Thursday, August 09, 2007

Converting the religious

No atheist should expect to convert the religious by means of rational argument. Religions (as well as many other ideologies such as Randianism or political Libertarianism which don't specifically reference "God") are by definition hermetic, more-or-less logically valid (but hardly sound) and predicated on blind faith, i.e. unfalsifiable and therefore not dependent on evidence.

In most Western societies, its each person's political right to have whatever blind faith he or she chooses, or no blind faith at all, without fear of official prosecution or unofficial persecution.

Similarly, engaging in rational argumentation—which presumes sensitivity to evidence—with the religious about their religion is an exercise in futility. The decision to evaluate one's own beliefs in light of the evidence of the senses or metaphysical criteria such as Occam's Razor must start inside the individual's own consciousness: One cannot even persuade—much less force—an individual to make that first step.

Once that first step has been taken, of course, one can engage in rational argumentation; it's noteworthy that almost all theists who begin to evaluate their beliefs in the light of evidence and Occam's razor end up as atheists, usually quite vocal and uncompromising atheists. (It's also noteworthy that most atheists who convert to theism seem not to have ever valued evidence and rational argument to begin with.)

I think that most atheists recognize this futility. I don't think that very many atheists try to argue the committed religious out of their beliefs (or they soon learn the futility of doing so and stop). Rather, when atheists talk about religion, there are two other goals in mind.

The first other goal is to simply demonstrate the rational vacuity of religion to those who have taken the first step, but are often so insulated that they are simply unaware of alternative modes of thought. Note that almost all religions strongly disapprove of even allowing their adherents even exposure to alternative modes of thought.

The second goal is stop the fraud. All you have to do to justify your blind faith is call it "blind faith" and invoke the First Amendment (or, outside the U.S., the uncontroversial principle of freedom of thought). Even if your blind faith affects how you operate in the physical world, one can justifiably prosecute and persecute you only for the physical effects, not the underlying blind faith.

It is, however, the representation of religion as knowledge, as reasonable, as rationally, evidentially justified that the nonreligious decry as fraud. It is an attempt to infringe, as it were, on Gould's magisterium of science. It is the attempt to co-opt the authority of rationality for the purpose of religion.

This effort is objectionable on two points: First, is it internally contradictory: A rational, reasonable belief is, by definition, contradictory to blind faith. You cannot both claim the epistemic authority of reason and the political authority of unreason. More importantly, the effort to co-opt reason in the service of religion corrupts reason. Reason is privileged because it always gives the same answer for everyone. To use reason to justify idiosyncrasy—and unfalsifiable beliefs are always, to some degree, idiosyncratic—necessarily corrupts this "same-for-everyone" characteristic.

Blind faith as blind faith has to be protected, because Metaphysical Naturalism itself cannot be rationally justified to the exclusion of other metaphysical systems without circularity: Metaphysical Naturalism is rational justification itself. But by the same token, Metaphysical Naturalism deserves its own integrity; you're free to reject Metaphysical Naturalism, but you're not free to redefine it and co-opt its authority. To do so is fraud and lies.

Be religious if you choose. Proclaim your religious beliefs (in, of course, a civilized and appropriate manner) to your heart's content. At worst, if you call for some actual action I consider objectionable, I will object to the action.

But proclaim your religious beliefs as reasonable, and I'll be right in your face calling you a liar. You can have your blind faith, but I have my reason, and I'll fight to protect it.

16 comments:

  1. But if theists cannot support their faith on reason, how will they ever politicize faith-based beliefs and their personal morality!?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Kelly, you say that like it's a bad thing! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. whiskeyjack8/9/07, 2:51 PM

    Having had experiences similar to yours, I agree wholeheartedly about the impossibility of reasoning with the devout. The tragedy of the encroachment of religion into politics, whether in North America or the Middle East, is that it precludes reasoned debate.

    The best answer, of course, is to keep the seriously religious the hell out of politics. Here in Canada, we used humour (yes, that's the way it's spelled) to embarrass a young earth creationist politician. Every time he arrived at a political meeting, people would wave purple Barney dinosaurs in the air to emphasize the fact that he believed that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. It worked like a charm - he not only lost the election, but was replaced as party leader.

    Ironically, this occurred in a country with no chartered separation of church and state. Mind you, we still have our own battles (religious schools are publicly funded in some areas, and the creationist buffoon referred to above is a cabinet minister).

    What gives me some hope is that the forces of secular reason appear to be fighting back. Could be a long and ugly conflict though...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Barefoot Bum said; "Be religious if you choose. Proclaim your religious beliefs (in, of course, a civilized and appropriate manner) to your heart's content. At worst, if you call for some actual action I consider objectionable, I will object to the action.

    "But proclaim your religious beliefs as reasonable, and I'll be right in your face calling you a liar. You can have your blind faith, but I have my reason, and I'll fight to protect it."

    I agree with you but, unfortunately, it takes us right back to your opening point. If their blind-faith belief is centered in "knowledge" of how the universe is then you getting in their face will not change their position.

    This confirms to me the effort of being clear about what I believe and why I believe it, fully cognizant of the fact that the immediate subject of my clarity will not, in all likelihood, receive it. However, there are always third parties - reading or listening. Some of them are not true believers yet perhaps lean toward the position of the believer. Reason sometimes works here and makes the effort worthwhile.

    I am interested in something though. I wonder if you studied a couple of hundred atheists, how many of them would say they came to a conclusion of breaking with a religion that people would call "fundamentalist". Don't you think (without having any prior statistical evidence) that perhaps 10% of them could be thus characterized? Certainly there must be some percentage. It would then be fun to do further studies with them to find out what made possible the thing that you and I agree isn't really possible!

    ReplyDelete
  5. John: Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger published two studies you might find interesting:

    Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers
    Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion

    Of course, everyone should read Altemeyer's profound work, The Authoritarians.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It has always amazed me how atheists can sit back and not recognize themselves as religious beings. Not only are they religious but they operate on more blind faith than any other religion.

    As an example the two goals that you mention both assume something that is not supported by any atheistic presupposition. The first is that rational vacuity is a “bad” thing. The second is that stopping the fraud is a “good” thing. How can an atheist rationally appeal to anything being good or bad? What empirical evidence have you observed that proves the existence of good or bad? Sounds like a monumental leap of blind faith to me.

    Barefoot said, “But proclaim your religious beliefs as reasonable, and I'll be right in your face calling you a liar. You can have your blind faith, but I have my reason, and I'll fight to protect it.”

    I guess this is my queue to say that you have proclaimed your blind faith as reasonable (as identified above). Will you now call yourself a liar?

    ReplyDelete
  7. David Kear: Not only are [atheists] religious but they operate on more blind faith than any other religion.

    More faith? "More" is the interesting word here. Metaphysical naturalism is a metaphysical system, and if you squint and turn your head sideways you can just barely make out something like "faith", but more faith?

    And blind faith? In what bizarro-world version of English can a metaphysical system which elevates perception to an epistemic foundation be called blind? "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

    It is true that specific value judgments are not directly supported by Metaphysical Naturalism. I was speaking colloquially; I make my overall position clear in my series on meta-ethical subjective relativism: I strongly disapprove of rational vacuity and fraud, as do, I hope, most of my readers.

    You yourself would appear to be defending vacuity and fraud: Is this your intention?

    (And, just FYI, "queue" is a line, "cue" is a prompt.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Barefoot asked, “You yourself would appear to be defending vacuity and fraud: Is this your intention?”

    Absolutely not, only if you squint and turn your head sideways would you think I am defending any such thing. I will agree with you in the strong disapproval of these things. In fact that is my point. I am in disapproval of your doing the very thing that you condemn.

    The difference is that my worldview supports the concepts of good and evil where yours does not as you have admitted saying, “It is true that specific value judgments are not directly supported by Metaphysical Naturalism.”

    I am only pointing out that you are engaging in the same thing, faith, when you appeal to things that cannot be supported through the presuppositions of your worldview. I am further pointing out that you are not holding yourself to the same standard that you are attempting to hold theists to when you proclaim your faith as reasonable.

    ReplyDelete
  9. David Kear: I will agree with you in the strong disapproval of [vacuity and fraud].

    Fair enough, I was just checking.

    [M]y worldview supports the concepts of good and evil...

    No, it doesn't. Read Euthyphro. You might check Nietzsche as well.

    ...where yours does not...

    Yes, it does. We'll get to precisely how in a second.

    ... as you have admitted saying, “It is true that specific value judgments are not directly supported by Metaphysical Naturalism.” [emphasis added]

    By "not directly supported" I mean specific value judgments do not logically derive from MN. This is unsurprising, since MN specifies only an open epistemic system which privileges perception, logic (or specific characteristics of logic), and parsimony.

    There are various ways looking at ethics under MN: They all have to do with evaluating ethical statements according to some kind of subjective experiential evidence. As noted earlier, I've written extensively about meta-ethical subjective relativism.

    We're starting to drift far off-topic.

    I've written extensively about ethics in general, as well as meta-ethical subjective relativism. You're more than welcome to read what I've written on the topic and comment on the appropriate posts. I'm not particularly interested in recapitulating 10,000 or so words in unrelated comments.

    I've also written about the relationship between atheism and faith, blind faith, and whether atheism or religion has more blind faith. Again: You're free to read and comment on those posts as appropriate.

    This thread is about my assertion that claims that religion is in any way "reasonable" are not only false but fraudulent. You're free to argue whatever position you wish to take on my assertion, but it's a tu quoque fallacy to argue that atheism is just as dishonest.

    ReplyDelete
  10. David, if you're still around, why don't you give this a read -

    http://www.blacksunjournal.com/science/847_atheist-metaphysics-and-religious-equivocation_2007.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ways of Knowledge - Science (Evolution, Physics, Astronomy, etc.) Religion (Old Testament, New Testament, Koran, etc.)

    Knowledge of religion arrived at by: Study (of a particular book of dogma, usually to the exclusion of other such books and always excluding books from science that point to a negative result), prayer, meditation - resulting knowledge - BLIND FAITH.

    Knowledge of Science arrived at by:
    Study of any material including any religious text, IF PERTINENT) Hypothesis, Predictions, Experiments, Evaluation, Confirmation - TENTATIVE ACCEPTANCE.

    Now, if you want to say that I have faith that this method works toward obtaining knowledge (even about "good" and "bad") then you are correct - but it's a different use of the term "faith", and it's anything but "blind" - eyes open, mind questioning and reevaluationg are prerequisite.

    ReplyDelete
  12. No, it doesn't. Read Euthyphro. You might check Nietzsche as well.


    C'mon, be a little fair. Euthyphro doesn't prove that theism doesn't have the ability to connote good and evil, just that those two are easily mutable.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Euthyphro is a still-standing argument that a theistic ethical philosophy is necessarily subjectivist. I am going out on a limb in interpreting David Kear's argument as that a coherent ethical philosophy requires true objectivism.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Barefoot said, “I am going out on a limb in interpreting David Kear's argument as that a coherent ethical philosophy requires true objectivism.”

    Actually if you want to take it a step further I am saying that every worldview system requires at its base some foundational presuppositions that cannot be verified by the procedures of natural science. I have them and you have them. My worldview presuppositions support, not only objective morality, but also universal, invariant, abstract principles while yours do not.

    As an example JEM says that scientific knowledge is derived by, “Study of any material including any religious text, IF PERTINENT) Hypothesis, Predictions, Experiments, Evaluation, Confirmation”

    All scientific method absolutely depends upon the uniformity of nature and that the future will be like the past. Scientists constantly deal with unseen realities, such as natural laws, names, numbers, past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of logic, individual identity over time, causation, and so forth. All of these things are universal, invariant, abstract principles that cannot be studied by natural scientific procedure but are in fact preconditions for science itself.

    The claim that knowledge must be derived by natural scientific method is it self not found within the natural scientific method. It is a non-material mental construct.

    You have faith in that you appeal to and even live by these universal, invariant, abstract principles that you cannot observe in any empirical way and your worldview presuppositions do not support.

    I will agree with you that this is way off your topic and I don’t want to hijack your post any longer.

    However, where this does intersect with your post is that I am pointing out the arbitrariness of your argument in which you classify my faith as “blind” and me a liar. Even though you have a faith that doesn’t even make sense within your own worldview.

    ReplyDelete
  15. David Kear: You're off-topic. If you want to pontificate, get your own blog. If you want to address my writing, find something that's directly on a relevant topic and post your comments there.

    The issue at hand is whether religious people are being fraudulent when they claim their religion is reasonable. You have not addressed this issue.

    However, where this does intersect with your post is that I am pointing out the arbitrariness of your argument in which you classify my faith as “blind” and me a liar.

    Repeat it as often as you want, even if it were correct (and it's not) it's still a tu quoque fallacy.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Note: Stephen Law has a number of recent posts about whether atheism (or metaphysical naturalism) is "more" of a faith position than theism.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.