atheist mythos (not “the myth of atheism”)

Mark’s sharp post the other day on PZ Myers (building off a similarly sharp post by Br. Ken @ Popehat) mentioned an earlier call of mine for an atheist theology.  That post only introduced the idea, so since it’s come up again and is very relevant to the current bruhaha with Myers, let me flesh this idea out.

Now before I go there, one well headed advisory warning.  In the comments to Mark’s post, Consumatopia writes (comment #12):

However, I think it’s worth stepping back and thinking about the point of this argument. I agree absolutely with Ken’s criticism of Myers at popehat, but I’m pretty sure that simple human inconsistency/hypocrisy in the face of great passion is the cause of this, not the abstract epistemological problems we might address here.

I’m sure C-topia’s analysis is part of what is going on. So not discounting that, I’d like to add another one. Not an abstract epistemological one but more a structural-worldview investigation which can be operating simultaneously and complementary to C-topia’s more individual-phenomenologico-ethical read.   The atheist theology thread will dive in and out of the analysis around my analysis of Myers (he being only one example to support my hypothesis, though I think a paradigmatic or at least well known one).

And off we go…

Myers in this Bloggingheads episode describes his religious upbringing as basically milquetoast Protestant.  He had to go to confirmation classes (usually in the early teen years) got bored of the teachings, started asking questions about the rationality of this belief system and then left church never to return.  Standard version of this whole thing. [By standard I don’t mean to demean it, just that it”s a common pattern].

This is where James Fowler’s work of the Stages of Faith development is so crucial and why I point to it so often.  One of the geniuses of Fowler’s work is a basic trust that humans have a spiritual line of development or intelligence with cross-cultural structural similarities in their patterning regardless of whether they formally believe in God or not.  And actually whether or not God exists does not change Fowler’s reconstruction.  Even if there is no God, humans continue to develop meaning-making stories and go through sequential orders of faith development.  Those patterns tell us something about human maturation–even if not about the Divine (though I obviously think it does the latter as well). Fowler’s work shows that this spiritual-faith dimension of human experience develops from primal forms of religion to magical forms to mythic forms to rational forms of religion to pluralistic forms to more holistic forms.  This development can stop at any point and also can develop in a nearly infinite number of surface manifestations but generally show the same basic deep patterning.

By the time Fowler reaches rational his analysis splits into multiple streams (atheistic, theistic, agnostic, pantheistic, etc.).  A rational theistic theology would be something like Liberal Protestant theology or the Roman Catholic theology of Vatican II.   A rational-modern atheistic position would be more in the classic empiricist humanist tradition.  Now the different rational stage positions are various forms or variations on the same basic structure.  They are interpreting their lifeworld differently but interestingly show the same basic patterns  (again see Fowler’s work on this).

This overview explains why the so-called New Atheists are always trying to argue that liberal/moderate religious believers are actually just in the closet irrational religious fundies.  The New Atheists have to try to make all religion in mythic-magical religion (hence “irrational” or really pre-rational).  If they admitted to stages of maturing belief–and hence the possibility of a modern or postmodern or even post-postmodern religion–that would sink their ideological Battleship.

The New Atheist point aside, each level can be thought to have its own version of a “faith”–a basic trust that gives coherence and meaning to that interpreted world.  If that trust fundamentally breaks down then there is the potential for shifting to another level.  [Which is why the actually interesting question is what do you trust/believe in?  Not: do you believe or not?].

Take the classic example where the young adult begins to question the stories given to him/her as a child–questioning the basic logic and meaning of the story with questions like:  “What do you mean there are two creation stories in the Bible?”  This is shifting from mythic (which is being deconstructed) to rational (which is being constructed).  If a religious person at this phase of their life is not given a way to re-interpret/re-imagine/re-understand their religious tradition that speaks to their questioning, then they most often leave and may never come back except in the case where they have children who the new parent wants to be brought up in the faith only to repeat the cycle.  Again, following Fowler, since the child starts off at the beginning, the child will need to develop magically and mythically—typically achieved via religious institutions.

In the case where a rational stage religiosity is not offered–in Fowler’s terms he calls this stage individual-reflective faith–then there is the assumption, strong in our world, that “belief” means mythic belief means religion and reason equals science equals “truth”.  Science in this view is not faith.  [See the comments to Mark’s post for plenty of evidence to that view being held].

With Fowler’s lens there is rather a faith to every level, each one more mature than the previous.  Though there is always the possibility of developing to a higher stage and then instead of including the previous stage’s wisdom in a more mature way, the earlier stage is repressed.  [Keep an eye out for that one.]

So this is where the atheist religion begins to take shape.  Atheists develop spiritually like all beings.  The spiritual line involves the individual’s reconstruction of their experience-beliefs in answer to the question:  “What is of Ultimate Concern” (to use Tillich’s language).  Everyone has something of ultimate concern.  Given Fowler’s sequence, not all ultimate concerns are born equal or equally valued.  But this is also the point where the problem for an atheist theology lies as well.  Every individual is born at the first stage, what Fowler called primal (unconscious) faith.  So everyone has to develop–in any number of potential surface variations/ways–through the same basic (deep) structural forms.  From primal to magical to mythic to rational and so on.

Mythic religion basically does a few things.  1. It attempts to unite the world into one story.  In so doing it creates a sharp division between everyone who is in the mythic group (i.e. the righteous) and those who are not (the damned or at least the suspect).   2. It attacks magical forms of religion because it is so closely related to it.  Each level of faith sees the previous one as in some sense evil–e.g. The Christian myth’s attacks on pagan magical-animistic religion during the Church’s mission to the so-called barbarians (i.e. magical-based tribal groups like the Goths, Slavs, Vikings, etc.).  3. In its rarest (and best) form it works as a deep mystical teaching of the truth of union with the Divine.

Now I need to bring in some Jung and then all the pieces will be in place on this chessboard of the soul.  Jung argued that some myths have a stronger hold within the mythic world.  He called these “the collective unconscious”.  So if you are born in The East, the Eastern myths are deeply imbued into the whole society.  And even if a society develops post-mythically into the rational phase it does so out of its own mythic world and therefore has echoes of that mythic world.  The rational world is built on top of the mythic world.**

So a Westerner is born–whether or not this person has ever stepped into a church or synagogue in their life–and will develop into a mythic phase of development which inevitably will have strong (collective unconscious) Jewish-Christian resonances.  The individual may not be aware of this influence–that’s the unconscious part–but they are there.  Or so argues Jung and I think in this limited sense he is correct.

The corollary to Jung’s collective unconscious thesis is that the failure to recognize in oneself that influence is to become psychically split and therefore very likely to project out onto the world the division within oneself.  Now in therapy circles this is overdone as if all problems in the outer world were just your projection of your inner split.  But again in this very limited context I think Jung has a point.

And I think further something like this might be going on with Myers.  He left his own Christian background at the mythic phase as he developed into his own rationality–to which he undoubtedly has given his life and has ultimate faith in (i.e. the scientific process).  And now he is dipping into the mythic side of his faith.  He is coming back into–though unconsciously–the mythic form of his self in an atheistic way.  But he is doing so very poorly and via projection out onto the outer world of “all believers” (read: all mythic believers).  He is projecting the inner mythic him that he can’t come to grips with out onto everybody else who has a religious belief.  In so doing he is reducing all religious believers to mythic believers–i.e. his view won’t allow for rational or pluralistic or holistic belief patterns which is a fundamentally mythic and irrational move. This projection and finger pointing name-calling of Myers psycho-spiritually works as a giant “Don’t Look at Me” smoke and mirrors move.  Like the crusading politician against sexual offenders who is seeing the prostitute on the weekends.  All the attention focused outward onto everybody else deflects attention away from him.  Unless of course you have any brains in which case you can see right through the charade and just feel pretty sorrowful at the whole unnecessary drama.

Because the earlier forms of development have larger numbers of people and because in order to make your ideas flourish over time, an atheistic (rational-modern) position either has to A)wait for people to develop through the mythic phase on their own and then try to move them along from there (i.e. traditional atheist criticisms of religion as irrational) and/or B)has to form its own mythic atheism in order to get a large share of the people earlier in the game.  A kind of atheist evangelism.  And then you have to think about how to raise the children in this world–so you need to have catechism classes.  And you need to think about rituals for major life events (marriage, death, birth of child).  You need to think about how to communicate a moral formation.  And then you see it starts looking like a religion.

I said that mythic religion creates a story where everyone fits and which has one truth to which all should subscribe.  Myers zealous proselytism fits this categorization.  Another classic myth function I said was to fight off magical belief as superstition.  Well lo and behold what is Richard Dawkins up to but trying to stop children from reading Harry Potter because it contains an irrational message.  Hmmm….maybe we should burn those books (and witches!!!) while we’re at it Dawky, whatcha think?  I seem to remember that’s been tried before to horrible consequences.  But mythic forms of religion always fight magical ones–it’s a structural inevitability.  And lastly (#3) Sam Harris wants to teach meditation/contemplation to atheists.

In short, you can’t get away from mythic religion.  Even when you want like Harris to call it Science.  If it walks like mythic religion and quacks like it, well….

Even if it is argued that the true teaching of such a persuasion is not mythic–say it is a rational pursuit in Harris’ self-description–as long as there are various humans interpreting the message, a certain portion will inevitably interpret/translate the message to the mythic level of development.  If they are at that level in their own spiritual development.  Once that happens atheists of this ilk would have to respond that these “atheist fundamentalists” are misinterpreting and misunderstanding the truth of our religion and their mistaken immaturity should not be taken for the whole of the faith.  Exactly the argument The New Atheists mock from liberal or more developed religious persons.  Maybe then they would have a little more compassion for that view as well as more compassion for the mythic believers (of whatever stripes) themselves.

In short, there are two and only two options.  1. You learn to accept the mythic dimensions of yourself (whatever your particular views on God, no God, or whatever) and learn to transmute them.  You learn in other words, as Ricoeur said, to have a second naivete.  You take them with an “as if” quality.  First naivete or actual mythic faith takes the mythic stories as literally/concretely true as Myers, Hitchens, and Dawkins do with their atheist myth.  Numerous theistic fundamentalists could be brought up as examples as well (Pat Robertson, Bill Donahue, etc. etc.). 2. Or you continue to bumble around castigating others for the speck of myth in their eye while never noticing the giant plank of unconscious myth coming forth from yours.

But what myth to teach?  The prime difficulty an atheist religion will have if it tries to translate downward into a mythic form in a honest self-conscious manner is that it is hard to form new myths after the rise of the scientific-critical age.  Just ask The Mormons. Since the Jewish & Christian myths have such a long history they have that piece of Universe Property pretty well in hand. Which is why attempts to generate counter-myths in Western history almost always (if not always) end up parroting the Jewish-Christian myth:  e.g. communism’s ideal state as a secularized version of the myth of the Millennium.  Same with liberal capitalism’s argument for the inevitable land of wealth, peace, and liberty when all adopt those mechanisms of economics and governance (“The End of History”).

Probably the best version of an atheist mythos would be to mythicize the up to date scientific story of Creation.  You don’t need a god/God for that story but properly done it evokes awe, wonder, care, and humility (the best responses to good myth).  It isn’t opposed to religious understandings of the same story–i.e. not a militant anti-theistic atheistic spirituality–though it doesn’t have to be subsumed by the classic religious Western myth either.  It makes science, rightly done, a worshipful devotional act (read: 2nd naivete) without worshiping science. And lastly as a good myth it will need to deal with the question of evil, finitude, and death.  Given that 99+% of all species ever in existence have gone extinct, this worldview is soaked in death (as well as creative rebirth), so it certainly has resources at hand for that need.  Lastly it can deploy metaphors from nature about the dual tendencies of both competition and co-operation in evolution as a basis for reflection on ethical activity–in light of the reality that the human is the creature which can self-reflect on this proces.  As an added bonus it also leaves a great amount of room for art/literature thereby fulfilling the old transcendental triad of The Good, The True, and The Beautiful.

Until something with that kind of sophistication comes along (maybe something like this) these fools aren’t even in the game yet.

** This is why one of the constant humanities fights is between those who argue that the modern Western world (the rational worldspace) could only have arisen due to Judeo-Christianity and those who argue that it required the breaking from that past in order to build the secular modern world.  In the way of thinking I’m offering, both are half-right.  The second crew is right that the modern world is separate from the mythic world and the first crew is right however that the seeds for the rational world are set within the mythic world.

Update I: Day (and 40 comments+) later.

As a person I consider wise says, “religion is simultaneously the source of the most violence in all of human history and the most deeply liberated beings who have ever walked the earth.”

New Atheism serves a valid function of attacking the former–though it must always be careful of not using the same means as those it opposes.  But it totally misses the latter.  So while there is relative gain to be sure, there is deep absolute loss in such a position.  In the post I did a number of other various rankings, but just that basic one is enough to bring down the absolutist side of a PZ Myers.  It adds gray to his otherwise black & white portrayal.

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69 thoughts on “atheist mythos (not “the myth of atheism”)

  1. Interesting article.

    [T]he so-called New Atheists are always trying to argue that liberal/moderate religious believers are actually just in the closet irrational religious fundies.

    First, you should avoid pejorative qualifiers, such as “so-called” and “always”. More importantly your substantive assertion is incorrect: The New Atheists do not argue that religious moderates are insincere (i.e. closet fundamentalists). We argue, rather, that the religious moderates’ methodology ultimately supports the fundamentalists’ position more than their own.

    [PZ Myers] is projecting the inner mythic him that he can’t come to grips with out onto everybody else who has a religious belief.

    This is simply nonsense. There are a large number of actual people who actually have “mythic” religious beliefs, just the sort you deprecate, and Myers work (which I read exhaustively) constantly mentions such actual people with actual beliefs. If the shoe doesn’t fit you personally, you are not obliged to wear it.

    Richard Dawkins [is] trying to stop children from reading Harry Potter because it contains an irrational message.

    This is a lie; you should do more research before publishing libel. Dawkins :

    I don’t know what to think about magic and fairytales.

    “I would like to know whether there is any evidence that bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards has a pernicious effect.

    “So many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes and I’m not sure whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality. Perhaps it’s something for research.

    “I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing. And the mythical account that I look at will be several different myths.

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  2. As to your major thesis:

    Fowler’s work shows that this spiritual-faith dimension of human experience develops from primal forms of religion to magical forms to mythic forms to rational forms of religion to pluralistic forms to more holistic forms.

    I’m not familiar with Fowler’s work, but your summary indicates he is using “rational” in very different way than skeptical scientific materialists (a subset of atheists). To the skeptic, rationality is a methodology, not a characterization of some conclusions. Rationality to the skeptic means more than simple logical cohesion, it means giving the evidence of the senses definite epistemological authority.

    I don’t want to argue who is using “rationality” correctly, only to note that scientific skeptics and theists do in fact have different definitions. To meet the skeptics’ challenge to the rationality of theism by redefining rationality to be more inclusive is not a philosophically honest line.

    We object to characterizations of skeptical and scientific metaphysics as “faith”, “theology” and “sprituality” (and theology as “rational”) not because we believe there is nothing at all in common with the theistic and skeptical “world-view” (we are all human beings trying to make sense of the world), but because there are substantive and fundamental differences in the respective contents of those world-views and the underlying metaphysical foundations. To assert an identity between the content and foundations (to argue it is philosophically legitimate to use the same labels) on the basis of similarities is entirely fallacious.

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  3. I think Harris’ biggest concern with moderate believers is their unwillingness to see the danger in the irrational beliefs of fundamentalists — it’s not so much the level of beliefs, but the levels of violence and irrationality he’s concerned with, such as exists in Islamic fundamentalism, but also the irrational danger which is present in Christian fundmentalism when the bible is taken literally as God’s word. He maintains that there’s no middle ground here, and there has to be full-throated refutation of the irrationality and insistence of the one, true way. Harris’ ideas of spirituality wind up in epistimological confusion, but his basic refutation of irrationality regarding fundamentalism is pretty clear.

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  4. As an atheist, allow me to say that atheism needs no theology.

    I don’t believe in God.
    This can be favorably compared to not watching golf.

    I am not an atheist because I am something.
    I am an atheist because I am not something.
    I find it difficult to believe that this means that I have something in common with other folks.

    My love of arguing theology? Sure!
    My love of pro wrestling! Youbetcha?
    The fact that I’m playing through Fallout 3 (again) as a good guy (again)? Absofrigginlutely.

    The fact that I am not a theist?

    It’s like walking up to a Shinto priest and say “Dude! I’m not a Christian either!”

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  5. Fascinating stuff, Chris. I think the important distinction here is that nobody is advocating an “organized religion” for atheists, but rather only that there is a belief system that goes into disbelieving in something. The two acts are not so different – the snake eating itself and all that.

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  6. humans have a spiritual line of development or intelligence with cross-cultural structural similarities in their patterning regardless of whether they formally believe in God or not.

    The word “spiritual” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here and throughout the post. But used so broadly the word becomes meaningless.

    Atheists — like myself, PZ and R. Dawkins — have emotions. We can feel joy, sadness and awe just like any other human. The difference is that we recognize that there is no evidence that any particular god has given us the capability to feel.

    PZ’s point, which you have missed completely, is twofold: (a) hard-core believers are doing tremendous harm to our society, from Ireland to Texas; and (b) social theists provide cover to their brethren, both explicitly and implicitly simply by remaining members of the larger group.

    Only unrepentant bigots join the Klan these days, because the idea that the American Negro is inherently inferior to the White man has been driven out of popular acceptance. The idea that there exists a caring, interventionist Christian god has just as much evidentiary support behind it. So maybe in 150 years we will have a world in which people will look back at President Obama’s expressions of faith and marvel at how anyone could have believed such nonsense.

    If that happens, it will be because of the work of people like PZ, challenging people to face the emptiness of their underlying assumptions.

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  7. .D. Kain:

    I think the important distinction here is that nobody is advocating an “organized religion” for atheists, but rather only that there is a belief system that goes into disbelieving in something.

    In terms similar to Francis’, you’re using the phrase “belief system” broadly enough to render it, if not actually meaningless, then of severely limited utility. It’s one thing to note that give some definition of “belief system”, there are similarities between those of theists and those of naturalists and skeptics; it’s another thing entirely to say that these belief systems are identical or only trivially dissimilar.

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  8. Well I think the dissimilarity or similarity is the crux of the issue here, and I think that hasn’t been delved into nearly enough, and I also think that there is a natural aversion to the word “belief” and to any discussion of such a topic amongst atheists that makes it difficult to have that discussion. Perhaps the bridge that has proven so difficult to cross is one of syntax only. I’m not sure.

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  9. “there is a belief system that goes into disbelieving in something.”

    How do you deal with Russell’s teapot?

    From my perspective, there are folks explaining the details of the pattern on the china, the nature of the tea (PEPPERMINT!!!), and even the temperature of the tea in the teapot… and my response is to say “I don’t really believe there is a teapot there…” and, in response, I get alternately told that I can’t *PROVE* that there isn’t a teapot there *AND* that I have a belief system for disbelieving in something.

    How’s this? I won’t tell you that there isn’t a teapot there if you stop explaining to me that there is a belief system for not believing others when they tell me what kind of tea is in the teapot.

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  10. Before, I had called you a trendy we’re all believers so-called thinker. Now, with your use of Jung, I have proof or your trendiness. You just can’t get any more new age than Jung. It’s a convenient idea for religious freaks who don’t like the idea of so-called traditional religion. It allows them to be cutting edge and edgy.

    I have no problem with your beliefs in some god being born two thousand years ago and being resurrected to redeem mankind, and so forth. I can accept that people will believe such nonsense, for whatever reasons. But you can’t accept that there are people who don’t believe. There are people who do not believe in life after death, or pie in the sky, like you do. There are people who are not like you. Your prezel logic that tries to show that we’re all believers is just embarrassing new age trendy bogus thought, as your reliance on Jung shows.

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  11. You obviously replaced your critical thinking cap with your contemptuous reading cap, Roque, and missed the entire point of Chris’s post.

    Yawn.

    No surprise there. Your pendulum swings between insightful and reactionary, and I suppose this is just one of those days….

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  12. For the record, I totally get that there are those for whom post-theism/post-christianity is a religion.

    I just want to point out the differences between atheism and post-theism/post-christianity and ask if, perhaps, all y’all might find the distinction a hell of a lot more useful than the theism/atheism one.

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  13. You’re damn right I’m contemptuous. Why shouldn’t I be? Master Chris is saying that I unconsciously have some bogus belief system, mythos, or whatever trendy new age bogus word he wants to use. He’s not accepting me as I am: an unbeliever. That is truly contemptuous. I feel no need to be insightful or to be critical in the face of such hogwash. Contempt is the only correct reation.

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  14. wow, thanks everyone for the comments. i’m just getting back to this so i’m pretty far behind. i’m not sure I’ll can respond to everybody so I’ll try to make some comments that I hope will cover some major threads.

    1. I do recognize–though it’s right I didn’t really focus on it in this piece since I was attending to a different issue–that mythic belief can cause mass violence. Always has historically and always will. Even if in a liberal democratic society it is largely psychic-emotional violence (the culture wars). That holds across the board though. e.g. That Richard Dawkins wants to study whether reading stories about wizards has pernicious effects on little children already suggests to my mind he is biased in that direction. In contrast, my understanding (and the developmental psychological evidence on this point is quite persuasive), children autogenically form their own magical worldviews as this is appropriate to their sequence of ego formation and life experience. The reason some many little kids got into Harry Potter was because it validated their experience/world. With adults it lets them re-live that part of themselves.

    In other words across all the levels I both value them and am aware of their limitations. An element I didn’t mention is that each level can have more or less healthy/diseased forms of expression, another point I think missing in New Atheism.

    Each level (in the individual and over broad periods of time in collectives) have allowed humans to come to the point where we are today. The mythic realm, which yes was filled with much violence, also guided humans for thousands of years and still guides many humans today. In comparison with latter more developed systems, it is now regressive. Prior to the arising of the modern/rational world, it was the prime context/leading edge of human cultural-religious evolution.

    In other words, contra Roque’s assertion, I did not call any belief system bogus. All are adequate. Some are more adequate than others.

    Except everyone is still born at the first square and they have to develop through the stages already set. Simply hammering away at some previous system is not particularly helpful in my book. What’s more needed is a way in which each can exist on its own terms without doing violence to those prior or subsequent to their level and simultaneously not having undo violence done to it from levels prior or subsequent to itself.

    Hegel called this process negation and preservation. I find too much of The New Atheist work is negation (of the mythic side) and repression. Not preservation or re-integration.

    Since the earlier stages are more typically understood as religious and the latter stages are then dominantly considered secular, we have this real cleavage in our society, in our minds, and in our souls. The religions are just about the only system that can traverse the various stages in a unified way, which I think would help reduce a massive amount of inner suffering in our world. Hence the idea of the atheist (as well as theist) religion that would cross those lines.

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  15. 2. The use of rational is different than a materialism point of view as Barefoot Bum pointed out.

    Materialism is a non-rational (i.e. a mythic belief) system not predicated on rationality. It is a metaphysics un-open to refutation or disconfirmation (a la Popper).

    Harris’ point around contemplative science is that it is more rational to simply accept the arising of all kinds of data–see William James The Varieties of Spiritual Experience for the first version of this argument.

    Rationality in this case also would then include the humanistic tradition of reading the sources for oneself, being critical, experiencing on various levels of our being through great literature and the rest.

    Rational here then means attending to all the data–including consciousness. There is no piece of evidence in the material world that says only material things are real. That’s a non-material thought making that claim.

    Which is why The Teapot argument fails–sorry Jaybird. It already assumes a material metaphor. It assumes God (to ex-ist) must be a body or a thing of some kind in order to register in the material world. To the degree that mythic interpreters of religion see God as material-concrete (called literalism one of the earlier stages of spiritual development), then the argument has a point.

    To the degree that a more developed theological point of view is that God is non-material (and that consciousness-materiality are both real–a philosophical argument–whatever we mean by real) then The Teapot is bupkis because of its own unexamined metaphysics.

    Russell by the way (as did A.J. Ayer) had mystical experiences. It was just his metaphysics-faith system set the context for how that moment would be experienced/interpreted. i.e. without a god. If you have a god/God in your belief system when you have an experience of heightened consciousness then there will be evidence of God.

    All of which then is bracketing, a la Husserl, the more irrelevant question of whether God is real or not and rather walks in the various worlds created by our practices and interpretive frames.

    At the rational level the mind can not reach to the transcendelia–as Kant understood. It will inherently end up on contradiction either on the atheist side or the theistic side. It is a limitation/bug of that level of development. Which is why that argument never goes anywhere but into idiocy.

    The best that can be done at that level is a form of humility and simply say we don’t know. Not that we don’t know about a mythic God–that God is understood to be dead–but we don’t know about the potential for other. God then if you are catching my drift can not be defined as one thing/being or reality or whatever only since any one definition would prejudice the debate by taking its own version of God as the definition of God.

    The definition/understanding of God (or not God) is dependent on the structural level.

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  16. 3. Francis wrote:

    Only unrepentant bigots join the Klan these days, because the idea that the American Negro is inherently inferior to the White man has been driven out of popular acceptance. The idea that there exists a caring, interventionist Christian god has just as much evidentiary support behind it. So maybe in 150 years we will have a world in which people will look back at President Obama’s expressions of faith and marvel at how anyone could have believed such nonsense.

    If that happens, it will be because of the work of people like PZ, challenging people to face the emptiness of their underlying assumptions.

    To which I can only say thanks for proving my point. Which is that there is a hidden assumption (or actually not so hidden) in New Atheism as to the understanding of God. In their argument God equals the mythic God. Any belief is inherently mythical belief. To which I say–using the above (comment #19) definition of rational–that is an irrational position. It does not fit the data.

    As an obvious examples since you brought it up, the abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights movements which ended the bigotry you mention Francis were both religious movements. They had political-civil aims but they were fundamentally religious movements. The abolition movement was interestingly led by Evangelical Christians.

    Do you really think Martin Luther King’s God was the kind of God you mentioned? You’ve got to be joking right? You’re going to equate the American Black Christian tradition (which is so deep) with the Klan? Really?

    Anyway, post-mythic Christians (or Muslims) may at times be given cover to mythic violence. Also an American New Atheist might give cover to American military interventionism (see Christopher Hitchens) as well as illiberality (see Dawkins).

    It might also be the post-mythic Christian (or whatever religion you want) is also actually in a different world and therefore is not defined primarily by not doing something else as by doing what they do. Again the argument of an atheist religion is that it’s really too easy to stand on the sidelines and yell at somebody else for not doing what you want them to do. If you want to do something about it you have to join the game and then you will see how hard it is to achieve. [This was my point about humility and compassion].

    The problem with standing on the sidelines and yelling about those guys is that you will eventually end up with your fundamentalist believers for whom New Atheism (or whatever) is the new truth that solves all problems. Michele Onfrey meets in an old church on Sundays, gives a sermon (sorry a lecture), and they read readings from his holy books. The patterns will be replicated even when they are rejected.

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  17. Jaybird,

    I’m not entirely sure this will answer your point (re: post-theism vs. atheism/theism) but another way to think of atheism, the sense I get from the way you are talking about it, is that it is simply not the common god(s).

    In this respect, Christians were originally called atheists as was Socrates. Because they were without the gods of the common people. Since monotheism came to dominate the West if you didn’t believe in that God you were an atheist. Since the religious view was so dominated by a kind of monistic monotheism to reject that God was to reject all possible god(s), hence the move into secularism.

    My view is something more like the multiplicity of gods, but only one worth worshiping. Classically called monolatry. This is in fact The Biblical view–where the One God is considered only the God amongst gods. I’m using gods in my writing in a kind of post-literal mythic sense, but the basic idea is still the same.

    To be post-theism or post-post theism requires a definitional understanding of theism as mythic. To which if I’m using Fowler’s terminology I’m post-post-post (mythic theism). Or maybe post-post-post-post theism depending on how I get located.

    Rational (modern)->Pluralist (postmodern)->Universalizing (post-postmodern).

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  18. ” It assumes God (to ex-ist) must be a body or a thing of some kind in order to register in the material world.”

    I’m down with it not, necessarily, being a body or a material thing.

    But this is where the Flying Spaghetti Monster has teeth.

    I presume that you do not believe in the FSM. Very good. Neither do I.

    I don’t see how this is representative of a belief system on my part.

    Neither of us believes in the FSM. I presume that you do not believe in Bast. Or Thor. Or one of those crazy South American things with mostly consonants. Cool. Neither do I.

    I don’t believe in the existence of a deity at all.

    You have a deity that you do believe in.

    I don’t see how this makes us two sides of the same coin.

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  19. I just want to say that I believe in the FSM. Somewhere, somehow, that son of a bitch is out there flying around and spinning his marinara sauce out into the stars. Bless his soul.

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  20. I’m pretty sure I made this point way, way back when I first showed up but, hell. Let’s make it again.

    I had a youth group leader explain to me the idea of “Progressive Revelation”. First there was the Adamic Covenant, then the Noahic Covenant, then the Covenant with Abraham, then (finally) the Covenant that Jesus gave us… which led to the Catholic Church, which led to the Protestants… Which led to the Presbyterians!

    As time goes on, God gives us a little more information as we’re ready for it.

    I asked about the Mormons. “That’s different”, he explained.

    There are some very real ways in which the “atheism” (post-Christianity, really) exemplified by P.Z. Myers is nothing more than the next step in the Evolution of Morality that we see in the Evolution of Christianity. Sure.

    This is an interesting point and one well worth discussing.

    An essay that, effectively, talks about “you people” is much less interesting, however appreciated the free psychoanalysis you’re offering ends up being.

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  21. J,

    The coin in this metpahor is structural. A lot of this is a question of getting an agreed upon context/meaning for the terms involved. Really hard in this case. One definition would be atheism/theism as different interpretations at the same level. That way they are 2 sides–2 different really different (horizontal) sides–of the same (structural-level-vertical) coin.

    Another way is atheism generally understood as a typical level (i.e. scientific materialism, rational level). In that case theism is usually considered to be mythic (hence lower). Though that definition misses the ability to have a mystical version of myth.

    And on and on in its ability for endless confusion and misunderstanding.

    I did once try to take an analogico-theological approach to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may his noodley appendages grace you). It doesn’t really work because it doesn’t have the collective unconscious behind it so when you do the rational-humanistic-analogical turn on it it might be cute or silly but it doesn’t actually connect to a part of yourself psychically.

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  22. “It doesn’t really work because it doesn’t have the collective unconscious behind it so when you do the rational-humanistic-analogical turn on it it might be cute or silly but it doesn’t actually connect to a part of yourself psychically.”

    There ain’t no hundredth monkey here, dude.

    There is no “collective unconscious”. As for my “psychic” existence, I’m going to merely say [citation needed].

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  23. That Richard Dawkins wants to study whether reading stories about wizards has pernicious effects on little children already suggests to my mind he is biased in that direction.

    A desire to study a question suggests bias? Excuse me? Are we speaking the same language?

    All [belief systems] are adequate. Some are more adequate than others.

    Nonsense. Adequate is a superlative; “more adequate” is a contradiction in terms. And not all belief systems are adequate.

    Simply hammering away at some previous system is not particularly helpful in my book.

    Hammering away at innovations seems even less helpful.

    What’s more needed is a way in which each can exist on its own terms without doing violence to those prior or subsequent to their level and simultaneously not having undo violence done to it from levels prior or subsequent to itself.

    We’re still waiting for the religious fundamentalists, not the atheists, to get on board that particular train, and we’re waiting for the religious moderates, not the atheists, to undermine the metaphysical and epistemic absurdities that support the fundamentalists’ position.

    Materialism is a non-rational (i.e. a mythic belief) system not predicated on rationality. It is a metaphysics un-open to refutation or disconfirmation (a la Popper).

    Again you are abusing the word “rational”. A la Popper, certain kinds of materialism are metaphysical principles, not scientific theories, but the Popperian view of metaphysics does not entail that metaphysical principles are “non-rational”. Even though metaphysical are not falsifiable (which makes them not scientific theories), they would be “non-rational” only if they were entirely divorced from and independent of experience and evidence.

    [Russell’s teapot argument “fails” because it] already assumes a material metaphor. It assumes God (to ex-ist) must be a body or a thing of some kind in order to register in the material world. To the degree that mythic interpreters of religion see God as material-concrete (called literalism one of the earlier stages of spiritual development), then the argument has a point.

    Given that the material metaphor is in some non-trivial sense held entirely by billions of religious believers, it seems you are stretching the meaning of “fails” as hard as you’re stretching “rationality”.

    To the extent that some forms of religion take a non “material” or non-existential view of God, in what sense are they anything more than vacuous hot air or a pompous and self-important restatement of materialistic psychology and sociology?

    If you have a god/God in your belief system when you have an experience of heightened consciousness then there will be evidence of God.

    I do not think “evidence” means what you think it means.

    [God] walks in the various worlds created by our practices and interpretive frames.

    In what sense is “walking in worlds” not a materialistic metaphor?

    Which is why that argument never goes anywhere but into idiocy.

    You’re arguing the point, therefore… Well, you said it.

    Also an American New Atheist might give cover to American military interventionism (see Christopher Hitchens)…

    Hitchens is an imperialist pig on his own account, not on account of atheism.

    … as well as illiberality (see Dawkins).

    Oh puhleeze. Dawkins is as conventionally liberal as they come. The only sense that Dawkins is “illiberal” is that he doesn’t subscribe to fuzzy-headed PC “let the Muslims oppress their women” BS; in this sense calling him “illiberal” would seem a compliment.

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  24. J,

    I think it’s more a mutual evolution. Not just progressive revelation–more progressive/emergent understanding. Which is why later does not equal better.

    Anyway, I get your point about the “you guys”. I’m guilty on that front. apologies.

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  25. humans … go through sequential orders of faith development

    That is a factual claim. Please prove it.

    With Fowler’s lens there is rather a faith to every level, each one more mature than the previous

    I just love the use of the word “mature” here. Atheist criticism of the way that most people actually practice their faith can be dismissed, goes the argument, because those faiths are “immature”.

    Nonsense on stilts. I seriously doubt that the attendees at any of the mega-churches across this country would appreciate being told (instructed?) that their faith is immature. I suspect that Cardinal Law (who did so much to prevent the disclosure of the pedophilia scandal) would feel the same way.

    The corollary to Jung’s collective unconscious thesis is that the failure to recognize in oneself that influence is to become psychically split and therefore very likely to project out onto the world the division within oneself.

    More utter nonsense. You know that you’re suffering from vagina envy, don’t you. You claim you’re not? That just means you’ve suppressed it so deeply that you’ve become psychically split and now are projecting onto the world around you. The logical fallacies set forth in this post are classic examples of seriously repressed vagina envy.

    Unless of course you have any brains in which case you can see right through the charade and just feel pretty sorrowful at the whole unnecessary drama.

    This sentence is particularly ironic given that the basis for PZ’s post was the disclosure of a long-standing and particularly horrific practice of child abuse by a religious organization. If you feel greater sorrow toward PZ for his inability to understand your “mature” faith than for those kids, then there’s something really wrong with you.

    In sum, the fact that all people are storytellers is a massive red herring. Organized religion has done tremendous harm over the centuries as well as some good. But there is no need for it any more, and certainly not the versions that are causing so much pain and harm.

    As is written in Corinthians, it is time to put away such childish things.

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  26. “But there is no need for it any more, and certainly not the versions that are causing so much pain and harm.”

    My problem with this particular statement is practically nonexistent if it stops there. It’s little more than an opinion in that case and, hey, I’m down with opinions.

    If, however, it leads to “that’s why we need to bring Christ to the heathen”, it strikes me as indistinguishable from what preceeded it.

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  27. “In sum, the fact that all people are storytellers is a massive red herring. Organized religion has done tremendous harm over the centuries as well as some good. ”

    The same is true of atheism – recent history has shown us plenty of examples of atheists oppressing and repressing theists, and specifically doing so in the name of atheism.

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  28. Ha! Stalin and Pol Pot were breaking up organizational structures that could compete with their cults of personality.

    In EEOC v. Smith, the US Supreme Court held that the state could require the members of religious organizations to obey laws of general applicability (in that case, the ban on consumption of peyote). But getting people to believe that the Controlled Substances Act is an exercise of atheism is, I suspect, a steep uphill argument.

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  29. It’s worse than that. The CSA is a natural extension of the puritan, progressive, Universalist streak that also brought us the 18th Amendment.

    Pleasure is something that you should only feel after you accomplish something for society, dontchaknow.

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  30. Francis: I’m aware. And the same sorts of alternative explanations could and do exist for much of the evil done in the name of religion over the years – which is exactly the point.

    I don’t blame atheism for Pol Pot, Stalin, communism, or Ayn Rand’s sex scenes anymore than I blame Christianity as a whole for the Inquisition or Islam as a whole for terrorism. It makes little sense to blame theism (whether organized or not) or atheism for every travesty foisted upon the world under its banner when the simpler explanation is staring us right in the face – humans are capable of doing some staggeringly bad things whenever they have enough certainty about something to force their beliefs (however valid) upon other humans.

    As for your citation to Employment Division (not EEOC) v. Smith, that hardly seems relevant to my point since secularism and atheism are two very distinct concepts.

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  31. “I don’t believe in the existence of a deity at all.
    You have a deity that you do believe in.
    I don’t see how this makes us two sides of the same coin.”

    But you do believe in your own existence, perhaps even dogmatically, which in the end is really the same thing. It really is two sides of the same coin, and both sides are necessary for either to exist.

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  32. “But you do believe in your own existence, perhaps even dogmatically, which in the end is really the same thing. It really is two sides of the same coin, and both sides are necessary for either to exist.”

    Really? God’s existence and my existence are the same thing and both require the other?

    We could very easily be using very different definitions of “god”, if that’s the case.

    If you were defining “God” as “Jaybird”, allow me to back up and say that I absolutely believe in the existence of God.

    I don’t think that that is the definition you were using, though.

    Could you (or anybody) provide a definition of “God” for me? Maybe I’ve been talking out my hind end. Maybe the definition y’all have been using *IS* something I believe in.

    Maybe I’m not an atheist after all.

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  33. bb,

    so ok, i’ll retract bias. but such a study would run again into the difficulties I’m describing. Who defines what constitutes pernicious? I think a developmental psychology would be here necessary. It creates layers. And what is of value at one stage could be considered pernicious at the next. But if say Dawkins is defining what is pernicious then he’s going to (I bet) unconsciously embed a certain understanding of pernicious and apply that across the board. Mistaken maybe is a better word than bias? The technical term for this is a single-boundary fallacy: assuming all development is simply across one single boundary: going from irrational to rational. Superstitious to enlightened. I’m promoting a multi-boundary view which is much more 5 dimensional chess.

    rational. I am using the word differently than a materialist position. I’m using it how William James did. Or Husserl. One of the problems with this debate is that all religious belief systems ride on philosophical metaphysics. Whether they admit it or not. So we’re having a philosophical debate–really at the end I think about whether consciousness is real or not–while also having the religious debate. It gets hard to separate/tease out the two.

    But in this regard, Harris is right that contemplation is a science. To bring Popper back in: it has a set of injunctions, which are empirically experienced (though in interiority not exteriority) and a community of adequate who confirm/disconfirm the experience.

    The limitation in that view (and here is the move to pluralism) is that all science is also an interpretive act. Feyeraband I think showed this quite persuasively. Contemplation qua science is also an interpretive act. Therefore the interpretive frame (usually though not always is religious as I showed using the Ayer/Russell examples) is so important and shapes the very contour of the experience in the first place.

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  34. Francis,

    You can check Fowler’s work for the argument.

    You are really missing my argument. I’m referring to levels within various streams not to atheism as ‘immature’. Actually I was saying (relatively speaking) that modern atheism was more developed than mythic theism.

    You have to figure out what you are talking about first–establish some baseline–in order to make the more than/less than comparisons. I’m using the entire sequence itself as the baseline, so within that broad frame, if you/I are talking about various components than it’s shifting depending on context.

    This is not moral relativism (or some PC thing) because as is pretty clear (and controversial) I’m making rankings. It’s just that the rankings are levels within the two camps as well as healthy/unhealthy versions at each level. i.e. You could have a higher but more diseased form versus a lower (but at its own level) healthier form. How do you adjudicate that?

    I didn’t mention Pol Pot or how the “atheists did violence too” argument. Largely those are a function of if you like atheist myth gone bad. Dogmatic Marxism was called dogmatic for a reason.

    So yes for it is important to put away literally understanding myth (as Paul said in Corinthians) for those who are developing. But everyone will always be born at the first square so it will always be an issue. You can’t make (mythic) religion go away without massive violence and all you end up doing is re-creating the mythic structure in an unconscious way. Just ask Pol Pot or Stalin. Undercutting myth without building a bridge only leaves magical-tribal forms of human consciousness which is exactly what happened with (pathological) European colonialism in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Which is why now they are re-tracing their steps and going back to myth and mythic forms of Christianity and Islam are booming there.

    Lastly, since you mentioned it, obviously the abuse of children is evil. The idea that every Catholic (or Christian) is therefore some guilty party to the actions of a very small (though horrible-acting) minority is of course ludicrous. Just as members of the US commit abuse against children but not every American therefore is guilty or smeared with the crimes of sex abusers. It would be correct I think to say that people have to take responsibility but that’s different than smear jobs.

    At some point I’m saying if New Atheists want to make a bigger difference than just selling some books they are going to have to get in the game. Otherwise they are non-religious people talking about how religions should be. In which case they are like the moth to the flame of wanting to create their own religion. Actual practice what they preach. Otherwise when they correctly point out that non-scientific folk shouldn’t be judging science since they don’t know what the hell they are talking about, the same might be said of them relative to religion. To the degree they talk about morality and politics obviously they are moral-political beings so their opinions are like any to be discussed in the civil sphere. But when someone like Hitchens or Dawkins who don’t know the first thing about religion talk about it why am I supposed to listen anymore than I would listen to some hillbilly bible-thumper saying the earth is 6,000 years old?

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  35. I’m sitting here asking myself, why was this post so unsatisfying, considering the pleasure I’ve had from this site heretofore (never expecting I would give my full assent but never intellectually unsatisfied, your collective thoughts often effective at softening my resistance to the conservative stance). But this! My “stew of confused crap” buzzer went off.

    An edifice of theorizing was built on ONE formulation of a “seven ages of Man” style of universalizing view of human religiosity (I’m trying very hard to avoid any ad hominem comments like PZ Myers uses and that provoked the same in return — in the form of a psychological dissection based on (wow!) Jung. Just how does Fowler intersect with Jung, if not with Joseph Campbell?

    PZ Myers, like Hitchens and Harris, does get in the believers’ faces and my midwestern politeness bells go off but consider: he’s an academic biologist who, like so many others, has to spend a lot of unproductive time battling IDers and creationists, few of whom have invested themselves in real-life scientific work and who are motivated by religious beliefs (probably of the mythic variety in Fowler’s terms). So, he’s angry and combative and arrogant — but, he’s right in some important ways. Read peer-reviewed scientific journals; those guys are investigating things at a deep level of sophistication, undergirded by time spent mastering statistics and the manifold details of a specialized domain. There’s nothing particularly “mythic” about their work. And they’re badgered about “irreducible specified complexity,” the speed of light having been faster in the past, and Jesus living with dinosaurs.

    The “spirituality” that all humans are supposed to have qua human can be outlived; some of us just don’t need God. And we’re still happy to be alive. Methodological naturalism does not make the universe less wonderful or worthy of admiration and study (no “is that all there is” for us). And it rescues us from a source of alienation from ourselves and others, the myth of the fallen nature, the sinfulness, of humanity.

    I can honestly say that I am not psychically split. As a rational being, I acknowledge the ever present uncertainty of how I know what I know and what it is that I do know. I cannot refute the existence of subjectivity and its force in the world but that does not imply the necessity of duality; it is just something that exists and awaits a method to integrate it into a more inclusive theory of the natural world of which I am convinced I am a part (my first personal belief statement).

    Several people have characterized themselves as “negative atheists;” they don’t say there IS no God, they say they don’t believe in God — the distinction between disbelief and unbelief (the latter not meaning agnosticism). That said, cut the talk of an “atheist religion” because that implies disbelief. And where would you get the idea that we are seeking rituals, dogma, religious authorities, and similar worldly trappings?

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  36. Well, my first comment here and I want to say this site has been an interesting read, lots of thought provoking stuff here. That said however… I must respectfully disagree.

    As Roque and Francis point out (rather bluntly) that the idea that you claim to know that P.Z. Meyers outspoken attacks against believers is some sort of internal Jungian/Freudian/Ego/Id type conflict and projected outward is rather presumptuous. And it is exactly these kind of presumptions that turn off a lot of people to religion.

    I mean if you lived in some ancient tribe that believed that killing a chicken, painting yourself in its blood and dancing around a fire naked made rain for the crops it would be a part of your upbringing and culture and all that. But if thru a combination of logic, observation (does it rain any more often after the dance then before?), and perhaps some science (discovery of seasons, weather patterns, etc) you came to the conclusion that this entire ritual is hogwash and that the people practicing it were being foolish could you honestly say that it is some projected ‘inner turmoil’? Maybe instead of some quasi-spiritual internal struggle he is simply calling fools people doing what he has concluded to be foolish? (not to be harsh or name calling, just hard to avoid such terms when it is the very subject of the post)

    As for the “atheists and believers both do some bad things so it is irrelevant” argument. When atheists do such things they are doing it for political/personal reasons. Nobody is going around saying I’m going to kill you because my belief (atheism) tells me to. However, in many religious situations this is exactly the case. They are saying “I am going to kill/oppress/whatever you because my god/lord/savior/belief tells me to.” In fact all the Abrahamic religions even come with nifty books (Bible, Koran) that tell you exactly what traits and acts that others engage in that you should go around killing them for. Stoning for adultery and such. This is a not insignificant difference. There might be atheist killers, but almost nobody kills in the name of atheism. While there are countless cases of people killing in the name of religion.

    The second point is one of scale. Or as James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger would say: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” You see, the instances of an person killing FOR atheism (and not for other personal motives, power, ideology, etc) is extremely rare, in fact I know of almost none. But instances of people killing FOR religion is voluminous enough to fill an entire library. If they were both an odd occurrence you could chalk it up to simple chance or the oddball crazy person. But if it happens over and over again as it does with the religious you have to begin to wonder if there isn’t some cause and effect going on here.

    I don’t know. Just this article sounds a lot like the old argument that presupposes spirituality in all things (which atheists generally reject) and from that position claims that “see, atheism is really just like theism, only a different flavor and therefore one can’t claim more validity then the other”.

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  37. Kathie,

    Thanks for the post. Fowler’s work is only one line of human development. Like in Gardner’s work there are multiple lines. What you are discussing with the science these guys do has to do more with their cognition (in Piaget’s terms) and is very sophisticated no doubt about it. I have no disagreement with them on that front.

    I’m discussing the ways in which they leave that arena and enter more philosophical-religious territory. Since that’s a different discipline and a I think (largely) a different line of development, they do not have to be equaled. Just as someone could be very brilliant cognitively and very weakly developed in terms of interpersonal skills (and these guys might be candidates for that category) so you can have a a very developed coognitive capacity and a less developed spiritual reflective one.

    Also and I’m not sure if this is just my writing or what, but I was talking only about Myers (and to a lesser degree Dawkins, Hitechens). I wasn’t saying everyone who is atheist-rational in Fowler’s terms is split within. Sorry if I that was the impression. That was definitely not my intent.

    I think you are right though–given there are multiple intelligences–at any wave/lifeworld there are some humans for whom the spiritual line is just not as important as others. And for some it is.

    I think in Myers case it actually is very important to him. I just think he has unfortunately backed himself into a corner that he doesn’t need to.

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  38. JJ,

    Those are some good points, thanks for raising them. I usually don’t go in for a more “get myself into the mind of the other” argument but Myers’ case seemed pretty egregious to me. I realize it probably triggers the all religious people think they know everything card. It’s hard for a middle ground in this one.

    To your point about atheism and violence. No one killed for atheism–again I would say there is such a thing as a religious atheism or has been. A mythic atheism and mythic religion does indeed have voluminous evidence of slain beings. I consider Stalinist Marxism or Maoism forms of mythic atheism. So yes they killed for religion–just not the normal way we think of religion as Abrahamic or whatever.

    I think it is deeply a cause because the mythic realm has a hard, if not impossible time, allowing for other myths. When Muhammad brought myth to the Arabian peninsula he united previously (always) warring tribes into a larger identity and brought a great deal of peace. However that system was limited as it began to interact with other mythic-imperial systems (like Christianity). Then as in classical Islam it had to define the world into the good (The House of Islam) and the damned (The House of the World). It is based on a sincere (though flawed from a higher vantage point) desire to bring peace. The only way the mythic world knows that peace comes is through the myth and the trans-tribal groupings that form from them. That was the only way it worked. So it simply hypothesizes that if it could force the entire world into its myth we would all live in peace.

    Which is true except not everyone will accept any myth. So the myths fight each other–inherently–until humans realize that the mythic way can not achieve a deeper level of integration/complexity in which case the next system arises. And so it goes.

    if we want to move beyond that violence that we have to move through that part of our development. And again it’s not as if all mythic reality is nothing but violence. But undoubtedly that is always part of a mythic system on a large scale. Even in Buddhism–see Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka as an example. Or Shinto Emperor Worship in Imperial WWII era Japan.

    But if the modern world becomes too restrictive of the mythic world then it can create a ceiling preventing movement up for individuals-groups and they can begin to rebel. It’s hard to find the right balance of public rule of law and rational culture while at the same time giving space so that the magical and mythic can develop in ways that are legitimate to them without threatening the rational or pluralist order. It’s hard. And since in my opinion we in the West do it so poorly it comes at great human cost in terms of existential suffering.

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  39. First – not a single chuckle about my comment on Ayn Rand’s bad writing about sex (which was indisputably a result of her commitment to a particular variety of atheism)?

    JJ: The thing is that in most cases where someone claims to be doing evil out of religious reasons, that claim is often more likely to be an excuse than a reason – the equivalent of blaming violent behavior on video games. Sometimes a psychopath is just a psychopath, even if they say that they did it for God.

    I’d also differ that atheists haven’t done truly horrible things in the name of atheism (even if atheism was more an excuse than a cause). See, e.g., the “reeducation” of the religious under various totalitarian regimes in the last century or so. To be sure, the crimes done in the name of organized religion on a historical scale vastly outnumber those done in the name of atheism; but this doesn’t strike me as particularly persuasive evidence for treating religion as uniquely prone to violence – atheism as a relatively popular worldview seems to be of relatively recent vintage, particularly to the extent that it has been able to achieve meaningful political power in different regions of the world. In those few areas where it has, however, I think you have to conclude that the record is not any better than in those areas where organized religion remains either politically or socially dominant.

    Pluralism and secularism, however, do seem to have a pretty good record – but those words merely describe a system for separating religion from public governance. One need not be an atheist to be a secularist, and one need not be a secularist to be an atheist. The trouble with PZ Myers, in part, is that he doesn’t seem to accept this.

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  40. CD: reduced to its essence, your claim appears to be:

    Humans are storytellers; if atheists want to displace theists, they will need their own mythologies.

    If that’s it, that’s fair. (I disagree, but I think that this point is at least arguable. I think atheist mythmaking can be perfectly adequately satisfied by large doses of Dr. Seuss, Tolkein and Rowling, but I could well be wrong.) But that argument doesn’t require invoking collective unconsciousness (aka society) or establishing levels of “maturity” in faith.

    The larger problem is that you’re still not engaging in PZ’s main point. In recent years religious extremists in Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths have all engaged in utterly reprehensible acts, including assassination, child abuse, and suicide bombing. Moderate people of that faith who protest these actions but remain in the faith provide legitimacy to these actions merely by staying in that faith.

    By contrast, aggressive advocacy by atheists is challenging the societal need for mid-level, middle-brow, social-type theism, and the advocacy appears to be having some effect. Charlotte Allen felt the need to write a very childish op-ed in the LA Times about how bored she is by atheists. Books by Dawkins and Hitchens are selling well, considering the topic matter. Church attendance is dropping.

    There are other means besides Sunday services to form communities. Atheists like PZ are arguing that the harm faith does now outweighs its benefits and we should explore other ways to develop our social bonds.

    I think he’s got a fair point.

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  41. Thanks for the replies.

    Chris,
    And yes, while I certainly agree that a lot of people that engage in evil simply use religion as a scapegoat for their own personal rottenness I’d also say that due to the historical preponderance of such cases that it would be indicative more of causation then coincidence. But that is my opinion.

    And of course I wouldn’t be in favor of ceilings of any sort on a group. But I think the thing that irks atheists most often about believers is that it isn’t that they want freedom to practice their religion, but they want tacit acceptance of their religion, the idea that you also have to respect it. Now, I don’t know your personal views on this but I think there is a heavy libertarian presence here and I’d say it is sort of like hate speech laws of which myself and I’d wager most libertarians are against. You are free to say and practice whatever you like, but you can’t be guaranteed acceptance. Now I know you aren’t calling for the censorship of P.Z or any such thing but when believers call out the ‘bad manners’ of atheists it seems bundled with the underlying assumption that whatever their religion of choice is must be given whatever ‘respect’ it demands.

    Mark,
    Yes, interesting point about the secular vs atheist difference. And I think I’d mostly agree with you there, although I’d have to give that one some more thought.

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  42. JJ,

    I’m not looking for special treatment. Mostly I just get tired of guys like Myers pontificating on like they know what in the world they are talking about when they just don’t. At least something approaching a more sophisticated analysis than Myers emotional outbursts.

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  43. Isn’t atheism just the non-belief in god(s). Period. And “atheist theology” is just an oxymoron of classic proportions.

    Myers, the New Atheists, and, if you must, Stalin can be labeled anti-theists for their words or deeds. They neither add to nor subtract from atheism by these deeds.

    I’ll stand with Myers on his point that religious moderates enable the excesses of their fundamentalist coreligionists. He also needs to fess up that he enabled the murderous child abuse because he failed to kidnap those children. That every US taxpayer has enabled the excesses at Guantanamo. etc.

    To me, theism adds an unnecessary complication to the attempt to be a moral person.

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  44. You know, this conversation has got me to thinking. What is the proper place (if any) for emotions and behaviors such as contempt or scorn? Certainly the act of shunning has played an important part in our history as a way for communities to discourage behavior that is detrimental to the group. Of course it has been probably misused just as often.

    Would you say there are any appropriate times for such a reaction? Because I think this is what the whole issue about the “new atheists” being so ‘militant’ in the view of believers is that they view religion as an act that is so detrimental to society that the proper response is shunning/contempt. Not excusing any particular behavior, just some thoughts that occurred to me.

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  45. Francis, you wrote:

    The larger problem is that you’re still not engaging in PZ’s main point. In recent years religious extremists in Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths have all engaged in utterly reprehensible acts, including assassination, child abuse, and suicide bombing. Moderate people of that faith who protest these actions but remain in the faith provide legitimacy to these actions merely by staying in that faith.

    Again I think of the idea of national citizenship. Do moderate citizens give cover to extremists within a nation who commit evil acts? Should we go on a crusade to make Americans renounce their citizenship say if they disagree with the Iraq/Afghanistan War? Or should they stay and try to work to change it?

    And if such a person wanted to argue an alternate political system needs to be setup–how fast do you think it would start replicating some of the problems of the previous one?

    You also wrote:
    There are other means besides Sunday services to form communities. Atheists like PZ are arguing that the harm faith does now outweighs its benefits and we should explore other ways to develop our social bonds.

    There are certainly other ways to form human communities. Some of which I think are very good. What I’m saying is an attempt to do so will inevitably replay some of the religious heritage and the issues religions have been dealing with for a long time now–not always well mind you. e.g. Like how to deal with your wackies and nutjobs?

    Mythic structures are a part of the entire cosmic architecture now. Whitehead and (C.S.) Peirce showed (again persuasively imo) that the universe builds on itself not just exteriorly but interiorly. So everything is the history of every moment plus the free present creative moment. The past therefore always works in this regard as an influence. We have choice but free choice is rightly here understood as choice between various options. Choice necessitates in part (some) determination. And vice versa. They are co-dependent concepts like right and left hands.

    So in the end my argument really is that Myers’ position while I empathize with his desire to reduce suffering is far too naive about how you would actually go about changing things. Since he’s not involved in that world he really (to me) doesn’t have the experiential knowledge to speak with any real force.

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  46. Chris: “Again I think of the idea of national citizenship. Do moderate citizens give cover to extremists within a nation who commit evil acts?”

    I’d be willing to bet that Collin Powell would give anything to have a do-over.

    Collective guilt is what we’re talking about here. And it has it’s problems. However, I can’t see how nations can be held morally accountable if their people never are. Of course, we have Germany as an example. When I was younger, travelling Europe, I was amazed at how many people still held animosity toward Germans, especially of “that generation”.

    Institutions have a responsibility to police themselves. That means the moderates keeping the crazies in line or disowning them in the strongest terms. If they fail to do this, they are as guilty as the offending members. Not for what the yahoos do, but for not keeping their house in order.

    “Should we go on a crusade to make Americans renounce their citizenship say if they disagree with the Iraq/Afghanistan War? Or should they stay and try to work to change it? ”
    Don’t even get me started.

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  47. Cascadian: That’s a good point. That said, what Myers is doing seems to be of a different nature than holding citizens morally culpable for their country’s actions even where they have not supported those actions (and maybe even objected thereto). He seems to be insisting that moderates renounce not just their membership in a particular church or denomination, but in fact renounce sincerely held beliefs because of the fact that others with those beliefs have done evil.

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  48. Mark,

    That’s a good addition to my analogy. Something more like asking people to give up on liberalism and democracy altogether (not just renouncing national citizenship) because a liberal democratic government committed evil acts.

    Which is one of my points. If we ask somebody to give up the ghost entirely and build something completely different, dollars to donuts they will re-create some of the same problems, basic institutions, and the like. Whether it’s governments or religious groupings.

    At least to the degree they want to build some social collective. As an individual you can just kinda go through life, but the second you want to form some kind of movement than other aspects of human psychology take over which while not perfect replications have a lot of rhyming to them I think.

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  49. “Could you (or anybody) provide a definition of “God” for me? Maybe I’ve been talking out my hind end. Maybe the definition y’all have been using *IS* something I believe in.”

    Jaybird,

    “Could you (or anybody) provide a definition of “God” for me? ”

    That wouldn’t be God, that would be an idol. Anything you can define can’t very well be infinite. Come to think of it, that seems to be the real thrust of Myer’ anger, whether he understands that or not. The god he inveighs againast sounds like an idol to me.

    “Maybe I’ve been talking out my hind end. ”

    Not from what I see here.

    “Maybe the definition y’all have been using *IS* something I believe in.”

    It will instead be data you cannot assimilate into a theory or definition. That is probably what is so unsatisfactory for so many about theology; it all looks like sloppy question-begging.

    It starts for me with looking for some justification beyond natural proceses for moral precepts such as treating absolute strangers as equal with kin – if I see a need to shoot a stranger, why should that be such a big deal? No kin of mine, no skin off my nose. Very Confucian. Now I expect most here would cringe at that reasoning. Why? On what basis?

    The Confucian answer is a construct: the ruler is the functionla ancestor of all his subjects, so they’re all kin. The Christian answer is analogous, that all people are the Children of God equally and that takes precedent over family affiliation. I just can’t find a naturalistic justification for that. I would like one.

    About your fisrst question; it just seems to me that once you fall into accepting one dogmatic and baseless belief, such as believing that you really exist, it’s a slippery slope to all the others.

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  50. Chris:

    “If we ask somebody to give up the ghost entirely and build something completely different, dollars to donuts they will re-create some of the same problems, basic institutions, and the like. Whether it’s governments or religious groupings. ”

    This seems like it needs greater emphasis.

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  51. “If we ask somebody to give up the ghost entirely and build something completely different, dollars to donuts they will re-create some of the same problems, basic institutions, and the like. Whether it’s governments or religious groupings. ”

    Are we at the end of history then? Should we not bother to improve what we have or develop other models? Is democracy so like the aristocracy that went before that it’s been a futile endeavor? That doesn’t seem right. Social groupings can only stay as static as the environment in which they’re grown. Inherent weakness in human societies may be unavoidable. That doesn’t make the project less necessary.

    In the taxology here, we have the mythic religions undercutting the magical ones. Why shouldn’t we expect that the next iteration, in this case some form of “new atheism” would be equally cut throat in its suppression of the previous order. If such actions don’t deligitimize mythic religions why should we complain about the atheists, deists, or any number of folk that are rejecting the previous model? Isn’t the prediction of the eventual overthrow of the mythic inherent in the overall model?

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  52. cas,

    the best model is negate and preserve. negate the exclusivity of any model and re-integrate/preserve lasting elements of the previous. like how Roman Catholicism incorporated so much of European earth religion (paganism) into itself: Christmas-Winter Solstice, Pascha-Easter, Mary-Cosmic Mother, etc.

    So no we are definitely not at the end of history. But the whole of history is enfolded in every moment (to use Whitehead’s language). Therefore it always acts as an influence. New things are possible–what Whitehead called the creative advance into novelty. As well as how we deal with the history that is alive within us.

    But those previous aspects are too deeply ingrained in the wood of the Universe. They form the foundation of what comes later. Destroying the foundation just collapses the house. Build on top of that which came before.

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  53. “One man’s dogmatic and baseless belief is another’s self-evident truth, I guess.”

    Self-evident – that sounds exactly like mystics’ descriptions of their experiences of God. See how the two things are really justt two sides of the same coin?

    The obvious objection is that when you call something self-evident , you are claiming that it requires no external evidence. That is about as subjective and circular as it can get. Believing in something that subjective and circular is about as dogmatic as it can get.

    This is very different from believing in one’s existence in a functional way. That’s fine and reasonable. I mean that believing one’s sense perceptions as absolutely valid, or trusting one’s psychological state or sense is pretty slipshod. You don’t have to be a child of the 60’s to know not to trust what your senses tell you.

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  54. This is one of the gulfs I cannot cross, Jim.

    I am willing to meet you halfway, mind. If we wanted to discuss the existence of, say, Washington DC, we could have a conversation in which we had shared assumptions.

    If we wanted to discuss the existence of, say, George Washington, we could have a conversation in which we had shared assumptions.

    If we wanted to discuss the existence of, say, The Historical Arthur, we could have a conversation in which we had shared assumptions.

    When we bring the existence of the two people having the conversation into question, then point out that God is totally similar, we no longer have shared assumptions.

    I’m beginning to wonder if conversation beyond this point is even possible.

    And it’s not because, maybe, I’m just a butterfly dreaming I’m a chubby bald guy.

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  55. “When we bring the existence of the two people having the conversation into question, then point out that God is totally similar, we no longer have shared assumptions.”

    The point is to examine the assumptions and then set them aside, or at least admit that they are only convenient assumptions, if they are not proven to be true. It’s just a decision to remain sceptical, and surely we share that.

    “And it’s not because, maybe, I’m just a butterfly dreaming I’m a chubby bald guy.”

    And you remember that the point of that story is that there is no logical ly absolute solution to that conundrum. That is my point here, nothing more.

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  56. The assumption that I exist is significantly different from the assumption that “God” exists. The assumption that you exist (or George Washington, or the Historical Arthur) is not significantly different from the assumption that I exist.

    When you start saying that they’re similar, I have to tell you “No, they’re not.”

    This is a gulf I cannot cross.

    I can give you a definition of myself. I can give you a definition of George Washington, the Historical Arthur, and even “you”.

    If I were to give a definition of “God”, it would be *SIGNIFICANTLY* different.

    Hell, I’ve even asked for definitions of “God” and been told that I’m asking for the impossible.

    The assumption, for the sake of argument, of something that can be defined is *HUGELY* different than the assumption, for the sake of argument, that cannot be.

    And the assertion that, fundamentally, they are the same thing is so *FOREIGN* that it might as well come from an altered state of consciousness.

    I cannot cross that gulf, yo.

    Sorry.

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  57. “Not in any rigorous kind of way.”

    A double-buttload more rigorous than any definition of God you might throw out there. I can give KPCOFGS, physical description, location, and likes/dislikes.

    That, for me, is rigorous enough to have common ground upon which to argue.

    If that ain’t rigorous enough for you to find common ground upon which to stand… well, I’d guess that the marijuana legalization question has become moot as there must not be any left.

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