Thursday, May 10, 2007

Atheism on ABC's “20/20” This Week (Video link added)

Tomorrow night (Friday, May 11, 2007, at 9pm Eastern) ABC News airs a two-hour special on Seeing and Believing: The Power of Faith — but the good news is that there will be one segment on atheism, reported by my old boss, John Stossel, who is usually the conduit through which sanity is injected into ABC News broadcasts.

Last time I checked, Stossel was more agnostic than atheist (a good reporter strives to suspend judgment, I suppose), but he should provide a sympathetic ear to Richard Dawkins, one of his interview subjects (and author of The God Delusion).

I was only recently reminded (by my comrade-in-skepticism Chuck Blake) that I’ve been arguing not only with the faithful but even with full-fledged creationists since high school, when a handful of our fellow honors students at Norwich Free Academy high school somehow fell for the whole no-convincing-fossil-record, carbon-dating-my-ass pre-“intelligent design” version of anti-Darwinian thinking.

Indeed, I think the first political column I ever wrote was a high school piece warning about the influence of the fundamentalists on the religious right — but I was more wary of the moral relativism and apologies for communism on the left and for about the next twenty years took the Reaganite view that these religious issues are sort of secondary things best left to the general culture to sort out, while politics is mainly the realm of tax and regulatory debates. Since the post-Reagan coalition on the right hasn’t substantially deregulated or shrunk the government, though — and more importantly, since religious fundamentalists killed thousands of people downtown a few years ago and would surely love to do so again — my patience with treating faith as a useful or at least tolerable cultural partner is at an end.

(Sadly, I don’t really trust the organized Skeptics movement that much anymore, either, since their premier magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has opened a DC headquarters and unskeptically jumped in a big way on the global-warming-doom bandwagon, something I need to dispatch a terse letter about the moment I finish writing this blog entry.)

But in any case, the truth does not hinge on political necessity, and if one casts aside all of the social-utility and psychological-utility arguments (which often aren’t all that convincing to begin with) for religion, one is not left with anything I think we’d normally call evidence or a remotely plausible rational argument — just stuff that in one way or another boils down to “but thinking it was true helped me overcome alcoholism/write an opera/avoid a life of crime/convince fellow neocons we had a duty to invade Iraq/etc.,” all of which is swell but not exactly a good basis for claims about the basic structure of the universe. And in any case, perhaps we can avoid alcoholism and so forth even more effectively without filling people’s heads with fairytales, which means we may be retarding long-term cultural development for short-term gains, like parents who tell their kids not to go in the woods because the boogeyman will get them instead of teaching the kids about real predators, wilderness survival, knot-tying, and so forth.

I remember telling a co-worker back when I was working for Stossel, in fact, that I thought the dangerous thing about faith is that since it does not check its conclusions against empirical reality, it may “tell” people to love and tolerate their neighbors today but tomorrow, blown by different cultural winds, tell people to commit mass murder. Oh, that doesn’t happen, my co-worker basically assured me, amused at what she saw as my relentless negativity in this area (as she is to this day). That was before 9/11, of course.

It’s bad enough that billions of people on this planet continue to treat faith with respect as a means of discerning truth despite the obvious fact that it leads some people to believe in Jesus and, with just as much plausibility, leads other people — who seem clearly to be operating on the same level of well-meaning eagerness to believe in what’s right and good — to believe in Vishnu. But to continue praising faith as a reliable guide even while our civilization is under assault by the likes of al Qaeda strikes me as evidence that most people are stubborn and close-minded right up to and beyond the point of self-destruction (and still they wonder how suicide bombers happen).

Given the spats between church and monarchy that shaped centuries of European history and the clashes between religion-fueled political groups and liberal-or-socialist pro-government groups in our own era, I suspect a lot of human history will (eventually) be looked back upon as effectively a stalemate between two false choices: let the imaginary king in the sky control your life or let the all too real authoritarians on Earth control your life. If you say, “Hey, maybe we can do without either,” you’re labeled a radical nutcase. Ah, well, at least there’s the Stossel broadcast tomorrow.

P.S. I beg you not to respond with citations of religious authorities as supposed “reason” to take faith seriously. Believe me, I’ve now heard decades worth of apologetics for religion, and it’s all complete crap, as I think even the truest of true believers know, dimly, on some level. But the most useless form of the stuff is the offering up of banal Bible passages as if they have some persuasive power greater than bad poetry, so, as the “owner” of this site, I’m telling you not to trespass with nonsense like “But, Todd, you have forgotten Zebadoodah 3:24:05, which clearly teaches us that ‘He who maketh not his resting place beneath the Lord’s bower finds himself lost like unto a man who thought there was a river nearby but now is parched and cranky, while he who taketh comfort in said bower is flowed o’er full ten fathom deep with river water, but in a good way that doth de-parchify his soul, making all who know him glad and strong, for God has this way of revealing things unto those who stop asking certain obvious questions and play along like the sorts of upbeat people who end up onstage, no doubt enjoying themselves more than thee, at one of those onstage-hypnosis acts, like unto the ones seen by Ezekiel when he was in Galilee.” I can delete comments, you know.

UPDATE 5/14/07: The Stossel segment can be seen here.


Mr.B said...

But Todd, you have forgotten Wittgenstein On Certainty 494: “I cannot doubt this proposition without giving up all judgment.”

cb said...

But Mr. B, have you not absorbed the late Willard Van Orman Quine’s _Two Dogmas of Empiricism_ ?!? Perhaps you merely disagree in your parroting of an analytic-synthetic dichotomy. ;-)

Clara said...

their premier magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has opened a DC headquarters and unskeptically jumped in a big way on the global-warming-doom bandwagon.

If you’ll pardon the worn-out Internet slang — ROFL!

By the way, have you noticed that lots of religious dictums and laws have to do with not questioning religion? This Cult of the Supreme Being has rules about as self-referential as Fight Club’s. “You shall have no other gods before me,” and so on. You must love the Lord with all your heart. Pray incessantly. Be pure. All of this is calculated to prevent the slightest wavering of faith and to produce an immediate pang of guilt should any rational doubts creep in.

Todd Seavey said...

I think Dawkins’ idea of memes — which he will almost certainly _not_ get into tonight — is (regardless of its scientific value) an easy way to think about how religion and a lot of other self-perpetuating systems function: not only should you repeat the beliefs often and proselytize (not to mention being fruitful and multiplying) but (in some times and places) avoid those who refuse to believe, perhaps even more interestingly _burn_ those who try to alter the ideas, and of course don’t expect to see convincing evidence…until after you’re dead. How convenient. And perhaps the most annoying trend among my conservative acquaintances is, of course, treating those who say there is a God with respect while _very suddenly_ developing reservations about the fallibility of human reason and calling for intellectual humility when someone says that there isn’t a God. (Those who disagree with me should always be more humble, of course — and likewise those who don’t share my political views should probably refrain from voting until they’ve achieved certainty.) How conservatives can call a man arrogant for saying “I see no evidence there’s a God” but call someone who says “I know even without a shred of evidence or rational argument that there is one” humble-in-spirit is beyond me. But rather than wrestle with the question any further, I think I’m within my rights to conclude that they are in fact just wrong and in many cases stupid, or in Dinesh D’Souza’s case (as noted in an earlier post) simply a jerk.

Clara said...

One thing that has often puzzled me: How is it that some highly intelligent, well educated people cling to religion well into adulthood? It boggles the mind. In some cases, I secretly suspect that the faith-professing person is merely striking a pose.

If we rigged some kind of talking bush near the house of William F. Buckley, Jr., and set it ablaze, would he see it and believe it was God? Doubtful.

Todd Seavey said...

Certainly worth a try.

cb said...

Burning is so 17th century. These days an army of twelve monkeys with snukes stuffed up their shnizzes is ever so much more in vogue. ;-) and scary.

On that note, keeping up with the scientific world view Jones’ technology-wise (as well as in silencing doubters) is also helpful. There is an interesting tension in credibility accrued from tradition and credibility lost from the silliness of the tradition seen through modern eyes. In practice, as in nature, it seems that one sees niche fragmentation. Those more easily suckered & swayed by glitz with poor (or self-created) evidence become Homo crystal powerus. Those persuaded more by test-of-time-stickyness-in-spite-of-silliness stay in the older churches. These older bodies know better how to use muscle and dominate New Agers with almost Morlockian aggressiveness, though the organized squishies of modern socialism remain equally scary. Then there are those awful “hybrids” homo modernized biblicalus with their hipster lingo Korans and such — the tracts that make it sound less like God was a 10 foot tall guy walking around Eden and more like He’s your bestest invisible friend with pheenominal cosmic powers.

Underwriting all the above, they must be sure to continue to feed the basic protocol that if you treat the universe like it’s a person, then it will act like a person. Be “good” to it and it’ll reciprocate, etc. “Concentrate” or “pay attention” to the crystal or UFOs or whomever and they will respond. The social impulse gone horribly awry in an almost OCD-like fashion. It would be funny if only they were just self-aware about it, like, “why am I talking to myself” instead of, say, asking the universe to please help in smiting the World Trade Center. Note that they would be unlikely to praise their devices as they do Allah…”Oh, jet fuel, you are so hot! So absolutely torrid!” It’s always personified first, which is generically the signature of explanatory atavism.

Of course, homo evidentium never did fill a very large niche, now did he? We can always hope he’s on the rise. His pesky demands for reproducibility often ironically hinders memetic reproduction. Patience in the face of ignorance is even more inertia, since as far as I can tell another big theist impulse is shunting ignorance behind a veil of magic.

I agree with Clara’s bepuzzlement viz WTF Buckely. When young and first encountering them, homo evidentium often feels somewhat Gumpian — never knowing quite what wacky conclusion may come from the box of crazy chocolates, icky false personas for political appeal or Kraaazy Karamel purists honest in their delusions. Mmmm…taxonomy of the chocolatey wrongness…sacrilicious!! ;-)

Of course, we should all resist putting a flaming bag of chocolate divinities [ or any similarly composed effigy ;-) ] on anyone’s doorstep — lest we warm too much to the notion of violating property sovereignty. ;-)

dave said...

You have a habit of bunching together disparate views and then arguing against them with a broad stroke – First feminism, now religion.

Interestingly, one of the precepts of the Conservative movement of Judiasm is that the topic of the existance of God as off limits for debate. While that may seem dogmatic, think about what they’re really saying. The statement means that a concept for which there are no empiricaly verifiable facts is off limits for discussion. That is a completely rational view. In fact, to open a concept for which there is no undisputable evidence to discussion would indeed be irrational, no?

If god is considered incomprehensible, can a rational person deny the existance without some measure of faith in making that denial?

Todd Seavey said...

Ah, then perfectly rational to say the existence or non-existence of dancing purple monkeys who perform scenes from Shakespeare inside a forcefield sphere at the heart of the sun Alpha Centauri is “off limits” for rational discussion, right? In the absence of the slightest shred of evidence for some extraordinary claim, a rational person assumes the claim is probably false, as should you. What the traditionalists of Judaism say about it matters not a whit. Grow up.

dave said...

No. Specifically descributing attributes of God, equal in nature to purple, dancing, or reciting shakespeare is not compatable with traditional Judiasm. God is incomprehensible. If an anthropomorphism, for example, is used to illustrate another point, the educated understand the linguistic tool, and they know this because it is in the Talmud and/or Midrash (different facets of the oral law – the body of knowledge that is traditional Judiasm) say as much. Throughout history, different Rabbis have offered different commentary – to be weighed against each other in rational argument. The crux (pardon the metaphor) of Judiasm is not the dogma of the Torah itself, but the various ARGUMENTS about it’s meaning that is the Talmud.

There are Jews who do NOT believe in God – Reform judiasm, for example, views belief in God as optional – who believe the Talmud has value for guidance and wisdom. Since the existance of God is not necessary for adherance to the religon – both orthodox and reform Jews succesfully exist under a premise of studying the Torah, one with God, one without – Contemplating God’s existence is an activity for outside the realm of the religion. Conservative Judiasm has rested on WHAT is the meaning of the Talmud and how can this tradition be applied. It assumes that the existance of God is not provable through debate or observation – which is true for both the faithful and those who don’t believe in God. They’re taking one side, but acquesing that rational men have been making this debate for many more lifetimes than a single one, so choose to move beyond this single point which has not been settled.

Saying that you “just know” that the only conscious and active agent in the universe is limited the level of human consciousness is an act of faith itself. By definition, you would not be aware of such a thing!

Is a discussion on whether there is plant-like life on a specific planet one billion light years away from earth rational? If so state your case, cause I want to know.

But go ahead. Point to the beliefs of Fundamentalist Christians as evidence that Judiasm believes in a literal interpretation of the English translation of the bible. Point to Muslim extremists as evidence that Christianity believes in suicide bombing.

Clara said...

I would be the last person to say that religious faith, in each of its manifestations, is as vile and as dangerous as the case of a fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber. (It does more harm than good in every case, I can state with confidence, but there’s something to be said for letting people make self-defeating choices.)

I’ll concede Dave’s point about Jews emphasizing written and oral teachings to the extent that the “god or no god” question often takes a back seat. But I challenge his implication that daily Talmud/Mishna and Torah study, along with hours of regimented prayer meant to serve as conversation with a god, has any value its own merits. In the absence of a god, one gleans nothing useful from these texts. (“Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.” Move over, W.B. Yeats.)

Certainly, prayer without a god is a ridiculous joke and a waste of time.

I spent ten years in an institution of religious orthodoxy, so I can speak on these themes with some experience. Most of the religious teachings that don’t address the rituals of Judaism have, instead, the aim of driving home morals (e.g. do until others). Respect for the rights of others is a noble thing, but religious teachings try to instill this moral by appealing to self-interest in the most pathetic way. There’s always the story of someone doing something, supposedly thanklessly, and then begin “surprised” by a huge reward. And of course implicit in Judaism, as in all religions that I know of, is the expectation of the mother-of-all-rewards at the end of a life properly lead. To summarize: Wishful thinking, unrealistic expectations and a general feeling of moral superiority do not a good belief system make.

For centuries, the brightest Jews on Earth slaved over the Mishna, Talmud and Torah. They grappled with such crucial topics as daily prayer rituals, the “purity” of women, the sinfulness of certain food, and the precise constitution of forbidden work on the weekly day of rest. Often they disagreed, and they responded to each other with finely tuned arguments.

One of the great tragedies of the human race has been the decision to funnel its most promising scholars into such narrow, unproductive professions — Jews into the rabbinate, Christians into the priesthood. It is difficult to fathom the extent of medical, technological and artistic progress retarded during centuries spent contemplating this drivel. Christians, at least, encouraged music and art for the glorification of the divine. Otherwise the faith-blinded genius would have very few productive outlets at all.

Todd Seavey said...

Dave, one can often point to a position more insane than one’s own to make one’s own position look better, more moderate — and, yes, asserting the existence of specific attributes of God or the desire of that God to have you blow up a building is more insane than simply asserting the existence of that God, but asserting the existence of that God — even a non-anthropomorphic one — is still madness, just as asserting the existence of a _vague_ conspiracy against you (while saner than asserting that your ex-wife is in cahoots with the Water Department to poison you) is still insane. Stop trying to make room for madness in polite conversation.

Xine said...

Todd, as usual I’m impressed by your ability to be friends with me despite the “madness” and (expressed elsewhere) “immorality” of my theism. And I know it doesn’t matter how often I repeat that some people maintain the existence of a *primum mobile* for physics and the universe and the Big Bang and evolution and etc. etc. rather than a white-headed guy on a throne who intervenes to make me win the lottery. I know you don’t care if I say that you have no evidence that God doesn’t exist–instead, you have no evidence that God *does* exist, and you define this lack of evidence as proof that belief in God is irrational madness. As I’ve said repeatedly, to no avail, some people indeed consider the natural world/physics/creation of universe to indicate a creator. That may not be proof that you accept or agree with, but I still think it might help all of you evangelical-atheists’ case if you stopped saying negatively “there’s no evidence that God exists” ad nauseam and instead prove very simply and affirmatively that no creative force is behind physics.

But since all of the above is futile, I’ll say instead that one thing I wish evangelical atheists would stop doing is writing as if they are intimately familiar with religious history while they demonstrate instead a completely unsophisticated and uninformed idea of what religious behavior actually is and has historically been–especially as a core of their argument is that religious people are stupid. If you’re laughing at me as a theist, I as a prof. of medieval history am laughing at your metanarratives and flat misunderstanding of history, straight out of the History Channel. Yup, those “spats between church and monarchy” that offered a choice between sacred and secular authority! Yup, Christians forced into the priesthood and who were anti-thought, retarding technological and medical progress!

One of my favorite moments in Sam Harris’s *End of Faith* is when, amid blathering on and on about the need for “facts” and “evidence,” he repeats twice a blazing factual error about the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Oh, but we already “know” that Christianity in the Middle Ages was all about superstition and hostility to experimental science and punishing people for free thought, right?–because that’s what we learned in high school or what some popular polemicist tells us–so we needn’t bother pursuing further.

(I’m entertained by atheists who arrogantly attack the intelligence of theists while they are under the impression that the plural of “dictum” is “dictums.” But I suppose demeaning those empty centuries without progress means that you don’t bother to learn Latin.)

Please, please, please, get a more sophisticated knowledge of religious history before you embark upon arguments against “religion.” Anyone, Jew or otherwise, should know that there was a precise historical context that gave the ancient Hebrews “you shall have no other gods before me.” It was *not* designed to get rid of rational doubt, in the Hebrews or in future Jews and Christians. It reflected anxiety about Hebrew participation in neighboring Palestinian cults (e.g. those of Ba’al and Ashtarte) in the fervent context of identity- and nation-formation during the early, chaotic days of YHWH cult and Israelite communities. Now, you might not like the fact that some people at certain points, including now, use such a Biblical statement to stop discussion (this in itself demands a great deal of nuance). But don’t try to pass off this ahistorical generalization (“religions do this…”) as if it’s a historical or conceptual truism.

I could complain similarly about Todd’s distillation of “spats,” but I won’t bother. Suffice it to say that bland “religion doe..CONT..

Xine said...

..CONT..s X,” “religion thinks this” “religion has done this in history” statements are unpersuasive unless you know what you’re talking about. Sam Harris, for example, knows *nothing* about the complexities of religious history or of religion today. He makes colossal generalizations garnered from seeing Islamic and Christian fundamentalists on tv (e.g. “religion means accepting a dogmatic text as true”) and explodes it into what he thinks is an incisive destruction of “faith.” But these generalizations are unbelievably flat, without nuance, without accuracy, without historical knowledge, without familiarity with how religious persons and communities actually operate. As a religious historian, I’ll say that not a single supposed criticism of *religion* (as distinct from theism), including those here, has persuaded me of its proponent’s knowledge or insight. I suppose a by-product of thinking something is stupid is not really needing to attend to its dynamism very closely, but all you do is weaken your own position when you’re seeking to attack from a position of putative intellectual authority.

I don’t give a rat’s ass whether you believe in God or not…but you are all on much firmer ground if you stick to your theoretical arguments re: the existence of God, and don’t slide into the much more difficult critique of “religion.”

toddseavey said...

Christine’s long response warrants another blog entry, I think, so look for one on the main page.

anonymo said...

“In some cases, I secretly suspect that the faith-professing person is merely striking a pose.”

Let us nonbelievers drop this one, for a few reasons:

A) You have no more evidence for your suppositions about a believer’s internal mental state than believers do for the existence of God.

B) As a rhetorical matter, this sounds horribly arrogant and immediately discredits the speaker to those who do sincerely believe, or at least sincerely believe that they sincerely believe.

C) The believer’s converse of this is really annoying — when believers claim nonbelievers “really do believe in the hearts, but they convince themselves that they don’t so they can enjoy sinful (sex/drugs/rock ‘n roll) without being wracked with guilt.”

Anonymous girl said...

Anonymo, you have a point, and I ought to drop that line of argument. Thanks. :)

All the same, I think it’s applicable in some cases. Lots of people cloak themselves in faith but don’t actually practice what they preach. (This describes every single religious person I’ve gotten to know.) It can mean adhering closely to the showier forms of religious observance (keeping kosher, wearing a yarmulke, going to church every week, trying to convert everyone around them) but violating all the inconvenient rules in private. The most outwardly pious person I’ve ever met had pre-marital sex, an explicit violation of her religion. She didn’t lose much sleep over it, either. At the time of this “transgression,” she was growing ever more religious. Quite a mystery to me.

I’ve known people amazingly well-read in religious texts, people who pray in public like there’s no tomorrow, who nevertheless run afoul of simple prohibitions like “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you.” So maybe there’s a disconnect in their minds, but I’d prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt: They know perfectly well what they’re doing, and they know there won’t be any divine retribution.

Clara said...

Anonymo, you have a point, and I ought to drop that line of argument. Thanks. :)

All the same, I think it’s justified in some cases. Plenty of people cloak themselves in faith but don’t actually practice what they preach. (This describes every single religious person I’ve gotten to know.) It can mean adhering closely to the showier forms of religious observance (keeping kosher, wearing a yarmulke, going to church every week, trying to convert everyone around them) but violating all the inconvenient rules in private. The most outwardly pious person I’ve ever met has had pre-marital sex, an explicit violation of her religion. She didn’t lose much sleep over it, either. At the time of this “transgression,” she was growing ever more religious. Quite a mystery to me.

I’ve known people amazingly well read in religious texts, people who pray in public like there’s no tomorrow, people who nevertheless run afoul of simple prohibitions like “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you.” So maybe there’s a disconnect in their minds, but I’d prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt: They know perfectly well what they’re doing — and that there won’t be any divine retribution.

Finn said...

It’s not that Christians don’t really believe in divine retribution. It’s the fact that we are not nearly perfect and Christianity asks for a type of harmony that is difficult to achieve. And retribution, like death, seems so far away. Throw into it the whole idea of forgiveness, and the disconnect between what one professes and what one does can become wide, thought it shouldn’t.

Take fornication. I grew up in churches that preached against pre-marital sex. I’ve read the Bible and know what it says on the matter. I can find adequate non-religious reasons why reducing the amount of sex (or sex partners) can be wise. And yet, I really really want to have sex. Like I really do!

I also know that it is not so much sex, or anything else, but rather the tendency of many things we do to become God substitutes, and our masters. I am reminded of a friend of mine who really enjoys sex (fine in itself), but that hunger crowds out both more productive endeavors and safe habits. On a non-religious level she knows her actions are not healthy, but also, on a non-religious level, she has few tools to deal with her own behavior. And I worry about her (but also, want to have sex with her!)

I can walk around feeling good that I have followed say, the NO fornication thing in the Bible, while not realizing that I am a glutton and selfish (and further, that my level of gluttony has made me chunkier, and less attractive to the types of women I would have a hard type sexually resisting. So, in essence, I am falsely proud of my ability to resist temptations that never even come my way). I am a hypocrite. I see Satan over there (peaking from the lovely cleavage of some woman) and don’t realize he is right here inside my Wendy’s bacon cheeseburger, which I cannot resist. That lack of ability to resist makes me less functional to God, and to my fellows. There is a time for sex, and for fun, as we are human, and biological, but there is also a time for serious matters, which, present habits inforced, I will have an inability to embrace. My last dime and time will go for a meal at The French Laundry, instead of for helping my niece pay for an extra college application or three.

In the end the primary purpose of Christianity is to bring people back to a theoretical God and show love, and that’s what you should be seeing in Christians of any depth. There will always be times where you will see hypocrisy–the Christian guy who drags you to his church, then tries to get you into bed after- as Christians are attempting to deal with all those areas where we are flawed. But in the process, one should at least see a level of love being shown.

All men are flawed and have done evil in the world through history, but the question to ask is has Christianity, or the people professing the faith, done any good.

(Additionally, I don’t think one can make an argument for “faith” in general, or for “religion”, as though all faiths or all religions carry a level of equality. I tend to believe most religion is a variation on one truth, but functions much like the game where people whisper a message from one to another, and by the time the last has heard the message, it has profoundly changed, for people along the way deliberately or accidentally distort it. In some cases the message heard is something authentic and worthwhile, and in other cases, the message has been rendered useless).

Clara said...

Finn, that was powerfully expressed.

I’m reminded of a friend’s defense of political conservatism. He said, “True, lots of conservatives are hypocrites, but at least they actually have moral principles to violate.”