emotions can be a distracting drug

So, I seriously get annoyed with some aspects of liberal culture, especially where it intersects with religion.  I’ve written about this before, many times, so I don’t need to sat too much (and yet, I will…).  But it is a thing which grinds my gears fairly frequently, including today when I found this good criticism of Francis Spufford’s article at Salon.com by professor Ceiling Cat himself.  Go read Jerry Coyne’s post.  As usual, he makes good points.

While reading the post, however, I was thinking about this argument, which I have heard before, about how religion is a spiritual or emotional experience.  Some atheists, while being smug and disrespectful (as we are wont to do) will compare religion to a drug, and there is some justification for this crude comparison.

But more generally, emotions act in addictive manners in more arenas than religion.  It is certainly something I am familiar with.  The the poly world, there are sometimes discussions of NRE being addictive, which leads some people to pursue new relationships almost unceasingly.  This sometimes leads to situations where one starts to neglect those with whom they share intimacy, simply due to spending time pursuing more and more novelty.

As a Borderline, I am familiar with the desires to pursue the thrills of both intense joys and of (the illusion of) control.  The highs are great, but the pretend goal of maintenance of those heights, and avoidance of the lows, is delusional. In my worst memories, I have images of having gotten the emotional reaction my anger–a result of fear in the absurd pursuit of being loved–was after, which is accompanied by the fleeting, deceptive, addictive pleasure of it all.  Fleeting because a few seconds later it is clear that not only will the reaction not lead to them loving me, but that they will probably never want to be close to me again.

And yet the mind craves it, all too often.  All too often because ever is too often.

And so here we are, back to religion, with Mr. Spufford arguing that we new new atheists are wrong because we do not get that religion is about the emotional experience and not primarily about truth.  The turn-around, here, seems to be that it is Mr. Spufford who does not understand.  I, a life-time student of religious history, theology, and its relationship to culture know all too well how emotion can lead us to belief.

Spufford says:

It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

which is, of course, reminiscent of the old Catholic idea of belief prior to understanding (which, if memory serves, was Thomas Aquinas’ dictum.  Correct me if I’m wrong).

This idea is not inspirational.  I am not led to see religion as more understandable because of feelings people have.  Good feelings do not imply a good worldview, moral sense, and especially not good ideas.  I am not less critical of you and your religion  because you have pleasant feelings, which religion provides you with.

And then I think how often, we as humans (even within the atheist community) rationalize terrible ideas, policies, or moral worldviews based upon feelings.  How much is misogyny the result of genuine feelings? How much is homophobia based upon feelings? Etc.

And the feelings don’t have to be bad ones.  Perhaps some misogynistic MRA out there is motivated by a genuine desire to right the wrongs where the system is actually slanted away from men? Well, that instinct is generally good, but without a larger perspective to compare those instincts and feelings to, those feelings (if they are, in fact, good) are insufficient.  Because while motivated to right a structural wrong, many MRA’s miss the larger point that the vast majority of structural injustices in our world are stacked in the favor of men.  Our friendly MRA, and his good feelings which lead him to beliefs contra-feminism, are not sufficient.

Similarly with religion.  Spufford and his family go to church, have good feelings, and so they believe the things believed by the people who are there when they have the feelings.  How absurd is that? We, new atheists, know that you have good feelings while singing about Jesus.  We are glad you are capable of good feelings, we want you to have good feelings, we just want you to get your head out of your ass and realize that the time and place of where those good feelings happen may have nothing to do with the feelings per se.

Or, if they did, then perhaps those feelings are not worth wanting anymore.  Perhaps good feelings are not sufficient reason to keep doing something, you selfish asshole.

At some point, this conversation about truth/experience, science/art, etc comes down to moral principles; things like authenticity and integrity (which I am teased about, by more than a few people, for sharing with hipsters apparently.  I was doing it before there were hipsters, so there…:P).  These moral principles are structures by which we decide how to go about daily living.  Do we care about other people, our environment (immediate and/or global), and what is true or don’t we? Are our good feelings we have at church (or whatever selfish pleasure we are pursuing) more important than the larger picture of our lives and those close to us?

In short, are your jollies more important than all the things that you could do besides them?

Are your emotions more important than the effect they have on the world around you? Are they more important than mine, your neighbors, etc?

Spufford, and others who make this argument, seem to essentially be saying that the good feelings that religion give them are more important than the larger question of whether religion is harmful to society as a whole–let alone whether they are true. They seem inclined towards associating their religion with emotional and spiritual self-improvement, rather than a larger cultural phenomenon with consequences upon history, power structures, etc.  Because their religion only makes people feel good, unlike the fundamentalists who just hate everyone.  Excuses.


Feeling good is great.  But there is a reason I don’t want to try heroin.  I have a feeling I will like it, if I tried it.  That isn’t the question.  If I try it, my intelligent mind will find ways to rationalize using it more, despite the detrimental effects it will have, upon extended use, on my life and the world around me.  Spufford’s article is a rationalization of his addiction.  It is a human behavior so common, so ubiquitous, that we forget that we need to step back and apply skepticism, rationality, and logic to the world to make sure we are not getting caught up in our addictions.

Emotions are not inherently bad.  Emotions are an integral part of the tool-kit of decision-making and enjoying life.  But when we see people so blinded by their preferences, biases, etc that they are incapable of seeing the larger picture, we need to be able to say that it is time to stop being led around by our religious dicks.

PZ Myers and Michael Ruse’s mis-attribution of the fault in our wars

I have been writing, reading, and thinking about the issue of accommodationism for some time.  Type ‘accommodationism’ in the search box above for some context, as there are too many posts to link to here.  I will say that  I have tended to agree with Jerry Coyne’s views about the relationship between religion and science most of the time, and I tend to agree with PZ Myers more often than not.

Yesterday, PZ Myers put up a post about Michael Ruse which I largely agree with, but I want to address something, not because it makes me disagree with the point PZ makes, but because I think it takes a step back and gives some larger perspective on this issue.  Here’s the relevant section from PZ’s post, quoting Ruse:

But wait! There are more paradoxes! One of the big problems with the New Atheism, says Ruse, is the way we idolize and support our leaders unquestioningly.

There are other aspects of the New Atheist movement that remind me of religion. One is the adulation by supporters and enthusiasts for the leaders of the movement. It is not just a matter of agreement or respect, but of a kind of worship. This certainly surrounds Dawkins, who is admittedly charismatic.

We worship Dawkins? And possibly Hitchens and Harris? Has he ever noticed how much we all freaking argue with each other? There are no saints and popes in the New Atheist movement.

Oh, wait, yes he has noticed. In the very next paragraph.

Freud describes a phenomenon that he calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, in which groups feud over distinctions that, to the outside, seem totally trivial. It is highly characteristic of religions: think of the squabbles about the meaning of the Eucharist, for instance, or the ways in which Presbyterians tear each other apart over the true meaning of predestination. For those not involved in the fights, the issues seem virtually nonsensical, and certainly wasting energies that should be spent on fighting common foes. But not for those within the combat zone.

The New Atheists show this phenomenon more than any group I have ever before encountered.

So which is it? Blind, unquestioning worship of our leaders, or incessant fractiousness and dissension? It doesn’t matter. Ruse is just spinning his wheel of deplorable sins and accusing us of whatever random flaw pops up.

I will point out that PZ has missed that these two ideas are not, in fact, in necessarily contradiction, even if Ruse’s argument is ridiculous (which it is).  It is logically possible that people in the atheist movement idolize atheist leaders and that fractious arguments also result, just like with religion.  All it would take is a hypothetical Dawkins follower to argue with a Sam Harris follower, insofar as Harris and Dawkins would disagree.  And there are some people I have met who do seem to look up to some atheist “celebrities” with some level of idolization, but this is to be expected.  We are human, with personal flaws, after all.  The ideal, however, does not have anyone idolizing anyone.  I, for example, respect some people more than others, but I’ve never been a person who idolizes anyone, and never get fanboyish around well-known people, nor do I understand why other people do.

And I agree that there are arguments within the community, but I see this as largely a good thing even though in some cases it is evidence of bad ideas remaining among atheists (such as misogyny and privilege).  There is a lot of work to do before our culture matures emotionally, cognitively, and in terms of being aware of our privileges and biases.  And as a result of that, many atheists will tend to be stuck behind their own blindness, and fractures will exist which we need to addressed in the form of criticism and education of those people.  Hence Atheism+.

But what Ruse is identifying here is not so much that the atheist community is like religion, but that when groups of people gather for any common cause, belief, or lack of beliefs, they tend to have similar behavior patterns of idolization, arguing, etc.  So yes, the atheist community has some behavioral issues which are reminiscent of religion, but once again the error is in mis-attributing such things to religion, when in fact religion is the result of human group behaviors not the cause of it.  Ruse is showing how atheist communities are acting human, just like religious groups.  Why does Ruse make the (apparently unconscious) assumption that these behaviors fundamentally belong to religion?

Our goal—as skeptics and atheists concerned with our culture, our beliefs, and our actions—should be to improve how we all think, behave, and interact.  Those working on including social justice in their actions, whether atheist or religious, are taking a step in the right direction in such terms.  But what new/gnu atheism is about, Michael Ruse, is about asking whether the views some group has are true or not.  We must take as a given that we will err in how he think, behave, and interact, but the question which concerns us is whether our ideas are true, not whether our community is perfectly ideal.

That’s the long-term goal, and it will take time to get there.  And, as I understand it, this is what efforts such as Atheism+ were developed to answer.  Because if we want to address the human flaws and how they emerge in the atheist community, we have to understand how psychology turns into sociology; how our personal flaws turn into groupthink and tribalism.  The problem with religion is not that it fractures, idolizes its leaders, and then fights among themselves.  No, that’s a human problem which we all have to deal with.  The problem with religion is that it isn’t true; that they are arguing over fantasies.

Skeptical atheists, at least, are arguing over what is true with a methodology which works; science.  And if they are not using science and skepticism well enough, then we can use skeptical criticism to point out how and why.  When does religion do that? Religion uses logic on top of the assumptions of its theology, but it rarely, if ever, appropriately uses empirical methodology and good skepticism.

Michael Ruse is stuck comparing religion to atheism in ways which must be true because they are activities done by humans.  Where atheism and religion are alike, it is attributable to anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in).  What Ruse misses, and what PZ does not articulate well in this case, is that what does separate religion from atheism is the concern for truth of worldviews rather than behavior of participants.

Because sure, some atheists go around  idolizing people and arguing over small details, but our goal is to help them personally grow until they are mature, skeptical, knowledgeable people with good cultural and personal perspective.  And unlike religion, we actually have real ways to achieve that because we do not have any scripture, doctrine, or limitations of criticism.

We have the best methods in our hands, no rules about where we cannot inquire, and only our personal flaws to hold us back.  That tempered by caring about what is true, rather than what is comforting, preferable, or sanctioned is a good road to progress.

The scientific method is not indebted to religion

Over at Why Evolution is True (which I read religiously!), Jerry Coyne has tackled an article aimed at him on BioLogos…again. I generally agree with the perspective on science and religion espoused by Coyne, and this post was not an exception.  What I want to address is a point made in the BioLogos article Coyne quotes, written by Robert C. Bishop:

Finally, Coyne completely misunderstands the force of the historical examples I gave of science/faith engagement (the Scientific Revolution and 20th century debates about steady state cosmology). They aren’t just points about the religious faith of some scientists in the past. Rather, the scientific methods these scientists created and used were intimately tied up with and motivated by their faith.

He goes on from there, explicating the old canard about how since many early scientists were religiously motivated, therefore the methods of science themselves were motivated by religion.  For example:

Galileo, Boyle and Newton among others developed methods for studying created things on their own terms in such a way that their natures could be revealed to investigators as accurately as possible. This means that they didn’t treat created things as divine or as fronts for the real activity of God, or as shadows behind which genuine reality is working. Instead, they treated pendula, animals, planets and stars as having genuine natures and properties, as responding to and contributing to order, and sought to put themselves in the best methodological and epistemological position to receive all that created things had to teach about themselves.

This all sounds good enough, I suppose.  It is generally true that scientists of the age used terms like “created things” and so forth, and viewed the universe as having a discoverable order, usually attributed to some intelligent force, AKA God.  But watch were Bishop goes next, after the claim that western intellectual culture is dominated by concepts of hierarchical levels of order in reality.

…biblical revelation stands unique historically in recognizing only one distinction and no hierarchy in nature: There is only the Creator and what is created. Everything that is created is of the same ontological order of being. In other words, the being of everything created–terrestrial and celestial–is homogenous in being.

This sounds almost Spinoza-esque in flavor (perhaps with a dash of Leibniz), as if the universe is simply all one thing, including its creator and intelligent force.  If the creator is separate, does that not imply hierarchy? Perhaps I’m splitting hairs.  What makes this more interesting is that Coyne, in his post, is addressing is the fact that the scientific method, specifically concerning evolution, makes the proposition of the supernatural unnecessary towards explaining anything. If there is no hierarchy, and all the universe is subject to the same laws, then why the perpetual appeal to an intelligent designer by BioLogos’ articles, including this one?

But I’m being led away from my point.

In any case, Bishop’s assertion of this unique “ontological homogeneity” derived from Biblical theology (which is not unique to the Bible nor even really actually Biblical, in my opinion) implies that

once the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Descartes and Newton grasped hold of ontological homogeneity, the exploration of nature was never the same. The doctrine provided the seeds motivating Galileo, Kepler and the other scientific revolutionaries to see celestial and terrestrial regions as of the same order of being: finite, composed of the same material, operating by the same laws and secondary causes.

The assertion that this ontological worldview was derived from Biblical revelation and theology needs to be justified.  But even if it were true, the implication that the Christian worldview in which these scientists grew was the cause of the scientific method they employed is still dubious.  This is because the scientific method, especially as it is used now, is not based upon the need for revelation, gods, or any creators.  The method is simply the intellectual continuation of the proto-scientific methods that existed before Christian revelation, and was in fact put on hold by Christian history (Library of Alexandria, anyone?).  The fact that these scientists held onto the linguistic conventions of creators, universal order, etc is no more to the point than today’s scientists, even secular or overtly atheist ones, use metaphors from the Christian worldview the West is still mired in. Kepler, Newton, and the rest did hold onto religious belief to some extent, but they also were not subject to the facts that Darwin brought about which tossed away the need for much of what a creator offered to them.  Paley’s argument  still held sway for them because they had not lived at a time when science, and its method, had swept away enough of the theological riff-raff to make them useless.  That is not so anymore, and it has not been for some time.

Imagine some time in the future, say a few hundred years or so from now, where this issue is being discussed.  Imagine some debate between future intellectuals about this era and its scientific community concerning religious belief.  I could imagine some individual quoting Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, or PZ Myers (who will, at that time, be remembered at the first man to get tentacle implants in an attempt to take over the world) where they use Biblical imagery, metaphors, or even quote some scripture directly because the verse happens to make a point they agree with.  In a world which has moved on from religion as we know it today, where Biblical language has disappeared from common use, this would look like religion to them.  In the same way that Newton’s reference to a creator (or Thomas Jefferson’s for that matter) sounds like a religious reference today, the use of religious metaphors in the future will be strange and sound antiquated (in one possible future, of course).

This is not to say that Newton was not religious, only that relative to his time, his worldview and methods for finding truth were more secular and skeptical (even if he did believe in silly things like astrology).  I might go as far as to say that  Galileo might be on the atheist speaking tour if he were alive today (perhaps the same for Jefferson or Paine).  But what is essential here is that he methods that scientists used by these people were an improvement of methods of finding truth.  They were a step up towards a more perfect method that allows us to see, today, that ideas such as natural selection do not need a god to explain the state of life on Earth.  Even if some of the concepts that allowed this method to develop came from Western religious traditions, this does not imply that those methods are congruent with the worldview that preceded the method’s application to the natural world.

In a sense, that would be tantamount to claiming that because the logical and rational methods used by atheists in debates with theists, atheism owes its existence to Christian revelation and tehology.  When in fact atheism is the recognition that this theology is essentially nonsense, even if the  tools we use to show this was originally developed by people trying to apologize for theology in the past.  It’s an accidental relationship, one that demonstrates a growing up, transcending even, of our species’ adolescent eras.

The tools of rational thought, utilized by theology, are not enough in themselves.  When built upon the foundations of empirical and skeptical methods, they can help us achieve greater insights into the workings of the universe towards a more efficient and powerful understanding of our world.  But when they are used only in conjunction with speculation (AKA revelation) the conclusions are likely to be dubious.  And where those conclusions are occasionally true they will be so only accidentally, as even Paley’s watch, when broken, is rights twice a day.   Where theology helped developed to create the rules of logic, which is to say when it has worked to shape and sharpen the tools scientists use, it wasn’t until these tools reached the hands of people dedicated to testing their hypotheses against the world that we actually saw real progress towards the better understanding of the universe which we have today.  And the longer people like Robert C. Bishop attempt to tie this method to parochial anachronisms of theology, the slower we can reach that future when religion is relegated to linguistic devices and imagery to be used for literary effect by future scientists.



Good Accommodationist cop, Bad Gnu Cop: How tribalism oversimplifies the issues


Here is a resource that may be helpful in tracing some aspects of the discussion about accommodationism, in case such a thing interests you.

I have been no friend to the so-called accommodationist camp of this discussion within the atheist community concerning our relationship with believers and our culture at large.   (Here are some examples).  I have clearly staked a claim as a ‘gnu atheist,’ but I will agree that I often am baffled by the so-called accommodationist’s position.  I mean that I really don’t even think I understand what it is..  I have a feeling that there are a number of behaviors that are called ‘accommodationist’ which differ greatly from each other, and I think it is time to parse what those things are.

I want to extend an invitation to people who have either self-identified as either a gnu or an accommodationist or have been labeled as such by others.  I want to hear your points of view.

First, a little background

A few days ago John Shook, author of a book (which I have not read but of which I have not heard good things) The God Debates posted this article up on CFI’s website. I read it and commented almost immediately, which led to some discussions that can be found in the comments section.

Them today, Jerry Coyne discussed Shook’s book and some of his other recent writing and gave him a general thumbs down (if I may summarize in such a terse manner).  I’ll add that I agree with Jerry Coyne here, and find that John Shook is not a very good writer, uses vague language, and is trying to draw parallels which I simply do not see justification for.  My guess is that this is an outgrowth of trying to express a point of view that seems contradictory and indefensible.  Shook’s post led to more conversation (in the comments section, again) which got me talking to people on different sides of this debate….


I think that what has started to happen in the last couple of years is a clear split in the atheist community about a number of things.  Many have commented on it, and I will not dwell too much on the history or points of said disagreement here.  But what I want to identify is a certain tribalism that is starting to make itself much more clear to me.  In the comments to Jerry Coyne’s post, I am seeing some people talking about what “side” someone is on, as if this is a clearly defined conflict with clear sides.

I think that Michael De Dora is partially right when he says, in a comment (#5) on Shook’s post)

The term “accomodationist,” in current use, means so many different things that it essentially means nothing.

Now, at first I disagreed with this sentiment (and I still do, but let’s not get sidetracked) as the record shows in that subsequent discussion.  I think that it is something that requires more discussion, and I extend the invitation to other people who are, or who have been branded with the title of, accommodationist.

I think he is right to the extent that because of the various obfuscations, differing uses, etc of the term ‘accommodationist,’ many people are not really clear on what it means.  But I do think that at first there was a use which was clear and which could still make a simple distinction between perspectives on this issue and which describes a real divide in opinions and not mere semantic games.


For me, the central criteria for accommodationism is where one stands on the issue of incompatibility between science and religion.  More specifically, the incompatibility between certain scientific issues (usually evolution) and religious believers.  How much are we willing to appease or accommodate (hence the term) people’s religious beliefs while trying to convince them of the overwhelming evidence for science and its powerful method.

That is, when it comes to scientific literacy and education, how do we deal with religion and the fact that there are incompatibilities between religious doctrines and scientific conclusions?  Do we overlook when liberal religious people don’t notice the contradiction or don’t think there is one?  Do we point out that we think that scientific conclusions make their world worldview look indefensible?

A secondary issue is that of the willingness to be confrontational.  New atheists are called strident, rude, and other words which I shall not repeat, while the other atheists are nice, they listen and don’t criticize even while they disagree, and they just go about their godless life almost unnoticed.

And whether one is more willing to be confrontational will not necessarily tell you their opinion about the question of incompatibility.  What happens, I think, is that confrontational gnus get attacked by confrontational accommodationists.  And from the point of view of the religious, the confrontational gnus look worse because they are saying that there actually is an incompatibility while the accommodationist talks up the compatibility.  Good cop bad cop, of a sort?

Here’s a little dialogue from an up-coming play I’m writing called Good Accommodationist, Bad Gnu:

“Hey, fella, that gnu cop is really riled up out there, saying this and that and how wrong you are.  If I let him in he’s gonna rough you up a bit, so I’ll keep him out there, away from you.  But I understand where you are coming from…you didn’t mean what you did and you didn’t know better.  No big deal, right?   Let’s be friends, help me out and I’ll help you out, ok?”

We all know that the “good” cop thinks this “fella” is guilty and is just trying to get a confession, but he’s being really nice  about it.  Will it work? Maybe.  But we have not heard from the other cop, what the guy did, and so all we hear is the “good” cop.  That’s how it is for much of the audience of people like Chris Mooney or the Templeton Foundation writers.  All they hear is the shouting coming from the other room (which they are not really listening to) and a calmer cop in their face, acting like their friend.

And this issue of confrontation is not unrelated to the issue of incompatibility.  The philosophical disagreement about compatibility of science and religion leads to the appearance of confrontationalism being the central difference between the ‘gnus’ and the ‘accommodationists’.  Allow me to try to parse that out:

  1. Atheists have been pointing out for a while that saying something critical about someone’s beliefs is often viewed as confrontational or rude, no matter how politely it is said.  Thus, even when an atheist is trying to not be confrontational, they appear to be confrontational.
  2. Having the opinion that religion/faith and the scientific method’s power to explain (including the so-called ‘scientism’) are incompatible is a position that will be critical of a very significant percentage of our culture.  To point it out is not, many say, diplomatic. It will not make us many friends, and it will chase moderates away from us towards fundamentalism, and fundamentalists towards a more strict literalism.
  3. Therefore, those with opinions about the incompatibility of science and religion are viewed as confrontational, even if they are not actually confrontational, because their position is undiplomatic.  To be undiplomatic is to be confrontational, it seems.
  4. Many atheists (including this one) believe that to pretend, while interacting with religious people (especially about science), that this incompatibility does not exist is to be short-sighted and is only telling a half-truth at best.  We feel that we don’t need to always sweeten the medicine.  And when we see religious scientists, we may say “sure the two things can exist in the same brain, but they are philosophically incompatible.”
  5. Other atheists believe that in order to make short-term gains in science education, the opposition of conservative and fundamentalist religious agendas, and to generally have a better relationship for communication with most of the religious world we need to not press them on their faith.  So they talk up, Templeton and HuffPo style, ways in which religion is a lot like science or naturalism and rarely talk about how they are incompatible.
  6. Many atheists with the perspective that this incompatibility should not be glossed over, appeased, or accommodated are frustrated because it is dishonest or demonstrably wrong.  In my case (and I think Coyne’s and PZ’s), this is due our watching some atheists not point out this incompatibility to the larger cultural audience even when they may agree that the incompatibility exists.  They are talking out of both sides of their mouths.
  7. There are other people out there (and perhaps John Shook is one of them), who believe that the incompatibility exists but insist on trying to draw similarities between naturalism and supernaturalism.  They do this, I believe, with good intentions; they are trying to further the dialogue with the religious world.
  8. Further, many these people often attack those who refuse to play this game of diplomacy.  They try to appease the largely religious (or religious-friendly) culture, which is most of their intended audience, while also publicly attacking the people who are not trying to appease the religious world.  Many of these people agree that religion and science are incompatible.
  9. And even if these attackers don’t agree with atheists like me on the incompatibility issue, they are still attacking other atheists.  They are trying to dissociate themselves from the so-called ‘new atheists’ who are seen as strident, aggressive, and rude (even when they are not).  They are widening the rift which is a difference of opinion about tactics which the public really does not understand nor really cares about.  They are making an internal issue public so they won’t look bad; the irony being they don’t really disagree very much about the general questions of gods, religions, and faith, just how we should address the public about such things.
  10. This is playing politics.  It comes across to me as dishonest, short-sighted, and it treats the public as if they were children rather than adults who can hear what people like Shook claim to actually believe but obfuscates with posts like the one linked above.  If you believe that the incompatibility exists, dont attempt Chopra-esque mental and linguistic gymnastics in order to show how they may be compatible.

All of this amounts to the development of tribalism.  We see the same thing in politics, especially here in the United States, and it turns into sides, rather than perspectives in a complex set of problems that may have a number of solutions, or at least sets of solutions that can be grouped into major categories.

Working towards an internal conversation

I would like to have more dialogue about this issue, and stop building more fences.  I want those who side with the gnu atheists to talk more with people they call, or who call themselves, accommodationists.  I want us to talk through these issues and find a way to either clearly define the boundaries and hack out the actual philosophical disagreements or to throw away the terms and just talk about the differences.  We may have to come up with new terms, although my guess is that the current ones will stick, as terms are wont to do.

There are probably many shades of grey in this discussion, and I am sure that I am not the extreme on either end of the spectrum, if it is, indeed a spectrum.  It’s probably more like a multi-dimensional graph with at least 2 axes; level of agreement with incompatibility and level of confrontationalism.  Picture a simple graph with the y-axis being the strength of their agreement with incompatibility, and the x-axis the level of confrontational behavior you are comfortable with.

I would be higher on both axes, while others would either be high on one, the other, or neither.  We need to recognize that this issue about accommodationism v. gnu atheism is not a simple binary position.  This is complex, and it’s time we talked and figured out what the issues are, the possible positions, and where we all stand.  And perhaps in doing so, we may get rid of the terms ‘accommodationist’ and  ‘gnu’/’new’ or we may simply add to them.

It may turn out that the various positions are incompatible and that the confrontational people on all sides will continue to be strident, but let’s at least figure out what each of us means when we define our positions and why we criticize each other.  I want to know what others think about this, and I want them to understand my point of view.  Right now, I don’t think anyone has a really clear picture of any side.  Even if nobody changes their position, I think some clarity may help us better understand our own position.

Missing the dendrology for the Trees: PZ Myers and evidence for gods

I have been following the recent discussion occurring between such epic bloggers as PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Ophelia Benson about the issue of whether there could be any convincing evidence for there being a God.  It started last Fall with a post by PZ and went from there, and I have not weighed in because I thought many of the points were covered by others and nobody really reads this blog anyway (not even my mom reads my blog…).

Now, I generally agree with PZ, especially his views about how we should deal with religious people and their beliefs.  His views on accommodationism are pretty on-target, from my point of view, and it has helped clarify my own views in some cases.

But I think that PZ Myers is missing something in this conversation about possible evidence for gods, something which overlooks the larger question and replaces it with a smaller one.  I feel like PZ is trying to apply a general observation from a set of particulars, and is thus missing the dendrology for the trees.  The issues I have can be traced to comments such as this from PZ today:

Religion has had a couple of millennia to make a case for its fundamental concepts: the existence of the supernatural, the existence of deities, the effectiveness of priestly intermediaries, etc. It has failed. It does not provide support in the form of evidence or logical consistency; it also fails to show any pragmatic utility. Religion never does what it claims to do. At what point do we learn from experience and simply reject the whole worthless mess out of hand?

Now, I am not in disagreement with this statement.  Religion has failed to make its case over the millennia, and while it will most-likely not go away anytime soon, people would be better off rejecting the whole enterprise.

But my issue is not with religion per se.  My issue is with faith, theology, and the spiritual feelings (what Nietzsche calls the ‘metaphysical need’) that people have and which was probably the original cause, current maintainer, and future transformer of religion.  Yes, religion has failed to make it’s case, but belief in god precedes and is not necessarily contained within religion.  The question of the existence of god(s) is a general philosophical question that religions contribute to, rather than own.

So while religion may have failed, this does not necessarily discount god (although it is certainly not working in the favor of each).  The question of divinity is a more fundamental problem than the many trees of religion.  Religion discusses specific conception of gods.  Religion may play at trying to show a generic god, and especially among ecumenical and liberal theological schools it certainly does attempt to do so, but these games are constrained by the traditional definitions of gods that act as a restraining force against the larger philosophical question which is usually eschewed due to these traditional limitations.

So while I will agree that (to continue quoting PZ)

Religion plays Calvinball. There are no rules except what they make up as they go.

I do not think that the philosophical question of the existence of god always does this, even if it does very often.  I think that the question of god, being ultimately a question that must (if it is to be taken seriously) utilize rational means (including the scientific method and logic), the issue cannot be said to be a failure simply because religions have not made their case.  The case must be made rationally, and this is an endeavor that transcends religious ‘calvinball.’

So, could there be evidence for any gods?

Could there be evidence for a god? I doubt it.  My certainty of this doubt is pretty damned high.  I’d be a 6.9 on Dawkins’ scale as well.  But the issue is a philosophical and scientific one, and cannot be proven with absolute certainty.  It is logically possible that a god exists that does not want us to know about it or the evidence for which is still beyond our capability to comprehend.  This would not be the god of Abraham, of Hindu mythology, or of the ancient Olmecs, but a ‘god’ is not logically impossible in general.  This god may decide to reveal itself at some point, and perhaps its attributes would not be the traditional omnimax god (omniscient, omnipotent, etc), but THAT IS PRECISELY THE POINT!

The God that PZ Myers sees as impossible to find evidence for is the traditional western concept of a god, not any possible being that would deserve the name (an issue that becomes important in this discussion, but which will nonetheless be left for another time).   If the traditional western concept of god were all that this discussion were about, then I would agree with PZ Myers (as Vic Stenger did with his God: The Failed Hypothesis) and I think Jerry Coyne might as well.

The issue is that there are a plethora of other potential gods that might exist, be logically non-problematic, fit the naturalist worldview, etc whom decided to hide itself for whatever reason.  I don’t believe in such a being because I’m a skeptic and the evidence does not exist for such a being and I reserve belief for such presented evidence.  But if such a being existed the evidence could exist at some point (perhaps), and we would have to reserve our belief until such potential evidence presented itself.  I’m not holding my breath, and neither should anyone else, in my opinion.  The evidence as it exists now leads me to say that everyone should be an atheist now unless they 1) have said evidence already or 2) are delusional.

And those who claim to be have #1 have not convinced me because their attempts at evidence has, as PZ points out, failed for millennia.

PZ continues:

In science, we’re used to incremental progress and revision of our ideas. Evidence is our currency, it’s how we progress and it’s what gets results. It is a category error, however, to think that the way to address free-floating word salad and flaming nonsense is to take the scalpel of reason and empiricism and slice into it, looking for definable edges. No, what you do is look over the snot-ball of self-referential piffle, note that it has no tenable connection to reality, and drop-kick it into the rec room, where the kids can play with it, but no one should ever take it seriously.

Again, I agree.  But this is NOT addressing the real issue.  PZ is still addressing the existing traditional theological parameters for a god and declaring that they have failed, and I agree.  Further, evidence for a generic god has failed as well, but this is not the same as saying that evidence cannot exist to convince me, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, etc ever.  But the fact that we should not take it seriously is due to the accidental circumstances of lack of evidence that is not the logically necessary state of affairs for all times.  We simply do not know what will come in the future, no matter how certain we are.  That claim that no evidence is possible to convince someone like PZ Myers is not, as Jerry Coyne observed, the proper application of the scientific method.  God is a scientific (or at least a rational) proposition, and science deals in probabilities.

Perhaps an analogy would suffice.  Let’s pretend that, for whatever reason, we lived in a world where fossils simply did not survive.  For whatever reason, the evidence of ancient and prehistoric animals simply did not exist, or at least extraordinarily more rarely than they currently do. What if someone were to propose that at some point in the past large reptiles roamed the planet for millions of years?  In such a case, someone like PZ Myers would come along and say that the proposition simply failed to make its case, that no evidence exists, and the particular drawings of potential large reptiles were nonsensical.

Would it be logically justifiable to then declare that no evidence could surface to prove the proposition?  Would this analog to PZ Myers in this hypothetical world be justified in claiming that the proposed prehistoric reptiles, with their hypothetical body-structures and subsequent descriptions and drawings are failures and therefore ANY large prehistoric reptiles of these types did not exist?  Further, that no evidence could exist for them? The fact that evidence is not available does not mean 1) that the thing cannot exist or that 2) some evidence might surface in the future to support such propositions.

The argument that specific religious concepts of gods have failed, theologians have not presented sufficient evidence, and therefore any evidence for all possible concepts of gods could never be convincing is simply an egregious logical fallacy.

I’m an atheist because evidence for any concept of gods is lacking.  From this, I am willing to declare that belief in any gods is not justified.  This, as Jerry Coyne says, is a tentative conclusion, just as the theory of natural selection and gravity are tentative.  Do I think that evidence will surface which will convince me of a god existing? No.  Do I think it logically possible that it could happen? Yes.  But until it does, I’ll remain a committed atheist.  I’ll continue to consider new evidence as it come along.  But as PZ Myers has noted, all the evidence so far goes the other way.  Therefore atheists are justified to lack their belief, and theists are not justified in their belief.

But we wait for potential evidence, remaining skeptical and appropriately atheistic in the mean time.