read, that Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are all pretty similar in religiosity, even if Sweden doesn't have so many people formally affiliated to a state church. You (or at least I) don't get an impression of great cultural differences in religiosity if you set foot in those countries, as you might find between the US and Canada or between New York and the Bible Belt.

Again, I don't have specific figures like Dacey's, but I'd be pretty confident that Finland and Iceland are also post-religious. If it comes to that, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK, and France are largely so as well, as are quite a lot of other European countries.

Anyway, perhaps you now agree with all this, even if you didn't initially.

Note that what we see in Scandinavia (and elsewhere in Europe) is actually a group of post-religious societies in that very large numbers of people attach little importance to religion and religion has little political authority. That doesn't mean that atheists are actually in the majority anywhere: e.g., in Denmark, over 50 per cent have at least some belief in the Christian deity, but it must be a rather residual belief for most of them.

(Btw, none of this means that the countries I've named are always pillars of rationalism. In my opinion, they sometimes show goofy attitudes to biotechnology, for example.)

The only point that I'm really trying to establish in all this is that you can have a society in which the degree of religiosity (measured, for example, in the percentage who believe in God or the percentage who consider their religion important) is much lower than that of the US without having to worry about children not learning very basic moral virtues and principles. The best ways to teach these have nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the strict-father sort of conservative religion that's so popular in the US probably does more harm than good if the aim is to turn out adults who are kind, empathetic, non-violent, etc.

That said, I don't claim that religion inevitably produces a toxic mindset. That would be a very unnuanced claim indeed. However, I do think that in contemporary circumstances we generally have nothing to lose, and much to gain, if large numbers of people cease to be believe in any deity, at least whole-heartedly, and the overwhelming majority no longer consider religion important in their lives or look to religious leaders as sources of moral authority.

Overall, I think that the erosion of religiosity in modern societies has been a good thing. I also think that it's a development that we shouldn't be complacent about. It's still being challenged.

To some extent, it's probably been caused by circumstances beyond influence by stray philosophers and other intellectuals - circumstances to do with with economics, urbanisation, etc. Still, it's important to keep putting sceptical views out there, because there's plenty of evidence that the religious hierarchs are not going to relinquish their social and political influence quietly.

Stephen said...

russell blackford said ... ...
To some extent, it's probably been caused by circumstances beyond influence by stray philosophers and other intellectuals - circumstances to do with with economics, urbanisation, etc. Still, it's important to keep putting sceptical views out there, because there's plenty of evidence that the religious hierarchs are not going to relinquish their social and political influence quietly.
------------------------------

SH replied: Recently on CNN which covered the Pope's visit to the US, they mentioned that the Catholics are running short of priests. Earlier, I remember hearing from some other source that Catholicism has a declining number of women who are willing to take the nun vows. Also I think attendance is down in Protestant churches. Nonetheless, the Bible Belt is still a faction that Senator McCain is trying to court, so the attrition is slow to dissipate religious political influence.
I think that the % of religious people in Norway may be an assumed statistic rather than from a poll.
Also Norway has religious freedom so that enjoying the title of the state church has few "endowments" of importance. Thus the factors of % of religious population and recognition as the state church do not impact Norway as much as suggested in the original website used as the source. I found that the Norway Humanist Association has a larger membership than most of the other religious sects.
I was too tired to post again last night which might with a better source of information.
http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2001/5689.htm

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

Russell Blackford said...

I wrote at one point

though Denmark is like Sweden in that a very large number of people are formally affiliated with the state church.

I meant to write

though Denmark is like Norway in that a very large number of people are formally affiliated with the state church.

Just thought I should correct that in case it was going to cause confusion to anyone reading this thread in the future.

Stephen said...

russell blackford said ...
However, as I've pointed out this doesn't mean that Norway is, as you originally claimed:

a religious culture

Since you never withdrew that claim I'm not sure why you think I should take you as meaning something other than your literal words when you later say:

Now look at the US which in comparison with Norway is less religious

But okay, can I now take it that you don't consider Norway to be a religious culture or to be more religious than the US?
------------------------------

If you asked a bunch of people: If some country has an official state religion, is it a religious country?
I think most people would say yes.
If you asked a bunch of people: If some country has an official state religion, and it is the policy of that country to place or assume that 93% of the population is a member of that official state religion, does that country have a religious culture?
I think most people would say yes.

If you compare those two categories to the US which has no state religion and has only 78% of the population described as religious, that is the measure which I used to say that the US was less religious.
For one thing I was using a "religious culture" in contrast to what people mean by no state religion and with a meager religious population. That is a dichotomy and I'm not creating a contradiction when I reference or define a religious culture in terms of whether it has a state religion and how many people %, fill that category.
You, however, used a dichotomy in terms of post-religious and religious as if a post-religious culture is not a religious culture.
That was how you filtered all of my quoted paragraphs on these issues.
I made it quite clear that I agreed with your post-religious assessment of Norway. Then I brought what I considered to be an anomalous condition, that Norway with a state religion and a much larger assigned % religious population was more post-religious by that the US. When I said that the US is less religious, the meaning that this was in terms of population was implicit. Just before this sentence I explicitly mentioned the religious population % discrepancy,
which was supposed to be carried forward by the reader to help understand what followed, called reading in context.
Yes, using hindsight, I think that if I had included "by % of affiliated population" in the sentence containing 'US is less religious than Norway', that you would have read the entire paragraph as hanging together in a consistent manner. I hammered my agreement to your view of Norway as post-religious, twice, sufficient to overwhelm a misunderstanding of how, or on what basis I was using to write in terms of the US as less religious. Prolepsis, a term I picked up from Penrose, means anticipating what doubts or misunderstandings readers are going to have and writing to answer those projected questions. Well, I figured that you would see what I meant without including a qualifying phrase such as 'by population' to clarify my meaning about 'US is less religious than Norway'(not making the same mistake again).
It is clear that I made a mistake in my figuring; what I wrote from my point of view is consistent while you thought I was confused and inconsistent. All I can say is that when other people write posts which lack precision and meaning clarifying details, to avoid long posts, I fill in the blanks so that a reasonable meaning emerges. That includes typos, omitting words like "not" which drastically change an intended meaning and not repeating clarifying background information mentioned earlier in the same post.
However, not all people have that luxury, they have demands on their time which limits their attention. Cheers

Stephen said...

russell blackford said...

"The only point that I'm really trying to establish in all this is that you can have a society in which the degree of religiosity (measured, for example, in the percentage who believe in God or the percentage who consider their religion important) is much lower than that of the US without having to worry about children not learning very basic moral virtues and principles.

The best ways to teach these have nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the strict-father sort of conservative religion that's so popular in the US probably does more harm than good if the aim is to turn out adults who are kind, empathetic, non-violent, etc.
[SH: Yet Norway has compulsory Christian ethical education in its schools, see report below.]

SH: How does the following report compare to Australia?

http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2001/5689.htm

"The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by
governmental or private actors.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of
Norway is the state Church. It is
supported financially by the State,
and there is a constitutional
requirement that the King and
one-half of the Cabinet belong to
this church. The relationship between the Church and the State regularly generates discussion. Church officials have spoken in favor of a greater separation in the state-church relationship. However, there were no significant developments in this debate during the period covered by this report.

A religious community is required to register with the Government only if it desires state support, which is provided to all registered
denominations on a proportional basis in accordance with membership.

[SH: I think this means that since
the default affiliation of people
who are not committed to another
religion, is the state church, that
this means the 93% figure given to
the state church means that they get 93% of the proportionate funding.]

In October 1995, the Storting
(Parliament) passed a law introducing the subject "Religious Knowledge and Education in Ethics" in the school system. The legality of imposing compulsory teaching of Christianity and Christian ethics in public schools has been contested in court by both the Norwegian Humanist Association and the Moslem Council.
These cases have been appealed to
the Supreme Court after lower level
courts ruled in favor of the State.

In July 1998, the Government suspended two priests in the Church of Norway and asked the courts for approval to terminate legally their priesthood due to insubordination and disloyalty. The conservative priests, serving in a rural community, openly had refused
to accept religious and spiritual
guidance from their liberal bishop
based in the provincial capital. The parties were in disagreement on a number of social issues (such as
gay rights)." October, 2001

Russell Blackford said...

There's nothing like a state church in Australia. Indeed it would be against the constitution. But there is in the UK.

One of the popular theories around is that having a state church actually tends to act against religiosity in the population tending to give citizens an inferior cafeteria of religions to choose from. But on reflection I think it's obvious that there's more to it than that, even if it might be a part of the story.

Stephen said...

russell blackford said...
"One of the popular theories around is that having a state church actually tends to act against religiosity in the population tending to give citizens an inferior cafeteria of religions to choose from. But on reflection I think it's obvious that there's more to it than that, even if it might be a part of the story."
------------------------------
Stephen said...
I mentioned that the Norway Humanistic Association filed suit over the compulsory teaching (and student attendance) of Christian Ethics (other religions are taught/ mentioned). The Supreme Court, which is independent, unanimously rejected the Humanist appeal. Somehow, I find that shocking.

http://www.thuto.org/ubh/whist/chhist/ce-est1.htm
"Paradoxically, although its government is rigidly secular, the United States is one of the most religious societies of the western world in terms of active church membership."

So, I'm not the only person who finds that strange. But Norway does have religious freedom (to choose).
In the past, a state church meant that there was no religious freedom. Again, I find that reading about religious persecution by state religions a lot more shocking than I learned in grade school. As the governments changed from Catholic to Protestant to Puritan rulers, thousands of members of the other religion were killed with quite a few tortured.
So you mean a state church that in a country which has religious freedom, that's the setting for the cafeteria. So yes, I agree that the whole story is enigmatic, so it may be just another portent for the emergence of the singularity. :-)
Senator McCain has said that part of his goal in Iraq is to establish religious freedom! Made some jaws drop. Good luck with "Voices of Disbelief" ...

Russell Blackford said...

I didn't punctuate one sentence very well, so to clarify: I meant that there's a popular theory that (yes, paradoxically) the US is more religious than other Western countries partly because it doesn't have an established church. The theory is that this has encouraged competition among religions, which in turn has meant that the various religious views on offer are more diverse and more tailored to the emotional needs of various kinds of citizens. So, the US with its formal separation of church and state has actually ended up more religious than the countries in Western Europe (measured in the actual religiosity of the population rather than nominal church membership). But as I say, there must be more to the story than that because we aren't seeing a lot of arguably post-religious countries outside of Europe (maybe Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, but as discussed in another thread there's always a "maybe").

When I get time, I'm about to read a book on this whole subject that might shed some light. I'll report back.

I'm not sure that anodyne religion classes at school do much to promote religiosity. We used to have compulsory "scripture" classes here in Australia, back in my day, and the kids simply didn't take them seriously. That's probably how it is in those European countries that still have some such thing.

But I actually favour a fairly rigorous course (as rigorous as allowed by time and the maturity of the students) in comparative religion and mythology. This is too important a subject to be neglected, made into a joke, or taught from a sectarian viewpoint.

Thanks about Voices. :)

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said...

I didn't punctuate one sentence very well, so to clarify: I meant that there's a popular theory that (yes, paradoxically) the US is more religious than other Western countries partly because it doesn't have an established church. The theory is that this has encouraged competition among religions, which in turn has meant that the various religious views on offer are more diverse and more tailored to the emotional needs of various kinds of citizens. So, the US with its formal separation of church and state has actually ended up more religious than the countries in Western Europe (measured in the actual religiosity of the population rather than nominal church membership). But as I say, there must be more to the story than that because we aren't seeing a lot of arguably post-religious countries outside of Europe (maybe Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, but as discussed in another thread there's always a "maybe").
-------------------------------
SH: You've advanced this theory a couple of times and I don't find it too plausible. Norway has state religion and is post-religious. The US has no state religion and is quite religious. But Australia too has no state religion, and it is if not post-religious, at least mildly religious in comparison to the US. So with two countries having no state religion, the intensity of religion varies and the result does not follow a predictable logic.
I think there is a better explanation why the US is more religious that Australia although they both lack state religions. The US became the home of over 400,000 pilgrims fleeing religious persecution including death. They came here in a dangerous passage, so they were dedicated zealots to their particular religious sect. Their major goal was to plant and grow a lasting religious belief. I think that is the root of various dedicated religions in the colonies before the US became a country and adopted separation of church and state. I think no US state religion transpired after these religions were established and thriving, and so passing on their intensity to future generations.
I don't know Australian history very well at all. But my impression is that Australia had no large influx of dedicated religious zealots to indelibly stamp the future generations with a veneration and passion for religious freedom and its importance. Grade schools here teach about Cromwell, the Huguenots and Pilgrims after all these years. So does Australia have a cultural history which planted the religious flags in the soil of Australia with the same devotion? If not, that would account for why Australia enjoys a less pervasive religious influence and intensity now. I find that what makes sects more competitive is their size which drives how hard they have to work to survive. Some smaller sects also teach that if you don't believe in this particular church, then you will go to hell, for recruitment purposes. I don't see the diversity argument as potent because their are enough sects in Norway so that more people could find a religious niche. But they aren't motivated. I think people are already religiously inclined when they seek a religion. People will buy more cars if there is a greater selection, but that isn't going to greatly exceed the number who will buy a car anyway from a smaller selection when they really want a car. I don't see religion to be much like a luxury item that has to offer a lot of nuances (like perfume fragrances) of faith in order to entice converts. Yes, some might be snared this way, but I can't see it amounting for enough people who otherwise would not join any religion whatsoever, to account for a pressure to drive a whole society to significantly identify and intensely persist with religious beliefs. Another way of putting it is that the theory sounds like one of those thin academic notions.

What is the name of this theory? I haven't heard of it, but that doesn't mean much because this is an area which doesn't overlap AI all that much.

Stephen said...

russell blackford said...
"One of the popular theories around is that having a state church actually tends to act against religiosity in the population tending to give citizens an inferior cafeteria of religions to choose from. But on reflection I think it's obvious that there's more to it than that, even if it might be a part of the story."
--------------------------------

Stephen wrote:
"Secularization, Religiosity, and
the United States Constitution"
by Christopher L. Eisgruber

"The article then goes on to offer
a preliminary analysis of to what
extent, if any, are constitutional
factors responsible for sustaining
a public culture in the United
States that is, by comparison to
most other nations, durably
religious. The article identifies
four constitutional or quasi-
constitutional factors that
sociologists and political
scientists have suggested might
be partly responsible for the
vigor of American religion:
disestablishment, the fragmentation
of political authority, ethnic
diversity and immigration, and
provocative judicial decisions.
The article concludes by
recommending that scholars who
are interested in the conditions
that sustain religious activity
and other forms of civic
association in the United States
should pay more attention to the
constitutional fragmentation of
political authority."

http://www.australia-migration.com/page/History/238
"Like England, the Australian
colonies were officially Anglican
in religion. The authorities,
however, neglected religious
instruction, and the Anglican
faith was not the religion of
the bulk of the population.
Roman Catholicism, the faith of
the Irish convicts, and Methodism
vied with the official religion,
but overall the settlers of New
South Wales tended to be
indifferent to religion."

From en_wiki
"The White Australia policy is
a term used to describe a
collection of historical
legislation and policies that
intentionally restricted non-
white immigration to Australia
from 1901 to 1973."

http://www.history.org/Almanack/
life/religion/religionva.cfm
"In a stark new world, Virginia's
English colonists were supported
by an ancient and familiar
tradition - the established church.
The law of the land from 1624
mandated that white Virginians
worship in the Anglican church
(Church of England) and support
its upkeep with their taxes."
-----------------------------
SH: In the Colonial days before Constitutions forbid state religions, both the US and Australia had the same state approved church, Anglican, aka the Church of England. In the US the competition was intense enough to be called strife. Whereas in Australia, the concern about religion is termed "indifferent". The attitudes are already in place before the adoption of a Constitution so 'no state religion' is not the cause of the religious zeal apparent in the US. Australia tended to be indifferent toward religion before its constitutional mandate about no religion, and simply continued to be moderately religious after the no state religion provision was enacted.
However, one of the factors listed, "ethnic diversity and immigration," could well play a causal role. The early US immigrants deeply cared about their religions. Also the US had much less restrictive immigration policies than Australia which introduced ethnic and religious invigorations into the US multiculture. The Australian restrictive immigration laws promoted the stability of an already existing moderate religious climate. So I think "having a state church actually tends to act against religiosity in the population" is indeed a very small part of the story, though I won't go so far as to call it vanishing.

Russell Blackford said...

The theory that I have in mind is known as rational choice theory. Of course, rational choice theory is a development in the social sciences that goes far beyond what we're discussing here.

The very existence of the rational choice account highlights the paradox to be explained but how much it really does the job is another thing. The more I think about it the more I see reason to be a bit sceptical, even suspicious (which is not to deny adamantly that it's even a small part of the story).

The best-known exponent is a guy called Rodney Stark, but Stark actually seems to be a bit nutty.

Stephen said...

Russell Blackford said...

The theory that I have in mind is known as rational choice theory. Of course, rational choice theory is a development in the social sciences that goes far beyond what we're discussing here.

The very existence of the rational choice account highlights the paradox to be explained but how much it really does the job is another thing. The more I think about it the more I see reason to be a bit sceptical, even suspicious (which is not to deny adamantly that it's even a small part of the story).

The best-known exponent is a guy called Rodney Stark, but Stark actually seems to be a bit nutty.
---------------------------------
SH: Yes, I found it. Steve Bruce made my points, more eloquently of course.
http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-14443189.html
"Bruce (1993) has argued that religious beliefs are matters of deep commitment to putative cosmological realities, not articles selected from a shelf of competing goods."
Also as a causal influence, premises of economic theory seem more abstract than direct cultural causes. "Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it represented a concrete, real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a "real thing" something which is not one." Well, applying economic theory to the domain of religion may not go quite that far but it brings it to mind.

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