About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

To refute or promote?

by Michael De Dora
There is an ongoing debate in the secular community about whether secularists ought to concentrate more energy on criticizing bad religious and moral ideas, or promoting positive values. This debate has frustratingly continued since at least early 2009, when I joined the Center for Inquiry, and has no apparent end in sight. While I do not propose to have a solution, I do feel the need to offer a few observations that could help clarify this dispute.
Broadly speaking, the debate features two camps. The first camp believes a robust public discourse includes a good deal of critical discussion on religious belief, considering that faith and dogma so negatively shape social and political life. The second camp thinks that the first focuses too much on disparaging religious belief, and presses for more attention to the advancement of positive values. But, for several reasons, there is no real conflict between the two, even if one is perceived.
It seems to me that a person cannot be against an idea without being for something. When arguing against an idea, one is surely tearing something down. But one is also doing so because he or she values things like science, reason, and secular thinking. Moreover, one can only critique an idea if he or she has a methodology by which to judge that idea. And a critical methodology is meant precisely to help people discard old, untrue ideas and keep building upon the better ones.

It is often difficult, or even impossible, to present an absolutely comprehensive case against someone's position and in favor of your own method and position in the same forum. Billboards, books, blog posts and public events only allow so many words. One does not always get the chance or have the time to fully outline their reasons for critique. But this does not imply that one does not hold good reasons, or thinks that reasons are unimportant.
It only suggests a different approach.

For example,
Christopher Hitchens is a proud secular humanist. But he spends more time writing and speaking about religious belief than he does clarifying his moral worldview. Is there any reason to doubt his secular humanist credentials because of this? Is his critique of religious belief not helping foster a secular humanist society? Is he really doing harm by increasing the amount of public discourse on religion?
In fact, refuting and promoting are sometimes two different but complementary discussions. This is because refuting religious belief might be about evaluating truth claims while promoting values might be about moral claims. This was the topic of another recent debate in the secular blogosphere, over the claims made by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I do not claim to be a philosopher, but my position is that fact-based discussions of truth and untruth are different in nature than moral discussions of right and wrong -- though, of course, the two can be approached in a similar manner, and are sometimes inextricably tied. This means that concerns about the veracity of religious beliefs are different from concerns about constructing a positive moral framework. Both are important, but they are distinct.

In the end, I believe this is a mistaken debate between people with slightly differing interests. Slightly is the operative word here, for both groups would certainly be considered members of the same team. Many of them even work together at the same secular organization.
The critic of religious faith and dogma is on the same side as the promoter of secular moral values. To squabble about whose interests are more important is to lose sight of the underlying problem: the staggering amount of uncritical thinking that is putting society to ruin.


  1. Science cannot tell what ought one to do. But it can study the way people behave, and the things they believe, and can even find reasons why certain beliefs and behaviors have evolved and are so widespread as to be taken as (more or less) universally upheld moral values or precepts (such as "do not commit incest with your mother" or "do not kill your own children"). Also, science can tell that certain things are bad for your health, and thereby derive logical norms of behaviors ("do not eat potassium cyanide unless you want to commit suicide") or evolutionarily explain universal feelings of revulsion ("do not swallow anyone's spit, including your own if it has already left your body").
    This is only about the science-morals duality evoked by Sam Harris's book title. The question of positive-negative arguments about religion or other beliefs is not covered in this comment.

  2. "There is an ongoing debate in the secular community about whether secularists ought to concentrate more energy on criticizing bad religious and moral ideas, or promoting positive values."

    One between those who promote (criticizing bad religious and moral ideas) as a positive activity, and those who criticize (criticizing bad religious and moral ideas) as a bad idea.

    Sometimes the latter group goes meta, and argues that arguing against ideas is not a persuasive way to argue.

    It tends to not be persuasive.

    But is that their intent?

  3. Michael, it helps. Some questions remain, nonetheless.
    "Internal" rationality, you say, is based on "assumptions". I think one should distinguish between "assumptions about the real world" and "preferences among alternative choices". The former can be wrong or right (e.g. one may wrongly believe that a rain-making dance around a tribal fire may cause rainfall). The latter are not so questionable: I say potahto, you say potayto, you like beef and I don't, you prefer fishing and I prefer hiking, I love this particular girl and you don't, and so on. Everyone has tastes and preferences and priorities, and usually everyone else cannot tell whether they are "rational", and I'm not sure that it matters at all. If you actually believe that your rain dancing causes rainfall, then dancing is the (internally) rational thing to do if your tribe faces drought, although some foreign witches may tell you that it is useless, and call this belief of theirs "externally rational" and "objectively true". Foreign witches are weird, aren't they?

    2. Rationality is usually defined in terms of using adequate means to achieve certain ends, the ends being "practical" goals (such as obtaining food) or "values" (such as "doing good" or "proclaiming your faith"), hence Max Weber distinction between rational action oriented to goals and rational actions oriented by values. But either goals or values are not themselves subject to "rationality" characterization (except in the limited sense that the most common models of "rational choice" or "rational action", especially in Economics, require that preferences be non-reflexive and transitive: this is not a requirement to make the choice more rational, but for the models to work in a consistent manner, i.e. producing consistent responses to a given stimulus, so that an external observer may say that they "make sense" in terms of your beliefs and preferences.
    Conventional economic theory also uses to require that preferences are relatively stable, and treats them as given, but again this is just a simplification for short-term models, since everyone agrees that preferences may change over time, given sufficient time, and entire branches of industry are devoted to change your preferences, e.g. through advertising).

  4. The developing internal rifts between secularists, if not reconciled, will eventually lead to divergent secularist groups just like the internal rifts in Christianity and Islam has led to each religion's divergent denominations. What secularists need to be the most concerned about, are the parallels their movement has to past religious movements. Anytime a group begins to decree in absolutes, they start to loose sight of the truth and will stagnate as a result.

    How is the religious statement, "Science is *absolutely* wrong and therefore everything from the scientific community must be *absolutely* wrong." fundamentally any different than the secularist statement, "Religion is *absolutely* wrong and therefore anything from the religious community must be *absolutely* wrong." In the end, both of these statements will lead to the same place.

    "Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen."
    -Heinrich Heine

  5. My comment at 9:46 AM was mistakenly posted here. It was intended for the previous post by Michael, about what we mean by being rational, http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/02/what-do-you-mean-when-you-say-rational.html, where I ended up posting a shorter and (to my taste) less informative comment. Please red the above comment in that context.

  6. Refuting religion is not, in my view, a fruitful endeavour. People do not believe in religious beliefs or behave according to religious commandments because they have been rationally demonstrated to be true, rational or good. They just believe it for all sort of reasons that can be studied from psychological, sociological or anthropological (among others) viewpoints. One can rationally pursue the study of religion just as one studies racial discrimination or the reign of Ramses II.
    What one can do is dispelling the false belief that non-religious people lack moral beliefs or values. This has been repeatedly done by many atheists or agnostics, usually putting themselves as their own example, though in fact I do not recall any scientific study of the prevalence of specific ethical values and ethically-relevant behaviour among believers and unbelievers. Is there any? On the other hand, such examples may convince non believers but would hardly move believers out of their views.

    Believing in religion is like being in love with a person: it is beyond argument.

    On the other hand, secularism is a natural tendency in modern societies (while almost unbeknownst in preindustrial ones). Schools, modern travel, living in cities, working in a modern workplace and job, and other features of modern life, have a tendency to erode the salience of religion in people's lives. More than being "refuted", religion is gradually neglected, or reduced to increasingly irrelevant gestures.
    One interesting question, however, is how much modern society needs religion in its ancient role of "opium of the masses", i.e. as a way of providing social conformity and cohesion, and minimizing social conflict and revolt. Again, a sociological-historical-anthropological question about religion as a social institution, not an argument about the contents and rationality of religious beliefs.

  7. "The developing internal rifts between secularists, if not reconciled, will eventually lead to divergent secularist groups just like the internal rifts in Christianity and Islam has led to each religion's divergent denominations." - Justin

    No, no, division is good. The whole point of secularism is that it withstands division - little else necessitates secularism like splitting. After all, denominationalism is inherently secular in character. Isn't there something perverse and maybe even a little hypocritical in arguing over the one true way to pursue secularism?

    The answer to the dilemma? Come up with more ways to pursue secularism; clearly, two are not enough. Splitters unite!

  8. @James

    Indeed, diversity when embraced leads to development and growth. This is fundamentally my point.

  9. @Hector and Brian

    I like your arguments. Attacking a person or group, no matter how logical or rational the basis is, will only serve to put them on the defensive; driving them further into their belief system. This approach is counterproductive to the progression of society. At the same time, it is illogical to presume that any group of people is *absolutely* wrong. To view a people in this way is a blinding prejudice that is also counterproductive to the progression of society. Both the propagators of religion and the propagators of secularism are guilty of these trespasses.

  10. Great post, Michael.

    >It seems to me that a person cannot be against an idea without being for something. When arguing against an idea, one is surely tearing something down. But one is also doing so because he or she values things like science, reason, and secular thinking.

    Absolutely right. The only place that that is sometimes not true is in policy issues and, to a certain extent, ethical issues, where one policy is often only relatively good or bad compared to another policy. For example, if I propose a tax increase to repair infrastructure, criticizing me is only worthwhile if you're willing to say something about your alternative plan - how would you repair infrastructure, if at all?

  11. Justin, thanks for agreeing with my arguments, but some of your agreement is for the wrong reasons. I do not think that attacking religious beliefs "is counterproductive to the progression of society". I do not think it is productive either. In fact, I do not know what you mean by "the progression of society": if any meaning is to be attached to that concept, it should be very, but really very carefully defined.

    I was only remarking that religious beliefs on average are not likely to yield to rational argument alone, but such beliefs are likely to lose strength, salience and frequency at societal level, as the economy enters the industrial and post industrial ages, with all their accompanying (political and cultural) baggage. I did not mean to approve or disapprove of that, any more than I approve of disapprove of the Roman Empire having ended, or of flu viruses making a retreat in summer and coming back in winter. My approval or disapproval, besides, would have practically no impact upon those phenomena.

    You also asset that "At the same time, it is illogical to presume that any group of people is *absolutely* wrong", and that this would also not be conducive to the "progression of society", whatever that means.

    I have some reservations about groups not being (collectively, in average) "absolutely wrong". Certain demonstrably false beliefs (such as that the Earth is flat) can be held by all or the vast majority of people (most pre-Greek civilisations, I gather, believed in a flat Earth, and so did most people up to the Renaissance with the exception of a very few learned minds who knew otherwise.
    Of course, you can be wrong on certain things like astronomy that have no practical implications (you can still find your way by looking at the stars, even if you think the Earth is flat, as you can also predict eclipses with remarkable accuracy based on Ptolemaic astronomy). But it is arguable that practical knowledge and related practices cannot be "absolutely wrong" except in certain details, for otherwise the group in question would go extinct. Folk physics and folk biology MUST be approximately right IN THEIR OBSERVABLE IMPLICATIONS if most people are to avoid dangerous accidents and regularly find food.

  12. May I add that I am not a "secularist". I'm just secular, like most people in modern societies (even most of those that still cling to certain religious beliefs and practices).

  13. I attended a talk recently by Jack David Eller, who argued that religion was a primarily cultural, rather primarily intellectual phenomenon. That it consists mainly in creeping influence, the marking of territory, and insinuation of prayer and faith into daily life, rather than in beliefs in propositions with specific truth value. And therefore that there's very little return from arguing with believers. I partially disagree, because, for one, there are actually people who have been argued out of religion, and also because I think religion is set apart definitionally by the specific content of the beliefs (or at least the narratives) involved. Conspiracy theories can resemble religious ideas, but you can usually tell which is which (and which ideas are both) because of their subjects.

    But rather than skipping down the primrose path of postmodernism (wherein cultural beliefs are not really true nor false, so no use in combating them!), Eller's suggestion was that nonbelievers need to form communities and culture within which people are assumed by default not to believe in any particular gods, and where it is more unusual to insinuate religious ritual into daily life than not to. This includes cultural media as well as local secular organizations devoted to ethical discussion and self-improvement, social support, charity, and other services that would in previous decades have been provided mainly by churches.

    I think that he is right in that this is probably the single thing that could best promote atheism, and can be accomplished internally under the heading of humanism, and with the use of positive messages and some degree of copying whatever works from religious groups. But I think that argument also serves several vital purposes, and has to be continued concomitantly with the positive work.

    For one, drawing attention to the excesses of religion is good for gaining publicity. There's always going to be a population of nonbelievers out there who don't really think very much about being nonbelievers, and so simply increasing interest and participation in various humanist or atheist projects is possible in this way. There's also flat deconversion, for that minority of believers who are ready to be talked out of their religion. But I think it's also important in terms of keeping open the lines of communication. Argument may not convince people, but it does expose them to a different way of talking and thinking about particular issues. It's important that people not be born, live, and die, without ever coming to terms with the fact that there are other people out there who don't speak Christianese and do not view the world in terms of the actions of a single controlling/care-taking authority.

  14. Side issue regarding facts vs. values and beliefs: I don't think people are generally morally culpable for believing false things or for being ignorant. However, when they have sufficient understanding to recognize that moral action depends on accurate understanding of some issue, they then have a moral obligation to take on that issue. So, for example, there's no moral deficiency in people who believe creationism, but I think that when you begin to promote it as a dogma or in the school system, you have a moral obligation to exercise due diligence in understanding the issues at hand, and failing to do so (or misrepresenting the facts in doing so) is a character flaw. Or, the same with regard to gay rights; one can believe in "biblical morality" if one wishes, but when it comes to public policy, or to indoctrination of children (some of whom may turn out to be gay), one has a moral obligation to understand the issues thoroughly.

    So I think that basic critical thinking and epistemically sound examination of one's own beliefs is actually an important faculty for living morally, perhaps even as necessary as empathy (which is also a faculty present to different degrees in different individuals, and is also subject to training in most people). One can then see that the problem with a population which holds faith to be a higher value than education will almost certainly be a moral, as well as an epistemic, problem.

  15. @Hector
    I admire and appreciate your analogous and mitigated writing methods. Indeed, from a semantical standpoint the word progression is much too relative to define.

    In a way, it would be nice if you could make a point that I disagreed with, because this discussion would be a little bit more interesting. (just kidding)

    For clarification, let's consider your, "world is flat" analogy. It would be easy, as a scientist to disagree with a group of "starlight navigators" because they believed beyond all reason that the world was flat. I could attack them and beat them over the head with satellite images and the accounts of sailors that had sailed around the world. Psychologically, this would put them on the defensive and drive them deeper into their irrational belief system. They would say that I was absolutely wrong and reject anything that I proposed from then on out. They would likely forsake the invention of the GPS system because it was associated with roundism.

    Conversely, if the propagators of "roundism" were to start viewing starlight navigators and everything related to them as idiocy, they would find themselves lost at sea when their GPS system failed.

    This is the world we find ourselves in today. The arguments for removing the ten commandments from a courtroom and the arguments for mitigating Darwinism in classroom are only the first steps down a road that leads to darkness. It is easy to overlook the brilliance that is contained within any group of people because of the blind prejudices that are formed during vehement and scornful debate. For example, a survey conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that 76% of our doctors believe in God. Do we reject a new surgical procedure because it was developed by a Christian? Of course not, that would be illogical. But by removing the Bible from the public library, as many secularists would like to do, we are starting down that path.

    I chose the quote by Heinrich Heine in the preceding post because it was prophetic. Years after the German poet had written those words, Germany's college kids began burning Jewish books and shouting "Tod zum Juden!" (Death to the Jew!). As a result, Germany lost a large portion of its philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians, etc to exile. By declaring a group of people to be *absolutely* wrong, Germany became so blind by its prejudice against jews that it lost Albert Einstein, Max Born, and Sigmund Freud, just to name a few. The threat of absolutism whether it be on the side of religion or on the side of secularism, cannot be overestimated.

  16. Do you really think that the problem with Nazis was that they were too certain about their beliefs? Were the allies equally wrong for being so certain that Nazis beliefs were wrong?

  17. Justin, instead of making a point for you to disagree with, I preferred to point out peculiarities in your concepts or reasonings that may force you (or others) to express your thoughts (or think) more clearly, by far a more effective method ever since Socrates.

  18. The story thus far...

    The Goal: A world of human beings who do not believe in Imperceptible Magic People nor that such beings have ever had or will ever have any influence in the material world.

    The Underlying (and often unstated) Assumption: This secular world will be 'Better' than the one we currently inhabit. Presumably because more evil action is motivated by religious belief than good action.

    The Argument: Which method (example or confrontation) is most efficacious in achieving The Goal.

    On the face of it I'd have to say that leading by example is probably the way to go and will certainly be less frustrating than pointlessly arguing with the believers. Logic is virtually powerless against desire and these people believe because they desire to.

    This is not to say that religion couldn't be eliminated of course. That would be easy enough to do if you burned all religious texts/icons/temples, silenced all the current believers and made sure their children were never exposed to religion. That would work. Arguing won't, those few (and celebrated) converts notwithstanding.

    Pat Condell makes a good example. He has made a number of videos vociferously ranting about the perils of religion and I have to wonder - How many believers do you suppose actually view them? Ask yourself, how many religious conversion videos do you regularly watch? Simply put the believers aren't listening to counter arguments. The choir on both sides is well preached to.

    That said I do think fighting believers attempts to legislate their religious beliefs is a winnable and worthwhile battle. A battle typically won with the help of other believers no less.

    I also think the fundamental assumption is flawed. In my personal anecdotal experience the believers I know do more good than evil motivated by their beliefs. One might be inclined to think otherwise because the bad stuff gets all the press.

    Even in the unlikely event of success and elimination of religion something else would just step in and fill the vacuum it left behind because it is just one of the many delusions our lives are steeped in. Politics and money are both waiting in the wings to motivate people to do harm to each other. That is because the problem is not now nor ever was religion. Religion is just a symptom. The problem is human nature and until that changes these sorts of conflicts will continue in one form or another.

    When human nature makes people see every other human as part of their group, every part of the planet as part of their home and they can look the harsh realities of a transitory material existence in the eye unblinking then perhaps things will change. Until then - not so much.

  19. Positive values, positive values. Secular humanism needs to sit down at the table with the others

    Good stuff!

  20. @James
    "All generalizations are false, including this one."
    -Samuel Clemens

    You make an excellent point. It is also true, that if the 'right wing national socialists' had not condemned the Jews, they would have been the ones with an atom bomb. The word serendipity could be used, but the Japanese would certainly disagree.

    The burning of books seems to be a common denominator amongst those on the wrong side of history.

    @Hector (again you are agreed with)
    What you speak of, is my favorite thing about this forum. Prof. Pigliucci deserves a lot of praise for publicly promoting such discourse. The content that is being produced here on a daily basis can only be described as valuable.

  21. But Justin, you're promoting a single best way to promote secularism while arguing that there are no single best ways and those who think they're in possession of a certain way must surely be wrong - if not analogous to Nazis. You can't have it both ways.

    And whose talking about burning books? Secularists and atheists seem to read more religious texts than anyone else.

    Anyway, the catching-more-flies-with-honey-than-with-vinegar argument is well received, but I think it's misplaced. When our discourse is primarily preoccupied with issues of framing, luring, and rhetorical maneuvering, we do harm to the dignity of our interlocutor, as well as the integrity of whatever lives in the neighborhood of truth. We become orators, of the sort Socrates warned us against.

  22. In terms of practical concerns, secularism is only marginally better than theism. Yes, rationally speaking it's way better, but, sadly, rationality corresponds to happiness about as much as Chess skills correspond to long marriage. So, no attentive student of history can conclude that secularism is ideal. It's better, slightly, but not ideal. It's not the fault of secularism, it's just the type of animal we are.

    What's worse is that, if you want to promote some secularist utopia, you risk bringing to life all the nightmares that are unleashed by any utopian visions -- whether it's crusades, gulags or ethnic cleansing. I lived briefly in the crumbling Soviet Union and heard the echoes of how bad it can get. Yes, I know, Communism was more like religion than not, but to totally discount Communism as an example of how poorly any new system can turn out is to adopt a defensive and shallow historical view. Communism is not just a rhetorical problem for secularists. To not fully account for it is dangerous. You risk adopting a naiveté that has lured many an intelligentsia to its death. The gulags were full of gays and intellectuals who were promised a bright spot in the bright future.

    Beat that secularist drum as much as you like, it will always sound a little hollow. No one knows this better than Sam Harris who played the secular string to its end and found himself wanting an ethics. He tried to build one for himself with autodidactic zeal and ended up with a sandcastle of ill informed assertions.

    So, yes, the redest meat lies in the deconstruction, not the construction of systems. And when the theists (and idealists) want to make "scientific" assertions, we must tear them down with venom. Science needs to be protected. Science, the groping half-wit, is our best hope, and we must protect that poor orphan of the Enlightenment from all the leering theists and new-agers who want to chain it in their basements. We've got to let that kid skin his knee out in the open, and hope he brings us a nice little card on Father's Day, something cobbled together with Bayesian Elmer's glue holding macaroni shards of falsifiability on a cardboard box of Lakotos's core and sprinkled with experimentalism sparkles. Taking science out of their hands is more important than offering false hopes. We are apes, after all, and we will be for a long time.

  23. Nice ramble. but who are the "we" that must protect the half witted groping trials of science if not the scientifically disposed didactics? The Sam Harrises of neuroscience among them.

  24. OneDayMore,

    Secularism's fundamental assumption is that there is no perfect system of human organization. It's exactly the opposite of a Utopian view.

    Where Justin says, 'I'm certain certainty is the greatest threat, so we should all be certain in this', you're saying, 'all systems are imperfect and should be suspect for that reason, except for this one system that I really like a lot'.

    Come on. Even if you guys were being consistent, nothing is sinister merely because it is systematic nor merely because someone seems certain of it. These are, at best, superstitious reasons for rejecting anything.

  25. @James
    The antonym for superstition in this conversation is naiveté. The truth is, we can have it both ways. There is plenty room in modern society for religion, secularism, and even satanism for that matter.

    I live in the United States. Here 83.1% of adults hold some sort of religious belief, the vast majority (over 78%) being Christian. Secularism, in its many forms, constitutes a mere 11% of our population. Odds are that if one group were to try and crush the other, religion would win.

    My point to you is, at this point in time, if secularists are to make any headway in promoting science to the masses, it cannot be accomplished through prejudice.

  26. Re James take on OneDayMore - I don't know - any system has sinister aspects. As well as banal ones, as well as really positive one. Look at "The Lottery" as an example of community togetherness, Volkswagens as a product of the German industrial community, and so on.

  27. Justin informs us that "I live in the United States. Here 83.1% of adults hold some sort of religious belief, the vast majority (over 78%) being Christian. Secularism, in its many forms, constitutes a mere 11% of our population."

    I tend to separate the duality religious-nonreligious from secular-nonsecular. The opposite of being religious is being an atheist or an agnostic. People who are nominally religious (in the sense of saying that they "believe" in God or the afterlife when asked in a survey) are probably secular in their everyday life, where those putative religious beliefs play little if any role. They rely on thermodynamics and the pilot's expertise, not on god's will or the number of their sins, for their plane not to crash. They blame HIV for AIDS, not a vengeful deity punishing the sinful. They go to doctors for illnesses, not to tribal witches or the church. Some indulge in religious practices, "just in case" Pascal-wise, when a relative suffers some dangerous disease, but only after attempting all scientific wordly remedies. They may read horoscopes, but not really relying on their contents to guide most of their daily decisions. Most Americans, I surmise, are secular, though they have not managed to be actively non-religious.
    Take Catholics. Sunday Mass attendance is much less universally observed than it should be (you are supposed to commit a mortal sin just by willfully skipping one Sunday mass, and you would go to hell if you die in the aftermath of that terrible infraction). Most Catholics in the US practice contraception, and few really believe in the bodily ascent of Virgin Mary to Heaven (translation up the atmosphere above Jerusalem, possibly to the stratosphere and beyond...), nor are they likely to take epilepsy for satanic possession or divine ecstasy. It is only that actively stating their disbelief would plunge them into deeper water, and most prefer not to do it in the sociological environment of the US (they do it more frequently in other countries, e.g. in Europe). Besides, many go to church just for social reasons, and because it does no harm, but would be loath to accept stricter obligations (fasting in Lent, pilgrimage to Rome without indulging in the worldly pleasures of mere tourism, etc.).

  28. Justin,

    1) Secular is not the opposite of religious - as Hector said. Many - maybe most - people who identify themselves as religious also identify themselves as secular. Emphasizing the point further, not all atheists are secular.

    2) Insisting something is the case does not amount to an argument for it being the case. You also seem to be misreading what I meant by "you can't have it both ways." I wouldn't mind if you could repeat my argument just to make sure we're talking about the same thing - my main point is that you were contradicting yourself, so you'll want to address that.

    3) Non-religious is the fastest growing religious affiliation in America, and the dominant one in Europe. The evidence seems to suggest that ridicule is the most effective response to the religious - assuming one wants to disabuse people of those beliefs.

    4) Ridicule is not prejudice. In fact, I'm a little hard pressed to come up with an example of secular prejudice. I'm not convinced anyone is suggesting prejudice as a means.

  29. Baron,
    I’m all for defending science and debunking religion. But I think Harris lost his way when he hoped to provide more than a reasonable person can hope to offer. There is no certainty to be had. Philosophy still makes it clear that morality must be dependent on your assumptions, values, preferences, psychology and (to a large extent) biology. Neuroscience seems only to confirm this, not the opposite.

    There is no self-contradiction in asserting that one should avoid certainty. This is not a paradox of self-reference. It is the only epistemologically valid starting point--a conclusion based first on Epistemology then history and finally the current state of theoretical physics. All Foundationalism has failed. Can we be certain it won’t succeed in the future? Nope. But unless you think you are smarter than Whitehead, Russell, Godel, Bohr and Hawkings (all of whom have made it quite clear that there is no non-perspectival Archimedean point) then you should step away from the metaphysical system, friend-o.

  30. @Hector M.
    >People who are nominally religious (in the sense of saying that they "believe" in God or the afterlife when asked in a survey) are probably secular in their everyday life, where those putative religious beliefs play little if any role.

    This is the perfect illustration of a being secular vs. being a secularist. All of your assertions are logical, and I concede that they are in congruence with my own observations.

    You are making a valid point when you say that secular is not the opposite of religious. A person can go to church every sunday, pray every night before they go to bed, and still have enough sense to go the emergency room when they're having chest pains. Likewise a secular person can watch football on sunday, go to the doctor when they are sick, and cry out, "God help us!" as the airplane crashes to the ground. There isn't enough difference between the two to justify them ridiculing each other. They should be just as capable of discussion as you and I.

    Perhaps the use of a post Weimar analogy was too extreme for most people to relate to. Also, historical analogies can be difficult to convey since history has a way of being distorted over time. I should note for historical clarification, that the Nazi movement was as much an anti-secular movement as it was anti-Jew. The thing is, the masses are always going be like a pendulum, swinging back and forth depending on the prevailing forces of their time. I chose Germany as an analogy, because it is the perfect example of what happens when the pendulum gets pushed too far and too fast in one direction. History teaches that it tends to snap back violently.

    I acknowledge that my argument is a tricky one, in that, I am not taking the side of either the religious zealot or the secular activist. This makes me appear as if "I am trying to have it both ways". To clarify, I am taking the side of acceptance over ridicule. Perceiving that a better analogy is in order, I will provide one from my own experience, that should prove easier to relate to.

    During my first trip to Europe, I ran into anti-Americanism. I was in Italy, and was explaining to a traveling companion that it was more appropriate to say "buona sera" in the latter part of the day than buongiorno. An Italian turned and complimented me, but then upon realizing that I was an American, he became offended and left abruptly. I learned nothing from him. Ridiculing me and calling me a stupid yankee will never be persuasive. Likewise, ridiculing Christians, forcing them to take down their manger scenes, and covering up the crosses on war memorials will not convince them that global warming is a threat, life evolved from bacteria, or that God is an irrational concept.

    Now contrast that approach with that of the Italian college students. They accepted us. One rather fast speaking Italian girl was continuously introducing me to new groups of people. She spoke too fast for me to follow, but I knew she was talking about me from the occasional, "lui" followed by giggling and laughter of her friends. They helped me with my italian, teaching me in reverse from their english textbooks. They taught me how to ride a moped. The Carabinieri taught me not to (but that is a different analogy).

    My point is, by accepting me for who I was, the door was opened. We were both able to learn from each other and grow. On the other hand by ridiculing who I was, the door was closed and intellectually we both stagnated.

  31. @Michael De Dora
    Which side are you on?

  32. @Justin - Confused why "God is an irrational concept". If gods are a rational concept to you, but the concept of a single moral overarching God to the exclusion of all others is what is irrational, then I guess I'd agree. If you think gods are an irrational concept, think of everything from humans to rocks as level 2 and machines as level 3, and think again about how a level 1 not only could exist, but HAS to exist.

    The reasons for this are:
    - belief in something implies existence; people naturally seem to believe in gods.

    - the difference between fact and fiction is illusory, because facts imply objects, and objects cannot exist in a vacuum. Facts, even mathematical ones, exist in the eyes of beholders. Go far away from where you are, to a place that a myth is perceived by the locals to be truth. Stay there for a year. Would be surprised if you did not discover elements of truth in that myth, and became a bit of a believer.

    - NOT assuming there are gods, aliens, goblins, unicorns, or anything else unproven by science just highlights our remarkable ability to not listen to what others are saying or have said over time and place.

  33. Myths are predictive, their axiomatic accuracies dependent on the respective cultures, evolved and reinforced by feedback from experience.
    The mythological gods and other creatures are the authoritative figures that personalize and add power to the guidance from above (or from below as the case may be).
    The relative effectiveness of the message is factual, the mythological messenger is invariably fictional.

  34. @DaveS
    >'Confused why "God is an irrational concept".'

    God is an irrational concept because of a natural language barrier that exists between two divergent groups of people. To explain, while maintaing the theme of this discussion, I will use the example of a Mexican who wanted to change something about America. If he demands that all American's renounce their citizenship, he will not get anywhere. It is illogical to demand that Americans quit being Americans. However, if he accepted Americans for who they are and instead tried to teach Americans the merit of his idea, HE WOULD FAIL. The reason is because he is speaking spanish, while the majority of people are speaking english. Everything he says sounds like unintelligible gibberish. Sure some people speak spanish fluently, while others speak only a little, but not enough speak it for him to be persuaded.

    Step 1 = Accept

    Step 2 = learn the language.

    I cannot speak for the pure secularist, other that to say what I perceive that they want to hear. Therefore, to illustrate my point, I will instead speak as scientist. To speak as a scientist is to use a different language than that of a Christian. I have to be careful because, as I pointed out earlier, almost 8 out of 10 people in America, when asked, say that they associate with Christianity. I would frame that assertion by saying 8 out of 10 people speak a little Christian.

    When I want a Christian to accept my ideas, I have to first accept them, It would be irrational to demand that they denounce Jesus so that I can talk to them about science. However, if I accept them and then try to teach them science, I WILL FAIL. Because of the language barrier, everything that is spoken in "science speak" will sound to them like "stupid speak".

    When learning a new language, it helps to look at patterns. If a Christian is asked what controls the universe, they will likely answer, "God". When a scientist is asked what controls the universe, he will likely answer, "The laws of physics." Therefore God in "Christian speak" translates to "The laws of physics" in "science speak". when a physicist listens to a Christian explain, "God created the heavens", not knowing their language, the assertion would be irrational. However, if he knew how to translate, he would realize that the Christian was saying, "The laws of physics, formed the universe"

    "Christian Speak"-->"Science Speak"
    God-->The laws of physics
    Created -->Formed

    Other examples:
    Miracle-->Unexplained Phenomena
    Miraculous Power-->Unexplained Phenomenal Ability

  35. Step 3 = Teach

    How do you teach the big bang theory to a Christian that believes the world sprang into existence 6000 years ago?

    We've accepted them, we've learned their language, now it is time to study their textbook [Bible]. This is where scientists have the advantage. To learn physics, for example, it will take years of study and practice. During that time the physicist will have read tens of thousands of pages worth of materials, not to learn everything about physics, but rather, just to master a specific field within the realm of physics.

    The Christian textbook, by contrast, only has ONE chapter that talks about the formation of the universe, earth, and all the life thereon. The chapter is easy to find, in that it is the very first chapter of the book. In fact there is only ONE sentence [verse] in the entire textbook [Bible] that tells how the universe developed and how the earth formed. It is also easy to find, because it is the books' very first sentence. It reads, in Christian speak, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". Again, as a man of science, that sounds like gibberish until it is translated. "In the beginning the Laws of Physics formed the universe and the earth." The latter is easy to for a scientist to understand and agree with, but it sounds like utter gibberish to a Christian that does not speak science.

    What I find interesting, is that the sentence [verse] does not provide a timeline or methodology. The reader is free to interpret the methodology and timeline how ever they wish. It is not the Christian textbook [Bible] that has teaches that the universe sprang into existence 6000 years ago. It is either the dogma [principals] of their denomination [church] or the instruction [teachings] of their interpreter [preacher]. Either way the assertion is developed by a human. While you will never convince a Christian that their textbook is wrong, you can easily demonstrate to them that a human has made a mistake. The idea that humans are flawed exists at the foundation of almost every religion. At this point the scientist can start talking about WMAP data revealing measurable background radiation, the temperature of space being 3 degrees kelvin above absolute zero, redshift and expansion, and other evidence that supports the assertion of a big bang. Just remember to translate. If you want to convey, "Based on the evidence it appears that the universe formed around 13.5 billion years ago." You will need to say, "Based on the evidence, it appears as though the heavens were created around 13.5 billion years ago.

  36. @Justin - I liked what you said about translation, but sounds like you are are more in the mood for expounding than discussing.

    That's OK, I get like that too. It's a harmless relief valve I think.

  37. "It seems to me that a person cannot be against an idea without being for something."

    I don't think this is correct, or if it is correct, it's correct as a tautology.

    Example: I am against war. Does that mean I am for peace? Perhaps, but peace -- in this context -- is simply the absence of war. I am for the absence of war.

    I think this is true for those of us who are against religion. It is probably true that many Gnu Atheists will say they are against religion because they are for "science, reason, and secular thinking." I'm not. I'm against religion because of the misery it has left in its wake, which overwhelms whatever good has come out of it. Some will argue that "science, reason, and secular thinking" are the appropriate substitutes for faith-based paradigms. I don't, necessarily. And anyway, "secular thinking" is the absence of religion.

  38. I'm against religion because it can't learn from its own mistakes.

    Presumably we're all for learning from our mistakes.
    Or are we against mistakes, period?

    Also this guy Studge has a great website, no mistake.


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