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“Gnu Religion”? December 24, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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I do appreciate getting comments on my blog.  But sometimes someone comments that, despite their seemingly jovial and friendly appreciation for what I have to say, gets it so horribly wrong that I cannot leave it without response.

A while back I wrote this piece about gnu atheism, and the other day I received this response.  By all means go and look at it for full context, but I quote enough of it below for you, dear reader, to get the gist.  I will not reproduce the entire comment here in the name of brevity as well as to avoid unnecessary repetition.

But I thought some of what I said in response might be worthy of posting as a blog post, and so here it is.

Well, I thank you for your thoughts, but I have to respond to some of this because I find many flaws here.

It sounds like a gnu atheist is essentially a citizen scientist.

OK, sure.  I can agree to that

It occurred to me some time ago that atheists spend a lot of time pointing out the silliness of religion but little time considering reasonable alternatives. We offer parodies of religion, but have we ever considered that it may well be possible to offer an alternative to “believers” that provides many of the features that make religion attractive to them?

There is a sort-of stock reply to a lot of what you said, especially about finding an alternative, or something to replace religion with.  It is to say that what do you replace cancer with when you get rid of it?

Religion has some good aspects to it (they are human things appropriated by religion.  No, usurped is better), but where it is unique it is poisonous and unnecessary.  Instead of replacing those things, we need to outgrow them.  We need to grow up as a species.

You said:

If we postulate that all information in the universe is conserved, then it would seem inevitable that at some point in the future our descendents or some other sentient beings in the universe would discover how to access that information….

No, information is not conserved.  Energy is conserved (it is equivalent to matter), but the information is lost.

We may be able to find technological ways to store that information and upload it.  This is, in fact, the dream of many transhumanists who look forward to a much longer life lived either in some sort of Matrix world or even in some technological bodies which won’t get sick, can be fixed easier, etc.

To me this is no different, philosophically, from looking forward to a heaven that follows this broken, sinful, world.  It says that this life is not only insufficient, but essentially worthless.  It de-values human life, and makes us overlook it in the hopes for something better.  It is precisely what is wrong with religion, not what we should save from it.

Until such technological feats are a reality, this is dreaming away our lives.  Sure, let’s research the possibilities, but please enjoy this life because it is almost certainly all that we will have.

Faith is of course necessary, but not blind faith, but rather faith based on reason and knowledge – faith in the potential of the human race to evolve and improve, faith made stronger by continued and serious skepticism, faith in the scientific method.

No.  A thousand times no.

Faith is poisonous.  It is the rotten center of all that is not rational or scientific.  Faith is the exact opposite of skepticism and science.

What you seek is reasonable expectations based upon empirical study.  Faith is the vileness of insisting that something is true in the face of all that demands that it is a lie.  It is the assertion of truth where no justification can be found.  It is believing in what has not been shown to be the case.

Ancestor worship would be one handy way to keep our descendents interested in us. Of course we might also simply provide a source of entertainment or research material. There’s plenty of potential for future judgment, which seems to be required by some people to behave themselves. Those that eventually grant us afterlife may judge some to be more deserving than others, and, yes, there’s even the potential of torment and suffering. God would be that future society, hopefully our descendents, that develop the capability of granting us our afterlife.

A millions times, no.  Worship nothing.  To worship is to place it where it cannot be reached, probed, questioned.  If anything is worthy of reverence, it is that nothing is beyond question.  Do not elevate any aspect of reality to a place beyond question, for that is where we lose ourselves to mental slavery.

Idle speculation. However I note that it’s just now approaching the time of the Solstice, and that would be an auspicious time, and convenient holiday, to mark this beginning of the Gnu great religion. ;^)>

Religion is to be outgrown; plain and simple.  I want no part of any “gnu religion.”

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1. Larry Granroth - December 24, 2011

James Van Allen was an avid proponent of unmanned spaceflight and, thus, opponent of manned spaceflight. He believed that manned spaceflight was wasteful and premature, given the state of space science. Mankind could gain far more knowledge from inexpensive and expendable robotic probes than the scientifically meager and financially extravagant manned missions. However, whenever criticizing the wastefulness of manned missions he would usually make the concession that manned missions fed the human desire for adventure and communal sense of human accomplishment. He realized that he would never convince human spaceflight proponents who felt such a sense of well-being associated with launching humans into the sky.

I occupied the office next to Professor Van Allen for many years. He would come in to work just about every day after he retired, right up to a few months before his death. On one of the last days that he came to his office I had finally gotten up the nerve to stop by and relate a hair-brained idea to him. (He was often besieged by lay people who sought him out in order to relate their latest ideas for perpetual motion machines and the like, and he always entertained them graciously, but I certainly didn’t want to appear to be in the same category.) My idea was that a simple, unmanned, 4-pi-steradian camera put into Earth orbit and linked to float tanks at amusement parks could do far more to convey the awe of humans in space to the citizens of the planet than any actual human in space. People could don a space suit and with a little, say Disney, magic enter a transport chamber that would place them in orbit, weightless, perhaps with their companions digitally superimposed on a real-time high-definition unobstructed view of our home planet among the stars.

Well, Van Allen was politely interested, but I never had a chance to determine if he was actually excited by the idea. I suspect that since such a project would have little scientific value that it probably ranked along with manned missions, although a waste of less money.

My thoughts about an alternative religion are a little like my thoughts about an alternative to human spaceflight. I’m keenly aware of the bad (okay, vile, despicable, inhumane) aspects of religion which are, to a lesser extent, similar to blind political following or, for that matter, fanatical sports following. What I propose is usurping religion to promote rational thinking by dangling the warm fuzzy feelings that are in no way the exclusive domain of irrationality. Alternative religion is perhaps too mild, I mean to redefine religion. (Yes, atheism is a religion by its current definition in the same sense that heath is a disease: It’s not.)

Blind faith is bad, but trust is necessary since no one person can marshal all of the observation and analysis of nature to operate autonomously. You always have to rely on the conclusions, advice, and opinions of others. Having faith in authorities simply means that you have come to the reasoned conclusion that you can trust that authority. This faith is hopefully only conferred in the knowledge that others, if not you, are continually testing the validity of the authority and the correctness of its conclusions. More rigorous skepticism yields a more trustworthy authority . . . worthy of reasonable faith. Maybe I want to usurp faith to mean reasonable belief or confidence. Moreover I propose that the religious faith of most theists is also susceptible to reason.

At the very fringes of theoretical physics, it’s possible that neither matter nor energy are strictly conserved in the classical sense, but arguments for the preservation of information have been made. Apart from that, you can imagine, for example, that given a large enough mirror at an appropriate distance from the Earth that we could peer with complete fidelity into our past. Science fiction has speculated that all configurations of our universe, past and future, exist and continue to exist, but are not reachable through known physical means. Of course fictional speculation or controversial open questions at the frontiers of science are no basis on which to act, but they do leave open the possibility that some distant descendent may one day be able to access sufficient information about us as individuals to effectively resurrect us. As a more conceivable and nearer-term scenario: If we can simply preserve the neural network of our brain, perhaps we would have a backup that could be reactivated in some conceivable future. Life in a computer simulation would not preclude any sensory input from the natural world, although it may allow for a much lower requirement for natural resources. Yes, this is a substitute for heaven, but with the significant difference that we must bring it about ourselves. It’s a goal rather than a reward. I worry that the “enjoy this life because it is almost certainly all that we will have” approach leads to hedonism and stagnation. Natural selection will prefer any species that is capable of looking to the future. This world, far from being insufficient and worthless, is the only path leading to the future we work for. Admittedly, even given dire personal conditions here, the possibility of an afterlife may give some added hope. I claim that it would be a benefit to consider not only the welfare of our children, but the fact that they and their descendents may ultimately be responsible for our resurrection and the nature of the heaven or hell that we might face.

Fundamentalist religious zealots are most likely beyond helping, but the vast majority of “believers” are probably open to reason. I know the spiritual uplifting that contemplating the wonders of nature and the human pursuit of truth through science can bring, but I also know that others would still cling to religion simply for the hope of an afterlife. Even if no charismatic leader comes along preaching the virtues of scientific reason, and perhaps bundling reasonable speculation about a genuine afterlife, even if there is no “gnu religion”, we will one day demonstrate that human consciousness can be preserved beyond death. On that day all the (bad old) religions of the world will begin to crumble (and, unfortunately, probably not before that day).

As a thoughtful atheist, and even after your one million one thousand one times no . . . I’d still like a backup. ;^)

2. shaunphilly - December 24, 2011

I still disagree.

But this specifically struck me as odd:

“I worry that the “enjoy this life because it is almost certainly all that we will have” approach leads to hedonism and stagnation.”

What’s wrong with hedonism?

Also, stagnation? How? One of the reasons I love this life so much is the desire and ability to make myself and the world around me better. The idea is not to dwell on the world as it is as if we were supposed to cling to some some sort of perpetual moment in time enjoyed (like some warped version of the Nietzschean “eternal return”).

No, the idea is to get from this life what we can, because there is so much potential for growth, enjoyment (yes, hedonism!), and also moments of philosophical depth and meaning of all sorts.

Strive for your backup, if you like, but while striving for it don’t forget to have something worth backing up.

3. Thaumas Themelios - November 29, 2012

Just discovered this post/comments, so I’m a bit late obviously, but I want to comment because the motivations behind what Larry Granroth wrote are very similar to my motivations behind writing about (and otherwise promoting) wonderism (see http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/19029 and also http://www.facebook.com/wonderism for comparison).

I think Granroth’s motivations are sound, but I think (IMO) that he needs to realize that certain words and concepts, specifically ‘faith’ and ‘religion’, are too loaded-down with baggage to ‘usurp’ those words for reason and science.

Too many people think of ‘faith’ as believing in things based solely on personal conviction, and it would be a never-ending uphill battle to try to change that basic, extremely common definition.

It would be like saying: “Racism is a good thing! But by ‘racism’, I mean understanding that all humans are all the same ‘race’, and that discriminating against people because of superficial or cultural differences is a bad thing to do.”

Yeah, sure, in an imaginary future reality where such a reversal of definitions had occurred, it would be a good thing. But the difficulty is getting to that point. It simply isn’t feasible to adopt every seemingly-positive-sounding word from religion and to redefine it to mean its opposite, as most people define it today.

Early on, in thinking about wonderism, I was entertaining the idea of trying to do exactly what Granroth has proposed here, but when I tried it out tentatively in a few places online and offline, it became obvious very quickly the difficulty involved. It would also be similar to the difficulty of overcoming the apparent smugness of the term ‘brights’ to mean something other than ‘I’m smarter than you!’

I’ve basically settled on just calling it a personal philosophy akin to existentialism or philosophical naturalism, and so far that seems accurate and uncontroversial.

But the underlying motivation — of usurping the last bits of what religion claims it has exclusive rights to — that motivation is still firmly in place, and keeps me going with the idea itself: Religion has no monopoly on wonder; not only that, but science does wonder better! 🙂


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