Honesty vs. false respect
Posted: 14 December 2006 01:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
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This was originally posted on richarddawkins.net
Pardon my lousy english..

No rational person can deny that religious extremism is dangerous without giving up intellectual honesty. Absolutely [i:d8de7cc5ae]nothing [/i:d8de7cc5ae]is so immoral, barbaric, intolerant or unjust that a false conviction of sufficient strength cannot make it right in the minds of the faithful. It should be obvious to everybody that if faith can make you think something is absolutely and unquestionably right, it can also make you [i:d8de7cc5ae]act[/i:d8de7cc5ae] according to this conviction, wheter it [i:d8de7cc5ae]is[/i:d8de7cc5ae] in fact right or not. The main evil that we have to fight is therefore above all [i:d8de7cc5ae]false certainties[/i:d8de7cc5ae].

There is a snag however: What we atheists call "false certainties" is more or less synonymous with what most people call "faith". Faith is just another word for "belief in the absence of evidence" or "belief for the [i:d8de7cc5ae]wrong reasons[/i:d8de7cc5ae]". The [i:d8de7cc5ae]same kind of wrong reasons[/i:d8de7cc5ae] that motivates some believers to dedicate their life to helping the poor, motivates others to fly planes into buildings or blow themselves up on a bus. Let me therefore make the following changes to the last sentence of the former paragraph: "The main evil that we have to fight is above all [i:d8de7cc5ae]faith[/i:d8de7cc5ae]".

Now even among many secularist there is a remarkable unwillingness to recognize this simple fact, or to even call the problem by its right name, since we have been brought up to think that "faith" is something that should automatically be respected.  And in this context "respect" simply means "immunity from criticism".  Some of us are no longer willing to grant religion any such special treatment. To religious moderates and secularists who - as Dan Dennet puts it - believe in belief ("I’m an atheist, [i:d8de7cc5ae]but[/i:d8de7cc5ae]..."), this makes us no better than the fundamentalists.  The problem according to them is not faith itself but only extremism, which they take to include both the religious fundamentalists and us. What they are suggesting however is little more than a perpetuation of the approach that has [i:d8de7cc5ae]already failed[/i:d8de7cc5ae], namely keeping the conflict under the table and essentially doing nothing.

The "Churchill" school of atheists sees things [i:d8de7cc5ae]very differently[/i:d8de7cc5ae]: The conflict between faith and reason is real whether we are willing to admit it or not. This conflict is in no way limited to specific issues like evolution or stem cell researc, not even the (non) existence of God or the supernatural, but more generally: [i:d8de7cc5ae]why we believe things[/i:d8de7cc5ae] in the first place. I see the damage inflicted on science by creationists etc. as little more than random side-effects or symptoms. The real "disase" in my view is [i:d8de7cc5ae]believing things for the wrong reasons[/i:d8de7cc5ae]. What the compatibilists are in fact saying is: "Just [i:d8de7cc5ae]keep the wrong reasons[/i:d8de7cc5ae] as long as it doesn’t have any undesirable side-effects."

What we are advocating is not [i:d8de7cc5ae]discrimination[/i:d8de7cc5ae] against religious believers, but only that religious ideas should not be immune to the kind of criticism that [i:d8de7cc5ae]would be a matter of course[/i:d8de7cc5ae] if they were [i:d8de7cc5ae]not [/i:d8de7cc5ae]religious. Just imagine for a second the public scandal and moral outrage if an [i:d8de7cc5ae]atheist[/i:d8de7cc5ae] such as Dawkins or Sam Harris had promoted anything even remotely like this - without resorting to faith as an alibi - and you get an idea about the kind of reaction we [i:d8de7cc5ae]should[/i:d8de7cc5ae] be seing against religion:
http://www.richarddawkins.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=1248&highlight=#1248

To quote Sam Harris:

[quote:d8de7cc5ae]This idea, that we respect other people’s beliefs is a myth. We [i:d8de7cc5ae]do not [/i:d8de7cc5ae]respect other peoples belifes in any other area of human discourse, [color=red:d8de7cc5ae]we evaluate their reasons for what they believe[/color:d8de7cc5ae] [...] but on the subject of religion we have introduced a fundamental double standard.[/quote:d8de7cc5ae]

While i could not agree more with the above quote, i would like to add that this politically correct flattery of religious people is not just dishonest but actually - at least in my opinion - [i:d8de7cc5ae]disrespectful[/i:d8de7cc5ae]. You show people respect by taking them seriously and treating them as grown up, rational and responsible individuals. The only way to do that is to correct them if they are being unreasonable, without pussyfooting around the issues, and [i:d8de7cc5ae]expect[/i:d8de7cc5ae] them to react rationally and correct their behaviour. Telling people only what they [i:d8de7cc5ae]want[/i:d8de7cc5ae] to hear is to show a lack of respect, because it assumes that they are not rational and mature enough to deal with the truth. This may of course be true of many believers, but that is irrelevant as far as [i:d8de7cc5ae]respect[/i:d8de7cc5ae] is concerned.

While i normally admire and respect the "nice guys" of skepticism, such as Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan, i do think they are/were too often guilty of granting true believers a kind of victim status that i find truly infantilizing. Shermer may have a legitimate point in that we are not going to start a constructive dialogue by telling people their most cherished beliefs are nonsense. Still i think Dawkins and Harris have an even stronger point in that the false respect and immunity from criticism granted to religion poses a greater obstacle to solving the deeper problems. I take the many hostile reactions to Dawkins’ and Harris’ books as a sign that they have hit a nerve, i sure hope so…

Now, i used to lean rather strongly toward the "nice" end of the spectrum myself. What ultimately turned me over to the "angry" side was in fact reading the Bible. Since then, i am no longer willing to apologize for anyone who gives legitimacy to this book. Yes, as matter of fact i [i:d8de7cc5ae]do[/i:d8de7cc5ae] blame them and i am [i:d8de7cc5ae]never[/i:d8de7cc5ae] going to stop blaming them until they utterly reject its morals. I think what they are doing is [i:d8de7cc5ae]wrong[/i:d8de7cc5ae] and they are [i:d8de7cc5ae]without any excuse[/i:d8de7cc5ae] for doing so. It may not be politically correct to say this, but that is the truth. If this makes me arrogant and dogmatic, then so be it.

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Posted: 14 December 2006 03:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Hi Sam and thanks for your thoughts. Well put. My own feeling is that the freethought community generally has room for all sorts of voices, and that some rhetorical tactics are good for some events and others for others.

Harris and Dawkins are crucial players in this and we owe them many, many thanks for rallying the atheist community, for putting the issues of religious belief and faith on the public stage, and for giving backbone to those who would critique such lunacies and irrationalities. Most of all, I think, by staking out what seemed to many an “extremist” position, in one move they expanded the middle ground to other atheistic opinions. We should not forget that in his time Carl Sagan was seen as extremist simply for his gentle questioning of religion. Now many embrace him for his “moderate” approach, simply by contrast with the new “extremism” of Dawkins and Harris.

Now, in one sense I don’t see Dawkins and Harris as extremist at all: their attacks on faith, on biblical literalism, on the cognitive aspects of religious belief are all absolutely correct. And frankly, I can’t see that Sagan or even Shermer (a less careful thinker than any of the aforementioned) would actually disagree with a single jot of what they wrote. So in that sense how can they be “extremist”?

Well, it’s due to their rhetoric, which at times appears intemperate to some. While I don’t disagree with it in their books, my reactions to the recent Beyond Belief conference (elsewhere on this site) should make clear that I don’t believe they did themselves a lot of good by their intransigency there. It is one thing to take issue with the cognitive aspects of religious belief, and quite another entirely to claim that cognitive aspects are the only important ones, or that they trump all the others. That’s clearly not the case. And if we really wish to rid the world of pernicious religious beliefs and practices, we will have to come to terms with religion’s non-cognitive aspects as well.

I would also definitely suggest you read the new book out by Carl Sagan, his 1985 lectures on religion and science titled The Varieties of Scientific Experience. They are really quite wonderful, and include many very well argued attacks on conventional religion.

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Posted: 17 December 2006 11:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thanks for your very wise comments.
I don’t think we disagree at all, but just to comment on some of the most common objections that i get from others:

The point i am trying to make is not that some people who happen to be religious also do terrible things, and therefore religion is a bad thing. That would be a complete non-sequitur, but it is also a complete strawman.

Whether people who do bad things happen to be religious or not is irrelevant, unless their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) is what motivates them to do bad things. I am not saying that religion is the only thing that motivates people to do bad things, neither am i claiming that religion always motivates people to do bad things. However, i have no doubt that believing in certain religious doctrines dramatically increases the likelyhood of commiting certain attrocities and i think that in itself imakes religion dangerous. If your faith tells you that something is the will of God and the highest of all ideals, that is a very strong motivation to act. If you read what the Bible actually sais, and not just cherrypick for the nice parts, it is obvious that, as Sam Harris puts it:

God has given us far many more reasons to kill one another than to turn the other cheek.

Religious moderates and some non-religious “believers in belief” tend to systematically downplay the role of religion in motivating violence, intolerance, antiscience etc. According to them it is more or less by accident that islamic suicide bombers happen to believe in the doctrines of jihad and martyrdom (contrary to what the suicide bombers themselves are in fact saying). The same goes for the practice of stoning, hating homosexuals, letting your children die rather than allowing any medical treatment etc. In each case we are lead to believe that these people have some hidden secular motive for their actions that just happens to correspond exactly to the doctrines of their religions.

Others are willing to admit that literal belief in the doctines of jihad, martydom, the mosaic and sharia laws, original sin, the apocalypse, hell, the sinfulness of medicine or contraceptions etc. may be problematic, but fail to recognize what i take to be the greater evil, namely the acceptance of bad reasons to believe. Prof. Dawkins has dealt very eloquently with three of them - tradition, authority and revelation:
 
I suppose one might add “intuition” (if taken to mean something like a “gut feeling” or “hunch” etc.), wishful thinking and other such flawed reasons. In short: anything that can lead you to accept something as true even if it is not, because that will also lead someone to accept doctrines that will in turn motivate them to do bad things.

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Posted: 18 December 2006 01:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Hello Sam, I also don’t think we are in disagreement here. I do agree with you that there are some non-religious “believers in belief” who downplay the role of religion in motivating violence, etc. Some people are conservative in this way: they want to preserve things that exist simply to preserve them. So they want to preserve religious belief simply because it exists.

But there are also more careful thinkers (here I am thinking of some of the commentary in the Beyond Belief conference) who are pushing simply for a more nuanced approach to religion. That is, they point out that we must take account of (1) the fact that religion isn’t always bad, that (2) non religious people may also be bad, and that (3) people don’t always believe in religious dogma for rational—or even cognitive—reasons.

It is #3 that is, I think, the most salient point to begin with. Many (most?) people don’t accept their religion because of an argument; they accept it because of the social role it plays in the life of their community, or because of the psychological role it plays in their lives, or for other reasons that are hard to pin down. As Atran says, many actual religious creeds are entirely non-rational in character.

So if most people don’t accept their religious beliefs on rational grounds, it isn’t at all clear that they will discard them given rational argument. Indeed, psychological research shows that people rarely accept anything based on rational argument. We can lament this fact, but it is a fact. Consumer marketing, to take the most potent example, does not use rational methods.

If we want to reduce the number of believers, it is almost certainly the case that focusing on arguments and irrationalities will have relatively little effect overall. Instead we need to have a scientific understanding of why and how people believe in religions, and that needs to be followed up by a scientific understanding of how people cease to believe in religions. Needless to say, neither Dawkins nor Harris has provided anything of the sort. But others must, if we are to be successful.

The last point is that if (as #1, #2) the problem isn’t entirely religious, but rather has to do more with certain pernicious dogmas (as Harris himself admitted in the conference), we really ought to focus as well on the general issue of dogmatism rather than religion per se: communism was a particularly pernicious non-religious dogma, as was fascism; the Tamil Tigers have suicide bombers, but are not particularly religious. Etc.

Lots of stuff that deserves further study.

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Posted: 18 December 2006 03:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]...we must take account of (1) the fact that religion isn’t always bad, that (2) non religious people may also be bad, and that (3) people don’t always believe in religious dogma for rational—or even cognitive—reasons.

As far as your point (1) is concerned, this is of course a matter of opinion, but personally i am inclined to think that faith (as defined above) is never a good thing, even if it may have some desirable side-effects. If you could have a religion that did not require faith - i guess budhism could be practiced in that way - i would probably be far less hostile, but then again much of budhism has more to do with philosophy than “religion” - at least as i understand the term.

Your point (2) is obviously true, but i fail to see how this counts against anti-religiosity. It does not become less true that religion causes a lot of evil just because there are other causes as well. Of course we also need to look critically at the role of politics, ethnic conflicts etc. (as if anybody had denied that…), but not just that. I think a major difference here is that we don’t have the same cultural pressure to respect people’s views about politics and race etc. If you change the subject to religion however, people have a hard time admitting that there is any problem at all. This has got to change. I think simply getting the conflict out in the open may be the most important thing we can do at this point.

I think your point (3) is a correct observation. In fact i don’t think there are any rational reasons to believe in God at all, there are really only excuses to believe. I fully agree that we need a better understanding of how/why people believe and cease to believe in religion, which is actually the very first point on the RDF’s mission-statement:

1. Research. We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason. What is it about human psychology that predisposes people to find astrology more appealing than astronomy? At what age are young people most vulnerable to unreason? What are the correlations between religiosity and superstition on the one hand, and intelligence, educational level, type of education etc. on the other? Research of this kind would be supported in the form of grants to universities in America and Britain or wherever the best research can be done.
 

Richard Dawkins is advocating conciousness-raising on the subject, while Sam Harris has advocated making religious irrationality seem silly through conversational intolerance. I think both are valid points, although i fully agree (as do they) that the problem needs to be adressed from many different angles at once.

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Posted: 18 December 2006 03:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“Sam”]Richard Dawkins is advocating conciousness-raising on the subject, while Sam Harris has advocated making religious irrationality seem silly through conversational intolerance. I think both are valid points, although i fully agree (as do they) that the problem needs to be adressed from many different angles at once.

Yes, this is really the substance of what I’m saying, above. I don’t mean to dismiss either Dawkins or Harris. Consciousness-raising is a good thing, and opening up a space in public discourse to dismiss faith-talk is good as well. However that is clearly only part of the issue. We need other angles as well. (Like the anthropological understanding of religion fostered by people like Scott Atran).

The problem with faith is not that it always leads to bad outcomes, or that it never leads to good ones. Sometimes people do ethical things based on faith. The problem with it is that it is a bad method for solving problems generally; it is a bad method for coming to true beliefs generally; and because it leads to intransigence and dogmatism. Harris has been very eloquent in pointing out the ways that faith-based dogmatism in religion can be harmful.

As for the issue of non-religious people doing bad things, I don’t mean to claim that this “counts against anti-religiosity”. It doesn’t. We can be against religious beliefs generally, and very much against certain of them, and yet still be non-dogmatic enough to note that some non-religious beliefs also can be unethical, wrong or poorly supported by the evidence.

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Posted: 18 December 2006 05:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Hi All,
Certainly we need many different strategies to fight the dominance of religion and superstitious thinking. Here’s another idea.
I believe that the primary problem is not religion per se so much as “faith,” as defined above. The habits of thought that make it seem reasonable, even morally superior, to believe something without evidence or even despite contrary evidence are really the source of the problems that stem from most religions. The absence of such faith is what makes certain kinds of Buddhism more palatal even to anti-religious “hawks” like Sam Harris.
I wonder, then, about the idea of challenging religious thinking without always directly challenging the ostensible points of dogma, such as the existence and nature of God, which religious people are unlikley to be willing to view from a rational or skeptical perspective no matter what we say about them. It seems to me that the growth of secularism in the U.S. and, especially in Europe, has followed the Enlightenment even though religious thinking was dominent during that historical period and even among many of the leading intellectual figures of the movement. Could this be because the scientific/empirical/rationalist/materialist ways of thinking have become widespread in these cultures in all spheres outside of religion, even among the religious? In other words, once we establish in people the tendency to think rationally about the world through science education, the debunking of paranormal belief systems not widely held, and pointing out the utility of such a world view in improving daily life for people, then
it becomes more difficult for people to cling so tenaciously to superstitions and easier to gently point out the similarities between something most believers routinely dimiss as superstitious nonsense (UFOs, astology, etc) and their own mythologies. Sure, people are magnificent at doublethink and double standards, but leading them gently to skepticism by first targeting general ways of thinking and reasoning in less emotional and controversial areas may be useful.
This strategy doesn’t generate the organized backlash that direct confrontation elicits, and seems to have had some success is other political/social issues (the gradual extension of more civil rights from groups close to the dominant majority (e.g. white women) outward to people of color, the diabled, homosexuals, etc). I think part of the reason it’s easier to find “moderates” in the West than in the MIddle East is the widespread acceptance of science and empiricism applied to problem solving in ordinary, daily living which then makes the extension of these ways of thinking into more metaphysical areas easier. As Ibn Wariq has often said, a tradition of textual criticism and scholarship exists in Christianity but not in Islam and this makes questioning the literal, fundamentalist interpretations of scripture much easier (and safer). Any thoughts?

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