Monday, October 16, 2006

Missing the Point

I am a firm believer in keeping an open mind to as many sides of a debate as I can stomach, particularly because an having an informed opinion demands that I actually be informed. As a result of a posting on Jewschool, I visited a website called Atheists of Silicon Valley because I enjoy a good dose of intellectually combative anti-theism with my morning cup of coffee. No, seriously. I am always up for a good, intellectual argument on behalf of atheism, which is why I’m buying Richard Dawkins’s new book. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read the content of the Atheists of Silicon Valley website, expecting a rousing, provocative, and deeply challenging assertion of the truth of atheism and instead found this statement: “Millions of people have been killed in the name of some god, and most wars have had religion as a central cause…Religion is also at the root of most of today's international problems. Just imagine how much more peaceful the world would be without beliefs in gods causing so much strife.”

So many rhetorical issues, so little time.

First logical fallacy: religion is not theism. So if the purpose of the site is to refute theism, then using religion as a straw man subverts the legitimacy of the argument. Second logical fallacy: religion is a reason/excuse/justification for violence, but cannot be proven as the cause of such violence (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). Scripture, the OT, the NT, the Quran, are all sources for this justification. The excuse for the Crusades was Christianity, but the reasons behind the bloodshed were political, economic, and imperialist. Violence would exist without religion to provide its reasoning. I know this assertion to be true because history provides a myriad of examples of explicitly or tacitly atheistic systems (or systems in which God was beside the point) that were used as justification for acts of violence. The most blatant example is the mass murders that occurred under the purview of the USSR, an expressly atheistic state, although one could argue that Communism was their religion. As for the argument that religion is the root of most of today’s international problems? North Korea. Global Warming. Tsunami. Sri Lanka. Poverty. Third logical fallacy: simply because certain religions have historically perpetrated crimes against humanity, does not mean that all religions must necessarily cause such violence (the association fallacy).

Innumerable crimes against humanity were committed by the Church. Is that because the concept of theism is inherently flawed and propels people to violent acts? I cannot understand how a belief in an epistemology of the world based on an over-arching ordering principle inherently causes evil acts. At its basis, pulling back the veil of religion, theology promotes, not precludes, science. The distance between religion and science in the modern world is a false dichotomy perpetuated by those uninterested in human progress. Theology isn’t inherently wrong; stupidity is inherently wrong; ignorance is inherently wrong. People who believe in God, whatever the content of that belief, are not inherently flawed; a system that perpetuates the belief that to believe in God demands a rejection of modern science is a system that is inherently flawed. Because religion has historically undermined scientific pursuit, is that a reason to dismiss it out of hand? What of the scientific, philosophical, and literary advances that flourished under the Islamic Golden Age? Islam, at one time, housed the greatest scholars of the age, at a time in which Christian Europe was enveloped in the Dark Ages. The current, fundamentalist flavor of Islam is not inherent to the religion, but rather a violent response to economic and social pressures that have been housed in religion. I am not arguing that theism is not a belief that exacerbates the violent tendencies of humanity, that religion does not give humanity a structure through which to express its basest notions. I am arguing simply that the Atheists of Silicon Valley have not proved their point adequately.

In his Slate interview, when Richard Dawkins asserts that teaching your children that God exists is tantamount to child abuse, he does not further the dialogue between an entrenched religious right and a atheistic scientific community. The first flaw in his argument (as with the Atheists of Silicon Valley) is that he conflates theism with religion. Specific religious systems, particularly those that encourage blind faith and dismiss dissent, are antagonistic to science and intellectual pursuit. Likewise, specific political systems, particularly those that demand loyalty and punish opposition, are antagonistic to science and intellectual pursuit. Human beings create systems that constrain creative and intellectual expression. These systems are wrong, but the motivation to create a system that organizes our world is not.

Dawkins’s second flaw is his narrow definition of deism/theism. In the interview, he says, “…the divide comes with whether you believe there is some kind of a supernatural, personal being. And I think deists, as well as theists, believe that.” He’s right, at least according to the OED, that deism entails belief in the existence of a Supreme Being without the burden of revealed religion, whereas theism promotes belief in a deity and may be taken to imply revelation. He’s wrong that this deity has to be a personal being. Some theists believe that this Supreme Being is independent and personally involved, with reason and will. Some believe that revelation entails God descending on Mt. Sinai with attendant theophanic accoutrement. Dawkins, like many thinkers, is locked into the Abrahamic, anthropomorphized conception of God. Dawkins’s understanding of theology is stuck on the idea of a very specific type of God: a god that created and inhabits the universe. The defintion of God that he offers, a God who has the attributes of a person, “intelligence, creativity, something of that sort. If you believe that the universe was created by a designing intelligence, whether you call that personal or not, that seems to me to be a good definition of God,” is a very limited conceptualization of God. Theologically, there are a multitude of alternatives to this basic characterization of God.

At the root of scientific inquiry is the belief that the world works, that some organizing principle orders the world, a principle that we are capable of discerning through use of our intellectual faculties. This ideation of science is congruent with the basic ideation of religion: deriving order from chaos. At its base, the ancient wisdom literatures suggest that through inquiry, we can order our lives according to the way that God ordered the world, thus living more fully and cleanly. This impulse to uncover the mysteries of the universe is no different from the scientific impulse to achieve those same goals. If my theology rests on the conception that the world is ordered and at some level makes sense and if I find it useful to call that order, “God,” then how is that harmful? Only when I use these beliefs to construct a religion that condemns other beliefs and then use that religion as justification for crimes against humanity, only then is theology harmful.

One last point: argumentum ad ignorantiam goes both ways.


Anonymous said...

Your comment on Dawkins work is tawdrdy sophistry masquerading in the impressive sounding jargon of the pseudo logician.

I only read the first four paragraphs before giving up in disgust and will refute them below, but before I do I think it is compelling to point out that Dawkins (of whom I am not an unreserved fan) does not feel the need to write in an oblique jargonized style in order to dress up his writing. His reasoning is clear, lucid and simply expressed, stylistic touches which are usually an indication of seriousness when discussing matters of pure reason.

Now to refute the innane gibberish you spout in your third and fourth paragraphs. You use the truism that 'relgion is not theism' as some sort of refutation of Dawkins arguments. Dawkins does not claim that it is, a merely superficial reading of his work would show that his concern is between those who prefer rational, science-based understandings of phenomena and those who prefer supernatural (i.e. faith based) explanations for phenomena. Your supposed refutation is therefore meaningless and pointless.

As to your second point that he confuses association with cause, you dance through a dozen hoops in considering everything except the question of whether there actually is a connection between religious faith and violence/malfeasance. Where does Dawkins say that religion is the exclusive cause of the world's maladies? Therefore, what is the point of your citing such phenomena as earthquakes, nazism, etc?

To be honest I was reading your article with an open mind up to this point as I am not a through-and-through supporter of Dawkins ideas but you completely floated off into nonsense here. I could go on but won't. Stop messing around with high sounding latin expressions and work on your core reasoning a little more.

Dawkins main point that people's insistince that just because they have 'faith' that something is true therefore justifies their violent actions is a very strong one, and one back by much historical and contempory evidence. Are you capable of writing a straightforward refutation of this idea? I doubt it.

harley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
harley said...

My comment from 10:05 with the correct citation:

Beside the seething anger, you make excellent points. I should have clarified that I was responding to Dawkins's interview on Slate and not his book. He is entirely correct when he asserts that people use faith to justify their violence and I said so in my post. I apologize if you found my writing to be jargon; that's the biggest critique I get in my academic work, also. I highly respect Dawkins's work and agree with many of his views. I also think there are moments, such as in the Slate interview, when he is incendiary instead of insightful.

Anonymous said...

It seems that agnostics tend to be nicer, or at least less "ends justifies the means" like, than either fundamentalist religious folk or fundmanetalist atheists.

Perhaps the greatest thing we can do for improving the world is not spread faith, but rather, spread doubt.

harley said...

Oh, David Kelsey, you always know just what to say. One day, I will be as eloquent and concise as you are.

Seven Star Hand said...

Hello Harley,

The folowing blurb is somewhat off topic for your post here, but it does address the topic of religion being one of the underlying cause of human struggle and conflict and why that is true. Money and politics are the other two. Follow the links and dowload my Ebook also for much more detail about many other aspects of this situation.

Yes, the Creator exists, but religion is a false viewpoint and propounds false images (idols) and false doctrine (errors, lies, and deception). It's purpose is deception and to cause conflict. It uses some truth and some wisdom to weave strong lies that cause strong delusion.


David Kuo's book, Tempting Faith, does nothing to dispel claims of an American theocracy as some are asserting. In fact, he has inadvertently provided stunning insights into their true nature and purpose. No leader of an empire ever truly believes the religions used to manipulate subjects. That would be like a drug dealer hooked on his product; its bad for business...

Understanding why religion is strong delusion

Christians often quote things like "know them by their fruits," yet after millennia of being duped into abetting blatantly evil scoundrels, many still don't understand the meaning or import of much of what they read. The same canon paradoxically propounds "faith," which means the complete opposite of "know them by their fruits," i.e., to discern the truth by analyzing deeds and results (works) and to weigh actions instead of merely believing what is said.

The deceptive circular logic of posing a fantasy messiah who urges both discernment of the truth and faith (belief without proof) clearly represents a skillful and purposeful effort to impose ignorance and confusion through "strong delusion." Any sage worth his salt could understand the folly of this contradictory so-called wisdom. This and mountains of evidence demonstrate that faith and religion are the opposite of truth and wisdom. It is no wonder charlatans like Rove, Bush, and others have marked Christians as dupes to be milked as long and as hard as possible. Any accomplished con artist easily recognizes religion as the ultimate scam and fervent followers as ready-made marks and dupes.

We now live in an era where science has proven so much about the vastness, rationality, mathematical preciseness, and structural orderliness throughout every level of our 11-dimension universe. Nonetheless, large percentages of people still conclude that these flawed and contradictory religious canons are the unmodified and infallible "word of God." People who can't (or won't) discern the difference between truth and belief are easily misled about the differences between good and evil, wisdom and folly, perfection and error, reason and irrationality, and right and wrong.

The fact that political leaders have always had close relationships with religious leaders while cooperating to manipulate followers to gain wealth and power is overwhelming evidence that the true purpose of religion is deception and delusion. People who are unable to effectively discern basic moral choices or to reason accurately are easily indoctrinated to follow the dictates of national and imperial leaders who wrap themselves in religious pretense. Truth and wisdom are direct threats to the existence and power of empires. That is why imperial leaders always strive to hide so-called secret knowledge and impose deception and ignorance upon their subjects.

What then is the purpose of "faith" but to prevent otherwise good people from seeking to understand truth and wisdom?