Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is a Religious Discussion Even Possible?

I seem to recall that when I was in college religious and philosophical discussions were fairly common, especially after a few beers. But it has been a long time since I have had such a live discussion. Here are some thoughts on why it is difficult.

First of all, it seems like nowadays the subject matter of social talk is extremely limited. In fact I can summarize what is allowed in a single phrase: personal activities. You are allowed to describe things you have done, or things that people you know have done. But even this is limited to brief descriptions of each item, before it is required to change people, or at least change subjects. So basically it amounts to reportage, with no extended discussion, and certainly no argument or opposition. So no science, no philosophy, and, above all, no religion. I am allowed to mention that I am writing a book, and to say the title and give a sentence or two about the subject matter, but then the discussion must change.

Now I can imagine a situation in which some people might wish to have a religions discussion with me. But who would this be? It would be evangelical Christians who want to convert me. Now I wouldn't really mind having a discussion with them, but I think it is pretty unlikely that I would end up converting them instead. Perhaps in another post I'll discuss what I think it is that strengthens and preserves the faith of an extemist.

So is there any chance to have a religious discussion with a moderate? It seems like you need some excuse to bring up the subject. Even in a one-on-one context in which the social rules do not preclude such a discussion, most religious moderates are not really interested in a religious discussion. They would have to be drawn in somehow. But I have an idea. If I say that I have just finished writing a book, and the subject is god and space aliens, then that might actually sound interesting enough to discuss further. I have found that it doesn't work in groups, but I can imagine it working in a small group. Now of course I would have to find someone who isn't already an atheist, and who I'm not afraid of offending. This may be the null set.

So you can see why writing a book on this subject is a lot easier than actually getting to have a live discussion. I have, however written the book as though I were having such a discussion. The downside is that I have to provide both sides of the argument myself, and most likely I am not being fair to the other side.

Perhaps next time the jehovah's witnesses come to my door I should invite them in.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

What About the Other Recent Atheist Books

Three "atheist" books have recently attracted a lot of attention. These are by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. While all of these will appeal to atheists, none, I think, will much appeal to people of faith. The Hitchens book is filled with legitimate outrage, often humorous, but almost always cynical and negative. The fundamentalists of all religions already have answers to his facts, and the religious moderates will feel offended and compelled to try and fight back. No one is likely to contemplate their faith as a result of reading this book.

The Dawkins book I have not read, but from the reviews I have seen, it appears to be focused on disproving the existence of god, or at least on proving its improbability. This will never convert a theist, because the theist knows that god exists, and therefore knows that there must be flaws in all proofs to the contrary. This entire line of reasoning is as old as the hills, and, in my opinion is not one which is either necessary or useful.

The Dennett book is really of another sort altogether. It is not really an atheist book at all. It is actually an academic exploration of the roots and evolution of religion. It never comes right out and suggests that a person of faith might want to rethink this as a consequence of the insights in the book. So I don't think it really connects to anyone's personal belief system. Besides this, I think it is much too academic for most readers.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Do Sam Harris Books Convert Theists?

Sam Harris' books (The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation) are a pleasure to read, for an atheist (at least for me, anyway). The arguments are so clear and articulate, and he directs his attention to many of the really important issues. I am pretty sure that quite a few Christians have read his work or heard him speak, and yet very few of them were converted or otherwise persuaded by his discussion. I spend a lot of time pondering how this can be. I have a few ideas. Here is one of them. For most people their religion is intensely personal, and includes a core certainty that is not really subject to question. For them, religions arguments are simply side-stepped by a sense that their religion is not like that. The arguments are really about other people's religion.

Is there any solution to this problem? In many cases the core certainty is simply too strong, and comes with a community support system that helps prevent any serious doubts. It may be possible, however, to engage the derivative beliefs by engaging them one-on-one such that the discussion is personal, and, in so far as possible, non-confrontational. I have the idea that if someone takes the time to think about what their personal god is like and what (s)he actually does in the world, then people can be shown that there are mistakes in their specific view. If the belief system can be stripped away, then the core belief might become more fragile. If a person somehow agreed that god was irrelevant, but despite that, still existed, then is not such a person already an atheist in some sense?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is the Lab Just Another Kind of Church

Another way of saying this is to say that science is just a kind of god, and scientists worship their god in the same way that religious people worship theirs. So therefore, why should anyone trade in their (say) Christian god for the science god. They might as well become Hindus or Buddhists.

Of course there are some elements of truth in this argument. Non religious people do tend to have a certain respect and reverence for science and rational thought. It is in the nature of humanity to love the things that are important in your life. This does not imply that all of these things are equal in all respects.

So there are a few important differences between the church and the lab. One is that there is an implicit sign hanging over the door to the lab that says "thinking required", whereas the one over the church says "thinking discouraged". This is because there is a real danger that too much thinking may lead a person to question their faith. Of course we know that there is also dogmatism in the lab, and some kinds of thinking are allowed in the church. It is acceptable to study the ancient texts and ponder how they are to be properly interpreted in the modern world. Perhaps this difference is not as strong as it seems.

So let's move on the the real and important difference. Science has predictive power, and the church has none, at least so far as we know. Science can not only predict the future, but the predictions actually come true, reliably. Now most religious people will grant that science has this advantage, but this takes nothing away from their faith. In fact, as I have discussed previously, there is an assertion that faith does not require evidence. The faithful are actually proud of this. If religion had predictive power then that would certainly constitute evidence for god, and in the process it would spoil the purity of blind faith.

What is remarkable is that the faithful will still pray to god and ask that god cause some important future event to have a requested outcome. How can this be. If they really believe that god does nothing, then what is the point of praying. I can only imagine that somehow they believe that god can fulfill their prayers without being detectable by science. I believe that if they thought about this seriously, then surely their heads would explode. This is such an important thought process that I have devoted an entire chapter to it in my book.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Does Faith Require Evidence

As promised, I'll now start to address this very important assertion. If there is really no evidence, how do people get the idea that there is a god. As children many of us, including myself, were taught about god. We accepted this as fact because our parents, our friends, and most of the adults we knew all seemed to agree on this. We didn't yet wonder how it was that they knew. If later, as adults, we found out that no one had any real reason to believe in god beyond the fact that everyone else believed it, then I think that many people could not hold on to faith of this sort. Those who do could indeed be said to have faith without any evidence. But this is a weak sort of faith, and I am pretty sure that when someone says that faith does not require evidence, they have in mind a stronger sort of faith.

People with a fully committed religious faith usually will trace it to some personal experience. At the very least, this would be an experience reported by someone they trust. But more commonly it is their own personal experience that confers a certainty about the existence of god. So how is this not evidence? I think the claim is that because the experience is usually mental and not necessarily perceived by others, that it is supernatural and therefore not accessible as scientific evidence as we commonly understand it.

This is a false dichotomy, however. Even if you think that the experience involved god touching your soul, and that the soul is not part of your physical body, there is evidently some connection with your body, because you are able to move your physical mouth and talk about the experience. Even though perhaps "words cannot express" the wonder of the experience, none the less, anything you do say can be used as evidence. Since many people have this sort of experience science can, and in fact does, investigate them. It could turn out that they really are evidence for god, but either way, they do deserve an explanation.

In later posts I'll have more to say about what these experiences probably are. But for now the bottom line is that faith actually does require evidence. It doesn't require actual miracles, or the physical appearance of god, but it is based on experience, and that experience constitutes evidence.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Us Versus Them

If I say I am an agnostic, that is an invitation to ignore me. This is socially acceptable, and is not perceived as a challenge. If I say I am an atheist, that is an invitation to battle. It is us versus them. Thinking stops and the big guns come out. They shoot the standard talking points which somehow always seem to miss their target. The result is always stalemate. I think that this is the greatest single barrier to changing ones beliefs -- the idea that there are sides and that the other side is simply close-minded and wrong.

One suggestion has been to use some different word than atheism, or perhaps no word at all. So far no good alternative word or phrase has been proposed, but perhaps the idea of just starting a discussion without a declaration of sides does have some merit. In my book I have chosen, for now, to use the word minimally, but to try to soften its definition. Under my definition an atheist may be open to evidence for the existence of god. The difference is that, when presented with the evidence, the atheist goes to the lab, not to church. Now this position too already has talking points ready to fire against it. First, they will say, faith does not require evidence, and second, the lab is just another kind of church, so it is your church versus our church.

Fortunately, I think that a useful discussion can be had without fighting over these points. Eventually, though, they do need to be answered, and I think there are good answers for both of them, which I'll address in future posts.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What This Blog Is About

I intend this blog to be a rather tightly focused discussion of the following observation: despite the recent appearance of several interesting and articulate anti-god books, the number of religious people may be growing rather than shrinking. I believe that people are reading these books and attending lectures, and yet their faith remains unchanged. It is a challenge to understand this, but I do think I understand some of the reasons. One among many of the possible reasons is that the books so far have not properly engaged the thought processes needed to affect people's belief systems. I have some ideas on a different approach to atheism, and I have written these down in a short book entitled "If God Were a Space Alien: A Different Kind of Atheism". The book is online and free. You can find it here: If God Were a Space Alien. I really don't know whether this has any better chance than Harris, or Dawkins or Hitchens. But I am convinced that organized religion is a real and present danger in the world today, and I feel an obligation to do whatever I can to help address this problem. So this book, and this blog are my contribution to the effort. In subsequent posts, I intend to write down my thoughts regarding the tenacity of faith and what, if anything, can be done to release its grip.