Monday, August 10, 2009

God. Again. Again

Oh, what the hell, it's the silly season and I seem to have started it again. If the only aspect of God in which you are interested is his scientifically verifiable existence or non-existence then you are a fool, a prat, an illiterate, a bore, a half-wit, a freak, an ill-educated clown, an insensitive lummox and a complete child. This, essentially, is my problem with these militant atheists, they are children. All they are saying is, 'You said he was a man with a white beard above the clouds. Well, now we have planes and rockets and he's not there so he doesn't exist. Ya-boo, you stink.' Pre-school stuff, so why are they doing it? I don't know but two reasons suggest themselves - 9/11 and the apparent power of Christian fundamentalism in the US. I am not sure of the reality or otherwise of the latter, but I am sure that whatever power there was has waned considerably. And, as for 9/11, well that may reasonably have inspired questions about this particular version of God, but broadening that to all versions is plainly absurd. Oh and there's a third reason - it sells books, but I'm trying to give the atheists more credit for high-mindedness than, perhaps, they deserve.
Anyway, I'm an Angry Agnostic - I don't believe in God, I don't not believe in him, but I'm very interested in him. How could I not be? I have a mind and I've read a lot of stuff. I am also hyper-aware - as are most intelligent scientists - of the excessive claims made for science.
I am not a cognitive relativist like those goons Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray etc.(I rate Derrida and Lyotard). I accept the explanatory power of science and in its unique place in human knowledge as a genuinely accumulative form of wisdom. Indeed, it wouldn't be remotely interesting to me - well, about as interesting as scientology - if it were not so powerful and unique. But it's important to remember that, at any given moment, most of what scientists say is wrong. This has to be the case. Natural selection produces an eye by selecting certain mutations from billions of others which were either harmful or useless. That's also how scientific progress works, though the numbers are smaller. One reason we're not aware of this is the lamentable lack of reporting of negative results - a lack that results in research students barking up trees that have already been found to be wrong. The institution of science is, if anything, slightly more irrational than most other institutions.
This is not to say that I expect science, one day, to find God, though, having just read Paul Davies's excellent The Goldilocks Enigma to catch up on physics and cosmology, I can safely say it's not out of the question. But it is to say that extrapolating the state of science at any one moment into non-scientific realms - like theology - is dangerous and absurd. This, in fact, was the true message of the Intellectual Impostures scam. A couple of scientists made fools of those French thinkers who randomly imported science into their impenetrable meditations. Quite right. But we should be aware that in religion and other areas, some scientists are now doing the same thing in reverse, busily exporting science into places where it does not belong and, perhaps, can never belong. That way lies a very stupid world indeed.
If you are really interested in any of this - and you should be - you should read the argument between the theologian Richard Swinburne and Richard Dawkins. Properly done, this will keep you going for the rest of August. You may take the view that it's not worth it because Swinburne is a theologian and, therefore, a silly fantastist. If you do take this view, then you are a a fool, a prat, an illiterate and a bore etc. and you are banned from reading this blog.

38 comments:

  1. 'Appleyard lights the blue touch paper and retires to a safe distance.........'

    I expect Messrs McCabe and Meredith along at any moment.

    I agree with pretty much all you say, although I would say the new atheists are less childish and more sixth-form debating society. They have all the smug conviction and certainty, as well as the belief that their arguments are fresh minted and uniquely illuminating.

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  2. As a mythic construct indicative of the needs of our human psychology, God is a fascinating subject. But as a real figure existing out there, I don’t see what purpose he/she/it would serve other than to make us behave more responsibly in our daily lives. I watched the obscure but excellent ‘Alien Trespass’ the other night (it’s a parody of 1950s alien visitation movies), which ended with the typical moral lecture that humanity must act more responsibly. Aliens are becoming the big stick that God(s) once represented. I don’t need the threat of damnation, pre-destined or otherwise, to make me behave in a way that I believe is inductive to a moral end. I’m foolish naive enough to believe that others might behave the same way.

    That science is now being abused can hardly be a surprise. In all areas of research, academics remain petrified of making judgements. Though I too admire Derrida, I can’t help but blame him.

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  3. interesting how humans are so hard wired to believe in some higher power, that they've even managed to create god through 'science' under the guise of climate change

    sinners repent or we're all doomed etcetc

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  4. "This, essentially, is my problem with these militant atheists, they are children."

    Your problem is that you are war with an imaginary category of people (not a suprprise given your fascination with imagined entities). There is no 'militant atheism', although there is a lot of militant religionism, of course. You may think that an interest in god is, in itself, a sign of intellectual sophistiocation, but you shouldn't be surp[rised if saoeem few people write books that argue out that it is in fact the opposite. You are a good example of how religion poinsoins debate. When you talk outside of religion you are reasonabl;e and nuanced and intelligent. When you get god into the frame you become boorish and flibbertygibbet, defending feeble ideas such as the claim that if anything comes to be through some process that is the same as saying it is 'designed' and if it is designed it is reasonable to say there is a designer. Surely you can see that you would not make such horrible mistakes if your emotional attachment to a nonsense hadn't led you astray?

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  5. John, could you translate your comment into understandable English? it seems that anytime God comes into the frame your emotions get the better of your keyboard.

    Or were you just telling Bryan that, when he agrees with you he is reasonable, nuanced and intelligent, but that when he doesn't he suddenly becomes a boorish and 'flibbertygibbet' defender of foolish ideas? Thought so.

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  6. The idea, the smell of a god is unquantifiable, hence the bitter resentment of those who exist by the rules of physical measurement, it's beyond their remit.
    If there is no sense of a god then how can this exist ?
    PS, available from Amazon on the Lillith Fair CD, priced £9.5
    Also, and for believers only, I have available FOC, copies of The goddess, the McGarrigle sisters and Aly Mcbain's Atlantic sessions version on DVD, how can anyone listen to this or Haydn's die sieben letzen worte then claim that there is nothing, bollocks.

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  7. oh dear, more arguments that i am a lummox and a half-wit.

    I'm not militant about anything, I just don't see any reason to be believe in something I don't have any reason to believe in - isn't that a modest, reasonable sort of position to hold? It is certainly quite compatible with full understanding of the limits of scientific knowledge.

    I can't work out whether that means the only aspect of God I am interested in is his scientific verifiability, or not.

    You suggest that anybody of any intelligence and interest in the world around them ought to be interested in God ... well I agree that religion is a perfectly sensible and rewarding thing to be interested in, but must I be interested in it? I only have finite capacity, and there are lots of other things to be interested in, that appeal more to my tastes. Can't you allow the possibility that some people - perhaps of just as splendid intellect as your good self - might place religion fairly low down the list of interesting things, for no other reason than the idiosyncrasies of taste?

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  8. Sorry about typing, Recusant, but the central isea was quite clear, I think. Bryan was prepared to defend the idea that anything that is formed by 'some process' (and, no, I can't think of anything that is not formed by 'some process') has, in effect been designed. But that is a false idea that is too silly for him. If the subject had not been religion he would have easily dismissed it and would certainly not have gone into print to defend it. Religion poisons everything.

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  9. Luis

    Of course there should be no obligation - as if that were possible - to be interested in religion. However, not to be interested does imply a dangerous lack of curiosity about what is arguably the most fundamental historical influence on human behaviour, laws, institutions and civilisation. Just a thought

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  10. "However, not to be interested does imply a dangerous lack of curiosity about what is arguably the most fundamental historical influence on human behaviour, laws, institutions and civilisation. Just a thought"

    I can think of one or two Marxians who would disagree with that thesis.

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  11. a "dangerous" lack of curiosity.

    reckless indeed. why, I feel quite dashing.

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  12. you are a fool, a prat, an illiterate, a bore, a half-wit, a freak, an ill-educated clown, an insensitive lummox and a complete child.

    Oh, no, that's not childish. It's positively Chestertonian.

    I'm afraid I don't get this "good atheist, bad atheist" bit, although I know who's whom: The bad, militant, atheist is challenging us. The good (think Robert Wright?) atheist is laughing at us.

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  13. Angry gnosticism. Ah yes, the attitude of empire.

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  14. The (Not) Militant Anti-God BrigadeAugust 10, 2009 3:38 pm

    There is no militant atheism. What an absurd statement. The 20th century was full of it, and even deep thinkers such as Dawkins and Brian Eno (chuckle) self-describe themselves as evangelical atheists.

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  15. Top rant Bryan. I can see you and raise you on the agnosticism. I am a Buddhist, and therefore a non-theist and agree with every word.

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  16. I should think they would be more concerned with the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Europe than with the strength, such as it is, of fundamentalist Christianity in America. Moreover, as someone who for years wrote for the religion pages of a major metropolitan daily in America, I can say that most of what is said about evangelical Protestants is, to put it mildly, ill-informed.

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  17. Another great conversation is the 2007 dialogue between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan.

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  18. And, speaking of the fool, prat, illiterate, bore, half-wit, freak, ill-educated clown, insensitive lummox and complete child Sam Harris...

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  19. That'll be the Sam Harris with a BA in Philosophy and who thinks that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them".

    Sheesh, at least those non-militant atheists don't possess the intolerance of the religious who, of course, poison everything.

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  20. Art poisons everything. Philosophy poisons everything. Science poisons everything. Graham Young tried to poison everyone he worked with and ignorance of a subject - visceral, experiential knowledge of that subject - poisons one's holistic view of humanity.
    Thee be not wise man religion's poison's positor.

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  21. Curiosity is an excellent virtue; it's human knowledge turned outward, into the unknown. i think most people use what they know more as a defensive wall against the unknown; it becomes a means of shutting such things out.

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  22. "Curiosity is an excellent virtue; it's human knowledge turned outward, into the unknown."

    And, of course, religion is antithetical to curiosity. malty asks, half seriously, upthread, how a beautiful song can exist without god. Of course, it is an excellent question how something that moves us like that can exist, what it means, what we can know about it, and it opens countless avenues of enquiry. But if we are satisfied with 'god did it' then all those avenues are roped off.

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  23. Religion, like science, can be used both for investigation and as a way of preventing investigation. For example, i see CS Lewis' Christian apologetics mainly as a way of constructing a flimsy explanatory system, in order to shut out genuine encounter - see 'Mere Christianity' for Lewis at his worst.

    By contrast, Kierkegaard is a thinker who uses Christianity as a means of investigating human reality. i am not a Christian and indeed would be burnt at the stake in the 17th Century but i find Kierkegaard's works far from the 'God did it, so shut up' line. Likewise with 4 Quartets (TS Eliot), or even Saint Augustine, who can veer wildly from the 'God did it, so shut up' line, to a depth & intensity of inquiry as to outlast 15 centuries.

    i am religious but i don't believe i am incurious; no one, anyway, has accused me of that. i have had encounters with gods, albeit none of these Johnny come lately monotheist deities. These encounters have spurred me on to wonder, to puzzle, to investigate. These encounters, rather than shutting my mind down, have caused a recrudescence of energies, a great curiosity in me. The world seems very strange to me, and i wonder at it, sir. i wonder at those incapable of wonder, but such are to be found both in churches & the laboratory - just as some scientists, while admitting no deity, can approach a just wonder in their thought.

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  24. I don't suggest that religious people cannot be curious,l just that their religion will tend to be antithetical to that curiosity. Why explore the meaning of beauty if you have pre-decided that it must be 'god' and that that is an entirely satisfactory answer. Darwin's curiosity, for example, had to fly in the face of the official church response to biological diversity which was 'there is no problem, god simply created a lot of animals and plants'. Enquiry into why god created so many and why those animals and plants in particular might legitimately follow but that is quite an arid path because there is no way we can know what god thinks and intends even if we accept that she exists.

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  25. Dear John Meredith: Why explore beauty if you already know it is simply a survival mechanism?

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  26. Have you read Thomas Browne? - if not, check him out - Norfolk man, a physician accidentally knighted, also an inquirer & peculiar believer.

    i regard ideologies & what not, including Christianity, as akin to viruses; they have unpredictable effects, sometimes even benign, depending on the host. Just as one cannot say "Germany produced Nazism therefore German people and German culture are evil", or at least i don't, so i wouldn't want to say Christianity = witch burnings + torture + child abuse + stupidity. Some of the nastiest people have been Christians, and some of the best.

    The innately curious will remain curious, in their devious ways: when Dante went to Paris, it is said the doctors & scientists were astonished at his scientific knowledge - a knowledge which one sees all through the Comedy. i suspect if Dante were alive today he would be terribly interested in the discoveries of modern science, and would find some devious manoeuvre to reconcile these with orthodoxy; one sees such manoeuvres throughout the Comedy, the human mind at its most agile & uncapturable.

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  27. "Dear John Meredith: Why explore beauty if you already know it is simply a survival mechanism?"

    But Frank, I don't know this. It is an interesting idea to explore, though, isn't it? And, happily, the priests are no longer able to prevent us.

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  28. 'Religion is antithetical to curiosity'. Of course. That's why such devout religious types (even by the standards of their own age) as Newton, Kelvin et al. made so many discoveries.

    Tone down the sweeping statements and allow for a few shades of grey by crikey. The above cited statement is itself incurious on a cosmic level, a blanket rejection based on prejudice rather than evidence- and really rather absurd.

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  29. We are the only species with either Emmylou Harris or lead guitarists.

    These are examples of how creativity comes through us out into the world. It points to other ways of considering how the physical world we each behold comes into being--as if it is played out.

    To be a scientist is to be objective. To be a participant is to be subjective. That subjectivity comes from something we share, that makes us "higher" than the zombies. We label this primary experience "spirit". Subjectively speaking, that spirit is indeed our first experience, something we need before we can be objective. It is upon which anything objective gets played. Yet that which we objectify, the physical experience we share into, may not exist as such. And if they exist, or if we assume they exist, they may exist only as the sonic vibrations of a guitar. It is apparently a degradation, something with such limitations, that it allows us to share experiences.

    We see each other as bodies, that seem to be reflections of who we are communicating with and sharing "spaces" with. For a model of this, imagine a creator projecting through each of us, using our eyes as video equipment and ears as audio equipment. That which we behold may not exist as such, but we do.

    Luis says:

    You suggest that anybody of any intelligence and interest in the world around them ought to be interested in God ... well I agree that religion is a perfectly sensible and rewarding thing to be interested in, but must I be interested in it? I only have finite capacity, and there are lots of other things to be interested in, that appeal more to my tastes. Can't you allow the possibility that some people - perhaps of just as splendid intellect as your good self - might place religion fairly low down the list of interesting things, for no other reason than the idiosyncrasies of taste?

    You conflated God with religion. But then you seemed to be like a person who goes into a strip club, grabs the mic, and starts talking about how he is not interesting in women with naked bodies dancing around. It just seems that your being here speaks of some sort of interest.

    That being what it is. I agree with the intent, and say that no one needs to be interested in God, religion, or science. But you raise the question: maybe being a sports enthusiast or something is enough for one lifetime.

    Bryan did something quite clever, it seems. He drew out atheists to comment, who, in a militant sort of way, as a militant collective at least, would deny being militant with their atheism.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  30. Here is an Albert Goldbarth poem I just came across, that I thought 'too here' not to share here:

    PBS Online NewsHour: Weekly Poem: 'Too Here'

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  31. i've often noted that people who like poetry are usually either religious or sympathetic thereto, and atheists generally don't get it, it's as if they lack the part of the soul you need to like poetry. Not always, mind you, there are always exceptions.

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  32. I've often noted that people who like poetry are usually either religious or sympathetic thereto, and atheists generally don't get it, it's as if they lack the part of the soul you need to like poetry. Not always, mind you, there are always exceptions.

    I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am for your acknowledgment that atheists may, on rare occasion, approach being fully human.

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  33. By way of preemptive apology, let me say that my reaction would have been different if the post had begun, "In my opinion, it will be difficult for atheists to appreciate poetry, because poetry reaches a part of the soul beyond..."

    Can you see the difference? In any event, I was being way too harsh, for which I am sorry.

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  34. 'The moth
    beats in a frenzy around the candle flame, as if trying
    to whip the light itself into a cream. It can't refuse
    the bulb in the bedside lamp, the headlight in the car.
    And yet it doesn't even seem to see the sun
    -- the sun is too here for that.'


    Indeed Rus, 'the sun is too here for that'.

    This from Moondust by Andrew Smith (in which he tracks down the Apollo moonwalkers to see how the experience changed their lives) regarding the conversion/return to Christianity – and happiness - of Charlie Duke and his wife, Dotty (Charlie had been an alcoholic and tyrannical husband/father and Dotty severely unhappy with this, obviously, and life in general):

    'I have no religion and probably never will, so I don't know why I enjoy hearing all this so much, but I do. Perhaps it's the idea that you can make a smart decision to suspend the faculties that we most associate with intelligence: skepticism and independence ... the idea that under certain circumstances, dispensing with intelligence might be the most intelligent thing a person could ever do.'

    Intelligence is over-rated. The sun shines regardless.

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  35. Hi David,

    That's interesting. Sometimes intelligence leads us into trains of thought on tracks we think run away from the sun. These tracks become ruts when we settle for them.

    Yours,
    Rus

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