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is belief in god irrational? – that is not the question

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forget them - read this!

forget them – read this!

Debates between theists and atheists have become commonplace over the past few years, for better or worse, and the topic has often been vague enough to allow the protagonists plenty of leeway to espouse their views. True or false, rational or irrational, these are the oppositional terms most often used. These debates are often quite arid, with both parties firing from fixed positions and very carefully concealing from observers any palpable hits they’ve received from the other side. Whether they’ve contributed to the continued rise of the nones is hard to say.

I heard another one recently, bearing the title Is belief in God irrational? It was hosted on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, one that I recommend to those interested in the claims of Christianity in particular, as these ‘doubtcasters’ know their Bible pretty well and are well up on Christian politics, particularly in the US. The debaters were Chris Hallquist (atheist) and Randal Rauser (theist), and it was pretty hard to listen to at times, with much squabbling and point-scoring over the definition of rationality, and obscure issues of epistemology. I found the theist in particular to be shrill and often quite unpleasant in his faux-contempt for the other side, but then I’m probably biased.

I found myself, as I very often do, arguing or speculating my way through the topic from a very different standpoint, and here are my always provisional thoughts.

Let me begin by more or less rejecting two of the terms of the debate, ‘God’ and ‘irrational’. I’m not particularly interested in God, that’s to say the Judeo-Christian god, and I strongly object to designating that particular amalgam of Canaanite, Ugaritic and other Semitic deities as capital G God, as if one can, through a piece of semantic legerdemain, magick away the thousands of other deities that people have worshipped and adhered to over the centuries. It’s as if the Apple company chose to name their next Ipad ‘Tablet’, thereby rendering irrelevant all the other tablets produced by competing companies. Of course we have marketing regulations that prevent that sort of manipulation, but not so in religion.

So I will refer henceforth to gods, or supernatural entities and supernatural agency, with all their various and sometimes contradictory qualities, rather than to God, as defined by Aquinas and others. It is supernatural agency of any kind that I call into question.

More important for me, though, is the question of rationality. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve certainly dipped into philosophy many times over the past 40 years or so, and I’ve even been obsessed with it at times. And rationalism has long been a major theme of philosophers, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to define it. In the context of this debate, I would prefer the term ‘reasonable’ to ‘rational’. Being reasonable has a more sociable quality to it, it lacks the hard edge of rationality. So, for my purposes I’ll re-jig the topic to – Is belief in supernatural entities reasonable?

But I want to say more about rationality, to illustrate my difficulties with the term. Hume famously or perhaps notoriously wrote that reason can never be more than the slave of the emotions. This raises the question – what are these emotions that have such primacy and why are they so dominant? I have no doubt that a modern-day Hume – and Hume was always interested in the science of his day – would write differently about the factors that dominate and guide our reason. He would write about evolved instincts as much as about emotions. Above all the survival instinct, which we appear to share with every other living creature. Let me give some examples, which might bring some of our fonder notions of rationality into question.

A large volume of psychometric data in recent years has told us that we generally have a distorted view of ourselves and our competence. In assessing our physical attractiveness, our driving ability, our generosity to others and just about everything else, we take a more flattering view of ourselves than others take of us. What’s more, this is seen as no bad thing. In terms of surviving and thriving in a competitive environment, there’s a pay-off in being over-confident about your attractiveness, as a romantic partner, a business partner, or your nation’s Prime Minister. Of course, if you’re too over-confident, if the distortion between reality and self-perception becomes too great, it will act to your detriment. But does this mean that having a clear-eyed, non-distorted view of your qualities is rational, by that very fact, or irrational, because it puts you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis others? To put it another way, does rationality mean conformity to strict observation and logic, or is it behaviour that contributes to success in terms of well-being and thriving (within the constraints of our profoundly social existence)?

I don’t have any (rational?) answer to that conundrum, but I suppose my preference for the term ‘reasonable’ puts me in the second camp. So my answer to my own question, ‘Is it reasonable to believe in supernatural entities’ is that it depends on the circumstances.

Let’s look at belief in Santa, an eminently supernatural entity. He is, at least on Christmas Eve, endowed with omnipresence, being able to enter hundreds of millions of houses laden with gifts in an impossibly limited time-period. He’s even able to enter all these houses through the chimney in spite of the fact that 99.99% of them don’t have chimneys. What’s more, he’s omniscient, ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good’, according to the sacred hymn ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’, ostensibly written by J F Coots and Haven Gillespie, but they were really just conduits for the Word of Santa. We consider it perfectly reasonable for three- and four-year-olds to believe in Santa, and, apart from some ultra-rationalist atheists and more than a few cultish Christians and adherents of rival deities, we generally encourage the belief. Clearly, we believe it does no harm and might even do some good. An avuncular, convivial figure with a definite fleshly representation, he’s also remote and mysterious with his supernatural powers and his distant home at the North Pole, which to a preschooler might as well be Mars, or Heaven. As an extra parent, he increases the quotient of love, security and belonging. To be watched over like Santa watches over kids might seem a bit creepy as you get older, but three-year-olds would have no such concerns, they’d accept it as their due, and would no doubt find his magical powers as well as his total jollity, knowledge and insight thoroughly inspiring as well as comforting. From a parent’s perspective, it’s all good, pretty much.

Of course, if your darling 23-year-old believes in Santa, that’s a problem. We expect our kids to grow out of this belief, and they rarely disappoint. They don’t need much encouragement. Children are bombarded with TV Santas, department store Santas, skinny Santas, bad Santas, Santas that look just like their Uncle Bill, etc, and they usually go through a period of jollying their parents along before making their big apostate announcement. Santas are human, all too human.

Santa belief is, it would seem, a harmless and perhaps positive massaging of a child’s vivid imagination, but when a child’s ready for school, she’s expected to put away childish things, little by little.

And isn’t that what many atheists say about the deities of the Big Monotheisms? Yes, but too many atheists underestimate the hurdles that need to be overcome. Most of these atheists either already live in highly secularised societies, such as here in Australia, or other English-speaking or European countries. Even the USA has many more atheists in it than the entire population of Australia, if we make the conservative assumption that 10% of its citizens are non-believers. Atheists are learning to club together but the religious have been doing it for centuries, and you’re likely to lose a lot of club benefits if you declare yourself a non-believer in a region of fervent or even routine belief. Or worse – I just read today of a Filipino lad who was murdered by his schoolmates after coming out as an atheist on a networking site. So just from a self-preservation point of view it might be reasonable to at least pretend to believe, in certain circumstances.

But there are many other situations in which it’s surely reasonable to believe – I mean really believe – in the supernatural agent or agents of your culture. The first of these is that supernatural agency explains things more satisfactorily to more people than any other available explanation. This might sound strange coming from a non-believer like myself, but it’s undoubtedly true. Bear in mind that I’m talking about satisfactory explanations, not true ones, and that I’m talking about most, not all, people.

Why was belief in supernatural agency virtually universal in the long ago? I don’t think that’s hard to understand. As human populations grew and became more successful in terms of harnessing of resources and domination of the landscape, they came to realise that they were prey to forces well beyond their control, forces that threatened them more seriously than any earthly predator. Famine, disease, earthquakes, storms, the seemingly arbitrary deaths of new-borns, sudden outbreaks of warfare between once-neighbourly tribes – all of these were unforeseen and demanded an explanation. Thoughts tended to converge on one common theme: someone, some force was out to get them, someone was angry with them, or disapproved somehow. Some unseen, perhaps unseeable agent.

Psychologists have done a lot of work on agency in recent years. They’ve found that we can create convincing agents for ourselves with the most basic computer-generated or pen-and-paper images. Give them some animation, have one chasing another, and we’re ready to attribute all sorts of motives and purposes. Recognising, or just suspecting, agency behind the movement of a bush, the flying through the air of a rock, or an unfamiliar sound in the distance, has been a useful mindset for our ancestors as they sought to survive against the hazards of life. ‘If in doubt, it’s an agent’ might have been humanity’s first slogan, though of course humanity didn’t come up with it, they got it from their own mammalian ancestors. My pet cat’s reaction to thunder and lightning clearly indicates her view that someone’s out to get her.

But what about the supernatural part of supernatural agency? That, too, is very basic to our nature, and it’s another feature of our thinking that has been brought to light by psychologists in recent times. I won’t go into the ingenious experiments they’ve conducted on children here – look up the work of Justin Barrett, Paul Harris and others – but they show conclusively that very young children assume that the adults around them, those towering, confident, competent and purposive figures, are omniscient, omnipotent and immortal, until experience tells them otherwise. As children we think more in terms of absolutes. Good and evil are palpably real to us, as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are some of the first categories we ever learn from the god-like beings, our parents, who protect us and are obsessed with us (if we’re lucky in our choice of parents), and who have created us in their image.

Given all this, we might come to understand the naturalness of religion, and its near-universality. But what about the argument, which some of these psychological findings might support, that religion is a form of childishness that we should grow out of, like belief in Santa? It’a common argument among atheists, which to some degree I share, but I also feel, along with the psychologists who have shed such light on the default thinking of children, that ‘childish’ thinking is something we need to learn from rather than dismissing it with contempt. This kind of thinking is far more ingrained in us than we often like to admit, and it’ll always be more natural to us than the kind of reasoning that produces our scientific theories and technology. Creationism is easy – a supernatural agent did it – but evolution – the theory of natural selection from random variation – is much harder. The idea that we’re the special creation of a supernatural agent who’s obsessed with our welfare is far more comforting than the idea that we’re the product of purposeless selection from variation, existing by apparent chance on one insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy amongst billions of others. In terms of appeal to our most basic needs, for protection, belonging and significance in the scheme of things, religious belief has an awful lot going for it.

So belief in a supernatural being, for whom we are special, is eminently reasonable. And yet… I don’t believe in such a being, and an increasing number of people are abandoning such a belief, especially in ‘the west’, and especially amongst the intelligentsia, which I’ll broadly define as those who make their living through their brainpower, such as scientists, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, writers and artists. New Scientist, in its fascinating recent issue on the Big Questions, features a graph of the world’s religious belief systems. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it claims 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Moslems, 900 million Hindus, and 750 million in the category ‘secular/non-religious/atheist/agnostic’. These are the top four religious categories. I find that fourth figure truly extraordinary, especially considering that it was only really recognised and counted as a category from the mid-twentieth century, or even later. In Australia, where religious belief is counted in the national census every five years, this optional question was first put in 1971. In that year the percentage of people who professed to having no religion was minuscule – about 5%. Since then, the  category of the ‘nones’ has been by far the fastest growing category, and if trends continue, the non-religious will be in the majority by mid-century.

So, while I recognise that religious belief is quite reasonable, it’s clear that, in some parts of the world, a growing number find non-belief more reasonable, and I’m not even going to explore here the reasons why. You can work those out for yourself. It’s clear though that we’re entering a new era with regard to religious belief.

 

 

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  1. THE GREAT science feat in 2013 על מהות ומקור היקום

    The 2013 gravity comprehension/definition is the greatest science feat since the early 1920s.

    Learn what, scientifically, natural gravity is and what evolution is.
    Think of the consequences re classical science of this comprehension of gravity…

    איך נברא היקום יש מאין
    Origin And Nature of the Universe, the greatest science feat since the early 1920s.

    New Science 2013 versus classical science.
    Classical Science Is Anticipated/Replaced By The 2013 Gravity Comprehension !!!

    http://universe-life.com/2014/02/24/gravity/

    Attn classical science hierarchy, including Darwin and Einstein…
    “I hope that now you understand what gravity is and why it is the monotheism of the universe…” DH
    =================================
    Gravity is the natural selection of self-attraction by the elementary particles of an evolving system on their cyclic course towards the self-replication of the system. Period
    ( Gravitons are the elementary particles of the universe. RNA nucleotides genes and serotonin are the elementary particles of Earth life)

    כח המשיכה
    כח המשיכה הוא הבחירה הטבעית להיצמדות הדדית של חלקיקי היסוד של מערכת מתפתחת במהלך התפתחותה המחזורית לעבר שיכפולה. נקודה
    ( הגרוויטון הוא חלקיק היסוד של היקום. הגנים, הנוקלאוטידים של חומצה ריבונוקלאית, והסרוטונין, הם החלקיקים היסודיים של חיי כדור הארץ)

    Dov Henis(comments from 22nd century)

    http://universe-life.com/2013/11/14/subverting-organized-religious-science/
    http://universe-life.com/2013/09/03/the-shortest-grand-unified-theory/
    http://universe-life.com/2013/09/30/science-adjust-vision-concepts-beyond-aaas-trade-union-religion/

    PS: Note, again:

    – Classical Science Is Anticipated/Replaced By The 2013 Gravity Comprehension !!!

    – Think of the consequences re classical science of this comprehension of gravity…

    DH
    נ.ב. הבנת מהות כח המשיכה מספקת בסיס הגיוני מפשט/צפוי/מתקן לכל מגזרי ורכיבי המדע הקלסי.
    יש פה אי- ניצול של הזדמנות/אפשרות של ישראל להדיח באלגנטיות מתורבתת את ארה”ב מעמדתה בעולם כמוליכה/המקבעת של עדר ה”מדענים/מדע” באמצעות האיגוד המקצועי האמריקאי הדתי של ה”מדענים”, ולתפוס את עמדת ההולכה/פיתוח/הובלה של המדע 2013 החדש המשתדרג, ולהפוך את המדע האמריקאי לגרורה של המדע הישראלי. אי-ניצול זה הוא מחדל מדעי וכלכלי מטומטם /עלוב/מביש של ישראל.

    דה(הארות מהמאה ה-22)

    What would the human world be without god, or without science
    (May 1/ 3 2014)

    Scientifically natural gravity is the monotheism of the universe.

    The reverence- to- god- tradition, religion of the present Western culture, was introduced by Abraham (2117-1942 BCE) from the Casdites-Babylonians, in whom it was evoked by the sight of the apparently “praying” palm trees, with their palm-like leaves, rewarded with “God’s gift”, in Persian “Bagdad” (bag=god, dad=dat hence date-fruit, data= given/gift. This reverence-culture/ tradition was re- adopted by the Jews exiled into Babylonia (586 BCE) , and later adopted also by the Persians who conquered the Babylonian empire, and later adopted also by Alexander , who conquered the Persian empire, and later adopted also by the Greeks and finally adopted also by the Romans and by their following Western world heritage…

    – What would a world without god look like?
    – What would a world without science look like?

    Science = knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation

    God = the perfect and all-powerful spirit or being that is worshipped especially by Christians, Jews, and Muslims as the one who created and rules the universe
    a spirit or being that has great power, strength, knowledge, etc., and that can affect nature and the lives of people.
    : one of various spirits or beings worshipped in some religions.

    Science and god are incompatible. Incompatible.

    The present world is a god-believer scienceless world, conducted by ruthlessly competing-for- energy interests , with consequent catastrophes to humanity…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/
    http://universe-life.com/2006/03/12/inception-and-prevalence-of-western-monotheism/

    dovhenis

    June 2, 2014 at 1:12 am


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