When questioning the historical case for Jesus it’s clear that there is zero evidence that he existed, other than the claims early Christians made, which later Christians simply repeat, often thinking that the more people believe a lie the more truth it gives to the claim. Non-Christian scholars that investigate the Historicity of Jesus are relying on no additional evidence.
The stories in the gospels are all we have. Other so called independent claims about Jesus, such as those from Josephus, are no more than hearsay. Josephus merely states what he was told by Christians, or by others repeating what Christians told them. The stories about Jesus may be based on a singular real man, or the mix of a number of stories of one or more of the many prophets of the time, or they may be entirely fictional, or any combination. There is zero evidence of any asserted miracles: making a blind man see, turning water into wine, … the resurrection – all fiction, because there is never any evidence to support the supernatural claims for any religion. At best, we might act as if a mortal fake prophet existed, who might have been called Jesus, but even then it is probable that any factual truth was embelished; and the ‘miracles’ are pure fantasy.
The Christian response to this is often a complaint that this point of view is far too sceptical and biased, because we would not be as sceptical about the existance of Plato, for example, or any historical figure from the past for which there is no direct record.
What’s your take on Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Were they fictional too?
But it is not the case that philosophers don’t question the existence of anciant philosophers. We can be just as sceptical about the existence of Jesus and Plato. The crucial point is, what are the relative consequences of such scepticism, or specifically, what are the consequences of both Plato and Jesus not having actually existed?
Doubting The Existence of Plato
Taking Plato first, what would it mean had he not existed at all? Well, it would mean all the works attributed to him were not his, but were authored by one or more other people. Even if Plato was responsible for compiling the works attributed to him, perhaps he plagerised the work of others. So one way or another, Plato, as a living person, might have been a fiction or a fraud.
What would be the consequences of this being the case? Very little. Suppose evidence came to light, some unearthed documents, that made it highly likely he did not exist. Some historians might have to revise their texts in light of this evidence – not an uncommon occurrence in history. Nevertheless, to philosophers it wouldn’t mean much at all, because the body of work attributed to Plato stands alone, whoever the actual author or athors were. But this is nothing new. Philosophers already accept that there can be doubts about the real source of much ancient philosopy. Worse case is that the term ‘Plato’ is no more than a label for a body of work, the ‘Platonic’ work. The philosophy contained in that work is what is important.
Doubting the Existence of Jesus
Now, apply the same scepticism to Jesus. Suppose it came about that new evidence revealed the the religion built around a fictional Jesus was made up by some very mortal Jewish revolutionaries. What would be the consequences?
They would be catestrophic for Christianity. It would show clearly that it was a cult. No Jesus, no miracles … no Christian God! Every Pope, every bishop, priest, nun, monk, pastor for 2000 years would have been living a lie, no matter how much they believed it ti be true. Every church and cathedral would be monuments to a man and a god that never existed. Every child indoctrinated into Christianity would have been raised on lies.
Even without such evidence it’s easy to see the consequences of an ever decreasing number of religious believers over generations. Church congregations dwindle, churches decline into a state of disrepair.
But try to imagine what would happen to the Vatican, today, if evidence emerged that completely repudiated the Christian story.
First there would be denial of the evidence. If they can cover up the abuse of children by priests, for the sake of the good name of the church, imagine how far they would go to bury this news.
And, believers need to believe. Islam claims Jesus was a prophet, not the son of God, not Christ. But even the Muslim religion would be damaged, since Islam relies on at least Jesus being a prophet. If the new evidence disprove this, Islam would be damaged, because Mohammed could no longer be trusted. Nevertheless, some Christians might turn to Islam, ignoring this difficulty, or perhaps to Scientology, or Buddhism, Hinduism, who knows.
But I suspect many Christians would just ignore this revelation of the falsity of Christianity. The cost of giving up would be too much.
My mother, raised as a child to be a Catholic, converted to Protestantism when she married my father, had many conflicts with the two churches, and eventually gave up on organised religion. But she never gave up praying, to a God she could not be sure was what she had been taught. When I questioned her, should could not, woukd not, explain what she actually thought this God entity was. He amounted to no more than a sky fairy she thought was listening to her prayers. She wasn’t even sure shexwas a Christian in any meaningful sense – it became a label she used on official forms that asked for one’s religion.
So, if it could be shown Christianity is fake, academically it would destroy the religion’s credibility … if it’s possible to have any less cerdibility among atheists.
But Christianity as a religion would likely live on. Too many professions rely on it.
We have seen many ‘Christian’ scholars make hilarious claims about how the Jesus story need not be literally true while being true in some other mysterious sense all the same. Surely this is how the bishops at the First Council of Nicea fooled themselves while trying to figure out what the Trinity really meant.
Remember, in living memory, a failed science fiction writer stated he would start a religion, did so, … and still Scientology has believers. There are serious flat earthers. There are 9/11 truthers (“it was a false flag job, the towers were not brought down by planes but by explosives”, etc.) There are many crazy beliefs in the world. Christianity is merely the biggest. One has to be the biggest, and one day that may be Islam. But the argumentum ad populum fallacy is strong among the religious.
Plato v Jesus?
If Plato did not exist, then no big deal, no consequences of any consequence at all. Just a shrug of the shoulders of philosophers, and some book editing by historians.
If Jesus did not exist, it would mean the total collapse of any Christian claims about Jesus.
But in reality, many if not most Christians would keep on following the lie, the fantasy; and children would continue to be indoctrinated. The many failed ‘End of the World’ prophecies didn’t make the next prophet pause to think it through.
Perhaps the realisation of that last point will make some Christians pause and think about how gullible they are being. Christians KNOW how gullible are Muslims, Hindus and other believers of other fake religions.
What does it take to make YOU wonder how gullible you are?
I have some news for you. There are invisible mischievous magic fairies living at the bottom of my garden. They leave no trace, no evidence that they exist. But, when things go missing, like my car keys, I suspect they have been coming into the house and moving them around, just for kicks. Sometimes, when I find my car keys, I remember that I had left them in that place. Other times, when I do not remember leaving them where they are found, but rather have a distinct memory of putting them on the hook in the hall, then I know that either the fairies moved them, or that my memory was mistaken.
Acting as if it’s so, that there are such fairies, or as if it’s not so, causes socially different outcomes, but no difference to the reality behind the acting out.
Acting as if it’s not so, when it is so, or when it isn’t, makes no difference to the reality, or the social outcomes. I go about my life dismissing the occasions when I have misremembered where I left my keys as just that, an error of memory on my part. If a fairy believer asks how I know fairies didn’t move the keys, I reply I don’t, but since I can’t distinguish between misremembering and the act of fairies, what does it matter? If there are really fairies moving my keys I and the world remain indifferent to it, as there is no evidence of it that could not be explained by an error of memory. That a believer in fairies might demand, “How can you not see that it was obviously fairies that moved your keys,” isn’t convincing.
However, acting as if it’s so, when it’s not so, just means I’m a bit loopy. If I tell lots of people about this story, I’m going to get some funny looks, except from people who also believe and act out that it’s so. We believers might get a lot of comfort from believing that fairies move our keys. We don’t have to suffer the indignity of memory loss, and I can bear the social stigma from non-believers, because we believers get together and provide the support we need in the face of doubters.
To believers in gods this story might sound childishly foolish. What grown intelligent adult would believe in such fairies?
I’m sorry to tell you, believers in gods, but that’s just how your beliefs look to atheists. You might find that insulting, offensive, but is it any more offensive than your attitude to believers in fairies, to Scientologists, Fly Spaghetti Monster followers? I know, because I’ve seen it said, that some believers in the Abrahamic god find the blue gods of India comical, ‘unbelievable’. Yet you believe in a zombie Jesus, or a flying horse riding Mohammed, or a sea parting Moses?
And, you agnostics, are you ‘agnostic’ about the fairies in my story?
The only difference between your gods and the gods, aliens and fairies you don’t believe in is your particular commitment to a story you have been convinced of – from childhood indoctrination for many, through a deep seated need to believe by adults that change or find religion.
This acting ‘as if’ something is so, whether it is or not, has a name in a religious. Praxis: the engagement in accepted customs and practices.
I follow Kenan Malik on Twitter. Decent guy, good articles, his book on my shelf reading list. I occasionally disagree, but you really can’t come across many more honest a journalist than Kenan. One of the good ‘lefties’. A Humanist. Keen on ‘justice’.
If I had to bet any money on who’d respond to this negatively and mistakenly, I’d have thought it’s be some of the supporters of the death penalty supporters that would like to castrate painfully and then hang draw and quarter child abusers. And it’s not as if Kenan misses the natural human sentiment of rage and vengeance that such cases arouse – that’s what his article was about, separating our baser desire for vengeance for the greater utility of justice.
But, no. what caught my eye first was a diversion into RadFem writing
Here’s Kenan’s tweet of the article, and then we’re off into RadFem land
A desire for vengeance is human but checks the pursuit of proper justice | My latest column for the Observer https://t.co/mQGCse7sGd
I read Kenan’s article again. Not a sign of him defending the abuser.
And so I thought I’d have a say too:
What followed for a few tweets was the usual back and forth of disagreement about what was actually in the article, until I wondered if Jo had read the article. So I simply asked.
And that’s when it turned to ‘mansplaining’. And what you’re going to see is a deep dive into childishness (and, for the record, that opinion is not based on their gender, but on their stupidity; for there’s plenty of male stupidity to go around too – and that’s gender equality for you).
This reply betrays a complete and utter failure to understand basic discourse and the presentation of evidence to back up claims. Anshu had said no more than that they disagree, and had not made a claim that warrants evidence.
You might think this a simple twitter wording gone astray, except that RadFem is a writer herself, and makes a splash of it in her Twitter bio – ‘bon mots’.
Nevertheless, Anshu clarifies his disagreement, which is the same point, put in other words:
But you just did, you moron! You specifically analysed the hypotheitical of the judge being a man in this case and asserted this conversation would not be happening.
Well, on second thoughts, to be fair, that’s probably true. But the reason would be (engaging my own hypotheticals) that the RadFem would not have bothered to pick up the evidence against her RadFem agenda.
And that’s the bias of RadFem for you. And, just to make sure it’s clear, Kenan responds at this point:
Oh, FFS! She really has no idea who Kenan Malik is, or she’d not be making dumb ass statements like this. But not only that, the judge is white, the abuser is white, … and he wasn’t even racist in his choice of victims. He’s an equal opportunity abuser.
This RadFem nonsense is off the rails at this point.
The profile of the RadFem @vonny_bravo:
Journalist. RadFem. Martinis, bon mots, good shoes. Writes about women & girls. @ScotNational columnist. @Guardian contributor.
We can only hope for more rationality and use of evidence in articles that aren’t as agenda driven. So, to Vonny’s article:
“Larry Nassar will die in jail. Following arguably the biggest child abuse scandal in sporting history …”
So, Vonny hasn’t heard of the UK football abuse scandals? “Writes about women & girls” – OK, maybe that’s a hint to broaden one’s horizons.
“In reporting it, too often the victim is an afterthought. The perpetrator profile, the act detailed, the woman or girl nowhere to be seen.”
I wonder if that’s because their identity is specifically protected. This was once a problem for women victims, but now this has become a problem for the falsely accused, as the recent Liam Allan, where even the police and prosecution stacked the cards against him by withholding evidence that should have seen the case thrown out long before his name became public.
And, of course, despite Vonny’s pleading, as shown in the Liam Allen case, details about the accuser are not without pertinance to the case.
“When we hear her name, it’s when a case collapses and the tabloids feast.”
Collapse? How about when they are shown to be based on lies, smears, false accusations? What about when the lying accuser at last gets some publicity? Does Vonny oppose this too?
“More often, we hear nothing unless a woman waives her right to anonymity”
So, what exactly is the complaint here? That women victims get publicity, or they don’t? Do note that the football coaching abuse scandal has male victims waving anonymity.
“She sentenced him to 175 years. A titan of a sentence, the fullest force of the law – but just one year and one month per girl when you do the maths.”
What’s she proposing? 1,750 years? 3,500 years? What point is Vonny making with the “one year and one month per girl”?
“You would think denouncing a serial paedophile would be a given in a civilised society. There’s no ambiguity about the atrocity of child abuse. And yet countless men took to the internet denounce everyone but Nassar. The girls were looking for money and attention. Aquilina was grandstanding. She was mean. The sentence was too harsh. She wears too much makeup. Where were their mothers?”
Maybe “countless *men* (no women?) took to the internet denounce everyone but Nassar” because Nassar was already denounced. Did anyone actually claim he was not guilty? After all, if there was no ambiguity.
Maybe some were curious about how he got away with it for so long. Who else was culpable – not of abuse, but of a failure of a duty of care to watch out for the girls.
Comments about the judge’s makeup were irrelevant to the case. Who exactly used that as a reason to claim Nassar’s innocence? I ask, because you can see what ‘journalist’ Vonny is doing here. She’s using spurious comments, by who knows, to form a case for the new hip term ‘himpathy’.
“Professor Kate Manne, a moral philosopher at Cornell, theorises this as “himpathy”.”
So, women don’t engage in excusing women? And when it comes to excusing men, there are an awful lot of female Trump supporters, and all the serious bad guys, like Hitler, Moa, Castro, all had their female apologists. Of course you’d expect more men and fewer women to excuse a man charged with abuse. What woman could possibly excuse him? Well, you could ask that of many religious women that seem to idolise male prophets and preachers.
“Himpathy blinkers us.”
This, in a post that was offered as response to Kenan Malik’s article on distinguishing justice and revenge, where zero support, sympathy of excuse was offered to the abuser, and not a hint of victim blaming. Blinkered is what Vonny is.
If you let your ideology overcome your capacity to reason, and it prevents you simply admitting you were mistaken when accusing a particular person of something they didn’t do, and if you find you are doubling, trebling down on your position, or diverting from it entirely, then maybe you need to take some philosophy classes.
NO. IT. DOES. NOT. It mocks Nazis [and, as I too missed, on first writing, it mocks some of the liberal commentary on how deserving conservative Texan’s might be, which I hadn’t seen – see Areo link later]
It is not mocking all victims of Harvey. It is not claiming all victims of Harvey are Nazis.
Idiots are doing 2 + 2 = 5 again. Reading their own interpretation into a simplistic view of Hebdo.
Hebdo is anti-Nazi.
Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is a neo-Nazi organisation.
Bayou Knights of the Ku Klux Kla is present in Texas.
Hammerskins were formed in Texas.
Resistance Records is headquartered in Texas.
Now, you might want to bear in mind that this next link is based on the notoriously dodgy SPLC, but according to them there are about 55 ‘hate groups’ in Texas – and even allowing for SPLC bias and lies, that would still likely leave a few.
About the only real complaint one could make about the Hebdo piece is “Too soon!” But topicality, satire, irreverance, is their thing.
A question: Is Hebdo’s message any worse than the many religious people in Texas thanking God for their survival, while ignoring their imaginary friend’s failure to protect Texas from the storm? Or that Texans deserve the ‘biblical’ flood?
This time the images are of London victims fleeing ISIS, and Theresa May, head under her arm.
CH is not mocking the victims but those that contribute to the creation of victims. CH asks you to think. The image is the shock that makes you question. But if you just look at the image and jump to your own simple conclusions based on that alone, it is YOU that is failing to think. Continue reading “Headless May, Yet Still, Je Suis Charlie”→
This is becoming such a regular occurrence that it makes you worry about the guy. Hold that thought …. nope, when he’s so malicious in the treatment of his targets my sympathy is not with him, but with them – including Sarah Palin, FFS!
Yes, the voices of reason are actually defending Sarah Palin . Strange? No – when someone is being genuinely misrepresented it does your own case no good if you leave that out there. This is where Cenk and other Regressives go off the rails: the demonisation and misrepresentation they call out in others is exactly what they engage in themselves.
I’d like to address the nonsense that is passed off as reasons for thinking the Quran is a fine book, that it represents a religion of peace, that it’s all for freeing slaves, that it represents liberating feminism (Linda Sarsour) … you know the typical lines.
As an example, I’ll use a recent comment made to excuse Islam and the Quran. I’ll use only the bits relevant to this post, and I’ll paraphrase it to make it readable, and the emphasis will be mine. You can see the full comment and the context here if you wish.
Cummins writes an article I think misrepresents Bloom.
I criticise that, I think without hysteria. I don’t especially make Blooms case, but point out what I see as a misreading of it. I even open with a questioning stance, in case I’m missing something.
Cummins responds with what I think is fair to call an overly defensive moralising agenda driven reply with what amounts to the accusations of immoral motives for criticising empathy; a non-too-well disguised ad hominem loaded comment. She responds in a similar fashion to others, more condescendingly to some.
I call out her rhetoric in a follow up comment.
Cummins deletes that comment of mine.
Cummins doctors her comment to remove much of the ad hominem content.
I comment on the doctoring, in the comment stream. That comment soon vanishes.
I write again, this time sticking to the points about Bloom, addressing the doctored comments in 6.
Cummins responds calling my now vanished comments ‘hysterical rants’, citing a ‘normative’ comment policy that she doesn’t stick to herself.
Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015
What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?
Rational: agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible; having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense; of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty. Continue reading “Can Faith Ever Be Rational?”→
The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.
The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?
If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.
The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.
So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).
Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.
But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.
Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.
Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.
Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.
So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.
Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?
Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.
How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?
Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.
It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.
Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.
The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.
In the matter of philosophy, such as that of consciousness, the origins of the universe, theism, one of my biggest bugbears is when philosophers tell us something is obvious – and by philosophers I do include professional ones, for which the mistake is almost unforgivable. If it were all obvious we wouldn’t be having philosophical discussions, as we’d all be of one mind, one faith, or none. The game would be over.
Some of the more ‘obvious’ uses of the word that are clearly mistaken in my view is when the lovely Jehovahs Witnesses stand at my door, look around and say, “Look, this is all so wonderful, it’s obvious there must be a creator.”
The opposite is to claim a view to be ‘absurd’ (or perhaps what is meant is that it is ‘obviously absurd’), as when Muslim Hamza Tzortzis, scourge of the debating scene, says things like “..and this would lead to an absurdity as it would imply that the universe created itself.”, when first, there’s no such necessary implication from his argument, and it’s not as if he knows what is absurd or not, or what is obvious or not, in the matter of the creation of universes. This is probably the most common flaw in attempts by Muslims to ‘prove’ God exists – they feel their assumptions are obviously true.
Atheists philosophers aren’t immune to it. In a discussion with scientist Peter Atkins, the philosopher Steven Law tried to point out that empiricism wasn’t important in some cases, because it was obvious, for example, that if Peter Atkins claimed to have something stuffed up his jumper it would be easy to just look – which sort of makes you wonder what a professional philosopher thinks empiricism is. What Law thinks is obvious is not so much so in the end, and I wonder that he doesn’t get that. What happened to the critical thinking he promotes so assiduously?
And proponents of free-will and the nature of the self are probably the biggest culprits, including atheist Raymond Tallis, in that they feel that how humans experience personal subjectivity is an obvious indication that it’s a real representation of human nature; when most of them know full well that feeling that ‘something is the case’ in matters at the edge of our understanding does not imply that it is obviously true. Many proponents of free-will will happily admit that many other illusions are illusions despite how it feels, but their particular feeling that they have free-will is obviously correct. It’s obvious their double standards are absurd (oh bugger!)
There are countless examples of proponents for some idea or other claiming it is obvious, when the argument itself belies that claim. Where we are of quite different world views it’s even more important to avoid that mistake. What may be patently obvious to me as an atheist, about the nature of the world, clearly isn’t obvious to most theists; and the obvious presence in God in the lives of theists is clearly not so obvious to atheists.
Questioning what is obvious to ourselves is probably the most difficult thing we do. We are challenging our inbred reliance on intuition to examine what might be counter intuitive. Nit picking is essential in this task, and if you have someone tell you something or other is obvious, then that’s the point to challenge – pick that nit. And if you find yourself claiming something is obvious, you need to think deeper about what it is you find so obvious.
Surely all this is obvious, isn’t it? Do I really need to state it?
Duglas Adams (h/t Dawkins)
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on a gas covered planet going round a nuclear fireball, and think this normal, is obviously an indication of how skewed our perspective is.
“I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.”
A shameful example of how personal preconceptions and bias have not only been abandoned by a philosopher, but how it has produced thirty years of paper and megabytes and neuronal confusion. Another example of how philosophers deal with the obvious.
Confirmation bias is such a tricky one that it requires persistent vigilance.
Scientific American for November carries the story based on Marc Hauser’s problems, the nature of which hasn’t been made clear yet. Some suspect fraud, but the more generous view is confirmation bias.
Two factors make combating confirmation bias an uphill battle. For one, data show that eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence,they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant. Second, the mounting pressure on scholars to conduct single-hypothesis-driven research programs supported by huge federal grants is a recipe for trouble. Many scientists are highly motivated to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers. Yet when members of the scientific community see themselves as invulnerable to error, they impede progress and damage the reputation of science in the public eye.
The very edifice of science hinges on the willingness of investigators to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong.
The best antidote to fooling ourselves is adhering closely to scientific methods. Indeed, history teaches us that science is not a monolithic truth-gathering method but rather a motley assortment of tools designed to safeguard us against bias.
As astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife and co-author Ann Druyan noted, science is like a little voice in our heads that says, “You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.” Good scientists are not immune from confirmation bias. They are aware of it and avail themselves of procedural safeguards against its pernicious effects.
At least it’s reassuring that scientists are keeping an eye on each other, given the difficulty of keeping an eye on oneself. It’s about the best we can expect. And given this is the case, it illustrates the paucity of any ‘other way of knowing’.
The Harris religion and rape issue is inflaming opinion, still. This particular storm is about the comment he made in an interview with Bethany Saltman in 2006, and this particular sentence:
“I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”
But let’s go back to where it started, with his book, Letter To A Christian Nation, 2006, which prompted the Saltman interview.
Naturally, for religious people that haven’t read the book but who like to pick up on the nasty things atheists say on their journey to eternal damnation in the next life, then the whole concept of comparing their precious religion with rape is pretty shocking. And it looks like Harris has handed them a stick with which they can give him a damned good thrashing.
Trouble is, in their rush to read only the bad, they miss the point. Here’s the section from the book where rape is first raised.
“As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”
Here Harris is clearly using it to point out that because something has natural origins we don’t have to think it acceptable behaviour now. It’s used as an analogy.
But it’s an analogy that many religious people don’t get. And because they don’t get it they’ve come over all of a froth, because of the dreaded word ‘rape’ – such a taboo word.
My pop-psychology point of the day is that religious people are so used to selective reading when it comes to their holy books, so used to interpreting anything they read in order to give an affirmative bias towards their religion and a negative bias against anything that challenges it, that they are simply confused by analogies, not knowing when to read something literally and when to interpret it as an analogy, or even how to figure out what work the analogy is doing.
Here’s a case in point. Suem wonders why there is so much outrage over Xola Skosana’s sermon that included ‘Jesus with HIV analogy‘.
“Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements”
No they don’t!
They don’t get The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or fairy analogies. Here the point of the analogy is not to liken God to the obviously ridiculous FSM or fairies.
The FSM analogy is about the reasoning that gets you from some hypothesis, such as there is a God, or there is an FSM, to a full explanation, a theology, and even descriptions of characteristics of this hypothetical entity, without any evidence whatsoever.
The whole point of picking obvious nonsensical entities as the object of belief is to show that the same reasoning or faith that gives you God can give you these others; and so the reasoning and the faith is a flawed way of acquiring truth about the entity.
So, similarly, the point of Harris using ‘rape’ in this specific case in his book is to show that the analogous aspects of religion and rape is that because they had evolutionary advantage at some point doesn’t make them beneficial now. Here rape is not meant to be analogous to religion directly.
Symbolically it’s like this:
A has some aspect X B has some aspect X
A is religion. Where B is rape, X is the past evolutionary benefit of religion and rape. Where B is the FSM, X is the poor reasoning about theology of religion and the FSM.
So, here’s the argument. A has aspect X, and is therefore good. But B has aspect X, and B is clearly not good. So, having aspect X is no indication of B or A being good.
The religious could save a lot of unnecessary argument if they took the trouble to figure out what the analogy is about.
The Harris – Saltman Interview
As if the religious hadn’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick already, Harris gives them another excuse to fume. And fume they do.
Let’s have a look at what else he says before we get to the crutial point. Though many religious people might disagree with many of his points, there are some who do see his issues with religion when it comes to the more fundamental flavour. Here’s how it goes towards the end of page 1 of The Sun web site version:
Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?
It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.
Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.
Note that both genocide and rape are given as examples. Clearly Harris is referring to the analogy, as I described it above. Being a natural human behaviour does not mean that it has any benefit now.
But Harris isn’t saying benefit can’t be derived from religion. To go back to the book, Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris knows full well that some people do derive benefit from religion:
I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I do not wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out however, that billions of human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences – but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature
So clearly, despite what some critics claim, he doesn’t see all religious experience in the same light. But his main point is that overall it is detrimental to society.
I’ll skip ahead slightly in the interview, past the offending words, just to make it clear Harris isn’t a baby eater.
Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. …[some details about specific problems]…Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.
If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?
Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable…
See, he recognises some religions aren’t so bad.
…I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.
So you see Buddhist meditation not as a religious practice, but as something that can yield results.
Clearly, there are results to any religious practice. A Christian might say, “If you pray to Jesus, you’ll notice a change in your life.” And I don’t dispute that. The crucial distinction between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Western religions is that with Buddhism, you don’t have to believe anything on faith to get the process started.
Harris Hates All Religions?
Again I need to emphasise the fact that Harris does distinguish between degrees of religious fundamentalism and the associated harms. Remember that when we get to the crunch statement.
Do you think that there is such a thing as a peaceful religion?
Oh, sure. Jainism is the best example that I know of. It emerged in India at more or less the same time as Buddhism. Nonviolence is its core doctrine. Jain “extremists” wear masks in order to avoid breathing in any living thing. To be a practicing Jain, you have to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So the more “deranged” and dogmatic a Jain becomes, the less likely he or she is to harm living beings. Jains probably believe certain things on insufficient evidence, and that’s not a good idea, in my opinion. I can even imagine a scenario in which Jain dogma could get people killed: I don’t actually know what Jains say on this subject, but let’s say they became unwilling to kill even bacteria and forbade the use of antibiotics.
…They [evangelicals] have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way. If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it’s not in the secular-leaning blue states. It’s in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.
Now, I’m not saying that we can look at this data and say, “Religion causes violence.” But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don’t guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one’s religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality.
So, just to emphasise the point again. Harris does not see all religions as being as bad as each other. Harris does see people gaining some benefits from religion, though he thinks there are better ways. Harris does not think religion is the cause of all evil. Harris does not think all religion is evil. Nowhere does Harris actually call for the forced curtailment of religious belief. In all of this he is making very straight forward arguments about what he finds wrong with religion.
The Evil Atheists
Of course no discussion about religion is complete without a comment on the evil that atheists do. And nearly every religious person gets this point wrong. Saltman is playing devil’s advocate here of course.
Atheism doesn’t always go hand in hand with reason and compassion. Look at the destruction and violence caused by atheist ideology in China and the old Soviet Union.
What I’m really arguing against is dogma, and those communist systems of belief were every bit as dogmatic as religious systems. In fact, I’d call them ‘political religions’. But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs. Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it’s worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that’s obviously indefensible and dogmatic.
And just to re-state the point made countless times, none of this was done in the name of atheism. Atheism isn’t a dogmatic belief system that anyone does anything in the name of. And atheists are not claiming religion is the cause of all ills, or that all atheists are whitere than white. So, can we drop this red herring.
The Magic Wand of Harris
OK. Let’s get to the main point. The offending place is top of page 2.
Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?
I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.
Now, given the context in which the original analogy was used, this is just an extension of that. Here’s the analogy:
A causes an amount of suffering. B causes an amount of suffering.
Here A is rape, and B is religion. And on his assessment religion causes more harm than rape.
So, if he could wish away one of them he thinks the best option would be religion, as removing it would reduce harm the most.
Note that this is a simple thought experiment, wishful thinking, and as such has no specific bad consequences.
For example, if it clearly was a magic wish that did the trick he’d no doubt want all the currently religious people to be simply non-religious – so it’s not as if he would be causing more suffering by removing religion, the newly non-religious wouldn’t feel they were deprived of religion.
And, since rape sometimes occurs during religiously inspired genocides, and since some religious leaders use their status as a cover for sexual abuse and rape, then removing religion would remove some rape.
And we could still carry on trying to stop rape, so it’s not as if Harris is condoning rape. It just happens to be an unwanted human behaviour that he uses in an analogy.
There really isn’t that much to this statement after all, given the context. It’s ridiculous how many religious people have tried to get mileage out of it since he made it.
A More Literal Comparison
But what if he was to have meant it to be taken seriously. Is religion worse than rape? You’ll have to ask Harris yourself, if you still think he’s the son of Satan for uttering the words ‘rape’ and ‘religion’ in the same breath. But here’s my understanding of what he said and how to interpret it, should you want to take it as a literal intention by Harris.
1) Individual rape can ‘harm’ one victim at a time. I’m not aware of any person being able to rape more than one person at once. This is basically a one-on-one act. Annually (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics) it might be 500,000 a year, accounting for unreported rape.
2) Nuclear weapons or biological weapons can ‘kill and harm’ hundreds of thousands or millions at a time. It might take more than one person to achieve this, but the ratios are still pretty high: one-to-hundreds-of-thousands, or one-to-millions.
3) Extreme religion probably has the highest potential for (2) currently.
4) All religions, by setting faith above reason, are self affirming systems that can, under some circumstances, provide the right framework for (3), and hence (2). That framework of extreme religions exists now, and this has been a self-evident fact since 9/11. Some small number of people with religious motivations killed thousands of people, directly and in the aftermath. And 9/11 was the catalyst for a war that kill even more. 9/11 is still invoking religious hatred now at ground zero. That’s before we get to the many conflicts around the world that are going on now that have a religious element, if not done in the name of religion. Harris covers plenty in his book.
Note to liberals: the extensive use of reason on top of faith is not a get out of jail card. Faith plus speculation is a poor move. It just happens to be a really bad move in the hands of terrorist fanatics.
5) The same applies to all dogmas that affirm their beliefs and aren’t subjected to sufficient scepticism. So, it’s not just religion Harris is objecting to. But currently religion is the most dangerous in his view.
Again, a note to easily offended moderates and liberals: just because you’re pretty harmless doesn’t change the fact that religion in the wrong hands is dangerous.
6) Bonus point: without religion there’s no RC church, which reduces the number of rapes and abuses a little. And since many of the genocidal wars around the world also include rape, then if removing religion could reduce the number of such wars then there’d be less rape anyway.
7) Harris isn’t calling for or expecting the abolition of religion – some people have mistaken his statements here for that. Harris believes in freedom of religious belief. His statement was hypothetical wishful thinking. His point being that if it were possible for religion to suddenly vanish, that would be a better outcome than if all men suddenly stopped raping.
Now I know some people don’t like it when we try to evaluate relative harms, when we try to be objective about them. They find something distasteful and taboo about even considering it.
Here’s a response to Harris,
I would like to ask Sam Harris what personal experience he has of rape.
Why is this relevant? What is my experience of rape or being the victim of a suicide bomber? None.
Another question to Harris,
And I wonder how it would feel to have been subjected to rape and then to hear a statement such as Harris’s?
– Or how it would feel to have your family taken by a suicide bomber or abducted and beheaded by terrorists, or killed leaving his place of work, or blown up in an Irish pub.
These are very one sided questions. Do we have to experience every suffering to have any regard for the sufferer? What do you think human empathy is all about? what do you think it is that has been driving your own morals all this time? God?
Having read Letter To A Christian Nation, and the interview with Saltman, I don’t think Harris has said anything particularly controversial. Dispite that being my opinion, of course Harris may well have made the statements specifically to be controversial. Maybe his remark about being inflammatory was calculated. You’ll have to ask Harris. But on first reading it I hadn’t noticed anything particularly bad about it – just a rhetorical flourish. I’m often surprised how the religious, who survive on emotive language, don’t particularly like it when their religion is the target.
We can take any version of his rape statements: analogy of natural evolved benefit no longer being beneficial; a thought experiment, a wish, that religion wasn’t present; or a more literal calculation of least harm. Each interpretation of Harris’s words are really not that controversial – except to the extent that the religious like to find fault with Harris.
Harris, throughout his book and interview is quite gracious about the people of religion. He sees their particular problem as being that they have been misguided by religion. He simply dislikes the principle of religion and faith that can provide a framework for fundamental atrocities.
So, here are the words again:
I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.
Out of context I guess they could be misconstrued. And the problem is they usually are taken out of context – when seen in a blog, referencing another blog, taken from an article, that short changes the original source. And comments are made on the basis of the sentences here, or the fuller paragraph given earlier. But I see them as quite harmless in context, particularly the wider context of the book and the interview.
People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.
There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that.
Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We love to do it. Everyone take their vitamins this morning? Echinacea, a little antioxidant to get you going. I know you did because half of Americans do every day. They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines, and it doesn’t matter how often we find out that they’re useless. The data says it all the time. They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that.
Well, I think I understand, we hate big pharma. … So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo. … But, you know, it’s really a serious thing because this stuff is crap…
And you know what? When I say this stuff, people scream at me, and they say, “What do you care? Let people do what they want to do. it makes them feel good.” And you know what? You’re wrong. Because I don’t care if it’s the secretary of H.H.S. who’s saying, “Hmm, I’m not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms,” or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas. When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS.
I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:
The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.
What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.
The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.
As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.
Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.
Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.
Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.
Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.