How Should I, a Secular Humanist, Treat Religious Belief? On an Intellectual Level, Does Religious Belief Warrant The Deference to Which it has Become Accustomed?

An issue that occasionally comes to my mind is how I and fellow atheists should conduct themselves when it comes to expressing our lack of confidence in religious beliefs. Recently a good friend of mine, after reading my post on the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of delusion and my views on whether or not religious belief is delusion, accused me of being on par with Pat Robertson or the KKK, saying that I am as intolerant, though in a different way and for different reasons, as they are of people who think differently than them, and am essentially religiously intolerant of religion. While I definitely disagree with this view in many ways, I can also find a meaningful element of truth in it. And having acknowledged the elements of truth, I believe that I need to reconsider my perspective on how I should conduct myself with respect to issues of religion—not necessarily changing how I go about this, but genuinely reconsider how I do things and possibly change depending on the outcome of the analysis. I would greatly appreciate input from others of all perspectives. I believe that this can be a beneficial exercise not just for myself, but also for atheist readers and people of all religious orientations. Because this issue is very important to me and to fellow atheists and will hopefully also offer insight to non-atheists into prominent a set of values and beliefs common among agnostic atheists, I have put great time into this to present a complete, well-organized and concise-as-possible overview. Please continue reading below the fold.

 So here’s how I’m going to structure this analysis. I’m going to begin by considering my friend’s accusation, specifying points of agreement and disagreement. In considering the element with which I agree, I will paint in some more details of my relevant personal values and beliefs. Then, I’ll present a list of arguments relevant to the issue under question: how should I behave when it comes to expressing my beliefs on religious beliefs. Finally,  I will open the floor to the readers to review my position and provide their own if they so please. After about a week or so I will go over the feedback that I have received and will post on what these new considerations have informed me to decide.

So, first I’m going to discuss the elements of my friends comments that I disagree with. I do not agree that I am on par with persons like the KKK and Pat Robertson. First of all, I don’t go saying ridiculous things like that hurricanes were caused by people that I morally disagree with. Secondly, in ways that their beliefs are fixed, mine can be changed. For instance, given a compelling case for the existence of God I would have to reconsider my position. It would take strong evidence, but hey, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. On smaller scales I have already subjected my beliefs to modification. For over half a year Sam Harris was my single favourite Atheist writer and speaker—while my friend had the entire time and up to the present viewed him as a biased hate and fear monger who deliberately presents a naively incomplete picture of Islam and Middle Eastern Islamic cultures so as to create an impression that suggests that religious belief is a potent instigator of terrorism. Between my friend continuing to argue this position and seeing Scott Atran—an esteemed cognitive and social scientist who studies the Psychology and Sociology of Middle Eastern suicide terrorism, and who is also an atheist with similar hopes to myself and Harris regarding secularism and peace—vigorously argue a position that had a fair bit in common with my friend’s, I have come to move in the direction of agnosticism with respect to Harris, pending further research. While I still appreciate much of what Harris has done, I need to learn more about the position of Atran and my friend before making a broad assessment of Harris’ message regarding Islam. Note to readers: As part of my effort to become more educated I have begun reviewing work by Scott Atran and will be presenting reviews here over the coming weeks. Briefly, Atran’s view is that the Islamic faith has little to do with motivating anti-Westernism and suicide terrorism; rather, the dominant underlying factor is a sense of moral outrage and injustice toward the West—particularly the US. Anyhow, the point I’m making here is that I’ve been willing to reconsider a perspective that I held fairly strongly, just as I am doing now with the issue at hand.

The last point of disparity between zealots like Pat Robertson and organizations like the KKK that I will consider is that it would never ever occur to me to want to beat, kill, or get rid of those that I disagree with—I don’t know if Robertson has ever supported these sorts of measures, but it definitely wouldn’t be unprecedented in the history of Christianity, and does still happen now and again in the US.

There is, however, one part of my friend’s accusation that I could see myself in. It’s probably fair to say that I am a rationalist fundamentalist. I habitually demand good evidence for people’s beliefs, whether the issue is religious or not. I am intolerant of unreason. In most cases in which a person does not support their belief adequately in my eyes, I will bring this up and if they cannot provide a sound rational basis for their belief but insist on keeping it, I will generally make an explicit statement that I’ll respect their freedom to hold their belief, but they are being irrational in their analysis of the evidence, or lack thereof.

Since I became a rationalist fundamentalist I generally haven’t seen much problem with it. I guess I’ve generally just tended to feel that people should have beliefs in line with evidence and if they’re not going to do that—and I believe that they have every right not to if it’s their preference—then I shouldn’t be condemned for pointing it out. But really, for me, the big issue is not so much an individual’s unreason, but the social and political consequences of unreason en masse. And in my view and that of many many others—my friend included—some prominent religious communities have become a major impediment to free society, free thinking, education, research, and mutual understanding. If it weren’t for all of this—if we truly lived in a secular society in which religious belief had no significant impact on society—I would never have joined a secularist organization or have started a blog in which at least half of my content is going to connect in one way or another to religion and/or secularism. My participation in this sort of thing would presumably be limited to occasional basement and coffee shop chats.

So how should I conduct myself? While, as I’ve said, I do acknowledge the right of others to believe things on what I see as insufficient evidence, I also acknowledge my own right to point out the rational insufficiencies and to not just bend over backwards to pressure to give religious claims about reality some sort of special protection that people rarely demand for secular claims. I also reserve the right to view this form of systemic irrationality as a character flaw, just as I would view it as a character flaw if someone staunchly committed themselves to some other belief despite their inability to demonstrate a rational basis for it. However, looking at the big picture, is it in my best interests—considering the type of life I want to lead and the type of world that I want to help shape—to exhibit this freedom to openly critique religious belief and point out irrationality when it is emitted? To address these questions, I need to consider some of the things that I value. Three things that I care about a great deal are secularism, fairness and getting along with people.

Consider first secularism. I would like to live in a world in which policy was determined in a secular fashion by people who considered the issues openly, honestly and rationally with a genuine interest in the well-being of others. To have this in a complete sense is very unlikely, because many religious people are going to be influenced in their voting and political activity by their religious convictions. So this truth is itself an argument for being a vocal atheist—not being deliberately offensive about it, but not holding one’s tongue either. One cannot engage in the war of ideas with their mouths closed, and one should not be forced to forfeit simply because they’re a minority that has a hard time not hurting the feelings of the faithful majority. I’ll also briefly mention that I’m fully aware that it’s not like it’s going to be easy to determine policy in a secular fashion. It will almost certainly always be impossible to create policy that is perceived as rational and fair from every perspective. However, I assert that claiming that some God said that X is good or bad is hardly a respectable way out of a moral dilemma.

Secondly, I want a society that is fair with respect to ideas and beliefs. If most humans feel little reason for restraint in criticizing the beliefs of members of new cults, and feel no reason to restrain themselves from criticizing other sorts of beliefs for which a person has provided insufficient evidence, why should I feel obligated to give religious beliefs free rides on the rationality express? Why do religious beliefs deserve special treatment among the entire range of ideas that people could consider?

Perhaps the answer to the last question, according to people that believe religious beliefs do deserve special treatment, is that these beliefs are important to them. Clearly religious beliefs are important to people, and are far more to believers than a set of declarative statements about how we got here and morality. It’s a frame through which believers understand life and the world: what is important, what is meaningful, what is the point of persevering through life’s ups and downs; it is a social binding force which brings communities together (and also divides them, but that’s another issue); it can be for some an assurance of justice, a source of strength and support, and something that one can always count on no matter what. Clearly, organized religion is no trifling matter that can be reduced to a simple set of true or false statements.  For these reasons, perhaps religious beliefs, while not deserving special ascent in terms of reason and evidence, do deserve some sort of special considerations. I will address this possibility from the negative perspective here, and will come back to it again later.

When it comes to the argument that religion deserves special treatment because it is very important to people, one should ask what types of policies humans enact in secular domains of personal importance. In science, when a theory or model is refuted, does anyone feel any imperative to continue to respect the supplanted idea as being justified? Does anyone in the scientific community say anything like “Well, Dr. Smith worked really hard on that theory; he has built the better part of his career around it; I’ve talked to the man, this theory is his pride and joy, his greatest accomplishment, the shining star of his life! I really think that we should keep our disagreements largely to ourselves and avoid debating him with the same rigor that we do the rest of our work.” Would a statement of this sort be uttered in any domain of discussion other than religion? When university residence floormates are having a 2AM bull session in which they’re debating the existence of free will or other minds and they discover that one person is very tied to beliefs that he cannot successfully back up, do the others feel a deep-seated obligation to back off and “respect” this person’s belief? If the following month one of the other discussants remarks that the belief-committed friend had not provided a good case for his belief, has the instigator committed some palpably awkward faux pas? Does he risk being viewed negatively as a rationalist fundamentalist? Clearly the argument from personal importance doesn’t seem to be cutting much mustard here.

Okay, well how about the argument that religious belief is not necessarily about having a traditionally rational belief, but having a different type of rational belief in which personal experience carries a lot of legitimate weight. So, for instance, despite all the arguments against theism, if a person reads this or that religious text and they find that this text resonates with them in a way that nothing else has—nothing has ever made so much sense to them, nothing has tied things together for them in a meaningful way so well, nothing has generated feelings of genuine warmth and completedness in them—do we give this compelling personal narrative equal weight to all the dispassionate rational argumentation against theism? While I can accord some significant sympathy with regard to the power of personal experience, ultimately I cannot personally justify giving special privileges to beliefs simply because they are deeply meaningful to the believer. Lets consider a somewhat parallel incident I encountered a few years ago. At the age of about 22 a friend of mine after reading some work by philosopher Jean Paul Sartre became, for some time, a pretty strong existentialist. So much so that he began to hold beliefs that were patently indefensible. For example, taking faith in the ability of an individual to its extreme, my friend repeatedly argued that a person could literally do ANYTHING they wanted to if they truly believed in themselves and worked hard enough.  In order to press this issue, I asked him if he thought a 25 year old with a body completely ill-suited for cycling and who has never engaged in serious athletic training could eventually come to surpass the achievements of elite cyclist Lance Armstrong. He said “yes”. Even after drawing this example out, pointing out that Armstrong started training at a much younger age, has a better natural body for the sport, and that the hypothetical person was only a few years away from the end of his prime years, my friend persisted. I said, okay, what if this person does go gung-ho in pursuing this goal. He dedicates his entire life to it—his training, diet, everything are tailored to his goals and six days a week he beats the hell out of his body, taking himself to the very brink between training hard and risking injury. If he never makes it, despite his belief and undeniable hard work, what does this mean for your philosophy? His responses were reliably that he didn’t try hard enough or believe strongly enough. It was clear that his beliefs, in addition to being irrational—after all, I doubt Lance Armstrong works harder than every other world class cyclist, yet not everyone can be number one—were wholly unfalsifiable—and this allowed for their preservation despite irrationality. Indeed, in a desperate effort to get my friend to admit some limitation to his views, I asked him about the prospects of a paraplegic being able to jump to the moon. We literally had the same conversation. Now, how many readers feel that I crossed some sort of sacred line, or some sort of boundary of civility, for pressing my friend on this? His beliefs were inspired by reading a set of books that resonated with him very deeply, they came to have paramount importance in his life, and the beliefs had strong pertinence to his entire perspective on life and possibilities. So was I a jerk or otherwise morally questionable for having simply heard out his ideas and said, okay, I think I understand what you’re saying and I don’t agree or think it’s rational, here’s why? The reason I ask If I’m morally questionable is that in talking with my other friend on the phone—the one that was very perturbed by my APA article—he initially said that he’s not sure if I’m a good person, though it seems that he may have lightened this stance, but I’m not totally sure. Anyhow, I don’t see this example or any other for that matter as justifying that ideas that people get from books that resonate deeply with them deserve special protection.

Okay, maybe I should just accept that the world is not a fair place and I should accept some unfairness with regard to belief toleration. Rather than advocating for what Sam Harris calls conversational intolerance, which is an unwillingness to simply dignify the beliefs of others just because they believe them rather than asking for rational justification, I should yield to the double standard. There are arguments for doing so. Firstly, in addition to valuing secularism and fairness with respect to the treatment of ideas and beliefs, I also value having a day-to-day life in which I’m not regularly experiencing the type of social tension that can be created by conversational intolerance in most cultures. Moreover, I value having a society in which people can get along with each other. Challenging people’s deeply held beliefs seems to interfere with this a lot of the time. These are reasons for being more reserved in questioning the beliefs of others; not discontinuing conversational intolerance altogether, but avoiding it when possible and generally letting references to God pass as one would give such tacit ascent to more valid arguments. These are argue for not talking much about religion but rallying against threats to secularism—that is, working with moderates to oppose politically-motivated fundamentalists, and addressing not religious belief as a whole but particular issues (e.g., abortion, stem cell research).

Lets consider the arguments just offered for a more subtle atheism. What does such subtlety boil down to? To me, it boils down to submission out of fear of social rejection. The sorts of arguments I listed for according religious beliefs a privileged status were the type of arguments you make for a group that has a broad base of political power but does not have a valid argument. These arguments boil down to subordinating considerations of equality, intellectual honestly, and intellectual fairness to democratic bullying. That’s right. Democratic bullying. The equivalent of saying that what is right is what most of the people believe, even if they can’t defend their arguments rationally, but must invoke pleas for special consideration that none of us would accord for any other subject matter.

I’m arguing here that the most important reason nontheists and less committed religious people feel a sense of duty to respect religious beliefs is because of the sheer number and political power of religious people. I mean, honestly speaking, if there were only 100 Christians in the entire world, would we really feel any obligation to not acknowledge the absurdity of the story of Jesus? Would we feel obligated to not chuckle when we read that there are people out there that believe that this guy a few thousand years ago was born of a virgin, is the son of and the material incarnation of the one and only God, and died for the sins of man and then days later came back to life and ascended to heaven? And that the only evidence for this is the original religious text itself? And that in the original text Jesus can be found claiming that it is virtuous to have faith in him in the absence of evidence for him? Would it really be as integral to dignify these beliefs if they were only held by 100 people? Now, one may be inclined to believe that they still would, given the aforementioned deep personal importance of these beliefs for many people and communities. While one should consider this in their pondering, one should also consider cults. I mean, here’s a group that we treat with the greatest compassion and sensitivity, right? The very fact that we call them cults–-a term that has universally negative connotations such as “crazy”, “naive” and “stupid”—and not religions shows that not just any set of metaphysical speculation will do. And is a cult necessarily meaningfully different from a religion? In Sociology the term “cult” is interchangeable with “new religious movement”. While some cults may be more dangerous than most religious groups most of the time—though there surely are exceptions—is there reason to believe that the major religions are really anything more than highly successfully propogated cults? If I’m off base here, please tell me.

So I’ll wrap it up here. From this analysis here’s what I’m gathering. I have at least three major priorities: secularism, fairness in the treatment of ideas, and being able to get along with people. I’m going to add a forth: compassion. As much as I criticize religion, I am not a compassionless person. Now how to balance these priorities.

It would seem to me to be patently unfair to treat religious beliefs differently than any other. A number of atheist speakers have asserted that those beliefs that we call religious are those that people believe despite not having demonstrable, good evidence for. If there were good evidence for them they would not be religious beliefs, they’d simply be a part of our rational worldview. Getting back to the point, I don’t see the fairness in giving religious beliefs a special priority just because a large number of people care about them a lot. What happens if we spread this compassion to other belief groups that have failed to meet the hefty burdens of evidence warranted by their claims? What happens if we show the same compassionate quietness to homeopaths, astrologers,  “faith healers”, “psychics”, Scientologists, people who believe in the existence of sasquatch (Note: the Discovery Intitute recently welcomed a new Senior Fellow, Michael Medved, who just happens to have this belief and actively searches for evidence), and so on? What kind of world would we be living in if we as a society deemed it socially inappropriate to publicly challenge the validity of any belief that a person has and claims to have a deep emotional investment in?

It seems to me that a big part of my decision hinges on whether or not I’m willing to be a martyr. Am I willing to stand up for the principles of honest, fair and equitable evaluation of ideas, religious or not, even if it results in some social rejection from a majority which doesn’t like to have its beliefs reviewed without special allowances made?

So, this is where I’m currently standing. I strongly encourage any and all feedback. Positive, negative, insulting, supporting, whatever. If I’ve made an oversight, I want to hear about it. Thanks for reading!

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Comments
16 Responses to “How Should I, a Secular Humanist, Treat Religious Belief? On an Intellectual Level, Does Religious Belief Warrant The Deference to Which it has Become Accustomed?”
  1. Colin says:

    Ron,

    I appreciate your commitment to having good reasons for belief. The big question is whether you are willing to consider ALL the evidence. From what I can gather, you have not seriously studied the Bible or any other religious text, you seem to have written them off as being bunk before even interacting with what they actually teach.

    Here is an error that I think you have made with regards to the Bible in particular…

    When you talk about the hypothetical situation of only 100 Christians in the world (which has been true in the past), you write the following statement: “And that the only evidence for this is the original religious text itself?”

    Why would you disqualify the Bible as being evidence for Christianity? Why do you assume that there is no extra-biblical evidence for Christianity?

    Can we trust the Bible as being historically accurate? Yes. Here is why you should trust the Bible.

    -We have no original copies of the writings of ANY classical writer, even for Shakespeare, yet we do not discount the copies of writings by Shakespeare as being evidence for Shakespeare.

    -How do we determine the accuracy of texts? There are two important considerations:
    -How many existing copies are there? More copies = a more accurate result, fewer copies means a less accurate result.
    -How close in time are the copies to the original? Older copies provide a more accurate result, newer copies are less accurate.

    Some examples of historical texts that we all trust to be accurate:
    -Homer’s ‘Iliad’, from 800 BC…we have 643 copies and the earliest copy is 400 years after the original
    -Plato from 400 BC…we have 7 copies, the earliest copy is 1350 years from the original
    -Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ from 100-44 BC…we have 10 copies, the earliest copy is 1000 years from the original
    -Tacitus’ ‘Annals’ from AD 100…we have 20 copies, the earliest copy is 1000 years from the original.

    What about the Bible?

    -We have 5366 copies or portions of Greek manuscripts including full New Testament manuscripts dating from 250 years after the originals
    -We have 19000 copies of translations.
    -We have 36000 citations by the early church Fathers of all but 11 verses of the NT.

    A side by side comparison reveals that all these documents are in total agreement 98% of the time. The remaining 2% consists of typographical errors, spelling errors, inverted phrases etc…all totally inconsequential.

    -of the entire 20000 lines in the New Testament, only 40 are in doubt by scholars and none affects any significant doctrine.

    We have no other historical text that even comes close to the purity and textual integrity of the New Testament.

    So, why would you discount the New Testament as evidence for the life of Christ? You surely have good rational reasons to do so, don’t you?

  2. ronbrown says:

    Colin:

    Firstly, you are correct. I haven’t engaged in much religious scholarship. I’ve read about 2/3 of Genesis, but that’s it. I’m currently reading the Bible, but it’s slow-going.
    I have not, however, written it off as bunk. I’m sure that there are plenty of valuable lessons to be learned from the Bible–lessons about morality, societal organization, and how to live a fulfilling life, for instance. I do, however, have very great doubts about whether there is anything superhuman about it. Humanity includes many people that have composed wonderful writings communicating great, life- and society-enhancing ideas. Humanity also has people that have written down ideas that are horrendously ruthless and counterproductive to the promotion of a stable enriching society. From what I have gathered through my limited reading and through interaction with other people and texts, the Bible seems to unite these two extremes into one text.

    So why do I disquality (tentatively) the Bible as evidence? For the same reason that I would disqualify a text written by you saying that you or someone that you saw eye-to-eye with were God. If someone wanted to make others believe that a book that they are writing is from the ruler of the universe (either they themselves or someone else), they’d probably try to speak favourably of that belief in the text itself. Hence I look for impartial third-party evidence.

    There are key differences between the Bible and Shakespeare when it comes to belief in the supposed author. Primarily, motivation. What would be the motivation to lie about Shakespeare? What difference would it make if we believed the writings of Shakespeare were written by a guy named Miller, or a female named Mitchell, or 7 writers over the course of 200 years? It wouldn’t change anything important about the text. It’s not like the purposes served by these texts—enjoyment, political commentary, fine prose—would be undermined in the slightest if the author wasn’t Shakespeare. Hell, maybe there was no Shakespeare. Maybe it was all writen by a woman or a minority, but the writer knew that the writings would be less likely to be accepted if they weren’t those of a White male. Okay fine, I don’t know if Shakespeare was real. So what? But even if this were the case, what are the chances that no one would’ve found out about the hoax during the illustrious and many-years-spanned career of “Shakespeare”?

    Compare all of this to God and the Bible. Whereas the works of Shakespeare–or Newton, Einstein, Lincoln or Socrates–are not compromised in the slightest if we suddenly find out that we were wrong about the author, the Bible loses much of its value, though by no means all of it. The Bible could still be looked at as a carrier of many pieces of wise advise, but the value of the advise would be judged just as that of any normal philosopher. The contents of the Bible would not be given free ascent simply because they’re supposed to be from the Creator.

    “-How do we determine the accuracy of texts? There are two important considerations:
    -How many existing copies are there? More copies = a more accurate result, fewer copies means a less accurate result.”

    Not necessarily. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. If and when the total number of Muslims outnumbers of that Christians and more Qur’ans have been printed, does that mean that by virtue of its numerosity, the Qur’an has surpassed the Bible in accuracy? Popularity of a belief does not necessarily translate into accuracy or rationality of the belief. Remember a few years ago when a majority of Americans thought that the Iraqi war was a good idea? The commonality of that belief did not change the fact that it incorrect and was largely based on lies and lack of a full grasp of the situation.

    We have no other historical text that even comes close to the purity and textual integrity of the NT? What about the Qur’an? I’m under the impression that it is the only unaltered religious text.

    “So, why would you discount the New Testament as evidence for the life of Christ? You surely have good rational reasons to do so, don’t you?” Yeah, I think I just presented them. I should say, however, that I needn’t discount the existence of Christ to be skeptical of God.

    In addition to all the counterarguments I just gave, I can also say that while your arguments fall apart, all of this falls perfectly in line with what I said in posts and comments regarding human cognitive preparedness for fallacious religious beliefs. To recap, humans readily infer agency (or mindedness) upon nonhuman entities in the environment; young humans greatly trust their elders and so easily take in religious beliefs from parents and community members; human cognition exhibits a tendency toward confirmation bias and memory of correlations/coincidences–we notice, trust and recall things that coincide with our beliefs and apparent coincidences; on the other hand, we are far less likely to notice, trust and recall things that disconfirm our beliefs as well as coincidences that did not happen (e.g., we are more likely to notice, trust and recall “granted” prayers versus those unanswered).

  3. John says:

    Colin, I think I have a little more evidence in favor of Ron.
    You asked Ron if he had read the bible. My point exactly. Have you really read the bible? There are so many things about god in the old testament and Jesus in the new testament that show how they really are. Not the loving, moral and caring father and son that they certainly would be if they were perfect and good.
    I think we in this usa country have a fair judicial system in most aspects. But look at god and Jesus with their judicial system. And their backup and riteous acts all fall under the very old unproven bible as evidence for their final judgments. And sick unjust ones I might add. The bible is a fear mongering book. Sorry Colin. You are quite simply all wrong about the bible and it’s contents.

  4. Colin says:

    John,

    You didn’t give any evidence for anything. You only provided your opinion that is obviously grossly misinformed about the message of the Bible.

    You made several assertions, but did not provide any evidence.

  5. Colin says:

    Ron,
    For impartial, third party writings check out Josephus. He was a 1st century Jewish historian. If anyone had any reason to provide ‘the truth’ about Jesus, it would be a Jewish historian. Trouble for you is that his version of events matches quite nicely with the Gospel writers’.

    When I talk about more copies, I am not talking about copies that we have today, I am talking about copies that we have of the original autographs that are the source of what we have today.

    Your Psychological theories are fine and dandy but you seem to be missing a couple of things…

    1. Your theory that we tend to anthropomorphize gives you justification in writing off religion as delusional, however, it can also be considered evidence that we have been designed to worship our creator which fits nicely with what the Bible teaches.

    2. You can come up with theories that explain the origin of religious belief until you are blue in the face, and they might be very powerful, coherent theories, BUT, in the end, you will have said absolutely NOTHING about whether or not Christianity is true or not. It seems to me that we are talking about whether or not Christianity is true or delusional.

    Here are some topics to get the ball rolling:
    -Was Jesus really divine?
    -Is the Bible a supernatural book? (ie. divinely inspired)
    -Does God exist?
    -If God exists, why is there so much evil?
    -If God does not exist, why is there so much good?

    Cheers,
    Colin

  6. ronbrown says:

    Colin:

    I looked into Josephus on Wikipedia. A very quick glance will show you that the story of Josephus regarding Jesus is anything but trusted. The majority of the article is focused on how what is attributed to Josephus regarding Jesus is fraudulent. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus.

    I’ll also mention a point made by Sam Harris in his debate with Chistopher Hedges and again at his speech at the Aspen convention a few months ago. Harris pointed out that there is an Indian man who also claims to have been born of a virgin, who has millions of followers who believe him to be a messiah, and has been witnessed by many still-living contemporaries as having performed miracles. A birthday party was thrown for him a few years ago and a million people came. So this guy is everything that Jesus is in terms of evidence, but better: many many contemporary and still-living people who claim to have seen him perform miracles. I wish I could remember the guy’s name, but I assure you that if you check these videos you’ll hear Harris discuss him. In fact, as I recall, Harris speaks about this guy during his initial speech in the Hedges debate just a few minutes in.

    Next, speaking of Hedges, Chris Hedges is a Harvard-educated Christian theologian who’s father was a Christian leader–I can’t remember his exact position, but he was big. Chris is as highly educated on Christianity as anyone you’ll ever meet, he is a Christian, and even he will tell you that there is no conclusive evidence that Jesus ever existed. He says this in the debate with Harris.

    Colin, my cognitive argument regarding religious belief should not be considered in isolation. When you consider it concurrently with these facts: 1) humans have believed in thousands of different Gods over history, demonstrating a strong tendency to assume intelligent causes for things we don’t understand (e.g., thunder, the sun cycles, rain, illness, moral cognition, bad luck, good luck, funny coincidences); 2) there is nothing even approaching good evidence for God; 3) The Bible is wrong about so many things (e.g., its creation stories, its speculation of the age of the universe, the location and relations of the earth and sun, etc.), makes many contradictions, and so on.

    Given that many Gods have been believed in, many of which were mutually exclusive, that humans have a known tendency to engage in cognitive anthropomorphization, that there is no strong evidence for the Bible being true and plenty of strong evidence against it not being so, I’d say that my cognitive approach is much more than fine and dandy.

  7. ronbrown says:

    I just re-read my last post. Apologies for the parts in which I was perhaps a little over-aggressive in my tone.

  8. Colin says:

    Ron,

    If you a seeking credibility, I suggest you not use wikipedia…that much should be obvious.

    About this guy in India, we will have to see if he is still around in 100 years, won’t we. If he begins to fulfill Biblical prophecy, then we may have something to talk about.

    Do a quick google search on how many OT prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus. Then you can compare and contrast them with this dude in India.

    This Hedges gentleman, his father can’t be that big as I have never heard of him. Sounds like he comes from the tradition of the Jesus Seminar…a bunch of quasi-intellectuals debating things that NT scholars (christian and secular alike) simply have no disagreement about. We have more evidence that Jesus existed than we do that Shakespeare existed. I suggest you stop ignoring it and deal with the evidence.

    Your cognitive argument…

    1. Humans anthropomorphize…this is inconsequential.
    2. No evidence for God…you need to read more books. Please respond to the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe, the teleological argument, and tell me why they do not count as evidence for God. While you are at it, make sure you don’t refer to anything as being objectively true, don’t use any laws of logic, math, letters or anything immaterial, as such things are not possible, they cannot exist, in a materialistic universe. Good luck. (My point being here that there are plenty of good arguments for God, you have simply ignored them)
    3. The Bible is wrong…the biblical narrative is entirely compatible with an old universe (13 bil yrs-or so), you have not provided any evidence that its creation stories are wrong and you totally missed the boat on the Bible’s perspective on the earth’s location in relation to the sun.

    Please outline some contradictions in the Bible that damage its credibility.

    So, your first point is agreeable but inconsequential and leaves you on the horns of the genetic fallacy. Your second and third points are completely unsubstantiated assertions.

    If you are interested in a rational discussion about God, then you are going to have to be willing to consider some evidence ( outlined the cosmological argument in a previous post), and you are going to have to provide some evidence (not anecdotes like you have given so far) for your point of view.

    The facts of life are immaterial, my friend, and that leaves materialism and secularism out in the cold abyss of irrationality.

    Cheers,
    Colin

  9. Colin says:

    I am fine with strong assertions, Ron. I am enjoying our conversation. I choose to not take offense. It is name-calling and ad hominem arguments that get me riled and those have been absent from this discussion. I hope that you feel that my posts, while they may be strongly worded, maintain your inherent dignity and are respectful, as that is my intent. Where I fail, you have my humble apologies.

    Colin

  10. ronbrown says:

    Firstly I’m going to say that at some point we are going to have to stop this argument because I can’t afford to keep spending 2 hours a day on this. I will address these arguments in the next day or so.

  11. John says:

    Colin. I will give you what the bible says not of my opinion. Is that fair enough. First of all why is the divorce rate of christian believers equal to that of non christians? If there is a message of enlightenment why don’t the christians do better than the non christians in obeying the word of god?

    Now for the verses and I will give them all to you to see.
    1. Jesus acted as a racist. Mark 7 verse 27.
    2. Jesus agreed with slavery. Luke 7 verse 8. Colossians 3 verse 22.
    3. The new testament of Jesus christ was sexist. 1 Corinthians 11. 1 Timothy verse 2.
    4. Jesus was a hypocrite. Mattew 5 verse 43. Then to Mark 16 verse 15-16.
    There is more. This is just an example. And the old testament, the holy word of god. If you are interested I will get them for you as well.
    5. Jesus core message. John 6 verse 53-54. Mark 16 verse 16.

  12. John says:

    Colin one last thing. About the core message of Jesus. You said ( I am obviously grossly misinformed about the message of the bible).
    John 6 verse 53-54. This message does not speak of love, justice, peace. Instead it is of separation, demeaning of being, and chaos and gloom is the fruit of it. The new testament doesn’t care about morals it cares about who goes in to heaven and who doesn’t. Who shall be judged in gods anger and who won’t. And for what? If god put us in a non perfect place do you think he would expect perfection from them? Man’s so called fall didn’t change this world into a non perfect world . Look at the dinosaurs for god sake. The genesis story is also the message of the bible. But we both know it is a lie about the truth of our planet and the lives it contains. Do you think that is ok to do? The only thing that is right is to love, be good. Love they neighbor as thyself. But to pick out things that have nothing to do with love and use them as gods message and the way of good. In the name of someone is empty. The creed of this or that is empty. The church or place to belong to is empty. Worshiping for favor is empty. Love comes from within not from someone or something else. It is not granted or not. It simply is within us.

  13. John says:

    I see that people speak of god as if the bible is the book of god. There may be god but that doesn’t mean that christianity, Jewish, muslim etc. is a good depiction of god or a true one.
    Let’s face it, these religions are thousands of years old. We are constantly learning new things and coming up with better ideas. We learn through trial and error and experience. We should try to be improving on our knowledge. There is always a better way to do it. Or something new to discover.

    My depiction of god is different than these religions. I think that we are here to experience knowledge. Maybe for him or for our own growth. Knowledge and experience are not the same. To learn from a book is not the same as hands on. True trials are the best lessons of life. If everything were always perfect, what have you learned in that? This life shows the true meaning of being. Why it is important. It makes greater value of being and loving and experiencing and learning or else we are just based on instinct.

  14. ronbrown says:

    Colin:

    Alright, I’m really tired right now, but I just want to get this idea out so I don’t forget it.

    What if we stopped taking the Bible literally and started viewing it more as a metaphor. Perhaps God, heaven, and hell are metaphors for personal experience. Perhaps “God” refers simply to what is ultimately meaningful and important in life, and if you strive toward getting to know it and following it–i.e., pursuing and following wisdom–one will approach a sort of enlightened state of well-being (note the Buddhist themes), and if do not pursue God/wisdom or fail to follow it, we move away from well-being toward inner turmoil and isolation. Rather than loving our brother like ourself (similar to the Buddhist idea of disolving the self-world, self-other distinctions), we constantly obsess over ourselves–our status, wealth, rewards, etc.–and become neurotic, isolated, and obsessed with the constant need for transient external gratifications (e.g., promotions, recognition, possessions) and are constantly vulnerable–something like a personal hell; a sort of internal karma—the universe may not punish you, but living a self-centered egocentric life could bring about discontent as a simple matter of course.

    In the comments for the post about whether or not its possible to be an outspoken atheist and not be offensive I said the following, “Perhaps religious codification has been the cause of many of the problems of religion. Indeed, this is not the first time that this has been suggested. Chris Hedges, for one, has said it. Such codification can rigidify religion, potentially leading to dogmatism rather than continual evolution. I recently read Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained–very interesting, by the way. Boyer, an Anthropologist as well as Psychologist, gives a brief history of the great monotheisms. Contrary to the intuitive theory that religions started off with a particular structure and spread out as more and more churches were owned, apparently religious practice was far less structured initially but as more cultural competitors emerged in order to protect their share of the market the dominant religion would came to operate sort of like a major franchised chain of restaurants or stores–establishing protocols, as well as texts. In this way, the dominant religion branded itself and could have control over who was in and who was not (sort of like a professional association like the Canadian Medical Association). This coincides with the notion that codification is a source of rigidity–the intent of this codification was standardization. The bigger the religious organization, the harder it is to coordinate changes.”

    Perhaps early Christianity, as in the teachings of Jesus, was a far more fluid religion than it is now. I’m thinking that perhaps it would be a good thing to over time continue to move organized religions away from commitments to supernatural beings and more toward a pursuit of wisdom, community and growth. I have no doubt that Christianity is full of good ideas. By no means do I expect all of its ideas to be good, but when it comes to making overarching life philosophies, that’s a pretty tall order—especially when societies and challenges change and advise that may have been useful 2000 years ago could be irrelevant or maladaptive now. Perhaps if we can just view wisdom and well-being of ourselves and others as the top priority and care far less about the accuracy of specific beliefs, we’d be better off. Heck, if we could establish an open-minded pursuit of wisdom where some members believed in a God but it didn’t actually effect the way they reasoned about human consciousness and human and earthly concerns, perhaps such beliefs would become less socially relevant in terms of issues of social dispute; and as long as the believer didn’t allow the belief to prevent them from being open to different beliefs and possibilities with regard to the human experience and world.

    Thoughts?

  15. John says:

    Colin, I appreciate your response and liked alot of the things that you said. I am glad that you have found peace and meaning in your faith. I however seem to be an opposite to you meaning that christian faith does not bring me the things you said it brings you. I see alot of judging and you know what I mean. Only one thing I don’t agree with what you said is that I don’t think you need christianity or religion to find guidance and peace in life. I do think you need it somehow growing up, but once an adult you have aquired yourself hopefully and can pursue your own realities. Thanks for talking. John.

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