Posts tagged ‘atheism’

December 13, 2007

talking religion in politics

Good old Habermas (and yes, he’s 77 years old) is intent on us purifying our political talk of any religious vocabulary. He wants people to find non-religious arguments for every one of their political ideas. For one, I don’t think that is possible: too many people feel too deeply about religious matters. That means that for many people religious vocabulary is their primary thinking tool and they cannot easily switch to non-religious equivalents. For another, i don’t think that secular-only talk is desirable.

Let me explain. Religion is not something that can be reduced to ethics for all political intents and purposes. Rather, ethics is a type of religion. This means that arguing from religion is no different than arguing from Kant or Darwin, on moral/political matters. Let people make the arguments they want, however weak or dubious you might find them yourself. Because (a) they in turn find your arguments just as weak and (b) the point is not to be right in some absolute/scientific sense but only to convince (this is politics after all!).

The same argument from The Free Thinker commenting on a commenter named Tom:

“If there are pragmatic reasons… use those reasons; don’t give me quotes from the bible.”  But it is a very common practice in political discourse to quote a respected source.  I might quote an expert– an economist, or a scientist– as evidence of the soundness of a policy which we don’t have the time to elaborate the technical case for, or aren’t qualified to make the technical case for, or don’t think our audience could understand the technical case for.  I might quote a widely-admired figure, say, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, to inspire the courage or patriotism of my hearers and/or to show that greater minds that mine have agreed with what I am saying.  Tom implicitly insists that political discourse consist only of “pragmatic reasons,” which is an absurd restriction.  And the call for “pragmatic reasons” begs key questions.  Are “pragmatic reasons” the only appropriate reasons in politics?  Are ethics always inappropriate?  It seems to me that pragmatic reasons pertain to means, but what about ends?  How are those to be determined?  If Tom assumes that only utilitarian ends– more pleasure, less pain– are appropriate, he will have to find a way to disenfranchise most of his fellow-citizens, for most of them are not utilitarians.  What are we to do with the thirty, or forty, or, who knows, maybe sixty or eighty percent of the population for whom the Bible, more than any other book, illuminates man’s purpose in this world?

December 13, 2007

Finishing Secular Age

Well i just finished reading Ch. Taylor’s A Secular Age and am convinced it would have all fit in 500 pages (ah, the days when i will be prof. emeritus and can write whatever i wish at whatever length and get grad students to read it nevertheless…!). That being said, the book is one well crafted and convincing argument. I believe it is about the same arguement as MacIntyre (in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry) and Hillary Putnam (in “The Truth/Value dichotomy”), namely that science-backed Secularism is on the same moral and epistemological playing field as (thoughtful) religion. The strategies these authors adopt are also similar: show that science/secularism are also founded upon a number or moral elements. The arguements have always convinced me, though Taylor, i think, offers the definitive one.

This leads me to my last point. I think you can view ASA as more of an argument as to why christianity has disapeared as an argument as to why secularism has appeared. Of course, this is the opposite of what Ch. Taylor says he’s doing. But when at the end he comes out as a catholic christian, it becomes clear why he didn’t include any of the other western religions (esp. Judaism): they don’t interest him. I don’t think this in anyway affects the content of his argument (which is mostly confined to part I), but it does make for an interesting new reading browsing through of it.

December 7, 2007

testing god

Some atheist is trying to put god to the test with an updated version of Gideon’s fleece gimmick. This is, of course, completely stupid. It assumes a very primitive view of god. For one, god wouldn’t let himself get suckered into this (he is god, after all); second, you don’t have to believe god intervenes at all in the causal universe to believe in him; third, if this dave guy knew his bible well enough, he would know that god is more likely to zap and unbeliever like himself with a big fat lightning bolt than to link his tabs for him. It’s just not a good idea.

from the friendly atheist:

Dave is putting God to the test.

Which Christians would say is a big no-no. But hear him out on this…

Dave is an atheist. He says he’ll believe in God if he sees a miracle:

Burning bushes, disembodied hands writing on the wall, talking donkeys, water into wine – there are any number of Biblical precedents for things that I’d readily accept as evidence for God. But it doesn’t have to be anything fancy like that. Any small thing, that I could verify as being impossible by natural means, would at the very least force me to reconsider things very carefully.

There’s a standard argument against this, that I wouldn’t really reconsider anything; that my dark atheist soul is too far gone, and that I don’t want to believe in God for my own evil reasons, and wouldn’t change even if Jesus himself appeared before me. Apparently such people have some special insight into my mind and soul that I don’t have, because I’m pretty sure that I would change my mind.

All God would have to do to make Dave reconsider his atheism is take these soda can tabs…

tabs… and link them together like so:

tabs linkedAnd if that happens, Dave will post the photo, go to church, and “tentatively accept the existence of God.”

I’m doing this to put my money where my mouth is, and show that my atheism [has] nothing to do with not wanting to believe in God, but rather not having the evidence to believe in God.

Of course the tabs will never get linked. Prayer doesn’t have that kind of power.

December 6, 2007

philosophers and the church

From Henri de Lubac in his Méditaiton sur L’Église:

On raconte qu’un malheureux prêtre, au soir de son apostasie, dit à un visiteur qui s’apprêtait à le féliciter: “Désormais je ne suis plus qu’un philosophe, c’est-à-dire un homme seul”.

(The story is told of a poor priest who, on the night of his apostasy, said to a visitor who was about to congratulate him: “From now on i am only but a philosopher, that is, a lonely man”.)

If Christianity has anything that philosophers, atheists and humanists can and perhaps should envy, it is the institution of the church. A christian can go anywhere in the world, even in the darkest reaches of lands entirely foreign to him or her and nevertheless find fellow christians who will immediately accept them as a brother or sister in christ. That is something the non-religious simply do not have. And it is, i think, a sad, melancholy thought.

December 4, 2007

Ray Billington on converting to non-theism

Ray Billington, author of Religion without God, on how he deconverted from Christianity (methodist flavor) to non-theism (via atheism):

Let me begin with a health warning. I am an official Christian heretic. Thirty years ago, my book The Christian Outsider was declared by the Methodist Church, of which I was then a minister, to be guilty of false doctrine. Nowadays heretics are no longer burned at the stake (though, judging from the letters I received, some regretted this change) and I was simply expelled.

Maybe they were right. What I had tried to describe was a conversion in the opposite direction from usual: from a belief in a personal God to a rejection of it. I remember the moment well: I was actually (and this is ironic) preparing a sermon for the following Sunday, and reading Julian Huxley’s Essays of a Humanist. As I read, I came to the realisation that I not only agreed with his ideas, but felt the same drive within me. I walked up and down my study saying over and over again, “I am an atheist”. It was an experience of great joy which has motivated me ever since, though I now describe myself as a non-theist rather than an atheist. The reason for this, I hope, will become clear.


My conviction now is that to reach the highest peak of religion we need to embark on our own personal act of exploration into what is often termed the ‘fifth dimension’. We may be approaching that dimension via a well-worn path, particularly, if we are Christians (as I was), the way of Jesus. But the ultimate experience of the transcendental cannot be gained by standing on anyone else’s shoulders; it is a way which we each of us must find for ourselves. Others, especially spiritual leaders of great insight, may point us in a particular direction which looks promising, and we may follow that path for a while, perhaps for years. But ultimately we must follow our own path, blaze our own trail, if we are to discover what religion really means.


And this is what concerns me with our general interpretation of the word religion. The trouble is that it has been appropriated by the world’s monotheistic religions – especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and forced into a kind of spiritual, god-shaped straitjacket. The result is that those who do not or cannot bring themselves to wear this straitjacket are assumed not to be religious, and even describe themselves in this way.

So I find this exclusive attitude sad, and it’s not just because of the conflicts to which the often opposing claims of these religions seem to lead. More importantly, it causes people who may well be sensitive to the transcendental dimension but follow non-theistic, perhaps openly atheistic, paths, to conclude that religion is not for them. […]

I think this is (more or less) the direction religion is and must be moving. To draw the picture with the largest brush available: if at first humans had some form of vague spirituality that slowly morphed into polytheism, which in turn was displaced during Karl Jasper’s Axial Age by the great positive and dogmatic religions we now know, then now is the time for these world religions to be replaced by non-dogmatic forms of moral and religious enquiries (to channel MacIntyre). In a sense, religion is the last human endeavour that must move into the enlightened, self-critical, scientific age by giving up its certainties and pursuing instead more disputable, but also more flexible and useful thinking about the world.

Billington’s non-theism is an apt term. Of course, it just means what atheism is supposed to mean, but is much better at indicating that it includes everything outside of theism. Naturally, if Billington is to come full circle with his thinking and reach a fully enlightened religion, then he will have to accept (the possibility of) theism once more, though at another level: theism (and even thomistic christianity) is a valid religious outlook, though only if it accepts itself as a mere hypothesis and one that must always be put back into question (and for real, not just in some self-affirming movement of doubting faith). Theistic dualism might well be the best interpretation we currently have of the world (though i think not), and it might be one to which we must return in a suitably altered form in a suitably distant future, but neither it nor any other religious view can ever be the final one.

Direct link to the transcript and some kind of non-mp3 audio file [sigh].

December 4, 2007

bbc on religion -> atheism

the BBC has a short but nice page up on what atheism is, its history, types, why people atheists don’t believe in God, and, of course, famous atheists (apparently there are only three of them –  and all British ?!?!).

Of course, atheism is rightly filed under religions.

December 3, 2007

do religious atheists exist?

Of course they do! Buddhists are the standard example. But most all religions have had atheist proponents.

The main problem with the current crop of atheists is precisely that they conflate atheism with areligion, or rather a form of militant anti-religiosity. By definition atheism simply means you don’t believe that a (personal) god exists. It certainly does not imply that you reject all forms of transcendence!

Dawkins, Hitchens and associates are trying to fight religion by equating a-theism with a-religion. But their attack is profoundly flawed:

(1) they offer a specific scientistic flavor of atheism that one needn’t share: it is not because science works well without presupposing direct divine intervention that we need to abandon all forms of transcendence. Science doesn’t prove atheism, it just presupposes it.

(2) they equate religion with theistic dualism. As mentioned above, there are entire religions (buddhism, jainism) that do very well without a creator god, thank you very much. Most non-monotheistic religions are monist in the sense that they consider the gods (or whatever) as part and parcel of the world: they have, so to speak, an world-immanent idea of transcendence. This doesn’t mean that physicists are going to find Brahma within their particle colliders; but it does mean that Brahma can easily be interpreted as a “force” (or whatever) within our universe, and one that should be understandable by science – when science gets that far.

Atheism is not areligion – and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something, namely a mutilated and watered-down view of religion. There is plenty of room in atheism for mysticism, transcendence and humbly acknowledging that we don’t understand everything. In fact, a religious atheism is perhaps even more interesting than a theistic one because the Mystery of the World lies not “outside and far away” but is the very fabric of our existence. Religious atheists are per definitionem not tempted to claim that we or the world “are god”, but they most certainly are entitled to believe that religious understandings are perhaps our best and most beautiful hope.

P.S. from Religious Atheisms:

How can there be “religious” atheists?

– Consider the group called the Sea of Faith – cultural Christians living in a post-christian world, who find meaning in christian culture, but not inerrant truth in its writings nor its beliefs. The Sea of Faith people believe the Western judeo-christian God to be a human construct … but the religion and broader culture built around that god to be still meaningful in their lives and others around them.

Consider the main character in Miguel de Unamuno’s short novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir (Madrid 1933) : Father Manuel, a Roman Catholic priest taking care of the people in a small remote spanish village, but without faith in anything but this world … a Catholic atheist.

Consider Altizer’s Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966), Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity (1968), Kolenda’s Religion without God (1976), Pérez-Esclarín’s Atheism and liberation (1978), Apostel, Pinxten et al’s Religious atheism? (1982). Add in daoism and buddhism and forms of hinduism for the eastern variety of religious atheists.

Frequently the atheistic admonition “to live without gods” is translated to mean “to live without religion” as well, given that gods are always coterminous with religions. The mental conflict in the West arises as people of the West, indoctrinated for two millenia in the identity equation “Religion = God (= State)”, believe that religions require the presence of deity and the supernatural, whereas the ancient religions of the East and the modern religions of the West have none.

December 2, 2007

god is no better foundation for ethics than no-god

or why atheists are no worse than christians.

In his new encyclical the Pope argues that atheism cannot be moral because it has no god upon which to construct an ethics. This is plain wrong, though a well-ingrained assumption among (even the most liberal of) the religious.

Why the argument fails:

(1) the argument posits a god who is the guarantor of the ethic. But that is no more reasonable than just going ahead and positing the ethic and skipping the whole god-part. “Who created God?” remains an ever relevant question.

(2) the argument assumes that you need an indestructible foundation for an ethic to be valid at all. But (a) we all know that christianity et al. have been in a long process of tweaking and plain revamping their own “ultimate moral truths”. They might say their ultimate foundation is unshakable, but we’ve seen it moving all over the place in the last few thousand years. Also (b), what is wrong with an ethic that is mostly true? Isn’t that how most of our knowledge about the world is? We don’t know what the final Grand Unified Theory of physics is (nor will we ever), but that doesn’t stop us from using Newton’s or Einstein’s approximate equations to send satellites up into orbit. Why can’t we settle for an ethic that mostly works and that we can work on?

Why non-religious ethics works:

(1) Ethics has plenty of criteria it can use to work towards its own validity: coherence, naturalness, intuitiveness, practicality etc. As in all other areas of human inquiry all we need to do is gradually apply our different criteria to slowly improve our ethics. (The religious ethicists simply work it the other way around: they start with a supposedly rock-solid and eternal ethics and then use these same criteria to interpret their less-than-clear scriptures and figure out what the best ethics for today is.)

(2) There is actually no need for a grand unifying ethical theory. All we need are local theories that work in their specific areas. We can gradually bring them together, but we certainly needn’t (and can’t) start out with a perfect, finished ethical theory.
(3) Ethics can rely to a great deal upon a study of (human) nature to formulate its “laws”. This doesn’t mean social darwinism. This means that ethics is what helps us all get along and we should be able to figure out how to do that by looking at what makes us tick. Of course, we will hopefully become more civilized as time passes, abandoning the cruder versions of natural ethics (eye-for-eye) and moving to more sophisticated ones. But in the end, no matter how far our ethics have come over the millenia, ethics must always fit who we are, and we only need to open our own eyes to do learn about that.

The God-fearing can certainly base their ethics on their notion of god. But their argument that you must have one (viz. a god) for ethics to work is baloney. It is tantamount to arguing that a gigantic turtle (or an infinite column of them) holds up the world. We simply have to get used to the fact that nothing except “forces” hold it in place (or in movement). The good news is that these “forces” can be studied. We might never get to the bottom of it, but at least we’re not resting all our hopes on a bunch of turtles!

(p.s. i hope this helps to bring together the diverse and perhaps seemingly contradictory arguments i’ve been making in the last few posts and comments. And thanks Neil, Alonzo and others for your comments.)

December 1, 2007

Benedict XVI’s new encyclical about hope, modernity and the evils of atheism

Pope Benedict XVI the Pope has published his second encyclical. His basic argument is that “A world without God is a world without hope”.

The progress that modernity promoted is a double-eged sword according to the text. It needs ethics to direct it, lest it destroy even us:

In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

The passage that is getting the (atheist) blogosphere up in arms is actually quite on target, showing that atheism is no solution to the problems of theism:

If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism.

The Pope’s solution remains, however, unconvincing. He never quite explains why “a world without god is a world without hope”. He too falls within the theism/atheism dualism, failing to see that there are other options out there. One can hope in the very future of the world without signing off on the a/theism question. Perhaps our hope can transcend that very question and precisely hope for the best regardless of the existence/non-existence of a deity. That is neither theism, atheism nor agnosticism. It is pure, unadulterated hope (without additives).

December 1, 2007

The Alonzo Fyfe hates the pope for hating atheists

from the Athiest Ethicist complaining about Benedict’s new encyclical Spe salvi:

Pope Benedict XVI exposed a part of his moral character today as a hate-mongering bigot in an encyclical critical of modern atheism. As reported in the International Harold Tribune, the encyclical says that, “[Atheism] had led to some of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” ever known to mankind.”

Hate-mongering involves the selling of hate, typically for a profit or for the benefit of some group or organization that the hate-monger favors. It is like fish-mongering, which involves the selling of fish, as in a public market, typically for the sake of realizing a profit.


It is not a moral crime to sell hate – there are people on the world who deserve our hate. The moral crime comes from using lies and sophistry to sell hate – to force others to live their lives facing a hatred that he manufactured and sold himself.

The passage in the encyclical being referred to:

If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.

Now, honestly, even if you don’t quite agree, is that hate-mongering? The Pope may not be right, be he’s not calling on anyone to lynch anyone. Sometimes atheists can be as knee-jerk reactive as the worst of the religious people!