Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Great Religious Debate

The God Delusion makes the case that the existence of a supreme being is supremely improbable, and that religious belief is not only wrong but deadly. Author Richard Dawkins

Meanwhile, youth enter oblivious, hands outstretched, fat cheeks and watery eyes staring skyward to the Lord.

They are to leave warriors. Convinced by arguments crafted from statistics and fear, these children of God are told they are to be the salvation of a generation in decline, one beset by the perils of pop culture, advertising and corporate greed.

They absorb those lessons, squealing in delight whenever a speaker mentions the righteousness of Jesus.

So goes the Acquire The Fire youth rally in Hamilton, part of a nation-wide tour promoting the idea of branding teens with God.

Ah, brings back some memories.

I actually found the interview with Dawkins quite interesting. No, I’m not a Darwinist. I don’t believe in the theory of evolution. I equate the idea of the big bang to being as probable as an explosion in a printing press producing a perfect dictionary. However, the main thing here is that to me, it just doesn’t matter. Okay, I don’t like the implications of social Darwinism. Hitler practiced an extreme form of social Darwinism, mixed in with his own rhetoric. If you weren’t part of the ‘superior’ race you were expendable. In fact, it was probably best to rid the world of the vermin.

And I definitely don’t think he’s advocating for religious freedom.

But there is something he’s pushing for, and that’s a change in perception. The point that atheists must lie in order to be elected in the US is not a good thing, for the atheists or for the religious. This is how we get so-called God-fearing religious leaders who turn out to be hypocrites. They prove their own lie by their actions, but they do damage the image of religion in the process.

To be honest with you, I just don’t see what difference it makes if people believe in God. Sure, there’s the idea of believing in a higher authority you have to answer to, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from lying, stealing, cheating on their wives.

Do I think it’s amusing that someone wants to convert me to atheism? Absolutely. I was raised atheist.

Really, I just find it intriguing that the same criticism of one group ends up being what the criticizing group is guilty of themselves. You find religious beliefs threaten your freedom as an atheist. So the solution is to convert enough of the religious so that you will have a majority and therefore be able to impose your values on believers.

You know, if we didn’t teach people facts but taught them to think and encouraged people to actually reason things out for themselves, think of how much energy normally invested in bickering would be saved.

For at the end of the day, does it matter? I mean, really? If the Buddhists are right, they can feel humble about it for eternity… or whatever would be appropriate there. Likewise any other religious group.

And if the atheists are right, once we’re gone our consciousness or spirit won’t be able to give a damn anyway. You know, this is one of the reasons I have a real aversion to authors who over-promote and use all kinds of marketing gimmicks. I figure, if you’re confident you’ve got the truth, you don’t feel anxious about it. You exude your confidence in your convictions. That will appeal to people without you saying a word. But when you feel the need to shove it down everyone’s throat and try to convert every single person you meet, it smacks of desperation and uncertainty. To me, anyway.

Maybe just from being there myself and being around too many who carried themselves that way.

All in all, I found the articles interesting. They made me think.


stevemosby said...

'Ey up, as they say round these parts. Did you have a sneaky suspicion that I might post a comment on this? :-)

As you probably remember, I do believe in evolution, mainly because the scientific evidence for it is overwhelming, and I do - with the greatest respect - scratch my head a little when I encounter someone who doesn't. It's just such an elegant, intuitive, almost beautiful explanation for the variety and complexity of life. But I'm not out to convince you! Each to their own, as you say, so long as we can all still have a beer.

Dawkins's position is as a strong advocate of evolution, which in the past has brought him into conflict with religious ideas, and his new book is a culmination of that. It's a bit of a rant, but I liked it well enough.

In terms of 'why write it', I think there's his passion for rationalism and science, understandable concern at religious ideas creeping into the science classroom, and also the fact that he sees religion as quite dangerous. When I said "each to their own", I only believe that as long as your beliefs don't impact how I have to live or die. And it's pretty obvious that religion (in form or practice) is responsible for a great deal of misery. For example, although I know the Palestinian situation is far more complex than just this, I still can't help thinking a solution might at least be simplified if both parties didn't invest an otherwise utterly irrelevant patch of land with otherworldly significance.

And Dawkins has spoken out against any idea of social darwinism. His position is just that evolution got us here, not that there should ever be policy implications for that - quite the opposite.

If you haven't done, I would recommend reading at least one of his books: The Blind Watchmaker, or Climbing Mount Improbable, maybe. Probably not The God Delusion, as it is a bit of a grumpy rant. But his earlier popular-science books give a real flavour of the enthusiasm and genuine wonder he has for his subject.

Christa M. Miller said...

I figure, if you’re confident you’ve got the truth, you don’t feel anxious about it. You exude your confidence in your convictions. That will appeal to people without you saying a word. But when you feel the need to shove it down everyone’s throat and try to convert every single person you meet, it smacks of desperation and uncertainty.

That's exactly how I feel. Don't say that faith is a gift from God and then spend time/energy trying to "give" it to others... that's like saying you don't *really* believe the Almighty can use you as His instrument, so you may as well take over from here....

Sandra Ruttan said...

Of course, now that I see you here Steve, I'm not surprised. But I really didn't think about it last night. I just found these articles interesting, and since they ran in the same paper in such close proximity to each other (in terms of time) I found that interesting.

I haven't read any of Dawkins' books, but your recommendation makes sense. A rant is probably not most convincing for me.

Religion is indeed responsible for a lot of suffering in the world. That said, communism was atheist and it was responsible for a lot of suffering too. Perhaps it's best said that any time one person's beliefs in anything impose on how another should live (outside of safety, necessity where children and those unable to care for themselves are concerned) it's not a good thing.

But then, take that too far and it lends itself to an argument for anarchy.

Christa, that's exactly how I feel about it. If you're confident your god/gods/whatever you believe in can use you, you don't feel the need to push. Specifically, I think about the idea that if there is an all-powerful being, what does this being need me to do anything for? Honestly, this supreme being should be quite capable of converting the world on their own.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Aaaaaah! Religion!

*SW runs away screaming*

Er. I can't share my views on this.

I will say that I think everyone should be able to believe whatever they want, EXCEPT the problem is that some people believe religion is a great excuse to execute a crapload of people who don't believe what you believe.

If people weren't so stubborn and selfish, freedom of religion would be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine once was a little upset because he found out the little old lady who lived next door was telling people he was a vampire. He worked the night shift, happened to own a lot of black clothing (not a goth guy, just liked black). The woman was a little off anyway, and I told him, "Eh, whatever. So she thinks you're a vampire. That's her problem, not yours."

"It'll become my problem real quick," he said, "if she tries to drive a stake through my heart."

That's kind of how I think about arational belief systems. If they're your thing, they're your thing, and, honestly, it's none of my business. Unless you try to drive a stake through my heart because of it.

Evolution happens to be one of the best established theories in the entire history of scientific thought. The systems and processes of evolutionary development are very well-understood on many levels, and supported by a vast weight of observational and experimental evidence. There are also aspects of evolution that remain not well-understood, and debate continues over many details. There is surely much to learn, and scientists will disagree and argue and in time come to consensus over these details. And then something else will come up. That's the wonder of the scientific method.

Does that mean I'm saying you have to believe in evolution? No. I might say that you'd be on more solid rational and evidentiary ground if you said you didn't believe in gravity, but in the end, your beliefs are your own business.

Except, if you were to leap into the battle surrounding the teaching of evolution vs. so-called Intelligent Design in science classrooms, then I would oppose you. That's a stake in the heart in the heart of science education.

I'm not opposed to teaching Intelligent Design in schools. Hell, I studied its precursor in school -- a public school. Just not in biology class. Intelligent Design is not science -- it's a religious belief, and anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous at best. I admit it's striking to me that those who most aggressively promote I.D. use deceit to cloak their faith in a mantle of science--are the Ten Commandments situational?

Beyond all that, I think it's very important to understand that there is no connection whatsoever between Darwinian evolutionary theory and so-called Social Darwinism. The term "Social Darwinism" itself may be something of a misnomer, but the larger point is that biologists who study evolution do not see applicability to social systems. Whatever ideologues over the years may have promoted or done under the banner of Social Darwinism has nothing to do with the biological theory of evolution.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sorry SW. Really, I just found the articles interesting. Both of them.

Bill, I don't mean to split hairs on Darwinism and social Darwinism. Name association means you have to make it clear what you're referencing. It would be sort of like saying you're anti-Catholic but not anti-Christian - there are a lot of people who'd run around asking, "What's the difference?"

I actually did a presentation in grade 13 world issues on evolution and why it isn't fact, but a 'theory'. 72 minutes oral on a Friday afternoon. Monday comes and the teacher asks if anyone has questions for me. You're thinking three days, weekend, forgotten. Nope. I spent 72 minutes fielding questions. You know what disturbed me most? The number of people who said that evolution wouldn't be taught in school if it wasn't a fact. Their logic was that, since it was taught in school there was no room for debate about whether or not it was correct.

Do I care if evolution is taught? Why would I? If the strength of a person's beliefs for or against something can't stand scrutiny or evaluation, you have to ask if they really believe in it. That said, there are things in evolution we can't 'prove' because one of the requirements for proving something scientific is to be able to replicate the process. We can't replicate the big bang. We can't replicate one animal evolving into another.

And so, no matter how much there is 'for' it or even 'against' it, it remains the theory of evolution.

I once heard an argument about Bible inconsistences. There was specific passag referenced. In one place they said they heard a conversation. In another they said they didn't know what the people had said.

It was a clear contradiction. Only one could be true, right? Well, in English. The words translated were different in the Greek, but English didn't have the same abundance of specific words to suitably express it. When it referenced people hearing a conversation, it was a different kind of hearing. They heard the sound of the words, but couldn't make out the words.

So, when they said that they didn't know what was said, they hadn't contradicted that, but in the English translation it lost something from the original that appeared to throw up a hopeless contradiction.

The point is, people take what little they know and ASSUME hopeless contradiction. One belief does not necessarily proclude another. Can evolution and creation be both true? I am prepared to say that from my limited vantage point and time spent in the universe that there is always plenty of room for revelations of what I don't know that might change how I interpret things or what I believe in.

And so, why should we automatically conclude opposition? Only because people are so insecure in their belief system that they must build it and themselves up by attacking something else.

That's my 2 cents anyway.

anne frasier said...

i'm agnostic and there are often times i wish i could have the comfort of religion, but there is just no way.

friends who are atheists get upset about my "no position", but everybody should be free to choose. religion, sexual orientation, whatever. hey, i'm a libra. *shrug* but it should be choice and not brainwashing. that brainwashing shit does piss me off.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Yeah, what Anne said. Right down to being a Libra. :-) Me too...

Don't apologize, Sandra! I thought they were interesting, too. But a lot of people are reeeeeally touchy about this subject so I tend to stay away. :-)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, the brainwashing is an issue. Of course, if you feel the need to brainwash, you aren't too comfortable in your beliefs, in my opinion. And that goes against freedom of religion.

SW, it is a topic I don't like going at head on. I know my beliefs have changed over time, so I'm not so inclined to argue. Debate for fun and intellectual stimulation is one thing. But argue - no thanks. This is a topic that's so not worth that kind of negative energy, to me anyway.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I've always found it interesting that the attacks on the theory of evolution usually focus around a misunderstanding of Darwin's work.

Creationism and Darwinism don't contradict each other, but ever since he published people have been going on about how we're descended from monkeys, how it's against the Bible.

Darwin's work says, in short, "things change from one generation to the next". Gregor Mendel showed that, whether he knew it or not, with pea plants. Every single dog breeder throughout history has watched it in action.

Darwin doesn't say God didn't create the universe or that the Bible is wrong. He just said that outside factors can effect what traits get inherited from one generation to the next.

Same thing for the Big Bang theory. That's just a mechanism. Nothing saying that God didn't flick the switch and that's what the light bulb looked like coming on.

But those things become a rallying cry for some people who feel threatened by a new idea that might force them to think about their faith.

I don't see why a personal belief in God should be a factor in politics, either, but I understand why it is. People want to know that the person leading them is the same as them. That they're not somehow "Other". God is one of those things that centers around a person's identity, like race, or nationality.

It's also an easy way to control people who are looking for some surety in the world, guidance in a confusing and fucked up situation.

Personally, I believe there is no God. But that's me, and I've never had a problem with somebody else's beliefs so long as they're not coming to my door and trying to save my soul. Thought that can be fun, too.

Reminds me of a thing that someone noticed after looking through years of popular entertainment; books, movies, etc. More people seem to believe in the devil than seem to believe in God.

I don't know if I can find it again, but there was a website on philosophy and ethics I saw a few years ago that had a Religion Consistency test. It asked a series of questions about a person's beliefs, presenting different scenarios and rating whether they thought it was good or bad, right or wrong, or if they agreed or disagreed with it.

At the end, it gave an analysis of where someone had contradictions in their beliefs.

For example, someone could say that all life is sacred, but then agree to the death penalty. It was interesting and, I suspect, something that many people would not want to be presented with.

John R. said...

Stephen, Bill and Steve both summed up a lot of what I'd have said.

The mention of "Hitler" and "Social Darwinism" in the same sentence makes me twitch, not just because it's a Godwin, but also because Hitler wasn't practicing Social Darwinism. He was practicing eugenics, trying to breed a better type of human (which is, if anything, forced biological evolution through deliberate selection).

Much is also made of the fact that it's only the Theory of Evolution as well, which annoys a lot of scientists. "Theory" in its common usage form and "theory" in its scientific form are not analogous - at all, really - and can't really be used as such. If it was "The Hypothesis of Evolution", you could; that's the closest relation to theory as used by everyone else. Theory, in so far as it's used here, is roughly equivalent to "an explanation for which there is overwhelming proof and which may, in general terms, be taken as fact".

It's only a Theory of Gravity as well, but for some reason people seem less keen on teaching alternate hypotheses like how we all stick to this planet's surface it's covered in the gluey semen of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or because pixie dust in our toenails magically prevents us from floating into space.

anne frasier said...

i think what we're seeing now is crisis belief, which i've always found kind of scary and fascinating. you sometimes see it with people who are dying and suddenly decide to believe in god. and somebody who's been as ass all his life decides to be nice for a few weeks before he croaks.

i don't believe in any kind of god, so i guess i'm not a true agnostic, but from what i gather atheism is almost a religion with a lot of banging and pounding. no thanks.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hmmm. I wonder if I should have taken more time to expand on what I meant about Hitler.

Although, I don't think so. Because I really didn't want to make this into a drawn out theory or push. Bigger context than what I said in the post though.

What's interesting is that you guys have me wondering how differently or similarly you're taught about this stuff in the UK, for example. I remember exchange students talking about how differently we presented some subjects here - especially the Germans studying WWII history.

I think the 'theory' label has been stuck more to evolution because of the implications. Maybe we should summon Bill back here to tell us if there is a big push to teach intelligent design in the US. I've heard about the push to teach both views in school. Is it catching on in the US?

This could be one of those things that's handled very differently, depending on where you live. I don't know about you guys, but we bend so much to personal freedoms that if parents don't want kids to take sex ed you aren't legally allowed to teach them, and it cuts to all religious holiday related stuff as well. I know the debates were on when I was a teen, about whether or not you could force religious kids to take evolution, but what I don't know is if it's gone that far.

But I'm not going to go any further explaining how Darwinism relates to Hitler in my mind this morning anyway - I've got a deadline on something! Would make for a fun discussion, though.

Vincent said...

I must admit I enjoy discussing religion and reading the points of view offered here, but only when they've been presented as they are here. Y'know, everybody calmly and amicably putting forward their points of view.

That's a discussion. I've had debates with a Christian friend where we've put our cases for and against, also good. Not so good is when it turns into an argument, which to me is less about challenging points of view and more about challenging the people who hold them, trying to put them down in order to prove our side 'right'. And that's not a religion thing, that tends to be a people thing.

Forty_Two said...

You're all forgetting something important. No one embraces a deity because they're looking for answers. They embrace a deity because it makes them feel good.

People take drugs not because they truly believe that getting stoned will solve their problems, but because it makes them feel good.

People fall for confidnece tricks and get rich quick schemes not because they truly believe that they'll get rich, but because the fantasy of getting rich is so atractive. Embracing the fantasy makes them feel good.

Arguing the scientific validity of religion is like arguing the scientific validity that getting drunk will solve your financial problems.