Questionable Motives

November 21, 2011

What is the religious believer’s challenge?

Filed under: belief,Critical Reasoning,Faith,Religion — tildeb @ 8:53 pm

The believer’s challenge, according to Julian Baggini, is to determine if the religious faith believers hold is intellectually respectable as a 21st-century faith. Answering the challenge honestly forces religious believers to make a choice between beliefs which can be considered intellectually respectable, and those which cannot, either shutting gnu atheists up for attacking a straw man faith no one believes in as they are often accused of doing,  or revealing that the beliefs gnu atheists do criticize really are intellectually dishonest:

Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion “really” is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.
1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.

2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.

3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.

4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.

(h/t to Eric)


  1. I think the real trick is to free yourself to do your own thinking for yourself instead of allowing those claiming to be authorities to do it for you. I suspect those who put the Bible together were no more inspired or controlled by God than we are today and we now have the advantage of a far better understanding of how the world works. You only have to see the development of ideas of morality – starting with the racist ideas in Leviticus … and moving through in fits and starts to the notions of compassion promulgated by Jesus to see how things can and do get shaped. I notice however that there are some that get very edgy when you point out errors and contradictions in the Bible. One atheist once wrote that everyone is actually an atheist in that there are versions of God we all reject…the atheist simply rejects one more. However from some reactions to my own blog I am not hopeful of convincing the fundamentalist Christian right.

    Comment by peddiebill — November 21, 2011 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

    • I agree. Please feel free to attach your web address so people can click over and see what you offer.

      Comment by tildeb — November 21, 2011 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

    • Oh, I noticed you avoided answering point #2. Maybe it’s just as unlikely to convince moderate liberal believers.

      Comment by tildeb — November 22, 2011 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for that courtesy.

    Comment by peddiebill — November 21, 2011 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

  3. I happen to more or less agree with point number 2 above and was unaware you wanted me to comment.
    However it should be seen in historical context. When the world was flat, on the back of a tortise, God was doing HIS thing and there were only four elements earth, air, fire and water, that coincided with the scientific knowledge of the day. Why do you assume that as knowledge increases – that it does not simultaneously increase in other areas such as religious knowledge?
    Dont fall into the trap that Hitchens et al fall into by assuming their view of religion courtesy of the fundamentalists is state of the art for modern theologians. Some of the atheists are very protective of the God they dont believe in. It doesnt seem to occur to them that educated Christians actually share that version of disbelief.
    Now a question for you. Are you actually a scientist?

    Comment by peddiebill — November 22, 2011 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

    • More or less? That’s not an answer; that’s more of a prevarication, an evasion. If you are like most modern liberal believers, you will assign metaphor to some scripture and factual accounts to others without ever answering the question, How do you know? Because you’ve shown a liking to Armstrong, no doubt you don’t believe in god as most people do but hold a special place in your heart for the god behind the god, or perhaps lean more towards Tillich’s notion of god as ground of being. But that still leaves open the question: Do you reject as historical events any of the truth claims central to the tenets of the christian faith, that Jesus was literally born of a virgin, was god in human form, walked on water, raised the dead, healed the sick, fed the masses, died for our sins to atone for Adam’s sin and was resurrected three days later? If you reject all of these supernatural claims – knowing as I do that you claim to be a christian – then your religious faith may very well be intellectually respectable and defensible to the charges gnu atheists level against such beliefs.

      Comment by tildeb — November 22, 2011 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

      • Well goodness gracious …yes I do reject the supernatural claims you think I should make. They are a country mile from my thinking: cf my post entitled “Shaping God” Mind you I suspect all your science is not as ossified as the science in the Bible times so assuming you have moved past ancient science, in bringing myself up to date on matters of faith we are really doing the same. I notice however your philosophy is ossified and you seem unaware that the philosophy of science and its relationship to religion has moved well past the conflict model that was so popular in the 19 century. I repeat the suggestion I made to you on my site to look at the simple introductory article in Wikipedia on Relationship between religion and Science – because it gives a simple introduction to some of the nuanced ideas and main current schools of thinking. The reason why I asked if you were actually a scientist was because most professional scientists become aware that their thinking is not nearly as tidy and value free as non scientists assume it to be. Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos have a reasonably plausible way of thinking about how science moves in real life. I am even struggling to think of any major advance which was not achieved more or less by mistake.

        Comment by peddiebill — November 23, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    • Rest assured, I expect you to be a person with sophisticated religious beliefs.

      Comment by tildeb — November 22, 2011 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

  4. Well goodness gracious… and here I thought you were a methodist, Bill. I should have realized that in your nuanced and sophisticated reading, you would simply ignore the Articles of Faith and the supernatural claims they contain. I have to admire someone who seems able to talk out one side of his mouth with such sophistication that he nuances himself right out of his religious faith! Well done.

    BTW, the wiki article makes the same claims you do about compatibility but ventures bravely forward to announce the two have actually been successfully synthesized… by modern thinkers like Plantinga! Such news! Now that I know gravity is properly synthesized with religious beliefs about it, I shall fall down virtuously and give thanks to the creator of gravity! I especially enjoyed Plantinga’s bit that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and religion, and that there is superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism. Yup, when up means down and black means white, we’ve arrived at Po-Mo’s Relativity Base Camp. What a source for knowledge!

    That must be why when faced with this kind of religiously inspired ignorance about what is true in reality, like evolution in the classroom for example, you speak out of the other side of your mouth and advise that teachers should be sensitive to the fact that they may be dealing here with matters of religious or cultural belief and avoid direct confrontation where it is possible to do so.

    Oh my. I’m so surprised… not.

    Compatibility… oh, hell, let’s get all modern and call it today’s nuanced and sophisticated synthesis between religion and science… in your vocabulary actually means avoiding confrontation, doesn’t it? Otherwise, what confrontation could you possibly mean? Everything meshes so beautifully between science and religion you blithely assure us that only those who attribute beliefs like the kind found in fundamentalist camps might find any hint of incompatibility – you know, the god who isn’t there that Dawkins et alii are so protective of, as you like to quip – yet now… suddenly, unexpectedly, remarkably… now there’s confrontation you say. I am shocked, simply shocked I tell you, that such a thing could happen in this kum ba ya world of sophisticated theology you live in. Mind you, I guess all will be well if we just let everybody decide for themselves whatever they wish to believe is true in reality. We’ll just let people claim whatever they want to be true and call it cultural norms and religious sensitivities in order for us to determine what is and is not factually true about reality. Because you are a scientist, I’m sure you cannot possibly imagine that that capitulation to post modern relativism, that abdication, that appeasement to align reality with people’s cherished beliefs about it, will have any meaningful or lasting effects on endeavors that rely on scientific consistency and reliability. A hundred grams, a hundred drams, a hundred ounces, whatever… it’s all the same amount if people believe it is and we can file any difference under the heading of cultural sensitivity. No doubt you will continue to maintain that because what’s true in reality must be compatible to the beliefs people hold about it with a nod to the historical context in which it was claimed to be true, it’s just peachy keen to pretend that’s there’s no problem of compatibility to be seen here, folks. Move along.

    Us gnus just don’t believe you and I don’t think you believe you.

    Comment by tildeb — November 23, 2011 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  5. Well lets get real. I never walk away from a dispute. Your accusations about how I taught evolution are unfounded. Read my PhD “Alienated by Evolution”. I am an avowed evolutionist, and find absolutely nothing there that worries my faith. I do avoid direct conflict with faith in the classroom simply for the pragmatic reason that I find I can get much more across without it. My religious faith happens to centre on Compassion – which is what Jesus said was important cf his “greatest commandment”. How is this selling out on Christianity? Perhaps you live in the Bible Belt – in which case I can begin to understand how you might get that idea!I understand your claim that for atheists, morality doesnt depend on religion. The trouble is that when I loaded up the van with food from the donations from the congregation I could find the Church food bank and couldnt find the atheist food bank. Please help me – where should I take it? When there is a famine my donations to Christian World service have somewhere to go. Atheist World service? Couldnt find them in the phone book. Our Ambulance service?? St John’s. Should I look up St Nicks? My Church hosts the District HQ for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I must ask them if there is a branch at Rationalist House. It is easy to be moral when real live problems are not considered. In any event I find it offensive when scientists opperate without morality. eg the US liking for sponsoring weapons research. However I take your word that no Christian morality taints your science. No choice of science research to help ones neighbour? No room for mystery or wonder for nature? So Einstein was right after all ? I presume that in your value free science Atheists cannot hear the music of the spheres. Abdication and appeasement….? I was Auckland convenor of Scientists against Nuclear Arms for some years and I appeased no-one. I was actually accused by the prime minister of political My book Anatomy of Terror.

    Comment by peddiebill — November 23, 2011 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

    • I’m curious if there is any factual claim you agree to support to a creator creating life as we know it. I know that in the First Article it says methodists believe the living and true god is the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible… but that’s not to say that you believe it to be so. I am left wondering how that notion of a literal creator squares with the modern understanding that evolution is a mindless, agency-less, intention-less, purpose-less physical process.

      Comment by tildeb — November 23, 2011 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  6. Ah – at last a comment without personal insult!!! In all honesty the best we can now do is set up some such statement about a maker and preserver as a working hypothesis. Knowing that for now at least life and many aspects of what we encounter in the Universe is beyond our current comprehension is a factual assessment – but to talk of an ultimate creator when we have only ever encountered events which produce change (not creation ex Nihilo) , and to my knowledge know nothing of ultimate causes, eg what came before the Big Bang, are other universes plausible? etc etc makes confident assertions unwise. However what we do know is that having this initial statement of faith – or for the scientist – the initial statement of the hypothesis gives direction to our science. If we thought there was no creation – why look for it? This is why the “God” Particle collider is worth investment – and why astronomers are continually finding out more. Describing whatever is behind the Universe as “mindless” may be inappropriate since we know virtually nothing about mind away from a human context. I am currently writing a book “The Shaping of God” in which I hope to clarify some of my thinking on this. Please note I only ever write about things I wish to learn more about – never in areas where I start with the answers.

    Comment by peddiebill — November 23, 2011 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

  7. Well, I believe in compassion too but I wouldn’t call myself religious nor grant to the religious any claim to be more compassionate because of their religious beliefs than atheists. I know and know of many atheists who are front line workers and volunteers trying to help against all kinds of social problems by actively supporting foodbanks to distributing inner city healthcare, from organizing free dentistry to traveling abroad to do free eye exams and give away corrective eyewear. I’ve donated money and goods to religious organizations myself if the cause is worthy but not because I wished to support the belief in the religious tenets of that organization but to help as best I was able.

    Compassion is not the purview of the religious as you suggest, but, to remain real, let’s consider the facts: countries with higher rates of inequality in wealth distribution correlate directly with rates of religiosity. The higher the rate of religiosity, the higher the rates of social ills and rates of socially disruptive behaviours. The lower the rate of religiosity, the higher the rate of a secular state-sponsored and publicly supported social safety net. Atheists are big supporters of secular liberal democracies with public solutions to public problems. I wish I could say the same were equally true of the religious, although (thankfully) many are.

    You are the one here trying to insert the Quick! Look-over-there tactic by suggesting that you are responding to the methodology of science I respect as if I were insisting that those who practice it are magically free of personal bias. Galileo’s thought experiment of the inclined slope was not inspired or enhanced or cause by any religious belief he may have held as an individual any more than the theory of evolution is somehow undermined because Darwin was an atheist. The knowledge produced from honest scientific inquiry tested and verified over time stands or falls on its own merit. Religious belief produces no knowledge but doesn’t get out of the way of those who are pursuing it; instead, its supporters assume that religious beliefs somehow magically elevate its believers to a higher moral ground to make pronouncements about the quality of the morality and ethical concerns behind the pursuit – as if they were meaningful because they are religiously inspired. What on earth does a priest know about stem cells or end of life issues when they already accept the certainty that they already have the correct revealedanswer that should be imposed on all? What does the bishop know of the morality and ethical concerns of stem cells used in medical research compared to, say, the head of the plumber’s union? Although each may be entitled to their personal opinions regardless of how well or poorly they may be informed by fact, only one is regularly called to sit at the grown-up’s policy table on the merit of religious belief alone. This is a travesty and it is stupid because it yields good public policy to the weighted influence of those willing to embrace superstitious nonsense they are <i.certain is correct and hold to this arrogance in the name of piety. I would much prefer public policy to be based on the informed views of those who respect what’s true in reality (rather than those who believe it’s relative to their beliefs about it) and who are knowledgeable about the specific subject at hand.

    Comment by tildeb — November 23, 2011 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

  8. I suspect this is unfair. The head of the plumbers union would be the one I would consult about matters like fair rates of pay for plumbers, whether or not pricing of plumbing was fair, whether or not working conditions were reasonable – and why… because the head of the plumbers unions spends his time working among people with these concerns. My sister was not asked on to their council – and indeed would have nothing to offer a plumbers council since she knows squat about plumbing or the working conditions for plumbers. On the other hand when it comes to medical ethics I would not expect the plumber to necessarily know anything about, or to have read anything about, the terminally ill and therefore is unlikely to know the issues on euthanasia. The plumber would not be able to understand even the words in a genetics research proposal or know whether a drug trial was putting people in danger or likely to cause unnecessary worry and suffering for the patients. On the other hand a hospital chaplain with years of experience with dealing with the worries of patients including some medical training, a person trained as an ethicist, one who is in the front line of caring professions, one who understands current medical practice and its limitations, someone who understands the actual consequence of experimentation with people … these would be the sort of people I would go for. I am sorry you do not agree – but if you look at the New Zealand interchurch bioethics council they all have medical and people experience, they all understand research (by training) and they have people contact with groups who are likely to have views (eg a Maori doctor who is also a Church leader in her community – which only matters because it matters to her patients). Although I know nothing about your qualifications for such a role I can say in advance that unless you were able to show understanding of what worries people (including a sympathy for those who have different beliefs to yours), some practical knowledge of the biological sciences, and proven people skills in a relevant setting you wouldnt get to first base. The Church experience has surprising relevance in this country since the Polynesian and Maori sectors of poplulation in New Zealand have strong religious views on such matters as the sacredness of the body and hence strong views on transplants and acceptable treatment of dead bodies.
    In my sister’s case she was appointed to the council because she understands the research (having been highly trained and spent her professional life as a medical science), she has written on bioethics, she understands some of the faith issues (eg treating people in such a way that they feel their beliefs are being considered cf the issues in releasing a body versus the need for autopsy) and she is a tutor for papers in such topics as ethics and by experience has understanding for example the issues and barriers to transplants. Although you talk as if peoples beliefs dont matter in practice without these beliefs ethics has no meaning. Eg in this country it is currently against the law to engage in deliberate euthanasia because this is what the majority currently believe and the law is written accordingly. Atheism (or Christianity by itself) is neither here nor there in getting on to an bioethics council but I suspect since in your country atheism is a minority belief it would make it harder for you to show you understood the concerns of the majority. Atheism as a single qualification is not enough even if you do know about tap washers and drain unblockage.

    Comment by peddiebill — November 24, 2011 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

    • Lack of knowledge has never been an impediment to religious pronouncements about reality. Pointing out this fact in specific cases under review that includes respecting some religious consideration is too often portrayed as trying to impose unfair ‘constraints’ on religious expression. What I am saying is that medical ethics belongs to experts in medical ethics and not priests or chaplains who ‘talk’ to people in hospitals. That you seem determined to misconstrue my points to favour interference by anyone in any public issue armed by the religious label proves my larger point: allegiance to faith-based beliefs adds no additional qualifications to any inquiry about anything in reality, yet is often attributed by apologists and accommodationists of religious interference in the public domain to be of some kind of intrinsic value… without any shred of evidence from reality to back that assumption up.

      As far as euthanasia is concerned, I refer you to ex-Anglican minister Eric MacDonald – and his site, Choice in Dying – who has written extensively on the intentional and sustained suffering that religious precepts honoured by foolish religious adherence costs real people in real life additional and unnecessary suffering, and why religiously based hostility to compassionate euthanasia heads up active and continuous religious interference in the lives of real people who do not choose to subscribe to these misguided religious precepts but must suffer the consequences of having them imposed on them through cruel and sadistic law and brutal public policies that bias respect for religious belief over personal rights. Furthermore, Eric is very articulate explaining why this religiously supported hostility is morally bankrupt and ethically repugnant in action. Your linking the concerns of the majority about euthanasia with the ethics of euthanasia available to the individual seeking it directly undermines respecting the rights of the individual in law and policy, the same individual rights you depend on to maintain your religious freedom, the same individual rights on which secular western democracies are in fact and practice based. Your hypocrisy in this cherry picking support for respecting individual rights here but not there reveals just how detached your religious motivation has broken you away from supporting what’s morally defensible in the face of individual suffering. You have been fooled, Bill, and seem proud of your foolishness in the guise of piousness. Your religious beliefs are a clear danger to honest ethical or moral considerations and nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in consideration of euthanasia.

      Comment by tildeb — November 24, 2011 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

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