Tag Archives: religion

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

1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Books, Theology

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.

31 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Philosophy, Theology

Quote for the Day – Newton the Magician

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than ten thousand years ago…[Newton saw] the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt…He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty…”

~ John Maynard Keynes, ‘Newton, the Man”, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Philosophy of science, Science

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

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Philosophy, Theology

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

2 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Books, Theology

Quote of the Day – Atheism as a Religion

“If believers think atheism is a religion, then they need to provide a definition of religion that applies both to supernaturalism and its denial. Any definition of religion that includes atheism will either deny the inherent supernaturalism of religion or end up describing religion as a social grouping of some kind.”

~John Loftus, The Outsider Test of Faith

Leave a comment

Filed under Atheism

Book Notice: Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I rarely read fiction, but when I do, I hope it’s as interestingly intelligent as Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Part of the appeal, to me at least, is that Goldstein fills her fictional world with intellectuals and academics from elite East Coast universities who are continuously having conversations peppered with high-level concepts ranging from philosophy, science, to game theory and beyond. I’m a sucker for novels of this sort in part because it lowers my feelings of guilt for indulging in fiction. The book has some bad reviews on amazon I’m guessing because of the protagonist (a “famous” atheist), the intellectual content, and the target audience. Knowing the academic buzzwords will probably go a long way towards rendering Goldstein’s work enjoyable, but I imagine for many it will still come off as pretentious. I never got that feeling, but then again, as an academic atheist philosopher interested in the psychology of religion, I probably instantiate the Platonic form of Goldstein’s target audience. For a novel that revolves around New Atheism, I was pleasantly surprised that the theological discussions were always at a respectably high level of sophistication and the arguments for and against God’s existence were never dumbed down (quite the opposite!). The protagonist is often described as an “atheist with a soul”, and accordingly I think the book itself deserves a similar description: Intelligent Fiction for the Atheist’s Soul.

Leave a comment

Filed under Academia, Atheism, Books

Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot: Killing in the Name of Atheism?

Wait for the end!

h/t: Debunking Christianity

4 Comments

April 4, 2013 · 6:17 pm

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.”

3 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Theology

Book review: John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible

Have you ever wondered where the archetype of a “guardian angel”, “vision guide”, “helper”, or “Third Man” comes from? Why, in extreme survival situations, is it common for people to report the experience of a “presence” assisting them? John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor is a comprehensive compilation of reports from mountaineers, explorers, sailors, adventurers, divers, and other persons faced with death in extreme survival situations who all report strangely similar accounts of a “presence” helping, comforting, motivating, or advising them, a phenomenon often dubbed the “Third Man Factor” from Ernest Shackleton’s famous report that during his harrowing travels in polar regions “it seemed to me often that we were four not three”. It’s call the “Third Man” factor not the “Fourth Man” factor because T.S. Eliot thought a trio was more poetic when he channel’s Shackleton’s story:

Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I looked ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

The Waste Land

The Third Man Factor is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. This is not only because of the nature of the extreme survival tales but because the Third Man factor is one of the most interesting psychological phenomena ever recorded. Allow me to quote some first-hand descriptions of the Third Man factor:

“It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence. It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”

“It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped.”

“Then all at once I became aware of something new and strange, a consciousness of a ‘presence’, a feeling that I was not alone.”

“I could feel his invisible presence sitting there comfortingly beside me in that lonely little raft lost so hopelessly in the vast Atlantic.”

“Two hours later, he was awoken with a start by a stern voice: ‘Get up. It’s your turn at the helm.'”

“I didn’t pray, and I’m not a religious man usually, but for the whole voyage I’d had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me, and keeping me safe from harm.”

“…a strange sensation as if someone were in the boat with me. How can I explain it –not a mystical experience, just a calm feeling of assurance that someone was there helping and sharing tasks. Looking back, I do not feel that my mind became deranged — I was just quite certain that I was not alone.”

“It was then that he became acutely aware of a presence with him. Venables felt that it was an older person: ‘I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of that day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support.”

“I don’t often talk about my companion watcher these days…After the Breach when I first spoke of him to people, they reacted quite predictably: “What an imagination!”…At first I persisted in my stand: ‘He was real. There in the flesh or at least in some concrete form I could see.’ Now I know this and say this to you: He was there and as real as you or I.”

“I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours of this day? Transparent forms in human outline – voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”

Clearly this is a very real psychological phenomena. I see no reason to believe that these reports are somehow getting the phenomenology wrong. What interests me is how the Third Man factor is closely intertwined with religious history. For ages, religious persons have reported experiences of “guardian angels” assisting them or comforting them. Almost all primitive cultures believe in various spirits or ephemeral beings, and the concept of seeking out such beings on “vision quests” is quite familiar. I think atheists and skeptics can learn a lot about the epistemology of religious belief from understanding the Third Man factor. Many atheists assume that believers are irrational in using “mere subjective experience” to argue for the rationality of their belief in supernatural phenomena. Arguably, it is less rational in today’s modern scientific society with ample brain-based explanations, but to understand the persistence and appeal of religion in modern times we have to understand its origins in prescientific eras. I see no reason to think that the Third Man factor is a modern phenomena. Likely it has a hardwired biological underpinning that would have been present in humans long before we knew anything about how the brain works. Consider this telling quote from the book:

“Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling. As it passed, I walked back to the ship, I felt wholly convinced that no agnostic, no skeptic, no atheist, no humanist, no doubter, would ever take from me the certainty of the existence of God.”

How can you argue against that? You can’t really. Now imagine the epistemic situation prior to the invention of brain science. If you experienced a Third Man, then you would be quite rational in explaining that experience in terms of your local cultural narrative whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or animism. For Christians, they would have explained it in terms of the Biblical concept of an angel. For some Christians, the Third Man could also take the form of Jesus or God himself rather than just a “lower” entity like an angel (or demon). From an epistemological perspective, the Third Man factor is extremely interesting. It explains why many believers are “certain” that God exists and that nothing could ever change their minds: they have experienced the Third Man. I have no doubt the Third Man factor is also at play in alien abduction experiences.

Of course, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such phenomena if you accept the findings of modern neuroscience and philosophical naturalism. As Geiger discusses several times, one of the most promising theories to explain the Third Man is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. On the basis of multiple sources of evidence, Jaynes argues that at the dawn of history, humans had a much lower stress threshold to trigger hallucinations. Moreover, he argues (convincingly, imo) that such hallucinations could have had an adaptive function reinforced by natural selection. Such “hallucinatory control” is a type of decision making that manifests psychologically in the form of hallucinations, particularly of authoritative voices giving commands. Jaynes argues that command hallucinations allow for a novel form of self-stimulation and self-regulation (I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is where Dennett got his own ideas about self-stimulation from in Consciousness Explained, albeit stripped of the hallucination aspect). Such self-stimulations replaced the promptings by others (e.g. leaders) that would have triggered stereotyped behavioral patterns. By prompting oneself internally, humans would have been able to engage in more complex, “time-delayed” behaviors in the absence of verbal promptings by others. As Jaynes says,

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratizethe situation and so hold his analog “ I ” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘ internal ’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)

This might sound implausible, but consider the jury-rigging or “klugeish” nature of evolutionary tinkering. Evolution could have taken a preexisting language system and redeployed it to be used to issue commands, not externally with a voice, but internally to oneself. Such “promptings” could act as a jury-rigged memory buffer system. With such machinery in place, humans would have been able to achieve feats of complex culture building. Religious narratives would have co-evolved along with the expansion of this self-stimulation system, giving birth to modern religious concepts.

We already have good “proximal” explanations of the Third Man in terms of brain science. But what we lacked, and what Jaynes offers, is an “ultimate” explanation of the Third Man, one that gives an evolutionary story in adaptationist language. Whether or not Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism is fully corroborated in all its minute details (to the extent that it can given its historical hypotheses), I believe Geiger’s brilliant and compelling book is just another piece of evidence in support of Jaynesian ideas. On the theory of bicameralism, the Third Man is a vestigial remnant of a preexisting system of behavioral self-stimulation that used internally generated hallucinations as a way to transfer linguistic information to other, “encapsulated” areas of the brain.

If you are interested, Geiger has setup an online forum for people across the world to share stories of their own Third Man experience. Check it out:

http://thirdmanfactor.igloocommunities.com/forums

Leave a comment

Filed under Consciousness, Psychology