The Compliment of Taking Religion Seriously

Tanya M. Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford, wrote an op-ed last month titled “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith“, arguing that belief in the supernatural doesn’t play the pivotal role in religion that secularists think it does. This, she claims, makes philosophical debates about God’s existence largely irrelevant. (Unmentioned in the piece, Luhrmann has been a beneficiary of the Templeton Foundation, which explains a lot.)

Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?

These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

Right off the bat, Luhrmann draws a distinction with no apparent justification: that the question of whether God exists is merely “intellectual”, whereas the question of “how to feel God’s love” is “practical”, even though the second question necessarily presupposes an answer to the first one.

It’s like saying that “Do I have a driver’s license?” is a merely abstract and intellectual question (one pondered only by “university-educated liberals”, no doubt), but “How can I drive from here to Buffalo?” is a sound, practical question. Obviously, if I don’t have a license, the driving directions are irrelevant. The same way, just because evangelicals presuppose an answer to the God question and don’t debate it amongst themselves, that doesn’t mean that the question is of no importance to them, or that it accomplishes nothing for atheists to try to weaken their too-hasty certainty.

Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness.

One person’s “complicated ideas” are another person’s “cognitive dissonance”. I’m sure that charismatic churches have a variety of labyrinthine rationalizations for why God doesn’t visibly intervene in the world, or why they should continue praying even when it has no measurable effect. Likewise, I’m sure there are some individual theists who don’t have clearly delineated or strictly orthodox ideas – that’s inevitable, since no large church can have complete uniformity of belief. But that doesn’t mean that the organization as a whole has no characteristic traits or beliefs that are sufficiently concrete to discuss, analyze and critique.

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups… Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

This passage is why I chose to write a reply to Luhrmann. It’s a common sentiment among liberal believers and theologians, that a church is mainly a social club and its professed beliefs aren’t ultimately important. I find this both condescending and gratingly offensive. Yes, I know that puts me in the odd position of defending religion, but hear me out!

What atheists do is this: we pay religion the compliment of taking its claims seriously. We don’t, as Luhrmann does, take the condescending stance that what people say they believe doesn’t really matter. We believe that it does matter, and is therefore a topic worthy of debate. In fact, I suspect that many former believers are atheists now precisely because they took those religious truth claims seriously enough that they had to investigate them, and couldn’t in good conscience remain in a belief system they no longer believed.

As a “practical,” day-to-day matter, I agree that most people belong to a religious congregation because of the community and social benefits it provides, not because they’re intellectually convinced of its truth. People almost never decide, as the result of a purely intellectual inquiry, what it is they believe about God, and then seek out a church that teaches the same thing. Instead, they find a church that appeals to them, where people befriend them and they feel welcome, and as they become integrated into the group, the natural human tendency is to identify with it and to adopt its beliefs as their own. I don’t know any prominent atheist who’s ever denied this. But that’s not the same thing as saying that religion doesn’t make meaningful truth claims, or that religious people are never moved to act purely on the basis of their beliefs. Those claims are both undeniably false.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

Yes, that’s the word I would have chosen: the politics of religious belief are “distracting”. If we just set aside those minor, niggling issues – little things like the sexist oppression of women, bigotry against LGBT people, religious attacks on science, apocalyptic fatalism, religiously motivated mob violence, and attempts to write sectarian dogma into law – and instead focus on the happy-clappy, Jesus-loves-you stuff, we’ll understand religion so much better!

Again, no one is denying that religion can bring its practitioners happiness. The important question is, what’s the cost of that happiness? If happiness is obtained by the promotion of irrationality, we atheists argue, then that price is too high to pay. We believe that joy can and should be found in the real world, without retreating from reason or swaddling ourselves in delusion. And we believe it’s more respectful of other people to say so, to treat them as thinking beings worthy of perusasion, and not pretend that drastically different beliefs about the true nature of reality don’t ultimately matter.

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
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A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Rebecca Morgan

    “People almost never decide, as the result of a purely intellectual inquiry, what it is they believe about God, and then seek out a church that teaches the same thing.”

    Interesting. I suppose that’s true for Christianity (and other religions like it), but defining your own beliefs and seeking out a practice that meets your needs is pretty much how most forms of Paganism work. I was encouraged by every person and source I encountered to think hard about what I believe about the nature of divinity and the universe before settling on a path. But I guess that’s a lot of what draws people to Pagan practices in the first place.

  • David_Evans

    “If happiness is obtained by the promotion of irrationality, we atheists argue, then that price is too high to pay. We believe that joy can and should be found in the real world, without retreating from reason or swaddling ourselves in delusion.”

    That’s true, but if that were all we might agree to live and let live. Few people spend all their time in the real world. What makes religion different from other fantasy pursuits (World of Warcraft and Iain M. Banks being my current favourites) is that it claims the moral high ground and the right to legislate for others.

  • pRinzler

    This is the same problem with Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” in which he confuses the social value of religious communities with the morals they hold. (Because they serve a social function, their morals must be right.)

    Our atheist book club read “The Righteous Mind,” and the consensus was that it was seriously flawed, although with some good insights.

    The jaw-dropper for me was when Haidt related how he finally came to appreciate the value of sacredness to the extent that he would not take certain books he loved into the bathroom. Seriously.

  • Gideon

    I was taught something similar in my religious upbringing: that to believe in dogma metaphorically or to reject parts of it was worse than not believing at all. If the dogma were true, then believers needed to interpret it as seriously as any other truth.

    I was taught that there wasn’t a middle ground between true or false, reality or fiction. Unfortunately for my teachers, that standpoint also meant that I was readier to toss out all their beliefs at once rather than piecemeal.

  • crashfr0g

    But how does that make any sense? A scientist, for instance, would never sit down and say “hrm, what do I believe about molecular biology?” and then seek out a textbook or journal article that said the same thing. They would seek out the textbook or journal article that said the truest things, regardless of what those things might be. If what you’re saying about Paganism (or Luhrmann is saying about religion in general) is that, broadly speaking, it’s an exercise in therapeutic wishful thinking, then the approach you’re talking about makes sense – identify what you would find most therapeutic to believe, and then find a community that will help you believe it.

    But religions – Paganism included – don’t construe themselves that way at all. They advertise themselves as being in the truth business; that is, as making claims about reality that are meant to lead to a more accurate understanding of it. That being the case, I can’t understand the validity you perceive in a process that, to me, sounds like nothing more than you just jumping to whatever conclusion you liked best at the time.

  • David Simon

    I don’t think you’re interpreting Rebecca charitably, crashfr0g. I think she is saying that Pagans are encouraged to think for themselves in determining what to believe about spirituality, rather than being told to accept knowledge from a dogmatic authority. In this context, “settling on a path” means reaching a conclusion and taking action that corresponds with it.

    Does this sound right, Rebecca?

  • Rebecca Morgan

    Thanks David. That’s about right.

    One thing I often see in Atheist discourse is lumping all religions in together as if they are the same. And I get that from an outside perspective, they can seem to be. I’m guilty of it myself sometimes. And I certainly don’t want to play the Exceptional Theist card. But part of what drew me to a Pagan path was the openness. One of the first books I read on Wiccan and Pagan theology asked me to answer questions about what I thought and felt about the world/gods/creation before doing anything else. And I don’t think I’ve met any Pagans, online or in person, who espouse that their belief system and practice (and I will point out here that Pagan paths are much more based on practices [i.e. rituals] than beliefs) is The One Truth. Obviously, you can never paint an entire group with one brush, but if you could give Paganism a core belief, or commandment, if you will, it would be ‘to each his own.’ We base our beliefs and practices on our own individual experiences with the world, drawing conclusions from what we see, hear, and feel (and some of us need more proof than others to commit), and we don’t expect others to conform to any of the tenets of our beliefs that feel or look wrong to them (emotionally, logically, or otherwise).

    Obviously there will always be fundamentalists in any group, but the idea that there’s only One Way or One Truth is antithetical to modern mainstream Paganism. I would even go so far as to say that subjectivity is itself a Pagan value. This is part of why many of us build our own practices, based on the conclusions our own lived experiences lead us to. “And it harms none, do as you will.”

    Subjectivity is a Pagan value.

  • DavidMHart

    The thing is, ‘to each their own’ works well when deciding whether to let people follow their own lifestyle choices and personal preferences. Who am I to tell you that you ought to prefer strawberry ice cream when you prefer chocolate – or just don’t fancy ice cream at all.

    But as soon as you get to any factual claims about reality, that attitude just doesn’t make sense. I don’t know much about modern Paganism, but I would hazard a guess that it includes some claims along the lines of the universe having been created by, or at least guided by, one or more loving deities, and human beings having some sort of soul or supernatural essence that is independent of the physical structure of our brains – perhaps even a belief in some sort of afterlife.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if Paganism makes any factual claims at all, these are claims that must either be true or false, and the only way you can justify taking a ‘to each their own’ attitude to factual claims (as opposed to a ‘what is it most reasonable to believe based on presently available evidence’ approach) is if you’re comfortable with the idea that you don’t care about the truth – and are prepared to admit that to others – that you place believing what you want to believe at a higher level of priority than believing, so far as can be determined, what is actually true.

    You wouldn’t thing it reasonable to take a ‘to each their own’ approach to factual claims about medicine, history, geography, maths or any other terrestrial discipline. In none of these cases would you give any creedence to the idea that people should just make up whatever they want to believe about these matters, and whatever beliefs they come up with will be as good as anyone else’s. Why should it be different with supernatural concerns?

  • Rebecca Morgan

    Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but as I understand it, the idea of the subjectivity of the human experience within Paganism is about allowing people to form their own opinions/beliefs based on their experience of the world; the subjectivity is in the experience, not in the actual state of the universe. In other words, we don’t treat the universe as if it bends to meet the needs of the individual, but rather the individual bends to meet the universe as that individual has experienced it. Many paths in Paganism don’t actually believe or suggest that the natural world as explained by science is anything else. Deism, for example, holds reason above all other means of understanding the universe, and rejects most ‘supernatural’ type revelations and miracles. The idea is instead one of searching for divinity within the universe as it is, the belief that there is something beautiful and divine in the construction of all life, simply because it is.

    Pagan beliefs are varied – they include monotheism, polytheism, and atheism, among others. They are also fluid, and change with time, age, and experience. For many Pagans, deities are just archetypes that allow for a focus of energy when performing rituals. For others, they are quite real. We therefore don’t demand that other people conform to our beliefs (or our practices, for that matter); this makes belief (for Pagans, anyway) different from fields of study like medicine and history because we don’t expect them to apply to anyone’s lives other than our own individuals ones. Belief isn’t treated as fact by Pagans, and gods aren’t universal, just as they weren’t in ancient times.

    And again, I will point out that Paganism is more about practice than belief. Belief in a deity is not a requirement to be a Pagan. In fact, I would say that no specific central belief is a requirement to be a Pagan. There’s a strong movement within the umbrella term of Paganism that espouses that beliefs are irrelevant – it only matters that you engage in Pagan practice (i.e. ritual). This is how atheists and agnostics can also be Pagan – by engaging in Pagan rituals for their own benefit and the benefit of the natural world. It can be more an idea of respecting the energy and beauty of the universe. But the point of the ritual is as much momentary suspension of disbelief and surrendering of oneself to something greater as it is devotion and worship. For many, this is fulfilling in and of itself, without the idea of an all-knowing all-loving deity.

    But the bigger thing is that mainstream modern Paganism is not trying to change the world (or science, history, or medicine) to be in its own image. We don’t proselytize, we don’t actively convert, and we don’t expect our beliefs to impact the world; we expect the world to impact our beliefs and ourselves.

  • randomfactor

    While I enjoyed the post, I’d suggest that in your analogy rather than lacking a driver’s license (without which one can still happily drive across the country) the lack of belief in a god is more akin to not having access to a car.

    Hard to shift gears on a nonexistent vehicle, or to have a relationship with a god who never shows up in the driveway. You’re reduced to making a lot of “vroom, vroom, amen” noises while sitting on the pavement.

  • kagekiri

    I was thinking the same thing. Tips on how to save gas or stay safe on the road during driving are irrelevant if you don’t have a car to drive.

  • kagekiri

    Yeah, being a “literalist” (a self-professed one, at least), I did my best to interpret everything as black or white, especially all the Bible’s truth claims. So YEC, real miracles and powers, real spirits and demons, real black magic and exorcisms. Anything less seemed pointless.

    And with that black or white binary, once a few parts of the religion were rejected as false, everything else just tumbled down into rubble.

    Assuming something (the Bible) or someone (God) is infallible just means a single mistake destroys all of the credibility built on that infallibility.

  • Elizabeth

    When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations,
    self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as
    the most important of these core values — while self-described
    conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty and

    A liberal cannot prove on a blackboard that fairness is important, anymore than a conservative could prove that loyalty is important.

    Adam talks a lot on this blog that morality can be scientific because we can measure human happiness in terms of health outcomes, etc. But what about people who do not believe that human happiness is important? There have been many nihilists and libertarians who have come and gone over the years who will argue passionately for Randian objectivism or other points of view which assign no value to the well being of others.

    Religions or philosophies have different values, and different people place different importance on certain concepts (individualism vs collectivism). I think that a person should know which values they hold important (or even sacred) before committing to a faith community.

    I’m coming at this as a Unitarian Universalist, and I agree with you that most religions make truth claims, many of which are absurd. But I think that’s the point of this post. Do people look at the truth claims or the values (or both?) and which is more important to the average person? How does this impact society at large.

    Even within a religion, there can be differences – there are Catholics who focus more on social justice and others who are only concerned with enforcing their bronze age sexual morality.

    As a part of their “Coming of Age” ceremony young UUs (about age 14) are asked to write a “credo statement” which defines their values and beliefs. I have heard several of these in my four years as a UU, and some of them are about truth claims – many kids come out as atheists, or others profess faith in God. But they also concern things like a desire to be loyal to their family, the importance of feeding the poor or taking care of the environment, which fall more under the subjective values umbrella.

  • smrnda

    When I first heard of Haidt, I thought he had some interesting ideas. Now I see him more as a self-loathing Western intellectual who is now going to appropriate practices and meaningless concepts from people who, rightfully, get mocked by anyone with any intelligence and discernment. If Haidt was a woman, he’d be putting himself in a burqa.

  • smrnda

    People make cases for all sorts of morals, but, as far as I can tell, the only ones that I’ve heard a persuasive case for are harm and fairness. Those are the only values that would make the world a place I want to live in. Randians and libertarians have been trying to convert me for years, and all I can say is, any world built on their values would suck.

    I’ll give a comparison – let’s say a person makes a case that all buildings should be built like grey cinder-block bunkers and have no windows. This isn’t even a moral issue. It’s just a preference, the way morals are a preference, and I can’t state that there is any objective reason why all buildings shouldn’t be bland, concrete and grey. For the most part, we have to negotiate making all types of decisions, whether its moral, architectural, or engineering, without access to any sort of revealed objective truth. A “grey brick bunker” ideology is, to me, like Randian nonsense – an idea that really just seems so unappealing that I can’t see a case for it, since it provides almost no subjective enjoyment from anyone.

    Moral values are, to me, like engineering principles. Some seem to work and others don’t. One could, conceivably, design computer operating systems differently than they are currently, but the way we do it now is working well enough.

  • Elizabeth

    My question is, then why do Randians exist? Why isn’t humanism self evident?

    Values like fariness are self evident *to me.* But it’s very clear that they are not to other people. So how can they be true?

  • smrnda

    I thought I’d offer up a contrasting idea of religion, just since its the one I’m most familiar with – Reform Judaism. The whole idea is that “Judaism” is a cultural practice and a tradition.

    Think of the American Thanksgiving – our image of the origins of that day, with the pilgrims and Indians all at a great big table, is totally bunk, but having a big meal with a lot of family and friends over is still okay, just don’t buy into the white-washed history. A Passover Seder is more about remembering tough times for Jewish people than it is about a literal belief in the Exodus from Egypt.

    I’m kind of willing to go along with such a ritual on occasion since I know that the people I will be around don’t believe it literally, just like I can have fun on the fourth of July and watch a parade without believing that the US is some perfect country.

    However, if you look at say, evangelical Christianity, it is 100% a belief-based system.

    On the pagans who posted

  • smrnda

    I wanted to say, thanks to the pagan who posted. I always wanted to ask pagans about their beliefs, but I never wanted to offend them from the get-go.

  • Rebecca Morgan

    :) As I said below, I definitely can’t speak for everyone, but I’m usually happy to discuss my beliefs and positions within someone who is genuinely curious and not antagonistic. And I felt like speaking up, since I lurk on a lot of Atheist blogs here on Patheos and always feel like Pagans shouldn’t really get lumped in with Abrahamic religions.

  • Jason Wexler

    Rebecca has acquitted herself beautifully in this discussion and doesn’t need my help or intervention but I thought I would put in my two cents since my “deconversion” comes from the ADF type of Druidism.

    Modern Paganism tends to be not particularly focused on the divine at least as those of us in the Atheist community are familiar with it vis-a-vis Christian concepts of divinity. Many pagans will bristle at the following description but my experience has always been of a type of auto-theism. True transcendental theism is rare within the ritual practice of most of the Pagan groups I have participated in; it is often the case that the divinities are not well thought out at all and are just something as Rebecca has said to focus on like an image during meditation.

    As far as cosmogony is concerned Paganism is pretty uninterested in the origins of the universe and life, and for the most part accepts without caveat most or even all of standard scientific explanation for those questions. When the divinities are “transcendental” they are viewed as products of the universe and subject to its laws, the reverence for them is granted not because they are the creators of the universe or life or even human civilization, but rather because they are an older more experienced and wiser form of life. (Keep in mind this is a sort of Anthropological description and most Pagans wouldn’t self describe this way.)

    Don’t get me wrong there are definitely “problems” with Pagan belief systems; many of them believe in sympathetic magic or additional forces not yet understood by science; in many respects its hard to tell the Pagan community from the SCA. I put deconversion in quotes above because little of my beliefs about the world changed when I stopped identifying as ADF, as Rebecca said many Pagan paths permit Atheism, ADF specifically prohibits it, but recognizes (in an act of selective cognitive dissonance) that most ADF practitioners are essentially Atheists. Also many Pagans are prone to buying into New Age fads which are often just as intellectually questionable as the theological ideas of mainstream Western religion.

  • DavidMHart

    ” For many Pagans, deities are just archetypes that allow for a focus of
    energy when performing rituals. For others, they are quite real.”

    “Belief isn’t treated as fact by Pagans”

    I’m afraid it still sounds like you don’t care whether or not your beliefs are true. I hope you can understand why people would find that frustrating … indeed, I hope you can understand why people would be astonished as to how it is even possible for someone to simultaneously ‘believe’ something and not care whether it is true or not – it is a feat of mental compartmentalisation that I sure amn’t capable of.

    For sure, not caring whether something is true or not is, on average, better than fervently believing things that are manifestly untrue (like lots of religious fundamentalists), or believing things that are almost certainly untrue on present evidence (like most religious moderates), but I still think that holding reason as a moral obligationis more important … and why that includes trying to use reason to resolve our differences when two people hold differing beliefs at least one of which has to be mistaken (i.e. if one Pagan thinks that deities are just archetypes for thinking about, and another holds that they are real, one of them has to be wrong)…?

  • crashfr0g

    There’s a strong movement within the umbrella term of Paganism that espouses that beliefs are irrelevant – it only matters that you engage in Pagan practice (i.e. ritual).

    “Matters” in what sense? When you refer to rituals “for the benefit of the natural world”, what distinguishes them as rituals, and their benefits as benefits, from mere activities – such as cleaning up litter, perhaps – that benefit the natural world?

  • C.J. O’Brien

    It’s “An it harm none…”. “An” is an archaic Middle English conjunction with the same sense as “if”.

  • Rebecca Morgan

    Well, for one, beliefs are traditionally NOT facts (that’s why you need faith), though via Christianity the majority of people have interpreted the word differently (Merriam-Webster: a belief is “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof”). This is mainly because Christianity changed the game by promoting orthoDOXY (‘correct belief’) over orthoPRAXY (‘correct practice’, and the standard for the majority of religions up until then, including Judaism), which, when not questioned, can end up being belief equating to absolute, objective Truth (i.e. fact). But belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t, equate with absolute, objective Truth, mainly because of the complete and utter subjectivity and unreliability of human perception (seriously, go read up on the cognition behind memory and tell me you still have faith in eye-witness testimony).

    Thus it’s hard for me to buy into the idea that when you have two people with differing perceptions of the universe, one of them has to be wrong. Two people can look at the same color, and one can declare it blue and the other green, and neither one has to be wrong. How we interpret our own realities and experiences are incredibly subjective and personal. Certainly a color is measurable on the electromagnetic spectrum as being a certain wavelength, but that wavelength can still be perceptually blue for one and green for another, and what purpose does that absolute, provable, scientific observation (in this case, the electromagnetic wavelength) serve in relation to my understanding of the universe? That number doesn’t mean anything to me unless I can relate it to my own experience, by giving it a name and a meaning that may well not match up to someone else’s. And what purpose does it serve to insist that one person is wrong while another right, other than to bolster self-worth at the expense of another or reinforce in-group status by distancing oneself from an undesirable out-group individual?

    And I do care whether something I belief, or how I interpret the universe, is true or not. It doesn’t do me any good to have an outdated or inaccurate perception of the world. I am constantly reinterpreting my worldview based on new experience, because old ideas are proven to be neither correct nor useful. But truth varies, especially depending on the kind of truth you’re looking for. One big One-And-Only-Truth, whether it’s that there is one God, named Yahweh with a son named Jesus, or that there are no gods, end of story, is still an absolute, and our universe doesn’t really have many of those. Taking an interpretation as Truth and Fact, unchanging, precludes our ability to incorporate new information, and unchanging absolutes are as damaging in science as they are in religion.

    I absolutely agree that worldviews and practices should only be undertaken after a fair amount of scrutiny and that it is better to believe something based on proof than tradition. But the amount or type of proof you would need to believe something may not be what I would need for that same thing, and I wouldn’t expect you to believe what I believe based solely on my proof. I agree that reason is a moral obligation. But I believe, and my experience has taught me, that we have a greater moral obligation to avoid causing another harm, and in that in endeavor, insisting that someone must be wrong despite their own lived experiences is counter to the goal.

  • Adam Lee

    You’re reduced to making a lot of “vroom, vroom, amen” noises while sitting on the pavement.

    You win one internet, friend.

  • Adam Lee

    That reminds me, I do have to check out Iain Banks’ books.

    I’d say the defining characteristic of religion is more basic than that: it insists that its fantasy pursuits aren’t fantasy at all, but real! I have nothing against escapism, but only as long as it’s recognized as escapism and doesn’t interfere with one’s life in the real world. Even the believer who doesn’t claim the right to govern others’ lives, to my mind, is cheating himself by failing to recognize the truth.

  • Jack Mudge

    It was self-evident to the ancient Greeks that there must be a god or spirit keeping an arrow moving forward. It is an inanimate object; how could it move without that?

    We know thanks to Newton that this is clearly not the case; arrows move because of inertia. But Newtonian mechanics are not self evident by any means — why do we still have movies that get it so incredibly wrong? (And people accept Hollywood ideas of physics to a disturbing degree. Seeing is believing!)

  • kagerato

    Well, you’re right that meaning and values are at least partly subjective. However, they’re still derivative of the real world, just as we are. This implies that although we can give two different names, and two different interpretations, to the wavelengths of light we see, we must take for granted that we are both actually seeing light and that it’s a real phenomena (not an illusion). Otherwise, we are denying reality or merely believing what we want to be true (wishful thinking).

    Still, there is some room for metaphysics in the inevitable gaps that will never be completely filled. Science can and does uncover more and more of reality over time, but it will never be able to make claims about things it cannot measure. Questions like “what happened before the Big Bang?” tend to end up being meaningless to science, because it’s impossible to gather data about an event that exists beyond the span of what the laws of physics allow us to observe. Looking back into the universe before the Big Bang is functionally the same as traveling faster than the speed of light. It is incoherent unless we’re willing to abandon our view of causality, as all faster than light propagation channels allow for an event to proceed its cause.

    A similar question comes up in Quantum Mechanics when we talk about entanglement. Scientific study has shown that entanglement doesn’t obey the ordinary classical physical laws we would have thought it did before we examined it. Entangled particles (typically photons or electrons) are linked together (correlated) in a way that in practice appears to create an instantaneous effect over any distance. When one is observed in a concrete state, the other immediately gains a corresponding concrete state as well. Bell’s Inequality and the resulting experiments largely ruled out the possibility that there was some kind of hidden, unknown variable controlling what the particles do. So the only plausible explanations left are:

    [1] the particles interact faster than light (unlikely and dangerous to causality)

    [2] the particles state is determined by a universally global function (a random number generator, in this case)

    [3] the universe is super-deterministic (ruins any sense of free will, even the most mundane understandings of will)

    [4] fair sampling in measurement of low-level particles is impossible (and therefore the result of the Bell experiment is necessarily invalid)

    [5] there’s a kind of local hidden variable that cannot be measured or modeled accurately and thus cannot be understood

    [6] entanglement isn’t real because we can’t observe it without affecting it/changing the measurements

    [7] entanglement is some kind of bizarre, literally incomprehensible phenomena (dangerous to scientific inquiry and understanding).

    Which one of these you choose to believe is a matter of personal philosophy, really. Physicists do not agree in the slightest.

    So, yeah, there’s metaphysics out there just beyond some the most advanced science. Unless we discover an entirely new model that shows that quantum mechanical predictions are merely an estimate of something even more exact (the way QM replaced classical physics), it is hard to see how the metaphysical questions ever get answered. Maybe that’s okay, though. Maybe the answers to those questions don’t really matter.

  • kagerato

    If I remember Adam’s views on morality right (and this goes back years now), it’s more that he sees morality as needing to adhere to the facts of reality than being directly based on them. A moral system that ignores the truth would necessarily end up being ineffective. Further, the facts of the world and human nature would tend to lead us to converge on certain solutions in morality and ethics that are optimal, at least compared to other approaches.

    He might come to correct me if I’m wrong, or just misremembering. Heh.

    Personally, I think people who try to argue that human happiness is unimportant or otherwise not a core value are being logically inconsistent. If they don’t at least believe that their own happiness is important, how can they justify any of their own actions toward an end? It leads to a kind of self-defeating vacuum.

    The other issue is maybe they think their happiness is important, but others are not. The selfish approach. However, this isn’t tenable, either, in the long run or the abstract sense. If they don’t grant the will, opinions, or needs of others any value, then they have no reason to suspect that their own will be given any respect or value. Fairness becomes a practical, necessary trade-off.

    That’s how I think we get to the baseline values we need to work with.

  • Elizabeth

    Yes, as I struggle to find words to describe my beliefs, I once joked that I will start telling people I’m a ceremonial deist.

  • smrnda

    Part of it might be that some people believe that these values are not in their benefit. It makes total sense for a privileged person to uphold an ideology that keeps them on top at the expense of other people and *not* look at the issue of fairness of harm. There’s also a factor of personal identity. Ron Paul is (sort of) a libertarian. Ron Paul is white. This informs his view of racism, both what it is, and what the law should do about it.

    You can also distort facts to make people think that ‘fairness’ means ‘taking away what you worked hard for and giving it all to ‘welfare queens.” That’s how you get a working class white guy who struggles to pay the medical bills for himself and his family to be against a welfare state that would benefit him. A distorted picture of who will be taxed and who will benefit and how gets a struggling white worker to side with the wealthy.

    In terms of Randians, many of them just don’t understand the role of government. Part of the problem is they got their views on ‘how things work’ from fiction which isn’t particularly accurate and not reality. They’ve been given ‘grand narratives’ of a sort that don’t represent the real world.

    So part of it is privilege, part of it is bad information.

  • kagerato

    As far as I can tell, the only thing the Abrahamic religions have in common with Paganism is the traditions that they essentially plagiarized from earlier pagan practices.

  • Adam Lee

    Yeah, I felt the same way about Haidt when I read The Happiness Hypothesis. He extols an ethic based on sacredness and purity, without ever once considering what effect this will have (and has had) on human beings who are judged to be impure.

  • DonnaFaye

    What annoyed me, among many things, about her oped was how she acted as if everyone joins a religion freely as an adult. People who are indoctrinated as children really do believe the dogma. People I know who grew up in fundamentalist families tell me they were terrified as small children about themselves and people they knew going to hell for violating arbitrary rules or not being faithful enough.

  • DonnaFaye

    He also claims that liberals “sacralize” abortion rights, as if my life, health, and bodily autonomy are akin to a religious book or tchotchke.

  • DonnaFaye

    I saw an interview with him where he claimed to have lived in India among people in a caste system. His experience caused him to conclude that the caste system was orderly and cohesive and people lower on the caste seemed happy and didn’t complain when he asked them about their lives. IOW, privileged white dude went to India and was privileged.

  • Azkyroth

    “Sacralize?” We sit on them?

  • Azkyroth

    It is very difficult to get someone to see something, when his ability to live with what he has done, or not done, or intends to do or not do the second he gets the chance, depends wholly on his not seeing it.

  • crashfr0g

    Physicists do not agree in the slightest.

    Then it doesn’t seem like “metaphysics” has any compelling power to answer the question, either.

  • John

    Most people even smart ones do not overal contribute to society other than being a wage earner and spender. So most people have no use for total rationality as it would lead them to the truth that thier lives are worthless.
    Irrationality is a small price to pay for a lifetime of happiness. I would say happiness would have a greater economic utility than rationality to the average person.

  • GCT

    So most people have no use for total rationality as it would lead them to the truth that thier lives are worthless.

    Being rational is not the same as being a nihilist.

  • kagerato

    In terms of finding the one, true answer? You’re right, it doesn’t. We can only find things that are “consistent”, but that doesn’t make them “correct”.

  • David Simon

    I don’t think [3] implies lack of free will, on the grounds that practically nothing does. Free will is, at best, a highly confusing mish-mash of a concept, which makes it hard to say anything about with certainty, including whether or not it even makes sense in the first place.

    But even aside from all that, how is randomness a better source of free will than determinism?

  • David Simon

    [I]nsisting that someone must be wrong despite their own lived experiences is counter to the goal of [avoiding causing harm].

    Disagreement is not harm.

    People need to be able to civilly express disagreement with each other. Remove our ability to do that, and you prevent us from learning from each other.

    I agree with and respect your principle that unchanging absolutes, i.e. unchallenged and unchallengable assumptions, are not a good idea. So I don’t understand why you are trying to put certain beliefs back in that specially-protected category.

  • Rebecca Morgan

    [TW: violent imagery] There is a distinct difference between civil disagreement and the kind of ridicule and silencing I’m talking about. Repeatedly insisting that a person’s experiences, worldview, or identity, is WRONG is unethical, with wrong in this case being equated to invalid. Religious beliefs and worldviews are integral to our identities and our lives, and insisting, relentlessly, that they are invalid, as if simply being invalid (versus actually being used to harm) is sufficient to merit both scorn and oppression, can be extremely traumatic. It’s like being repeatedly beaten over the head with a bat in the shape of the idea that you, your ideas, your beliefs, and your life, are not good enough and never will be. I’ve seen this (and experienced it) frequently, from both Atheists and Christians – that I’m wrong, and I need to understand just how wrong I am, so that the person who is attacking me can have the ego rush of knowing they’ve saved another person from themselves.

    And that’s just if all you have to fear is the psychological trauma. It’s not just about the people who seem adamant about convincing someone that their ideas are ‘wrong’ – it’s about the people for whom being ‘wrong’ is a target on their backs, a license to make them a victim without repercussion. Repeatedly invalidating an individual’s lived experience can be extremely damaging if that person is a member of a marginalized group. For oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, etc.) being ‘wrong’ is more than just cognitive dissonance – it’s the difference between being believed about abuse, assaults, rape, and other victimization, and being ignored.

    I don’t have a problem with civil disagreement, discussion, debate, or agreeing to disagree. I’ve been enjoying this discussion quite a bit, actually, and I’m more concerned with making sure that the Pagan worldviews are spoken for and properly understood than I am anything else. I take issue with those not participating in good faith: the antagonists, the trolls, the Devil’s Advocates overcome by ego and privilege, unaware or unconcerned about the damage they do. I have a problem with the people who insist that someone has to be ‘wrong,’ because being ‘wrong’ is more than just an intellectual category.

  • JonJ

    Brilliant post — just what I would have said. I am also quite irritated by the prominence of Prof. Luhrmann these days, and agree that the “intellectual” question of whether God is real or not can’t be dismissed as easily as she wants to do. It’s fine that religious people get so many emotional rewards from their religions, but the “distracting political issues” are what impact the rest of us, and when it comes to right-wing positions on these issues, we don’t appreciate it!

  • JonJ

    Funny, I thought the same thing. Great minds …

  • Joe Barron

    Admittedly, Luhrman’s position is odd: We haven’t made up our minds about how God exists or even whether he exists, but we can know is exactly how he wants us to behave. It’s an old theological ploy: she is saying no in the way that sounds like yes.

  • David Simon

    I’m glad you’ve been enjoying this discussion; I have been too. But, I strongly disagree with your contention that when an idea is tied in with someone’s identity, it’s unethical to say the idea is wrong.

    Being told that you are wrong about some idea that you hold as part of your core identity hurts. I’ve been there myself plenty of times. And I agree that this is real harm; it should never be done casually or with indifference to the effects.

    The general problem though is that it’s a bad idea to tie one’s identity in with ideas; it makes it much much more difficult to change your mind on those ideas later on. It’s not a practice I’m generally comfortable supporting, even for ideas and beliefs that are entirely personal, if only because it sets a precedent that can, and has been, used for ideas that do cause harm.

    This is why I do not have any problem with people saying “you are wrong about X”, civilly and without malice.

    However, I haven’t got any sympathy for the trolls you refer to, people who use the guise of intellectualism to cause pointless psychological harm, or to dismiss people out-of-hand even on important topics that they need to participate in fully. Trolls just make everything worse, and I’ve got no problem calling them jerks.

  • Joe Barron

    Oh, cool — I just realized the photo is from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  • Adam Lee

    Yep! I was there a few years ago and appreciated the juxtaposition.

  • Azkyroth

    What’s “rational” about defining worth in terms of “overal” contribution to society, especially while ignoring the myriad ways most people do contribute to it by interacting with small parts of it in ways other than wage earning and spending?

  • Orthoprax

    Fuuny that the final two sentences both start with “We believe”. Hard to get away from beliefs, no matter how rational you try to be.

  • smrnda

    What a patronizing, obnoxious privileged Westerner indulging in some Orientalism. Sounds exactly like something a British imperialist circa 1800 would have said about the caste system.

  • GCT

    Belief != faith, which is what you are trying to imply here.

  • Joe Barron

    The painting is by Thomas Eakins, btw. The scultor is of course well-known.

  • David Simon

    You are assuming that rationality implies a set of strictly economic life goals. From this I conclude that you’ve been talking to too many Randians.