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  • Touching on the Question of Who will Fry in Hell for Quadrillions and Quintillions of Years, Just for Starters; Christians or Muslims

    Posted on November 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    One hears little about the subject of hell in Christian churches these days. Perhaps things are different in the Moslem madrassahs. Regardless, I have it on good authority that, for both religions, hell is pretty much the same. It is a place where the wicked will burn in living flames for all eternity. When I speak of “authorities,” it’s perfectly clear who I’m referring to in the case of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is the ultimate authority. Furthermore, he expressed himself with perfect clarity on the subject. He did not speak in allegories. As noted in the Quran, for example,

    We have not taught him (Muhammad) poetry, nor would it beseem him. The Book is no other than a warning and a clear Quran. (Sura XXXVI)

    Now have We set before man in this Quran every kind of parable for their warning: An Arabic Quran, free from tortuous wording, to the intent that they may fear God. (Sura XXXIX)

    In the Quran, Muhammad also makes it clear that Christianity is not just a kinder, gentler version of Islam, as some of our current “sophisticated” Christians would have us believe. Moslems are warned that they must not so much as have Christians and other infidels as friends:

    Let not believers take infidels for their friends rather than believers: whoso shall do this hath nothing to hope from God. (Sura III)

    They desire that ye should be infidels as they are infidels, and that ye should be alike. Take therefore none of them for friends, till they have fled their homes for the cause of God. (Sura IV)

    O believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends. If any one of you taketh them for his friends, he surely is one of them! God will not guide the evil doers. (Sura V)

    The inmates of hell will include anyone who does not accept the teaching of the Prophet:

    But they who shall not believe, and treat our signs as falsehoods, these shall be inmates of the Fire; in it shall they remain forever. (Sura II)

    As for those who are infidels, and die infidels, from no one of them shall as much gold as the earth could contain be accepted, though he should offer it in ransom. These! a grievous punishment awaiteth them; and they shall have none to help them. (Sura II)

    But they who charge our signs with falsehood, and turn away from them in their pride, shall be inmates of the Fire: for ever shall they abide therein. (Sura VII)

    Should anyone be dense enough to doubt that Christians aren’t included among the damned, the Quran makes it crystal clear:

    We will cast a dread into hearts of the infidels because they have joined gods with God without warranty sent down; their abode shall be the Fire; and wretched shall be the mansion of the evil doers. (Sura II)

    They surely are infidels who say, “God is the third of three:” for there is no God but one God: and if they refrain not from what they say, a grievous chastisement shall light on such of them as are infidels. (Sura V)

    And when God shall say – “O Jesus, son of Mary: hast thou said unto mankind – ‘Take me and my mother as two gods, beside God?’ ” He shall say – “Glory be unto Thee! It is not for me to say that which I know to be not the truth.” (Sura V)

    The Jews say, “Ezra (Ozair) is a son of God”; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is a son of God.” Such the sayings in their mouths! They resemble the sayings of the infidels of old! God do battle with them! How are they misguided! (Sura IX)

    They say, “God hath begotten children.” No! by His glory! He is the self-sufficient. All that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth is His! Have ye warranty for that assertion? What! Speak ye of God that which ye know not? (Sura X)

    Of course, “Joining gods to God,” and “God is the third of three,” refer to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and all Christians associate the word “begotten” with Christ. The Quran also clears up any misconceptions about how long the wicked will be punished, and what their punishment in hell will consist of:

    (Speaking of the wicked), Doubled to him shall be the torment on the Day of Resurrection; and in it shall he remain, disgraced, for ever. (Sura XXV)

    Those who disbelieve Our signs We will in the end cast into the Fire: so oft as their skins shall be well burnt, We will change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. (Sura IV)

    Christian teaching on the subject of hell is somewhat less explicit than the Moslem version, but is clear enough nevertheless.  Both agree that the wicked will exist in the midst of flames, and that the torture will endure forever. Unfortunately, in the case of Christianity, many of the mainstream churches are now controlled by social justice warriors, who have converted them into little more than leftist political clubs. In general, hell is either left unmentioned, or the original doctrine of the church on the subject has been subverted and bowdlerized, to the point that now hell is merely a matter of experiencing the humiliation and mortification of not being invited to God’s special “members only” afternoon tea parties. As I find no mention in the Bible of such “enlightened” and “sophisticated” versions of hell, I will rely on what the book actually says, as set forth by no less an authority than St. Augustine.

    Like most of the biblical scholars of late antiquity, Augustine knew the Bible inside and out. He could point with precision to the verses in the book of Obadiah that predict the coming of Christ. I have my doubts about whether the current pope has ever even read the book of Obadiah. Many of Augustine’s comments on hell may be found in Book XXI of his The City of God.  He begins by citing some of the relevant passages in the Bible, such as Matthew 13:41-42,

    41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
    42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    and Matthew 25:41&46,

    41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

    46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

    The most recent translations of the Bible “correct” Christianity, and “bring it up to date” by substituting milder terms such as “cutting off” for “punishment,” after the fashion in which, for example, they have “retranslated” the word “firmament” to “sky” in Genesis. Augustine saw no need for such impostures, and took the Bible at its word. He writes,

    What, then, can I adduce to convince those who refuse to believe that human bodies, animated and living, can not only survive death, but also last in the torments of everlasting fires?

    He notes the example of salamanders, of which some claimed, as noted by Aristotle, that they could live in the midst of flames without the least inconvenience. He then points out that, just because flames cause mortal bodies to die in this life, the same hardly applies to the hereafter:

    Our opponents, too, make much of this, that in this world there is no flesh which can suffer pain and cannot die; while they make nothing of the fact that there is something which is greater than the body. For the spirit, whose presence animates and rules the body, can both suffer pain and cannot die. Here then is something which, though it can feel pain, is immoral. And this capacity, which we now see in the spirit of all, shall be hereafter in the bodies of the damned.

    It turns out that there were “sophisticated” Christians in Augustine’s day as well as our own who, like the current version, insisted that all the talk of fire in the Bible is mere allegory. Augustine devotes Chapter 9 of Book XXI citing several examples from scripture which demonstrate that, when the Bible says “fire,” it means “fire.” In Chapter 12 he notes that, by virtue of original sin, “eternal punishment is due to all who are not within the pale of the Savior’s grace.” Needless to say, this does not include Moslems. In Chapter 17 he refutes those who claim that punishment in the flames will not be eternal.

    In short, then, the Moslem and Christian versions of hell are quite similar. As noted in my title, in both cases the “wicked” will suffer torture in the midst of living flames for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters. Indeed, such a period would not even represent so much as a start. Quadrillions and quintillions of years are an infinitesimal period compared to “forever.” The main difference between the two is the answer to the question, “Who constitute the wicked?” As an atheist, of course, the question is moot as far as I’m concerned. If either side is right, I will be spending eternity in a climate decidedly more tropical than the one I became accustomed to growing up in Wisconsin. For theists, however, there is a greater incentive to get it right. I quote the following passage from a sermon of the American clergyman Jonathan Edwards to “encourage” them, as Voltaire would put it:

    The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: ‘Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep: and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that God’s Hand has held you up: There is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to Hell since you have sat here in the House of God, provoking his pure Eyes by your sinful wicked Manner of attending his solemn Worship: Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a Reason why you don’t this very Moment drop down into Hell.

    and

    O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no Interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the Flames of Wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one Moment.

    There. Are you encouraged? I have a few questions for the true believers. Is the distance between us and God not much greater than that between humans and ants? What are we to think of a human who would devote all of eternity to torturing ants because they displeased him for a few moments? If an immortal super being did much the same thing, would it be rational to describe that being as “benevolent,” or “merciful?” Just asking.

  • The “Moral Philosophers” and the “Power of the Air”

    Posted on January 30th, 2017 Helian 11 comments

    In Ephesians 2:2 we read,

    Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.

    Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul.  They are not atheists after all.  They, too, believe in “the power of the air.”  It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.”  It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do.  Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity.  Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors.  According to Daniel Dennett,

    Regretfull Trump voters:  It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on.  Act now.  Every day you wait adds guilt.

    Richard Dawkins chimes in:

    “Make America great again?”  Obama’s America already WAS great.  And now look what you’ve got!  A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.

    Sam Harris piles on:

    I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy.  Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.

    Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:

    Presidents can revise immigration policies.  But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.

    I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases.  Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense.  Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?”  Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?”  Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?”  I think not.   Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”

    What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species.  Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup?  It’s there in all its glory.  Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury.  Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives.  The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!”  It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong.  No!  By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”

    This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like.  Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God.  This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed.  It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them.  We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist.  None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire.  They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”

    In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature.  Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species.  How much smarter than the rest can we really be?  The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds.  We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions.  One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon.  At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.

  • The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit

    Posted on May 12th, 2016 Helian 5 comments

    Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith.  We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings.  Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true.  Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not.  Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.

    An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre.  Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,

    They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.

    In another article entitled If God is Dead…, Pat Buchanan echoes Prager, noting, in a rather selective interpretation of history, that,

    When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.

    The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.

    Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.

    Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum.  The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism.  There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type.  It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene.  It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection.  It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon.  Which begs the question, “So what?”

    Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse.  Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true?  If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth.  We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good.  And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies.  The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.

    It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously.  The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself.  Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments.  Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks.  The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc.  They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him.  All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.

    In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences.  One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.  Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think.  We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve.  Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions.  If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself.  Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed.  There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation.  Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.

    Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular?  There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score.  The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding.  Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void.  Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences.  The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others.  As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake.  On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge.  Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.

    All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself.  I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood.  A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with.  These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes.  I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history.  The “root cause” we seek is natural selection.  That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that.  Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.  I think we will all be better off if we do.

  • Does It Matter If You Believe In God?

    Posted on December 14th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    In an open thread that was posted today at Professor Ceiling Cat’s Why Evolution is True website, he asked his readers,

    …to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?

    and added,

    That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.

    As an atheist myself, my answer would be that the question is neither empirical nor resolvable with logic from first principles, because it implies an objective standard whereby such terms as “bad,” “better,” and “harmful” can be defined.  No such objective standard exists.  At best, one can identify the consequences and then decide whether they are “go0d” or “bad” based on one’s personal subjective whims.  As long as it is clearly understood that my reply is based on that standard, I would say that religion is “bad.”

    Supernatural beings either exist or they don’t.  I don’t claim to know the truth of the matter with absolute certainly.  I don’t claim to know anything with absolute certainty.  I base my actions and my goals in life on what I consider probable rather than absolute truths, and I consider the chance that a God or other supernatural beings exist to be vanishingly small.

    The question then becomes, do I, again from my personal point of view, consider it a good thing for other people to believe in supernatural beings even though I consider that belief an illusion.  In short, the answer is no.  It will never be possible for us to know and understand ourselves, either as individuals or as a species, if we believe things that are false, and yet have a profound impact on our understanding of where we come from, what the future holds for us, what morality is and why it exists, the nature of our most cherished goals, and how we live our lives.  Our very survival may depend on whether or not we have an accurate knowledge of ourselves.  I want my species to survive, and therefore I want as many of us as possible to have that knowledge.

    According to a current manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy, religion “evolved,” and therefore it is “good.”  Among other places, articles to this effect have appeared at the This View of Life website, edited by David Sloan Wilson, a noted proponent of group selection.  Examples may be found here and here.  According to the latter:

    For Darwin, an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist for the simple reason that religiosity and religions had been biocultural products of evolution themselves! He realized in the 19th century what many religious Creationists and so-called “New Atheists” are trying to ignore in their odd alliance to this day: If evolutionary theory is true, it must be able to explain the emergence of our cognitive tendencies to believe in supernatural agencies and the forms and impacts of its cultural products.

    I’m not sure which passages from the work of Darwin the article’s author construed to mean that he believed that “an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist,” but the idea is nonsense in any case.  Many flavors of both Christianity and Islam explicitly deny the theory of evolution, and therefore a conflict most certainly does exist.  That conflict will not disappear whether religiosity and religions are biocultural products of evolution or not.  Assuming for the sake of argument that they are, that mere fact would be irrelevant to the questions of whether religiosity and religions are “good,” or whether supernatural beings actually exist or not.

    In any case, I doubt that religiosity and religion are biocultural products of evolution in any but a very limited sense.  It is most unlikely that genes could be “smart enough” to distinguish between supernatural and non-supernatural agencies in the process of installing innate behavioral tendencies in our brains.  Some subset of our suite of innate behavioral predispositions might make it more likely for us to respond to and behave towards “leaders” in some ways and not in others.  Once we became sufficiently intelligent to imagine supernatural beings, it became plausible that we might imagine one as “leader,” and culture could take over from there to come up with the various versions of God or gods that have turned up from time to time.  That does not alter the fact that the “root cause” of these manifestations almost certainly does not directly “program” belief in the supernatural.

    This “root cause,” supposing it exists, is to be found in our genes, and our genes are not in the habit of rigidly determining what we believe or how we act.  In other words, our genes cannot force us to believe in imaginary beings, as should be obvious from the prevalence of atheists on the planet.  Because of our genes we may “tend” to believe in imaginary beings, but it is at least equally likely that because of them we “tend” to engage in warfare.  Supposing both tendencies exist, that mere fact hardly insures that they are also “good.”  Insisting that the former is “good” is equivalent to the belief that it is “good” for us to believe certain lies.  This begs the question of how anyone is to acquire the legitimate right to determine for the rest of us that it is “good” for us to believe in lies, not to mention which particular version of the lie is “most good.”

    One can argue ad nauseum about whether, on balance, religion has been “good” because of the comfort and consolation if provides in this vale of tears, the art products it has spawned, and the sense of community it has encouraged, or “bad” because of the wars, intolerance, bigotry, and social strife that can be chalked up to its account.  In the end, it seems to me that the important question is not who “wins” this argument, but whether religious claims are true or not.  If, as I maintain, they are not, then, from my personal point of view, it is “good” that we should know it.  It matters in terms of answering such questions as what we want to do with our lives and why.

    Consider, for example, the question of life after death.  Most of us don’t look forward to the prospect of death with any particular relish, and it is certainly plausible to claim that religion provides us with the consolation of an afterlife.  Suppose we look at the question from the point of view of our genes.  They have given rise to our consciousness, along with most of the other essential features of our physical bodies, because consciousness has made it more probable that those genes would survive and reproduce.  When we fear death, we fear the death of our consciousness, but as far as the genes are concerned, consciousness is purely ancillary – a means to an end.  If they “program” an individual to become a Catholic priest in order to inherit eternal life, and that individual fails to have children as a result, then, from this “genes point of view,” they have botched it.

    In a sense, it is more rational to claim that “we” are our genes rather than that “we” are this ancillary entity we refer to as consciousness.  In that case, “we” have never died.  “Our” lives have existed in an unbroken chain, passed from one physical form to another for billions of years.  The only way “we” can die is for the last physical “link in the chain” to fail to have children.  Of course, genes don’t really have a point of view, nor do they have a purpose.  They simply are.  I merely point out that it would be absurd to imagine that “we” suddenly spring into existence when we are born, and that “we” then die and disappear forever with the physical death of our bodies.  Why on earth would Mother Nature put up with such nonsense?  It seems to me that such an irrational surmise must be based on a fundamental confusion about who “we” actually are.

  • The New Atheists as Imperialist Warmongers; Leftist Islamophilia in the Afterglow of Communism

    Posted on December 3rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it.  For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa.  The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available.  The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots.  In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind.  As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it.  Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam.  For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town.  The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular.  The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.

    So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across.  Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm.  They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam.  Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”

    An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine,  which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.”  In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!”  Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom.  The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.

    It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question.  We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general.  He hardly mentions Christianity.  When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story.  As Savage puts it,

    It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.

    As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:

    The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.

    Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:

    Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.

    The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era.  Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.”  Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.”  No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin.  In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:

    The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.”  In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.

    One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb.  Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,

    Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.

    If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:

    Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.

    and this:

    This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.

    So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy.  He just had a bad environment.  See how that works?  At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest.  In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes.  It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise.  In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant.  Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.

    In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated.  Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace?  I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation.  As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves.  They’ve all been excommunicated.

    happyjar

     

    Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon.  Check out his store!

     

     

  • Morality and the Perspicuity of the True Believers

    Posted on October 2nd, 2013 Helian No comments

    We are a social species.  It stands to reason that natural selection has equipped us with a suite of behavioral predispositions suitable for such a species.  A subset of those predispositions is the ultimate cause of what we know and experience as morality.  One might say that Mother Nature wasn’t too finicky about such irrelevancies as rational consistency in designing the necessary mental equipment.  She created the compelling illusion in our minds that such imaginary objects as Good, Evil, and Rights actually exist, and then hedged them about with powerful emotions that inclined us to reward Good and punish Evil.  The fact that we’re here demonstrates that the system has worked well enough so far, although it has shown distinct signs of becoming dysfunctional of late.

    I don’t know whether it ever occurred to Mother Nature that we might someday become clever and nosey enough to wonder where these objects came from.  I never asked her. I rather suspect that she assumed the problem would be patched over via the invention of imaginary super beings.  In that case, the objects would exist just because that’s the way the imaginary super being(s) wanted it, end of story.  She probably never bothered about the possibility that some of us might realize that the imaginary super beings weren’t really all that plausible.  After all, no one could accuse her of pussy footing around when it came to moral illusions.  Good and Evil would appear as real things in the imaginations of believers and infidels alike.  If the infidels couldn’t trace their existence to a God, well, they would just have to be creative and come up with something else.

    And creative the infidels have certainly been.  They’ve come up with all kinds of systems and rationalizations in the hope of saving the Good and Evil objects from vanishing into thin air.  They are similar in that all of them are even more implausible than belief in imaginary super beings.  The amusing thing is that the true believers can see through the charade without the least difficulty, whereas the “rational” infidels persist in floundering about in the darkness.

    Consider, for example, a piece Dennis Prager just wrote for National Review Online, packaged as “A Response to Richard Dawkins.”  Prager cuts to the chase with the following:

    If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    Thank you, Mr. Prager.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  That is a perfectly clear and straightforward statement of a simple truth that so many of my fellow “rational” atheists seem completely unable to grasp.  There is simply no mechanism whereby the moral emotions in the mind of one individual can stroll over, smack another individual up alongside the head, and acquire the legitimacy to apply to that other individual as well.  Atheist moralists are like so many zombies, still wandering aimlessly about in their imaginary world of good and evil even though they’ve just been shot between the eyes.  The bullet that hit them is the realization that evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate cause of moral behavior.  As Mr. Prager says, they do, indeed, have very pronounced opinions about the precise nature of Good and Evil.  The problem is that such opinions are analogous to having opinions about the color of a unicorns horn.  They are opinions about objects that don’t exist.

    Unfortunately, belief in imaginary super beings is just as ineffectual as the fantasies of the atheists when it comes to conjuring up Good and Evil Things and endowing them with objective reality.  Consider, for example, the rest of Mr. Prager’s article.  It’s basically a statement of the familiar fallacy that, because (Judeo-Christian) God-based morality results in Good (as imagined by Mr. Prager), and atheist morality results in Evil (as imagined by Mr. Prager), therefore God must exist.  In fact, there is no logical mechanism whereby the mind of Mr. Prager can force God from non-existence into existence by virtue of the fact that a God is required to transmute his Good and his Evil into objective realities.  The truth of God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on Mr. Prager’s opinion touching on how his presence might affect the moral climate.

    No matter, Prager stumbles on with his version of the now familiar “proof” that (Judeo-Christian) God-based moral systems result in Good, but secular ones result in Evil, and that the (Judeo-Christian) God must therefore exist.  Apparently he knows enough history to realize that to believe this “proof” it is necessary to stand reality on its head.  The slaughter of countless Jews through the ages, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent women as “witches,” the extermination of the Albigensians, the decades of bloody warfare conducted by “good” Christians to stamp out the Hussite heresy, the slaughter of the French Huguenots, and countless other similar events are the real legacy of Christianity.  Prager is aware of this, and so would have us believe that Christianity has been successfully “tamed” in the 20th century.  As he puts it,

    But if that isn’t enough, how about the record of the godless 20th century, the cruelest, bloodiest, most murderous century on record? Every genocide of the last century — except for the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians and the Pakistani mass murder of Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) — was committed by a secular anti-Jewish and anti-Christian regime. And as the two exceptions were Muslim, they are not relevant to my argument. I am arguing for the God and Bible of Judeo-Christian religions.

    In fact, the God and Bible of the Judeo-Christian religions weren’t as spotless as all that, even in the 20th century.  Consider, for example, the bloody history of the “Black Hundreds” in Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution.  They murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the bloody pogroms that were one of their favorite pastimes.  The degree to which they were inspired by Christianity should be evident from the image of one of their marches I’ve posted below.  No, I’m sorry, but I put little faith in Mr. Prager’s assertion that, while Christianity may have been responsible for inspiring astounding levels of bloody mayhem over the centuries, the Christians promise to be good from now on.

    We are moral beings.  We will act morally regardless of whether we believe in imaginary supermen or not, because it is our nature to act morally.  As is obvious from the many variations in the details of moral rules among human societies, our moralities are not rigidly programmed by our genes.  Within the limits imposed by our innate moral predispositions, we can shape our moral systems to suit our needs.  It seems to me that our efforts in that direction are more likely to be successful if we leave religious fantasies, whether of the spiritual or secular variety, out of the process.

     

     

  • Paradigm Shifts and the “Science” of Religion

    Posted on August 16th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy.  A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism.  A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame.  For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around.  However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions.  It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth.  Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.

    That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind.  No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack.  But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam.  The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer.  On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town.  The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet.  Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.

    I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC.  Entitled God and War:  An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war.  Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.”  It continues,

    One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

    This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left.  Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc.  If nothing else it’s a safe strategy.  Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all.  Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.

    As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are.  Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran.  For example, quoting from the article,

    The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].

    As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses.  For example,

    Quran 5:33

    The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.

    Quran 8:12

    I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

    After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal.  In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II.  In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants.  Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey.  By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.

    In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion.  I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones.  At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial.  Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter.  From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”

    Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare.  Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all.  An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace.  And who might this evil bogeyman be?  Think, dear reader!  The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum.  That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush!  Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,

    …however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

    Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy.  How wrong I was!  Reading on we find,

    He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self.  From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.

    Damn!  Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy.  The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,

    As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.

    What an understatement!  Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!

    How wonderfully ironic!  After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings.  By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all.  “Further analysis” indeed!  Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!

  • Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists

    Posted on August 14th, 2012 Helian 5 comments

    Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times.  It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading.  Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism.  As he notes in the review:

    Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.

    But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.

    The “unspoken tension” is definitely there.  I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason.  Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion.  He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists.  Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,

    These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe.  The other three authors, however, are men of science.

    My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw.  “Men of science” indeed!  Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?”  Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?”  I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality.  Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals.  Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism.  As he puts it:

    The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2:  Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses).  So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion.  To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers.  Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community.  That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.

    This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense.  If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other.  It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.

    We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw.  In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story:  By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.”  As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.”  In other words, as Haidt puts it,

    The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face:  cooperation without kinship.

    He then goes Atran and Henrich one better.  Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution.  Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection.  In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,

    In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

    It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion.  I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007.  When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not.  Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way.  His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence.  Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection.  Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection.  He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection.  Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around.  However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion.  Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.

    I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.”  Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion.  For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group.  For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.”  Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.”  Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.”  He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,

    …the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.  Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society.  They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

    Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”  However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin.  Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing.  Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.”  Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.”  Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either.  Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot.  In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists.  I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing.  He concludes,

    Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations.  We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.  They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

    In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank.  Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children.  It seems we’ve come full circle.  Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century.  Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection.  I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices.  However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction.  I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth.  Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.

  • Dawkins and Wilson and Haidt; A Matter of Religion

    Posted on August 7th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:

    In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology:  Morality binds and blinds.  Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible.  They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.

    Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion.  In Wilson’s words,

    Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare…  How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.

    I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular.  He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.  However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned.  My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion.  This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,

    For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.

    I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point.  Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion.  This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection.  It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer:  “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.

    Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at.  As he puts it,

    But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball.  You’ve got to broaden the inquiry.  You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.

    Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists.  As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions.  Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion.  According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups.  In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke.  Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection.  Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,

    …great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences:  Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

    At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips.  If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”.  For example, we learn that,

     …John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.

    There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head.  Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion.  (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.”  And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.)  But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”

    It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on.  We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.

    One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits.  It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.”  Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?

    Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not.  What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign?  Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant?  Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion?  Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly?  If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality?  Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions?  I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not.  I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason.  However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.