Category Archives: Theology

Quote for the Day – The Empty Habit of Prayer: Tolstoy on Religious Deconversion

S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:-

He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.

His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.

~Tolstoy, quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

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Peter Boghossian’s Thought Challenge

Faith is not the same as hope, trust, or confidence. Faith is a kind of knowledge claim predicated on a particular brand of epistemology: faith-based epistemology. Peter Boghossian has offered a challenge for anyone who thinks faith is synonymous with hope:

In my May 6, 2012 public lecture for the Humanists of Greater Portland, I further underscored the difference between faith and hope by issuing the following thought challenge:

Give me a sentence where one must use the word ‘faith,’ and cannot replace that with ‘hope’, yet at the same time isn’t an example of pretending to know something one doesn’t know.

To date, nobody has answered the thought challenge. I don’t think it can be answered because faith and hope are not synonyms.

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Quote for the Day – Feynman on Religion: “The stage is too big for the drama.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

~Richard Feynman, quoted in Genius, by James Gleick

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Quote of the Day – The Madness of Religion

“This is a kind of madness of the will in psychic cruelty that has absolutely no equal: the will of man to find himself guilty and reprehensible to the point that it cannot be atoned for; his will  imagine himself punished without the possibility of the punishment ever becoming equivalent to the guilt; his will to infect and make poisonous the deepest ground of things with the problem of punishment and guilt in order to cut off the way out of this labyrinth of “idees fixes” once and for all; his will to erect an ideal – that of the “holy God” – in order, in the face of the same, to be tangibly certain of his absolute unworthiness. Oh, this insane sad beast man! What ideas occur to it, what anti-nature, what paroxysms of nonsense; what bestiality of idea immediately breaks forth when it is hindered only a little from being a beast of deed!…All of this is interesting to the point of excess, but also of such black gloomy unnerving sadness that one must forcibly forbid oneself to look too long into these abysses. Here there is sickness, beyond all doubt, the most terrible sickness that has thus far raged in man”

~Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality

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Do Humans Need Religion To Be Happy?

In a recent piece at The Guardian, Tanya Gold argues that secularists need to acknowledge the fact that religion can be a positive psychological force in people’s life. She says:

I know that religion can save. I know plenty of people who are better, and happier, for a belief in God.

As an atheist, I have absolutely no qualms with this statement. In fact, anyone who has studied the cognitive science of religious belief shouldn’t be surprised in the least that religion is psychically soothing for many people. But the interesting question is why. Scientists who study the neurological and evolutionary foundations of religious belief have reached a consensus that in a very real sense the tendency for religiosity and supernatural thinking is hard-wired in the human brain from birth. We are as Justin Barrett argues “Born Believers”. Given our innate dispositions, is it any shocker that Gold knows “plenty of people” who are happier on the basis of their belief in God? From a strictly evolutionary point of view, this statement has a surprise value equivalent to someone saying “I know plenty of cats who are happy chasing mice”. If it is psychologically natural for people to engage in religious and supernatural modes of thinking, then, ceteris paribus, we should expect that it makes people happy to think in a way that is most natural for them.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that it’s psychologically normal from an evolutionary perspective for parents to treat their step-children differently than their biological children, but it’d be absurd to argue for the maintenance of the psychic status quo if being mean to their step-children provided a dollop of psychic release. I don’t think in the least that the ill treatment of step-children is comparable with religious belief, but the general lesson is that we are not (and should not) be shackled to our evolutionary past simply on the basis that doing what comes natural often makes us feel good. If parents can overcome their genetic programming and lovingly care for adopted children with zero genetic relation without feeling psychic turmoil, then surely it’s possible for people to live nonreligiously without psychic turmoil as well.

The believer might retort that even so, because the majority of humans do in fact receive psychological benefits from their belief atheists are on the losing end of this argumentative strategy. But of course the atheist could simply respond by saying “Give it time!” Just because religion has been a part of our species’ psychological baggage for eons, can anyone be so confident that this will never change? Though the growth of secularism has not been as rapid as was once predicted by our Enlightenment forefathers (who were largely ignorant of our evolutionary past), it would be foolish to nevertheless ignore a slower but steadily increasing trendline towards secularism and humanism, especially in the most well-educated and developed countries. Can anyone confidently assert that human religiosity will be just as strong in 1,000 years as it is today? A million? Given everything we know about natural human dispositions, secularists are undoubtedly playing the long-game when it comes to enacting a momentous sea-change in public opinion towards religion. But as Homer said, “The fates have given mankind a patient soul.”

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An Ontological Argument for Atheism

This is a totally unoriginal thought, but I can’t remember where I learned about the ontological argument for atheism. It’s been bouncing around my head for awhile, so if anyone could tell me who originated this argument it’d be appreciated. I’ve probably butchered it anyhow, but here goes.

The ontological argument for theism is supposed to prove God exists from the supposition that the concept of God includes not only the properties of being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good but the property of perfection itself. That is, God, if He is anything at all, is the most perfect being that could possibly exist. Now here’s the workhorse of the ontological argument: does the property of existence itself count amount the properties that a perfectly perfect being necessarily has? Theists answer in the affirmative, since surely a God that exists is more perfect than a God that does not exist. And since God is by definition the most perfect being possible, we can conclude that God exists because the most perfect being would perfectly have the property of existence .

“Not so fast!” says the atheist. Consider this. One of God’s most impressive alleged feats was the creation of the universe, an event universally considered to be a big deal. But wouldn’t it be more impressive if God had managed the trick of creating the universe without existing at all? Now that would be impressive! To make yourself vanish and in your place have a universe. Neat trick. A God who could do that seems more powerful than a God who couldn’t even manage to create a universe without existing. When you think about it, it seems awfully easy to create the universe if you actually exist. But to do so from beyond the grave is very difficult. But if anyone could do it, it’s God alright. Therefore, God does not exist.

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Quote of the Day – On the Emptiness of Sophisticated Theology

“Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstnatial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.” ~ Freud, The Future of an Illusion

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Herman Philipse's new book God in the Age of Science?

Just picked this up at the library today:

God in the Age of Science? is a critical examination of strategies for the philosophical defense of religious belief. The main options may be presented as the end nodes of a decision tree for religious believers. The faithful can interpret a creedal statement (e.g. “God exists”) either as a truth claim, or otherwise. If it is a truth claim, they can either be warranted to endorse it without evidence, or not. Finally, if evidence is needed, should its evidential support be assessed by the same logical criteria that we use in evaluating evidence in science, or not? Each of these options has been defended by prominent analytic philosophers of religion.

In part I Herman Philipse assesses these options and argues that the most promising for believers who want to be justified in accepting their creed in our scientific age is the Bayesian cumulative case strategy developed by Richard Swinburne. Parts II and III are devoted to an in-depth analysis of this case for theism. Using a “strategy of subsidiary arguments,” Philipse concludes (1) that theism cannot be stated meaningfully; (2) that if theism were meaningful, it would have no predictive power concerning existing evidence, so that Bayesian arguments cannot get started; and (3) that if the Bayesian cumulative case strategy did work, one should conclude that atheism is more probable than theism. Philipse provides a careful, rigorous, and original critique of theism in the world today.”

amazon link 

I’m really exited to read this one. At least in regards to  Heideggerian scholarship, Philipse is a careful and diligent scholar. I expect nothing less from his new critique of theism.

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The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

A Roman Catholic priest created an Ask Me Anything thread the other day on Reddit. One redditor asked the following question:

“If a man came to you in confessional and admitted to murdering someone and shares intent to do it again, do you go to the police or do you respect the rules of confession? If you read in the paper that he did it again the next day, how would you feel?I went to Catholic school for 12 years and this has been my favorite question to ask of priests since I was really young, because the answer actually varies.”

Surprisingly, this is how the priest answered:

” The seal of the confessional is inviolate, even if the person has murdered someone.”

This flabbergasted me. The immoral stupidity of such an absolutist rule can easily be demonstrated by performing a thought experiment and taking the logic of an “inviolate seal” to its logical extreme. Let’s say the confessor admits to the priest that he is planning to murder 1 billion people tomorrow with a doomsday device. If the Roman Catholic church still thinks it’s more important to keep the seal of the confessional inviolate than to prevent the death of 1 billion people, then I believe this is a reductio of the principle of the confession.

But, you might object, in order to make it a genuine confession, the confessor must genuinely repent, and you can’t really repent if you consciously plan on committing the sin you are repenting for tomorrow. So it wouldn’t be a real confession. But we need only tweak our thought experiment. Imagine the confessor has a Jekyll and Hyde personality (realistically, this could be done through hypnosis or dissociative identity disorder) and it is the good personality confessing what he thinks the bad personality is going to do. The confessor says, “I am genuinely sorry for this, but I know that I am still going to set off that doomsday device tomorrow because I can’t help it”. Would the seal of the confession still be inviolate? If so, then I think I have provided a reductio of the principle, since it seems obviously absurd to value the principle of the seal over the lives of 1 billion people (or 10 billion, it doesn’t matter for purposes of the thought experiment). Derek Parfit calls this the “Law of Large Numbers”. When you deal with extremely large numbers of lives, then “common sense” moral principles tend to wither under the pressure. If you really considered yourself a moral person, and you believed in a moral God, then surely you would reason that it’s more just to violate the seal and save 1 billion people. Upholding the rule for the sake of upholding the rule is immoral if you cannot give a justification that outweighs the prima facie reasonableness of saving 1 billion lives.

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New Paper: In Defense of the Extraordinary in Religious Belief

Read it here: In Defense of the Extraordinary in Religious Belief

So this is a paper I wrote for Ron Mallon’s Culture and Evolution seminar. I’m really happy with how the paper turned out, and I believe this is the direction I want to go for my future dissertation project. The paper is really a response to some of Pascal Boyer’s claims about the importance of extraordinary religious experience in explaining the origins and cultural success of religious belief. For example, Boyer says:

Even if prophets were the main source of new religious information, that information would still require ordinary nonprophets’ minds to turn it into some particular form of religion…This is why we will probably not understand the diffusion of religion by studying exceptional people, but we may well have a better grasp of religion in general, including that of prophets and other virtuosos, by considering how it is derived from ordinary cognitive capacities. (Boyer, 2001, pp. 310-311)

This is a standard thing to say in the evolutionary origins of religion literature. Most psychologists who are trying to explain religious belief do so in terms of the operation of various ordinary cognitive mechanisms like the Agency Detection Device or our theory of mind capacities. The basic idea then is that we don’t need to posit any sort of “special” religious mechanism that serves as the generator of religious belief. According to what I am calling the Standard Cognitive Model (SCM) of religious belief, religious thoughts are really not that different from any other kind of cognitive operation. Crucially,  the SCM is committed to the idea that the order of explanation is that you explain both religion in general as well as extraordinary experience in terms of the ordinary, and not the other way around.

It’s this emphasis on the “ordinary” that I am arguing against in the paper. My argument is basically this: we cannot use contemporary ratios of ordinary to extraordinary experience as a mirror of what that ratio might have been like in ancient times. Borrowing heavily from Jaynesian theory, I provide several lines of evidence for thinking that what we now consider extraordinary might have actually been quite ordinary in ancient times. If this is right, then we don’t need to think about extraordinary experience as being the exclusive domain of “religious specialists”, as Boyer is prone to think. Instead, we can think about extraordinary experiences such as hearing the voice of a god or demigod talk to you as being quite ordinary.

In the paper, I look at contemporary research on both the incidence of auditory hallucination in children and the factors that lead to the persistence of such hallucinations. What the research shows is that the best predictor of persistence of voice hearing in children is whether they assign the voices to external sources. And prior to the recent invention of the concept of “hallucination”, all ancient voice hearers (like Socrates) would have automatically interpreted their experience in terms of being a communication from an external agent, namely, a god or demigod. Since such attributions are the key predictors of persistence, we can now imagine a society where upwards of 25% or more of adults are actively experiencing auditory hallucinations and interpreting them as being messages from gods or demigods. Accordingly, would we want to still say that “extraordinary experience” is  still exceptional and the exclusive domain of religious specialists?

If this is at all historically accurate, then it looks like we can reverse the explanatory arrow of the SCM. Rather than extraordinary experiences being on the sidelines in determining the cultural success of religion, the familiar experience of auditory hallucination and the shared cultural narratives for interpreting such experiences would have played a much greater role in the spread of religion than the SCM allows. To respond to Boyer then, we can say that perhaps the reason why the “insights” of holy persons were widely accepted is because the ordinary population was already quite familiar with what-it-is-like to hear the voice of a god or demigod commanding you to do something.

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