Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

The “Best” Defense …

April 8, 2014

Cuttlefish has recently put up a post titled In Defense Of The “Village Atheist”. The post is ostensibly a defense of “village atheists” as talked about in this post by Randal Rauser. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to actually criticize what it says in any way, and seems to be equivocating on the term “village atheist” in its own criticisms. Now, to start, we need to see how Rauser is using the term “village atheist”, because he is using it in a slightly different way than the norm but is actually very clear about it:

First, a word on terminology. So far as I can see, the term “village atheist” was first popularized in the 19th century to refer to an atheistic individual within a religious community who vocally (and provocatively) expresses his/her dissent from the religious consensus of the community. For example, G.K. Chesterton identified Thomas Hardy as a village atheist (see Kevin Taylor, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Question of Tragedy in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, p. 168).

However, in more recent literature the meaning of the term has evolved to identify a type of popular atheism that is often brash in presentation and lacks critical nuance. (In other words, minority status within a wider religious community is no longer essential to the term.) One sees this use in Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, p. 178 when Inwagen juxtaposes the unlettered popular opinions of the “village atheist” over against the more sophisticated opinions of the “atheist”. In this article I will be using the term “village atheist” in the broad sense used by Inwagen.

So, Rauser makes it clear that while the original term referred to an atheist who merely was vocal about their atheism, the sort he’s talking about here is the sort of “village atheism” that Inwagen talks about. He points out clearly that by this, the “village” descriptor doesn’t require someone to be a minority anymore, which immediately means that it could apply to Christians as well who are brash but also lacking in critical nuance. From this, Rauser says repeatedly that, yes, you can have “village Christians” as well.

Which then makes Cuttlefish’s defense seem rather odd, even putting aside the fact that it doesn’t seem like a defense at all. After noting that he couldn’t find terms for “village Christian” on Google — which makes sense since as Rauser notes the “village atheist” usage is new — he says this:

And that’s because “the village X” is a designated minority role. It’s a way of othering, of dismissing with a label, of designating someone to be both part of the village and apart from the village.

Well, sure, in the original usage, but Rauser is, again, very clear that that isn’t the usage he’s using. He’s using it in a sense that applies beyond minority status. Did Cuttlefish simply not read the parentheses, or even that section where Rauser talks about specifically how he’s using it? Because by that usage, this comment doesn’t apply.

He then talks about “village Christians”, and walks into the equivocation:

We have village atheists because we have people who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of. We have a great many more Christians who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking on (we don’t have to look far). These are not “village Christians”, though–they are wholeheartedly welcomed members of the community. They are the village. It is not the fact that someone doesn’t have all the facts that makes them the “village atheist”; it is the fact that they are the atheist.

The first part does indeed relate to how Rauser is using the term. But when he goes to deny that you can have “village Christians”, he ignores that those are the traits that Rauser is using to define “village atheist” and “village Christian”, and instead says that those Christians that fit Rauser’s definition aren’t really “village Christians” because of the original meaning of the term, despite the fact that Rauser is abundantly clear that he’s using the more recent meaning and is actually using that definition completely consistently throughout the entire post.

This is why I wonder where the actual “defense” of the “village atheist” is here. The only way he could be defending the “village atheist” is by claiming that “village atheist” doesn’t actually mean what Rauser says it is, and so “village atheists” aren’t really atheists that are eager to speak up but aren’t terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of, but instead apply broadly to any atheist that is eager to speak up, or that even speaks up at all. But while Cuttlefish might be correct that that is the normal or common meaning of the term, that’s clearly not how Rauser means it. Cuttlefish, then, is defending a “village atheist” that Rauser is not attacking.

Now, a counter might be that this is a problem with Rauser, in that he’s using the term wrong or is wrong to “broaden” it as he claims it does (I think he narrows it myself, but that’s neither here nor there). The first problem with that counter is that Rauser himself is consistent; he is not equivocating on the term in any way that I can see. But, one can protest, that at least _I_ call broadening the term “science” — ie using a non-standard definition of science in arguments — as being a form of scientism, and have called Jerry Coyne out on using his uncommon definition of “science” in an argument. The difference, though, is that in the cases of scientism generally I accuse them or broadening or narrrowing the definition to suit their argument — which is equivocation — or in the case of Coyne taking someone’s point where they are using the common definition of science, taking that out and using the less common definition of science, and then using that to argue that their point is wrong because by the less common definition of science the point doesn’t hold — ignoring that they weren’t using that definition and so the point attacked is not their point. Here, it is Cuttlefish who is translating the word to a definition that Rauser is not using to make his point and then declaring the point invalid; Rauser himself is clear and consistent in his usage. Thus, in the other examples, the person I am criticizing is equivocating, while in this case Rauser isn’t equivocating but Cuttlefish is. So there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Rauser here … or, at least, not one that Cuttlefish has pointed out yet.

In summary, Rauser is using a non-standard definition of “village atheist” but is clear that he is doing so and consistent in that, even down to saying that by that definition you can indeed definitely have “village Christians”, even though he implies that the common or original definition of the term doesn’t allow for that. Cuttlefish, on the other hand, ignores that completely to attack Rauser using a definition that Rauser is not actually using, and that Cuttlefish seems to acknowledge and them move away from. As a defense of “village atheist”, it either defends the wrong target or isn’t a defense at all.

The Problem of Evil: Obsolete?

March 6, 2014

So, “The Problem of Evil” is probably the single atheist/anti-theist argument that’s the most at least intuitively convincing. It’s been brought up again by Jason Rosenhouse here, and while I was pondering why I find the argument less and less probable every time I read discussions of it I suddenly had an insight: The Problem of Evil has been made obsolete in the face of advancing philosophy.

The Problem of Evil was easily justifiable when we could believe that there really existed “evil” in the world, when we thought that we could actually have evil objects in the world. Since God was responsible for creating everything that exists, that meant that if evil things existed either God was responsible for those evil things Himself or, alternatively, that something else put those evil things there and God was powerless to stop it. Neither of these outcomes preserve the tri-omni God. Sure, you could work around it by trying to argue that the existence of evil entities was somehow better, but I don’t blame atheists for finding that unconvincing.

However, the idea that there are actually evil things in the world isn’t particularly credible anymore. Sure, you could get it for things like Satan, demons, and the like, but their existence was never what people were worried about when they talked about The Problem of Evil, and those things were among the more plausible ways out of the problem in the old days (the main issue with these is explaining why God didn’t stop those entities from doing evil or putting it in the world, not with them existing). But as we moved forward and examined both The Problem of Evil and the world, the real issue isn’t about the existence of evil. We don’t think that there really does exist evil, per se, and we don’t think that The Problem of Evil is about evil in the world, but is instead about suffering. Pretty much all modern statements of The Problem of Evil and almost all modern arguments for there being “evil” in the world boil down to there being suffering in the world that it is believed that God could prevent but doesn’t. And if God could stop that suffering and yet doesn’t, then God must be at least uncaring, and likely immoral … especially since we all believe that if we could stop that suffering, we would be morally obligated to do so.

Thus, we may now rename The Problem of Evil to what it is today: The Problem of Suffering. And instead of asking “Why is there evil in the world?”, the modern problem asks “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

The problem is that under the two main theological takes we can have with at least the Judeo-Christian God — essentially, any religion that includes Genesis — The Problem of Suffering isn’t, in fact, a problem at all.

1) We can take a Biblical perspective on God, starting from Genesis and working our way through to get a God that is supposed to care for us, and yet allows this suffering to continue. Except that if you start from Genesis, we have an explanation for all the suffering in the world, natural and otherwise: the eating of the apple. The punishment for eating the apple is to be ejected from the perfect world into a world that explicitly contains suffering and toil. And since we ended up that way because we disobeyed God, we’d still be capable of disobeying God — and therefore acting immorally — when we leave the Garden. Thus, the answer to why God allows this much suffering in the world is: Because God never promised us a suffering-free life, and in fact promised us one where we did indeed suffer.

Now, you may counter that the Genesis and Adam and Eve story conflicts with modern biology if you take it literally, and has problems for at least Christianity if taken figuratively. That’s true, but the issue of The Problem of Suffering is the least of the problems under those conditions, at least for Christians. If Christians have to drop Original Sin and thus the reason for Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s almost certainly not enough Christianity left to worry about the disproof from unexplained suffering. So for those who start from the Bible, they have an explanation and if they have to abandon that explanation their religion would be disproven far stronger than The Problem of Suffering could ever disproof it.

2) You start start from classical/Scholastic theism, which is the one that actually justifies the tri-omni God. Except that it justifies the tri-omni God independently of the condition of this world; as seen here, they start from Ground of Being and derive their qualities from that. As long as that argument holds, The Problem of Suffering cannot get a foothold, as if God as they conceive it exists then it is tri-omni and that we think there’s too much suffering in the world just reflects our lack of understanding (and, additionally, is likely simply the result of the world not being the perfect ground of being, and so merely reflects its lack). And if you manage to demolish the Ground of Being argument, then again the classical/Scholastic model has much more serious problems to deal with than worrying about whether or not there’s too much suffering in the world.

Thus, I declare the argument obsolete. Philosophy has moved on past the simplistic “There is evil in the world” interpretation, requiring a move to a “There is too much suffering in the world” argument … but the two main theological tacks that you can take here have no problem with suffering if their fundamental assumptions are correct, and if their fundamental assumptions are incorrect then they are false regardless of whether you could make The Problem of Suffering stick.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 3)

February 19, 2014

Well, in this post I’m going to take a stab at explaining what the whole “Ground of Being” argument is, as best I understand it, in a way that hopefully might make it easier for others to understand. Hart and those who hold to classical theism may not thank me for this, as I am quite likely to get major portions of it wrong, but hopefully it can at least be used as a starting point for people to start thinking that, hey, maybe this thing isn’t totally insane, or that they really aren’t attacking what it claims when they attack, say, a notion of God directly causing each object to exist.

Anyway, the problem that classical theism is trying to solve is, well, the explanation of existence. Not the explanation of the existence of any particular object, although that question is related. Not even the explanation of the existence of any existent objects at all, although that’s closer. No, they want a explanation of existence itself. Or, to put it a bit facetiously, why it is that existence exists at all? Why is there existence? When we look at individual objects in the world, we can see that they exist of course, but the question still remains of why they exist. Again, not what directly caused them to exist, and so not a chain of causes back to a specific uncaused cause, but instead what explains their ability to exist and, in some sense, to not exist.

Hart points out that the argument, then, is that of all of the objects that we encounter in the universe, they are all dependent on something that underlies them to explain their actual existence. Again, not the direct cause, but the explanation of them and their existence. And that, the classical theists — and likely Aristotleans — think has to be some sort of something, a something that depends on nothing else to explain its own existence. Thus, it is the Ground of All Being, the thing we appeal to to explain why there is Being at all. Again, not beings, but Being itself.

Now, if the argument stopped at this point a very valid counter would be that that sort of thing doesn’t look a lot like any God concept. But the classical theist position points out that we can know an awful lot of things about what this Ground of Being must be like. To start with, it must be absolutely simple, meaning that it cannot be made up of parts that come together to form the whole. Why? Because if it did contain parts, then the explanation for its existence would consist, at least in part, of the parts coming together, and then you’d have to explain how each part exists, and those parts couldn’t be explained by the Ground of All Being since they, in part, explain the existence of the Ground of All Being, meaning that you hadn’t found the Ground of All Being yet. Additionally, there can be only one Ground of All Being, because if there wasn’t then you’d have two things that purport to explain all of the things that exist … including each other. So that can’t happen. Additionally, the Ground of All Being must be eternal, because if it ever ceased to exist you wouldn’t be able to explain the existence of the things that do exist, and nothing else could take its place.

Still, though, this wouldn’t look a lot like any kind of God, or at least any kind of theist God. Now, here’s where I’m speculating a bit, and here’s where it gets a little complicated, but to my mind it seems to work out like this: Just as all things that exist exist because they share in the existence of the Ground of All Being, every positive property we have we only have because we derive it in some way from the Ground of All Being. Note that here “positive” doesn’t mean “good”, but instead means that it is itself an attribute that we have, and not an attribute that we can be said to have only because we lack some positive attribute. So being able to act in the world, for example, is a positive property because it reflects an actual attribute or potential, but being unable to act in the world is not, as it is merely a lack of being able to act in the world. For every positive attribute, then, the classical theist position is that we get it from sharing in the attribute in the Ground of Being, and so the Ground of Being must have every positive property and, because we share in it to a limited degree, just as we do for existence, it must have it in as infinite proportion as it has existence.

Thus, since knowing is a positive property, the Ground of All Being must know, and know it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omniscient. Also, since acting in the world in a positive property, the Ground of All Being must have that ability as well, and have it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omnipotent. As intelligence is a positive property, the Ground of All Being is all-intelligent. And all-wise, and all-intentional. If the positive property exists in the world, then we know that the Ground of All Being has that property, and has it infinitely.

This, then, starts to look a lot like the theistic God. But what, then, about morality: is the Ground of All Being all-good? Well, if being moral is a positive property, then it is indeed all-good, and no empirical argument like that of the Problem of Evil can touch it because it is a logical necessity. You’d have to either deny that being good is a positive property, or deny that there exists any being in the world that can be good in even a limited way. Otherwise, the Problem of Evil reflects nothing more than our limited understanding of the good.

But can’t the atheist counter that the same argument for the Ground of Being’s morality can be used to establish its immorality, that it must be infinitely immoral since some of us are indeed immoral? Well, note that in order to make that argument you’d have to claim that being immoral is a positive property, and not merely a lack of some other property. And while it may seem a little odd to claim that being immoral is nothing more than a lack of morality (perhaps combined with some other property, like self-interest) it certainly seems completely and totally wrong to claim that being moral is simply a lack of being immoral. Thus, a strong case can be made that morality is the positive property, and immorality is primarily a lack of morality. And if that’s the case, then the Ground of All Being can be infinitely moral without having to be infinitely immoral as well.

So, then, this Ground of Being looks a lot like the theist God. But is this God comprehensible, or incomprehensible? Does it have anthropomorphic properties, or infinite ones beyond our comprehension? The answer, in fact, is both. Because we only have the properties we have because we share in the ones that the Ground of All Being has, there is indeed an at least conceptual link between our properties and God’s properties; they are not completely distinct from each other. So we can, at least, get some idea of what the properties of God are like by analogy to ours. However, that should not fool us into thinking that if we can just think really, really hard about our own properties, and study them really, really well, we can indeed find out what God’s properties are like. God’s are absolute and infinite, and ours are not, and ours are formed by moving us down the continuum from the infinite first to a finite and then to a flawed representation. We can discover things, again, by analogy, but we must never confuse the analogy for the reality.

This example might help, and lets me promote one of my favourite book series. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber series of novels, there is only one real world: Amber. All other worlds — including ours, where the first book starts — are mere reflections of the one true world. However, these worlds don’t look a lot like Amber, which is a more medieval, swords and sorcery kind of world while ours is, obviously, rather technological. You couldn’t look at this world and study it in detail and discover what Amber is really like, even though there is indeed a direct link between the two. You couldn’t know, for example, that gunpowder won’t work in Amber, even though it does here, just by looking at this world. And yet, there is a link, and a number of times people in the series move from our world and return to Amber by adding and removing properties until they get back to the real Amber, showing that there is a direct chain connecting us to Amber, even though our world is, at the end of the day, radically different from Amber.

I see the properties of God here as being the same thing. There is a link between our wisdom and God’s wisdom, but we can’t just look at our wisdom and round it up to get to real, infinite wisdom, just as we can’t round up the properties of our world and get back to Amber. But because our wisdom and God’s wisdom are still, in some way, conceptually wisdom, we can figure some things out looking at our world. How much we can do is a question that the philosophers would have to work out.

Note that after reading this, or even reading Hart’s book or any of the other books one the topic, you might still be unconvinced. That’s okay; I’m not really convinced either. There are at least potentially a number of lines of attack, such as questioning whether we need a thing to be the Ground of All Being or if that can be just a conceptual explanation. However, the point of writing all of this out is to hopefully explain a little better what the argument actually is and to hopefully get across the idea that while it may be wrong, it isn’t insane and, in fact, isn’t even anti-scientific or anti-empirical. As Hart says at one point, the purported physics that would refute this idea isn’t actually even addressing the same question that this is trying to solve, and so this view is, in fact, perfectly compatible with physics. It’s a different, perhaps, metaphysical view, but we really shouldn’t expect physics to say too much about metaphysics, right?

Anyway, that’s my limited understanding of “The Ground of All Being”. I’m sure I’ve gotten things wrong, but hopefully it’s close and clear enough to allow for real and meaningful discussion of the argument.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 2)

February 18, 2014

Okay, I kinda lied yesterday, saying that there’d be two parts, because I’m adding a third. This one is going to take on the specific comments from Coyne about how the “Ground of Being” God isn’t, in fact, the God of the Folk, the one that the ordinary person believes in, and the distinction between the Sophisticated God and the Folk God that he and other Gnu Atheists rely on so much.

If you take nothing else from this book, you should take the idea that, yes, indeed, God in all of the major traditions has never been a simple “Being”. God has indeed never been a being just like us, only better in all ways. We’ve always considered God to be something transcendental, something special, something that we can only understand through analogy to us instead of being a progression from us. We’ve never thought that if we tried really, really hard, ate all of our vegetables, and evolved in just right way that we would, one day, turn into Gods ourselves. Sure, science fiction tropes loved to hint at that, but in terms of religion we never really believed that. But in order to think about God, we had to make analogies, and so we made arguments about God and about proofs of God’s existence through an analogy to ourselves. And one of Hart’s better arguments is that a lot of arguments against and for the existence of God are arguments that take the analogy too far, and treat the analogy as the reality … in short, arguments that treat God as us, only better.

We can see this clearly in arguments like Dawkins’ “God must be more complex than we are to do what He does”. One can easily see that that sort of argument clearly relies on God being just like us, only better, and if we have to be complex to do our things, God has to be more complex than us. But that assumes that God is indeed just like us, only better. But God is completely different from us, in a very transcendent way. There are similarities by analogy, but you can’t win the argument by assuming that the analogy is the reality. And many other Gnu Atheist arguments do that as well. But Hart points out that it isn’t only atheists that do that, but also theists, and cites the Ontological Argument — rightly, in my opinion — as an argument that at least risks making the same mistake. By stripping away the transcendental portions of God, God is turned into something that is easier to relate to and to argue about … but also something that is easier to refute or to point out contradictions in. In their attempt to make God more amenable to scientific or mechanical proof, many theists seem to have made God into something like us, just another part of the world, and so something that we can indeed dismiss as easily as we’d dismiss unicorns and leprechauns. But it is certainly reasonable to note that this takes away from God what critically makes God, well, God, and so a proof or refutation of God as one of us is proving or refuting the wrong God, the sort of God that no one actually does believe in but the sort of God that we use as an analogy to try to wrap our heads around the transcendental concept that we are really talking about.

So, yes, Hart is right that Gnu Atheists are going after the sort of God that no one actually believes in, and is right to note that they aren’t alone, and that many good philosophers and theologians are also talking about the sort of God that no one actually believes in. We mistake the analogy for the reality, and that confuses us. We may not need to go right back to the God of classical theism, but we do need to recall that God is transcendental, and is not just us, only better.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 1)

February 17, 2014

So, I finished reading David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”. It took me a little longer than it did to read “Why Evolution is True”, mostly because the chapters have more pages — even though a lot of that seems to be due to the spacing — and so if I wanted to read one chapter in an evening I had to plan more time to get through the extra pages. Anyway, I want to review the book in two parts, where the first is an actual review of the book itself, while the second is my humble attempt to clarify the “Ground of All Being” argument, as I understand it. And since this was spawned from Jerry Coyne’s comments on the book, I’d like to start by making reference to him specifically …

Jerry Coyne will not like this book. He will, of course, should he actually read and comment on it, mock it, and if he does comment on it I will be very interested to see if his mockery actually hits the points in the book or just ends up as general mockery. There are two big problems with the book:

1) The book is dense. Really dense. As someone who has read around the various issues and even read Aquinas, I had a hard time following the arguments and discussion at times. Someone who has less of that background will be completely lost, particularly if they aren’t familiar with philosophical arguments. This denseness also makes it seem rambly at times, where you aren’t really sure where the comment is going. This isn’t helped by Hart at times pointing out how he was drifting at times, but at least he cops to it.

2) Too little time is spent on his own arguments, as opposed to time spent attacking naturalism. The book spends most of its time attacking naturalism, and the attacks on naturalism are, in my view, fairly reasonable and do raise problems for naturalists and materialists to solve. However, in a book like this much more time should be spent arguing for and supporting his own position instead of attacking the alternatives. At this stage, you aren’t going to convince people of your view simply by pointing out the problems in the opposing viewpoint and saying that yours is the only viewpoint left standing; all that will do is get people thinking about the problems your viewpoint might have.

Ultimately, because of this, I can’t really recommend this to anyone except those who are deeply philosophically inclined. If you want an introduction to the “Ground of Being” God and the arguments for it, pick up Feser’s “Aquinas”, which I recall as being much better written. At the end of either of these books, you won’t be convinced, but hopefully, if read carefully, you’ll have a better understanding of the argument and how it works, and what it really says.

Science/Religion Compatibility: Academic Discipline vs Worldview …

January 21, 2014

So, reading around the Internet today, I started thinking about the age-old question of whether science and religion are or can be made to be incompatible. And it seems to me that there’s a massive confusion happening in the debates, and that debate is over whether science as an academic discipline is compatible with religion or whether science as a worldview is compatible with religion. And I also think that this confusion also drives the “narrow/broad” debate over the definition of science, and also drive a large part of the scientism debate. So I think I’ll try to unpack some of that here in this post.

When I — and I submit, most people — think of science, we think of it as the academic discipline, and thus as what you’d find in a university faculty of science or even what you’d generally expect taught in a general science class. This is, paradigmatically, things like physics, chemistry and biology, which are also known — with some other fields — as the “hard sciences”. When we hear someone talking about the success of science, we automatically think of the great success these fields have had in increasing our knowledge, and when we think of the scientific method we tend to think of that as being the method that scientists in the “hard sciences” tend to use to get such results.

If, then, you ask us if science and religion are compatible, our answer is going to be, under this definition, that they are compatible precisely in the sense of whether or not someone could be a good scientist while still being religious. We understand that the academic field of science doesn’t necessarily include — or, we hope, preclude — religion, but ask if someone could be, in general, religious and yet still do science. And there are obviously ways that someone who is religious can still do at least religiously neutral science, if in no other way than parking their specific religious beliefs at the door when doing it, and not favouring scientifically solutions that align with their religion, or disfavouring solutions that contradict or risk contradicting their religious beliefs. Sure, they might end up finding scientifically facts that contradict their religion, but that doesn’t mean that religion in general is incompatible in any real sense with the academic discipline of science. After all, people doing science might find scientific facts that challenge any number of non-religious beliefs, but that wouldn’t make science incompatible with having those sorts of beliefs. For example, doing science might discover facts that invalidate any number of philosophical beliefs, but that wouldn’t make the academic discipline of science incompatible with philosophy.

What we can see, then, is that the academic discipline’s interaction with religion is, in fact, simply to produce facts, true statements about the world. As such, it isn’t the place of science to decide what a new fact it discovers means for a non-scientific theory or claim. Or, to put it better, it isn’t the job of the academic discipline of science to determine what the facts it discovers means for any particular worldview. The academic discipline of science just presents and evaluates facts — meaning physical facts — not worldviews. So it’s up to fields that do work with worldviews to determine what they mean for that. Philosophy, which studies absolutely everything studyable, can do that. For a specifically religious worldview, theology also can do that because that is indeed part of their job. And note that both can indeed conclude that the scientific facts can indeed make that specific worldview untenable; it’s just not as easy as if they were scientific theories, because worldviews are not, in fact, scientific theories.

Which leads to the second point. Many of the anti-accomodationist atheists insist that they are incompatible because they rely on different methods: science on the scientific method, religion on faith. This, they argue, those who claim they’re compatible have to reconcile the two methods, and make it so that they the methods themselves can accomodate each other. To them, this means that you have to have the scientific method accept the methodology of faith, and the methodology of faith accept the scientific method internally, so that the scientific method can give answers based on faith just as well as the methodology of faith can accept the scientific method. Otherwise, you’d have two completely different ways of coming to truths that are incompatible in your worldview, and that’s not possible. So, the argument goes, since the scientific method has no room for faith, you can’t have both. And if you have to choose one, you should choose the one that has been so massively successful, and that’s science.

Treating science as an academic discipline — the narrow definition — the argument doesn’t make sense. It would essentially be saying that unless we could find a method by which all academic disciplines could study their fields, then you couldn’t have a worldview that incorporated, say, science and philosophy. Which is absurd. The only way, then, to make this claim make any sense is to not think of science as an academic discipline, but instead to think of a scientific worldview. Essentially, an idea that one should live one’s at least epistemic life based on the scientific method espoused by the academic discipline of science. Hence, since there is no room in the scientific method for faith, then there is no room in the scientific worldview for faith. Also, hence the push to expand the definition of science beyond that of the academic discipline of science, because if you’re going to have a scientific worldview you’re going to have to deal with far more than the “hard sciences” deal with now, and so we’re going to have to know things that you couldn’t know with the formal scientific method, which is why it tends to get expanded to “empirical data and reasoning”, since it can be argued that that is fundamental to the scietnific method, even if the scientific method, in the academic discipline of science, entails more than that.

But there are a couple of issues with this move:

1) If they are advocating for a scientific worldview, they really need to suss out more of what that worldview itself is before anyone ought to be convinced to hold it, and so before anyone ought to be convinced that science and religion are incompatible according to its main principles.

2) Advocates of this worldview can’t use the success of the scientific method in the academic discipline of science to argue for the success of this worldview. The scientific method had better work for the academic discipline of science — or else, it would be irrational for it to use it — but that doesn’t mean that using it or even their expanded version is going to work as a worldview. There may be major components of human activity that just aren’t amenable to any form of the scientific method. Which is also why you have to clear about what the worldview entails and also why they keep trying to expand the definition of science to cover all human endeavours.

Note that the restrictiveness of the scientific worldview would, in fact, be part of the scientific worldview itself, and not of worldviews in general. It is easy to come up with a worldview that allows for different and incompatible methodologies, applied to the areas where they make the most sense and work. All things being equal, most human experience has taught us that we generally do need different approaches for different problems, which is probably why the scientific method in the scientific worldview keeps adding methods to it and becoming more and more general; they’re added as need arises to make their worldview make sense in the world. But that is obviously cheating.

Treated as an academic discipline, there is no interesting philosophical incompatibility between science in general and religion in general. Treated as a worldview, there is … but then we need a justification for why we should adopt that worldview. The debates on accomodationism, it seems to me, confuse those two usages, leading to very bad debates. And very bad philosophy about the question.

Hart’s New Book, Coyne’s Book, and Theology …

January 16, 2014

Jerry Coyne has been talking about David Bentley Hart’s new book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss”. The latest thread about it is here. From this, I decided to buy that book, and also to pick up “Why Evolution is True”. Despite the fact that I argue against Coyne at lot on this blog (which is odd, since when I started the blog I thought it would be P.Z. Myers that I posted the most against, but since Coyne says things (even if often very, very incorrect things) while Myers tends to say very, very little with a lot of mocking words, Coyne gets more attention just for having content), I don’t think that I’ll have very much to say about his book. I mostly got it just to see if his claim that the average person could comprehend the evidence for evolution just by reading it. I mean, I’m certainly not the average person, as saying that I’m overeducated might be an understatement, but I’m not a biology expert so I want to see in how many places my eyes glaze over when reading the technical details just as Coyne’s probably do when reading theology. And on that, from the post:

And does Burkeman realize that I spent several years reading theology before I decided that it was mind-numbing and largely worthless exercise? It’s not like I haven’t heard their Best Arguments.

Considering the rather large number of times that I’ve commented on Coyne’s posts by showing that he didn’t really get their arguments, and for example went through his examination of Polkinghorne and ended up expressing massive frustration that he never addressed the arguments but instead simply mocked them, I think a case might be made that he heard by didn’t listen, or perhaps less confusingly looked but didn’t see. I’m also not sure where the “several years” comes into it. The post where he says that he’s now reading theology with Eric MacDonald’s help was written in July of 2011, that only counts as “several years” for very large values of “a couple of years” or perhaps “a few years”. And he only read some theology, but never really studied it, which makes any claims to his having acquired a deep understanding of the arguments about as plausible as, say, my saying that I’ll have heard and understood enough about evolution to be dismissive of it once I’ve read Coyne’s book since I read a couple of other books over a span of a few years. Essentially, just as I don’t know enough about evolution to judge it, or about biology to judge it or its writings as a whole, Coyne doesn’t know enough to really be qualified to judge theology and have us take his judgement seriously based on the amount of time he studied it. No, he’d have to make really good arguments about it … which, well, have been, in my opinion, rather lacking, probably because while Coyne tends to deny disliking philosophy and philosophical arguments, he tends to dismiss them all the time.

Case in point, when he goes to list the ways that Hart could be possibly giving the best arguments for the existence of God:

2. The philosophical argument that is most tricky, or hardest to refute: in other words, the argument for God that has the greatest degree of sophistry. This used to include the Ontological Arguments, which briefly stymied even Bertrand Russell. But we soon realized that “existence is not a quality”, and that, in fact, existence claims can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic.

Well, see, if it is a philosophical argument, and philosophers can’t figure out how to refute it, then it just might, you know, be right. So it being hard to refute philosophically is indeed a reason to think that it’s a good argument, not just one that has the greatest degree of sophistry. And either Coyne is being really careless here or he doesn’t get the history of the debate at all, since while Russell did find it problematic, we didn’t discover that “existence is not a quality” after that point, but before … unless Kant really lived before Russell, and it isn’t like his discussion of the OA was ignored by those who studied him. So surely Russell was aware of that argument before his issues with the OA, and thus this implies — correctly — that while the Kantian argument is decent, it does have some problems with it, in that using “existence” as a predicate or quality isn’t obviously false. So, that’s probably not doing the work in minimizing Ontological Arguments. The “existence claims can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic” is probably the idea that most drives people not finding Ontological Arguments convincing … but it’s never actually been proven true in any meaningful way, which allows for the modal logic OAs to take shape. Almost all scientists and a lot of philosophers accept that that claim is true, but none of them can prove it, so it’s still an open problem, and a specifically philosophical one.

In this short paragraph, Coyne implies that philosophers aim at arguments that are more sophistic than rational, ignores the history of philosophy, and makes an unfounded philosophical statement. I’d call that evidence of his having some issues with philosophy, consciously or not.

In discussing the “God is ground of all Being” argument that Hart is advocating, he says this:

…but I seriously doubt that. Aquinas, Luther, Augustine: none of those people saw God in such a way.

Except that Aquinas, as he followed on from Aristotlean views and invented Thomism probably does beleive that. I couldn’t find any simple quick quote that flat-out says it, but I did read Feser’s book on Aquinas, know that Feser believes in the Aristotlean “Ground of all Being” argument, and am pretty sure that Feser defends Thomism. In fact, Coyne argues that he doesn’t understand the “Ground of all Being” argument at all, but could read Feser’s book to get a decent sumamry of it, even if he doesn’t find it convincing. Thus, the “Ground of all Being” argument is not new, but has been around for arguably thousands of years, making it just as strong a contender for the way God really is as any other.

He finishes with what is rapidly becoming his most popular rhetorical flourish (for now):

So if I had to ask Hart three questions, they would be these:

1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that this is the kind of God that most people have accepted throughout history.)

2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?

3. What would the universe look like if your God didn’t exist?

For 1 and 2, I’d have to re-read “Aquinas”, but I know it was addressed there. As for 3, the answer is simple to anyone who even has a vague idea of the argument: there’d be no universe. At all. I mean, how do you not get that from a claim that God is “The Ground of all Being”? Do you think that there is anything that exists if you take the ground of existence away? At best, it’s just a really bad question for the claim he’s addressing. Can he see, then, why so often I end up claiming that he doesn’t really understand the arguments he’s not only claiming to understand — or, at least, understand enough to call “ineffable” — but to have also evaluated and disproved?

The Secular End?

January 6, 2014

When I was in university, I once shared a three room suite with three other guys. That also happened to be the year that Meat Loaf came out with “Bat Out of Hell II”, and I ended up hearing and really liked “I Would Do Anything For Love”. That got me to buy the cassette — yes, that’s how long ago that was — and listen to it. Now, when I really like an album, I tend to listen to it and only it for a long period of time, from weeks to months. So I probably listened to it for pretty much an entire term. The other people in the suite, well, didn’t like the album as much as I did, and would tease me about it, even going so far as doing a request on the campus radio station dedicating it to me for not listening to it ever again. I commented that if it bothered them, I could use headphones, and they said that just knowing that I was listening to it was bad enough.

This story will relate to how a post by Jerry Coyne relates to ideas of secularism, and what religious people should think is the ultimate goal of secularism, at least as defined by those atheists or secularists who, like Coyne in that post, rail against accomodationism. Coyne says this:

I find it demeaning to try to make ourselves seem REALLY NICE to the American public. In point of fact, we are reasonably nice: at least as nice as believers. So why must we tout ourselves as “The Friendly Atheist” or “The Happy Atheist”? Not all atheists are friendly or happy, nor are all believers. We’re just normal Americans who don’t happen to believe in nonexistent gods.

Making people think we’re friendly and happy will not, I think, do the trick. Atheists are the most reviled group in America, far less likely to be elected to office than are gays, women, or blacks. We’re not going to change that by showing people that we’re “normal”.

So … if atheists act like normal people, and represent themselves as normal people, and particularly as normal people with interests other than, say, opposing religion … isn’t going to get people thinking that they are just normal people who don’t happen to believe in gods? I mean, it seems obvious to me that if you want people to get that atheists are just normal people, the best way to do that would be to represent themselves as being normal people. In fact, it’s hard to me to imagine that there’s any other way to do that. So why is going claiming that that isn’t going to change that impression?

Does anybody really think that Christians will either accept us or, more important, abandon their faith if they perceive us as real people?[emphasis added]

Ah, that’s why. His main goal, the thing that’s most important to him, isn’t, in fact, getting acceptance for atheists. It isn’t having a society where everyone can have their own beliefs about religion — and atheism is a belief about religion, even if it is going too far to call it a religion itself — and live according to them as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else. No, he wants religion gone. And that, then, is why he rails against the accomodationist notion, because while it might be more effective at getting atheists accepted, it isn’t more likely to get people to drop their religion, because it treats them and their beliefs as beliefs that are just wrong … or, at least, just wrong in the opinion of the atheist. No, to really deconvert people you have to be able to lambaste and bully them into accepting that they are stupid for believing such notions.

From this, you can see how this relates to secularism and my opening story. One of the pushes of secularists is that they don’t care if you’re religious in private, as long as it isn’t public or, more sensibly, publicly enforced. But if the goal is to eliminate religion instead, then it is just as bad for those people to know that those people who used to practice their faith in public still practice it at home. As Coyne has made clear repeatedly, he has a problem with faith itself, not just with his having to see it in public or the more reasonable charge of being forced to participate in religious practices that they don’t support.

Now, the fear that religious people have of secularism is that it isn’t just an attempt to remove religious privilege and give all beliefs about religion — including atheistic ones — a fair shot. The fear is that it’s really an attempt to eliminate religion, potentially using state power to do it despite the fact that the right to freedom of religion would preclude that. If secularists just want to eliminate religious privilege, then this is an unfounded concern. But if the same people who say that they just want to eliminate religious privilege also say that they want to eliminate religion … well, then anyone who doesn’t think it right for a secular society to eliminate religion in the name of secularism will have to look very closely at everything they propose to make sure that it doesn’t aim to eliminate religion … even if unintentionally.

It’s clear that a big part of Coyne’s dislike of accomodationist approaches is that they aren’t going to do enough to get rid of religion:

Although I’m not asking Stedman to become more militant, I think his stance on “moar amiability” is unproductive. Which books deconverted more of the faithful, Faitheist or the in-your-face books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The God Delusion, and God is Not Great? I think you know the answer.

It can only be judged “unproductive” by appealing only to deconverting if he thinks that that is the most important goal. And he, of course, is free to prioritize things the way he wants. But since it seems obvious that to him eliminating religion and deconverting theists are more important to him than simply finding a way for atheists and theists to live together despite their differences, I am also free to treat him pretty much the same way I treat the fundamentalists who have made it their goal to convert me or others to their own religion: with an air of annoyance and suspicion. Thus, the parallel between at least some Gnu Atheists and fundamentalists seems to hold in at least one way: both of them, at the end of the day, have a main goal of everyone thinking like they do. And that’s not something that I think is a good thing.

The Great Debate?

October 24, 2013

So, a while ago I heard about the proposed debate between Dr. Phil Zuckerman and Dr. David Marshall over whether Secular Humanism or Christianity is the best basis for a society. Now, when I first heard about this — admittedly, from atheist sites with the posters and commenters expecting that the case for Secular Humanism would just win — my thought was that Zuckerman’s stance would be relatively easily defeatable, but that Marshall would not do a good job of doing it. Well, the video is up, after a bit of controversy over that, and well, my opinion is that Marshall, in the debate, didn’t do all that well, so far so in my opinion that I don’t really think there’s anything that he’s said that’s really worth talking about, but that Zuckerman’s points, well, weren’t.

Look at his first point. He talks about the Treaty of Tripoli, and how it said that the United States was not a Christian nation. He goes on and on about that for a while, and then talks about democracy, makes that a secular value … and then shoots himself in the foot by having to point out that democracy is not an explicitly Christian value. Well, sure. But even if it was derived from Christian values, that would not only still work out for Marshall, it’s actually what he argued. Which is probably why Marshall was so surprised at having to oppose democracy; for him, democracy follows from Christian values, even if they don’t talk about democracy itself. At one point, Zuckerman also comments that you have to base a decent society on democracy and not on other systems, but gives no reason to think that, except by pointing to a couple of systems that weren’t democratic and didn’t work out so well. The one that stood out was about Stalinist Marxism … but while Stalinist Marxism didn’t work, that wouldn’t mean that, say, Marxist Marxism simply couldn’t, and couldn’t because it was democratic as opposed to all of the other philosophies and political and economic views it had. So, at this point, he simply hasn’t addressed Christianity at all, and starts off from saying that you probably could build a good society on it, but that if he had to choose, he’d choose secular humanism. This first point doesn’t in any way say why we should prefer a secular humanist perspective.

In the rebuttal, his argument is, well, actually worse, and he continally shoots himself in the foot by talking about a lot of points and then giving us great reasons to think that they really don’t matter. He lists all of the demographics that are the most Christian, and the ones that are the least Christian, and then points out that the ones that are the most Christian are the least well off … and then says that he isn’t saying that being Christian is the cause of them being in that condition, which is good, because when he starts from African-Americans that would be a thunderingly stupid argument. But then we have to wonder what the point actually is. The only argument he can be making is that Christianity does not, in and of itself, produce prosperity and happiness. Great … but who was arguing that? No one would argue that if you dropped a Christian society into a desert and another one onto a fertile grassland that they’d be equally prosperous. What the debate here would be about would be if whether you dropped a secular humanist society or a Christian society in the desert which of them would likely be more prosperous. That, at least, is something that Marshall and Zuckerman could actually argue over. Zuckerman in no way presents that, or any case for that. Add in that people in poorer conditions will likely be drawn to the hopefulness of religion and that it focuses more on the afterlife than on the present, and so it’s easy to see why people who have terrible current conditions would be drawn to religion and its promises, flat-out explaining that “other thing” that Zuckerman wanted to look for.

And, unfortunately, that “this world vs other world” focus is a big part of secular humanism, according to Zuckerman. His big push for why he prefers secular humanism to Christianity in this is because secular humanism is about making the “now” better, because that’s all we have, while Christianity focuses on the afterlife, and what comes later. Of course, that means that if your current life is really bad and you have no way of fixing it, then you really should just end it. Hence, our desert problem. Or, you can go Stoic and treat those specfic cases as indifferents: nice to have but not what makes a life worth living … but then you end up without the motivation that Zuckerman wants to improve things, and that he says Christianity doesn’t really have. Although, of course, that’s a bit of a strawman, as Marshall points out, because Christianity does indeed put a big focus on improving things now, and can be reasonably said to say that improving things in the here and now is part of the path to the good afterlife; you may not need to do good works to get into heaven depending on the strain of Christianity, but a person worthy of heaven certainly will do good works.

This leads to the other problem that Zuckerman runs over. Sure, if I know that this life is all I have then I will certainly be motivated to make this life as good as possible … for myself. Zuckerman adds in “and my loved ones and for everyone”, but rationally speaking I would only do that as long as it makes my own life better. Thus, in order to prevent me from screwing over everyone else to get the best possible life for myself, we need a set of punishments that make it so that doing that isn’t actually going to get me the best life possible. Sure, one can argue that people, in general, often avoid hurting people “just because”, but that isn’t going to stop people who don’t have that sort of code, nor is it necessarily the rational attitude to have if one starts from the secular humanist starting point.

Which, then, leads to the biggest problem here: what is the basis for secular humanism? Zuckerman compares what the Bible says about slavery with what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says about slavery, and says that the latter is better. Sure, let’s give it that. But if someone says that slavery should be legal and allowed, Zuckerman cannot appeal to the Declaration to justify that view as being wrong or unacceptable. It does fall into what humans can agree on, and falls apart the instant there’s disagreement. At least with the Bible you can turn to “God says this”, which at least to Christians would justify the statement, and then if there is disagreement it’s over what God really meant, and not over this fundamental difference in moral principles.

Which, then, should show that despite Zuckerman considering secular humanism to be properly “pluralistic”, it is at least as impositional as Christianity would be. It needs a certain set of assumptions to get off the ground, which ends up being pretty much everything that it considers to be moral, or at least anything serious. How could secular humanism handle a society that is secular and claims to be humanist, but thinks that slavery is okay? Or thinks that women are inferior to men? Or vice versa? What justifications can it give for thinking those specific issues fall on their side as opposed to the other side, especially if they are dealing with a society with radically differing ideas? Sure, this is difficult for all moral views, but it’s something that’s glossed over here. At least, again, Christian societies can claim that even those who disagree are all God’s children and so worthy of respect. Humanism, I suppose, could claim that they’re all humans and all deserving of having their views heard and respected … but then, would that mean that if a subculture accepts slavery that secular humanists have to allow it?

Secular humanisms principles tend to be exactly like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a list of principles that most of the people writing the document and the cultures they come from tend to accept. They don’t necessarily follow from any overarching moral principle, and so are indefensible if they are applied to cultures that don’t accept them, which can lead to moral impositions on people who simply don’t accept them, in the name of “doing what’s right”. Yes, Christianity did the same thing, but the big push from secular humanists is that they can avoid those sorts of problems … but, so far, I haven’t seen any reason to think that, at least logically, they can.

Zuckerman did not give, in my view, any real reason to think that secular humanism is, in and of itself, the sort of thing that can form the basis of a society, let alone a good one or the best one. His arguments are not strong, he demolishes them himself most of the time, and at the end of the day he ignores the elephants in the room about how secular humanism could function and even what it is. Not a particularly good defense of secular humanism, in my view, leaving me still looking for one.

Dialogue on Faith and Democracy

October 18, 2013

Daniel Fincke over at Camels With Hammers just recently put up a new dialogue, this time talking about the relatiionship between faith and democracy, specifically about whether religious people should vote for laws or in some way “create” laws based on their religious beliefs. I’ve addressed some of his other dialogues in the past in dialogue form and so on reading this one figured it would be a good time to break out of my blogging slumber and write a response.

Jaime: But in a secular society, laws shouldn’t be made based on religious beliefs. Once the laws are based on religious beliefs then everyone in the governed region essentially is being forced to obey the laws of that religion (or those religions) that hold those idiosyncratic views.

Robin: So, if I want to vote for laws that take care of the poor because my faith tells me that it is just to take care of the poor, I’m not allowed because then I’m imposing my religion on people? “Sorry poor people, no food for you, I wouldn’t want to impose my religion on you!” That doesn’t make any sense.

Jaime: No, that’s not what I am talking about. There are secular arguments you can make for taking care of the poor. There’s no need to make a religious argument when you can make one that is not so narrow and does not only appeal to people who belong to your faith. It’s a secular society, make arguments that include everyone in your appeal.

Stoic: This seems to — or at least risks — conflating two very different contentions. When you talk about laws not being based on religious beliefs, it sounds a lot like you commenting on the reasons that, say, people vote for or institute them, which you and others have indeed talked about in the past. That’s why Robin is focusing on why they would vote for a law to take care of the poor. When you reply to that, you talk about making arguments — seemingly in public — to convince others, one presumes, to support that law as well. The two positions are distinct. For the first case, people in a democracy ought to and are expected to vote based on the worldview, desires, and values they themselves actually possess, and so if those reasons are religious it seems reasonable at first glance that they should indeed be able to vote based on those values. We would not expect them to vote based on reasons or reasoning that they don’t accept or agree with. As for the second case, we surely would expect people, when trying to convince others, to appeal to reasons that they, in fact, find convincing, whether religious or otherwise. After all, how can you expect to convince people to, say, support taking care of the poor if you appeal to reasons they find convincing? This, then, means appealing to what the majority actually value … religiously motivated or no.

So, in both cases, if people are religious and hold religious values, they ought to use those values to determine what they vote for and, if trying to convince religious people to vote as they do, what arguments they use to support those laws publically.

Jaime: You’re not implying that I’m trying to outlaw religion, are you? Because that’s outrageous. I would never want that. I am saying that you can have your religion without basing laws on it. A secular society, in fact, protects minority religions as much as the irreligious. Were you part of a religious minority would you want adherents of the majority religion stripping you of your rights through legislation?

Stoic: Here you hint at a general problem with democracy: can the majority create excessive impositions on the minority just by being the majority? However, you’ve also answered it: we introduce the concept of “rights” to create boundaries where the majority can impose so far and no further. Freedom of religion is a protected right, and so the majority cannot unduly impose on the freedom to practice one’s religion just because that religion is in the minority, which would extend to not having a religion at all (it is a religious stance even if it isn’t a religion per se). Now, where those boundaries get drawn isn’t particularly easy to decide, but I would argue that in a democracy in order to avoid it becoming a tyrrany of the minority we should lean towards accepting the will of the majority unless we have a clear imposition on a clear and defined right.

With the concept of rights and with institutions whose job it is to determine when the will of the majority is trumped by minority rights, we don’t need to limit how people decide what to vote for or how they try to convince others what to vote for.

Jaime: The rights of minorities are not “obvious” to all faiths. The right to religious conscience is a hard won right and its importance was learned through centuries of pointless religious wars. There could be (and, really, there are) people of faith who believe that a state imposed religion would save more souls and so is inherently justified. Should they vote that way? Or is their “faith-informed conscience” one we should oppose?

Robin: Well, I think those people are wrong. I don’t think faith that is coerced can be true faith.

Jaime: But that’s not the question, the question is can you tell them they’re not allowed to vote on such premises?

Stoic: We don’t. We look at the laws proposed and determine if they, in fact, create a society where we have a state imposed religion, or infringe too much on their religious freedom. In short, we do the rights analysis of each specific law and see if it violates a right of a minority. As an example, if most people don’t want to have to work on a Sunday because of their religious beliefs, and they institute a law making it so that stores, say, have to close on a Sunday to facilitate that — for example, to avoid religious people having to choose between working and making money or following their religion — that probably isn’t too great an imposition on those who are not religious and so could, in my opinion, survive a rights check. However, insisting that worship services can only be held on a Sunday certainly would be. This isn’t something that you can settle globally, but is instead something that must be settled case-by-case.

Jaime: No, your position that people should vote based on their faith is a slipperly slope that creates more theocrats who want to impose their religion through their law. If we made it an unthinkable proposition that one consult one’s religions when forming laws then we would be less likely to have people who go to that extreme.

Stoic: But this applies to any worldview, and the alternative seems to be to force people to not vote according to the values, beliefs, and desires they actually have. And if we do that, why have democracy at all? The only benefit to democracy is that the laws are determined based on the values, beliefs and desires that people actually have. Most people certainly aren’t qualified to determine if a law is rationally justified in all of the various areas that the government impacts, simply because we don’t have the expertise. We are not experts in law, economics, science, technology, morals and so on. We are, in fact, only experts on what we believe, what we value, and what we desire. If we are going to ask people to vote based not on what they are qualified to know better than anyone else, but what they clearly do not know better than relevant experts, why get people to vote at all? That does nothing more than ask people to make really important decisions based on what they themselves would have to admit they aren’t qualified to make decisions about.

Jaime: Why can’t I also appeal to people that it’s only fair that they reason in ways fair to everyone. Lots of religious people already think this, just like atheists like I do. So why can’t I go beyond just advocating for specific representatives and laws and argue further that faith should have no place in politics?

Stoic: Because if you single out religion or faith in this case you are saying that if your values are religious, your values are not worthy to be the basis of how people vote, and should not be part of the society, while allowing any non-religious view to, in fact, impact and influence society. So, then, non-religious people can try to shape society to the values they have, but religious people can’t. And that violates freedom of religion: if someone gets their values from religion, those values must be treated like the values of everyone else, and not expunged from the public entirely. Unless, of course, you extend it to all values and argue that no one should argue based on their actual values, religious or not. But in that case, you either have a set of defined values that are acceptable, which is as bad as imposing values through religions, or it seems there is no reason to have democracy at all as you eliminate, as I said, the only reason to have people vote, which is to try to influence society to have laws that reflect what they actually value.

Jaime: So, what if I were to argue that we should abolish religion.

Robin: Good luck with that!

Jaime: No, seriously, you wouldn’t object in principle to me making arguments like that?

Stoic: You can argue that, but you could never get that into law, because freedom of religion is a protected right in most of the societies you’d be talking about, and abolishing religion violates that right. Again, all we need are rights to protect minority positions, not a strong stance that you can’t propose laws that the minority might not like.

Jaime: I’m not talking about policing thoughts! I’m not talking about making it illegal to hold or express theocratic views. I’m arguing that we should informally, morally and in our political theory, strenuously try to discourage people from thinking in a faith-based way in politics because that kind of thinking would unravel democracy itself. The day you get an overwhelming number of people who base their legal reasoning on faith is the day they all vote to impose their religion on people in thousands of ways. Perhaps they would “democratically” vote to replace their democracy with a theocracy even! That’s the supremely tragic irony of how democracies often die–the people themselves vote in the tyrant who takes away their right to vote! To protect democracy we need to protect people’s commitments to the principle of democracy itself.

Robin: How are you protecting democracy itself when you say that the majority shouldn’t rule.

Jaime: If the majority votes to strip their own right to vote then that’s the majority surrendering its right to rule! And it’s surrendering future majorities’ rights to vote, on their behalf, in a way they have no say in! There are limits to what the majority can vote for consistent with the sustained existence of democracy or its ideal realization!

Stoic: You’re right that the majority voting in a tyrant would mean that you no longer have a democracy, but is it legitimate for a democracy to vote out a democracy? This, I think, is a tough question, but I think it certainly might be reasonable to allow that. But that’s neither here nor there, as this isn’t a problem that is necessarily religious, nor is it one that is limit to “faith” thinking, limited to religious faith. This is a risk in all democracies, as soon as enough people believe that their values should be imposed on others. Humanists, if they reached a critical mass, would impose their beliefs on people in thousands of ways themselves. And on people who sharply disagree with them. And, in some sense, in a democracy this is the way it should work. The society ought to reflect the values of the majority of the people in it, or else it’s not a democracy anymore. We just need to have mechanisms to protect minorities from excessive impositions. And the best mechanism we have so far is the concept of, at least, legal rights, enshrined in a Constitution that has solid procedures for updating and changing it that still protect minorities while ensuring that it doesn’t become stale. I don’t see anything in what you propose that could or should overturn that model, and it protects from religious impositions just as it protects from impositions by other groups that might happen to form a majority.

Jaime: I know you’re some kind of Christian–would you find that scenario amenable if you weren’t? Say you were a Muslim? Would you want to live in a country where the Catholic majority made rules according to the Catholic faith? Or say you were living in a predominantly Muslim country as a Christian, how would you feel if they imposed Islamic laws on you?

Stoic: It depends on the rules and laws. That the laws reflected the dominant culture wouldn’t, or at last shouldn’t, be an issue for me, and if it was I’d have to consider emigrating if I could. If the laws violated basic rights as defined in the Constitution, then I’d protest … but that, again, is using rights to protect minorities, and I agree that any democratic society needs that.

Jaime: Don’t you see how that signals to atheists that they’re unwelcome and favors religious beliefs over irreligious ones so that people think “that’s what a good citizen does, she prays”. It’s unfair.

Stoic: If you live in a society with a dominant culture, and you don’t fit it, you are going to feel at least somewhat out of place. That’s not unfair, but is just life. And one should expect that the cultural institutions will reflect the dominant culture except when you are dealing with subcultures. That’s not unfair as well. And you set up a situation where because someone who is not part of the dominant culture might feel “unwelcome”, the dominant culture are not allowed to publically act according to the dominant culture, which means that the cultural institutions may well reflect only what the minority culture thinks acceptable or reasonable, or even worse only reflects what the minority culture wants. In the prayer case, the atheist doesn’t want any prayers, while everyone else is. Under your rule, the atheists gets what they want, and the majority does. How is that fair?

Now, again, we settle this by appealing to rights. And you may have a case saying that opening public government meetings with a prayer might signal that atheists are an outsider class, and that would violate their right to freedom of religion. But, again, that’s a case-by-case basis, and the general principle I argue for is this: the laws and cultural institutions of a society should reflect the dominant culture except where doing so would violate the rights of the minority culture(s).

Jaime: I think it’s a false choice. In the long run both things are important; that they have the right policy and that they form it for the right reasons. Sure, pragmatically, I will take people reasoning from the wrong premises to the right policies if that’s the only way in the short term to get the right policies. But in the long term, training people to have better premises and reasoning processes will yield more right conclusions. Faith-based thinking will be hit and miss much more than rational thought when it comes to coming up with good conclusions. I would, over the long haul, try to show people the rational reasons to give to the poor. In the long run, demanding that people base their policies on the kinds of evidence and reason that are accessible to everyone protects people from idiosyncratic policies that stagnate us, regress us, or are otherwise counter-productive to stability or progress. The more that policies are not based on reason and evidence is the more likely they are to become untethered from reality and be harmful. Sure, some people’s faith-given values may be coincidentally right but faith is not a reliable value-forming mechanism that consistently enough yields good answers or ones that are fair for all. Since we’re all subject to the same laws, even minorities, we need laws to be based on reasons that could appeal to all of us, even minorities. And the only laws that can be justified to all of us, at least in principle, are those proven on grounds that are accessible to everyone. Appeals to reason and evidence transcend all faith traditions and irreligiousness. Even if one disagrees with the conclusions, at least it’s not a matter of “I have to follow this law because of someone else’s religion” but a matter of “I have to follow this because I got out-argued in the fair realm of reason that is common to all of us.”

Stoic: If you want properly rational policies, you don’t want a democracy. You want a Platonic Philosopher-King. A democracy is not about producing the most provably rational policies, but about producing the policies that best reflect the desires, beliefs and values of the actual people. Think about it: if you wanted maximially rational policies, you would want to have all the decisions being made by the experts on the field and people who were fully trained to the best standards of rationality possible. But while, say, scientists and philosophers will be trained (hopefully) to annoyance in critical thinking so as to be maximally rational, the guy who works at the convenience store won’t be. And won’t have the data to make the best decision anyway. Sure, everyone should get some training in critical thinking, but they simply won’t have the time to learn it all in the intense detail required to make maximially rational decisions, and won’t be able to take the time to simply gather up all the relevant data from all the relevant experts to ensure they know all they need to know to make a proper decision. So either you create a mechanism for producing tyrants who are so trained and whose job is to do nothing more than make those sorts of decisions and hope the power doesn’t go to your head, or you ask the people to decide based on what they are experts in — their own beliefs, desires and values — and hope you can give them enough information to make reasonable if not maximally rational decisions. Democracies do the latter, which is why it won’t ever be decided on the basis of being out-argued … noting that people won’t necessarily accept that anyway if they lose a vote, even if they happen to be wrong, because they themselves don’t have the time or training or information to make sure that they understand why what they propose is wrong.

Robin: So it’s not really pure democracy you’re interested in. The majority has to vote not for their actual will on their actual personal values but according only to what the minority could “in principle” find persuasive.

Jaime: I think that’s the only way to combat majoritarianism and to come up with substantively better solutions even for the religious–whose own faiths might go wrong for being so arbitrary.

Stoic: And if the minority is irrational? What then? Them finding it persuasive in principle if they were some kind of ideally rational agent doesn’t mean that they actually will find it persuasive, nor that the majority will also find it persuasive, and it is ridiculous to ask people to vote for policies that they are not persuaded are the right ones, and might even be persuaded are the wrong ones.

Robin: Fine, but I think I’m the truer democrat.

Jaime: Well on one definition of democrat, anyway; a majoritarian one. But I don’t think the best one.

Robin: It’s the most pragmatic one and the one that allows people to express their real thoughts and will the most.

Jaime: I would rather hold out for the ideal one that protects minorities (including religious ones) and that leads to substantively more rationally defensible outcomes.

Stoic: The system we have is the best we’ve seen so far for maintaining a democracy while protecting the minority: people vote based on their own values, and rights ensure that the minorities are not unduly imposed upon. If you want more rationally defensible outcomes from a democracy, all you can do is try to make people, in general, more rational … within the limits of people who have other things to do than to scrutinize the workings of governments and learn the details of many fields to properly evaluate each law or government policy. If you want better than that, put in a Philosopher-King.


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