Sunday, October 22, 2006

Faith, Faith--Go Away! Come Again No Other Day! (You Wish.)

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 5.1MB; 4.5min} The San Francisco chronicle has a nice article[1] and summary on recent conundrums faced by atheists on the continued presence and vitality of religion. Naturally, the “unholy trinity” of atheists come-lately is noted up-front in the article (Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett),[2] and then an analysis is given by Ron Carlson, an author and speaker of some note who is an advocate of religion.

Carlson offers a thought experiment which I find telling:

In the secular account, "You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere."

In the Christian view, by contrast, "You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him."

Now imagine two groups of people -- let's call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe -- who subscribe to one of these two views. Which of the two is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all.
It looks like the underlying position is that people who believe that they are placed for some (Christian-flavored) transcendental purpose are more fit for surviving (and thus reproducing) in the current historical circumstances than those who do not hold such beliefs.

I suppose one could run an experiment and see if this is true. D'Souza does go on to examine some demographic trends in countries which do and do not have large populations committed to religion. The problem, of course, is determining if the circumstances are similar enough to draw conclusions.

For example, even though three groups of people might have the same economic status, it hardly follow that they have the same philosophical outlook on life. Suppose that persons in Beijing, Frankfurt, and Indianapolis all make the spending-power equivalent of 50K a year. Does it follow that their views on religion will be the same? Is economic analysis the fitness envirnoment which determines survival? Governmental philosophy?

Again, Suppose that persons in Beijing, Frankfurt, and Indianapolis all are religious. One is Taoist, one Christian, and one Buddhist. Does it follow they are all equally fit for surviving (and thus reproducing) in the current historical circumstances, and well more so than those who do not hold any such belief concerning religion?

So many pivotal questions, so few scientifically justified answers! In fact, one of the problems I’ve always had with atheism, even before I became a mercenary for the pious, is how regularly atheists claim to know decisively what the answers are about religious belief well before we have completed sciences just in cognitive neurology, general psychology, sociology. (Much less before we have completed sciences in physics, biology, or information theoretic model of genetics.)

Here’s a fine quote from D'Souza at the end of his article:

My conclusion is that it is not religion but atheism that requires a Darwinian explanation. It seems perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no purpose to life or the universe, indeed whose only moral drive seems to be sneering at their fellow human beings who do have a sense of purpose.
In philosophy, this is known as “turning an argument on its head”, or sometimes as a de-constructive argument– namely, where the very method of argument is turned against the advocate of a contrary position.

Though D'souza is certainly wrong that all atheists sneer at people who have a sense of purpose -- some atheists[3] do indeed have purpose -- I do find a recurrent shrill attitude against any who might dare show agnosticism towards a reductionistic, materialistic naturalism, at least when I peruse popular literature[4] on atheism. I guess that makes me a skeptic about the atheistic worldview.


[1] Dinesh D'Souza “God knows why faith is thriving” San Francisco Chronicle (October 22, 2006)

[2] See Entries on "Richard Dawkins", "Sam Harris", and "Daniel Dennett" Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Accessed 10/22/06)

[3] Paul Kurtz comes to mind here. His philosophical stance is known as "eupraxsophy." Though he claims to rely on rational methods such as logic, observation and science (rather than faith, mysticism or revelation) for developing his philosophy, when he invokes talk of ethics and moral accountability towards other human beings, Kurtz seems to move beyond his logical empiricism. (And that's not a bad thing.)

[4] See especially Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer.

[enrty image] "The Skeptic" Robert Hall Artist Site (Accessed 10/22/06)



At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mercenary for the pious? I like that one. In fact, I like it a lot.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Taylor Caraway said...

In your opinion, are leading atheists really puzzled about the continued vitality of relgion? My inclination would be the exact opposite--that many atheists can give multiple viable reasons why religion continues to thrive.

When I think of the atheist who can't understand the continued success of religion, I think of a 19 year old, newly converted atheist whose motivations are largely reactionary--not some of the leading atheist philosophers.


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