Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Moral panic surrounds religion - Part 2

Moral panic surrounds religion!

Here's part 2! To catch up on what this is all about, check out part 1 from yesterday!

The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world, but it does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs - in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation.

That’s weird. I’d have put “control” on the list of things that religion does really, really, really, really, really, REALLY well.

A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths - hollowed-out religious narratives translated into pseudo-science.

It does? Really? I assume you’ll be backing up this whopper soon with some evidence.

Dennett's notion that new communications technologies will fundamentally alter the way human beings think is just such a myth.

Or perhaps you won’t.

In The God Delusion,

And off we go onto another tangent! Good thing I bought a program! I’d be lost without it.

Dawkins attempts to explain the appeal of religion in terms of the theory of memes, vaguely defined conceptual units that compete with one another in a parody of natural selection. He recognises that, because humans have a universal tendency to religious belief, it must have had some evolutionary advantage, but today, he argues, it is perpetuated mainly through bad education.

“Bad education” being the practice of indoctrinating religion into children who have no defenses against it, for those of you who haven’t read the book.

From a Darwinian standpoint, the crucial role Dawkins gives to education is puzzling. Human biology has not changed greatly over recorded history,

Recorded history: 6,000 years

Evolution of primates: 85,000,000 years

and if religion is hardwired in the species, it is difficult to see how a different kind of education could alter this.

We could stop brainwashing children. That might change things a little bit.

Yet Dawkins seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families, religion would die out. This is a view that has more in common with a certain type of fundamentalist theology than with Darwinian theory, and I cannot help being reminded of the evangelical Christian who assured me that children reared in a chaste environment would grow up without illicit sexual impulses.

I suggest that you call his bluff. Stop your church from teaching religion to the kids and watch them all flock to religion anyway. That’ll show Dawkins to be completely wrong!

Dawkins's "memetic theory of religion" is a classic example of the nonsense that is spawned when Darwinian thinking is applied outside its proper sphere. Along with Dennett, who also holds to a version of the theory, Dawkins maintains that religious ideas survive because they would be able to survive in any "meme pool", or else because they are part of a "memeplex" that includes similar memes, such as the idea that, if you die as a martyr, you will enjoy 72 virgins. Unfortunately, the theory of memes is science only in the sense that Intelligent Design is science. Strictly speaking, it is not even a theory. Talk of memes is just the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors.

Bad debate style checklist - sound off!

Unexplained use of quotation marks to minimize the opposition – check

Name calling using words like nonsense, balderdash, ridiculous, etc. – check

Claims of misapplication of a theory – check

Comparison to something that is complete pseudoscience, in this case Intelligent Design – check

Vague use of “Darwinian” and an insult – check

Bravo! Well done!

Dawkins compares religion to a virus: religious ideas are memes that infect vulnerable minds, especially those of children.

It is tragic that so many people choose to brainwash those that have no chance of defending themselves against superstitious nonsense.

Biological metaphors may have their uses - the minds of evangelical atheists seem particularly prone to infection by religious memes, for example.

And the reasoning behind this statement is what, exactly?

At the same time, analogies of this kind are fraught with peril. Dawkins makes much of the oppression perpetrated by religion, which is real enough.

Thank you for admitting it! We’re getting somewhere! Yay!

He gives less attention to the fact that some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes. Nazi "scientific racism" and Soviet "dialectical materialism" reduced the unfathomable complexity of human lives to the deadly simplicity of a scientific formula. In each case, the science was bogus, but it was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question. Science is as liable to be used for inhumane purposes as any other human institution. Indeed, given the enormous authority science enjoys, the risk of it being used in this way is greater.

Bad people can use science – a good thing – in an evil way. Yep, that’s right. Here’s another insight: Bad people can use religion – at best a neutral thing – in an evil way as well. What was the point here?

Contemporary opponents of religion display a marked lack of interest in the historical record of atheist regimes.

Perhaps stemming from the fact that no regime has slaughtered people in the name of atheism unlike the constant stream of leaders and common zealots who are more than happy to do exactly that in the name of religion.

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, the American writer Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of "scientific atheism" - what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies.

Yep. Nothing in atheism – which is only the lack of believing in God and nothing else – gave any despot the idea that he should go kill, maim, or slaughter people. It’s really a shame that the same cannot be said about religion. The world would be a better place!

But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom?

Nope. People having the freedom to believe what they want without other people trying to kill them for those beliefs just adds to everyone’s freedom.

It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan "Religion is poison", would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies. It is true he was worshipped as a semi-divine figure - as Stalin was in the Soviet Union. But in developing these cults, communist Russia and China were not backsliding from atheism. They were demonstrating what happens when atheism becomes a political project. The invariable result is an ersatz religion that can only be maintained by tyrannical means.

And the lesson today, boys and girls, is that we should not have our government force our religious beliefs – or lack thereof – upon us. That’s what you’re getting to, right? Of course it is.

Something like this occurred in Nazi Germany. Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. "What matters," he declares in The God Delusion, "is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does."

Perfectly reasonable thinking there. Since Atheism doesn’t tell us to go kill anyone – unlike every major religion on the planet – it’s not responsible for someone else using it to go kill people. Seems pretty straightforward to me. I’m sure you agree.

This is simple-minded reasoning.

I guess not.

Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler's world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.

A madman using religious and scientific propaganda to kill millions of people is the fault of…atheism. Congratulations! That’s tortured logic at its finest!

Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want - so they will tell you - is not an atheist regime, but a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America's secular constitution has not ensured a secular politics. Christian fundamentalism is more powerful in the US than in any other country, while it has very little influence in Britain, which has an established church. Contemporary critics of religion go much further than demanding disestablishment.

None of this will work until people stop wanting to have religions. But that does seem like the trend, doesn’t it?

It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions. Awkwardly, many of the concepts he deploys - including the idea of religion itself - have been shaped by monotheism. Lying behind secular fundamentalism is a conception of history that derives from religion.

Huh? I thought we were talking about “most atheists”. Who is “he”? Did I miss an antecedent?

AC Grayling provides an example of the persistence of religious categories in secular thinking in his Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. As the title indicates, Grayling's book is a type of sermon.

Really, man, you’re never going to understand people who are not religious if you insist on using religious terms to describe them.

Its aim is to reaffirm what he calls "a Whig view of the history of the modern west", the core of which is that "the west displays progress". The Whigs were pious Christians, who believed divine providence arranged history to culminate in English institutions, and Grayling too believes history is "moving in the right direction". No doubt there have been setbacks - he mentions nazism and communism in passing, devoting a few sentences to them. But these disasters were peripheral. They do not reflect on the central tradition of the modern west, which has always been devoted to liberty, and which - Grayling asserts - is inherently antagonistic to religion. "The history of liberty," he writes, "is another chapter - and perhaps the most important of all - in the great quarrel between religion and secularism." The possibility that radical versions of secular thinking may have contributed to the development of nazism and communism is not mentioned. More even than the 18th-century Whigs, who were shaken by French Terror, Grayling has no doubt as to the direction of history.

But the belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism.

Off you go again with sucking non-religious people into your rat hole. Really, man, think outside of the box here

Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal - a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species.

It beats believing in fantasy creatures that never, ever show up. But we’re open to other options as long as they’re consistent with the observed facts. Try us out!

In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs.

They do?!? Would you care to back this claim up with some facts?

We’ve got time. No rush. But please do go get some evidence for this.

I'll give you until tomorrow for part 3!

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