Thursday, December 3, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Ethics of Belief

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.
p 211 Laura Purdy, "No Gods, Please"

Laura Purdy begins with her story and refers to W. K. Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” essay as one of the important source that clinched her skepticism. She does not give any details, so I searched it out myself and read it. I highly recommend it. It was written in 1877, so you may need to read slowly to work through the language of the time, but it is still very relevant. A quote commonly used from the essay is

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Less quoted is the long discussion on what is valid evidence. At the end of the discussion, an important statement is made about science and evidence; we must assume nature is uniform. This is not something to be believed like “God exists” is to be believed. It is an assumption that all other inferred truth rests upon. It is an important distinction to understand when separating science from religion.

When examining history, Clifford notes, we must assume some uniformity of the character of people, but we must also acknowledge human fallibility and deception, and understand any written evidence in that light. In my opinion, when examining religion, we must take all of this into account and discover the source of our belief.

Clifford examines the Prophets Mohammed and Buddha. I suspect he avoided Jesus because it appears Christians were his intended audience and he wanted to give the reader an objective point of view. He acknowledges the value of the leadership of these Prophets, their skills in teaching morality and advancing their culture. This makes the task of determining the truth of their visions that much more difficult. Once trusted as good men with valuable insights, should we not accept their supernatural claims as well?

Clifford says no. These Prophets may have supplied practical wisdom, which has been tested, and for some has also provided comfort, but we have no way to test if their visions or miracles were true. That more than one Prophet has existed, and with conflicting claims is evidence itself that their claims must be questioned. Clifford makes many statements about the danger of passing on unverified beliefs and the responsibility of being honest in what we say, including:

Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork.

Notably, Clifford avoids discussing difficult value judgments or defining what he means by “practical wisdom”. He sticks to the importance of the process of how we question and the methods we use to find answers. An important discussion, one that could end a lot of the silly rankling going on right now.

I’m going to skip discussion of the rest of the first half of Laura Purdy’s essay. She starts to talk about “unnecessary misery in the world” and more could be done in prevent suffering now. I wasn’t quite getting what she meant until she mentioned the religious right. This is an important discussion, one that Laura and I have a lot to agree on. I am going to save that for a Part II.


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