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Ch. 1 - What about gods? 
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Post Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Ch. 1 - What about gods? should be discussed within this thread. ::171




Wed Jul 25, 2007 11:04 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Author's note

In this chapter I detail some of the difficulties in discussing concepts of gods: the absence of clear definitions, the tremendous number of notions -- many of them mutually exclusive -- about the nature of a god, and the lack of critical thinking on the part of many believers who claim to "know" a god exists. I also talk about some of the inconsistencies in the idea of a "perfect" being and in notions about what a god might expect of humankind. The chapter ends with some thoughts about the role of gods and religions in human societies throughout history.

As I note in the endnotes, each chapter of the book begins with a question or statement that represents an attitude about the subject of the chapter that is present in popular culture. These statements are in quotation marks for stylistic purposes only. They are not direct quotes from any source.

George

http://www.godlessinamerica.com

"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker




Wed Aug 08, 2007 8:05 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Ps. I'm really sorry about not joining in on this book. I checked for it in the library, but they don't have a copy, and between wisdom tooth surgery, identity theft and having my car broken into, all within a two week span, I'm not devoting much money to books for the moment. From the discussions we've had on BookTalk, I feel sure that your book is a good deal more reasoned and balanced than a lot of the other books that have recently filled this slot, and I feel much more inclined to participate knowing that the author is going to be a continuing contributant to the discussion.

I mention it only because I realize that this discussion isn't getting the attention it deserves, and I wanted to situate my own non-involvement before trying to encourage you, George. Unfortunately, your book is under discussion during what is traditionally the slowest quarter of the year. The late summer slot has always gotten the short end of the stick at BookTalk, what with people going away on vacation and what not, and it's just bum luck that your book is up now rather than later on. I'm sure it wasn't intentional. Obviously, the Nonfiction selection isn't getting much attention either. Hopefully people will come around before the end of the quarter, and once I get my finances back in line, I'll see what I can do about securing a copy.




Thu Aug 09, 2007 6:56 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
I hope I'm not stepping out of line by commenting without really knowing where your chapter takes the idea, but I did want to throw in a perspective that probably departs from your own, just for the sake of stimulating discussion.

garicker: In this chapter I detail some of the difficulties in discussing concepts of gods: the absence of clear definitions, the tremendous number of notions -- many of them mutually exclusive -- about the nature of a god...

By way of extending your point, the fact of the matter is that most religions developed in contexts that were significantly isolated from one another, not only geographically but also in terms of what concerned the communities involved. There was some exchange of ideas, and the similarities that seem to arise across the board argue a common origin for a lot of the concepts basic to religion, but the description of a body of cultural facts as "religion" is ultimately a form of shorthand that can distort the fact that those facts aren't always as synonymous as we'd like. Just to give a really basic example, the Shinto notion of kami is superficially similar to the Western idea of gods, enough so that Western commentators have often translated kami as gods and applied the same standards of critique, but the more you deal with the specifics of Shinto religion and Japanese culture, the more that similarity breaks down. Ultimately, kami cannot be assimilated to gods in the Western sense of that term.

The application of the term "religion" to a great many Asiatic traditions is, in fact, problematic, not because those traditions don't aspire to as much dignity as you would or would not accord a Western tradition, but because the concept of religion, rooted as it is in the Latin-Christian scholastic tradition, carries a lot of biases and presuppositions that just aren't entirely germaine to everything that we call religion. There's a polemical angle to that, in that European conquerers of the age of Reconnaisance employed those biases as a critique of the cultures they set about conquering -- there were presumably so backwards that their religious institutions had never reached a level of completion native to European Christendom. European Catholicism, Judaism and Islam exhibit a level of organization and orthodoxy that is, on the whole, uncharacteristic of religions as a whole, and the primacy of our familiarity with those traditions has conditioned our responses to everything we place under the heading of religion, despite the fluidity that seems to arise quite naturally in religions traditions that have evolved along different lines.

As you've mentioned here, that leads to some problems when it comes time to talk about religion as a general phenomenon. And it seems to me that most American and European critics of religion have, on the whole, swallowed whole the presuppositions of Eurocentric definitions of religion. That isn't to say that they'd be any more kindly disposed to religion if they had a less Eurocentric understanding, or a wider and more in-depth familiarity with non-Western religious traditions, but I do think it likely that it would lead to some significant changes in the way they discuss religion, even if only to oppose it.

... and the lack of critical thinking on the part of many believers who claim to "know" a god exists.

This arises, in a great many cases, I think, because the motivations behind certain kinds of belief are not so uniform as we often suspect. Just as a for instance, I've read a lot of material about the Creationist debate, and most critics of Creationism seem to take it for granted that Creationists want from their cosmology the same thing that Evolutionists want from theirs: ie. a practical, plausible explanation of natural phenomenon. But it doesn't seem at all likely that Creationists have taken their side of the case for anything like that reason. For a lot of Creationists, I think moral concern is at root in their opposition to Darwinian evolution; and the matter is often complicated by their commitment to certain forms of status quo, like patriarchical social organization and the need to justify economic and social disparity levelled against minorities. If a person's objection to a scientific theory is premised on something other than technical interest or the practical application of knowledge about the natural world, then they're not likely to employ the same standards of critical thought, or if they do employ critical thought, they're likely to do it in conflicting ways.




Thu Aug 09, 2007 7:18 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Mad: As you've mentioned here, that leads to some problems when it comes time to talk about religion as a general phenomenon. And it seems to me that most American and European critics of religion have, on the whole, swallowed whole the presuppositions of Eurocentric definitions of religion.

One of the points I tried to emphasize in this chapter and throughout the book is that there is no genuine uniformity of opinion on the part of believers about either gods or religions. This is not just true of diversity in religious traditions in various parts of the world, as you note. It also is true within the various religious traditions themselves. For example, Christians come in all shapes and sizes. So much so that one must spend some time exploring what an individual believer means by the designation.

By the same token, it's impossible to know what a believer means by the word "God" before investigating the matter. Until someone fills in the blanks, the word "God" is, for all practical intents and purposes, empty of any clear meaning.

George

http://www.godlessinamerica.com

"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker




Thu Aug 09, 2007 7:53 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
garicker: It also is true within the various religious traditions themselves. For example, Christians come in all shapes and sizes. So much so that one must spend some time exploring what an individual believer means by the designation.

Mmhmm. In some ways, it took me a while to really cut through the assumption that religion as a phenomenon was internally consistent and recognize that it may be more honest to recognize innovation and variation as natural phenomenon in religious development. It took a massive amount of work for medieval Catholicism to develop, disseminate and ultimately enforce a consistent orthodoxy; ultimately, the papacy and scholastics had to work against a natural tendency to take an idea and run with it. The history of heresy is basically one long testament to that fact.

Until someone fills in the blanks, the word "God" is, for all practical intents and purposes, empty of any clear meaning.

I don't know if I'd go that far. I think context is important in discussion of just about any topic, and while variation does make religious terminology difficult to compass, the same can be said of a lot of ideas that we generally treat as solid and stable. In social situations we interact with the presumption that everyone is using language in roughly congruent ways, but the deeper we dig in any given discussion, the more likely I think we are to find serious disparities in the way people both understand and employ the words they use to communicate. So I don't think the problematics of talking about God render it meaningless.




Thu Aug 09, 2007 8:01 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Mad: So I don't think the problematics of talking about God render it meaningless.

Oh, it's easy enough to have a broad general discussion about something that may have had something to do with the creation of the universe or the "God" of philosophy. In the introduction I talk about a generic definition of "God" as an entity that created the universe, created everything in the universe and created it for a purpose. My, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, name for that worthy is the "cosmic super critter."

But when you start talking about the "God" people actually worship, the one they actually claim to believe in, the question gets much trickier. People make all sorts of modifications to any basic idea about a god, so that the idea itself becomes very idiosyncratic.

As a consequence, in any discussion with a nonbeliever, the believer has to fill in the blanks before the nonbeliever can know what the believer is talking about. Yet, in popular culture people throw out the word "God" as if there was a broad consensus about what the word actually means, and there really isn't.

I've been involved in many such discussions over the years. Inevitably there has to be a lot of spadework before the believer can articulate to me just what he or she means by the word "God." Again, I'm not interested in vagueries like "the ground of all being" or other such verbiage. My interest is in ideas about the gods people actually worship and the evidentiary basis for those ideas.

My chief interest in gods and religions is in the intersection between those concepts and the culture in which I live. I've made the statement in other places that I'm not much bothered by people's religious opinions unless they start bothering me with them or trying to impose them as the norm on the society in which I live. There seems to be an effort, on the part of a very noisy minority, to do that in today's America and that worries me, especially when I observe the reaction to that effort by politicians in both major parties. It's one of the chief reasons I wrote the book.

George

http://www.godlessinamerica.com

"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker

Edited by: garicker  at: 8/12/07 11:38 am



Fri Aug 10, 2007 9:33 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Mad: Ps. I'm really sorry about not joining in on this book. I checked for it in the library, but they don't have a copy, and between wisdom tooth surgery, identity theft and having my car broken into, all within a two week span, I'm not devoting much money to books for the moment.

No worries. Actually, I would be amazed if my book has made it onto any library shelves. I'm hoping some people will buy the book and donate it to various libraries. But print-on-demand books don't get much publicity and between personal finances and health issues, I'm afraid my own efforts at advertising the book have been limited to launching my web site and a few talks before groups locally. I'm hopeful interest in the book will grow as more and more people find out about it.

Needless to say, but I will anyway, I hope you are able to get the personal matters taken care of satisfactorily.

Mad: From the discussions we've had on BookTalk, I feel sure that your book is a good deal more reasoned and balanced than a lot of the other books that have recently filled this slot, and I feel much more inclined to participate knowing that the author is going to be a continuing contributant to the discussion.

I'm looking forward to it. The discussion is off to a pretty slow start, but I'm hoping it will generate some steam. I want to try to contribute to it, but, at the same time, I really don't want to dominate it. Maybe we'll be able to keep it going past the end of September if there's enough interest to warrant it.

George

http://www.godlessinamerica.com

"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker




Fri Aug 10, 2007 9:44 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
I see your point about the problem being the way in which religion is discussed in society and the part it plays in determining, say, public policy, or something equally portentious. And I'm sorry if I, in effect, confused your point of view with one that takes any inkling of religious belief more to heart. There seem to be a handful of people on BookTalk -- and I take them to be unwittingly representative of a growing contingent in the American population -- who take personal belief on the part of people around them as something of a personal affront. And I'm not entirely sure that writers like Dawkins and Harris have really drawn for themselves a strict line between private belief and public incursion. Even though they sometimes tow the Jamesian line about not caring what another person believes so long as it's kept private, that sort of tolerant position is contradicted by the programs of inquiry they espouse, which seem to work from the premise that the best way to keep people's private beliefs from unduly effecting public policy is to make those beliefs untenable. But from what you've written above it seems clear that isn't your interest in the topic.

Trust me, I know well enough about the various difficulties involved in the publish on demand industry. My father released a book that way, and while he's happy with the degree of success he's had (he's currently working on the follow-up), it's required a lot of work on his part to make his book known to a reading public. So all my sympathy to the toil you go through, and congratulations on the success you've had so far.




Tue Aug 14, 2007 3:44 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
Mad, what I've tried to do in this book is tell the reader what I think about gods and religions and why I think it. I'm sure this comes across as an attack to some. Unfortunately that seems to be in the nature of the beast. When we start talking about beliefs that are important to people, any criticism of the belief is taken as a criticism of the believer.

I just helped my mother celebrate her 90th birthday (we had a great party). She has been attending church for almost all of her life and considers herself a Christian. I'm sure she hopes at the end of her life she will meet up once again with all the people she has lost along the way. I know she gets great comfort from the church she attends and the interaction with that community. Now I consider most of what she believes to be nonsensical, and I'm sure she knows that, but we have no problem because of it. She knows that I do respect her right to her beliefs.

In fact, and I've told other people this, when she read my book she was much more miffed by the unkind things I say about George W. Bush and the Republican Party than anything I said about gods and religions.

Anyway, that's where I come from in all of this. If you want to take a look at something on my web site, there's a piece called "An open letter to the religious from one who is not" that sum's up my thinking fairly succinctly.

George

http://www.godlessinamerica.com

"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker




Tue Aug 14, 2007 5:15 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - What about gods?
I took a look at your open letter, and the only part of it that I find questionable is the sentence that runs, "No one's religious liberty is threatened in the slightest when the wall of separation between government and religion is kept high and broad and strong." This probably isn't the place to really launch into a discussion of why that may not be so, and besides, I've already discussed my suspicions at some length in the "Snowbowl" and "RFRA" threads, so if you want to discuss my disagreement on that point, it might be best to move our comments to the latter of those two threads.




Wed Aug 15, 2007 2:38 pm
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Post Chapter One: What About Gods?
1. Once upon a time, under a lot of pressure from BookTalk contributers, I performed more or less the exercise you suggest on p. 5 -- I wrote out a description of what I, personally, mean by God. But I also made it clear that I object to a condition you make towards the end of the paragraph: that I "focus... on the sort of evidence that would be acceptable and should be accessible to any reasonable person." I don't think all belief is or even should be premised on the least common denominator of consensibility. Whether or not you or anyone else finds my reasons for believing this or that thing convincing may serve to give me some idea of how obvious that belief is, but that alone does nothing to determine whether or not I believe the thing in question. Nor, as you point out earlier in the same chapter, does it have any bearing on the truth of the thing ("It is a basic fallacy to assert that the number of people who believe in [a] proposition... confers any validity on that proposition..."). Ultimately, it seems to me that I great deal of what goes into a person's most deeply held beliefs -- on any subject, really -- are as much the result of personal experience and subjective meaning as they are of some popularly assimilable notion of reason. So to follow your instructions to the letter would mean ignoring straight away the very things that make the belief personally convincing in the first place. I doubt that's any less true for the atheist than it is for the theist. (Incidentally, last time I checked, the thread in which I discussed my theism was still floating around here somewhere.)

2. What's really interesting to me about the "God of the gaps" explanation is not how it functions as an explanation of natural phenomenon, but how it accounts for religious belief. So far as I know, anthropologists have pretty much abandoned the idea that primitive myths were intended to explain natural phenomenon, but lay persons still suggest as much as a kind of pseudo-historical explanation for the existence of such myths. In my own experience, it seems like people rarely ever invoke the "god of the gaps" save when their theism is questioned by someone else. That is, "God willed it" usually isn't the answer people offer unless the question is specifically something of the order of "if God is good, how could this happen?" Ask a person why a building collapsed and killed two people and they're likely to suggest some flaw in the structure of the building; ask them how the two dead people squares with a view of a divinely ordered universe, and that's when they'll resort to some theological equivocation. Nor am I particularly convinced that "there was a time in human history when OGod' was thought to be responsible for virtually everything" and that we have progressively gravitated from that sort of monolithic explanation. Historically, it doesn't look to me as though religion developed as an explanation of the natural world, and I think a great deal of confusion has arisen from treating religion as though it were a botched attempt at education. The Creationist appeal to divine authority, for instance, is by no means a hold-over from a prehistoric mentality; rather it is a position that arose in the modern context as a reaction to very modern circumstances.

3. I'm also fairly suspicious of the characterization of pre-modern cultures as almost invariably dominated by chiefs and shamans working in collusion to maintain authority. That Ayn Rand figures as the source for this insight makes it all the more suspicious in my view. Early anthropologists seem to have championed the idea -- with none popularizing it so much as Frazer -- but again, a more systematic approach to anthropology has tended to expose the fallacies underlying that generalization. A solid summation of early anthropological views and later criticisms can be found in "Theories of Primitive Religion", by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, if you're interested. I lodge my dissent on this particular point because the Frazer-Rand account has often been used to bolster a kind of conspiracy theory model of religious development: to wit, that religion developed as a means of controlling populations, an "opiate of the masses" to borrow Marx's phrase. What I have yet to see from any proponents of that theory is an explanation of how it would have developed thus. That, and the lack of a rigorous body of evidence substantiating that religion played that consistent role, make it seem like wishful thinking more than anything else.

That isn't to say that religion hasn't been employed to bolster the status quo, but it's taking the argument a step too far to suggest that this is the primary historical role played by religion in society. Historians and anthropologists have demonstrated (convincingly, to my mind) that religion is made to play that role almost exclusively in the case of imperial societies -- that is, societies that have found it materially, economically and politically efficacious to conquer and assimilate other societies. Again, the notion that the role religion plays in imperial societies is indicative of all religion is an idea that has circulated as a means of discrediting religion by generalizing it according to its worst characteristics. At lot of us have been exposed to that idea without knowing the context in which it was made. I think you've probably adopted it in all innocence, but it pays to apply the same scepticism to such pseudo-historical claims as we would to any other sort of claim.

4. I also take issue with the idea that "for most of its history Christianity has been the sworn enemy of education, of knowledge, of intellectual enlightenment." For most of the period between the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, the Church was the only patron of education, and to be precise, what historians usually term the Dark Ages corresponded to the Church's growth and its struggles with incipent barbarism. The height of Church power came later, after the Carolingian renaissance and before the Italian Renaissance indirectly challenged the Thomist-Scholastic system by reviving interest in the pagan arts and philosophers. By that time, the Church had grown so accustomed to functioning as a political body that it becomes difficult to disentangle its religious motives from its political motives; it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would have opposed Renaissance experimentalism had they flourished during a much earlier period in Church history -- in fact, the regard for pagan philosophy evidenced in the writings of Augustine and Boethius suggests that the early church would have been more prone to embrace the rediscovery of pagan education. On the contrary, it looks to me as though Christianity has only been the sworn enemy of education, et al, during two distinct periods -- the Renaissance and the modern -- and even then only in bits and pieces. After all, the radicals of the Renaissance as often thought themselves Christians as anything else, and the modern Christian "enemies of intellectual enlightenment" do not uniformly represent Christian belief on the subject of science. You've already talked about Christianity as a polyphonic tradition, so I know you recognize as much. Which is why it dismays me that you'd still be willing to make such a broad generalization. True, you do issue a qualification, but you place it in a footnote rather than work it into the body of you text. It's notable that the evidence you present for the view that "any scientific discovery that appeared to run counter to church doctrine was suppressed" is a list of prohibited works begun in 1559 -- that is, more than three quarters of the way through the history of the church, and at the roots of the Renaissance period. My point is that the Church's opposition to revolutionary scientific ideals has a traceable relation to historical circumstance. I see no particular reason to think that such opposition is endemic to religious belief in general or to Christian belief specifically.

5. On a more general level, you state that "for most of human history, religion... has stood as an impdiment to social and intellectual progress." To really substantiate that claim, it seems to me that you'd have to offer an at least half-way convincing argument that, had we not been burdened with religion, society and the general state of human intellectual achievement would have inevitably progressed. I'm not at all sure that's the case. That isn't to say that we can't progress socially and intellectually without religion, but to assume some alternative course of historical progression is always a dubious proposition. It also ignores the part that religious institutions have played in the actual circumstances of historical development. Edmund S. Morgan, for instance, has given a very detailed explanation of the role religious ideas played in the development of modern democratic ideas out of British parliamentary procedure (cf. "Inventing the People"). It isn't at all clear that a historical development unburdened by religious ideas would have reached the same end -- which, by the same token, is not to say that it wouldn't have.

On the whole, I wish you would have followed to its logical conclusion the argument that you began by saying, "it is really the people and not the religions who deserve the credit for these accomplishments". Then isn't it also the people, and not the religions, who deserve the blame for the "profound human misunderstandings, the most vicious human conflicts"? You concede as much, of course, but you don't entirely square it with the characterization of religion as an impediment to progress. Too many critics of religion speak as though it were capable of overriding our best inclinations while simultaneously noting the limitations which prevent it from making us invariably good. That disparity is not explicit in the chapter, but it does seem to lurk between the lines. It seems to me that viciousness must be a trait inherent (if dormant) in the human condition, and that if religious cant has sometimes attended the expressions of that trait, removing that cant from the equation is no guarantee at all that the trait won't find secular expression.

6. I think it also ignores the tremendous history of specifically religious intellectual elaboration to baldly state that, "it is part and parcel of the religionist's faith never to consider such matters in depth." Judaism, in particular, has a very long and venerable tradition of questioning its own religious assumptions. In different points in their histories, both Islam and Christianity have also fostered similar traditions. Taoism and Buddhism are also notable for their introspection and willingness to experiment with the ideas at root in their religious conceptions. It's more to the point to say that it's indicative of a certain kind of religious believer to resist serious consideration or doubt. But then, that's true of most kinds of belief, isn't it?

7. And as an epilogue, it seems to me that a significant portion of this chapter is polemical, so I wondered how you might think some of the arguments squared with your earlier assumption that your purpose is not to convince the reader that theism is untenable.



Thu Sep 20, 2007 5:53 pm
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Mad, since I've already had my bite of the apple, so to speak, I'm not going to engage in a lengthy dissection of the points you raise, except to respond to a few particulars.

In retrospect it was a poor choice of words to call the exercise in chapter one a "test" as I did when I introduced it. I later referred to it as an exercise and that's the more appropriate description. And you raise a good point when talking about the grounds for personal belief often not being the sort of thing that "would be acceptable and should be accessible to any reasonable person." I thought it would be understood when I suggested leaving aside, for the moment, other reasons for belief and focusing on those that did fit the bill, but I should have been more explicit about it.

When it comes to the "god of the gaps," I guess your experience is different than mine. I frequently hear people alluding or referring directly to "God's will" in times of difficulty and most of the time those references are unsolicited. In fact, one of the arguments that gets made regularly is that a deity must exist, else one can't account for this or that natural phenomenon. And even if the "god of the gaps" were only invoked by theist when challenged, which has not been my experience, are you suggesting they don't really mean it when they say it?

As to the historic belief a "God" was behind it all, I can only refer you to ideas like "the great chain of being," books like Natural Theology, references in the literature and histories of many cultures to the working out of "God's plan," the attribution of various natural and man-made disasters to divine retribution and so on. Modern Creationism really is an effort to protect that view from a perceived threat by modern scientific perspectives.

Obviously, any theories about the state of things in pre-historic cultures is going to be speculative. Achaeology and anthropology offer suggestions as do, more recently, evolutionary biology and so on. I don't subscribe to a conspiracy view. I simply think as cultures developed, religion was seen as a useful means of protecting the role of the ruler or the ruling class, as the case may be, and dampening the unrest of the masses. Because of that utility, the organized religions, which seemed to develop in conjunction with organized states, were protected by them. Now, I think it's probably true to say that religion played that role more prominently in imperial societies. Since the societies that played the largest role in the development of Western civilizations seem to have taken turns at imperialism, as and when they had some prospect of success, that doesn't do much to invalidate the premise.

Calling the church the only patron of education during the Dark Ages seems dubious to me. Certainly the church was involved in schooling to some degree, but it was schooling aimed at protecting the interests of the church, by educating the nobility appropriately, and ensuring a supply of priests, scribes, and so on. The height of church power may have occurred in the later period, as you suggest, but I think it was during the Dark Ages that the church exerted the greatest control over the lives of the individuals under its dominion. There may have been interest in the pagan philosophies and cultures among early church scholars, but there was also a good deal of suppression of anything that ran counter to church dogma. Antiquities were destroyed, manuscripts burned, libraries left in ruins. I don't think the scholarly interests of Augustine or Boethius, and others, mitigates that. It's also a bit specious to argue that the list of prohibited works began in the mid-16th century demonstrates the church was hospitable to such ideas before then. The Gutenberg press wasn't invented until the 15th century. I doubt the distribution of books was too much of a problem before then. In earlier times, the church simply destroyed any material it found threatening.

However, let's be clear about one thing. I don't suggest that hostility to learning is necessarily endemic to Christian belief as practiced by individual Christians. My argument is that such hostility has been characteristic of organized Christianity, and here I'm speaking of the Catholic and major Protestant denominations, for much of its history. Certainly, that hostility waxes and wanes, depending upon the circumstances, but it seems always to be present, even if sometimes only as an undercurrent. At least, that's my view of the matter.

When you write--On the whole, I wish you would have followed to its logical conclusion the argument that you began by saying, "it is really the people and not the religions who deserve the credit for these accomplishments". Then isn't it also the people, and not the religions, who deserve the blame for the "profound human misunderstandings, the most vicious human conflicts"? --I can only assume you skipped the second graph after that when I stated, "Some of you will note, quite rightly, that the evils and the flaws of religion really should be laid at the doors of the people who committed them. That is precisely my point. Religion is a strictly human enterprise. Whatever good is accomplished and whatever evil is committed in its name is brought about by the practitioners who follow that religion, not the god(s) they worship."

Now maybe I should have put that paragraph in bold face and all caps, but failing that, I don't know how I could have made the statement more emphatic. I also find it interesting that when you can't find something in what I actually wrote to object to, you seem bent on seeing it "lurking" or "implied" somewhere beneath the surface.

Within every religion there are certainly scholastic communities that question the assumptions and the dogmas of their religions. Unfortunately, such questioning never seems to percolate down to the mass of believers. For example, it's well known among biblical scholars that the Exodus depicted in Jewish and Christian holy books certainly did not happen as it is described there and may not have happened at all. Most believers, in both faiths, either don't know that or ignore the information. The general consensus among believers in both traditions seems to be that the story of the Exodus as presented in the Bible is, more or less, accurate historically.

My purpose is not, as I stated, to convince the reader that theism is untenable. It is, at least partly, to explain why I, personally, find it untenable. To repeat, the book is to explain my atheism, my view of gods and religions, and my concerns about the activities of fundamentalist Christians in attempting to coopt our public institutions. Having made the point at the outset, I don't see the need to keep repeating it. I also told my readers, at the outset, that I intended to speak candidly about these matters and my view of them.

George


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"Nothing about atheism prevents me from thinking about any idea. It is the very epitome of freethought. Atheism imposes no dogma and seeks no power over others."

[i][b]mere atheism: no gods


Mon Sep 24, 2007 9:50 am
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garicker wrote:
I'm not going to engage in a lengthy dissection of the points you raise, except to respond to a few particulars.


I don't expect anything more. For the time being, though, we're the primary discussants, so don't hold back for fear of pushing other opinions to the margins.

Quote:
When it comes to the "god of the gaps," I guess your experience is different than mine. I frequently hear people alluding or referring directly to "God's will" in times of difficulty and most of the time those references are unsolicited.


My point was not that the "god of the gaps" formula hasn't been widely adopted. Rather, historically, it doesn't seem to have been quite the fallback plan it is these days.

Quote:
And even if the "god of the gaps" were only invoked by theist when challenged, which has not been my experience, are you suggesting they don't really mean it when they say it?


That's hard to say. A worthwhile question in cases like this is, would they have said the same thing had they not felt the same pressure to present an answer? To illustrate the worth of that question, imagine a scenario in which a particular candidate for the presidency is asked whether or not he would pass a bill outlawing abortion. Maybe he hasn't given much thought to the question; maybe the terms of the question incline him towards a particular form of answer. So he makes his answer. Whichever way the answer falls, the fact of his having made an answer presents problems for the future. For fear of seeming inconsistent, he may hold more firmly to that answer than he would have otherwise. In point of fact, I think you can see a pretty vivid illustration of this principle with John Kerry's campaign last go round. He came across as a very different presidential candidate than he was a senator. And that's due in part to a process much like this: he gave certain answers in certain contexts to certain question, and then held to those answers (with varying degrees of spin) in order to fend off accusations of inconsistency. Did he believe his answers? To some extent, he probably did. But was it the most accurate representation of what he believed? I sincerely doubt it.

Quote:
As to the historic belief a "God" was behind it all, I can only refer you to ideas like "the great chain of being," books like Natural Theology, references in the literature and histories of many cultures to the working out of "God's plan," the attribution of various natural and man-made disasters to divine retribution and so on.


The first is a rationally developed system, so it demands to be handled different than the last. The Great Chain of Being developed out of Aristotelian thought; in that regard, it was a logical extension of what was, for the late medieval and early Renaissance intellect, the avant garde of scientific viewpoints. It served not to stifle scientific development, but to provide a framework for further development, much as Darwinian theory has provided the framework for modern biology. The whole edifice of "species" and Linean categorization develops out of that framework, and in turn contributed to our transition to modern biological conceptions.

As for the attribution of God's plan to various disasters, I think context plays a substantial role. That a particular person consoles their family with the idea that God allowed or even orchestrated the collapse of a suspension bridge is not necessarily exclusive of their desire to look for natural causes. In trying to reconcile themselves to the consequences, they may well make a theological pronouncement; at the same time, they may involve themselves in the attempt to find structural deficiences that prompted the collapse. To that end, mention of God is not compelling evidence of a resort to the God of the Gaps. You have to look at the whole of a person's behavior to decide that, and on the whole, it looks to me as though most religious believers look for answers the same way as most atheists -- they just add a layer.

That isn't to say that there aren't religionists who don't unequivocably invoke the God of the Gaps formula. But I haven't seen any evidence that their numbers are all that impressive.

Quote:
I simply think as cultures developed, religion was seen as a useful means of protecting the role of the ruler or the ruling class, as the case may be, and dampening the unrest of the masses.


And I think that, in specific instances, that's demonstrably so. But I differ with the implication that such has been the primary motive behind the development of religion. And in fact, religion has as often been the instrument of civil unrest and social change. Religious institutions and belief were one of the primary forms of resistence in Maoist China, for example. Early Christianity was rooted in resistence to Imperial Rome. The Protestant Reformation was utterly destructive to the status quo in Renaissance Europe. The examples could be multiplied geometrically.

Quote:
Calling the church the only patron of education during the Dark Ages seems dubious to me.


Then point me to evidence of another educational outlet. Certain other forms of education persisted, of course -- equestrianism probably did not require church patronage, and a system of apprenticeship no doubt kept many of the more utilitarian arts, like metal work, alive. But so far as I can tell, literacy belonged almost exclusively to the domain of church patronage, as did philosophy and the rudiments of science.

Quote:
The height of church power may have occurred in the later period, as you suggest, but I think it was during the Dark Ages that the church exerted the greatest control over the lives of the individuals under its dominion.


I'd have to see evidence to that effect. My impression is that the Church didn't begin to exert its broadest influence until the coronation of Charlemagne, which most historians date as the closing of the Dark Ages and the opening of the Middle Ages.

Quote:
It's also a bit specious to argue that the list of prohibited works began in the mid-16th century demonstrates the church was hospitable to such ideas before then.


I wouldn't argue that. I merely meant to point out that evidence that late cannot be taken to indicate much about Church activity hundreds of years earlier. And the fact is, the Church did change its position on various topics, depending on historical circumstances and the presentation those topics received. So it's entirely plausible that the Church might have smiled on theories that, by the 16th century, it would decries as anathema. That's it's plausible does not, as you note, make it probable, but nor does it make it, in itself, improbable.

Quote:
The Gutenberg press wasn't invented until the 15th century. I doubt the distribution of books was too much of a problem before then.


It could be. In fact, that the Inquisition applied the solution of book burning to the problem of mass distribution of books speaks to the antiquity of the practice. Because, realistically speaking, it was a poor solution in the face of books that had been given a printing of thousands of copies. Book burning was much more effective when books were the possession of communities rather than individuals, and harder to come by.

At any rate, there is substantial evidence that the Inquisition took printed material seriously even before Gutenberg, and that book-burning had been a long-standing practice of Christian polemics.

Quote:
I can only assume you skipped the second graph after that when I stated, "Some of you will note, quite rightly, that the evils and the flaws of religion really should be laid at the doors of the people who committed them. That is precisely my point. Religion is a strictly human enterprise. Whatever good is accomplished and whatever evil is committed in its name is brought about by the practitioners who follow that religion, not the god(s) they worship."


I meant to make reference to that; did I forget? My point wasn't that the chapter doesn't recognize as much, but that it seems to apply that premise unilaterally, even as it recognizes that it ought to be applied across the board.

Quote:
Now maybe I should have put that paragraph in bold face and all caps, but failing that, I don't know how I could have made the statement more emphatic.


I wouldn't ask for more emphasis. I'm careful enough as a reader to not have missed the sentence in the first place. But the principle wants to be seen in application, not merely alluded to. And the book as a whole seems to be preoccupied with the idea that certain behaviors are endemic to religion. The statement that people are responsible for their actions takes up a very tiny fraction of the text compared to the number of statements that seem to argue its contrary.

Quote:
My purpose is not, as I stated, to convince the reader that theism is untenable. It is, at least partly, to explain why I, personally, find it untenable.


Maybe its simply wording, but a lot of the statements in the book seem far more like arguments than personal statements. The last paragraph in chapter eight, for instance, seems to state unequivocably that religious faith is false and distorts reality. Maybe you meant to limit that to a personal perception, but it comes across as a blanket statement. Having the luxury of communicating with me directly, you can explain your intent, and I can take that as I may. Most readers, however, won't get to discuss it with you, and have to rely on the book as printed.



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Mad:

But the whole book is a personal statement. Wasn't that clear from the outset? Do I really have to end every damned sentence with "in my opinion" for you to understand that all I claim to be doing is presenting my view of things?

Of course, I do express my opinions with some conviction and that's because I feel strongly about them.

George


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[i][b]mere atheism: no gods


Wed Oct 03, 2007 12:39 pm
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