Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

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James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

Carse: The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.

ID Champion William Dembski Declares War on Christians, Children

June 13, 2008

Ok, so I’m not exactly the Onion when it comes to headlines. But what else to make of this post on Uncommon Descent, where Dembski basically demands that all Christians swear loyalty to his partisan movement, or else be labeled as traitors and atheist collaborators? What else to make of his following strategy for “defeating” his enemies:

What’s our strategy. The strategy is multipronged. Let me just give you one prong: WIN THE YOUTH. The release date for Miller’s book is June 12th. I’ve got a book titled Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know (co-authored with youth speaker and high-school teacher Sean McDowell) whose release date is July 1st. It is geared specifically at mobilizing Christian young people, homeschoolers, and church youth groups with the ID alternative to Darwinian evolution. (emphasis added)

Given the highlighted text, it seems like Dembski and crew have pretty much given up on trying to convince the bulk of scientists (both religious and non-religious) of their ideology by, say, penning and publishing some positive evidence for their claims. A simple mathematical proof of Dembski’s various information theory claims would be a nice start. But, as filthy Simpsonian beatniks used to say: they’ve tried nothing, and they’re fresh out of ideas! And now they’re going to take it out on the children instead.

As referenced in the quote above, what’s got Dembski so outraged in particular is Ken Miller’s new book, entitled Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (out now!). After all the kvetching over people judging Expelled before seeing it, Dembski now seems to agree that advance copy is good enough to gab about, and he’s royally pissed about the book jacket’s implication that ID is crippling science education as well as impoverishing the theological imagination.

Fair enough, though Dembski doesn’t seem to actually be inclined to respond to those accusations at present. Instead, he’s prepared to simply dismiss their concerns and arguments based solely on to what degree Richard Dawkins might agree with them.

And as James McGrath points out, there’s something deeply… well, silly about trying to one-up someone else’s book endorsement from Human Genome Project-leader Francis Collins with his own endorsement from… Ann Coulter, a woman whose own readership was apparently so troubled by her use of complete sentences and paragraphs that she had to publish a book of random quotes to mollify them.

In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what Dembski’s Pied Piper act is all about when his book comes out in July.

Myself, I’m highly looking forward to sitting down with a copy of Miller’s new book this weekend. And I suspect that the dustjacket is about as far as Dembski will ever want to venture, given Miller’s track record for solid, evidential smackdowns of Intelligent Design claims.

Liberal Christianity vs. The Bible: Why a “Bible” at All?

June 8, 2008

I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.

My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.

Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:

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The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.

More Advice on Sex From a Virgin

May 11, 2008

Pope Benedict is back in the news for one of those sparse AP religious news pieces. He’s been praising a 1968 encyclical called Human Vitae which, among other things, definitively reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception. (It also happily makes up for the rather glaring omission of rape from the Bible’s otherwise absurdly comprehensive list of things God hates except when he’s busy ordering them). It would be nice to have the full speech, but it’s yet to appear in the usual places. But the snippets quoted by the AP are bad enough for a little fisking:

“What was true yesterday remains true even today. The truth expressed in ‘Humane vitae’ doesn’t change; on the contrary, in the light of new scientific discoveries it is ever more up to date,” the pope added.

And which scientific discoveries are those? That there is, after all, no “moment” of conception when a magical homunculus pops into being? That even a non-fertilized egg, or potentially any cell in the human body, can be induced to grow into a new human being? That the creation of a human person is a long complex process resulting, eventually, not instantaneously, in specific functional capacities?

The mark of the human search for truth, you see, is that it does change: it updates itself in light of new evidence, apologizes for error. This is doubly true in the case of moral understanding: better knowledge helps us make better decisions, alerts us to moral consequences we may have missed.

Now, I understand that Popes claim to be relying on insights supposedly proscribed by a higher power, and I suppose this is where we must differ. I don’t see any evidence of such insight. In fact, the contrary. What I see are doctrines formed in (perfectly understandable!) ignorance of human biology and social experience, now (less understandably) grasping at straws and cherry picking in an attempt to remain relevant, all the while resisting any re-examination.

And while Popes couch their declarations as sincere defenses of moral sense and human dignity, it’s hard to take them as seriously as they intend it. Perhaps mainly due to the nature of the institution they find themselves wedded to, there is very little room in which to confront the possibility of error. And when it comes down to admitting doctrinal error or real human dignity, which does history tell us is likely to bend to which?

“No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that two married people exchange as a sign of a greater mystery,” Benedict said in his speech.

I quite agree that sex, as with all human experience, can be part of a greater mystery. But the Pope is sorely abusing the word here: appealing to positive connotations he has earned no right to. Indeed, his entire purpose is to routinize that mystery into the very specific form he believes the universe favors, all in service of a doctrine that is itself no mystery (except in the sense that it’s often philosophically unintelligible).

Benedict expressed concern that human life risks losing its value in today’s culture, and worried that sex could “transform itself into a drug” that one partner had to have even against the will of the other.

“What must be defended is not only the true concept of life, but above all the dignity of the very person,” the pope added.

You know what makes human life lose value and dignity? Cloudy, impenetrably confused moral thinking.

Like the sort that compares a experiencing, feeling human being to a nerveless embryo, and thus mangles any sense whatsoever of what makes human life, in particular, morally important.

Or the sort that stands in opposition to the distribution or even the education of poor people about contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of deadly disease. The one that treats knowledge as a temptation, and ignorance a blessing… if by blessing, you mean infecting your wife with AIDS because your priest declares that condoms are not permitted even within a marriage, even for that grave purpose.

Of course, voice these sorts of criticism within earshot of excitable apologists, and you’re bound to hear one or two responses.

The first is to loudly bemoan the supposed scientism-sans-conscience of Catholicism’s critics. This response is mere subterfuge. Us “moderns,” secular or no, are not nihilists: what we have are different values than the ones promoted by pontiffs, different ideas about where to draw the line on, for instance, stem cells. What we’re due in response is debate, not glib dismissals about our supposed moral blindness or vacuity.

The second response is that critics of Catholic doctrine are ultimately just narcissists: heedless pleasure seekers. Oh how they love this endlessly self-aggrandizing accusation! But the character of this sort of argument is both slanderous and baseless. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense, as when critics like myself are largely arguing on behalf of the liberty of others (such as homosexual rights that I myself have no need of).

The other half of the time, it’s just a backhanded way to justify injustices or restrictions that stand accused of causing harm themselves. It’s easy to frame any argument for progress as “selfishly” promoting pleasure and reducing suffering (how dare we desire to treat malaria, hedonists we!). Easy, but rarely helpful or sensible as a criticism of those ideas or improvements.

And worse, these declarations against demands for human happiness are insincere. For apologists often appeal to the idea that they know, better than everyone else, what best leads to happiest: they merely insist that they have a bead on the deepest sorts of human happiness. That anything other than their path leads to misery and ruin, not merely in an imagined afterlife, but here on earth. Very well: but others make the same claims about their own contrary paths and philosophies. Thus there is room for legitimate debate.

But, I suppose, such fair debates risk the unacceptable possibility of rational defeat. Simply accusing your critics of hedonistic animality is all the simpler and less dangerous.

Kenneth Miller’s Editorial on Ben Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Expelled

May 8, 2008

Kenneth Miller, author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” and the very sort of religious scientist that Expelled’s producers avoided like the plague, has an editorial out today, lambasting the film and Ben Stein’s recent comments that “science leads to killing people.”

Good read from an important voice in this debate. And his new book, “Only a Theory,” which I’m quite excited to read, comes out next month!

HT: Gospel of Karen