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Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism 
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Post Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
Please discuss Chapter 3, Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism, within this thread. ::220




Sun Oct 01, 2006 9:50 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
One thing I noticed is an apparent flaw in Scott's description of Genesis symbolism. She speaks as if Genesis implies a moral and omnipotent God, but actually Genesis seems to imply just the opposite. The God of the Old Testament is actually a tribal deity with severe limitations of his power and more concerned with vanity than morality. For instance, Scott cites God's creation of matter from nothing as evidence of his omnipotence. I think a better interpretation is simply that this God is very powerful, but there is no reason to think him omnipotent. For instance, God is fearful of humanity and sees them as a threat to his power--he kicks them out of the garden of Eden not because of sin, but because he fears they will eat of the tree of life and become eternal like him. His reason for inflicting the people who built the Tower of Babel with linguistic confusion is also based upon God's perception of human threats--he confuses them because he fears that they may accomplish even more godly feats if they can attempt to build such a magnificent tower.

On top of that, God also displays ignorance, changes his mind repeatedly, and so on. And his "morality" is more focused on obeying and believing in God, and performing various rituals and sacrifices, as opposed to any concern for the well-being of humanity. There is actually little Biblical support of an omnipotent or moral deity in the Old Testament, and this view of God (along with ideas of the messiah and heaven and hell) did not develop until long after the Old Testament had been written.

Other than that, I think she gives a pretty fair picture of the religious beliefs and their relation to science. Of course, I find myself disagreeing with her assessment of what she calls "philosophical naturalism", but I will post more about that a little later.




Fri Oct 06, 2006 10:34 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
p. 48: "Although the primary function of religion is to mediate between people and the gods or forces beyond everyday existence, it may additionally provide explanations of the natural world." The term "additionally" makes it sound as though these explanations were separable from the primary function of religion. I'm not so sure that's the case. It doesn't look to me as though religion ever function simply as a way of knowing things, and those instances which appear to be attempts at knowing the natural world are more likely an indirect form of mediation.

What do you guys think of Scott's description and discussion of myth?

Another question that occurs to me -- assuming Scott's figures are correct, why are Christians (and specifically American Protestants) more prone to anievolutionary stances -- particularly given the perception that Muslim doctrine and societies are more restrictive and socially conservative?

I also wonder what the psychological motives are behind the extremes of Biblical literalism, for example, Flat Earthism.

The definition of humanism that Scott provides is very reminiscent of some of the definitions given previously in BookTalk (am I right in guessing that it's from Humanist Manifesto III). But then she turns around and tells the membership of the organization that drafted the definition: 5,000 members. The only other major humanist organization apparantly has fewer, coming in at 4,000. But I'm pretty sure that many, if not most, of the population of the Western world would describe itself as humanist. So I wonder how representative that definition is. Would everyone who self-describes as a humanist affirm the terms of that definition? Does that definition accord with the historical movement of humanism that arose during the Enlightenment? And what should be the criteria for determining what a humanist is?

My big objection to this chapter is to the assumption that religion is "a way of knowing." I don't think it's at all obvious that is functions as a way of knowing, nor that it was ever intended to.




Fri Oct 13, 2006 1:56 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
Mad--Perhaps religion wasn't intended as a "way of knowing", but you can't deny that many people DO indeed use it as a way of knowing, and contemporary believers often use God as an explanatory entity. Not only that, but the concept of "faith" is often touted as some sort of epistemic method that can lead to truth, further showing how people see religion as a way of explaining and knowing about the world.




Mon Oct 16, 2006 6:01 pm


Post Re: Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
Scott argues, correctly in my mind, that the key component that makes a belief religious is belief in some sort of supernatural or transcendant reality. Not all religions are theistic, but they all seem to address a reality that is beyond the natural. In that respect, religion and science are arguably in separate compartments. Of course, to argue that they are in separate compartments seems to be too much of an arbitrary limiting of these concepts, in much the same way the words "species" and "life" are limiting but only because they are arbitrary.

Even though religion essentially involves supernatural claims, this doesn't mean they ONLY involve supernatural claims. In fact, most religions invoke lots of claims about the natural world, and many invoke supernatural explanations for things we now know to have natural explanations. To argue that religion and science are always separate, then, seems to be amiss on this point. Science can and does step on the toes of religion's supernatural claims if it makes claims about natural things. (For instance, if your religion claimed that toasters operated by God's magic, then your religion would seem to be refuted by the evidence of science.) In the same vein, I also believe that science can do a lot more than just make claims about the natural world.

Scott, of course, wants to define science in its compartmentalized sense. According to her views, it is correct to say that science says nothing about the "big questions" of life only in the sense that it is correct to say that a virus is not "alive" or that fruit flies that become reproductively isolated are a different "species".

Of course, I think it is overly simplistic to compartmentalize science in this manner. Science as a naturalistic methodology grew out of naturalistic philosophies and philosophy in general. It did not just suddenly appear, by magic and out of thin air, in the hands of Newton or Galileo in the 17th century, but was actually an outgrowth of a sort of evolutionary search for the "best explanations". When we hit upon science as we now know it, we saw immediate benefits and have since come to compartmentalize it. One could say that it has "speciated" from philosophy, just as math long ago seemed to speciate from it. (Or is that the other way around? I seem to remember the phrase "No one ignorant of mathematics may enter here" guarding The Acadamy.) In essence, the point I'm making is that compartmentalizing a view like naturalism off from science is arbitrary in a way--it allows us to say that naturalism isn't "scientific", but it doesn't allow us to say it isn't the best explanation. Indeed, I think it is, and I think the principles of science to lead everyone to become a naturalist.

So what happened to cause this speciation of sorts? Well, untestable explanations, usually those based upon superstition, were quickly replaced with theories that could be tested against the evidence and which made observable predictions. Before the advent of science it may have been considered fine to explain thunder as the action of an angry God, but afterwards the supernatural ontology of a divine lightning thrower could be abandoned in favor of a naturalistic ontology involving electricity and charges.

It is clear to me that science, even though it is a methodology, is also concerned with ontology. Science is a method for arriving at truth, and this truth is supposed to reflect reality. When we look at the evidence for evolution, we can see that it is a better explanation than "divine creation" and we rule out any special creators. Science allows us to say that evolution is real whereas a special creator is not, in other words.

So what's the big deal? Well, if methodological naturalism allows us to rule out supernatural explanations where we have evidence, and if this naturalism has performed so well and allows us to continue inquiry, then it seems to me that we should assume a naturalistic ontology or metaphysics. If assuming a naturalistic ontology in regards to biology better explains the origin of life, wouldn't this apply to every aspect of reality? Indeed, perhaps there ARE things that cannot be explained, but to assume this is to give up inquiry. This is why a naturalistic ontology seems necessary to knowledge. If we wish to KNOW anything about the world, then we have to assume the world is knowable. To assume otherwise is fatal to inquiry.

So the objection to metaphysical naturalism that "It is possible that there exists something supernatural" simply does not fly for the same reason that this objection does not fly when one posits a naturalistic explanation for how a toaster works. One can always say it is "possible" that the explanation is really supernatural, but to assume this possibility is to assume we can't ever know how a toaster works.

For me, the best argument for philosophical naturalism is that what we mean by the words "truth", "reality", and so on are meanings that we can KNOW, and because the supernatural is by definition unknowable, it is nonsensical to say that the supernatural is real or true. The concepts of reality and truth are bound up with our human conception of them, in all its glory and naturalisticness. To argue that this is "not science" as a criticism is akin to calling a virus "not life" even though it can do many of the things living things can do. It may not be science, but we have good reason to believe it, on a pragmatic level as well as on a philosophical level.




Mon Oct 16, 2006 6:41 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
Saint Gasoline: Mad--Perhaps religion wasn't intended as a "way of knowing", but you can't deny that many people DO indeed use it as a way of knowing, and contemporary believers often use God as an explanatory entity.

That depends, I suppose, on whether or not you'd treat explanation as synonymous with evasion of inquiry. I don't think most fundamentalists use God as a way of providing a sincere explanation of much. Rather, it seems to me that they use God as a way of evading and castigating attempts at inquiry that threaten whatever status quo they have in mind. And I think that's very much distinct from the scenario Scott describes when talking about "religious ways of knowing" in pre-industrial cultures. She's presenting the use of religion as a way of explaining phenomenon that a culture cannot otherwise explain, because they don't (yet) have the intellectual apparatus (like science) to explain it. Presumably, the Arunta who attributes an ill wind to a god or a malicious shaman in a neighboring village wouldn't arrive at that conclusion if he had a more sophisticated understanding of the natural world. That isn't the case with a fundamentalist who has two alternative ways of explaining speciation -- special creation and neo-Darwinian evolution -- and insists on the religious answer in refutation of the scientific answer. In that scenario, religion isn't a way of knowing, but rather an assertion -- presumably of something already known. But there is, to my knowledge, no methodology or even tendency within religion itself which mandates that kind of assertion. Science is a way of knowing precisely because it provides a way; in this case, a method for going from question to answer. Creationism had the answer before there was even a question. The question is, did Christians treat it as an answer before there was a question? Maybe they did, but not to the same question.

Not only that, but the concept of "faith" is often touted as some sort of epistemic method that can lead to truth, further showing how people see religion as a way of explaining and knowing about the world.

Show me some reference to faith as a method. I think people are right to assert that faith has some function in all epistemic method, but I don't know that anyone has made a serious argument to the end that faith itself is a method.

In fact, most religions invoke lots of claims about the natural world, and many invoke supernatural explanations for things we now know to have natural explanations. To argue that religion and science are always separate, then, seems to be amiss on this point.

I think we'd likely differ on the extent to which religion makes claims about the natural world, but I think you're right on this general point. Religion and science are separable into different compartments, but in practice, they aren't always clearly separated.

In the same vein, I also believe that science can do a lot more than just make claims about the natural world.

Given that its entire methodology is premised on observation of the natural world, I hardly see how it could do that without bringing in some other, non-scientific term.

It did not just suddenly appear, by magic and out of thin air, in the hands of Newton or Galileo in the 17th century, but was actually an outgrowth of a sort of evolutionary search for the "best explanations".

The best explanations for certain purposes and intents, it should be noted.

It is clear to me that science, even though it is a methodology, is also concerned with ontology. Science is a method for arriving at truth, and this truth is supposed to reflect reality.

That's a Popperian point of view, and I also think it's misguided. Science isn't a method for arriving at truth. It's a method for arriving at methodical and methodological consensus.

This is why a naturalistic ontology seems necessary to knowledge. If we wish to KNOW anything about the world, then we have to assume the world is knowable.

Ah, but that doesn't mean we know that the world is knowable. So a naturalistic ontology may be necessary to inquiry, but it doesn't necessarily have any relationship to knowledge.

For me, the best argument for philosophical naturalism is that what we mean by the words "truth", "reality", and so on are meanings that we can KNOW, and because the supernatural is by definition unknowable, it is nonsensical to say that the supernatural is real or true.

I think a linguistic justification like that is more or less always built on a house of cards. Just because we mean this or that by the terms truth or reality doesn't mean that we're any more capable of knowing those things, or that they correspond to anything outside our imaginations. It may be entirely sensical to say that the supernatural is real or true; what is nonsensical is only to say that we can know what is unknowable, ie. that we know it to be true.

Beyond which, I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that the supernatural is, by definition, unknowable. The supernatural is unknowable in a specifically agnostic framework -- and, as such, may be unknowable by you or I -- but not everyone is agnostic. I've never experienced it, but I know of no way to demonstrate the impossibility of gnosis without assuming a priori that it isn't possible. The supernatural is, by definition, unknowable through natural means; that only equates to absolutely unknowable if you assume ahead of time that natural means are the only way to know. How you can demonstrate that without begging the question is beyond me.




Tue Oct 17, 2006 6:03 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Beliefs: Religion, Creationism, and Naturalism
I think our author shows careful scholarship and insightful sensitivity to the complexities of religion and myth, and the varieites of ways humans have employed both. She is not in the business of setting up straw men to later eviscerate in service of her debate. Her coverage is admittedly cursory and limited, but attempts a global spanse with some degree of depth.

Just as the term theory can have distorted public meaning, so does the term myth, which she does not employ perjoratively as a falsehood or primitive untruth
Quote:
...but as stories within a culture that symbolize what members of that culture hold to be most important...expressing the most powerful and important ideas in a society...all involve a symbolic representation of some societal or human truth.


An important piece missing from her anthropological discussion of myth is the notion of independent origination. She discusses the ways that myths spread from culture to culture via the process of diffusion (ideas mixing, influencing, recombining, moving from community to community by way of story and ritual, symbol and sign). She leaves out the psychological dimension: the realm from which these elemental themes of mythic direction and meaning arise. These myths are produced in the psyche as existential moorings and personal guides. They are tools to assemble the chaos of life into a habitable cosmos.

The point is that diffusion is an incomplete way to understand the presence of universal mythic symbols, narratives, rituals, etc. Myths are not simply old stories replaced, borrowed and recombined; they are present-oriented symbol systems encapsulated in historical forms. Myths are not driven by the past, but by contemporary impulses and needs. They arise spontaneously out of our human physiology, not simply imposed by external sociology, or political command, or religious dogma.

I think evolutionists would be far more effective in communicating with creationists if they were able to tap into the contemporary mythic impulse that fuels their own passion and love for science. Actually, I think the evolutionist who denies this mythic presence in their life is suffering from the same malady that cripples the creationist. Both deny their own spontaneous mythic lives.




Tue Oct 24, 2006 10:57 am
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Post Sabbath
St. G: One thing I noticed is an apparent flaw in Scott's description of Genesis symbolism. She speaks as if Genesis implies a moral and omnipotent God, but actually Genesis seems to imply just the opposite.

I find it refreshing that our author is careful to identify that different communities within the Abrahamic traditions approach the text in different ways. It should at least give pause to those who think all religious folk think the same way when it comes to the Bible...and that taking the Bible seriously can mean different things to different communties.

I think Genesis portrays a complex and complicated God, as well as a complex and complicated humanity, deeply rooted within a volatile and prodogiously abundant creation. This God has an intimate relationship with Creation and those who inhabit it, especially the humans who are created in the divine image. This God makes demands of these humans and holds them accountable for their actions; and provides the resources for their prosperity and joy. It is a relationship built around an ethical responsibility to each other and creation. The story portrays the realities of murder, deciet, vengeance, familial strife, war between communities, and violence against humans and nature...it also portrays the struggle to survive, find hope, and the rebuild life following trauma, devastation and violent disaster.

One thing missing from Scott's description of Genesis, one thing crucial to the identity of many Jews and Christians who take this story seriously, is any mention of Sabbath. I think this ommitance is unfortunate, because I think there is great ecological wisdom in Sabbath keeping. I think we can learn a great deal about how different Creationist communities understand nature by how they approach Sabbath. And I think there may even be something of immense value to Evolutionists as well.


Here are some of the ways Sabbath has been interpreted:

Quote:
In 1951, in the aftermath of those grotesque mockeries of creation -- the Holocaust and Hiroshima -- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who later marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. against racism and the Vietnam War) wrote in his book The Sabbath : "To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money . . . on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world's chief idol . . . a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature -- is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [humanity's] progress than the Sabbath?" Rabbi Arthur Waskow


Quote:
My path is Shabbat, the Sabbath. From about forty minutes before dark on Friday night until three stars appear on Saturday night, I stop doing whatever else I'm doing in the world of work. I literally do not touch money, do not shop, do not watch television, do not answer emails, do not go near a computer. And for that roughly twenty-five-hour period, at my synagogue, Beyt Tikkun, we observe this incredible spiritual celebration.

The central practice is: do not try to control the world. All the rest of the week we're trying to get things together, to make things happen; Shabbat is twenty-five hours in which you're dedicated to just celebrating the world. So we celebrate the miracle of creation. In the Jewish tradition it's a commandment to have sex if you're married, to have good food, to take time for study, for inner-work, for joy. Growing up as a Jew, I never knew a bit about this because nothing that I ever encountered in the synagogue of my youth was actually joyous. So I thought Sabbath was like this: you go to synagogue on Friday night or Saturday morning, you sit through two hours of boring Hebrew and another half hour of boring sermon.

It was only when I entered the Orthodox world that I began to encounter the Sabbath as an actual celebration of the universe. It was only when I followed the strict rules of Sabbath observance that I discovered that it is incredibly renewing to be able to take the time away from the tasks of making things happen, to say, "No, I'm not fixing things, I'm not doing my laundry, I'm not catching up on my housework, I'm not doing all the things I didn't get done in the rest of week. I have twenty-five hours just to celebrate the grandeur of the universe." Rabbi Michael Lerner







Tue Oct 24, 2006 11:30 am
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Post Re: Sabbath
Dissident Heart: I think our author shows careful scholarship and insightful sensitivity to the complexities of religion and myth, and the varieites of ways humans have employed both. She is not in the business of setting up straw men to later eviscerate in service of her debate. Her coverage is admittedly cursory and limited, but attempts a global spanse with some degree of depth.

For the most part, I agree, and I think that's useful because it allows us to use her discussion as a springboard for discussing those topics at greater depth.

I think evolutionists would be far more effective in communicating with creationists if they were able to tap into the contemporary mythic impulse that fuels their own passion and love for science.

And vice-versa, I think creationists would be more effective in mediating with evolutionists if they could themselves get a better grip on the meaning and import of mythology. There seems to be confusion on both sides of the board, and confusion can only serve to heighten the controversy without providing a way of resolving it.




Tue Oct 24, 2006 3:21 pm
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