Sunday, November 22, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - This one covers a lot

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P145 A.C. Grayling “Why I Am Not a Believer”

It may be difficult to do justice to this one. It is somewhat technical. I needed a dictionary to get through it. It does a lot of defining, terms such as rationality and probability. These are important terms if you plan to engage in a conversation on belief. It mentions religions other than Christianity and lists names of virgin birth stories in other religions. As advanced as the vocabulary is, he often uses derogatory and demeaning language, which seems out of place.

He applies the tools he defines to close off theistic arguments and I think for some he might succeed. His audience is people who are well educated and those who can follow these arguments have probably already considered them.

He refers to “magisteria”, but does not give any details of Stephen Jay Gould’s thoughts on non-overlapping magisteria, the idea that science and religion can coexist and not be in conflict. Grayling says, “it will not wash”. Given how he defines the conflict, I would agree. He points to a six-day creation and divine intervention in Numbers 16:30 and notes how incompatible these are with science. I believe Gould was suggesting that we look for what religion does that science cannot, provide a place to discuss questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, and set our divisions there. I prefer that to picking fights as Grayling does. Religion has long acknowledged science. The trial of Galileo is often pointed to as evidence that it has not, but rarely is it mentioned that there were scientist working inside the Vatican that agreed with Galileo.

In the first half of the essay, he uses references, but when he starts to do some historical analysis, he stops. I have heard some of the things he says before, and I have not found any research to back them up. He starts off:

“The nature of religious belief, the reasons for it, and the reasons for its persistence are all explicable without any need to suppose the truth of any part of it.”

That may be true. The Unitarian church is founded on the idea that gathering together on a Sunday does not require belief in any particular miracle. That is not what A.C. Grayling is proposing here however. He proposes two theories, one that priesthoods started out explaining natural occurrences that early humans didn’t understand. When nature was better understood they switched to supernatural explanations to maintain their status. The second theory is that it started by accident when someone ate hallucinogenic fungi, had epilepsy, or was just exhausted. Somehow those visions became institutionalized. I have seen some books on god and mushrooms, but none of them credible.

Then he says:

“The main key to the survival of all religions is their proselytization of the young. For good evolutionary reasons, children are highly credulous, believing everything from the tooth fairy and Father Christmas to whatever gods the adults in their circle tell them to believe in.”

Once again, he almost acknowledges that there is an evolutionary advantage to believing in fairy tales. If children were born skeptics, it would be pretty difficult to convince them that hitting their little sister is not a good idea before they had spent some time observing life, learning from their mistakes, and studying some of the philosophies of their ancestors. But Grayling does not acknowledge this. He moves quickly to accuse religion of taking advantage of this childish credulity, claiming it is a form of child abuse and connecting to “honor killings” in Afghanistan.

He also points out the psychological and social struggles that young people go through later in life, when they question the beliefs of their parents. This is a problem. I am thankful that my parents didn’t put me through this. I did experience it indirectly through friends and my extended family. I was lucky to have loving friends and family who respected my spiritual path. In terms of 200,000 years of evolution, a large number of people being exposed to a wide variety of belief systems and needing to synthesize all of them and reconcile them with their nuclear family, is a fairly recent phenomenon. I agree we need to find ways to support people in doing this. I don’t think throwing belief systems in the trash bin is a good start.

He moves to Enlightenment versus religion with:

“Enlightenment dispensations, in which it is not a crime but an obligation to think for oneself…”

I don’t know how he is measuring thinking for oneself. I have not seen a huge increase in that over the last couple centuries. Nor have I seen any particular method of encouraging it that is standing out above all others.

For such a scholarly essay, I’m surprised that he concludes with a rather crass quote from Steven Weinberg. He only uses part of it, but here it is in its entirety:

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

Actually there are many ways to get good people to do bad things; sex, money, desire for revenge, threats to survival and inhibiting their ability to reason with drugs. Or just observe teenage boys. I think the hard part is getting just about anyone to do good things.


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