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This is a 32-minute preview a vintage 1 hr, 50-minute episode.
Discussing selections from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel C. Dennett.
Should we be religious, or is religion just a bunch of superstitious nonsense that it's past time for us to outgrow? Does faith lead to ceding to authority and potential violence? Can a reasonable person be religious? We say lots of rude things about these authors, and at times about their targets in this listener-requested episode featuring Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan. Read more about the topic.
Buy/read what we did:
-Ch. 1-2 of Harris's The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004)
-The last three chapters of Hitchens's God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007)
-Ch. 4, and some of ch. 2, from Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (2006)
-Ch. 8 (and skimming 3 and 7 to get context) of Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006)
-Chapter 14 of Anthony Kenny's 2008 book From Empedocles to Wittgenstein: Historical Essays in Philosophy (which we read as a response to Dawkins).
End song: “Goddammit” by by Mark Lint and the Simulacra, recorded partly in 2000 and partly just now.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting this podcast! Expect a donation from me in the near future, as soon as I get paid!
I was a little disappointed that you guys were barely charitable at all to these authors as you are with the other authors you have covered. I thought you could have done a little better job at being a little less biased, or, at the very least, appearing to be a little less biased. I guess I just think you treat religion and god with kid gloves but are really serious and critical with other topics. I could be mistaken though because I only recently found this podcast and have only listened to a couple of episodes.
Al McDermid says
I was planning to read either Harris or Hitchens before hand, but after looking at some excepts and reviews I decided to wait to hear what you guys had to say. I’m actually glad I did not bother since your treatment of these authors confirmed my own conclusion as these two books are mostly anecdotal and written for those already in the atheist camp.
Harris’ argument that for one to be a ‘true believer’ one must be a fundamentalist, that moderates are somehow weak enablers was especially absurd. Seth (I think. Sorry.) countered that Judaism, via the commentaries, addresses the need for textual flexibility, exposing the limits of Harris’ understanding of religion.
I don’t know if Harris used the term Judeo-Christian, and I agree the term is problematic, because in addition to the reasons stated o the podcast, it is Christians rather than Jews who are inclined to be literalists with regard to the Old Testament. Harris, it would seem, needs for Christians to be fundamentalist for his critique to hold, and his ‘weak enabler’ argument simply enables him to criticize all Christians. One other problem with this argument is that there are many clues throughout the New Testament that point to a non-literal interpretation.
Toward the end, comment was made that empirical standard applicable to science don’t apply well to social sciences, referencing Hayek. May I ask where that argument appears?
I particularly liked Dillon’s comment at the end about how the question of the existence of God isn’t all that interesting. Even as someone who accepts God’s existence, I find the topic uninteresting, but also that after these last two podcasts, I now find most of the so-called ‘proofs’ for God fairly uncompelling. Dawkins’ argument against the ’cause proof’ in particular made a lot of sense (i.e. if you’re going to say everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause); it doesn’t seem to provide a case against God, only against that particular argument.
Anyway, great podcast. Not sure why Mark thinks this podcast would raise the ire of believers as I’ve so far found yours collective handling of religion even-handed and appropriately skeptical.
There are a couple of books I was wondering if you’d consider looking at. One is Thomas Kuhn, The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, and the other is The Worldly Philosophers (or perhaps not this book itself, but some approach to the issues it addresses).
Thanks again. Yours is among my favorite podcasts.
David Buchanan says
Except for Dennett, the new atheists aren’t professional philosophers. They’re popularizers of philosophy in the same way that Jonah Lehrer or Malcolm Gladwell are popularizers of science – and there’s plenty of room for that sort of work. I dare say it’s not quite fair to measure their books by academic standards.
If we take this new atheism for what it is – a political reaction against fundamentalism after 9/11 – going after the low-hanging fruit seems less like easy picking and more like an entirely appropriate targeting the specific cause for concern. I mean, I think they’re attacking slack-jawed literalism because that view has real power in our national politics. If you’ve heard the poll numbers, you know large percentages of Republicans believe the Rapture could happen any day now and Obama could be the anti-Christ. This is just a few fruits either. We’re talking about tens of millions of voters, enough to effectively control the whole Party. And with a Party like that, it’s possible that our foreign policy could be turned into a global contest pitting our fundamentalists against their fundamentalists. I’m not yelling “doomsday” here but fundamentalism does seem like a legitimate cause for concern.
Maybe I cut them too much slack because I’m convinced some kind of remedy is sorely needed. As I read Sam Harris, the main thrust is to say that nobody gets off the hook. He wants to end the traditional deference demanded by religious people. He’s saying that it’s not okay that the beliefs of religious people are treated with respect simply because they are religious beliefs. And I have to say that this tradition is understandable and it does a nice job tamping down the bigotry but mostly it’s just used as a kind of emotional blackmail, wherein any challenge to the belief is treated as an offensive social blunder.
Your momma is so religious, Billy Graham gets wood every time she thumps her bible.
Now that’s offensive. Sam’s playing defense. That’s different.
Alex Ditchins says
I welcome the lack of charity to Mr. Harris and The Hitch in particular for he is not the slightest bit opposed to throwing warm sh** when he regularly gets his hands dirty smearing opponents.
Have you watched all of “The Four Horsemen” discussion (avail. on YouTube)?
Actually, they edited out part of the session for YouTube. Before they really get started they exchange pleasantries and this is word for word what is said after initial greetings. Actually this might be after the discussion. I’ve only seen part of the clip and it is hard to tell. There’s some weird, ominous Italo disco sounding music that comes on right before video fads to black:
“Well then gentlemen?” (Dawkins)
“Right, well I just want to say you’re a fantastic orator Richard. I love to hear you let loose on stage before one of those Christian audiences… A true asset to the Cause.” (Harris)
“And Christopher, we all know you’re a master debater.” (Harris)
“I wouldn’t want to go up against you Chris!” (Dawkins)
Dennet nods in agreement.
Hitchens having clearly had his Johnnie Walker Black blurts out, “I’m a master what now? Because I dare not say what I thought I heard.”
Everybody Lols, seemingly getting The Hitch’s meaning instantly.
“Back in England, in the boarding schools, it is common practice for the boys to have a little fun.” (Hitch)
“Well, God hates that, you know. He gets very upset when His children do That!”
Very loud laughter is then followed by silent glances around the table…
“Oh bloody hell! Dan has his prick out!” (Dawkins)
“Well,, this does demonstrate our commitment to liberty and our opposition to religious dogma.” (Harris)
As Dawkins stands and removes his trousers he piously announces, “For the Cause”.
Perhaps I’m in the minority here – but I’m very much looking forward to the time when you’ve all got this extended religious discussion out of your collective systems, so that normal service can be resumed on this blog/podcast and you go back to discussing philosophy. Maybe hard for you to believe, but large parts of the world really don’t give a stuff one way or the other on this subject. I think you’ve pretty much done it to death by now.
Just my opinion.
Mark Linsenmayer says
The next two episodes will fulfill your wishes!
that’s good to know – thanks!
Interesting episode. I’m a theology student, so the God question is obviously one that concerns me. I think the so called four horsemen are an intellectual disgrace, not only to religion and theology but also to atheistic philosophy. My reasons for saying that are:
1) Their constant misrepresentation of philosophical-theological arguments. Dawkins’ treatment of Aquinas is horrendous. I think Aquinas’ arguments have problems, but that does not mean that I support misrepresentative dismissals of them.
2) Their critique of scripture. Sure, it is not hard to pick out single verses in the Bible that are utterly abhorrent. That works as a critique of extreme fundamentalistic readings of scripture, the problem is that they demand that such a reading is orthodox. It is anything but orthodox, non-literal reading of scripture is not a modern invention, it is orthodoxy as in being present in the earliest of Christian theological commentaries (just read the early church fathers).
3) Their critique of the New Testament is even worse. It seems like they are making a real stretch to find something to criticize and it is based on the most superficial of readings, with no attempt to properly understand the statements made. I think Terry Eagleton has done a good job in revealing the grandiloquent folly of Dawkins and Hitchens on this topic.
However, there are issues where I am in total agreement with Dawkins. Creationism is an intellectual abomination and should be criticized. That is being done by theologians as well as biologists. On this issue I think an alliance between those two would be far more effective.
Personally I identify with a progressive theology (liberal theology has certain negative connotations) and I’m quite interested in the relationship between theology and the natural sciences, utilizing process theology and emergent panentheism.
In the end I will say that if you are interested in critique of religion, then I think you can do a LOT better than Dawkins, Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris (I’m not familiar enough with Dennett). Heck, I read much more serious critiques of much religious thought in my theology curriculum.
Keep up the good work. I just recently discovered this podcast and I enjoy it very much.
My critique of Dawkins is a critique of his thought on religion. I very much enjoy his popular writings on biology, although I think he sometimes has a too reductionist approach, especially when he makes somewhat metaphysical summaries of his thoughts on biology (such as his selfish gene idea).
Michael Kress says
Thank you for pointing out where you agree with Dawkins. He has accomplished a lot as a scientist, and I feel it is necessary for scientists to defend evolution against these aggressive creationists. Also, I don’t believe that the selfish gene theory is reductionist or metaphysical. I think it’s purely scientific, but I appreciate your thoughts on that.
Hey, just a note from lower end of the intellectual strata and my own perspective on these authors. I came to a still ramping interest in philosophy through the emergence of these books as well as the dialogue and debate by their authors in widely available forums. Think of these guys as “gateway authors” to more serious philosophy. For me anyway, I understood they were “preaching to their choirs” but from my own perspective it was empowering to be exposed to an intellectual like Hitchens in this format. I still read Hitchens but now I read more for his political / historical insight and his writing style with its expansive literary and historical references. I found Spinosa and Orwell through Hitchens. And in the same way, I came to read Patricia Churchland as a result of faults in Harris’ Moral Landscape. On a panel debate on which Harris participated and which was subsequently posted on YouTube, I was introduced to Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, and Simon Blackburn. I’m very much enjoying their work, your podcasts, and other more intellectually challenging thinkers that came to my attention this way. The God or no God question seems the obvious accessible starting point to encourage an effort towards even a partially examined life. I’m sure there are other rank amateurs that follwed this trail? Does that make these authors more credible on any particular point? No, but more perhaps more worthwhile.
Great podcast. Very happy to have found this site! I feel these authors are more anti-dogma than anti-religious specifically. Harris specifically addresses the subject of rulers like Stalin being atheists. Though Stalin imposed an anti-religious regime, his rule was still polluted with dogmatic beliefs and this is where the problems arise. To enforce any sort of rule based on a non-testable belief can always be harmful. Sure it is silly to think we can get rid of religion anytime soon, I do not see why it is ridiculous to think humankind cannot shake it off in the long run. I think the society will definitely function better if all decisions are based on scientifically observable ideas and rational thought. Of course, this in itself is complete prophecy… so I could be wrong.
I was looking forward to this episode, but I found myself disappointed.
I was hoping that Wes, who seems to be well read in the more nuanced arguments for and against religion/god, would have been more explicit as to why the “Four Horsemen’s” arguments against religion are bad. Instead we just got statements about how crappy and boring the arguments were with no real explanation.
I was surprised in how you used the terms agnostic and atheist as if they were an either/or choice. Agnosticism versus gnosticism is epistemological statement. Atheism versus theism is a belief statement. You can be an agnostic theist or a gnostic atheist.
I’ve also got to take issue with the idea that these books only speak to the converted. I used to be theist. You don’t have to look for people that actually believe in the wacky sort of virgin birth, interventionist god type stuff. I used to be one of those people. I will admit that the four horsemen can sound hyperbolic at times, but not so much to someone who grew up in a fairly strict religious household. Following articles of faith to their logical end (Hitchen’s description as Jesus as scapegoat for example) really opened my eyes to the magical thinking I didn’t even know I was doing and played a role in my becoming an atheist.
Here I think you have missed one of the main points the Four Horsemen are trying to make. Most religious people are not Jains or Quakers content to peaceably keep their religion to themselves. You don’t have to be an violent religious extremist to damage society at large. Civil society is endangered when religious moderates apply their non-critical, non-rational faith based thinking to life at large. The victims of Bernie Madoff fell prey at least impart due to a kind of insufficiently critical faith.
Here, I have to distinguish between faith and trust. I trust (some) of my elected officials, but I don’t believe in them. My trust is evidence/experience based and not based on faith (which I define as belief without evidence). Trust is testable. Faith is not. So the example in the podcast of scientists using formulas as black boxes of which they themselves do not have a deep understanding is not a compelling point.
Wes, with regard to science and theists agreeing that there is an uncaused cause/mover do to the principle of sufficient reason is just wrong. The principle of sufficient reason would demand that there was a reason for the uncaused cause. Thus the scientific response to such a question is “I don’t know what the reason is.” However, Stephen Hawking has recently proposed an answer, which in my reading does not violate the principle of sufficient reason, for the cosmological argument in the unfortunately titled “The Grand Design”.
Finally a point of order about Stalin/totalitarianism. Stalin’s movement may have been an explicitly atheistic one, but the evils that weren’t done in the name of atheism; atheism was not the justification. On the other hand numerous wars were done in the name of theism. I think Wes brushed over and did not do justice to the argument all words that end ‘-ism’ and ‘-ocracy’ can inspire blind faith in their ideologies. Communism, Nazism, and even democracy/capitalism can be viewed as state religions of sorts. The second installment of the Iraq war can clearly be viewed as an exercise in blind faith in the value of evangelizing democracy with a little nationalism ferver thrown in for flavor.
I saw this coming and warned Mark a while ago…
This palaver may juice up your groupies, but it bodes BADLY for PEL.
Alex Ditchins says
wanted to say, Weird to me is Sam Harris citing Richard Rorty as an influence. Harris went to Stanford. Maybe he took class taught by Rorty. Other than being a committed secularist I see little that Rorty has in common with Harris.
Btw, the work John Caputo, Gianni Vattimo -as well as Rorty’s engagement w/ Vattimo is more interesting, seems to me, on the topic of religion.
Andrew C says
Difficult topic. I appreciated the overview. Mostly I just felt embarassed at what you would assume were the fundamentals of Christianity based on fundamentalists. One small example: Christianity should be playing very nice with others. After 9/11, a Christian ‘fundamentalist’ response might have been based on ‘love your enemies and do good to those that hurt you.’ (Hitch &co would have hated that too, but at least it wouldn’t have been part of knee-jerk violence).
In secular community, Jesus made it quite clear to render to Caesar that which is Caesars; Paul (1 Cor 5:12) is quite clear that he has really nothing to say, and no authority to say it, to people outside the church. The NT church had to work out how to live within a non-church world.
For all that Hitch&co may not be the greatest philosophers, they are no worse than many of those they oppose. (I actually listened to the entire Nash lecture course and I hated it. He was kind of learned, but used his learning mostly to dump on people who have died. Ungenerous readings all over the place.)
I know no one wants to see a return to this topic too soon, but how do you guys feel about ‘the theological turn’ among contintental philosophers recently. I read ‘The Monstrosity of Christ’ (Zizek & Milbank). It’s really talking at the level of politics and (I think) political theology. Lots of Hegel references. I found it very difficult.
PS. I was intrigued by Dylan’s quantum/motion idea of being, but wondered if space itself was not then the ‘necessary being’?
Wes Alwan says
For philosophical responses available online, see also: http://philpapers.org/archive/SHAPFA.1.pdf; and http://philpapers.org/archive/WIEDGH.1.pdf. And see especially the Kenny response if you can find it. I’ll try to summarize that and talk about my objections shortly. For a good collection of links to reviews and responses (some more philosophical and substantive than others), see: http://proginosko.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/responses-to-the-god-delusion/).
Considering none of the PEL team considers themselves of a religious bent, I found your treatment of these matters in the past few podcasts fair and balanced. It’s really easy for individuals who don’t have that inclination to allow that to color their philosophical conclusions but you didn’t let that happen. You didn’t find the arguments for God very convincing in #43 but by the same token, weren’t too convinced by the new atheists either. I must also say that I was really taken aback by Dylan’s introspective comments on the horrors of the inquisition and the potential for cruelty that, puzzlingly, appears to reside in each of us. This lead to the discussion on imposing one’s will on others, Rousseau, to Hegel and the desire for recognition, etc.—fascinating, penetrating discussion. Great podcast!
I’m an hour into the podcast and have found the last two episodes very interesting. Certainly I’d have to describe myself as an atheist but I haven’t bothered to read dawkin’s or hitchen’s tracts mainly because I don’t need converting to atheism. After listening to PEL I heard Mark mention Karen Armstrong’s latest book, which I boughtand found her discussion excellent. It hasn’t changed my mind but I think it reinforces the need to view religion and science as two different systems of thought… which is why I was astonished in the last episode to hear a bizarre (to me) assetion that god is a reasonable solution to the existence of the universe….I don’t quite get that one. To me it just adds weight to my contention that if you didn’t already believe in god you wouldn’t have to introduce the concept to explain anything.
Anyway nice treatment of this discussion, a pity you couldn’t bring armstrong’s response to the 4 horsemen into this.. I look forward to the next episodes…
Mark Linsenmayer says
I consider my interest in Armstrong to have been somewhat superseded by reading Schleiermacher. Both he and Armstrong have apophatic conceptions of God, i.e. God qua infinite is beyond our human ability to even conceptualize, so what religion is about is somehow feeling and living in light of that great unknown. This is all in line with many of the more spiritual secularist approaches. My last post about Dennett was supposed to be an argument against that kind of religion, and I think gave Mackie’s similarly intolerant take in the last episode (pretty much, “if you can’t make a coherent claim for me to argue against, then I’m not going to bother to argue with you”), but most new atheism stuff just doesn’t connect up with that view at all, because that’s not the threatening kind of religion that these guys are mostly concerned with.
Greatly enjoyed this episode. While you guys clearly considered this material beneath you, your takedown was a great and entertaining service. Wish I heard your sharp critique before spending $20 or so on the Hitchens’ screed. I won’t make the same mistake with the Dawkins. (I am saying this as a vacillating agnostic/atheist.)
I’m about half way through this one and couldn’t help but take a break to comment.
There are at least two social and psychological issues which I think are problematic from the atheist viewpoint… human’s overwhelming desire for a Just universe, and keeping the alienated and ostracized in check.
Curiously, solutions to these problems were stumbled on by both eastern and western religions. Both involve postulated an extension of this life and the application of Justice beyond the grave. This is a great trick and satisfies a strong desire within us to see Justice administered. It also acts as a persuasion of last resort, if you will.
The eastern system I refer to is Karma, which (from what little I know) seems like it is the Just World Hypothesis made explicit in religion.
I think Harris is forgetting that for every crazy spurred on by religion there is probably at least one that is held back by religion. If Justice and Good and Evil are not intrinsic aspects of the universe (and have real effects, even if those effects are beyond the grave), then suddenly morality becomes a social construction. That’s not to say it’s completely relative in the more extreme interpretation of relativism, but it becomes a human matter subject to human discussion, negotiation, and debate. Of course this is what actually happens in reality, regardless of any particular religious interpretation. Societies and states debate issues and enact laws.
Anyway, my point is, I think this “human level” system is fine for 99.9% of the population, but think about those that are completely hopeless and feel completely alienated. For those at the end of their rope and totally rejected, there isn’t anything preventing them from just rejecting the whole social contract that is morality.
As for this fine-tuning thing… I must be missing some of the subtleties of the arguments, because it seems like the typical physicists response is an attempt to somehow make life and the universe more plausible by enlarging the number of times the dice gets rolled.
This seems like a hopeless exercise to me. I have no idea how anyone could NOT be surprised by the universe… by the fact that somehow matter coalesced, evolved, developed consciousness, and became aware of itself. To me this this will always be surprising. It totally blows my mind in fact.
The multiverse is still a theory, call it a meta-theory if you will, and it’s rational, and based on math no doubt. The surprising ability of math to describe the universe is, well, surprising! The fact that reality seemingly has this rational structure. That there is order and not chaos.
Anyway, you get the point. Intuitively, no theory or meta-theory will somehow make the fact that reality unfailingly adheres to it seem non-surprising to me. It doesn’t matter if you are scientific realist or not. Reality is surprising.
So I must be missing something, cause a lot of smart people (Hawkings included) seem perfectly content that reality is no big deal.
I agree with Dawkins though that the God Hypothesis is no answer at all. And I agree with Mark above that religion is simply a way of taking all the anxiety that comes from the unknown and bundling it up in a socially and psychologically useful package.
Ryan Usher says
Seth, you mention at the end of this podcast the methodologies of the social sciences, in which economics should be placed as well, shouldn’t be based on the method being used by physics, etc. What’s the name of author/book? Is it “The Counter Revolution Of Science” by F. A. Hayek? My philosophy of math/set theory professor once said economists are, “failed mathematicians” – which I found kind of amusing.
Overall I found myself thinking along the same lines as Dylan and think this quote by Eric Hoffer (from “The True Believer” – a book on mass movements/fanaticism that I kept thinking about while listening to this, which I highly recommend if you haven’t already read it) is appropriate:
“The opposite of the fanatical evangelist is not the fanatical atheist by the gentle cynic, who cares not whether there is a god or not.”
Eric Trowbridge says
While I mostly agree with the four, I like the podcast’s irreverence. Fitting.
thought i’d finally listen to this one, in honor of the ‘reason rally’ in DC yesterday that i wanted to go to but didn’t, mostly because of the crappy weather.
raised catholic , and though always respectful but irreverent , i have come to understand that i stopped believing there is a ‘higher power’ at around age 20, when a friend had a child pass away at age 2. the little guy’s heart was flawed, he had down’s syndrome, and a mother that loses a child is never the same. nor a father. there is no value, nor purpose in that pain. the baby dies. it is dead. end of story.
anyway, i had wanted to go to the rally in DC, to see dawkins, and bill mahrer, and get greg graffin to sign my book ‘anarchy evolution’ (a great book, if you are into ‘naturalism’!)
with that said, i’d also very much enjoy a discussion on the philosophy of science, sub-topic evolution, getting into darwin, maybe up through robert trivers, frans dewaal, stephen jay gould, margaret mead. not sure who else.
btw, wes, your voice put me to sleep, again. 😉
you might enjoy:
thanks, dmf. looks really interesting. i plan to read it tonight.
i’m now reading michael pollen’s ‘botany of desire’, an early work, before ‘the omnivore’s dilemma’ and ‘food rules’ brought him to his present notoriety, and i’m so enjoying it’s evolutionary viewpoint, from a botanical level.
amazing connections, all around us.
cool essay on ‘varietals’ of reproduction, in a way.
i enjoyed it.
what is the LSE?
london school of econ, plenty of great recorded talks:
Wes Alwan says
Glad my voice can be of use :).
Just listened to this one. Despite the fact that you guys don’t know much about religion, you did a pretty good job recognizing how bad these four authors are. I was a little disappointed that you didn’t tear into Dawkins for absurd misrepresentation of Aquinas, and I was more disappointed you didn’t take Dennett down a notch. After all, he pretends to be a philosopher. Seth at least did characterize Dennett as (quoting from memory) “a philosophy guy talking about a topic he doesn’t know anything about.”
Anyway, generally good stuff, but if you’re going to talk about religion, why not get somebody who knows the topic?
If you decide to continue with religious topics and you want to invite a guest, you might consider one of the guys from The Christian Humanist or from Homebrewed Christianity.
Max Lewin says
you were being unfair and stupid…in your dismissal of ideas of the multiverse! just kidding (kind of) and responding to Mark’s ending entreaty. But I would like to point out that there’s a way of conceiving of the multiverse as, at least, a compelling alternative to both theistic and scientistic ontologies (i.e. ontologies of presence/primary causes).
I think the term “The anthropic principle” is really confusing and not conducive to cogent debate. There’s the weak version, which is really just the simple observation that, in order to be around to observe the universe, the conditions must be such it allows us to observe it. The hard version casts this observation as a necessary condition; basically it’s an argument which appeals to a scientistic worldview that seeks an ultimate cause for our existence.
But this anthropic necessity, along with theistic ontologies and their myriad other versions of necessity, are founded on a presupposition of finitude. They both posit a hard beginning (the big bang/God and his Word/whatever the fuck). Now, the big bang is compelling in so far as its the current limit of our empirical evidence. But, unlike a religious metaphysics which prohibits the asking of “what came before God?” there’s nothing stopping us from asking what came before the big bang. Well, except for empirical skeptics and old physicists of the academy whose worldviews have subtly ossified into scientisim. But even so, when we’re at the impasse of observation/faith where we simply must conjecture blindly about probabilities, there are meta-principles of complexity we’ve learned through the works of people like Wolfram, which can inform our conjectures somewhat.
So, consider these possibilities:
a) God (we exist because God made us)
b) Big Bangology(we are the only conscious life we know of, our known universe erupted into being 14 bil. years ago, as something from nothing…or rather, something from a concept emptier than nothingness… scientism contradicts itself in maintaining the sacredness of the 2nd law of thermodynamics while claiming that thoughts of times/spaces/dimensions anterior to it are inconceivable/incoherent).
C) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaotic_inflation_theory (An mathematically cogent theory which posits a non-finitude of worlds, and provides a theoretical mechanism for getting something not from nothing but from the vacuum/emptiness/inter-dimensional potentialities/ what is confused for nothingness.)
In terms of the pure size of these three probability spaces in which we might exist, which is the largest?
p.s. I realize I’m taking your half-joking metaphor of scientism and redefining it to basically accuse you guys of it…so, sorry? But I am really a big fan, keep doing what your doing…and maybe revisit ideas of the multiverse in a later episode?
Lane georgeton says
Platonic perfection and our desire to believe that our behavior and belief can exemplify it, is what can aid religion to get to that next level of delusion and intransigence. Poppler’s “The OpenSociety” Seems to address your points
Stephen Sage says
I disagree with the idea that there’s no error in taking some parts of the religious text literally and others metaphorically; while not tehnically an error in logic, it’s certainly a form of intellectual dishonesty (cherry-picking, expediency). Some of the least credible parts of the Bible surround Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (e.g. virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, ascension), yet one cannot write these ideas off as metaphorical and still be a Christian. If you think that Christ was metaphorically raised from the dead, or that he was the son of God IN SOME SENSE, then, by biblical standards, your soul has not been saved. There is also something fundamentally absurd about believing both that the text comes from divine revelation and that we can be fast and loose with our interpretation of it. You cannot re-interpret the text into making sense because the central tenets of the religion are ridiculous. The Bible deserves to be taken seriously (literally or not) as a philosophical and moral guide if and only if it has divine authority, and I think it goes without saying that there is no good reason to believe in the divine authority of any text whatsoever, thus the revision/interpretation issue appears after a fundamental mistake has already been made. Without the claim to divinity, there is no reason to use such a text as a moral guide unless you happen to find the way Jews lived 2500 years ago particularly compelling (God help you if that’s the case). The phenomenon of the moderate religious person just shows how unconvinced people are in their own belief-system! These beliefs make very little difference in the behavioral dispositions of their believers, so I think they’re mostly lip-service.
One or two of you said that arguments about God don’t matter, that the arguments won’t convince anyone, etc. This is completely off the mark. The only reason I am an atheist is the debate I had in my head, and I also converted a friend of mine via argumentation. I doubt that my friend and I are terribly special.
Any ideology taken to its extreme by a charismatic leader(s) can be grossly violent. The most grossly violent ideology in history is Communism (an ideology devoid of theistic religion). More were murdered under communist regimes than any religious conflicts. Most of the religious violence has been attached to or closely related with political conflict as well. I’m not sure individual churches or mosques have ever often attacked another place of worship without a larger religious-political-government entity backing such attack, ordering it, or it being part of a larger conflict.
If only everyone, especially academics, were honest about communism, their argument against religion would seem irrelevant. I concur with the idea that religion is not unique to large scale violence. Most large scale violence in history is attached to some leviathan-type authority wishing to impose license, authority, and order – monarchy, colonialism, terrorism, Communism, etc. I think a larger take-away is that unfettered power is dangerous, that unlimited government is dangerous.
Humans should be allowed to believe as they wish so long as they aren’t harming, coercing, or defrauding others, even if such beliefs are stupid, irrational, unreasonable, or unscientific: much of theistic religious beliefs, fear of GMOs, fear of vaccines and gluten, all of the natural-earth focused beliefs (homeopathy), etc. I’m sure you all understand.
Enjoyed the podcast and appreciated Wes’ comments in particular. I personally dislike religion but think that it is wrong and misleading to blame religion for wars and all sorts of social evils without contextualizing it within other ideological constructs that affect society in a similar way. Since the inception of nation-states, national armies have been committing all sorts of atrocities to further their national interests mostly with internal impunity. The two World Wars were clearly not caused by religion and neither were people mobilized by appealing to it. I think it is important to acknowledge the true role of religion because in recent times we have had several major conflicts such as in Ireland, Palestine or Yugoslavia that were popularly described as religious but were fundamentally territorial, economical and political. This overemphasis just helps to confuse the debate and hide the real powers at play.
There is also the confrontational attitude that characterize this type of atheism, which I think everyone in the PEL group was more or less critical of. If we put matters of personal faith on the side, the debate about religion is in big part cultural. Comments about Islam for example target not only Quran and Muslim religious beliefs but also cultural heritage of numerous countries. Many Muslims, Christians or Buddhists defines themselves as such purely culturally. Once you take the debate on the global stage, beyond the US, post-9/11 issues and two party system, one has to consider a more complex picture. And there must be a way to address these issues without this undercurrent of neocolonialism that comes through. For example Dawkins grew up in a real colonial environment surrounded with African servants. It is very uneasy to watch him in some of these BBC documentaries when he goes around the developing world to argue against religion. It is self-serving and utterly shameless to ignore horrors of British colonial project and focus on religion as the main cause of their problems.
Keep up the good work!
I was frustrated with this episode. First, Wes with a MPhil balking at Harris with a BPhil from Stanford right out of the gate was most uncharitable. I also felt there was way too much conflation with the philosopher’s god and the gods of the overwhelming majority of monotheists, who are nothing like Schleiermacher’s or Karen Armstrong’s visions, and if they are, they have no reasonable way to bridge the gap between their deistic god and the theistic gods that make all these empirical claims.
Next, the notion that Harris thinks/thought that ONLY religion is the motivation for evils is a strawman. He has conceded this in conversations with Scott Atran and Reza Aslan (and shouldn’t even have to). The idea that religion NEVER causes harm is never addressed in terms of its ability to motivate the *good*, and sadly, was absent here as well. If religion can NOT motivate ‘evil,’ then it must be explained how it can motivate good, and if it can’t, how is it still relevant? Everyone wants their cake. Wes concedes that it can exacerbate harm. Isn’t that enough to make it subject to critique? He compares religious ideology to Hegel, etc. Is Hegel excluded from critique?
As for Islam, the ‘Islam is overwhelmingly peaceful’ notion belies the stats on some frightening beliefs that literally threaten several demographics: http://freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/2013/08/03/unfortunately-a-large-number-of-muslims-support-terrorism911womens-oppressionsharia-lawshonor-killings/
No one stepped up to make the obvious rejoinders to the social commentary in these books. I would LOVE to see the four of you have a conversation with the four Reasonable Doubts podcasters. Now THAT would be a show.
Thank you for your comment, Andrew. This episode almost made me give up on the podcast in its entirety, even though I just recently dug through the archives and listened to it. It is clear the participants, certainly Wes, have little to no exposure with people of faith that actually believe what they say they believe (and often what the ‘holy’ books tell them to believe), and rigorously and methodically organize their lives around those beliefs. That’s all you have to concede to understand where the authors are coming from. Drive 20 miles outside of any major metropolitan area and you are in evangelical fantasy land. I would have loved for Wes to spend some time at mega-churches in Houston or hell, in my shoes for the first 20ish years of my life.
Wes and the others also never address a critical issue (or address it poorly and incorrectly)…the intended audience for these books. THEY are certainly not the intended audience as the books are not written in the language of formal logic as say Sobel or one of the apologists would undertake. The PEL guys go to great lengths to indicate their lack of formal, logical rigor as somehow detracting from the intentions of each author. Conversely, they are written to communicate to the masses and they certainly do, very effectively. Whether a Christian or a Muslim is swayed by them is a fair PEL critique, but apparently since they’ve been published many readers have been convinced.
I’ve read Mackie, Swinburne, Plantinga and Craig, and conversely Sobel, Carrier and others. They are enormous slogs and a stupefyingly small percentage of the population would have any interest in works from such authors. Harris/Dawkins/Dennett/Hitchens certainly knew that. You would also have to consider their dismissal of the formal, logical arguments of the historical theologians and apologists as understandable and not worth addressing for a simple reason, such arguments in favor of a theistic god (deism — who cares?) are patently ridiculous and appeals to the common sense and real world examples known by their readers are much more effective. These are not academic works. They are populist works. Does that mean they should be so easily dismissed? Especially considering the PEL critics clearly have no context or understanding of the intended targets of the authors’ arguments?
Billions of people on this planet, unfortunately, actually believe what they say they believe when it comes to their faith. They hold such beliefs without sufficient and justifying evidence. And such beliefs are directly and negatively impacting society in many, many ways. Try standing up in front of a public school board meeting in the Midwest as the only person in the room arguing for exclusion of intelligent design in science classes, for example. Failure to make that recognition is failure to address the underlying premise of at least Hitchens and Harris. Very disappointing.
Uncomfortable and unreasonable episode for me. To the point of being unlistenable. Right out of the gate the usually earnest and charitable pel hosts display open hostility to the various authors who have been isolated as “the new atheists” by popular media. For example, Sam Harris is introduced as having gotten his undergraduate degree from “bumf*ck community college”, which is apparently another name for Stanford. Only Dennett is spared a constantly condescending tone and it seems that is only because he outranks the hosts by having a Ph.D. in philosophy.
Others have already mentioned their problems with the episode so I won’t say much more other than that I came to philosophy and this usually enjoyable podcast through “the new atheists”. Furthermore I don’t consider the fact that they (mostly) come from outside of “philosophy” proper to be a reason for angry dismissal.
Jonathan Gasparinatos says
This confirms more than ever, that the new atheist’s are completely out of their depth.
No atheist of our day and generation has come close to successfully rebuking the christian worldview.
Ravi makes almost too swift work of these boys.
‘New Atheism’ is all but a tragedy.
I think there is something new happening. When trying to decipher what is ‘new’ about new atheism, it clearly isn’t their arguments against the existence of God. To me, one of things that is new is that they are not merely attacking Theism in general, or Christianity, but “Religion.” So attacking religion as such serves as a means of deflating some of the particularistic claims to uniqueness that many religions make. By treating religion as such, it is assumed that each religion shares the same essential nature. They may look different on the outside. They may wear different clothes on the exterior, but when you get through the surface each religion shares the same essential nature. This essential nature of religion is described in a variety of ways through their books: absolutist, irrational, divisive, oppressive, violent, etc.
This idea about an essential nature of religion is what allows them to make board sweeping claims about the poisonousness effects of religion. For example, the claim cannot simply be that “religion causes violence.” Saying that religion causes violence is inarguable true, but it’s also vacuously true. It’s like saying politics causes violence. It is a just meaninglessly true generalization that says nothing of interest whatsoever. More precisely what is meant is something like “religious ideologies and institutions are, by their inherent nature, more necessarily inclined towards violence than secular ideologies and institutions.” In other words, there is something unique to religion that makes more necessarily susceptible to violence. I find this claim unsustainable on two accounts: 1) secular ideologies and institutions have proven to be every bit as irrational, absolutist, divisive, and violent as religious ones. 2) There is no timeless, transhistorical, transcultural nature of religion. It is not as if religious ideologies simply lurk beneath historical circumstances waiting to inflict their destruction on history. There is no transhistorical, transcultural essence to religion that would successfully unite such widely varying phenomena as Christianity and Confucianism. It serves no useful purpose at all to assume that a 16th century Buddhist monk in Japan and a contemporary American Evangelical in Texas are somehow united under the same banner that is “religion.”
Hitchens, for example, has such a fluid definition of the word religion that it is not clear what he understands religion to be. “Religion” seems to just be a word that he uses for all of the stuff he doesn’t like. Despite the centrality of this term, there is no attempt whatsoever at developing a criteria for distinguishing a religious belief, practice, or institution from a secular one. I can only conclude that for Hitchens the religious secular distinction is based on nothing more than the distinction between those things of which Hitchens approves and those of which he does not. The logic is magnificently circular: religion poisons everything because Hitchens identifies everything poisonous as religion.
At the end of the day, New Atheism is aimed at a popular audience. I appreciated some of the fun and often merited jabs at fundamentalists; however, once you strip the books of their polemic, the actual content is totally vacuous. Their books are basically the equivalent of Internet meme arguments.
Anna Shomsky says
This is an excellent take on the new atheists. They seem to me to be fighting a straw man religion- one that doesn’t take into account the variability between religions and between different individuals’ understanding and practice of their own religion.
For example, Dawkins has said that he has never read the Koran, yet he claims any Muslim must necessarily believe all its contents at a literal level. He then disqualifies Muslims as doctors, scientists, etc on account that they must believe whichever parable he happens to be familiar with.
New Atheism promotes a zealous and willful ignorance through this practice of conflating all religious practice and belief and then branding it as categorically bad and dumb.
New Atheism has turned atheism into a brand. It is no longer an individual search for meaning. It’s something more akin to an energy drink advertisement – loud, flashy, and promising a vitality that it can’t deliver.