The Music Delusion

I just have to share this wonderful parody of the arguments of The God Delusion, applying them to music. I know some of you love a good parody as much as I do. Enjoy!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12344192935890766744 Drew Tatusko

    What I have found is that atheists just uncritically accept Dawkins’ view of religion as true. When a theologian like McGrath (the other one from the UK ;-) challenges his fundamental assertions like Dawkins’ misrepresentation of what faith means, atheists just say, well there goes another theologian justifying irrationality again. It can be sooo frustrating because I have found that many atheists are wrapped up in their own fideisms and ignore what that means.But I guess it happens when a group positions itself as a minority and they suddenly have a spokesperson or three to act as a proxy megaphone for their emotional zeal as well as their dogmatic fervor.

  • Carlos

    Apparently — according to the dust cover, anyway — Michael Ruse said, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” I have to say, having read both The God Delusion and the McGraths’ The Dawkins Delusion?, I completely agree with Ruse’s sentiment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17131154882107531113 Qalmlea

    I think a lot of atheists make the same mistake about religion that the extreme fundamentalists make about evolution. The fundamentalists tend to think that the only alternative to evolution is their own literal, religious creation narrative, so they spend lots of effort trying to find “holes” in the theory. A lot of atheists spend a lot of time trying to poke holes in one particular version of religion (usually fundamentalism), and assume that the only alternative is atheism.

  • George

    Here’s the thing- music itself posits no truth claims, it says nothing about the way the world or universe, natural or supernatural, really is. We are free to interpret it as we wish. Whereas religion, even for those such as present company who do not take holy texts literally, still makes a number of claims that must be true for your faith to have any meaning. Jesus must have been a real person, he must have been the son of God, or at least had a close personal relationship with him, God must have created the world or at least set its creation in motion, God must establish personal relationships with people and grant at least some of their prayers, etc. If religion made none of these truth claims, I (and I suspect Dawkins) would have no beef with it. If religion really were wholly subjective, as music is; if it really had no meaning outside of its effect upon the human brain, it wouldn’t be problematic for anyone. But then, it wouldn’t be religion anymore. That’s philosophy, and that’s why this parody is off the mark.Oh, and Carl- Ruse is about the least representative atheist around.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the comments! George, I think that your points have a certain force to them, but once again they apply only to some religious believers within the Christian and other traditions, and some traditions (e.g. Buddhism) would quite possibly not be affected by any of them. As for Jesus having existed, there is no serious doubt. As to whether he is likely to have understood himself to be the ‘son of God’, that really depends on what you mean by that phrase. As for the issue of prayer, many early Christian theologians didn’t think that God actually changed his mind about anything in response to prayer, since God would always do what is best anyway. If one takes the perspective of panentheism, which Dawkins pretty much ignores, then speaking of God’s presence or action is akin to talking about the presence of our minds in our brains, or of our actions expressing our wills: it is not a competing sort of explanation, but an assertion that there is a transcendent, higher level of organization that is expressing itself. From our perspective, such a claim can never beone of certainty, but is rather an expression of intuition and trust.Dawkins claims he is opposed to all religion, everywhere, without exceptions. Yet Buddhism would seem not to claim any of the things that you suggest are essential to religion. You are, of course, free to say that Buddhism is ‘philosophy’ rather than ‘religion’ – indeed, many scholars would agree with you. But Platonism was also philosophy, and yet it addresses notions such as God, so I’m not sure the two are as clearly distinct as you suggest.When it comes down to it, I have had a religious experience, and what that proves to me beyond reasonable doubt is that people have experiences of this sort. Was the experience psychological? Sure – if it were not, it wouldn’t classify as an experience. But I still want to understand what this experience tells me about the nature of reality. Dawkins might say ‘nothing’, since it can be explained in evolutionary terms. But so can love, and music, and that brings us back to where this discussion started. I am not persuaded that, just because my ability to see a beautiful sunset depends on the evolution of my brain and my eyes, that this perception of beauty does not tell me something true (or perhaps I should say genuinely insightful or accurate) about the nature of the universe that gave rise to us.For me, as someone passionate about music, it does seem to make a claim on my life and my perspective on reality. These may not be truth claims, but whether religion, love, and music make such claims really depends on what one means by ‘truth’. For many, truth is something far greater and far more significant than mere facts.

  • George

    First- I didn’t mean that all Christians must accept all the examples I used (though most will). The misunderstanding was due to insufficient clarity on my part. Also, I was only using examples Christians will accept since most here are Christian. Muslims will have a similar, but markedly different, set of ‘core’ beliefs, beliefs that are likely to be shared by radicals, conservatives, and ‘modernist’ liberals as well.”As for Jesus having existed, there is no serious doubt.”I didn’t say it was an incorrect truth claim, I simply mentioned it as a truth claim- but there is in fact serious debate on the matter (I’m not convinced in either direction). I don’t wish to go into it now, however, so I will grant you that for the time being.”As for the issue of prayer, many early Christian theologians didn’t think that God actually changed his mind about anything in response to prayer, since God would always do what is best anyway.”But that view isn’t Biblically supported, as you are surely aware (I intend no patronizing here, in case that gets misread). Quite the opposite, in fact. According to Mark, Matthew, and John, provided one’s belief is sufficiently devout, prayer is a powerful tool, and for material, not just spiritual, ends.”If one takes the perspective of panentheism, which Dawkins pretty much ignores, then speaking of God’s presence or action is akin to talking about the presence of our minds in our brains, or of our actions expressing our wills”But as it makes no truth claims, or at the least no concrete ones, I would consider pantheism a philosophy as well. Or am I too arbitrarily setting that boundary in the service of my point? I don’t think Dawkins issue with pantheism goes far beyond my own, which is that it is a fruitless, if not downright silly, way of thinking that however has none of the potential for harm as true religions. Whether it’s silly or not, as I see no potential for harm from pantheism, I do not think it worth my concern.”But Platonism was also philosophy, and yet it addresses notions such as God, so I’m not sure the two are as clearly distinct as you suggest.”I don’t think they are necessarily ‘clearly distinct’. Religion may contain philosophy; philosophy may address religion. Philosophy is also capable of making truth claims, however religion (in my view) is incapable of making no truth claims. In the case of Platonism, however, the boundary is clear enough: the philosophy takes as a given certain pre-existing religious claims and addresses them philosophically. (If more detail is needed here, I shall have to dig out my copies of Plato).”When it comes down to it, I have had a religious experience, and what that proves to me beyond reasonable doubt is that people have experiences of this sort.”I like that! Well said indeed. Certainly one of the most honest statements about faith I’ve heard.”For me, as someone passionate about music, it does seem to make a claim on my life and my perspective on reality. These may not be truth claims, but whether religion, love, and music make such claims really depends on what one means by ‘truth’. For many, truth is something far greater and far more significant than mere facts.”Well, in this context, I am concerned with truth as ‘mere facts’. As an atheist, I believe that one makes ones’ own meaning- in life, in music, and a number of other subjective endeavors- so I am somewhat sympathetic to this last paragraph. But, let us stay with the common-use definitions of words such as ‘truth’, or else we shall get hopelessly lost. ‘Truth’ as an aesthetic quality is a different concept altogether, and shares no real relationship with ‘truth’ as facts. Because, while your belief in God may be an aesthetic truth for you, I am reasonably certain it is also a belief in a factual existence. You believe that God exists in a real, factual sense, and that he actually created the universe in the same sense- right?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    George, thank you for your insightful questions and for your clear articulation of where we seem to agree and where we may not.Let me start with the last point first – since it is the one that is visible while I’m writing this anyway! :) Even the language of ‘creation’ is metaphorical. There is a great Far Side cartoon with the caption ‘God makes the snake’. I can’t share it for copyright reasons (Larson is pretty strict about this), but if you can find it, it will show what it would mean to take language such as ‘God formed them from the dust of the earth’ literally. Literally speaking, even the average conservative Christian would admit that God doesn’t have hands. What, then, is the involvement of God in the process? To be honest, I have no idea. Did God start a process and set laws of physics to produce a universe that would give birth to living things? Perhaps. Is the universe in some sense God’s body, so that there has always been a universe, and the relationship of God to the universe is more intimate and organic? This is also language that I find helpful in some ways. But it is all metaphorical. I hate to reduce metaphor to literal speech even in the odd instances where one can do so. Prose cannot substitute for poetry, words cannot reduce the ‘meaning’ of a piece of music to an explanation of ‘what it is about’. Thomas Aquinas famously said that the language of creation is the affirmation that the observable universe seems contingent on something ultimate that is beyond itself. This is true each moment, and not dependent on there having been an absolute beginning of time and space.Let me just add that I said panentheism and not pantheism and then give you a chance to reply.I know that I may be atypical in this, but my faith is no longer about claiming certainty about historical events in the past or making factual claims about an infinite deity (when, if one really believed God to be infinite, one would realize all human language will be at best inadequate and at worst misleading or just plain wrong). All I have to offer is symbolism and metaphors, convictions and intuitions, values and ways of living. When it comes to facts in the narrow sense, I look to science for that sort of information. My faith is not about adding additional facts, but about how to live in a way that doesn’t reduce all that we find meaningful as human beings to facts and explanations.I hope you will take the time to reply, as I find I rarely articulate my views as clearly as in response to a specific question!

  • George

    “Even the language of ‘creation’ is metaphorical… Literally speaking, even the average conservative Christian would admit that God doesn’t have hands.”Well, certainly there is much in the Bible that begs to be treated metaphorically. Many Biblical authors make strong use of poetic license, and it is clear in their texts. Then, there are other passages where we are unsure, but the benefit of the doubt can allow non-literal treatment. The creation story, I would say, falls under this latter category.But surely many passages demand to be taken at face value. The census and historical accounts of Numbers, the detailing of the law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy- there is no reason to think these should be taken anything but literally. And unfortunately, much of what is at face-value distasteful in the Bible, occurs in passages that demand to be taken at face-value. But I digress, this isn’t really central to the point of discussion. It is enough that you have clarified (provided I do not misunderstand) that you do not posit God’s creation of the universe as an objective fact. In light of that, I should ask: for you, is even the existence of God a fact, a truth claim about the way the universe actually is?”Let me just add that I said panentheism and not pantheism and then give you a chance to reply.”I’m sorry! I did read pantheism there- that’s what happens when I post so late at night. Panentheism does still make truth claims; if it didn’t, it would be pantheism. It still requires the existence of God (albeit a somewhat different God).”I know that I may be atypical in this, but my faith is no longer about claiming certainty about historical events in the past or making factual claims about an infinite deity”I am not myself qualified to judge, but I think that view would disqualify you from being considered a Christian in the eyes of many Christians.”All I have to offer is symbolism and metaphors, convictions and intuitions, values and ways of living. When it comes to facts in the narrow sense, I look to science for that sort of information. My faith is not about adding additional facts, but about how to live in a way that doesn’t reduce all that we find meaningful as human beings to facts and explanations.”But, if the only bits of Christianity you believe are really true in this absolute factual sense I keep harping on about, is that Jesus was a swell guy who said some neat things and we’d all be better off if we listened to his, what exactly is the difference between your ‘faith’ and my atheism? I try to live in a way that ‘doesn’t reduce all that we find meaningful as human beings to facts and explanations,’ too. Doesn’t mean I have to invoke God to do it. You said the fact that there are biological explanations for subjective experiences like the enjoyment of music doesn’t remove their meaning for you; well, it doesn’t for me, either. These subjective experiences have subjective value, and if your spiritual experiences (which I have never had, for the record- closest thing was my first listen to Blind Guardian’s Nightfall In Middle-Earth) have subjective value too, value that allows you to shape and modify your outlook on life (which is, I think you would agree, just as subjective), then there’s nothing I wouldn’t be game for if the opportunity arose. I’m totally down with spiritual experiences as spiritual experiences. I have no problem with the idea of God as a useful mental tool- that’s fully compatible with atheism, so long as one acknowledges that the tool likely has no reality outside the mind. But how about you? Do you believe these experiences actually come to you from a God that literally exists, and if not, how are you not an atheist?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I am certain that some would dispute my Christian identity. I tend not to respond by disputing theirs right back (although presumably one could), but I do dispute whether their claims to be ‘taking the Bible literally’ and ‘believing the whole Bible’ are in fact true. Such language is in my opinion an advertising slogan that is as meaningful and as accurate as those detergent commercials that claim they will get your clothes ‘whiter than white’.I am certainly not an advocate of spiritualizing away problems and disturbing material (e.g. in the Book of Joshua). If other Biblical authors found such material disturbing, why should I pretend that I don’t, in the interest of being able to claim that I view all parts of the Bible equally? I prefer the language some have recently adopted of ‘red letter Christians’, who at least acknowledge what some parts of the Bible actually say, i.e. that some parts are more important than others, and that some things should supercede others. Of course, once one realizes that the Biblical literature develops and shows evidence of people’s thinking growing and changing over time, there is no longer any reason to think that it will not continue to do so in the period since the Biblical literature was written.For me, being a Christian is like being an American: it doesn’t mean I agree with everything that my country has done, nor does it mean that I think my country’s oldest laws will answer all the questions we have today. It means that this is my tradition, and I wish to help define it, rather than simply abandon it because I have complaints. It also means that I see in it valuable principles to live by, even if neither I nor other Americans have always lived up to them consistently.In my understanding, atheism distinguishes itself from other viewpoint by denying the reality of the spiritual in any of the senses in which that is used – otherwise, presumably Richard Dawkins would be a pantheist as opposed to an atheist. What I am trying to do is to do justice to my experience and intuition that seems to point to something greater than myself, greater indeed than anything I can perceive on this level of reality. I am thus, I suppose one might say, willing to be agnostic about various points of doctrine. But I am ultimately persuaded that there is a reality to which all these inadequate attempts at articulation point. That’s why atheism, even though I agree with atheists about more things and more often than some other Christians might, at the end of the day I find it doesn’t satisfy my sense of the nature of existence. I’m going to have to listen to Blind Guardian and see whether it moves me the way it moved you! Maybe all things will be clearer then. And perhaps if you listen to the opening and closing sections of the second movement of Atterberg’s Symphony No.2, you’ll have a better sense of why I view the world the way I do! :)

  • George

    I am having to marshal my thoughts on the fly, as you hold a position not only different (obviously) from conservative Christians like my friend Nate Rice, but also from mainstream moderate/liberal Christians. The arguments I use against their respective positions do not hold for you, so it is fortunate for me that in your case I am no longer concerned with convincing you of my view, but rather with reaching a mutual understanding.My basic complaint with the conservatives is that they take all of the Bible literally (or rather, they take it all seriously, for the thoughtful among them will recognize the passages that are poetical rather than literal), yet there is much in it that is demonstrably wrong, both in a factual and moral sense.Mainstream moderates, on the other hand, claim to regard the Bible highly, but recognize it as a flawed document, and therefore use their powers of critical thinking (as one put it to me) to separate the wheat from the chaff. But the result says more about the interpreter than the material interpreted: how can one be said to glean one’s worldview from the Bible if it all must be read through the lens of the worldview one already possesses? And how do you apply critical thinking to the question of whether or not God exists, or whether or not Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected?But, on to you.”Of course, once one realizes that the Biblical literature develops and shows evidence of people’s thinking growing and changing over time, there is no longer any reason to think that it will not continue to do so in the period since the Biblical literature was written.”But isn’t our thinking growing and changing in spite of the Bible, not because of it? Hasn’t Christianity’s interpretation of the text been playing catch-up with our improving sense of morality (I do wholeheartedly agree with what you said in one of your recent posts, that we generation by generation we are improving as moral human beings)? Isn’t the valuable in it available from other sources? And aren’t we free to take what is valuable without taking seriously the claims of the supernatural?”In my understanding, atheism distinguishes itself from other viewpoint by denying the reality of the spiritual in any of the senses in which that is used – otherwise, presumably Richard Dawkins would be a pantheist as opposed to an atheist.”I think Dawkins’ opposition to spirituality stems more from the word itself, not what the word actually means. Sam Harris, in fact, is quite vocal in stressing the importance of spirituality, minus the supernatural. Unfortunately, the word itself has connotations of the supernatural. As I said, I don’t have any problems with spiritual experiences as spiritual experiences. If we recognize that any value they have is subjective value only, then they can be quite valuable indeed, and I think if you presented this idea to Dawkins without using the word ‘spiritual’, he would be quite sympathetic to it. Incidentally, in my understanding of atheism (and Dawkins and Harris’s), nothing is denied. I don’t believe there is no God, I simply don’t believe there is a God. I am distinguished from the agnostic in this by the fact that I have provisionally made up my mind in the negative; I am not actively seeking an answer in much the same way (forgive me for using what is now cliche) that you are not actively seeking an answer to the question of whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. “What I am trying to do is to do justice to my experience and intuition that seems to point to something greater than myself, greater indeed than anything I can perceive on this level of reality.”Ok. So you do believe some sort of deity objectively exists. I think. I only asked what distinguishes you from an atheist on the assumption that you didn’t posit a deity as something necessarily existing outside your own subjective experience. If you do posit such, the distinction between you and an atheist is obvious. That remains a point of confusion between us; do you or don’t you?But even assuming you do, this is still all language my closest friend, a deist, would readily embrace. A belief in the reality of your deity distinguishes you from an atheist; what distinguishes you from my friend that causes you to call yourself a Christian and he a deist?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Let me start once again at the end rather than at the beginning. Does God exist in an objective and not merely a subjective sense? I would have to say YES, since when I speak of God, I am speaking about Being itself, the all-encompassing reality of which my subjective experience is a part. So if I wanted to be pithy, I guess I could say that, rather than God being merely a part of my subjective experience, I’d rather say that my subjective experience is merely a part of God. :)This definition of God as “Being itself” is most closely associated with Paul Tillich, but it is not a completely new or modern theological idea. The Sufi mystics of Islam interpreted the key Islamic statement of faith “there is no god but God” to mean “nothing but God exists”. They were true panentheists, persuaded that monotheism did not leave room for something to exist in a manner wholly independent of God.Why opt for panentheism rather than pantheism. I can’t imagine this reality that is so clearly greater than I am (since I am such a tiny part of it) in imagery that suggests it is less than I am (which impersonal language does). Personal language taken literally is also problematic – I like Hans Kung’s language of God as “more than personal”.Anyway, the matter keeps coming back to my experience, and I do not doubt that my experience was psychological – if it were not, it wouldn’t be an experience, would it? :) But as sociologist Peter Berger has pointed out, if 20th century theology often reduced theology to anthropology, since human beings are part of this mysterious reality religion seeks to ponder and intuit, anthropology can issue back into theology. In other words, if I’m pondering my place in the universe, and the universe produced me, and I perceive spiritual depth to my own existence, does it make sense to suggest that this greater reality of which I am a part is spiritually shallow?Anyway, as long as one doesn’t separate God from the rest of existence, then the question becomes not so much whether “God exists”, as though it were a question about the FSM (who clearly does exist – parmesan and heapings of fresh olive oil be upon him). This is not a question about one being among others, but about the nature of reality itself. So it isn’t so much “Does God exist?” for me as “Does reality itself have characteristics that correspond to the symbols and metaphors of religious language in meaningful ways?”As for Deism, I find much that it has to offer appealing – holding to what is valuable in religion while embracing reason wholeheartedly and unreservedly. Maurice Wiles is a wonderful exponent of a contemporary deistic outlook that is insightful and in many respects appealing. What led me to spend my time focusing more on other ways of conceiving of God is the conviction that I am exploring a reality that intersect with my own, and not a distant first cause. I still find myself torn, however, when I look at two incompatible but powerful metaphors for God’s relationship to all that is, one more panentheistic, one more deist.As for morality, I think that religion certainly has played a part in holding people back (when they have focused on the text as though it gives absolute guidance for all time), but it has (often in the same instances) also helped people move forward. Slavery is a good example – some were inspired by certain texts to seek to hang on to their slaves; others were motivated by the Golden Rule to seek its abolition. I would thus hesitate to generalize about religion’s relationship to morality. It can be a help or a hindrance, and thus it seems more depends on the people in question than on the specific religion or Scripture.Finally, let me say that I don’t think fundamentalists take the Bible literally or seriously in a consistent fashion. When it comes to literalism, that which it is too hard to take literally is ignored or set aside (e.g. the dome in Genesis 1). As for taking it seriously, I don’t see how focusing on debates about historicity while failing to put the teaching of the text into practice, or focusing on getting people to assert the truthfulness of the words various Biblical authors used, while ignoring what they were doing by writing such words in their own context, is taking the text seriously.I write this as someone who spent a while as a fundamentalist – perhaps that is the reason I am more comfortable challenging that particular viewpoint. I am more hesitant to critique viewpoints that I have not experienced as an insider.I’ve gone on long enough, so let me ask you what I’ve said that you would disagree with. :)

  • George

    “I’ve gone on long enough, so let me ask you what I’ve said that you would disagree with. :)”Basically nothing, at this point. I generally hate to ‘agree to disagree’, but I am satisfied that we understand each other, and that’s all I really wanted. By the way, I did not mention Blind Guardian as an example of something that might convert you to my way of thinking. The band members are all Catholics, actually, though I don’t know the degree of their devoutness except on the part of their vocalist and frontman, who is the only one who has spoken publicly on the matter, describing himself as a “faithful, but critical Christian”. But since we were considering music and spirituality as linked experiences, I felt it was appropriate to mention my experience of the one variety that I thought most resembled the other. As a fan of prog groups like Rush, you would probably enjoy them, though I would suggest checking out the later material in their catalogue first. Their early stuff, while still enjoyable, is just heavy metal in the vein of Metallica or Iron Maiden, while their recent albums, though still showing their metal roots, contain great influence from the likes of Queen and Mike Oldfield. If you discover you like them, there are many other acts from prog and the prog side of metal I could recommend.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Hints of Rush and Mike Oldfield? I’m sold! :) I didn’t think you were offering something that would ‘win me over’ to some viewpoint or other. I do hope you were recommending something that I will be glad I listened to. I have an open relationship with all my favorite music and have never hidden my willingness to engage in polybandry. :)I don’t think we need to ‘agree to disagree’. I hope that, from time to time, if our paths cross in the blogosphere, we can just talk, should we both feel like doing so, whatever the subject might be. I don’t feel that in any way this was an argument, or that either of us was trying to convert the other and show him the error of his ways. It was a conversation about a topic of mutual interest. I can definitely say that, in the process, I learned some things – not only about you and your viewpoint (and about music) but about myself and my own viewpoint, as I tried to think through and articulate some of my own convictions.My public library doesn’t seem to have any Blind Guardian albums (a deficiency I will be sure to draw to their attention). That is the first place I usually check. I will keep an eye out and try to find/create an opportunity to listen.


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