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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jollimore on Armstrong

First, I tip my hat to Jerry Coyne for blogging about this superb review by Troy Jollimore of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Jollimore dissects Armstrong's work brilliantly, and Coyne's discussion is absolutely right.

Says Jollimore:

She is entirely correct that atheistic critiques aimed at naive strict literalist readings of holy texts can take us only so far. Mocking the angry, cruel, unjust deity of the Old Testament, or reminding literalists that the world is considerably more than 4,000 [Russell: this should be 6000, but that doesn't affect the point] years old, has little force against the moderate, nonfundamentalist faithful. More powerful skeptical critiques, though, do not presuppose Scriptural literalism. They rely on the Darwinian view of how complex life evolved on this planet, or the existence of serious evil and injustice—things that are well-established and pretty much impossible reasonably to deny and, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with any view of God-as-designer/caretaker, or with any other traditional form of theistic belief.

He then says, in response to the idea that religion is not about belief:

Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient. What must be shown is that religion does not involve belief, and not merely that it involves other things in addition to belief. So long as religious worldviews differ in certain important ways from that held by the nonreligious, one can still complain that that worldview is poorly founded and, to a large degree, implausible.

Perhaps most importantly:

[Armstrong's] rejection of the theistic God, and acknowledgment that the problem of evil cannot be swept away through theodicy, might sound like music to atheists’ ears. And what could any skeptic find objectionable about revelation once we accept Maximus’ view that “[p]aradoxical as it might sound, the purpose of revelation was to tell us that we knew nothing about God”? Surely if this view were widely accepted the most serious problems with religion would simply dissipate. Would people who admitted that they “knew nothing about” God’s will support laws to prevent “unholy” same-sex marriages? Would people who saw God as “that mystery, which defies description” be moved to reject Darwinian views of evolution, contra all the available evidence?

Yes, if religion generally took a non-literalist form that involved such modest admissions of not knowing, together with an unwillingness to impose an oppressive morality via the coercive power of the state ... then I, for one, would have no problem with it. Indeed, I do have no problem with religious people who are like that (as I've said repeatedly on this blog). But that is not typical of religion in the world today. On the contrary, religious leaders typically claim epistemic and moral authority, and they do not hesitate to call on the secular arm to force their miserable, oppressive moralities on others, even non-believers.

The estimable Jerry Coyne is on a roll this week. He's been commanding in his replies to supposedly "sophisticated" theologies such as those of John Haught and Karen Armstrong. Commenting on Jollimore's piece, he says:

Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored? All the stuff I read — Eagleton, Haught, Armstrong, ad nauseum, is laughable: pathetic attempts to rationalize the existence of God in a world where he not only refuses to exhibit himself, but runs the show as if he doesn’t care.

For myself, I have only one quibble with Jollimore. There is one point where I think he is too quick to dismiss an argument from Armstrong that actually has some force. He quotes Armstrong as saying:

Nor, like Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, do [the new atheists] face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the means of creating a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.

Put this way, the argument is surely simplistic. For a start, it is not at all clear that the New Atheists are so naive. Nor is it obvious that "people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work" are stuck with a choice between religion and nihilism and its dreadful "effect" (whatever this is - I wish Armstrong would tell us). On the contrary, many people who are not high-powered scientists or academics, or creative spirits of one kind or another, are able to live happy and meaningful lives without religion, so Armstrong is exaggerating here. Nonetheless, I think there's a legitimate point somewhere in the vicinity.

Jollimore replies:

Richard Dawkins, for one, has written quite movingly, in “Unweaving the Rainbow” and elsewhere, on the way an appreciation of the nature of the universe, as revealed by science, can inspire and inform a sense of wonder and meaning. There is no apparent reason to assume that skepticism must inevitably lead to nihilism. Nor, for that matter, should we assume that a religion based on an ineffable, unreachable mystery of which we know nothing, and which does not even exist in any sense of “exist” that makes sense to us, will be an effective stay against nihilism. Armstrong takes the link between religion and meaningfulness to be too obvious to be worth spelling out. In fact the link is not obvious at all; it is merely conventional - a matter of so-called common sense.

Well, I agree that the link is not obvious, and nor does it apply in every case. Nor, at its worst, need it lead to anything as extreme as nihilism. For all that, I think that we need to take care with this one. Religion can fulfil psychological needs that may be difficult to fulfil in other ways - at least for some people. Writing in another context, about "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus, I put this quite strongly:

The dynamics of our society's cultural development often seem to involve an interplay between those who accept something like the vision expressed in "The Myth of Sisyphus" and those who find it either incomprehensible or too frightening to contemplate. However, those who accept it might ask themselves how society would need to evolve before the absurdity described by Camus could be psychologically tolerable for ordinary people with ordinary problems and commitments.

I stand by that. The full force of existential absurdity may well be difficult for many people to face. There's a risk, of course, that we might patronise these people and offer them religion as a noble lie, something I don't suggest. But we should at least consider their interests, and try to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Some of us may find it easy to obtain a sense of meaning simply from our human-scale involvements - from such things as loving, and being loved by, important people in our lives. It is understandable, however, if others seek comfort from a view of the world that offers intuitive meaning, unfailing consolation, and transcendent hope, the very things that are not, alas, found in any clear-sighted understanding of the human condition. Camus was right about that.

Of course, Dawkins and Jollimore are correct that science opens up wondrous vistas, but, then again, scientific explanations can easily defy, or defeat, our comprehension. Indeed, there may simply be no coherent way for beings like us to make intuitive sense of the mathematical formalisms of our deepest theories - I'm thinking here of quantum mechanics. It is one thing to be told by Camus that the universe does not suffer or yearn as we do, that it is indifferent to us and alien to our emotions. That's all too true, as far as it goes. It's another to investigate what science has to offer ... and then realise that we cannot understand the ultimate workings of the cosmos at all. On any plausible interpretation of the facts, it's mind-boggling. It leads to psychological vertigo.

Dawkins does a wonderful job of describing the amazing phenomena revealed by science, but his success at this does not prove that the scientific picture should be enough for ordinary people who seek to live meaningful lives within human societies. With great lucidity, he has expressed his delight in the true explanation of a rainbow and in the fact that, "on the time-scale of [a] trilobite" the distant past described in ancient myth and epic is "scarcely yesterday". But although this is important, it can take us only so far.

I don't see any simple or complete answer to the problem. Without such an answer, however, traditional religious views of the world will never entirely lose their hold on large numbers of ordinary people who find science insufficient for their emotional needs.

Of course, I have no respect for the false certainties offered by traditional religion, especially when religious organisations and leaders attempt to impose their views by means of secular force. Too much is at stake for us to succumb to this. The ubiquitous bullying from cardinals, preachers, imams, and god-men is completely unacceptable and must be resisted with all our intelligence and passion. But we must also work - gradually and realistically - towards a world in which religious certainties are not so relevant, and their loss is not so poignant. And we need compassion for religious people who find it hard to let go.

All that said, Jollimore does a superb job in showing how Armstrong's view of religion fails to add up. It provides neither a stable solution to the quest for meaning nor a sustainable political modus vivendi. Indeed, Jollimore points out, the subjectivist element in Armstrong's thinking could even license fanatism and mutual intolerance.

Do read the entire review; despite my one quibble, where I think somewhat more needs to be said, Jollimore is eminently sensible. His is, as Coyne is astute to notice, a valuable voice in contemporary debates about science and religion.

Edit: I see that Ophelia Benson has also blogged usefully about this - perhaps even before Jerry Coyne did.


stevec said...

"Nor, like Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, do [the new atheists] face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the means of creating a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work."

a) That has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the claims made by religion (and maybe nobody's saying it does, for if they did, it would be an appeal to consequense, which is a logical fallacy.)

b) This amounts to whining that the religious are having something taken away from them, and they will miss it terribly (never mind that what they have is a big fat lie.) How is it the fault of the atheists for exposing the lie? Who told the lie in the first place? Religion. Had religion never meddled, there would be nothing to miss. It's like complaining that pulling out a rotten tooth will hurt. Yeah, it will, for awhile. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be pulled.

stevec said...

My rotten tooth analogy could use some work.

It's like Religion fed the kiddies nothing but candy, and withheld toothbrushes and toothpaste with the purpose in mind to create rotten teeth, and then complains that pulling the rotten teeth will hurt the kiddies.

There, that's better.

NewEnglandBob said...

"...and then realise that we cannot understand the ultimate workings of the cosmos at all. On any plausible interpretation of the facts, it's mind-boggling. It leads to psychological vertigo."

Not all of us (maybe none of us) are required to understand the ultimate workings of the cosmos. You almost make it sound like it has a final purpose.

I understand that you are trying to put yourself into different shoes to attempt to understand everyone's situation but I think you are too worried about where people will turn.

People already turn to other places than religion, some to love or family or their work and others to new-age (or other silly) alternatives or politics or whatever. I do not think too many will turn to nihilism and suicide or incapacitating depression.

I agree that it is not simple and should be contemplated but it would be unlikely to result in a psychological need crisis.

Unknown said...

"Religion can fulfil psychological needs that may be difficult to fulfil in other ways - at least for some people."

I will only worry about depriving believers of their comfort once I've seen some evidence that religious belief actually provides comfort. I don't think it does. Religion sells us a bill of goods; one of the goods is "comfort", and like all of the others, it is only promised, never delivered.

Blake Stacey said...

From what I've read, Armstrong butchers mathematics and physics rather badly. The cynic in me suspects that this is due to intellectual laziness: the willingness to rely on third-hand sources, the lack of direct experience with technical subjects themselves and the confidence that no one who matters is checking anyway.

Quantum physics may be strange, but it is not apophatic. It may be true that we cannot "understand" the subject in an intuitive or a poetic way, but with diligence and strong coffee, we can develop a bookkeeper's understanding: we can learn to perform the computations which give definitive predictions which we can test against experiment. (In many areas more "familiar" than quantum field theory, we have much worse luck. Who could compute to one part in a hundred million the result of giving chocolates on Valentine's Day?)

Russell Blackford said...

My soon-to-published here ...


... essay, "Science and the Sea of Faith" will have a little bit more to say about the peripheral issues (but nothing about Armstrong or "sophisticated" theology; that will have to wait for another time).

It probably doesn't have enough more to satisfy anybody who is objecting on this thread, though I do think it contains some additional insight into why evolution/the scientific worldview in general is so troubling to people of a certain sensibility - even people who are not fundies.

I do think that it's important to try to put ourselves in their shoes, without making any accommodationist claims about how religion is somehow correct, or consistent with the scientific picture, or worth preserving as a socially valuable lie. Clearly, I don't think any of those things.

Unlike most of my fellow non-accommodationist atheists, but like Michael Shermer, I am myself a former evangelical Christian (though never a fundamentalist one as I seem to recall Michael was). I do sometimes think that Michael and I bring a perspective that needs to be given voice, i.e., we are deeply sceptical about religion, but we have some insight into what religion is like from the inside. He and I ought to have a public conversation some time to explore this.

That said, Michael does sometimes venture, if not into full-scale accommodationism, at least a bit closer to it than I find comfortable or prudent.

Anyway, I assure y'all that nothing in my post was meant to be about teleological/purposive explanations. "Ultimate workings" can be taken as "lowest level of explanatory reduction", and Richard Dawkins has written similar things about how our minds may not cope well with the microcosmic level of quantum interactions because they simply did not evolve to need to do so. Although the point needs more emphasis, IMHO, and the implications need to be explored, it certainly hasn't escaped Richard's notice in Unweaving the Rainbow and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

stevec - the truth or falsity of God's existence cannot be determined. God's existence cannot be proven or disproven either logically or empirically. The statements "God exists" and "God does not exist" are both non-testable, non-falsifiable and unscientific claims by definition. You also fail to make the distinction between the claims of religion and the reality or unreality of God's existence. They are not the same thing.

Atheists are just as prone to committing logical mistakes in their "proofs" of God's non-existence as believers are in their counter arguments. For example (in keeping with the reference made to Michael Shermer) his claim that we believe in God because we are pattern seeking creatures seeing meaning and purpose where none exists in the same manner in which we see images in cloud formations may be true. It is also irrelevant to whether or not God actually exists. In this case Shermer is committing the Genetic Fallacy.

So where does that leave us? The possible utility of religion as a "noble lie" is mentioned, but as the truth of God's existence is unobtainable the "lie" portion is a meaningless claim. All that can be argued is whether belief is "noble" or not.

In other words, the only meaningful debate that can be held would be concerning the "appeal to consequences" of faith - or its lack - on a society. All other discussion in regards to faith and atheism are meaningless.

The argument over consequences is the only meaningful argument we can have.

On the whole, history shows the effects of atheism on society to be on balance negative. While we could rehash the atrocities committed by atheists regimes of the far right and far left in the 20th century, you could always claim that the totalitarians were not "true" atheists. In doing so you would commit the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

Besides if atheist get to taint believers with pogroms, inquisitions, witch burnings, jihads, etc. it is only fair that atheists get to be tainted with gulags, killing fields, medical experiments on human victims, death camps, etc. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Fair is fair.

Rather I would repeat the argument made by the agnostic Renan (author of the first purely secular biography of Jesus): "Let us enjoy the liberty of the sons of God, but let us take care lest we become accomplices to the diminution of virtue which would menace society if Christianity were to grow weak. What would we do without it? If Rationalism wishes to govern the world without regard to the religious needs of the soul, the experiences of the French Revolution is there to teach us the consequences of such a blunder."

Anonymous said...

The claim has been made on this thread that atheism is not inherently nihilistic in the context of Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus".

I would recommend Hans Kung's "Does God Exist?", in which he makes a convincing case that atheism is inherently nihilistic. A short hand version of the argument can be found in the internet encyclopedia of philosophy article on "Nihilism" (which references Camus' book":

"In the twentieth century, it's the atheistic existentialist movement, popularized in France in the 1940s and 50s, that is responsible for the currency of existential nihilism in the popular consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) defining preposition for the movement, "existence precedes essence," rules out any ground or foundation for establishing an essential self or a human nature. When we abandon illusions, life is revealed as nothing; and for the existentialists, nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as an isolated being "thrown" into an alien and unresponsive universe, barred forever from knowing why yet required to invent meaning. It's a situation that's nothing short of absurd. Writing from the enlightened perspective of the absurd, Albert Camus (1913-1960) observed that Sisyphus' plight, condemned to eternal, useless struggle, was a superb metaphor for human existence (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942).

The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible. Their answer was a qualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism. In retrospect, it was an anecdote tinged with desperation because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism."

In other words, in a world that is inherently nothing more than a meaningless accident, no amount of individual effort will result in true meaning or purpose. All such attempts will be in vain. Perhaps atheism is not inherently nihilistic so much as it provides no reason or argument not to be nihilistic.

Anonymous said...

As a follow up, I would go further and claim that it is not logically posible for an atheist to avoid nihilism. The argument is in four parts:

1. Without a God, existence is but a meaningless (if fortunate) accident. Accidents by definition can have no meaning or purpose, they just happen. Only a deliberate act of Creation done with forethought and with an ultimate aim in mind can give Existence an inherent meaning or purpose. Lacking such a Creator, Existence is pointless.

2. Without a soul, consciousness and the Self are merely illusions incapable of the free will (which is also an illusion) or volition necessary to create meaning. Therefore it is impossible to really create meaning as even the most sophisticated of us are merely products of our brain chemistry and genetic programming.

3. Furthermore, all actions in an inherently meaningless universe, no matter how devoted or passionate, are themselves meaningless gestures in a cold indifferent universe.

4. Atheism provides no basis for universal, inherent human dignity and is indeed corrosive of the very concept. Where in Selfish Gene theory is the mandate for me to treat a Black man as my equal? Where does materialism require me to accept all men as my brothers? Or treat them better than convenience and self interest would require?

The atheist would counter that he can create his own meaning. Such meaning I would argue exists only between his ears and is merely a form of solipcism. If you have Walter Mitty-ish fantasies of power and glory are you in reality powerful and glorious?

Morally, existentially and individually atheism is inherently and inescapably nihilistic.

Anonymous said...

I will further counter the claim that the individual can achieve and/or create purpose in a meaningless existence with an argument derived from Dawkins' own meme theory.

Dawkins and his protege Susan Blackmore have taken their hard reductionism to new heights (or lows) with their elimination of the "Self". Dawkins, etal have always hated DeCartes "I think, therefore I am" because it implies some sort of ghost in the machine which can't be accounted for by purely mechanistic explanations. Dawkins meme concept has been taken to its logical conclusion by Susan Blackmore who makes the claim that the Self is merely an illusion. Dawkins has adopted this position. Let the following quotes illustrate this:

In a recent joint lecture, Dawkins asked his colleague Steven Pinker: "Am I right to think that the feeling I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a society of mind?" Pinker answered affirmatively that "the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit . . . that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction." That hypothetical circuit is all that remains of the illusion of a free-acting self. [The Dawkins-Pinker exchange is available in the archives at www.edge.org]

And from a recent interview: Stangroom: One final question about hard determinism. I think at the end of The Selfish Gene you said that one of the important things about human beings is that they are able to choose to act otherwise than perhaps their selfish genes would have them. Obviously, however, for a hard determinist the choices we make are themselves determined. In an interview with The Third Way you indicated that you had some sympathy with Susan Blackmore's view that "The idea that there is a self in there that decides things, acts and is responsible.is a whopping great illusion. The self we construct is just an illusion because actually there's only brains and chemicals." Is your position then that statements about consciousness or selfhood will ultimately be reducible to statements about neurons and chemicals?

Dawkins: I suppose that philosophically I am committed to that view because I think that everything about life is a product of the evolutionary process and consciousness must be a manifestation of the evolutionary process, presumably via brains. So I think that has got to mean that consciousness is ultimately a material phenomenon."

Without a soul, Blackmore and Dawkins are quite right, mind, consciousness and self awareness are mere illusions. So the entity which calls itself David Palter doesn't really exist, its all just an illusion. Illusions are not capable of true volition, meaning or purpose. There is no David Palter to create his own meaning. The lights are on, but there isn't anybody at home.

For these reasons I believe that the lack of a God inevitably results in an existential meta-nihilism while the lack of a soul results in existential nihilism at a personal level. I cannot prove either logically or empirically that atheism is wrong (anymore than I can prove or disprove God's existence), but I believe that I can show atheism to be inherently and inescapably nihilistic.

So if the "self" is but mere illusion, what then is the objective basis for human dignity?

Anonymous said...

And for those who would claim that the consequences of religious belief are on balance negative, I would recommend historian (and atheist) Will Durant's essay on "The Power of religion":


"Science gives man ever greater powers but ever less significance; it improves his tools and neglects his purposes; it is silent on ultimate origins, values, and aims; it gives life and history no meaning or worth that is not canceled by death or omnivorous time. ... Our instincts were formed during a thousand centuries of insecurity and the chase; they fit us to be violent hunters and voracious polygamists rather than peaceable citizens; their once necessary vigor exceeds present social need; they must be checked a hundred times a day, consciously or not, to make society and civilization possible. Families and states, from ages before history, have enlisted the aid of religion to moderate the barbarous impulses of men. Parents found religion helpful in taming the willful child to modesty and self-restraint; educators valued it as a precious means of disciplining and refining youth; governments long since sought its cooperation in forging social order out of the disruptive egoism and natural anarchism of men. If religion had not existed, the great legislators -- Hammurabi, Moses, Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius -- would have invented it. They did not have to, for it arises spontaneously and repeatedly from the needs and hopes of men."

Russell Blackford said...

All right, that's enough. How many times do I have to complain about people posting as "Anonymous", especially when they end up writing a whole series of comments that are as long as the original post? Especially when it's pretty clear that this is the same person who has done this before, not once but repeatedly. You are entitled to disagree with me, as all the other commenters have done so far (on different points), but not to spam my blog with material that belongs on your own blog. Put it on your own blog and provide a link.

The material is interesting enough to stand - and others can have at it - but any further comments from you on this thread will be deleted. You can't say you haven't been warned multiple times when you've done this.

I really have no idea why you turn up here and deliberately flout my clearly expressed wishes. It makes you look like a troll when you do it this way.

NewEnglandBob said...

Anonymous commits the fallacy of assigning everyone who commits atrocities, and who is not declared as religion-directed, as belonging to atheism. The rest of his post on that therefore is irrelevant, especially the "can not prove or disprove" nonsense.

The Anonymous post on "not logically posible(sic) for an atheist to avoid nihilism" is the old, tired, refuted arguments that ends with the "Such meaning I would argue exists only between his ears..." which gives me a huge laugh. Thanks for the entertainment.

Unknown said...

I saw the following on another blog:

There is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds. The very idea of "Because I do not believe in God, I will do bad things" makes no sense on its face. It is a blatant and crystal-clear non sequitur, no different than "Because I do not believe in [insert random mythological creature], I will do bad things.

This is relevant to the claims of "anonymous".

NewEnglandBob said...

If you read carefully, the one saying "there is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds" says it in relation to there NOT being a holy book of atheism and that there is no dogma to atheism, written or otherwise.

That there is no path is due to atheism having no belief or faith or anything for one to subscribe to, beyond definition of lack of belief in any deity.

Blake Stacey said...

Such meaning I would argue exists only between his ears...

Which is just where meaning ought to exist. I mean, if your meaning is lost between the sofa cushions or at the back of the workshop junk drawer, it's not really doing you any good, is it?

tomh said...

any further comments from you on this thread will be deleted.

Good choice - I wish anonymous wasn't a choice when posting, since I can't keep the various anonymi straight.

All these speculations on nihilism, existence, etc., are, no doubt, of intense interest to theologians, logicians, book-writers, and so on, and I certainly don't begrudge them their pleasures. But I think there is a large group of atheists that are mostly ignored, what I think of as common-sense atheists. My father was one - he looked at religious claims early in life and thought, "what a load of crap." Thereafter, he ignored religions, except to curse them out every time they received another undeserved privilege. (He would be appalled to see the extent religion dominates the American scene today.) This group doesn't need evolution or even science, to prove or disprove anything. Simple common-sense will do nicely - they merely look at the outlandish claims of religions and decide - what a load of crap.

Anonymous said...

Hey are you a professional journalist? This article is very well written, as compared to most other blogs i saw today….
anyhow thanks for the good read!

Greywizard said...

But, of course, in a sense, atheism in itself does not force people to face up to the pointlessness or meaninglessness of life, or at least its ultimate pointlessness, if that's what the truth is once we let go of gods and afterlifes. People will do that if and when they come to question their own beliefs, and then they will find that, just like riding a bicycle, they can do it with no hands - that is, they won't need the help they think, looking at it from outside, they will need.

Camus was someone who was moving from one view to another, from religion to religionlessness, and it caused him some anxiety. But of course angst is a part of everyone's life, whether they are religious or not. Religious people are just as worried about dying as non-religious people, arguably more, since for them, if they take their religion seriously, there is the whole business of judgement to deal with. And if they don't take it seriously, and think of it as just a kind of guarantee of a good life hereafter, this kind of shallowness is not something that anyone should really be concerned about.

Anyway, Russell, while I see your point of trying to see this from the point of view of religious people, no one is saying that religious people must give up their religion, simply that, for all of us it would be better if they did, instead of trying to impose their beliefs on others. After all, it's angst that causes people to proselytise. This has been so clearly demonstrated by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter. It's when people are uncertain or doubting that they tend to go around scouting for new members. If others are convinced, then clearly there is no reason for 'me' to doubt. (That, at least, seems to be the reasoning, or at least the psychological mechanism involved.)

Of course, as Philip Kitcher points out, the communal functions of religion, and the fact that religions provide people with a way to cooperate in solving social problems etc., is something that nonbelievers really should be thinking about. Perhaps some nonbelievers are quite happy going on without belief, but in order to provide purpose in life, more than just satisfying one's own desires is usually required, and for this some way of being part of a movement to help or to make things better may be important. Perhaps this sense of community purpose is necessary in order for someone to lead a purposeful, meaningful life, especially if their work is not particularly satisfying or creative.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Anonymous2. That's appreciated.

But please adopt some sort of identity that enables me to see at a glance that you are not the same person who likes to spam this blog as "Anonymous".

Ophelia Benson said...

Maybe what's needed is a kind of methadone God - a God with the inspiring/consoling qualities but without the dangerous ones. The Unitarian or Quaker God - or just Buddhism.

The trouble of course is that to a considerable extent the two sets of qualities are inextricable; the inspiring/consoling qualities depend on the dangerous ones. A God that is tamed enough to be non-dangerous will also be less consoling and less inspiring.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that the supposed personality of their god has little effect on whether a religious group behaves violently in its name. Rather, the degree of violence depends on the personality and agenda of the group's leader(s). The mullahs and cardinals describe god in any way that suits their plans, and command their followers with the same freedom.

tomh said...

Greywizard said:
...the communal functions of religion, and the fact that religions provide people with a way to cooperate in solving social problems etc., is something that nonbelievers really should be thinking about.

Why? Nonbelievers show every day that religion is not needed to cooperate, yes, even in solving social problems, etc. But beyond this, is there anyone who actually thinks that there will be large numbers of believers giving up their religion for any reason? That is a pipe dream. The only hope for breaking the stranglehold (at least in America) that religion has on society, lies in future generations. And, given the fact that children are absorbed into this religion-drenched society, with the full blessing of the government and its laws, the odds of that happening seem very slim. So the problem of former believers wandering about, cut adrift from their communal underpinnings, seems a bit unrealistic.

Perhaps some nonbelievers are quite happy going on without belief, but in order to provide purpose in life, more than just satisfying one's own desires is usually required,...

The idea that nonbelievers going on without belief leads to "just satisfying one's own desires" seems like an awfully big leap.

Unknown said...

"as Philip Kitcher points out ... the fact that religions provide people with a way to cooperate in solving social problems ... is something that nonbelievers really should be thinking about."

We have thought about it. Kitcher turns out to be wrong. Religion does not in fact provide people with a way to solve problems. It only claims to do so. It has claimed this for 10,000 years, and it's been wrong every time.

Greywizard said...

tomh... That wasn't really my point. Of course, lots of nonbelievers get on with productive, useful, meaningful lives. But for those whose lives are pretty grey, and whose work doesn't provide much in the way of creativity or satisfaction, and who don't have much income left after paying for the necessities of life, the idea of having a common purpose, that gives the person a sense of contributing even a small amount to making a better world, may be all that it takes to lure them away from religious community. I know all sorts of people who say to me, "I only go for the community."

And you're right, of course, that was too big a leap, from nonbelief to satisfying one's own desires. But for a lot of people who simply don't believe, there's not much else for them in many places except that, because there is no group of like-minded people who provide places for them to participate in something, to use the hackneyed religious phrase, that is bigger than themselves. And that, I suspect, is a very important element in providing meaning in life.

And besides all that there are the stages of life - birth, marriage, death, etc. - that religions celebrate and that all sorts of nonreligious people resort to to provide structure for their lives. There is no other way for many people to mark these changes, and so they end up resorting to religion whether they really want to or not. It makes sense to have some way in which people who have opted out of religion to have some way of ringing the changes on their lives.

There are, of course, in some places, small groups of humanists who provide for some of this, but only very few, and so religion wins by default. Yet, if you are, like me, convinced that religion is, as Hitchens vividly says, poisonous, there's surely nothing wrong with thinking of some way to take the monopoly of community away from the churches, and show that nonbelievers can also work together and provide some basis for community. The nihilism that people like Camus and Dostoyevsky thought followed inevitably from the abandonment of faith, and that so many nominally religious folk fear, may follow simply from lack of such community - at least I suspect it does - so it wouldn't be a bad idea for nonbelievers, if they think the alternative of nonbelief would make for a better world, at least to think about the possibilities of community and cultural ways of structuring the lives of ordinary people.

tomh said...

Greywizard said:
I know all sorts of people who say to me, "I only go for the community."

And I know all sorts of people who don't say that, so there you go.

And besides all that there are the stages of life - birth, marriage, death, etc. - that religions celebrate and that all sorts of nonreligious people resort to to provide structure for their lives.

Perhaps in your experience, certainly not in mine. Births? People I know have births in hospitals, and I never heard of a nonbeliever taking the baby to a church to be blessed. Same with marriages - in homes, (I did 30 years ago), or resorts, beaches, you can get married anywhere. I think you're way overestimating the amount of nonbelievers that resort to religion to provide structure for their lives. The reason almost everyone resorts to religion for these things is that almost everyone is associated with some religion. (In America, I'm only familiar with America).

if you are, like me, convinced that religion is, as Hitchens vividly says, poisonous,

Really? It sounds like, far from poisonous, you think that religion provides invaluable services - a sense of community, a way to solve social problems, a necessary way to mark important events in one's life - these are a few of the things you mention that you claim religion provides and that must be replaced before religion will recede.

The nihilism that people like Camus and Dostoyevsky thought followed inevitably from the abandonment of faith, and that so many nominally religious folk fear, may follow simply from lack of such community

Camus and Dostoyevsky, deep thinkers, no doubt. But, while in nineteenth century Russia people may have clung to belief to avoid staring into the abyss, in 21st century America, it just doesn't work that way. Believers find community because their leaders have instilled a bunker mentality, convincing them that they and their beliefs are under attack. Religions are not about community, or support, they're about amassing political power, (witness the RCC negotiating with Congress over health care bills), and perpetuating the status quo. And there is no end in sight.

Josh Slocum said...

****All right, that's enough. How many times do I have to complain about people posting as "Anonymous", especially when they end up writing a whole series of comments that are as long as the original post? Especially when it's pretty clear that this is the same person who has done this before, not once but repeatedly?****

Until you toughen up your standards, Russell. I know your style isn't to be heavy-handed, and that has its merits. But you can only complain about your blog being walked all over so many times before some of your gentle readers suggest-gently-that you stop wringing your hands and exercise some editorial control.

Love the blog, as a mostly-lurker-occasional commenter. Would like it even more if you took out the trash:)