Sunday, November 9, 2008

Religion: "We've got paintings!"

Good ol' Janesophie linked to this, and it caught my interest because it was allegedly about the "New Atheists" being forced to reject core parts of Western society and culture in order to fully rebuke the effects of religion. Needless to say, disappointment abounded. It was just another inept attempt to criticize the big atheist authors while not really offering up anything substantiative. So, without further to do, I give you...a dissection.
Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever.
It is a damn shame that people are afraid of ceasing to be, and want so very badly for life to have an objective meaning. But, that is only indicative of the human desire to be worth something, the ego, pure and simple, rather than of the thing that we desire to be true itself (namely, that we are inherently significant).
In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.
Again, longing for something doesn't make the thing you desire 1. attainable or 2. real. You can compare the flighty search for meaning to a search for love all you like, but the fact remains that the target of the latter actually exists.
Of course, men—that is to say, some men—have denied this truth ever since the Enlightenment, and have sought to find a way of life based entirely on reason. Far as I am from decrying reason, the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy.
Can you really blame people, in a civilized world, for trying to move away from being swayed by petty outrages, baseless conjecture, irrational diatribe, and gut instinct, knowing full well the consequences and the capacity for error in such fragile whims? And, I am afraid, if you do not have reason to back up your "mental or moral economy", then you have no objective basis for it and are dealing entirely with subjective, personal concepts. Which is fine, but it doesn't lend itself effectively to transfer given its feeble basis in the reality perceived outside of your own skull.
We had been given to understand that if we opened our eyes during prayers God would depart the assembly hall. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Surely, if I opened my eyes suddenly, I would glimpse the fleeing God? What I saw instead, it turned out, was the headmaster, Mr. Clinton, intoning the prayer with one eye closed and the other open, with which he beadily surveyed the children below for transgressions. I quickly concluded that Mr. Clinton did not believe what he said about the need to keep our eyes shut. And if he did not believe that, why should I believe in his God?
You poor soul. At the age of 9, learning that there is no Santa God. But, seeing as how your "atheism" was entirely founded upon a bizarre lie with no theological basis told by your headmaster...I don't think you really stood a chance.
Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms—for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.
Makes sense, especially given the psychological propensity to see human physical features in almost everything, as well as interpreting parts of random noise as a human voice, and the tendency for children to personify objects and weather patterns.
But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment?
Because religion is an incredibly old, complex phenomenon with a distinct form of belief involved with it, whereas "belief in evolution" is too specific and too new to have any biological significance, in of itself. But, you have a point: maybe he should do tests to see if there is biological and psychological distinction between religious beliefs and beliefs of different varieties.
We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true. know...when you check for whether they are true or not by seeing whether they are supported by objective evidence or not...
One striking aspect of Dennett’s book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence:
Which is a testament to the way that our minds and language works. Not proof that this purpose and intention exist.
But, your evidence for this claim is: “The stinginess of Nature can be seen everywhere we look.” Wow. Participating in a long tradition of referring to nature as a personified entity (which is itself part of the natural tendency to "attribute animate agency" to events and the inanimate that you mentioned before). You really got him good.
"says on its second page that religion prevents mankind from facing up to “reality in all its naked cruelty.” But how can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?"
"Cruelty" doesn't have to be a moral quality, and it doesn't have to be one that is relegated entirely to a reference to human behavior. In fact, looking at these definitions, human agency isn't even the first thing that comes to mind.
No doubt Dennett would reply that he is writing in metaphors for the layman and that he could translate all his statements into a language without either moral evaluation or purpose included in it. Perhaps he would argue that his language is evidence that the spell still has a hold over even him, the breaker of the spell for the rest of humanity.
No doubt indeed.
But I am not sure that this response would be psychologically accurate. I think Dennett’s use of the language of evaluation and purpose is evidence of a deep-seated metaphysical belief (however caused) that Providence exists in the universe, a belief that few people, confronted by the mystery of beauty and of existence itself, escape entirely.
Well that's wonderful. Your opinion is noted, and relegated to the "opinion heap". Note that Kent Hovind's opinions are also in there, so the flies have already gathered.
At any rate, it ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primitives who still have a religious or providential view of the world: a view that, at base, is no more refutable than Dennett’s metaphysical faith in evolution.
Issue the first: cry me a fucking river.
Issue the second: "metaphysical faith in evolution"? If evolution is metaphysical, there are a lot of geneticists, ecologists, paleontologists, and just general biologists weeping at this very moment, because they have been dealing in the concrete proof for something that evidently is just pure abstraction according to you.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him.
Ever occur to you that the reason why they grabbed the ten commandments and changed them is to prove that you can have areligious moral codes while simultaneously seizing upon a common religious moral code which is lacking as a springboard and basis for comparison? No, I didn't think so. And stop saying "metaphysical".
The last of the atheist’s Ten Commandments ends with the following: “Question everything.” Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum?
Why not? It's like a Zen riddle that way, resolvable in a convoluted and unsatisfactory manner which I can change at whim if that resolution happens to contradict another commandment. -or- You're not supposed to take that passage literally!!1!1
Not to belabor the point, but if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.
Yeah. But, at least you could and would have some form of evidence to support that leap, in which case the comparison you are trying to make is disingenuous.
What is confounded here is surely the abstract right to question everything with the actual exercise of that right on all possible occasions. Anyone who did exercise his right on all possible occasions would wind up a short-lived fool.
Blah blah blah, paralyzed with skeptical doubts, whatever. Questioning everything you can and that warrants such skepticism, and bringing up these doubts within moderation is still a relatively good idea, don't you think? And "question everything" remains significantly shorter than the previous sentence, right? Ughhh...tiresome.
It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.
Gotta love how defensive they get about the idea that "religious education constitutes child abuse". They obviously shy away from nuance, so they see it as some kind of bold attempt to define religious education as a crime, or compare it to physical beating, rather than seeing what Dawkins meant to suggest. Which is to say that religious education to a young child is unfair because they are naturally obedient and credulous enough to automatically believe it, and because the implications of the religion (examples being Hell and the fact that you will go there if you do not believe) have the potential to be psychologically damaging. But, Heaven forbid that these people actually address those problems, rather than crying "how dare he say that!?".
Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris
I guess I am happy about that as well.
Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal?
More like "a collective necessity for future prosperity". It is not inevitable, not possible through law-making, but merely a goal that we must work towards in order to not crumble or blast our way back to the Stone Age.
It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist:"The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.” Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: “Who is genociding whom?”
It was very nice of you to keep that last sentence in, because it lets us know that he is describing what happens in the real world, and not prescribing moral behavior. But I'll let the man speak for himself, with the sentences following the quote-mine: "Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world."
He's not supporting genocide, he's supporting self-defense against individuals with overtly aggressive mindsets, and behavior that is indicative of it.
Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules.
What a sophisticated way of presenting the idea of "hypocrisy". And, by "sophisticated", I mean to're a sophist.
It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply
This old pissing match again?
Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness
Too bad that science and technology are objectively beneficial and predominantly so. Religion is about as beneficial to mankind as a sugar pill that you think, so very very passionately, makes you a better person, and serves as a source of division while so doing. As for his condemnation of confirmation bias: spot on. Good on you. That's 1/ however many other points you were trying to make. Not a bad ratio for your side of a religious debate.
And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency
You still have gratitude without religion, and you can even have purpose without religion, since purpose is self-defined. You just don't need to be grateful to a non-existent entity, or define your purpose in sync with said entity.
Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us
You know that you are getting desperate when your sole claim to the merit of a belief system is that there were some talented artists were a part of it. Seeing as how most people in the world were religious to some degree, color me underwhelmed.
On the neo-atheist view, the religious connection between Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland is one of conflict, war, and massacre only: and certainly one cannot deny this history. And yet something more exists. As with Sánchez Cotán, only a deep reverence, an ability not to take existence for granted, could turn a representation of a herring on a pewter plate into an object of transcendent beauty, worthy of serious reflection.
Please forgive the stifled laughter. You know the people who are most likely to not take existence for granted: the people who admit that they only have one life to live, who don't believe that they are given warrant by their deity to dominate the planet and all other life on it, and the people who aren't forever obsessing about things that are beyond existence as we know and experience it (within the strict limitations of heterodoxy, of course). That said, I acknowledge that religion can inspire artwork. But, your extrapolations about why that is so...are pathetic.
But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists.
That's wonderful. I also find fiction rather more inspiring and emotionally stirring than non-fictional accounts of actual events. Kindred spirits, you and I.
Hall surely means us to infer that whatever happens to us, however unpleasant, has a meaning and purpose; and this enables us to bear our sorrows with greater dignity and less suffering.
Wow. How beautiful. Telling people to accept their lot in life and deal with whatever injustice comes their way with the ridiculous platitude of their being "a plan" behind genuine tragedies. Effectively telling them to "get over it". What a rich, moving religious tradition.
Though eloquent, this appeal to moderation as the key to happiness is not original; but such moderation comes more naturally to the man who believes in something not merely higher than himself, but higher than mankind.
Or one who knows that moderation is best through experience or by being told that it is objectively so, as the case may be. There are a lot of aspects to life, and you shouldn't devote yourself to much to just one aspect of it.

And he continues to compare a single quote, spanning 2 to 3 sentences, from each of the "New Atheists"' books to chunks of text from some of Joseph Hall's works in order to support his judgments that the atheists are all mean, and heartless, and ineloquent and stuff. It sounds like Dalrymble doesn't practice what he preaches. But, I guess I am just a rambunctious know-nothing adolescent for pointing that out.


pboyfloyd said...

This guy seems to think that the atheist books are supposed to be art?

Then strangely he seems to imagine that atheists ought to 'hand-cuff' their persuasive talent by avoiding all figures of speech.(which are pounced on and held up as trophies proving that they cannot communicate without 'trancendental' reference.)

Asylum Seeker said...

Good catch there. Seems like a classic religious shell game to me. Comparing what is essentially modern day science writing and argumentative polemic to 17th moral-contemplative literature, and criticizing one for being down to earth and praising the other for being artistic, when the former never meant to be artistic...mind boggling.

In fairness though, when he criticized them for using figures of speech, the relevant figures of speech do happen to have a kind of religious undertone to them. Damn you Romanticism...turning nature into a god, and God into Nature...

The Maze Monster said...

I don't give them any credit for this, but I do love me some religious artwork.

Jared said...

I would like to add that I rather like many religious paintings and music, I don't believe most of the theological ejaculations which accompany them, but I can appreciate the artistic nature of them.

Asylum Seeker said...

Oddly enough, I have a liking for religious artwork as well. Hell, it's part of the reason why I am so obsessed with my atheism as a defining trait: because I love religious beliefs, and find them very entertaining. I just dislike that people actually believe them (and hate when they dictate other people's lives using them).

Hell, most of my poems use religious motifs (though they are occasionally subverted), and a lot of the crappy art projects I did back in high school were inspired by Buddhist and Christian imagery (in addition to just plain being inspired by surrealism). I love the religious artwork, and the religious music (well...some of it at least). Literary works that are only mildly influenced by theology (or just aren't pure theological conjecture) are also A-Okay by me.'s just not relevant to the issue of whether gods exist, or even to whether religion is beneficial or not, because, odds are, those things would have appeared, with or without those particular motifs, with or without believing that their artistic constructs are indicative of greater truths rather than just being entertaining fantasies.