Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How about seventy two relatively sexually inexperienced people?

Been reading and thinking - and this will alarm some of you - about religious belief and faith and stuff. And just to cause more alarm, this comes after reading something our new Prime Minister wrote about the subject a few years back.

First off, I should point out that I have been thinking about this subject in isolation for a while, and like all people who sit alone and think obsessively about a limited range of topics, I've probably gone a little crazy. Some of this, I suspect, may not make a lot of sense to anyone else, whereas to me it has All Become Perfectly Clear. But anyway, here goes.

I don't talk to my friends about religion. I seem unable to do it with any degree of success, the times I have tried the discussions have either wound down blind alleys which are of little interest to either of us, or turned into mutually distressing arguments, or stalemated into mutual incomprehension. And by sheer weight of numbers, it can't be them who is consistently daft about the whole thing, it's probably me.

I think some of the problem comes down to meanings of words. To my friends, religion means some sort of active believing in the supernatural, whereas when I don't mean that. I don't know that anything supernatural has ever occured to me in my life.

To some of my other friends, being a Christian means hoping and wishing and believing that there is a God watching over you who is going to somehow bend the rules for you - cure your medical problems, for example, when He lets others suffer, or change the lights to green so I can be on time to a meeting that maybe I should have left earlier for. I don't believe in that, either.

Some others suspect it's powered by the Afterlife, the whole promise of seventy two virgins . To be honest, I'm not that good at the whole delayed gratification thing at the best of times, and anyway, the way I was taught, that stuff's all theologically iffy anyway. Plus, and nothing personal to any virgin readers, being a virgin doesn't mean things are going to work out between us, or make us mutually interesting or anything.

You know, there's a great story waiting to be written there. Some guy wakes up in the afterlife and there's the seventy two virgins, and things encomplicate. Something this guy could write about.

Just to confuse my friends, when I'm talking about religion I mean a couple of different things, too. The one I talk about least is the most real, the most important, the core thing. I've written about this in this blog occasionally, I suspect it's deeply boring to anyone who hasn't experienced it, and it's something I have no faith in my ability to put into words.

The meaning of religion I've been thinking about most recently is more a cognitive thing. I have been thinking of it as a sort of mental cookie-cutter, a way of thinking we are all born with - some to a greater or lesser extent, but something we've all got. I call it a cookie cutter because it carves up the otherwaise inchoate and unknowable and mercurial universe into handleable, useful shapes, makes it something we can use. This cookie cutter is something evolution put there because it works, because it's a successful method of dealing with stuff. A "way of thinking about things" - lots of things, not necessarily or even most often supernatural things - that you start seeing in a lot of places once you know where to look.

This actually gets quite interesting once you look at it.

Okay. There are certain things a "way of thinking about things" has to have to get called religious. There have to be a division of the world into the Saved and the Damned. There has to be a belief in prophets, in some sort of Received Wisdom. There has to be a vision of Paradise and therefore of Hell, there has to be a Gospel and an urge to spread it, and following on from that a desire to convert the masses, persecute heretics and especially apostates and so on.

Now, this is all pretty obvious, but the weird thing is where you see it. One of my best friends - and one of the smarter people I know - has read Richard Dawkin's latest book, the God Delusion, which is about pretty much what the title says. In terms of a belief in the supernatural, a hope that God will change the traffic light colours for him or an envisioned rendezvous with the seventy two virgins, Dawkins is a deeply and openly non-religious man.

But in the sense I have just outlined above, he is profoundly religious. He's a True Believer.

This friend of mine says that if atheism is a religion then not playing chess is a hobby. To me, that sounds more like a bumper sticker than a hypothesis, and it doesn't apply to Dawkins. If you don't play chess you... just don't play chess. You don't write a bloody great book on it, appear on television denouncing those who do play chess, equate parents who teach their children the Sicilian Opening with child abusers, and dedicate a large proportion of your time that could otherwise be spent writing excellent books on areas you know a lot about to trying to stop people playing chess, denouncing the unbelievers and prophesying the Hell that will follow if your exhortations fall on the deaf ears of this thankless generation and the paradise that awaits the Elect who throw away their chessboards and be free.

This may sound like rhetorical points, but I believe that there is a deeper truth behind them. Dawkins, for example - and he wrote two or three of the best science books of the last twenty five years - is like the rest of us: a man with a religious cookie cutter in his head, a man given to thinking in religious terms. I remember reading The Selfish Gene - and if you haven't, go now and do so, I'll wait here - and being stunned at how this one man had taken the whole popular understanding of evolutionary theory and rotated it ninety degrees, so you could see how it made sense that way too, what a truly great idea Darwinian evolution was too.

And then, perhaps troubled by what he could see would be done with the idea, on the last page he wrote "We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators".

I read that and thought "Thank God" and then later on, a couple on months later, driving down the hill to the ED, I remember thinking "well, I don't see a lot of evidence of that happening", and a few months later I realised the reasons for that.

I don't see any evidence for that because there isn't any. It's not an evidence-based statement. It's a faith statement, one that arises de novo in your head, a function of your conceptual tools and emotional needs, put there by evolution because believers like Dawkins and me fought harder and fucked faster than our more skeptical neighbours. Dawkins has a faith in human nature or the human capacity to rebel or whatever where other people have a faith in the seventy two virgins.

Another example of religious thought in Dawkins' writing is his moral absolutism. To Dawkins, religion is bad ab initio. No matter what comes out of someone's religious (in the traditional sense of the term) beliefs - feeding the poor, visiting those in prison, that kind of thing - to Dawkins, those beliefs are still crap. None of this "by their fruits shall ye know them" stuff, it's all bad because... it's all bad. Religion is brainwashing. Religion is stupidifying. Religion is child abuse.

Now these are pretty strong terms, and to a certain extent obviously he's chosen them to shock, but the thing that struck me when I heard them was their familiarity. We've all heard this kind of stuff from religious people before.

Examples from my own inglorious past. When I was an atheist, religious believers were morons and butchers. When I became a fundamentalist Christian, pretty much everyone other than the Few - the men and women beside you on the bus, the Catholics, the Jews, the North Melbourne Football Club - all were destined for the Hell they so richly deserved. When I became a (comparatively) radical socialist, advocating separatism for women and justifying the overthrow of the state by any means that didn't actually involve me doing anything more than talking, Capital and those who had it were bathed in the blood of the workers. If I'd been into Amway, I would have thought Omegatrend was Satan's child.

Anyway, I could go on about this and I know I have a tendency to do so, but I'll stop now. This was less somethign I wanted to get out there for public consumption than something I wanted to put into some kind of order in my head, some thoughts I wanted organised. And I'm not trying to defend stuff, I'm not saying "my way is the right way" or "religion makes people better" or even "hey, seventy two virgins. That's seventy two!". I'm just trying to explain something I feel. Thank you for indulging me, and apologies to anyone I've offended - it was inadvertent.

Anyhow. I have much to write about besides this - patients and psychiatry and Sarah and so on - and this weekend I will. And I'm not going to post anything more until I've replied to comments, this weekend.

Thanks for this,


Blogger Foilwoman said...

Dr. John(O, God of My Idolatry): I think that most atheists are like people who don't play chess. They aren't wired that way and they don't care. My parents are like that: they don't believe in a god, and don't understand why people need to believe in a god.

Dawkins is more like many agnostics I know (kinda like me, except I don't think religion is child abuse): just like the ultra-orthodox, he thinks about the absence of god, the lack of a god, in an almost Talmudic debate kind of way. It's not a given, it's a dialectic. My doubt about the divine runs the same way.

So I think I agree with your premise that most people are just wired that way . . . , but maybe not. Maybe those who just aren't, don't worry about this. They pursue the perfect truffle, or paint, or have a lot of sex (with 72 non-virgins, for darn sure) and wonder why the rest of us spend so much time thinking about something totally imaginary. They're like people who have friends who are into Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft, and they don't get why their friends spend a lot of time with these weird pursuits.

Anyway, I could debate the importance or the existence of an actually old-guy-or-gal-in-the-sky-divinity forever, but really, I believe in the Divine. I believe in you and your writing, for instance.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Foilwoman asked me to throw in my two cents, so here it is. :-)

I completely agree with you on this thing you call the cookie cutter. I think you confuse the issue, however, when you call that a religion. Religion is really a subset of "cookie cutters," specifically that subset which contains beliefs in god(s.) Some flavors of evangelistic atheism are also cookie cutters, but they do not overlap with religion, in that they don't contain a belief in god(s.) Marxism, Objectivism, being a rabid Red Sox fan, etc. -- all of these can be cookie cutters.

The question of whether most atheists are like Dawkins or just don't really think or talk about the issue much is an interesting one. Obviously, people like Dawkins are the ones you're more likely to hear of, so the only way to find out is to take some sort of survey. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that people are born into societies in which theism or atheism is the de facto standard, so if you're an atheist in a theistic society, you're necessarily an activist in at least some small degree.

The data that we do have show much larger numbers of people who are "not religious" than are "atheists," although it's not clear what percent of the "not religious" group believes in god(s.) Even the word "atheist" carries connotations in America that people might not identify with even if they meet the definition. You'd have to find a survey which explicitly asks people whether they believe in god(s) to know for sure.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

I do think Dawkins' is a bit combative, but it got him the publicity he wanted...

I wish religion were irrelevant, but there are too many God Fearing Fundamentalists out there! For example - why persecute groups? (At about 3 minutes, is someone really holding up a sign stating 'Thank God for 9/11'. Sounds more like us versus them to me, any wonder Richard Dawkins' is combatative?

For a more rational arguement - have a look at I especially like an early episode about why is religion needed to be a "moral" person...

and here are some other episodes on religion and faith from a skeptical eye

2) Religion as a Moral Center (Skeptoid #02) - Is religion necessary to a good moral center?
10) An Evolution Primer for Creationists (Skeptoid #10) - Evolution 101 for Creationists who want to know better.
12) Killing Faith: Deconstructionist Christians (Skeptoid #12) - Is proving the Bible really doing the work of God?
43) A Mormon History of the Americas (Skeptoid #43) - Can the history of the American continent as presented in the Book of Mormon be true?
48) The Bible Code: Enigmas for Dummies (Skeptoid #48) - Do messages hidden within the Bible really predict the future?
59) Who Are the Raelians, and Why Are They Naked? (Skeptoid #59) - The Raelians are naked and they worship space aliens.
65) How to Argue with a Creationist (Skeptoid #65) - Learn the basic arguments against science made by creationists, and how to rebut them.
66) The Greatest Secret of Nostradamus (Skeptoid #66) - How much of the pop-culture information about Nostradamus is true?
76) Who Kills More, Religion or Atheism? (Skeptoid #76) - Has religion or atheism been responsible for the greater death toll throughout human history?

10:12 PM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

10:35 PM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

Hail FW,
I think you're right - one thing I didn't write clearly enough was I consider Dawkins a very unusual atheist. This makes sense, he's an unusual man, a brilliant thinker, and he's married to someone who played a TimeLord from Doctor Who back in the seventies, which gives him even more credit in my book. For most athieists I know religious belief itself is faintly baffling, and the next guy's belief is just that - the next guy's belief.


7:34 AM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

Dear Jewsih Atheists,
Thanks for that. It's actually a bit of a buzz to get a comment from you.
Anyway, I think I may have been muddying the water when I chose the term "religion" for the "cookie cutter" people like me and Dawkins have in our head. While there are parallels, and I chose the word deliberately, to make a point, it doesn't exacly fit. The commonsense meaning of the word religion is not the sense in which I used it, so you have to question whether I was writing to be clear or not. The common sense meaning of the word religion does contain gods, so by that test Dawkins is not religious, although he may be, as you said, evangelistic - which, oddly, is to me a much more religious term.


7:39 AM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

Hail Bene,
Hoep the New Socialist Dawn finds you well - and I do remember having a precursor to this conversation a while back when you and your kids (children) visited us and ours (goats).

As to the whole "I'm moraller than you", I don't know that it's an intrinsically Christian claim. I don't make it. I can't remember hearing any Christian make it. I did a quick large scale double blind randomised controlled trial where I guessed at the religious beliefs of the first five Good People that came into my head, and this proved that one was a fundamentalist Christian, two were fervently uncommitted on the issue, and two were overt atheists*.

This obviously reflects my friendships more than it does any corellation between moralitude and religiousity.

Having said that, I just worked out that most of the people I know (see previous comments) who make a claim for their belief system's moral superiority are not Christians, but evangelical atheists. You have to search far and wide for a Protestant who claims religious superiority because of the Rape of Magdeburg or a Catholic who bases his/her intrinsic moral superiority on the situation in Ireland, but how far into a discussion with an Evangelical Atheist** do you have to go before they mention the Crusades?

Maybe this belief in intrinsic moral superiority is an evangelical thing. Maybe it's something "your lot" and "my lot" do. Maybe which particular religion people are born/raised/converted into doesn't really cjhange them as a person. Maybe (cue violins) maybe we're all more similar than we want think we are.

*One was disqualified for being a West Coast Eagles supporter, but apparently that's only a venial sin nowadays, and is openly practiced in the streets. I take this as a sign of the Last Days.

** God, I love that term.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

Re: Evangelical* Athiests (your capitalisation not mine)

I prefer the term "Secular Belief".

Secular- (Oxford def.) adj. 1. not spiritual nor sacred 2. (of education) not concerned with religion nor religious belief, adj worldly, terrestrial, mundane, temporal
Belie - (Oxford def.) 1. give a false notion of. 2. fail to fulfill or justify, (1) see Misrepresent


* Evangelical subsumed a modicum of faith, if faith is cynicism then I have an abundance else I have naught

11:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home