Tuesday, January 16, 2007



TM said...

Nicely done.

Unknown said...

My favourite is the "Dawkins generalises" attack, which then goes on to state that a whole 12,000 on the boards justify their actions - which obviously applies to everyone of faith.

Erm, generalising about billions of people based on a sample of people on a board that encourages just that type of discussion is surely very very flawed?

Andrew Rilstone said...
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Andrew Rilstone said...


I don't think anyone has claimed that religion is a necessary precondition for good behavious; only that Dawkins is wrong to say that they are mutually incompatible.

Dawkins says (according to Tomkins, naturally, I haven't read the book) that "people who believe in God do bad things". He backs this up by listing people who have believed in God who have done bad things. But Tomkins says that Dawkins fails to mention all the people who have believed in God who have done good things; so Dawkins argument is invalidated. Doubtless, there is more to be said. Do more people who believe in God do good things or bad things, and how does this compare with the general population? Is there a single thing called God which sometimes makes you murder Jews and sometimes makes you sing rock and roll songs, or are Torquemada and Cliff Richard talking about different delusional entities? "God is a bad thing because he always makes people do bad things" is refuted by a single counter-example.

I have to say that I am bit a flummuxed by Sam's use of the term "empathy"? I give money to a poor person because I feel sorry for him; that is, because empathize with his position -- I can imagine what it would be like to be poor? But isn't this just a different way of spelling "good thing"? Indeed, isn't the purely moral part of Christianity precisely about "empathy": 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' 'Love your nieghbour as yourself.' 'Welcome strangers because you yourself were strangers in Egypt.' The claim "religion makes people do good things" is basically a claim that religion increases empathy. I don't think "religion is not a preconditioon for morality" refutes that claim.

(Are you suggesting some kind of division, whereby good acts performed out of genuine sympathy for another person are "empathic" acts, but equally good acts performed, say, out of obedience to a leader or because you are afraid of going to hell are "religious" acts? If so, it's obvious that good acts don't necessarily come from the seconod source, but it's equally obvious that they sometimes do.)


If someone said "Playing Dungeons and Dragons disengages you from reality, it is a well know fact that no Dungeons and Dragons player is interested in politics" then it would be perfectly reasonable for me to point out that RPG.net has a thriving forum in which role-games discuss politics and current affairs. Granted, you could still ask questions about what percentage of RPG players read that particular newsgroup; how many RPG players there are over all; whether politics-talking is more or less commong among RPG players than among the general population: but the claim "RPGs are bad because they remove your interest in politics," would be refuted outright.

SK said...

I'm a bit confused as to the attack on the Pope in the first section. For one thing, surely the reviewer should be holding up the Pope as a fine example of what Dawkins says doesn't happen, to whit, serious, probing theology (the question of whether God is bound by reason being a rather deep and interesting one). For another, he does exactly what he accuses Dawkins of doing by dismissing the Pope's comments on irrelevant grounds (Christians have done bad things, ergo the Pope is not allowed to comment on theology -- huh?).

Sure, the P. was hardly tactful (and possibly deliberately offensive), and sure, Christians may not always have had the correct idea of God -- but neither of those things is relevant to the question the talk which stirred up all the controversy is addressing, namely, which of Christianity and Islam has the truer (or, if you prefer, least false) idea of God?

And if the reviewer is going to take Dawkins to task for, basically, ad hominim arguments, then he could at least not do so himself.

(Also, of course, surely a reader of C.S.Lewis must realise that the question of whether religion inspires people to do good or bad is spectacularly irrelevant: the only important question is, is it true? The truth might be something which, if known, would cause the race to turn on itself in a murderous frenzy, but it would still be the truth.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I should indeed have made that point: it's particularly problematic for Dawkins to say 'God is a bad idea, because it makes people do bad things' since 'goodness' and 'badness' are two of the ideas about which Dawkins is skeptical. But if you are going to say "Not only a delusion, but also a harmful delusion, look at Torquemada" then you need a good answer when someone says "But look at Martin Luther King, or Ghnadi, or more to the point, look at Mrs. Er who spends all her time and money doing good turns for needy folks in the parish."

SK said...

That's exactly Dawkins's 'religion was incidental' argument, which the reviewer debunks using the Martin Luther King example.

Louise H said...

We seem to be missing any sense of scale here (with the exception of the 12,000 Ship of Fools users.)

If 99% of people who believe in some form of God do so uncritically and on the basis of what they are taught, then the fact that 1% are thoughtful and critical about their theology might not be fatal to Dawkins' essential argument.

If on the other hand the image of the member of the congregation (of whatever faith) who merely believes what he has been told since childhood represents a small minority and most religious people do think seriously about the tenets of their faith, the basis of their morality and the contradictions inherent therein then Dawkins is way off target. (If they read C S Lewis then obviously so much the better.)

Take your sample from UK graduates or US working class and you'll get very different results. Overall- I really don't know but I suspect Dawkins isn't too far off beam.

Whcih doesn't mean that he shouldn't have at least acknowledged the existence of genuine theology. I'd give him 2 cheers overall.

Andrew Rilstone said...

My point about "necessary preconditions" is that a list of good things done by the religions that Dawkins disapproves of isn't in itself a good answer to his arguments. You also have to show that they follow from (or, perhaps better, share a common cause with) the kinds of beliefs Dawkins argues are harmful.

But this is rather sticky, isn't? 1: Torquemada believes in God
2: Torquemada burns Jews
3: Torquemada gives money to ophans and takes hot dinners round to the old ladies of Toledo.

It is possible that his Jew-burning is caused by his belief in God, and his charitable work is caused by natural human empathy which he would have had whether he believed in God or not. But it is equally possible that his Jew-burning is natural human dislike for people who look different from you; and the charity is caused by the faith. Or it is possible that both the good deeds and the bad ones are caused by his religious faith; or that the good and the bad both spring from human nature and religioun hasn't made any difference either way. How could we tell?

Does Dawkins claim to have proved that there is something intrinsic about theism that causes people to act wickedly; or does he merely point out that theists have acted wickedly in practice? Clearly "There exist wicked Christians" doesn't prove that "Christianity causes wickedness"; and "There also exist good Christians" is a partial couunter argument.

It would be very topsy turvey if we had to say "There exists a belief system which places a very great emphasis on the importance of compassion. Whem people with this believe sstem do, in fact, behave compassionately, we can discount any relationship between their beliefs and their compassion. But when they act cruelly, we can reasonably suppose that their cruelty follows necessarily from their beliefs." Surely that isn't what Dawkins is saying?

My point is just that compassion is impossible without empathy, but perfectly possible without religion.

If X is a precondition of Y, then all Y's will have X but not all X's will have Y. Correct?

I take it that Dawkins is trying to refute the claim "God must exist, because without believe in God, there could be no morality/compassion". But "There exists at least one wicked theist" does not in any way refute the claim "We need religion to make us good." A better way of refuting it would be "There exists at least one good atheist." No-one denies this; but then no-one very sensible says "Only people who believe in God can be good." So it isn't quite clear what we are actually talking about.

If you are right that "compassion is impossible without empathy, but perfectly possible without religion", then someone could still reasonably ask "Does religion have any tendency to produce entity", which would almost certainly get the answer "Sometimes, sometimes not." and "It depends what you mean by religion.

Dawkins doesn't actually believe any of this gubbins, though, does he? His actual argument is "Because the universe appears to be designed, people supposed that it has a designer. However, we now understand that the universe was not, in fact, designed; therefore there is no reason to believe that there is a designer. And by the way, the mistaken belief in a designer didn't do nearly as much good as people sometimes claim." When he says "All the evil in the world comes from the church etc etc etc", that's his irriation speaking, not his brain.

Andrew Stevens said...

That may very well be Dawkins's argument, but if so it shows a rather incredible lack of introspection on his part. Dawkins himself could be Exhibit A for the case that it's not just religion that causes rigidity of thought, bigotry, and intolerance. Of course, just because you're a hypocrite doesn't make you wrong. My own brand of orthodox atheism simply states that religions are false (or at least that there is no compelling reason to believe any of them to be true) and leaves it at that. I need no further argument to decline to believe in them and don't regard any of the arguments usually advanced by Dawkins et al. as particularly good ones. The opposite argument - that religion is good because it might tend to make one a better person - I reject for exactly the same reason. Even if that argument is true, so what? This argument assumes that morality exists independently of the truth or falsity of the religion (I agree) and therefore religion cannot be a necessary precondition for morality. So the argument reduces to "we should have a moral framework and teach people morality," a point with which I wholeheartedly agree. (I don't know if Dawkins does. He is usually very circumspect about morality. I suspect it's because he knows his position is on such thin ice there. My guess is that he might follow Hume, who argued that morality is irrational, but that reason is, and ought to be, subordinate to moral sentiments. This is the only moral anti-realist position which doesn't get hopelessly mired in contradictions. This is no solace for the people who genuinely want to get rid of all morality, but they don't actually know what they're asking for. They just think their own favorite morality, usually based on tolerance, open-mindedness, non-violence, respect for truth, etc., equates with no morality, even though it really ought to be absolutely crystal clear that it doesn't.)

By the way, it also seems clear to me that empathy is not a necessary precondition for acts of compassion. I don't deny that empathy is probably the largest motivator, but acts of compassion can also be motivated by intellectual moralizing, either of the religious or irreligious persuasion. So it certainly makes sense to argue that religion could be a help for this by acting as a framework for this intellectual moralizing. I wouldn't argue too strongly for this proposition, but I think it's likely that Torquemada would have been even worse were it not for his faith. Tribal persecution occurs regardless of religion, having been based on race, language, nationality, political ideology, and all sorts of other things. It's not as if atheism's track record is all that hot - I am ashamed to say that we're the people who gave you Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. And I have no doubt that they probably were made worse because they did not feel themselves bound by any sorts of rules at all.

Phil Masters said...

I am ashamed to say that we're the people who gave you Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

The important difference being that, so far as I know, those three and their ilk didn't murder anyone much in the name of the non-existence of God. I mean, there may have been some specifically atheistic rhetoric somewhere in the mix, but their general stated reasons for killing people were about them being the wrong social class or ethnic group, or just getting in the way of some grand political vision.

Whereas Torquemada et al were explicitly killing people for specific religious reasons. Perhaps people like that would have found reasons to kill people in the absence of strong religious faith. Perhaps a bit more religion would have made Stalin less interested in inventing economic sub-classes to massacre. But there's no actual symmetry between "religious mass-murderers" and "atheist mass-murderers", and people need to be called on that particular line a bit more often.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil, you're right that atheism cannot, in and of itself, provide a motive for persecution and slaughter. However, theism, narrowly defined, cannot do so either. I suspect this is the motivation for various philosophical or explicitly invented religions like Deism. They allow one to remain a theist without being tied down to the sins of any particular religion.

However, I can certainly tar the explicitly atheist ideology of Communism with the same brush that Dawkins is using to tar Christianity (or Islam). I'm not convinced that this is just. Personally, however, I think the argument is far superior with regard to Communism. Hatred of the bourgeosie is written into Communism much more explicitly than, say, anti-Semitism, is written into Christianity or Islam. I do not regard Communists as evil (or even deluded). There is a very good chance, probably an excellent one, that I'd have been a Communist myself had I lived through the '30s and not yet lived through the '70s.

Phil Masters said...

Frankly, most of this stuff about assorted genocides is simply point-scoring (I'll see your Lenin and raise you Hebrew treatment of the Philistines). It'd be even more fun if it involved a few more wooly-headed polypantheistic New Age types, so everybody else could gang together and hit them with Genghis Khan. The Mongols were better at this stuff than anybody, off a lower technological base.

As this thread involves a certain amount of detailed logic-chopping about exactly what questions are being asked, the correct thing to do might be to sort out what anyone thinks that anyone else is saying. Is it "Religion causes mass murder", "Religion is the sole cause of mass murder", "Religious people are all murderers", "Religious [or non-religious] people are hypocritical in their condemnation of mass murder", or what? But that sucks all the fun away.

So far as I can see, if there's a generality actually worth drawing, it's something to do with obsessive ideologies. But even they're just a tool for dehumanising people - along with the Mongols, we could wheel out the Belgians, who did just fine with imperialistic capitalism as a motive and vague racism as an ideology.

Phil Masters said...

Hatred of the bourgeosie is written into Communism much more explicitly than, say, anti-Semitism, is written into Christianity or Islam.

Dunno about that, really, by the way. Marx's comments on the subject are generally far too interesting - and grudgingly awestruck - to reduce to mere hatred. And the likes of Stalin often seem primarily intent on murdering rich peasants (for solid practical reasons), inventing whole new class categories to support this where necessary.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil, I'm 100% on your side about your last couple of comments. I withdraw the word "hatred." One can call for the utter destruction of one's enemies while still admiring and respecting them.

You're certainly right about Stalin and rich peasants, but I think that's just because he ran out of bourgeoisie. There have never been that many of them, after all. Economically speaking, it's also because Communism was fairly efficient when applied to many forms of industry, but spectacularly inefficient when applied to agriculture. I don't think there's a single Communist country in history which has been able to feed itself competently (at least not until Deng Xiaoping decollectivized agriculture in the late '70s). So Stalin's enemies all seemed to him to be in agriculture. It was the only way he could explain his failures.

Andrew Rilstone said...
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Andrew Rilstone said...

I understood that the point we were arguing about was "Is the existence of wicked Christians a point against the existence of God," and "If so, is the existence of good Christians a valid counter-example."

The subsidiary point being "Can Richard Dawkins argue his way out of a wet paper bag on any subject other than his scientific specialism?"

Is Phil implying that the point of "The God Delusion" is not to argue a case but merely to throw some mud which will upset some Christians and make some sixth-form agnostics feel smug?

This has always been roughly my opinion on Dawkins religious crusade, and I have limited interested in listening to someone saying "There is no pressing scientific argument for the existence of a supernatural creator, and in any case Christians are stinky and smell of poo."

Phil Masters said...

I understood that the point we were arguing about was "Is the existence of wicked Christians a point against the existence of God," and "If so, is the existence of good Christians a valid counter-example."

I'm not sure that anyone had established the exact terms of the debate...

Is Phil implying that the point of "The God Delusion" is not to argue a case but merely to throw some mud which will upset some Christians and make some sixth-form agnostics feel smug?

Dunno. I still haven't read it myself.

I do think that merely listing Christians (or atheists, or anyone else) who've done bad (or good) things doesn't achieve a huge amount, especially if the terms of debate haven't been settled to start with. Dawkins may well sometimes be guilty of that, but given the size of the book, I imagine that there's something else in there as well.

He probably does appeal heavily to the sixth-form agnostics, but given the way that the book was sitting at or near the top of the non-fiction best-seller lists for weeks, I'd guess that his constituency is slightly broader. There's only so many sixth formers, and I thought that most of them were supposed to have given up reading books these days. I suspect, without any statistical evidence, that he's selling to people who can see all sorts of problems and improbabilities in religion, but who were brought up in the fine traditions of Modern Nominal Anglicanism (not going to church and the church they don't go to being C of E) and Conventional Politeness; even if you think that someone else's firm beliefs and traditional practices are a pile of pants, it's rude to say so, so you don't say anything when confronted with any amount of stuff you don't actually believe. And when you run into the ones who are really passionate about what they think, you smile politely, nod, and try to change the subject to the weather.

Which is actually a fairly good way to run a society, because it cuts down on the civil brawls, but eventually gets a bit itchy and unsatisfying. So Dawkins claims the market position of the child in The Emperor's New Clothes; whether or not he argues perfectly or is right about everything, he's calling BS on stuff that his customers, at heart, think may be mostly BS.

There's been a market for Thrilling Blasphemy since at least, oh, Christopher Marlowe, if not Democritus. And it's usually been bigger than most people want to admit, because admitting it means admitting that received opinion is really very popular.

Phil Masters said...

(Correction to my last sentence; I meant "isn't really very popular", of course.

Andrew Rilstone said...

SAM: Sorry; I was feeling sufficiently irritated by the tone of some of Phil's comments that I overlooked you previous message.

You said:

I take his argument to be (roughly) that religions based on faith encourage rigidity of thought, which leads to bigotry, intolerance, and various kinds of irrational thinking that cause harm. This is "orthodox atheism", if there is such a thing.

We should be careful of using the word "faith". Faith has a specific meaning in Christianity ("salvation by faith", "faith that moves mountains" etc) but I suspect is being used in a pejorative sense by Dawkins ("believing in something even though you know it isn't really true" "belief on insufficient grounds"?).

Please imagine I did the anecdote about the Victorian tight-rope walker in this space.

So when you say "religions based on faith encourage rigidity of thought", do you mean "Since people believe in religion on insufficient grounds it follows that they are likely to believe other things without sufficient evidence as well (which gives rise to intolerance etc.)" or do you mean "Since Christianity in particular regards absolute trust in Jesus to be a virtue, it is very likely that Christians will have absolute trust in things and people who claim to speak for Jesus -- the current dogma of a church, the teachings of pope, the instructions of their parish priest." Are we saying "Christians have got into the bad habit of not thinking through their beliefs" or "Christians do whatever people tell them to do in the name of God?"

You also said:

Whereas I understood it to be "Is the fact that Christians have done good things a sufficient response to accusations that most major religions perpetuate intolerance by their insistance that they have a monopoly on absolute revealed truth?"

This is subtly different, I think.

Is the "most major religions perpetrate intolerance" bit an acturial statement ("the religious are more intolerant than the non-religious: I know because I've counted") or a theoretical statement about the nature of religion ("religions necessarily perpetrate intolerance because it's in their nature to do so.")

I'd also like the "Monopoly on revealed truth" bit clarified. Is the idea "Christians believe that the Bible is true in a different and superior way to the Koran. Muslims think that the Koran is true in a different and superior way to the Bible. Those views are irreconcilable, so it's inevitable that Christians and Muslims will get involved in crusades, jihads, terrorism and dull discussion programmes on Radio 4." That is: it doesn't matter what the Bible says; thinking that your book has a special status will create intolerance even if the actual text really did only say "Tolerate everybody! Tolerate everybody!"

Or is the claim more like "As a matter of fact, the Bible and the Koran say intolerant things; and because they claim to have supernatural authority, those intolerant claims are not open to question. This is why members of the church of England spend so much time slaughtering Hittites and stoning blasphemous oxes."

The Catholic Church currently has an absolute and inflexible oppposition to artificial birth control. To hear some people talk, you would think that there was a verse in Leviticus that said: "Neither shall thou putteth on thy thingy the fruit of the tree that is called rubber johnny, neither you, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy maidservant, and in the day that thou doest it, thou shalt surely be stoned." and that successive Popes have said "Oh dear, we would love to be more flexible about this, but unfortunately, it is in the Bible so we can't change it. I guess God must know what he is doing."

But there isn't any such verse. There is a series of complex and oblique arguments about human nature, sexuality and the family all of which have been endlessly debated by synods and theologians, and from which any Catholic is free to dissent, provided they continue to obey the teaching of the Church. Does the rigidity really come from a belief that "God said no condoms" or merely that very large organisations find it hard to stop and change direction?

(This is also the problem with saying that Torquemada killed Jews in the name of God, but Hitler didn't kill Jews in the name of "no-God". There isn't a commandment in the Bible that says "Thou shalt kill Jews", and there isn't even a Catholic dogma or an infallible statement by the Pope. The inquisition is the result of a complex and unique set of historical circumstnaces, with "belief in God" as one component. The holocaust is also the result of a complex and unique set of historical circumstances, in which "lack of belief in God" (and "belief in quasi Darwinian theories of race) is one component.)