Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thinks-giving

Here's something to think about while you're processing all that L-Tryptophan in front of the TV.

Yesterday Matthew Yglesias noted that another blogger had made the case that the very fact that people everywhere believe in a religion is evidence that it's true. As this person said (quoting from Yglesias' piece):
... As soon as homo sapiens developed consciousness, we became conscious of (what seems to be) a numinous reality interwoven with our own; it's just possible, surely, that we started experiencing the numinous because it happens to be real...

OK, that's a pretty good case. We believe in God because He exists.

Ah, but Matt knows exactly where the hole in that argument is. And he hits it pretty hard.
The trouble, I think, is that one thing just about everyone should be prepared to agree about is that most peoples' religious beliefs are false. As you can see in the handy chart I stole from this site, there's just too much diversity in religious belief. Whatever the right thing to believe is, most people don't believe it. At best, you can combine the Christian and Muslim blocks (and the trivial number of Jews) to form a very slight majority in form of some form of monotheism. Even here, though, the folk practices of many Catholics (and unless I'm mistaken, Orthodox Christians and Shiite Muslims as well) has strong polytheistic elements. It's only a kind of rhetorical overreach on the part of atheists -- pitting "religion" versus "not religion" as the key disagreement -- that creates the appearance of a large majority in favor of "religion." On The Uncontroversial Subject of Religion...

Ah, yes, and don't forget, all of them believe they're the one who's got it right. It's not like they're looking at the same thing from a different angle -- you saw what Pat Robertson said. Everybody else's gods are just demons.

Yglesias had more:
There's clearly a significant human predilection for not-supported-by-science beliefs of various sorts -- in the existence of a god or gods, astrology, fortune-telling, alien visits to earth, the healing power of crystals, etc. -- but there's no particular convergence of these beliefs on anything in particular. Meanwhile, on many of the particular question you might ask about religious subjects, atheists are going to be in the majority. Like most people on earth, atheists don't believe that Jesus Christ died for man's sins. Similarly, just like most people, atheists don't believe that Muhammed was Allah's greatest prophet or that the Hidden Imam will return. And, again, like most people atheists don't believe that you'll be reborn on earth after death in a new body.

Ha! He's gotcha there, you have to admit.


Blogger Theresa said...

So what are you saying Jim ...
That you don't believe in God ?

I am reading a fascinating book right now... it is called Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum.

It details the study of "Physical Research" around the late 1800's.

Apparently as science progressed (Darwin published about this time) it brought religon and science into direct conflict. Some scientists at this time were afraid that atheisitic beliefs would lead to the detoriation of society and eventual destruction of civilized society.

They set off to study the supernatural - stories of ghosts, sightings of people who had died within twelve hours of their death, mediums. It is a fascinating book. Using scientific methods they set out ot disprove mediums, disprove ghosts, etc. But they ran into instances they couldn't disprove. I am only about 1/2 way through it, but here's a quote that I believe captures some of the essence.

"By taking refuge in "snarling logicality" James said, by insisting that the only believable god was one who meekly appeared when asked to prove himself, a person might "cut himslef off forever from his only opportunity to make the gods' aquaintance". In terms of material logic, James said it appears easier to disbelieve what cannot be proved. But by doggedly persisting, by remaining open to belief - in gods, deities, higher powers, purpose - we allow for opportunity. We keep our minds open to what we do not know for sure, to what we have no idea how to prove. In this, James said, it may yet turn out that, as believers, "we are doing the universe the deepest service we can."

James's talk whould become the title essay in one of his first, and most famous, collections of philosphical musings. In 'The Will to Believe', he carefully explored the ways that human can choose to understand - and to live in - the world. He gave a simple comparison - "Science says things are; morality says some things are better than other things,", and religion says that the best things are eternal, "an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all."

This matter of choosing to live upon a foundation that could never be verified appeared to set science at odds with faith. James suspected that many scientist dealt with that challenge in the simplest possible way - by denying religous precepts entirely, without always asking themselves which intellectual pitfall was the greater evil - "better risk loss of truth than chance of error - that is your faith vetoer's exact position."

This is from "Ghost Hunters" - by Deborah Blum.

And I will leave you to your debate - Happy Thanksgiving to you Jim and may God Bless you !


November 23, 2006 2:44 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Theresa, I assume you're talking about William James, whose "Varieties of Religious Experience" was really an essay on the joy of nitrous oxide ...

Besides that snarky factoid, assuming that is the "James" you refer to, I find my beliefs to be totally in line with the school of American pragmatism that was initiated by his friend Charles Peirce and adopted wholeheartedly by James, who actually published a set of lectures on the topic under the title Pragmatism.

To James, the concept of God comes down to the "cash value" (his term) of the concept of God. What does it get you? Does the concept help explain some phenomena that are otherwise mysterious? Does the concept console the sorrowful? If the concept serves some purpose, then by all means, go with it. If it doesn't, then dump it.

Oh, another interesting fact. When Albert Einstein died, they found by his bedside a heavily marked-up copy of Helena Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine. (I'm sure there's a chapter in your book about her.) I think that there is, at some level, a way to join spirituality and science in a nontrivial way -- in fact, I'm sure of it. Trying to deny or reinterpret scientific findings to make that body of knowledge consistent with ancient scripture is not going to work, it will clearly require a new way of thinking, but I don't see why the two have to be opposed.

This post, though, by the way, says nothing about my beliefs about God. I just thought Matthew Yglesias made an interesting argument that, on any particular topic, atheists are in the majority.

Well, we're headed out for turkey with friends. May the gods bless you as well, Theresa!


November 23, 2006 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think that there is, at some level, a way to join spirituality and science in a nontrivial way -- in fact, I'm sure of it."

There is, Jim. It's a doctrine in Judeo-Christianity called "general revelation" and is subscribed to by most evangelical Christians.

BTW, the one thing that 97.5% of the world realizes and atheists don't is that we were created with a need for a spiritual life. The materialists conceded this a couple of years ago with their talk of a "God gene" but this fact has been cited for centuries as one of the many proofs of God's existence by Christian theologians.

November 27, 2006 1:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you got a citation for that 97.5% statistic or did you pull it from thin air?

November 27, 2006 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look at the post above. 2.5% are atheists. 97.5% are the rest.

Or do you think math is relative?

November 28, 2006 5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yes! I too have been touched by His noodly appendage.


November 28, 2006 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're confused, Ramen. That's your own noodle- and it's not too bright.

November 29, 2006 7:53 AM  

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