Archives for posts with tag: god

In almost any social situation, if anyone dares to question the existence of God someone else will speak up with “first-hand evidence” that God is not only real but has all the qualities described in the local scripture. The witnesser will speak of the “direct perceptions” that they have had of God, for example that he is caring, or eternal, or aware, or (in the minimal case) present (or “manifest”). It is usually thought (or at least claimed) that such reports constitute weighty evidence for the believer’s position, and that if the non-believer wants to be taken seriously, he or she must provide an alternative and more compelling explanation of these experiences. That is, the non-believer has the responsibility of showing how a person can have an experience of God without there being any God for the experience to be about.

The explanation is simple. An object does not have to exist for me to have thoughts or feelings about it. I can have thoughts and feelings about an imaginary object. Such thoughts and feelings do not prove that the object exists. As a refinement, we should mention that it is not always correct to describe these thoughts and feelings as of or about the object, if it does not exist.

It is uncontroversial that people’s reports of thoughts and feelings about God do not necessarily bring us any information about God. If I suspect that no gods exist, someone telling me that they have perceived God’s qualities through their feelings or their imagination is no evidence to the contrary. If God does not exist, then these reports of divine attributes are just wrong. Actually, they are not even wrong. Rather than inaccurate statements about God, they are not about God at all.

Now someone might say, “Why make a special point of saying that my feelings about God are ‘not about’ God? Of course they are ‘about’ God—even if there is no God! If I say I’ve had a thought about the mighty wings of Pegasus, would you say, ‘No, that thought is not about Pegasus, because Pegasus is imaginary’? Surely you can take my word for it, so to speak, that Pegasus is precisely what I was thinking about. Maybe it seems ontologically extravagant, but this is how the word is used.”

Well, let’s acknowledge that there is a huge and intimidating literature on what philosophers call reference (and related terms like ostention, intension, and designation)—and that I am not an expert in this field. I have read a little Quine but it is very hard. So I agree with your proposal that we avoid the intricacies of philosophy and stick to (relatively) practical matters.

Unfortunately, we started with a topic which was already a bit subtle. We are talking about the difference between what people take themselves to be saying, and what they are actually saying, when they talk about God.

Contrary to your Pegasus example, people routinely claim that the thoughts and feelings they have about God show that God is there.

Let’s put the argument more formally.

PREMISS 1. I have thoughts and feelings about God.

PREMISS 2. People can’t have thoughts and feelings about a thing that does not exist.

CONCLUSION. God exists.

Your mention of Pegasus casts doubt on Premiss 2. Of course I can think about things that are not there. We can put even more pressure on this premiss if we think about dreams. Say that on waking up one morning I remember having a dream in which I was trying to solve an intricate geometrical puzzle. I’m still having thoughts about that puzzle—or that’s what my thoughts seem to be about—yet the puzzle does not exist in any useful sense. What is more interesting, my memories of it as being “intricate” (for example) do not even have a truth-value. It is neither true nor false that the puzzle I was trying to solve was intricate. In the dream, I described the puzzle as intricate—to myself. But that description was a feature of the dream. It was imaginary. The intricacy of the puzzle had no more reality than the puzzle itself.

But look. Now Premiss 1 begins to crumble. Because, now that I have awakened, if I say to myself, “That puzzle was intricate,” I am not making a statement about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know anything about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know that it was intricate. I only know that it seemed so, in the dream. There is no fact of the matter about whether the puzzle was really intricate. It seemed so in the dream, and that’s the end of the ontology. All I have is the seeming. So my thoughts on waking up are not about how the puzzle was. There is no such thing as how the puzzle was. I am not thinking about how the puzzle was, but about how it seemed. My thoughts are about the seeming, not about the puzzle.

And this is how we can legitimately treat claims about people’s thoughts and feelings “about God.” We can say: That’s an awfully big assumption you’re starting off with—that you can have thoughts and feelings about God. How do you justify such a claim? Here we are trying to have a discussion about whether God exists, and then you say, “Well, I have these feelings about him, so that proves he exists.” It doesn’t, for two reasons.

First, it’s possible to have thoughts and feelings that are about a seeming rather than about something real. So you need to convince us that your thoughts and feelings are about an existent God rather than a seeming God. And second, as my friend here pointed out, it’s perfectly possible to have thoughts and feelings about objects that just plain don’t exist, like Pegasus—or Santa Claus.

In the syllogism above, many people would suspect Premiss 2 of being false. But we have come to a perhaps more interesting result. The seemingly uncontroversial Premiss 1 is false as well. When people say, “I have thoughts and feelings about God,” it is possible for this “about” to be mistaken. Their thoughts and feelings and beliefs could easily be about something other than God. They could be merely about how things seem to the believer.

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It just hit me. You know on those surveys? Where they ask people if they believe in God? If you pry a little you can find out exactly what the script is. And in the script it says, “Do you believe in God?” — with a capital G.

The infamous capital 'G'

Why?

Considering their responsibilities, shouldn’t priests be trained in, and tested on, their ability to communicate with God? How come no one ever mentions this? I have never heard anyone say, for example, “It’s unfortunate that the ontology of the Absolute prevents this kind of training.” No one discusses this most central office of the priesthood as even the remotest possibility. And yet, what good is a priest if he doesn’t have at least some rudimentary abilities of this kind? Isn’t that, theoretically, what a priest is — a man in contact with God? And yet this essential qualification is never tested — not even mentioned. And the most plausible reason for this is of course that no priest actually has such talents. None of them have it. None have ever had it. Yet to this day they hope we won’t notice.

[The following is adapted from my unpublished book, No One Believes in God.]

Why do so many people believe?, we want to ask. But how big is this “so many”? Can we quantify it? How many are the believers – and how do we know?

Of course, there have been surveys. According to them, something like 85 percent of everyone in the world believes in some kind of god. But we cannot trust these polls. They are misleading. The methodology is flawed. Let me explain.

The goal of such surveys is to measure the popularity of various types of religious belief. But of course you can’t measure anyone’s belief directly, the way you can their temperature or their blood oxygen level. Are there indirect ways? Sure, you can just ask them about it! – but the thing is, how do you put the questions? What is the wording? You’d have to be pretty clever, I would think, to get decent results. A bald “Do you believe in god?”, for example, would elicit skewed, hard-to-interpret and probably worthless results.

What do the best pollsters use? Let’s take a look at some of the questions from a recent poll by the “highly respected” Pew Forum.

Q.30 Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?

Q.33 Do you believe in life after death?

Q.35 Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?

Q.36 Do you think there is a hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished?

What – that’s what the Pew asked? I thought they were the real pros! They ask the same questions that the really stupid polls use. Jesus Christ.

Polls like this are misleading because to ask people “Do you believe in god?” is not an effective way to find out whether they believe in god. Here are just two of the many reasons that we know this to be true.

Most obvious and important is the strength of the social norms surrounding professions of “belief in god”. You answer the door, or the telephone, and a pollster is there. He starts asking you strange questions. In a vast number of households, if you are asked whether you “believe in god”, to say anything but yes would be to invite brutal reprisals from your family and neighbors. And in places where the risk is not so dire, there can still be severe pressure to say the right thing. This is a fact of life in any place where religion has serious influence, and that’s an awful lot of places.

The yes answer, on the other hand, is perfectly safe. There is no cost. Whether or not it is required, nothing follows from it. It’s not like saying, for example, “I believe in recycling”, which might be seen as committing you to a change in lifestyle. After you have affirmed your “belief in god”, no further action is required – so heck, why not say it? (Even if your dad is an atheist, he’ll just think you’re being funny. It’s not like he’s going to beat you or withhold meals or something, as a devout Christian or Muslim parent might do with a kid who said no.)

These observations have the following consequence. Of the people answering yes, some unmeasured but significant proportion have made this response not because they understand themselves to have a belief but because they fear the personal consequences of saying – not believing, but saying – the wrong thing. They feel constrained to say certain words, regardless of their actual belief. Even where the local norm is worded as a requirement that one believe, the practical result is rather that one is required to profess such belief. After all, no one can see into your mind. They cannot tell what you really think. Nor, most likely, do they care. They want you to say the right thing. That is the real demand. It’s about the words you say, especially to outsiders.

“Belief in god” is probably best seen as an idiom. It is not a state of mind but simply a stock phrase. Its meaning is not at all clear; however – and this is interesting – in practice, in the quotidian experience of the religious “believer”, the question of belief’s meaning, its nature and definition, does not arise. People are not asking themselves what it really means when they say they “believe in god”. They assume that they know. Whereas actually, they don’t know the first thing about it.

When we go to the trouble of surveying people on their “religious beliefs”, one of the things we should try to find out is what they personally mean when they use those words. But polls like this one – and they are all like this one – do nothing to help us understand this. They tell us nothing about belief. They assume that everyone already knows just what it is. But no one knows this.

Imagine a different poll. This one is measuring belief in Poseidon, so it asks people: “Do you believe in Poseidon?”

This is a very different question from the one we were just considering. Compared to Poseidon, the “god” in the other question sounds awfully vague. Asked whether I believe in “god”, I might find myself wondering nervously which god is being asked about. However, most respondents will recognize, probably before the question comes up, that there is a soothing, obvious, no-need-to-even-mention-it answer, which goes something like “You know which one: the one that most people talk about, and that most questions ask about. The one that most people, you know, believe in.”

And this assumption is written into the poll. People are going to assume that the “god” being asked about is the “god” that everyone always talks about. The fact that so many people pronounce this word so often is part of the de facto, unexamined definition of what the word means.

And now I really have to wonder whether this poll has measured anything at all. I suspect not. I suspect that every such survey is a travesty of research. Yet, the methodology goes entirely unquestioned. This is how religious belief is “tested”: you ask people absurd, pointless, misleading questions that can throw no light at all on what belief in god actually is – other than reminding us, between the lines, that it’s what you’re supposed to do. Heck, maybe that’s the real intention behind these stupid polls.

Many people believe in God. Many people believe in belief in God. What’s the difference? People who believe in God are sure that God exists, and they are glad, because they hold God to be the most wonderful of all things. People who moreover believe in belief in God are sure that belief in God exists (and who could doubt that?), and they think that this is a good state of affairs … . Given the way religious concepts and practices have been designed, the very behaviors that would be clear evidence of belief in God are also behaviors that would be clear evidence of (only) belief in belief in God. … This fact makes it hard to tell who – if anybody! – actually believes in God in addition to believing in belief in God. —Daniel Dennett

As far as I can tell, no one has ever obtained an actual measurement of the prevalence of religious belief, in this country or any other. The pollsters have no idea how many people believe in god, only how many are likely to say that they do, which is a completely different thing. They have neglected to notice that simply asking people this question, in these words, is worse than pointless. Their asking it in this way proves that they do not understand what the question means. Nor are they trying to understand. Nor are they helping us to do so.

In fact, there are many reasons to suppose that the prevalence of religious belief is greatly overestimated by almost everyone. Dennett’s “belief in belief” effect is one reason. Later in the book we will see more of them, the cumulative effect of which is to bring plausible estimates down very close to zero.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

[Update 26 JAN 2010: fixed the links.]

I have finished my book. You can download a PDF of the whole thing. Once you’ve read it, please find me a publisher. Thanks.

“I know that Jesus loves me.”

No, you don’t.

“How can you say that? I feel it in my heart.”

Wait, do you know it or feel it? Those are different things. Knowledge (or belief) is different from feeling (or emotion).

When challenged about their professed “beliefs”, folks often reply with what sounds like evidence from introspection. They say things like, “I feel it in my heart.” But a feeling is not a belief. A feeling is a direct, non-verbal, bodily experience; a belief is a commitment to an idea – as Thomas Jefferson put it, “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” You had a feeling, which was originally non-conceptual, and then you connected that feeling with a concept – that of ‘god’. This association in your mind, between a warm feeling and a fuzzy concept, is then presented as the answer to whether you have a belief in god. But neither the feeling, nor the concept, nor the connection between them, constitute a belief.

If you diligently practice any of various styles of meditation, you will eventually have the kind of experience that many people refer to as ‘transcendental’. In fact, one of the reasons you meditate is that you’ve heard reports of this kind of thing and you want to experience it for yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So one day you’re sitting and this thing happens to you, and it’s amazing. It’s like – it’s like – how to describe it? Words are such feeble things compared to this thing, or place, or idea you’ve just seen, or felt, or understood!

Well, that might be true. But I know something that is definitely true. There are words waiting for you. They’re all around you. They’re literally in the air you breathe. People say them all the time. You can choose the ones you like. You had a ‘transcendental’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘enlightenment’ experience. You reached ‘nirvana’, or ‘satori’, or ‘the Void beyond awareness’. You ‘became one with the Universe’. You ‘saw the face of God’. Take your pick; there are hundreds of them.

I’m not even saying that any of these descriptions is necessarily incorrect. That’s not the point. (Nor do I mean to suggest that such experiences should not be sought, or enjoyed, or valued.) The point is that if you’re old enough to have this kind of experience, you’re old enough to have heard the words for it – that is, the descriptions favored by the culture where you grew up. You can’t have the experience without having been ‘primed’ by that terminology. While in that exalted state you might be able to push aside such thoughts – this being a special aspect of such experiences – but not afterwards, when you’ve returned to not-so-transcendental consciousness. Then you’re going to call it what you’ve heard it called. If people around you tend to call it ‘higher awareness’, that’s what you’ll call it; if they say ‘cosmic consciousness’, that’s what you’ll say too. And if they call it ‘seeing the face of God’ or ‘feeling Jesus in your heart’, not only will you call it that; chances are it will feel like that.

But it isn’t that.

Again: I am not saying you shouldn’t do it. Quiet meditation is a Good Thing. I’m just pointing out that meditative states are frequently misdescribed. “I had a beautiful experience” is one thing; “I saw the face of God” is another. The former report may be accurate; the latter cannot be.

How do I know? Well, ultimately I know because I have noticed that the very concept of ‘god’ is incoherent, so not only are there no gods, but the idea of their existence is not even a coherent proposal that deserves careful rebuttal. But we don’t have bring out the big guns. We can observe, much more modestly, that feelings and beliefs are different things.

When you meditate (or in whatever circumstance it occurs), you have these feelings. They are powerful, special, beautiful and interesting. They do not come with a serial number, barcode, or owner’s manual. They are utterly non-verbal. For thousands of years, adepts have assured us that trying to convey such experiences with words is pointless. We have thousands of pages of such disclaimers – and attempts, by the same authors, to convey their experiences.

By the way, I am not convinced that the reason meditative states are so hard to describe is that they are so sublime. It may be simply because they are essentially non-verbal; they are feelings, not knowledge. All feelings are hard to put into words, even the everyday kind. Can you put into words exactly how you feel when you’re stuck in traffic? Could you make someone understand it who had never endured it?

In any case, feelings are, by definition, wordless. We have feelings, and on the other hand we have names for them. The original experience was wordless. That’s part of why it was so great. So, I can call my spiritual experience ‘touching the Void’ (for example), but I know that this is a label, added after the fact – that even the word ‘spiritual’ is a label, for something that originally had nothing to do with words.

Well, I should know this. But it’s easy to forget, especially in religious contexts. Because the churches have great cabinets stocked with words for us to use. And churches are more interested in our words than in our feelings. Tell your friends and neighbors in your local Baptist Church about a feeling you had this morning, while praying, of “a kind of warmth or welcoming or safety – sorry, it’s hard to put into words,” and you’ll get some half-hearted smiles. But if you say, “I felt Jesus’s love in my heart,” well, Glory Hallelujah, you’ll be a star.

Feelings are non-verbal. You can interpret them as meaning something specific, but it’s always going to be an interpretation. If you have a feeling that you attribute to the love of God, or the awareness of the Universe, or whatever, you are going beyond the data of experience and proposing a theory about what caused the feeling. Now if you hypothesize a physical agent, you can get some traction. Maybe you’ve ingested certain substances; or practiced certain psychological exercises; or you have epilepsy. Physical things can cause you to have certain experiences. Non-physical entities that don’t exist, except as words, cannot. If your theory involves an immortal spirit or a transcendent reality, no conceivable data will support it. Once you postulate an immaterial cause, you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to find an immaterial effect. You’ve painted yourself into a corner. You’ve sawed off the branch you were sitting on.

(Don’t get hung up on the idea that thoughts and emotions are “mental” rather than “physical” events. People say things like, “Love can have overwhelming effects, even though it’s not physical.” This is not correct. Mental-versus-physical is a false dichotomy. But clarifying this point is beyond the scope of this book. Try the first half of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.)

As another reason that your feelings cannot validate your religious beliefs, let me reiterate the point I mentioned in passing, a few paragraphs back. You cannot believe an incoherent proposition. No matter how much you want to, you can’t. Belief does not work that way. Just as there are no socks without a place to put your foot in, because if there’s no place to put your foot in it’s not a sock, so there are no beliefs that are not about some proposition, because if it’s not about a proposition it’s not a belief. Someone who says “I believe that bibble bobble beeble” is using the word ‘belief’ improperly. This is because bibble bobble beeble is not a proposition; therefore, the transitive verb ‘believe’ has no object; therefore, the sentence makes no sense in English. And similar considerations apply to all religious propositions. That’s how religious propositions are constructed. They are designed to be incoherent. Coherent (communicative) statements do not perform religious functions, and vice versa.

If the foregoing is true, then everyone who thinks that they can justify their religious beliefs, by any method at all, is mistaken, first of all because they don’t have any religious beliefs. No one does.

Interesting to see Dennett going a little farther into anti-theism than he did in Breaking the Spell.

I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we’ve outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.

A national study by evangelicals in the United States predicted that only 4% of their children would grow up to be “Bible-believing” adults. The Southern Baptists are baptising about as many today as they were in 1950, when the population was half what it is today. At what point should those who just believe in belief throw in the towel and stop trying to get their children and neighbours to cling to what they themselves no longer need? How about now?

The folly of pretence | Daniel Dennett | The Guardian

Roy Sablosky, 2008.
~2,000 words.

In April 2008, Edge.org published an article by Stuart Kauffman, Breaking the Galilean Spell, adapted from his forthcoming book, Reinventing the Sacred. Not having read the book, I am not sure what Kauffman’s conclusions or recommendations are, but his assumptions are quite wrong.

This response is structured as a long string of quotes from Kauffman’s article, with a comment following each one. The quotes are in their original order.

… Laplace’s particles in motion allow only happenings. There are no meanings, no values, no doings. … [For the reductionist,] human choices, made by ourselves as human agents, are still, when the full science shall have been done, mere happenings, ultimately to be explained by physics.

Of course they are all mere happenings–and of course they also have whatever meanings any human beings care to assign them. The idea that everything is, in principle, “ultimately to be explained by physics,” is in no way incompatible with human meanings, values, choices, or actions. This is a common misunderstanding. It has been meticulously debunked by Daniel Dennett–see, for example, Freedom Evolves.

Biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right. Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe. With agency came values, meaning, and doing, all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. “Real” here has a particular meaning: while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value, and doing are real in the universe.

Of course they are real. Who ever said otherwise?

A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion.

Well, they are made of particles. This is beyond dispute. On the other hand, it is fair to say that they are “not mere particles.” But I don’t see what the problem is, exactly.

Some billions of us believe in an Abrahamic supernatural God, and some in the ancient Hindu gods. … About a billion of us are secular but bereft of our spirituality and reduced to being materialist consumers in a secular society.

Maybe you feel “bereft” and “reduced”–I sure don’t.

But I see, now, where the controversy came from that you are positioning yourself as knowing how to resolve. It came from religion, and it’s imaginary.

Religion says that secular science deliberately strips life of its meaning. But this is slander. Religion is anti-science, not the other way around. Science studies the world, ignoring religious concepts because they are false and spiritual concepts because they are not applicable. It is not inherently anti-religious or anti-spiritual. This is a myth, invented by religious apologists to demonize scientific thinking and therefore make religion less vulnerable to questioning.

If we the secular hold to anything it is to “humanism.” But humanism, in a narrow sense, is too thin to nourish us as human agents in the vast universe we partially cocreate. I believe we need a domain for our lives as wide as reality.

If you define humanism narrowly enough, it becomes “too thin to nourish.” Define it more liberally, and it is indeed “as wide as reality.”

With Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Laplace, reductionism began and continued its 350-year reign. Over the ensuing centuries, science and the Enlightenment have given birth to secular society.

Did they?–or did secular society gave birth to science and the Enlightenment?

Reductionistic physics has emerged for many as the gold standard for learning about the world.

Well, reductionistic physics is certainly the gold standard for learning about how matter is put together. But you are implying much more than that when you use the phrase “learning about the world.” You are, in effect, quoting the often-heard claim that “science is one way of learning about the world, and religion is another.” But surely you know that this is absurd. Science is a way of learning about the world; religion is a way of not learning about the world.

In turn, the growth of science has driven a wedge between faith and reason.

No, it has not. Religion is responsible for this “wedge.” We are dealing with the same myth as before: the religious myth that science threatens to destroy our spirituality. Science is no more opposed to spirituality than it is to poetry, or love. Most scientific work does not touch on these topics simply because they are not the topics in question. If you are studying superconductivity, or RNA, or metabolic pathways, spirituality is not relevant to your work. On the other hand, it is not forbidden. You can be as spiritual as you want to be, as a person, in your heart. No one’s stopping you. Contrary to the claims of religious apologists, there is no conflict between science and spirituality at all.

You have also left unexamined the background assumption that if one attacks religion one is also attacking spirituality, because religion equals spirituality. The truth is, no one who understands these two can confuse the one with the other.

Today the schism between faith and reason finds voice in the sometimes vehement disagreements between Christian or Islamic fundamentalists, who believe in a transcendent Creator God, and agnostic and atheist “secular humanists” who do not believe in a transcendent God. These divergent beliefs are profoundly held.

No, this is wrong and misleading. Some people believe in gods; others do not. But these are not “divergent beliefs.” I do not believe in any gods–which is not the same as believing that there are no gods. I have no beliefs regarding any gods. To say that a religious fundamentalist and I have divergent, profoundly held beliefs implies a symmetry between our views that does not exist. He has profoundly held beliefs (or so it would appear); I do not.

Furthermore, when we have “vehement disagreements” they are not over religious or spiritual matters. My not believing in their god is nothing like an attack on them; nor is their belief harmful to me. What makes us vehement is our different opinions regarding practical matters: whether it is legitimate, for example, to kill people who do not share one’s religious belief.

Indeed, the most serious disputes between the religious and the secular are all of this type. They arise when the religious are performing or advocating some sort of injury or coercion which we humanists know to be inhumane. We object to harm, not to belief.

[Reductionism] has dominated Western science at least since Galileo and Newton but leaves us in a meaningless world of facts devoid of values … .

Nonsense. Reductionism is not some immense force, like the Gulf Stream or American Idol. It’s just a rule of thumb that sometimes comes in handy when you’re trying to figure out how stuff works. Reductionism has not cast us into a meaningless world. It doesn’t have that kind of power.

We often turn to a Creator God to explain the existence of life.

Speak for yourself.

My claim is not simply that we lack sufficient knowledge or wisdom to predict the future evolution of the biosphere, economy, or human culture. It is that these things are inherently beyond prediction. Not even the most powerful computer imaginable can make a compact description in advance of the regularities of these processes. There is no such description beforehand. Thus the very concept of a natural law is inadequate for much of reality.

No, that does not follow.

Of course everything unfolds under natural law. That’s what ‘natural law’ means. Whether, given what natural laws we do know, we can predict the future is a different question. Limitations in our predictive powers do not invalidate the laws. The laws are there, and we know what some of them are. That we cannot wind them forward to see where every particle goes next does not prove them false.

Is it, then, more amazing to think that an Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God created everything around us, all that we participate in, in six days, or that it all arose with no transcendent Creator God, all on its own? I believe the latter is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do. This view of God can be a shared religious and spiritual space for us all.

You are conflating religion and spirituality, making both of them difficult to think about.

Here is the trick to thinking about religion: put your attention on the men at the top. Nothing happens in the religious sphere unless these men want it to happen. Without these men, there would be no religion, because it has no benefits for anyone but them.

Religious leaders will tell you that religion is a source of “awe, gratitude, and respect,” but this is an excuse. The overwhelming reason for the existence of religious organizations is that they provide a livelihood for their organizers. To recruit customers, the organization claims to possess a cornucopia of invaluable and irreplaceable products and services, but all they really have to sell is their beautiful bill of goods.

There are plenty of ways to find “awe, gratitude, and respect” in this world. Religion has no monopoly on such things–it does not even have special expertise. Religious leaders are not interested in insights, epiphanies, truth, people, or the world. They will implement the policies, and recite the words, that seem likely to foster the growth and profitability of their organization.

Your hope that the emergent-universe paradigm might appeal to religions the world over is based on a misunderstanding. Religions are not really concerned with ontological, metaphysical, spiritual, or cosmological issues–to say nothing of humanistic concerns. They talk all the time about such things, but this is a ruse. None of religion’s entrepreneurs will adopt your framework unless it looks like a good way to fill the collection plate.

[A]gnostic and atheist “secular humanists” have been quietly taught that spirituality is foolish or, at best, questionable. Some secular humanists are spiritual but most are not. We are thus cut off from a deep aspect of our humanity. Humans have led intricate and meaningful spiritual lives for thousands of years, and many secular humanists are bereft of it.

Define spiritual, and tell me what’s good about it. But do so without referring to religion. Until you separate the two you cannot speak meaningfully on this issue.

[A]ll of us, whether we are secular or of faith, lack a global ethic. In part this is a result of the split, fostered by reductionism, between the world of fact and the world of values.

Our lack of a global ethic–if indeed we do lack one–can more reasonably be linked to our just recently having emerged from the hunter-gatherer world wherein one would never meet anyone from the other side of the valley, to say nothing of the world.

We lack a shared worldwide framework of values that spans our traditions and our responsibilities to all of life, one another, and the planet. Secular humanists believe in fairness and the love of family and friends, and we place our faith in democracy.

Don’t you think fairness, love, and democracy is a pretty good framework? You bring in secular humanism, and then at religion’s insistence you toss it aside. But this is exactly the framework we need.

How strange this world would seem to medieval Europe. How alien it seems to fundamentalist Muslims.

Thank God for that!

Roy Sablosky, 2008.

~ 3,000 words.

Introduction

So-called “religious” considerations have no place in any discussion of public policy. The reason is seldom mentioned but perfectly straightforward: there are no gods. Not even one. Therefore, no one’s “beliefs” regarding the opinions of their chosen deity are of any consequence. This much is obvious. Yet, we secularists are often remarkably tentative in our position that public policy in the United States must remain thoroughly secular.

Perhaps we hesitate because, though the gods are gone, people’s belief in them appears to be deep and sincere; and we are told that it is unseemly, or positively immoral, to challenge this special kind of belief.

In the crazy, mixed-up argument the American populace is having with itself over the role of religion in public life, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the teaching of biological evolution in public schools to the Plan B pill to the funding of “faith-based” organizations by the federal government, secularists have at least one serious disadvantage. We can be instantly stymied by talk of the “sincere and profound religious beliefs” on the other side. Even when we are certain that a given religiously-motivated proposal is morally debased, we are intimidated.

“You can’t withhold antibiotics from your child who is about to die from a simple infection like in the Dark Ages,” we say.

“But I have a profound conviction that X, Y and Z,” they say–and we wimp out.

“Oh, then maybe it’s OK… so hard to judge… political correctness… cultural identity… blah, blah, blah.”

Pathetic.

In this paper I offer a possible corrective to this shameful timidity: the “sincere and profound beliefs” we keep hearing about are nothing of the sort.

Of course, even without such a finding we always were and still are justified in adopting a consequentialist stance, wherein it matters not at all what people believe in their minds, only how they behave in the world. But the Religious Right is ruthless and relentless. We need all the strength and will and intelligence we can gather. So this is the bit of intelligence I can bring today. It does not matter what religious apologists “believe,” because they don’t. I am hoping that this insight will provide an extra shot of courage or patience to secularists in their painful dealings with people who think that “religious beliefs” can justify the most appalling behavior.

In their recent, best-selling and delightful books Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris trounce every possible argument for the idea that religion is a good idea. Dawkins is both meticulous and funny; Dennett, a philosophical colossus, shines more light on the topic than it even deserves; and Harris provides a swift, no-nonsense defenestration. I really admire these guys, so it pains me to suggest that they are expertly solving the wrong problem. But if my hypothesis is correct, the whole program of disabusing believers of their belief is misconceived.

Here is the argument in a nutshell. First, ideas about deities are not incorrect but incoherent. That is, they are not ideas. And an idea cannot be refuted if it was never even proposed in the first place. Second, if an idea is without meaning–not really an idea–then no one can believe it. You cannot believe a concept that is not even a concept. I do not say you shouldn’t; I say you can’t.

The exposition that follows may seem abstract. But I would not have written it had I not believed that it might offer real help for real people. The “take-away” is that we should not bother trying to convince people to outgrow “religious beliefs” they don’t subscribe to in the first place. Let them have their so-called beliefs–but insist that in a public context such propositions become pseudo-rhetoric and will be ignored. People are free to express their “beliefs,” but cannot thereby justify any actions or policy, ever. In a public arena we want to know what people are doing or trying to do; religious considerations are simply and entirely irrelevant.

Epistemological considerations

Here is how the argument starts. Ideas about deities are not wrong, they are meaningless. All of them. Ayer said it this way:

Theism is so confused and the sentences in which “God” appears so incoherent and so incapable of verifiability or falsifiability that to speak of belief or unbelief, faith or unfaith, is logically impossible.

– Dennett, this way:

The proposition that God exists … is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds–or billions–of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.

– and Wittgenstein, like this:

You cannot mean a senseless series of words.

For example. Someone comes into the room and asks us, “Europe artichoke?” Why can’t we answer this question? Well, because nothing has been asked. It is not actually a question. It is a random string of words with a decorative curlicue at the end.

The question, “Does God exist?” has the same meaning–that is, none. So the correct answer is neither Yes, nor No, nor even “I don’t know.” Actually, we do know!–because obviously, a statement with no meaning has no truth-value, and a question with no meaning has no answer.

I will devote no more space to the defense of this one point. (See the References for more support.) I take it as established that religious propositions are empty of meaning. But the implications of this fact have been inadequately explored.

Here is the one I want to pursue.

As Wittgenstein points out, a nonsensical phrase cannot be meant. I want to add: if it cannot be meant, neither can it be believed. After all, what would be the content of such a belief? You believe… what?–a senseless series of words? How would that work?

The idea of believing a meaningless idea is itself meaningless.

Someone says: “I strongly believe that Europe artichoke.” But if “Europe artichoke” has no meaning, then what meaning can “I believe that Europe artichoke” have? And just so, if “God is perfectly compassionate” is an empty proposition, then “I believe in a perfectly compassionate God” must be empty as well.

Someone might say, “But people don’t know that the items in which they believe are incoherent. They believe in them as if they are meaningful. They might be mistaken about the content, but the belief itself is real and sincere.” No. The question is still valid: You believe in what? You can believe that the Earth is a conscious being, because after all the Earth is a real thing and consciousness is a real thing. As a theory this would be hard to test, but it would still make sense to say that you are entertaining it. But a proposition containing the word ‘God’ cannot be a hypothesis, because the word and therefore the whole sentence has no meaning. You cannot meaningfully say it, and you cannot meaningfully believe it, no matter how much you want to, because there is no proposition there that can be the subject of your attention.

All ideas about gods are incoherent. They cannot be meaningfully transferred from one person to another (except as rote verbal formulas); they cannot be productively discussed; and they cannot be believed. Dawkins and Harris see religious belief as inadvisable. I see it as impossible. It cannot be done. It does not happen.

But, if, when people say they “believe,” that’s not what’s actually happening, then what is happening instead? What are these people doing, and why? What is the activity we call “religious belief”?

The saying of it

We do know that they are saying things. Meaningless things, as far as we can tell, but they are speaking–that, at least, everyone can agree on! Let’s follow another suggestion from Wittgenstein.

Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose do we say this? What kind of actions accompany these words? (Think of a greeting.) In what scenes will they be used; and what for?

For example. Here is a man saying, “I believe there’s a post office down the block from here.” We can picture him with his arm extended, pointing the way. Now, why did he say those words? Probably not to hail a cab, or to frighten away the pigeons. Almost certainly, someone asked him a question; his utterance is an attempt to answer the question.

Now here is a woman saying, “I believe God is good.” Why did she say that? We can easily imagine a plausible context: preaching, proselytizing, defending her faith to an atheist… and so on. And what would be the purpose of such a remark, in those contexts?

I hear words from someone’s mouth and I imagine that a thought is being transferred from her mind to mine. And so does she. But, in the case of “religious belief,” there is something very different going on.

Practical considerations

Is this too intellectual?–too much about thoughts? Let me cite a few supporting considerations of a more practical nature.

First, the more metaphysical sorts of religious claims, things like “God is One but also Three but also One,”–even if you can stretch your imagination to make them seem as if they mean something, have no practical implications. Almost by definition, they don’t inform or affect one’s behavior. If you are deciding whether to jump in the river to rescue a cat, whether God is Three or One or 42 does not matter. There is no point in thinking about it at that moment, or indeed at any moment except during Tuesday night Bible study.

Second, those few snippets of doctrine that might seem to be simple, understandable guidelines (“Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” for example) are generally ignored by everyone, including the people who constantly avow them.

Imagine that we ignored people’s words and tried to deduce the content of their beliefs from their behavior. Someone tells us: “These folks believe that adultery is punishable by an eternity of torture.” We watch for a while and say, “Jeez–it sure doesn’t look that way.”

Third, even when such guidelines seem to be obeyed, people can be following the rule because it agrees with them rather than the reverse. After all, other people might be “following” the same rule without even having heard about it. I believe that it’s wrong to kill other people. And that’s what it says in the holy books, but that’s not why I believe it. The book and the belief are independent–for me, and for everyone else.

You might still insist that belief is more a “feeling” than a “thought.” To this I would simply object that a feeling cannot be a belief. A belief is a thought, by definition. If you want to insist that the phenomenon in question is properly called belief, describing it as a feeling as well will not help you.

No, I don’t think any feeling or thought is or results in the avowal of “belief.” I think it’s the other way around. The avowal prompts thoughts and feelings, which become post hoc explanations for a speech-act whose true cause goes unnoticed by the speaker.

Phenomenological considerations

Sam Harris, speaking at the “Beyond Belief” conference in November 2006, brings up an interesting point but misses the big picture.

[T]he greatest problem with the rest of us–with secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists–is that we find it very difficult to believe that people actually believe this stuff. Secularists and religious moderates, almost by definition, don’t know what it’s like to be certain of God. To be certain of Paradise. To be certain that the book they keep by their bed is the perfect Word of the Creator of the Universe.

I’m not sure I know what it would be like to believe in an all-powerful deity. On the other hand, I’m not sure I see anyone doing it. Can you demonstrate, Mr. Harris, that people “actually believe this stuff”? Is there any evidence for this famous “belief,” besides their talking about it?

Maybe people don’t believe in deities, they just feel that they should say that they do. Maybe that’s what “being religious” is.

Maybe to be “religious” is to say certain words. The funny thing is, that when you say them everyone figures you mean them. Including you. As if the words are a report, a portrait, of your inner state. What if this assumption is wrong?

Wittgenstein again:

The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts … .

When secularists ask whether you “really” believe, the answer seems obvious, so you don’t check. You don’t meticulously introspect to try to improve your understanding of the phenomenology of your own belief. That’s certainly not what your pastor and your congregation want you to do! They simply want you to say the word ‘Yes’.

What really trips us up–we “secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists”–is not that we can’t imagine that people believe in gods but that we do imagine that people believe in gods. What we can’t imagine is that folks would make strong public statements without first checking that they’re true or at least mean something.

Well, they do mean something–but something entirely different from what we or the speaker would imagine. “I believe that Jesus was the son of God,” for instance, is not a philosophical position. It is not about Jesus, or God, or belief. Though made of words, its function is non-verbal. It is a social gesture, like a smile… a handshake… a badge to pin to your lapel.

“Believers” and “nonbelievers” alike have misunderstood the phenomenology of “religious belief.” It is not a thought, feeling, opinion, intuition, mood, or desire. It does not take place in anyone’s head, but in their circle of acquaintances. Church attendance, Bible study sessions, public confessions and exhortations–even private prayer–these things are not done because people believe; they are what constitute “belief.”

Avowals of “belief” are tokens of mutual affiliation. You say certain words to identify yourself as a member of a group of “believers.” One of the requirements for membership is precisely that you say those words–those special phrases called “beliefs.” The name is misleading, because as propositions they are incoherent and as beliefs they cannot be held. But that does not matter to the group. The requirement is that you pronounce certain special verbal formulas out loud, not that you actually believe them (whatever that would mean).

The whole fabric is woven of public behaviors, not private thoughts.

The unavoidable conclusion everyone is avoiding

In practical ethics it doesn’t matter what you believe in your mind, only what you do out in the world. And this applies with extra force when you don’t believe it, but only say it a lot! The fact that religious “beliefs” are not, as is always claimed, “sincere and profound convictions,” but something more like club-house badges, should change the way we deal with those who claim “religious beliefs” as their motivation.

So, here’s what we should do. When someone says, “I’m building a shelter for snowy owls, because Freyja says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “How nice of you.” And when someone says, “I beat my children because Wotan says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “Well, it happens that here in California beating your children is illegal and you have to stop immediately.” Georges Rey nicely articulates the consequentialist view:

If you think some particular war is right, or some sexual practice wrong, fine; then provide your reasons for why you think so. But don’t try to intimidate yourself and others with unsupportable, peculiarly medieval claims about how the “Lord of the Universe” approves or disapproves and will punish people accordingly.

To which we can add the observation (tentatively endorsed by Rey himself) that people don’t believe that there is a Lord of the Universe, but only feel obligated to say so.

No matter how many times the claim of divine permission is repeated, it should be ignored. It should be as if the batterer had said, “I beat my children because rivers flow into the sea.” The former does not follow from the latter.

Don’t argue about religion. Refuse to discuss it, not because people won’t pay attention to secularist arguments but because there’s nothing to discuss. Ignore any claims of religious motivation or justification. Pretend you didn’t hear! Bring the conversation back to actions, not beliefs. What are they doing, or planning to do? How much will it cost? Who will it benefit? This would be the real separation of church and state.

Imagine what it would be like if we started responding to religiously-motivated initiatives on a purely consequentialist basis, just totally ignoring the religious rhetoric, every single word of it! Wouldn’t that be great?

~::~

References

A.J. Ayer, Language, truth, and logic. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1936

“Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, November 5-7, 2006. Video available at http://thesciencenetwork.org/BeyondBelief/watch/

Richard Dawkins, The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006

Sam Harris, The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

Georges Rey, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in Martin, R. and Kolak, D., The experience of philosophy, 6th ed., Oxford UP, 2005

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 3rd. edition, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003