Saturday, February 19, 2005

Carnival of the Godless #4

Welcome to the fourth Carnival of the Godless. There are several shiny and sparkly false idols on offer this week, vying for your worship. After exposing you to their corrupting influence, I hope to host a more detailed discussion of one particular thesis, called 'meta-atheism'.

Submitted Idols:

We begin with the (carnival) Creator himself, Brent Rasmussen of Unscrewing the Inscrutable:
I deconstruct new age author Philip Yancey's new book entitled "Rumors" and the vague, gosh-wow-isn't-life-so-great feel-good non-argument for the existence of a god and a spiritual plane.

Much like God, the post from Smijer & Buck on Ethics, Prejudice, and Theology does not (yet) exist. Unlike God, however, it will exist tomorrow. [Update: it's up!] So let me quote Smijer's preview:
It will suggest that all religions allow ethics, conscience, and sometimes prejudice to dictate doctrine despite their ostensible viewpoint that doctrine is "received" through scripture and serves as the sole source of ethical thinking.

An interesting post from Thinking Nurse contrasts Theistic and Humanistic Nursing:
For humanists, nursing at it's best is an activity conducted by one human being, in a human way, with another human being. The nurse is attempting to open dialogue with the person in front of them, find a way to connect, as one subjective human being with another. This is all. There is no ‘hidden agenda’ of seeking to find the divine in another human being, or to serve God through that human being – the agenda is simply to find, and be with that person, for who they are. This makes humanistic nursing achievable, realistic, rooted in the material rather than seeking to ask nurses or their clients/patients to rise above or reject their humanity.

Over at the UTI Annex, Peter Fredson offers a politico-religious satire entitled Don't Want To Intrude My Beliefs:
President Jet Fratboy was speechifying to an executive session of Christian Conservatives the other day and we were lucky enough to record some of his speech before we were handcuffed, flogged and thrown out bleeding on the street...

Peter has also been spotted over on Stupid Evil Bastard, guest-posting on the topic of What's a Judge to do? Elsewhere he explains his opposition to Aggressive Fundamentalists:
Fundamentalist Christians are nice, honest decent folks. I know this, because they tell me constantly that they are nice, honest and decent. And they are so nice that they want me to be exactly like them. They want me to pray their prayers, worship their god, and obey all their taboos. [...] Their agenda is total control. Total control of wealth, of influence, of speech, of behavior, of opinion. Nothing less will do.

James at Lab6 offers a tongue-in-cheek look at the intersection of Einstein vs. Islam vs. Toilets, which he describes as:
A short treatise on the fiendishly complicated procedures Muslims must go through in order not to offend Allah while on the bog. Intention: humorous. Probable interpretation: mind-bogglingly blasphemous.

A familiar problem for religious ethics is the Euthyphro Dilemma - is an act good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? The first option renders morality arbitrary; the second, independent from God. Well, it turns out that many religious conservatives overcome the dilemma by embracing the first horn and putting themselves in the place of divinity. Such is the lesson of Goddamn Liberal's post, Fundamentally Retarded:
The berserk, drooling morons of the unreality-based community have a simple tenet, so simple even their vestigial lizard brains can grasp it: we are the good guys, so we can do anything we want and it's good by definition. The sane people are the bad guys, so everything they do is infinitely evil.

Morality isn't the only thing religion tends to screw up - it's also rather notorious for getting in the way of science and logic. The Two Percent Company offer a diagnosis in New Year, Same Old Creationists:
After reading a typical exchange on the Evangelical Outpost in which evolution is challenged using assumptions that have no basis in fact, we followed the pattern of behavior by the religious believers as responses were posted in reply. It was remarkably similar to numerous straw man arguments and almost reflex responses on the part of the religious believers that we'd seen time and time again in attempts to debunk evolution. So, we wrote up this Rant as a sort of field guide to creationist behavior in arguments such as these, along with our speculation about why they react the way they do.

Our final entry is from Peter Thurley, a Christian willing to brave these Godless waters. His post at Dinner Table Donts discusses 'meta-atheism' - the topic to which I now turn...


That ends the list of submitted entries. Before you begin your idolatry, let me raise a question. Is it possible that you don't really believe the above posts are divine? Might your worship be mere pretense? Now, I don't doubt your sincerity when you express faith in the One True Blog, but perhaps you are unaware of your actual beliefs; self-deception is not so uncommon a trait, after all.

This theory of meta-atheism is advocated by Prof. Georges Rey: "Despite appearances, not many people -- particularly, not many adults who've been exposed to standard Western science -- seriously believe in God; most of those who sincerely claim to do so are self-deceived."

Rey lists eight 'peculiarities' about religious belief which he thinks point towards this conclusion. Many of these at best imply that religious belief is merely unjustified (rather than, um, unbelieved), so are irrelevant to his thesis. But I think his points (1 & 2) and (6) warrant consideration.

Points (1 & 2) suggest that our "detail resistance" in response to religious stories is comparable to how we treat fiction. It strikes us as silly to ask which shoe Harry Potter puts on first; we recognise that there is no corresponding fact about this detail of the story. Rey argues that we treat religious details similarly:
Just how did God's saying, "Let there be light," actually bring about light? How did He "say" anything at all? (does He have a tongue?)... Leave Biblical literalism aside. Just answer: how does He do what believers say He does? Does anyone really believe that such questions have answers?
This may support the idea that religious 'beliefs' are not genuine beliefs after all, but merely belief-like imaginings.

Point (6) is that people's actions belie a belief in heaven. For example, the intense grief most people feel when a loved one dies is inconsistent with the belief that they live on, blissfully, elsewhere.

Will Wilkinson elaborates on this point, suggesting that genuine theists "ought to have higher rates of death by accident", since "[i]f I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker." Fear of death is then further evidence that one does not really believe in the afterlife.

Tyler Cowen disputes this reasoning, suggesting that the theist would want to live in order to fulfill his role in "God's plan". This strikes me as a feeble response, for the theist cannot know whether God's plan is for him to live or die. Caution is thus uncalled for. He should instead live freely, take chances, and trust fate to see things right. Surely if God's plan is for him to live to a ripe old age, then he will survive any risky behaviour. If not, then he won't. Either way, God's will is done. (Tyler also argues that paradise "will come sooner or later in any case". But we are motivated to prefer bliss sooner rather than later!)

Brandon at Siris responds to all eight of Rey's points. To the sixth, he begins by pointing out that we can still be sad when a friend leaves us to go to a better place (e.g. overseas). But this response is insufficient because our response to death is so much stronger than a mere temporary separation could possibly warrant. More promising is his general suggestion that we don't always act as if our beliefs are true. Sometimes we're just irrational; perhaps the theist's grief and fear of death are such examples. Still, one would expect a genuine belief in the afterlife should have some behavioural consequences (beyond mere verbal assertions). But does it?

In the end, I disagree with meta-atheism. I get annoyed when theists claim that atheists are really believers ("deep down"), and it's no less uncharitable of our side to reverse the claim. Religious beliefs certainly have their 'peculiarities', but that doesn't make them any less genuine beliefs. (Though they may well be inconsistent, unjustified, and so forth.) But the issue is an entertaining and controversial one, so I encourage readers to chime in with their thoughts in the comments below. Do you agree with meta-atheism, or not? What are your reasons?

Next week...

That concludes this week's Carnival of the Godless - I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. The next one will be held at Smijer & Buck on Feb 27. (I note the tenth Philosophers' Carnival will be the day after that, for those who are interested.)

Submissions can be sent here, as per the instructions on the COTG homepage.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. RobertP, please do not spam my site by copying & pasting whole (irrelevant) articles into my comments section. I do not appreciate it.

  3. I know it was long. I wanted to pose a challenge to your orgy of self-congratulatory anti-religious ad hominems.

    If this comment survives, I recommend this link:

  4. Interesting thoughts on the meta-atheism thing. I agree that it's obnoxious to be told that deep-down we really do believe, and that it's probably obnoxious to believers to be told that they don't... That said, the fellow makes some decent points, and I can't help but think there is a grain of truth to that theory, especially from my own past experiences with believing. I bet I'll spend this week trying to flesh those thoughts out and see if I can't elaborate for next week's Carnival. Speaking of which, nice job on this week's.

  5. I think that contemporary religious people are primarily interested in the moral aspects of religion ("Abortion is wrong," "Homosexuality is perverse," or whatever) and are often only interested in the factual portion of religion insofar as they think that that factual portion must be affirmed in order to get the moral aspects. So for instance, I have heard arguments like this one made:

    "If there is no creator-God, then all our deepest moral beliefs are false. But they're obviously true; therefore there must be a creator-God."

    This is a sort of "bottom-up" approach to religious belief; it starts with a religious person's immediate moral experience and intuition, and tries to hold up factual claims by means of that starting-point.

    If I am right that this kind of approach is widespread among believers, then this may explain some of the "peculiarities" of their beliefs.

    An analogy could be drawn with science. I believe that my toaster works. I also believe that scientists have shown that if certain fundamental physical laws were false, then my toaster wouldn't work. So I "believe" these basic physical laws. But I'd imagine that my beliefs in those laws exhibit certain peculiarities. Since I'm not very well familiar with them, and in many cases don't understand them, I'd guess that you could find in my practical behavior many signs that I don't "really" believe them.

    Likewise: Many religious people believe certain moral claims. They also believe that others (i.e. religious authorities -- theologians, priests, etc.) have shown that if God didn't create the world in seven days (etc.) then those moral claims would be false. So they "believe" that God created the world in seven days (etc.). But they don't understand what it means to say that God created the world in seven days, just as I don't understand extremely complicated physics; so their everyday activities probably contain many signs they don't "really" believe them.

  6. I cannot disagree with David; most of my fellow Christians do not delve into biblical exegesis, hermenutics, archaeology, apologetics, etc.

    But it must be said that many of the greatest minds of the last two millenia have provided a rich library of defenses for the Christian faith.

  7. It may *appear* that all religious people care about is applying rules to society; however this is not the message of the Gospel. The message is good news: that humans can know their Creator, and enjoy his presence in their life.

    Dave said:
    "it starts with a religious person's immediate moral experience and intuition, and tries to hold up factual claims by means of that starting-point"

    Let me add that it's not just a moral or intellectual experience: many of my fellow believers have encountered a spiritual reality, that deeply touched their emotions, mind, and soul. And I can testify to prayers answered, lives changed, and many times when I personally have felt that Heaven has touched Earth.

    Moral teachings then arise from a supernaturally regenerated conscience, informed by the work of God within. Think of an ex-smoker's passion to reform his smoky mates: it may be obnoxious but it is motivated by sincere concern for their wellbeing.

    It's a bit of a diversion to debate moral issues, because Christians are primarily instructed to preach Christ.

    PS: Sorry for my attitude yesterday

  8. Not all authorities are created equal, and theologians aren’t scientists.
    With statements from David like, “I believe that my toaster works. I also believe that scientists have shown that if certain fundamental physical laws were false, then my toaster wouldn't work…So I "believe" these basic physical laws.
    My guess would be that he’s a stranger to the “Methods” section of a refereed scientific journal. Unlike David, toaster scientists aren’t afforded the luxury of believing that toasters work, they must know toasters work. How? Because:
    1. We can verify/falsify the claim: There are toasters that don’t work and there are ones that do. Can you show me a god(s) that doesn’t work?
    2. The Journal of Toaster Physics has peer reviewed studies that demonstrates just how toasters work. Whoa Tex, this isn’t some snooty authoritarian ode to ethos, because if I or you or another toaster scientist were so inclined she could scroll down the page to the Methods section and find exactly how it was done and replicate her own toast popping toaster. Now if I followed your recipe for belief really carefully—measured twice, cut once—could I replicate your results and make my own functioning god(s) exactly like yours.
    Can you imagine if the FDA merely believed in the efficacy of prescription drugs? It is however, a human institution and fated to flaw.
    Religious belief is fundamentally for everyone and that’s why there are so many followers. Science is elitist and selective by nature. It has to be b/c there’s way too much to know for any one person or god. That’s why scientists and David, will from time to time, resort to authoritarianism. If a physicist didn’t take anything on authority and so started each physics experiment from assuming nothing, he wouldn’t get very far as a scientist. However, if he wanted to, the physicist could go back, way back to Copernicus, and replicate each and every experiment because the results (for them to be scientific) are reproducible, completely, absolutely, no excuses. Do you have any idea how many of scientists shoot their wad when they shoot a few holes in a colleagues claims?
    But that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from science if you’re ignorant of some or all of its parts. Just because David doesn’t understand way complicated physics, does that mean no one does? Is D.A.V.E. an acronym for human intelligence? I’m not one of ‘em, but there are people who do understand the stuff.
    And this is why I doubt David’s a scientist. That doesn’t make him a bad person or even a knave. But it does let him getaway with making bad analogies between science and religion. Or does it?

  9. Caynazzo, you stretched the analogy quite a bit but I think it still holds. Science and religion both have their rarefied fields of academia. Users of toasters do not need to understand Maxwell's electromagnetic theories. Nor do Sunday churchgoers need to understand Shaw's exposition of the Westminster Confession. I do not need to hold a BA in philosophy to write stuff on this site.

    The analogy only falls down in the area of repeatable, empirical observations, but it wasn't intended to go that far (was it?).

    You said "Now if I followed your recipe for belief really carefully—measured twice, cut once—could I replicate your results and make my own functioning god(s) exactly like yours."

    Of course not. People are all different and their personality affects the nature of their relationship with God. That does not preclude the possibility of a transcendent Truth that exists whether you like it or not. Perhaps one day you might realise this, like CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge, or even Jacques Derrida

  10. RobertP,
    Now your arguing semantics.
    switch god for truth, whatever you like to call it is fine with me. The point being, there are no free-floating god's, and so there is no god beside the one in the head's of true believers, all as variable as imagination allows for.
    Truths aren't universal. They are all tentative, until proven false, then they get discarded on the dustbins of knowledge.
    Besides, David's analogy attempted to show that belief in god or science was the same or similar, and it's not. Sure, you can be ignorant on both and still believe in both or neither, but religious knowledge is gained ultimately through revelation, you can't argue with that can you. While the advancement of cool things we can know in science is accomplished via testable hypotheses, and that you can argue with.
    And waznt the Westminster Confession like any apologetic prose that implies the bible as authoritative (as if it where historically accurate) ultimately ambiguous?
    Perhaps one day you might realize all this like scooby doo and whinney the pooh and my vestigial tail.
    Namedropping is a fav. pastime of the lazy intellect.

  11. 'But it must be said that many of the greatest minds of the last two millenia have provided a rich library of defenses for the Christian faith. '

    And many greater minds have rebuted each and every one of them.

    Think about what your saying. A faith that needs defending? why?

    Because it is based on ideas often devoid of sense, grown from previous ancient myths, and molded into a modern religion.

    Come on you can't prove a man came back to life after 3 days, or that the Earth was created in 7days, or Noahs ark, or a worldwide flood. These are unprovable events. So all apologetics is simply mental masturbation that comes down to the fact that NOT ONE apologist has ever proven any of those things true.

    It's faith. Period.

  12. Before the discussion gets too off-track, let me point out that David's point could explain religious belief without necessarily justifying it. The analogy with science is that many people do not really understand it, not that it is good epistemic practice.

    Anyway, I'm still interested in hearing what others think of meta-atheism, and I look forward to Smijer's forthcoming post on the subject...

  13. My argument for meta-theism: Ask yourself why you (by "you" I mean atheists) feel intense grief when a loved one dies. The complex interaction of atoms that previously was, is no more. Actually, the atoms are still there, they just aren't interacting in the same way as before. It's just a change in matter from one form to another. What's so sad about that? It happens all the time. I think you guys are being inconsistent. ;)

    Seriously, if I feel grief over somebody because I can no longer talk to, touch, have fun with, look at, eat with, drink with, argue with, cry with, play football with, be with, etc., etc., etc., that person, I'm somehow being inconsistent if that person went to a better place? Or better yet, this somehow means I don't actually believe he is in a better place?

  14. In response to Macht, it is not only the deaths of other people we grieve over, but the deaths of pets and the destruction of favorite inanimate items. It's not what they are made of that counts, it's the organization that counts; I disagree with the crude reductionism presumed in Macht's comments.

    Imagine that you had built a sand castle on a beach and someone destroys it. You feel very unhappy about the destruction of your work, though the sand still exists. You have every right to feel unhappy, however, since the sand-castleness is because of its shape rather than its material, and a destroyed sand castle no longer has the sand-castle shape.

    And as to living happily ever after in Heaven, I wonder where are those who make their last words

    See you in Heaven

    It's as if most believers in Heaven are not completely convinced that they are going there when they die.

    And why aren't funerals turned into celebrations?

  15. loren,
    I can't speak for all Christian funerals, but most of the funerals I have been to of men and women of faith have been celebrations. Celebrations of a life lived for God, as well as celebration of being with God. I remember when my aunt Mary died. She had MS, but was constantly found at church, whenever she could make it. Her funeral was filled with singing songs of praise, my uncle gave an incredible 'sermon', one which involved much laughter and celebration. Or a young girl, Sarah who passed away from cancer at age 16. She had been really active with the youth group, and was dearly loved by everyone, the whole town turned up. Yes there were tears, and greif and the sadness that is naturally present when a loved one is lost. But there was also laughter, great food, fun, and a general feeling of peace. I could go on. My grandmother, other men and women, and children, all who loved Jesus with everything they had. If the person was a follower of Jesus, a funeral is not such a bad place to be.

    It takes a lot of faith to believe that God is up in heaven and has created a place for us to go after we die. But the fact is that for a lot of Christians, this is sincere belief, and, unlike Rey's claim, it shows up in our funeral celebrations. His accusation that we betray our unbelief in our reactions to death and dying, i might suggest is false.

  16. I think William James had it right: a "religious" experience is something outside of the realm of empiricism and the 5 senses. Sure, science and empiricism and the exercise of reason can explain a great many things, but they can't explain everything.

    I have never had a religious experience, and thus I don't believe in God. I don't necessarily reject the idea there's some higher power or Truth out there outside the realm of my experience, but I question why this has to be defined as some transcendant, patriarchal, anthropomorphic (in that at least human emotions and ambitions are often ascribed to God) omnipotent being. Surely there are a huge number of explanations for the things "God" does that don't require a God.

    -False Prophet

  17. A brief rebuttal of RobertP's ridiculously overblown link proclaiming the "Death of Empiricism" can be found on my blog here.

  18. I recently discovered the Carnival of the Godless, and I think it's excellent. It's such a relief to find some sane people out there...


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