Thursday, September 19, 2013

Just Try It Sometime

My dribbles have dribbled to a stop recently. I've been busy catching up on some reading projects that were piling up. Among the things I have been looking at are snatches of the everlasting debate between those who believe in some form of belief in a deeper reality (gods or religion) and those who don't. I also have still tried to keep up with my friends with blogs who often do battle in that arena.
I still stand by what I said in my last post. The most outspoken folks in this debate seem to have very emotional reasons for their belief, and argue accordingly, even though they want to appeal to reason. We look at the same evidence and arrive at opposite views of whether life is an accident or intentional.
During the past several days I've made a deliberate effort to clear my mind and be objective as I read every piece - pro and con - on the religion question. I doubt we can do much more than try. As I would read I would feel certain emotional stirrings. For example, when I read a friend's recent post about the problem of evil I felt those old emotions of mine that made me first really doubt God: How can God "stand by" and watch horrible things happen to his creatures? Also I've been following another blog where an atheist friend seems to have become hung up arguing with one of his Christian commenters, and while I found myself somewhat sympathetic to his view I also found myself totally turned off by his arrogant attitude towards her.
Talk reason all we want, it seems the debate can't be engaged without the appeal to emotions popping up. Logic always seems to follow the heart.
I'm moved by those who have had bad experiences with religion. My experience was more varied, with bad things that didn't serve me well as I was coming of age and trying to figure things out, but at the same time my religious upbringing had some strong points that I've grown to miss. I can't ignore the majority of folks who seem to be comforted, inspired, even fortified by their religious faith. But is any of this the stuff of serious argumentation?
One of the most difficult things we can attempt to do is step outside the confines of our mindset and give an unbiased hearing to someone who holds an opposing view. How difficult it is to trudge again through the muck we consider ourselves already to have already slogged through and put behind us in order to go there yet again. Perhaps most are unwilling to even try. 
The thick philosophical tomes investigating the God question are dry and wearisome to work through. It is also boresome to tears sometimes to hear nonbelievers stretching religious metaphor (Father, Mother, Friend, etc.) to the breaking point while their religious opponents attempt to skip breezily over the difficulties of belief with near-meaningless cliches ("it's a divine mystery," "God's ways are not our ways," etc.).
But try it sometime. Try to step beyond the confines of your bias and attempt to listen without engaging your emotions. See how difficult it is. Then understand why believers and nonbelievers usually end up talking past one another and being very unkind in the process. 
Is this religious thing a debate worth having? I doubt it.


  1. It is good to have a post from you. Not so good feeling the weight of what you are wrestling with here.

    Eg: Here we are perceived as having too much emotion, so our attachment to what we are attached to interferes with our objectivity, causing us to both see unclearly and talk past one another. Previously, your belief in at least Something Greater was supported by how you feel about it rather than any reliable evidence. What then do we do? Build the best and fastest emotionless computer and let all sides concur with its conclusions? Not so fast there - who gets to build it and what biases might they unknowingly contaminate its programming with? Beside, who wants to trust this soulless mechanical thinking device?

    In the mean time, children die because believing parents deny them medical treatments or vaccinations. Women will die because believers think that abortion, even before the embryo develops brain waves, is murder. Believers in differing religions will clash. What is the common denominator in the 3 harms noted here? - belief. In particular belief not supported by real world observations verifiable by anyone. To state that all unsupported belief is bad is of course an overreach, some can be harmless, some can even be beneficial.

    Hold that lantern up, Diogenes! More light is needed!

    1. Let me assure you it is good to have a comment from you on my latest post.

      I'm being up front here concerning my religious feelings. Surveying the world around me leaves me with awe that there is something at all, and a rather complex and working something at that. (For Einstein it was awe that reality is comprehensible at all. He called it a "cosmic religious feeling.") This conviction that there is purpose back of existence is a feeling based on the awe I experience. That's the "evidence" I contemplate. You added the qualifier "reliable," and there is the rub. I wouldn't start from my premise by calling it "reliable evidence." I have my doubts. I am an agnostic believer. So I guess there is a logic I would appeal to; but even at that I can't ignore that it is also emotion-based.

      On the other hand, can less be said of those who feel that this all is just a cosmic accident with no meaning or purpose at all? Is that view based on "reliable evidence?" Is it not rather a conviction borne of the ability of modern science to shed much more light on the "God-of-the-gaps" type of arguments of old?

      You suggest:

      "In the mean time, children die because believing parents deny them medical treatments or vaccinations. Women will die because believers think that abortion, even before the embryo develops brain waves, is murder. Believers in differing religions will clash. What is the common denominator in the 3 harms noted here? - belief."

      That's a very emotional appeal it seems to me. And at that I think you paint with too broad a brush there. As I see it, the common denominator there is extremism. Those are very minority views. That being the case, it would be talking past the majority of religious believers to link such extremism with basic belief in a deeper reality.

      Yes, more light is needed. But I don't think it is necessary to disallow teleological thinking in order to see more light, especially when I look back through history's pages and find that some of the greatest minds that advanced science also believed in God. At the same time, I concede that they, me, and all the religious believers of various stripe today might all be wrong.

  2. Children dying though, is emotional. Children in hell is emotional. I'll stop there because the chain is long.

    Though dead mothers is emotional too come to think of it and Muslims killing Muslims, emotional too.

    See, I wonder, if in fact those of us more gently dispositioned don't downplay the truth that extremism is a minority view. I'm not so sure it is and I'm not sure why we tend to want to see it that way. I reminds me of the burka wearing western female and feminists who support her "choice" all the while ignoring the lack of choice her female associates in Muslim countries where she has no choice. Oh well Zoe, those are extremists and the minority. Really?

    It reminds me of the conservative evangelicals who have parlayed their way into this "look we aren't like those evangelicals 25 years ago" rhetoric all the while having not changed one bit of their dogma. The clothes on the outside are different, the innards remain the same and the "same" is all about you and me and children in hell. That is extreme and it is not a minority belief. Now in 25 more years they may jettison the Hell stuff. I can only hope so but so far it is all still there though it is hidden just a bit better than before.

    1. Yes, yes all emotional issues. That is the point I was making in my post: Logic follows the heart, not so much the other way around. My personal pain directly led to my loss of faith and kept me off balance for a long, long time. I later added philosophical arguments that bolstered that position of faithlessness.

      I do believe religious extremism is a minority view. I don't believe religion is the cause of bad behavior in human beings. I believe bad human beings create bad religious ideas and dogmas. I prefer to think there are more decent people in the world than bad ones, and so hopefully fewer extremists than moderates.

      Need I add that even if we could somehow eradicate religious sentiment from the face of the earth it wouldn't eliminate either bad people or extremism?

  3. Yes, emotion is always involved when wrong thinking causes harm! I do not apologize for it. Yes, emotion can cloud thinking. But without emotion we are cold heartless beings. Balance, my man! Hard to know exactly where it is! I think my first comment here gave warning that the appearance of the word balance was likely to recur. Sadly, I do recognize that advocating for balance does not necessitate that I HAVE balance (I can only try, as I am sure so do you). Such is life.

    I do not denigrate awe, I have some awe myself, as did Sagan and even Ingersoll.

    One point of your response to me that I do have some issue with is the appeal to some early great pioneers of science who were Christians. This is commonly used by the most fundamental of fundamentalists (as well as those of all levels of belief). Two items to consider in this regard: 1) Without the insight provided by Darwin as to how seeming design can arise through natural selection, the marvelous complexity and interplay of life forms makes a Designer seem necessary - the great pioneers of science were at a time preceding this knowledge, and without this knowledge the Designer hypothesis is pretty reasonable. Same way, without careful observation and some more advanced procedures, does not the world appear to be flat and is it not reasonable to think so without more advanced knowledge? Those accepting the world to be roughly spherical as well as contemporary scientists (roughly 75 to 95 percent now being atheists) formulate their beliefs on more extensive knowledge than their great predecessors had. 2) Perhaps these 'believing' great science pioneers had some awareness of what happened to Galileo and Bruno and were discreet? Does any of this register, or does it seem to you that I am being too emotional in my defense of how I think?

    At any rate thanks for the courtesy with which you treat this pesky guy of differing opinion. I am trying to frame things courteously also. How we have both done this has been a bond able to supersede our differences in how we see some things.

  4. Absolutely in no way do I think of you as pesky. I can't imagine what my blog would be like without your presence here.

    As to the question of whether I think you are being too emotional in your defense I can only say what I've already suggested: you, me, everyone develops biases and then we defend them for the very reason that we have an emotional investment in them (especially for the emotional reasons that we don't like to be wrong and certainly don't want to appear foolish).

    As for Darwin and evolution, I do accept evolution as a fact. But I think it is compatible with either belief or nonbelief. I disagree that it was necessary (in Dawkins' words) for Darwin to provide his insights in order for a scientific thinker to finally be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist" - or however he put it; I'm quoting from memory. The ancient Greek atomist theories allowed for that, I believe.

    As for my comment about believing scientists down through history (I didn't specify Christians), I am not using that as an argument as per fundamentalists. I'm simply stating that I don't believe a commitment to atheism and reductionist materialism is necessary in order to do science.

    Lastly, I find your suggestion about believing scientists perhaps just being "discreet" too overly cynical for me. Must I regard cleric-scientists as hypocrites just because some folks think science leads directly to atheism? Besides, Bruno the occultist and Galileo the prickish Catholic scientist hardly make good poster boys for rationalist martyrdom.

    Am I being emotional in defense of my agnostic religiosity? Sure I am. I'm human after all, with both a brain and a heart.

  5. Well, at least we can differ in congenial fashion. If a religious belief is sufficiently effective as to enable legislation resulting in tremendous harm, it is too extreme for me, if not for you. How you can read Bruce's stuff about abortion and the other harmful effects of religion, view the tremendous stresses in families and society that the pressure to conform exerts on the ability to sustain marriages and livelihoods for those who do not conform to the cultural norm of belief, and say you don't believe religion does any harm, I just do not get. Gotta just disagree as agreeably as I can.

    I do agree that the level of your belief in some elusive and indescribable Something Greater is pretty harmless. But such belief that untestable belief in unseen things is reasonable does, as I see it, lend support to the idea of believing in untestable unseen things to those whose more fundamentalist manner of belief leads to harm. We cannot agree that these are an insignificant extremist minority when I see Bush saying God led him to strike Iraq and Afghanistan and retain much support and popularity. I really just can't see it. I do think further discussion of this is pretty pointless and feel a bit silly for even this response. We have gone over this repeatedly. I know you will have responses that work for you but not me. Se la vie!

    There is an emotional component to all of us. To broadly paint that we all stand where we stand because of it is (as I see it, of course) a disrespect to those who are better able than others to recognize their biases and try to use reason compensate for them. That is one reason some think more clearly than others. It also ignores the fact of so many of us ex-Christians prayed and struggled to retain their faith and lost it to reason anyway. How can our emotional leanings have dictated where we stand in such instances? It also, to me, constitutes a hand wringing, 'well, we are all equally emotional and biased' justification that one belief is just as good as another because our feelings rather than our minds are leading ALL of us to wherever we stand. OK, ok, I see what I did there. Said I was done and kept going. Sheesh, very emotional, exrelayman! :-)

    Now I am done. Too confrontational for me. Have a good one, my friend.

    1. I'm so, so sorry this disagreement has made you uncomfortable. I wasn't trying to be "in your face" about the matter, just trying to explain myself. And your strong disagreement hasn't offended me one bit.

      You ask how I can read Bruce's stuff and still feel religion doesn't do harm (which isn't exactly what I said). I guess in the same way you can recognize that the same scientific method that brings us vaccines and inoculations also brought atomic weaponry and Nagasaki and Hiroshima; that brought us the horrid medical experiment atrocities of the Nazi doctors under Hitler and performed in the name of science, and in our own country where the Tuskegee syphilis experiments abused some 400 or so humans without their knowledge (to name just one of many human guinea pig experiments); that saw biologist Charles Davenport and his associates attempt to establish through statistics a scientific rationale for eugenics and human miscegenation.

      Obviously just as you can note mad scientists who abuse science as apart from those who have brought genuine benefit through their experimental knowledge, I can call out the religious extremists who pervert religion - and neither of us need throw out our baby with the bathwater.

      When I look at how religion fueled the Civil Rights movement, which so dramatically changed the "southern way of life" here where I live and in my own lifetime, under the dynamic moral vision of preachers like Martin Luther King Jr.; when I think about the spiritual and moral leadership of one of MLK Jr.'s inspirations, Mahatma Gandhi in his efforts to help India win her independence; when I recall watching on the news as Bishop Desmond Tutu waged war against apartheid in South Africa in the name of God - I think that religion is not, as some atheists would make of it, "the root of all evil."

      But what I did suggest and what I do believe is that bad people do bad things in the name of religion - just as bad people do bad things in the name of science or any number of other things.

      Having answered your question I do want to go on to take exception to one thing you said. Let me make clear that I don't believe "that one belief is just as good as another because our feelings rather than our minds are leading ALL of us to wherever we stand." What I suggested in my post is that we arrive at a state of positive conviction and search out and cleave to the logical arguments that best support our bias (also, I don't deny that this sometimes happens simultaneously).

      If logic were an infallible guide, how could there be any philosophical disagreements at all? How can we step outside our own biases in order to differentiate "those who are better able than others to recognize their biases and try to use reason [to] compensate for them"? That seems to me to be a very subjective thing.

      I appreciate your passion. An argument stated emotionally is not necessarily a bad argument. But the mind and heart can work together.

  6. Oh, dear, a fun read, the comments are the best! I'll weigh in: I see all sides, yes as relative--true? Perhaps. Zoe makes a good point that I am starting to agree with--it is NOT just a minority who back religious views and attempt to force them on all others. I certainly have run across more Christians than Atheists in my 50 years. Do I think in the past it was easier to say "There must be a God!" than anything else? YES. The heart, the heart, please, you know we are again simply (ha) speaking of THE BRAIN. My brain debates all of this often. Many people "who do bad things" are found to have a "mental illness"= sick, malfunctioning brain. Our emotions area will always add to any logical thought and vice versa. By age 5 we are 'set' up there. As we grow, so do our brain paths. Some will send electrical impulses more easily through the path so readily formed (least resistance and all). Many experiences can make a path straight to the emotions. Oh, darn, I need a whole day to dive into your post & great commenters.

    1. Thanks for weighing in with your comment, Diane. I think my observation about the minority of extremists has been extended far beyond what I said. But yes, our emotions will always add to (or much with) any logical thoughts we have.