Fascinating debate

Two atheists, one, Sam Harris, a rather hardline but rational fellow and the other, Philip Ball, an “accommodationists” (at least in the view of PZ) are going at it and it is a pretty fascinating read.

Ball is arguing that it is folly to outright dismiss religious thinking as incompatible with science. He thinks that religion is here to stay and deeply ingrained and that we have to strive for peaceful coexistence. Harris on the other hand, similar to my last few blog posts, thinks that religion is a dangerous mindset that should be taken head-on.

I agree with them both. I agree more with Sam Harris but I am keenly aware of the difficulties surrounding (what appears to be) attacks on people’s sacred beliefs. Even though I think all of our beliefs are fair game, in a sense, many people feel they never have to defend their religious beliefs. So any “attack” (and by that I mean a debate of ideas) is seen as hostile. That undermines our argument if our goal is to convince people to open their minds to our ideas.

Each of these guys had a great quote (among others) that I thought was worth sharing. Sam Harris describes Christianity accurately but severely:

Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and sceptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on Mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will (probably) be consigned to a fiery hell for all eternity.

On Mr. Ball’s account, there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts such convictions in an unfavorable light.

Ball, who I agree with in the sense I described above, is a bit desperate and outmatched, I think, but he does sum up a view of agnostics that is well said:

I share your view that many of the alleged ‘facts’ that comprise most religious belief – the existence of a deity (or deities), that deity’s capacity to intervene in the world in supernatural ways, the whole paraphernalia of miracles, afterlife, saints, sin, absolution, virgin births, resurrections – are not just outside of science but fundamentally incompatible with a scientific view of the world. And while some agnostics might insist that we cannot ‘know’ that a god does not exist, this does not compel us to give the ‘for’ and ‘against’ possibilities equal weight. We shouldn’t imagine things into being without good reason to do so.

Fascinating debate

5 thoughts on “Fascinating debate

  1. LEVI says:

    lolwut, Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices (see Voltaire).
    The salient point is that all religions require belief in absurdities (virgin birth, the existance of god, 72 virgins,heaven, etc…). If you can convince people to believe unconditionally that such absurdities are unassialable truth to the exclusion of all other belief systems, you create a very dangerous condition. I think it’s fucking ironic as hell that most religions think the absurdities of other religions are nuts ….but their own absurdities are gospel. The fact is that the cornerstone of all religion is absurdity. All it takes to come to this realization is a little critical thinking. Come on…..is the virgin birth, death and resurrection of Christ any more absurd than the angel Gabriel bringing the divine word of God to Mohammad or 72 virgins? Hell no! They are both equally absurd and both complete bullshit. The fact that you have been taught to believe one or the other is an accident of birth not divine intervention.


  2. I think the crux of your comment is that it appears I am attacking or making fun of people’s beliefs and that such behavior is counter to my goals of persuading people to think rationally.

    Is that right?

    Because it’s true. I don’t see how you can coddle someone to this conclusion. When we see thinking that is wrong we have to say, in the kindest and most helpful tone possible, perhaps, that it is wrong. For example, the earth is roughly 4 billion years old. If someone wants to claim it is 10,000 years old, they need to be told they are wrong. The writings of superstitious Iron Age mystics can’t be taken as credible evidence for such a theory given the overwhelming evidence for a very old earth. The two theories are unequal by a long shot.

    This is an example in which we agree on the substance (the age of the earth), I suspect.

    When I dismiss the Bible as “the writings of superstitious Iron Age mystics” I am not trying to be disrespectful, I’m trying to be accurate. A depiction of the authors of the Bible as holy men in direct contact with god is fanciful in any rational sense. The same is true with the notions of heaven, hell, original sin, divine conception, resurrection, Doom’s Day, and so on. They are indistinguishable from fiction.

    The point is that none of it meets any of the standards that we have for considering something believable. Every religion has as much direct evidence as the ancient Greeks and Romans had for Zeus and Artemis. I’m not trying to be unkind. I’m stating an obvious fact.

    But I recognize that this fact still befuddles many people. They believe in god and they believe in an afterlife and they are not at all ready to listen to what I’m saying. That’s fine. I’m not on a mission of conversion. But I think it is important that people think rationally. Religion is a corruption of the mind in this sense.


  3. lolwut says:

    I don’t think atheism is childish, I just think it’s a bit silly to crusade so vehemently against theism. It seems to me to be a crude attempt at rebellion due to perceived wrongs suffered in childhood at the hands of Christian parents. Maybe that doesn’t apply to you but a lot of the more outspoken atheists I’ve met have fallen in this category. They grew up in a highly conservative christian environment and became atheists in backlash. Admittedly, a lot of conservative christians in the bible belt of the US are ignorant but to attack their beliefs only serves to polarize them further against your cause. That’s not what you want is it?

    As far as your examples go:

    “religious zealots who think that the “rights” of an unborn blob should trump those of a grown woman. Of that we should take scripture into account in foreign policy. Or that we should pray for people who are sick, sometimes instead of modern medical treatment. Of that some of us are damned to hell and deserve their hatred because we are godless and therefore evil. Of that we should teach creation myths to children in science class.”

    I share your opinion most heartily. I think there’s a lot of bigotism and close-mindedness that charades as “faith”.

    But most Christians and Hindus and Jews and New Agers I know are decent and caring people. Not to mention, most of them are well-informed, intelligent and capable of appreciating the beauty of science as well as cultivating a rich spiritual life. They make intelligent political decision and contribute to the community. I may think it’s silly to go to pray or meditate or read tarot but I’m certainly not going to make fun of their beliefs if it makes them happy.


  4. Welcome.

    I’m really not talking about the crusade type of thing. I’m talking about religion as a gateway drug to stupid thinking. The tenants of virtually all religions are ridiculous. Yet people walk around acting as if they are proven facts. They get mad at us when we ask them for the slightest proof. Usually they pull out an old book, written by Iron Age people who didn’t know shit about anything, least of all how the universe works.

    It’s not just religion, it’s “New Age” and alternative medicine and astrology and all sorts of things that lead people to believe that any view is just as valid as any other view. That is nonsense.

    I have no beef with theists, per se. I know and love many of them. But the core principles of their beliefs are arbitrary and absurd.

    Examples include religious zealots who think that the “rights” of an unborn blob should trump those of a grown woman. Of that we should take scripture into account in foreign policy. Or that we should pray for people who are sick, sometimes instead of modern medical treatment. Of that some of us are damned to hell and deserve their hatred because we are godless and therefore evil. Of that we should teach creation myths to children in science class.

    You might not be one of those people but this country (the USA) is full of them.

    You haven’t made a case at all, BTW, that atheism is “childish and immature”. How so?


  5. lolwut says:

    I agree with some of your views but I think that your atheism seems childish and immature. Particularly, since it seems like a rebellion against a Christianity and Christianity alone.

    Anyway, I ask a single question:

    What is “wrong” with religious belief?

    You write in your previous post that “[religion and spirituality] adds up to a shit ton of wrong and dangerous thinking”

    I believe a citation is needed here.

    Of course, there are a number of atrocities committed in the name of religion.

    Just as many, however, have been committed without religion.

    If you do want to play this game, then I would suggest that a good case could be made for atheism as a major precondition for the rise of Nazism in Germany: Nietzsche, Hitler’s favourite philosopher, is nothing if not aggressively atheistic (and equally anti-Christian). But really, the cause of Nazism was not atheism per se, but nihilism inspired by misinterpretations of Nietzsche.

    Furthermore, what about the countless Christians who have been persecuted under the banner of communism? The cause of the Soviet gulags and the Cambodian killing-fields was atheistic communist regimes. Indeed, some of the greatest atrocity of the twentieth century were all committed by Mao Zedong. One could argue that his atheism was the reason for the 77 million dead Chinese killed by his actions.

    But, does that mean that all atheists are bad people?

    That’s certainly a logical fallacy if I’ve ever seen one.

    So what’s wrong with people who try to live a holy life.

    They might be delusional – but you can’t prove that, can you?

    And surely, you don’t mean to accuse you people like Martin Luther King Jr or Ghandi or Mother Teresa of being evil?

    What’s important is not your beliefs or what you stand for. What’s important is how you help make this world a better place.

    Atheist or Theist shouldn’t matter.

    Thank you.


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