Thoughts on Religion


What I have to say next will probably not go over well with some, and I apologize to those who view what follows as arrogant or disrespectful. Sometimes there are things needing to be said that can’t be candy-coated by being nice.

There are some of my older posts about my views on religion and belief that I no longer agree with, some in which I’m either a little too inflammatory or which could very well be seen as too conciliatory, to some personal tastes and techniques of approach.

This applies to both articles and comment responses, and in both cases, I’ve been guilty of using a single approach and applying it globally.

Big mistake.

People are different. There’s no two ways about it, and though I generally tend to vary my approach nowadays, I’ve made the mistake on occasion of being either unfair to the point of antagonism, or too fair to the point of excessive and ineffective politeness.

My views have evolved over the nearly two years this blog has existed, and some of them are not very pretty.

No matter my tone, due to the nature of the psychology of belief, I have been and will be seen by some as somewhat dickish, antagonistic, arrogant, ignorant, ideologically bigoted, politically incorrect, closed-minded, pseudo-skeptical, pseudo-intellectual, or any number of other things, by the simple fact that I disagree with and have the gall to criticize someone’s belief.

To a few I’ve met, tone is irrelevant and attempts at civility are useless once I reveal my own views. They have often immediately shifted into a defensive mode and what would have been constructive dialogue becomes potentially confrontational, forcing me to break off the discussion prematurely.

I hate quarrels.

Currently, I’m not a big fan of organized religion since I don’t find any blameless for a lot of the worlds ills and often largely responsible for the spread of irrational claims.

Whatever good is done in the name of religion, I think it can be done better without the crutch of a belief system that sometimes requires as part of its doctrine unquestioning and often irrational faith.

Mind you, I don’t find fault with people for believing, and I’m not out to forcibly ‘make people not believe’ or anything similar. What they believe of their own free choice and full knowledge is their own business.

Up to a point.

Conversion by force, whether that of arms or of law and conviction by deceit fall more to advocates of and apologists for dogmatic religions and political pundits than anyone else.

Some claims though, are demonstrably false and dangerous when uncritically accepted, and these need to be roundly exposed and critiqued for the nonsense they are.

If someone could provide me with a really good reason, say, convincing evidence or a sound, valid argument (And I’m sorry, Pascal’s Wager won’t cut it.), then I might have become a theist again at some point (However close to zero the probability for that may be), though it’s likely that my theism would be philosophical rather than adherence to a particular tradition.

So far, though, no such reasons have ever made themselves known. I’ve looked for them, and I strongly suspect that no such reasons exist. I remain unconvinced, as I don’t have any real justification to accept anyone’s god as true, or any more true than the millions of gods human beings have invented and worshiped over tens of thousands of years.

I think that the god question is one that cannot be answered definitively, yea or nay, even asked meaningfully, by any sort of empirical or rational means, despite seemingly clever theological arguments and claims of evidence put forth by believers over the centuries.

Unfortunately for that, the atheists are the ones with all the really compelling arguments, and the evidence, as such, is nowhere to be seen.

At best, reason serves only to justify belief where it already exists. Faith itself would require an emotional leap I’ve not made and which I may never make.

I think that it is not just belief, but the extremes of belief, that’s the issue at hand. Almost nobody, save the most brutally honest of us or those with low self-esteem views themselves as extremists. I find those of extreme views frustrating, and hence annoying, regardless of the nature of their views because in my experience, they’re just so damned difficult to reason with.

You can’t argue even politely with some people, because their automatic reaction is to act as if you were personally attacking them in the most scathing way imaginable. The lengths people will go to to protect their beliefs from criticism vary in almost direct proportion to the extremity of the belief held. This is especially true with those ideas and claims that make the least sense.

After all, which ideas need the most to be protected from ridicule but the ridiculous?

When I discuss things with people, particularly on the subject of extraordinary claims, I do so to challenge my own beliefs and assumptions. After all, what better way to do so than by listening to and examining the arguments of those whose views differ from mine. Those are the seeds of much pondering and good blog posts.

I would much rather, however, that someone’s most confidently held beliefs be much more than those which merely agree with their personal prejudices and just feel good whether they’re really true or not.

But what can I say? People are people. The best I can do is to inform them.

Most people are not particularly rational beings, despite their capacity for it, which is one of the reasons that logical fallacies combined with outright falsehoods can be so persuasive in an argument. Just watch a video recording of an evolution – creationism debate, and note the audience’s assessment of the ‘winner’ after it’s over to get some idea of just how persuasive that can be.

It is often put forth by believers that “None are so blind as he who will not see,” and this has a corollary from my own experience, “None are so dazzled as he who sees that which is probably not there.”

No one should ever force or legislate belief, or a lack of it (We know how well that went over in the former Soviet Union.). And I won’t ever advocate suppression of others’ rights, or censorship of unorthodox ideas. I feel that those things one accepts as true should be those which are best arrived at through reason and a real understanding of all the relevant facts.

If those who would elicit the belief of others through force or deception put forth fallacious arguments and baseless assertions (which they must do by definition), then rationalists have the obligation to put out better, sounder and more compelling arguments in ways that neither insult people nor go over their heads.

I think that this can be done through effective education and communication to the public, though we should never convince ourselves that we must “stop the madness,” a quixotic, and I think as individuals, impossible task. It’s also a good way to experience burnout. As long as humans remain humans, irrationality will always be with us.

What matters, I think, is fitting our approach to the situation and to the person spoken to and in being rigorously honest with both ourselves and the one spoken to.

Can we afford to do anything less?

(Final Update: 1:40 am, 2010/09/07, Finished At Last!)

About Troy Loy

I seek to learn through this site and others how to better my ability as a person and my skill at using my reason and understanding to best effect. I do fractal artwork as a hobby, and I'm working to develop it to professional levels, though I've a bit to go till I reach that degree of skill! This is a crazy world we're in, but maybe I can do a little, if only that, to make it a bit more sane than it otherwise would be.

Posted on Tuesday, 11:56, August 31, 2010, in Atheism, Religion & Secularism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. > What they believe of their own free choice and full knowledge is their own business.

    This is a noble sentiment. The main problem is many people cannot tolerate it when others hold “wrong” views. Another serious problem is some religions require adherents to prosyletise. I find all this disappointing because, generally speaking, most people do not understand the basic facts and special texts from which they (reputedly) derive their views. As you note:

    > those who would elicit the belief of others through force or deception put forth fallacious arguments and baseless assertions

    We can all provide examples from fringe science, paranormalism and religion. Instead I will describe a very minor but sad incident regarding evolution.

    A couple weeks ago, an associate math professor in Toronto made a long post about how to respond to some of the knottier arguments put forward by creationists. He started off by claiming Darwin was the first to put forward the theory of evolution. I was stunned. It wasn’t a typo — he devoted a whole paragraph to this, also discussing the co-finding of A.R. Wallace, but not mentioning natural selection in that part of the article. This prof was a young guy, but he has a PhD! I thought they looked things up? The commentors all heaped praise on the article without even one slipping in a friendly note of correction. Did they even understand there was an error?

    This incident epitomised one of my concerns with non-expert skeptics: they aren’t skeptics by practice but skeptics by party. They have memorised the facts and arguments and rhetoric of the experts, but do they understand them? Do they verify the facts independently? Can they adapt the logic in novel situations? Are they ever inspired to read additional material on the subject just for the pleasure of learning?

    How many non-experts who self-identify as evolutionists have read one whole science book about evolution? Five percent, maybe? How many have read Origin of Species? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? How many non-experts who identify as skeptics have read one whole book of philosophy since university? Five percent? One percent?

    The main difference between the skeptics and the believers is the element of paranoia. Something about willing into existence an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, invisible agent makes people see evil everywhere. And they like it that way. (I don’t get it.)

    > If someone could provide me with a really good reason, say, convincing evidence or a sound, valid argument…then I would become a theist

    Your own post suggests this is a perilous strategy. Just because you find a piece of evidence is compelling or an argument is persuasive, does that necessarily mean it is a true proof? We can’t know anything absolutely and we all make errors in judgement. And it is a fact that every single theist evidence and argument has been shot to pieces by textual critics, scientists or philosophers — sometimes going back several centuries.

    True skepticism is a hard thing and requires a great tolerance of uncertainty. I find that most people — skeptics and believers — have no such tolerance.

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    • > Your own post suggests this is a perilous strategy. Just because you find a piece of evidence is compelling or an argument is persuasive, does that necessarily mean it is a true proof? We can’t know anything absolutely and we all make errors in judgement. And it is a fact that every single theist evidence and argument has been shot to pieces by textual critics, scientists or philosophers — sometimes going back several centuries.

      I definitely agree on that.

      But though I suggested it as possible that I become a theist, it’s also so unlikely that the probability is very close to zero. I should have stated that in the original post. My mistake.

      I remember an interview of Randi on the Skeptics’ Guide podcast about Martin Gardner, and if I recall correctly, he mentioned that Gardner’s only big gripe about atheists was that they had all the really good arguments.

      Gardner made the case that reason and evidence alone were not enough to bring about faith, only to justify it once the ‘emotional leap’ as he put it had already been made.

      It’s a leap that currently I’m uninterested in making because of a possible slippery slope of other irrational beliefs that may follow if I do.

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  2. Thanks, Terry. Correction made. There may be other errors, but I’ll hunt them down later.

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  3. I attended the Restoring Honor Rally in DC last weekend. From talking with people there, I would guess that 99.9% at least of the crowd “beleive”. That is one of my major disconnects with Glenn Beck. I thought the rally was really neat. It showed how many folks really think that the government is currently going down the tubes. I was amazed though by the number of people who thought that it could only be fixed through a religious approach. No, not really actually, see Texas Schools Curiculum changes. I should have tried to find out while I was there I guess, how many of the attendees are afraid of uncertainty? How many of them are scared of “…I don’t know…”? I was also really amused by the number of people I identified as creationists (from t-shirts and comments) who were standing in front of Smithson’s vault and telling others that Darwin proved creationism. [Is the lid trying to lift off the vault?!?] Hoo boy…..

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  4. > telling others that Darwin proved creationism

    Wow! Sounds like a hoot!

    The weird thing about the Tea Party is that they have taken over some of the left’s traditional positions (government caters to big business and the rich, power to the people) but none of the solutions (vigilante financial regulation, progressive income taxes). I have no idea what the tea partiers want other than revenge. And considering that many of them are informed by conspiracy theory or end-times theology, well, don’t be surprised if we get another Oklahoma City before there’s another 9/11. Scary stuff.

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  5. Correction: that should be “vigilant” not “vigilante.” Whoopsie!!!

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