Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.


Accommodating religion doesn’t require adopting its trappings

I tried very hard to read A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I really did. I started the book three times, and the last two times I skipped the soporific beginning and started to read from a random point somewhere in the middle of the book. I couldn’t do it. The Good Book is just not a very good book.

It’s not that Grayling’s prose is particular bad, although it’s not particularly good. It’s not that many of the things he writes are little more than self-help nostrums, although many of them are certainly that.

The problem is that Grayling’s imitation of the style of the old English bible makes his “new bible” seem more a parody than a transformation. He hasn’t so much updated the old bible as he has backdated his new ideas.

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Why would atheists study religion?

Just when you thought that it was safe to ignore the “debate” between science and religion, along comes The Chronicle Review with a long article on the emergence of a “new” science, “evolutionary religious studies.”

From the start, let’s get the oxymoron jokes out of the way by noting that it’s not called “evolutionary religious beliefs.” The point isn’t to prove religion right; it’s to examine religion’s evolutionary character, its origins and its impact on individuals and societies.

When the suggestion arose that we consider the social origins of religion, a member of my Monday morning discussion and coffee group (not to be confused with my Wednesday morning coffee and discussion group) demurred, likening the suggestion to inviting a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses for tea and a chat. His distaste for the whole idea was clear.
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Saving religion by deleting all the doctrine

Many critics attack the New Atheists as unsophisticated literalists who don’t understand much less appreciate all of the nuance and subtlety of religion.

By engaging rationally with the truth claims of various religions, the critics say, the New Atheists miss the crucial point that religion is, in the words of Robert Bellah, not necessarily a thing you believe but “a thing you do.”

I’ve always found this approach to the defense of religion curious — and ultimately self-defeating. Jettisoning the doctrine to save the practice seems to me so obviously self-deceptive that I marvel at how easily people do it. If science shows my truths to be wrong, well, then I don’t need them!

Bellah, author of the recent book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Agewas interviewed by Hans Joas in the latest issue of The Hedgehog. Despite his reasonableness and erudition, Bellah falls into the “religious faith isn’t faith in anything specific” defense with graceful ease.
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Quantum physics — making God more likely?

Big Questions Online (BQO) is a web production of the religion-promoting Templeton Foundation, and as such the site is prone to taking seriously some pretty silly ideas.

The latest example is the provocatively — and misleadingly — titled recent article,  “Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?”

The article starts with “No,” then proceeds to a long summary of some of the major characteristics of quantum physics. It ends with the argument — and here’s where the silly comes in — that since concrete materialism is apparently undermined by quantum physics, all bets are off, and belief in God is more reasonable.

What makes this so silly, of course, is that even if the assertion that quantum physics disproves materialism were true, that would have absolutely no effect on the reasonableness of belief in God, or gods.
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It’s not God, but neither is God a Higgs

The big news of last week was the detection of the Higgs boson, the missing subatomic particle predicted by the Standard Model but never found until now.

It’s a big deal, despite the fact that everyone knows that the Higgs boson is not really “the God particle,” even if it does bring the mass to everything else.

OK, so that was a very bad joke. But the way that the Higgs fleshes out the predominant description of subatomic physics is no joke. It’s a primary example of the methodological differences between the rationalism of science and the metaphysics of belief.

This is not new territory, but you don’t get such a perfect case every day. There is no clearer example of the difference between postulation and presumption than what we find in the search for the Higgs. Continue reading

What about morality — does it need religion?

This has turned into a week about the social roles of religion.

On Monday, I presented Scott Atran’s summary of the research into religion’s role in creating and, more important, it  turns out, supporting war.

And last time, I wrote about the contention of Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, that without religion, an enduring civilization is not possible.

Today’s last piece in the series considers the argument that is a favourite of believers:  without religion there can be no true morality. And many of today’s prominent agnostic and atheist thinkers accept that religion has served historically as the “social glue” that keeps us from expressing our selfish and violent human natures.

There are many ways to counter this claim, including the unwelcome but accurate observation that close observance of all of the rules and moral laws of the Koran or the Bible would quickly earn you a life sentence in prison. The Bible passes more death sentences than does a typical Texas judge.

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Is religion crucial to civilization?

Some believers are like loud children, banging on their drums of faith in an insistent, unchanging, ultimately numbing rhythm.

Others, like the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, are more nuanced, and they can produce beautiful melodies that make their claims seem natural and desirable.

In the end, alas, the basis of the Chief Rabbi’s music, of his faith, is as vain and insubstantial as is that of the beaters and bleaters.

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Taking a closer look at religion’s role in war

While watching the “Beyond Belief” videos that prompted the previous posting, I was struck by how often anthropologist Scott Atran, a rational thinker like everyone else in the room, was isolated by his insistence that (1) things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be and (2) we should really test our pet theories before we leap to defend them.

Why should Atran’s insistence on direct  examination of theoretical claims have made him an outsider in a room filled with fellow scientists?

Isn’t his stance one of the “sacred values” of scientific investigation about which I wrote last time? Well, it should be, but for the New Atheist dogmatists any suggestion that the world is complex seems to ramp up their aggression.

And Scott Atran seems often to be in their sights, as he will be again, now that he has published another article that suggests that things are more complicated than “religion bad, reason good.”

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A commitment to the natural and the observable

Way back, near the start of this blog more than a year and a half ago, I posted an article titled “Science: not just another religion.”

In that article I agreed with Richard Dawkins’s contention that science, unlike religion, doesn’t give unyielding precedence to tradition and authority, and it doesn’t give any credence to claims grounded in faith or revelation.

Having recently finished viewing a full 24 hours of video lectures and discussions from the 2006 and 2007 “Beyond Belief” conferences — not consecutively, in case you were curious — I’d like briefly to pursue a somewhat more nuanced version of Dawkins’s claim. This seems especially relevant in the context of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

What I won’t do is to slacken in any way my thoroughgoing commitment to the supremacy of the natural and the observable as the only true reality. What I hope to do is examine the nature of that commitment itself, as an epistemological stance — there is no other way to know — and as a heuristic — there is no other way to know.
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