February 20, 2006

Religion, like a parasitic worm.

Edward Rothstein writes:
An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.

Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains." That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means "submission," and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett's view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.

Now that is iconoclasm — a wholehearted attempt to destroy a respected icon. "I believe that it is very important to break this spell," Mr. Dennett writes, as he tries to undermine the claims and authority of religious belief. Attacks on religion, of course, have been a staple of Western secular society since the Enlightenment, though often carried out with far less finesse (and far less emphasis on biology) than Mr. Dennett does; he refers to "the widespread presumption by social scientists that religion is some kind of lunacy."
If reason cannot work, is iconoclasm necessary? You could leave people to their lunacy, decide it's not lunacy, or persist with reason even where it is futile. Read how Rothstein tries to answer these questions and to connect them to the current cartoon craziness. I found his essay quite unsatisfying, despite the exciting beginning. Here are the last two paragraphs:
What other possibilities [than iconoclasm] are there? At a recent conference at Columbia University, "Religion and Liberalism," organized by Andrew Delbanco and the American Studies Program, there were some fascinating attempts to try to imagine something other than iconoclasm in the relationship between secular politics and religion once eighth-century tactics are left behind. Speakers, including E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark Lilla, Alan Wolfe, Todd Gitlin, Mary Gordon, Susannah Heschel and Elisabeth Sifton, distanced themselves from the kind of attack on religion that Mr. Dennett proposes, while trying, too, to pry religion away from its contemporary association with conservative politics and fundamentalism. For some it seemed an attempt to "save" religion for liberalism, while still keeping a safe distance.

The issues, though, remain intractable and unrelenting. But it may be that the United States has already offered one kind of an answer, creating a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief.
Well, what did E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark Lilla, Alan Wolfe, Todd Gitlin, Mary Gordon, Susannah Heschel and Elisabeth Sifton come up with? I haven't a clue, other than that they don't like conservatives.

56 comments:

vbspurs said...

while trying, too, to pry religion away from its contemporary association with conservative politics and fundamentalism. For some it seemed an attempt to "save" religion for liberalism, while still keeping a safe distance.

Speaking as an enthusiastically religious person, I think this attempt, if genuine, is a good thing.

To cede a modality of thinking or being to a whole political group, is folly.

Religion and the right-wing, is like patriotism and the right-wing.

Even people who are liberals, automatically hear an implied conservatism in those two topics, although there absolutely needn't be.

But the more one side decides that the values inherent in religion, or patriotism (in my example), are not liberal BY DEFINITION, the more it'll come to be associated by one political side.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words, similar to like progress only being possible through the wellspring of progressives.

Again, I say, this is unfortunate and wrong.

The only way to change that, is to stress that there are plenty of liberals who are religious, and to whom God has meaning.

And to equally stress that there are plenty of agnostics and atheists out there, who just happen to be Conservatives.

Cheers,
Victoria

Dave said...

Well, I'll admit up front that I'm no friend of religion.

But it seems foolish for those uninterested in religious belief to cast aserpsions on those who are religious.

Much as I admire Richard Dawkins, he involves himself in the same kinds of arguments. His documentary, The God Who Wasn't There is interesting to a non-religious person such as myself, but he is, to use an ironic phrase, preaching to the converted when he runs rhetorical circles around pious creationists. His attitude, like those described in this post, is rather arrogant and contemptuous.

That accomplishes nothing except to sow antipathy toward science among the religious.

James d. said...

Isn't this the George Carlin argument? I've seen him on shows like Bill Maher's a few times talking about religion being a mental illness -- only there was no punch line.

Of course, he went into rehab, I believe I read, so apparently he's got his own, um, parasitic worms to deal with?

Mark said...

People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains." That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself.

This is also true of beliefs that aren't religious. Political views, for example. From my perspective as a traditionalist conservative, this description fits liberalism perfectly: committed to a false set of beliefs even unto death. So I think it's unreasonable to say that this is a trait of religious belief alone. It is applicable to any belief that is resistent to disproof by "scientific" means - which is basically most strongly-held beliefs.

Alan said...

As a conservative I feel that religion has too great a hold on "conservatism" and the GOP. In trying to define conservatism, a few years ago, a caller offered Rush Limbaugh this definition:

-------

Eric in Cape Cod: Why wouldn't you say conservatives believe in the conservative use of government and liberals believe in the liberal use of government?

Rush Limbaugh replied: Well because conservatives, and I've always made this case, conservatives are for big government in many cases. They want big government to make sure that there's not abortion. They know they've got to have a government agency or a law or something to say that. Conservatives are not just...they're not anti-government, they are anti-intrusive government. But the things they want government to do are things that are oriented toward those things the Constitution orders the government to do. Which is basically defending and protecting the Constitution itself, the traditions and institutions that made the country great, the law...and you need people and agencies and things to enforce the law and elements of the Constitution...that's the best answer I can give you to that.

-------

IMO, what Limbaugh says is anathema to conservatism and may be why Goldwater seemed to go left before he died and why Jack Danforth recently warned of the RR's hold on the GOP.

chuck b. said...

Religion, I'm sure, does a lot of good for some people. But it will always be, for some, first and foremost a road to power. I'm not sure what's really going on with the cartoon riots, but I'm certain somone is benefiting from it, and it ain't God or his Prophet/s.

Guesst said...

Rush Limbaugh and his clique have been working for years to reinvent "conservatism".

It is hilarious they bitch about the GOP expanding government when one of their biggest issues is authorizing governmental intrusion into our lives, by forcing people to lead their lives according to interpretation of Constitutional intent which includes religious philosophy and enforcing morality upon us all.

They can't leave the GOP soon enough.

Matt Roth-Cline said...

Great point, Mark. I think we need to differentiate between the content of religious belief and the function of religious belief.

As you point out, beliefs with content that we don't consider "religious" can be functionally religious.

I'm personally not religious, in large part because I mistrust any form of "worship". Worship is effectively an excuse to stop looking at something critically.

You can worship things that aren't supernatural. I am not objecting to certain objects of worship; I don't like the act of worship itself.

PatCA said...

"People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains."

He says that religion causes people to act against their own interests, yet I know many people who are religious because it advances their health, reason and family life--their interests. This author simply discounts the value that people find in religion for creating a good life.

I think only radical Islam fits the stereotype he's describing. Of course he would never admit that, as this sounds like another neo-con, blue state rant.

Finn Kristiansen said...

There is a rather easy way to pry religion away from its contemporary association with conservative politics, and that's by getting rid of Jesus.

When a religion is based upon a person who says, "I am the way, the truth and the life," then you are dealing with something that is not even remotely inclined toward pluralistic presumptions.

Christianity kind of begins at the acknowledgment that men are evil, but the average liberal- often of good heart, and wanting to change the world- begins with a premise that people (all people) are basically the same, and of good heart. Liberals don't start at the heart of man, and so much of Christianity begins right there.

(Hence, a liberal and conservative can both be concerned about, say, unplanned pregnancy, so the liberal solution will be to spend several million dollars passing out free condoms with a special NYC logo, and the conservative will instead try to focus on changing the morality-however quixotic and cost efficient the attempt may be).

Liberals want to be Christian, but without certain things: like sin, judgment, praying without ceasing, adult baptism, reading and following scripture. You know if you are a liberal Christian by what you are not doing in the quiet of your home.

However if they could just kill Jesus, or the idea of him, I think it would work out quite well, and liberals would then be able to wrench Christianity back toward a comfortable center, where it offends nobody, with no defining points that make it dissimilar from any other way of life.

There is a reason why society wiped out Jesus and his followers early on, as The Way wasn't necessarily designed to be a way of life that was comfortable or compatible with the popular psyche.

Liberals are ultimately concerned with making life on earth grand, but Christianity is ultimately concerned with bringing as many people as possible back to God's party (half of us having ducked out for air, and to go smoke weed and eat Taco Bell with Satan in the vacant lot behind God's house).

P. Froward said...

What does a frog gain by spawning? Or a salmon or praying mantis for that matter?

If you look at animal behavior (not excluding yours and that of Edward Rothstein) purely in terms of obvious immediate benefit to the individual, you miss out on quite a lot. In my three examples above you miss out on everything that has any significance at all.

Even if the cartoon lunacy could be proven conclusively to do more harm than good to Islamic society as a whole (good luck trying — it's a bit more complicated than figuring out what made the dog throw up), that's just one anecdote, and it's a fairly extreme one.

He's barking up the same tree as the "intelligent design" people: He's assuming that if we don't have an explanation for some particular phenomenon right now, then there can in principle be no rational explanation at all. He's as wrong as they are. The fact that you can't think of any good use for religion off the top of your head doesn't mean there isn't one. It doesn't mean there is one either, but the fact that religion seems to be ubiquitous strikes me as a point worth pondering. If religion is as bad as he says, what happened to all the successful atheistic cultures? Shouldn't they have outcompeted the God squad? Shouldn't a young, vigorous culture, unencumbered by the lancet flukes of faith, sweep everybody before it?

But cultures lose faith not on their way up, but on their way down, after they pass their peak.

He speaks of "the ... presumption by social scientists that religion is some kind of lunacy." I don't want to disparage their act of faith, but that sounds about right. It's all so easy when you slip your conclusion in among the axioms.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

I hope everyone who follows the Rothstein link also clicks through to Leon Wieseltier's demolition of Dennett. While the folks at Columbia are busy trying to save religion from the clutches of conservatism, I wish we could get up a parallel effort to save atheism from the clutches of scientism.

Sean E said...

The fluke/ant thing is actually pretty interesting. Too bad Dennett had to mess it up with the trite religious analogies.

I also don't think religion is inherently right-wing. Certainly Jews are no less devout for voting mostly Democrat. Most Canadian churches, the United Church in particular, lean strongly to the left. And I doubt the current Archbishop of Canterbury would vote for a conservative politician if his life depended on it.

It may be fair to say that US conservative politics is strongly associated with certain Christian denominations, but to say religion in general is conservative just doesn't ring true to me.

Henry said...

Paul, good work pointing out Wieseltier's review. That's one of the most brutal notices I've ever read in the NYT:

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing.

In that vein, does not Dennett's need to reduce and simplify, to extrapolate original causes with little evidence, to present ersatz science as a morality tale, does not all of this resemble Dennett's own crude definition of religion?

Alas poor Dennett; even he has the virus.

AJ Lynch said...

Sean said: "I also don't think religion is inherently right-wing."

Many polls have found that republican (and /or conservative) voters are more likely to attend religous services regularly. That is where the "values issues" sprung up.

Harkonnendog said...

"An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home.
...
Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works."

This is pretty typical of those who judge Christians by looking down their noses... I'd like to see some statistics showing Christians have fewer children, make less money, and generally less happy, less healthy, etc., than non-Christians, before I could take this theory seriously.

I know quite a few Christians who use the religion to help them improve their lives through connections, stress relief, the ability to keep thing in perspective, etc. etc.

If, as I suspect, Christians are generally happier and have MORE children, does that mean those who choose NOT to be Christians are like that ant? :)

Smilin' Jack said...

If reason cannot work, is iconoclasm necessary? You could leave people to their lunacy, decide it's not lunacy, or persist with reason even where it is futile.

There's no conflict between reason and iconoclasm. I haven't read Dennett's new book yet (though I'm looking forward to doing so...along with Steven Pinker he's one of the most interesting and insightful writers on these topics) but I've no doubt his iconoclasm is solidly grounded in reason. Of course there's no use trying to reason with "lunatics" who are already religious...the hope lies in providing reasoned alternatives to religion for future generations. Darwin undermined religion by providing an alternative expanation of how we came to be here that didn't involve a Creator: people could still believe in God if they wished, but given an alternative, fewer of them did. Dennett seems to be aiming for something similar by providing an explanation of why people believe in God even though there isn't one.

As an atheist myself, I don't need to be convinced of that, but I am curious about why so many of my fellow humans believe the weird things they do. I think that question is just as interesting, and just as amenable to scientific investigation, as the weird behavior of those ants. I'm not sure Dennett has a complete answer, but from the reviews it seems as though he has a reasonable start on one--and he seems to be pissing off the right people, always a good sign.

vbspurs said...

IMO, what Limbaugh says is anathema to conservatism and may be why Goldwater seemed to go left before he died

I understand you said "seemed" purposely, but there is no question of Goldwater having become a liberal prior to his death.

More like a Libertarian, like Instapundit.

Libertarians and Conservatives share many similarities, but at heart, Libertarians are not traditionalists, whereas mainstream Conservatives have greater ease in supporting values such as religion, morality and authority, even if they are not particularly religious, etc. themselves.

P.S.: If with the advent of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh is still a force to be reckoned with, even after a medication scandal, if I were the poster who wrote that he hoped Limbaugh's influence would wane, I wouldn't go out and bet the farm on that eventuality. He's still going strong.

Cheers,
Victoria

Barnstable said...

PatCA brought up something very interesting, I think. Dennet says, "People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains."

And, when you look at extremists, what he says is true. But, for the sizeable majority of religious folks who are NOT extremists, statistics and polls consistently show that they are: more interested and engaged in their work, healthier, happier, live longer, divorce less, and are no less represented in the intellectual fields than their proportion of the general population would suggest (bear in mind that being an academic does not make you an intellectual).

The worth of a practice or ethic cannot be evaluated except by asking what could replace it to the greater good. Perhaps eradicating religious feeling would blunt or eliminate the tragedies happening at the fringes of faith; however, failing to address what else might be lost, Dennett fails the reader as well.

vbspurs said...

I also don't think religion is inherently right-wing. Certainly Jews are no less devout for voting mostly Democrat.

Absolutely not.

OTOH, it is true that the majority of Orthodox Jews, famously like Michael Medved, lean Republican.

In fact, and I don't know how this is possible, since they are an anti-Semitic society, but a friend of mine had an Orthodox rabbi who was in the John Birch Society...

This is a very underreported, unheralded part of the Conservative bloc -- like gay Republicans.

Such a shame.

Most Canadian churches, the United Church in particular, lean strongly to the left. And I doubt the current Archbishop of Canterbury would vote for a conservative politician if his life depended on it.

It may be fair to say that US conservative politics is strongly associated with certain Christian denominations, but to say religion in general is conservative just doesn't ring true to me.


But like the ESPN "Top 100 Athletes" poll, what people fail to understand is that Americans refer to "religion" or "sport" with the implied idea that they are speaking of the United States.

It's part of their national short-hand, so to do.

Cheers,
Victoria (still cheesed Pele wasn't even MENTIONED by ESPN...or Don Bradman!!)

lindsey said...

The establishment Protestant religions in the US lean left, which is why they're hemorrhaghing practicioners.

Have you seen the Pew Research on happiness? Religious people are happier. Republicans are happier. Poor Republicans are even happier than Poor Democrats.

"It is hilarious they bitch about the GOP expanding government when one of their biggest issues is authorizing governmental intrusion into our lives, by forcing people to lead their lives according to interpretation of Constitutional intent which includes religious philosophy and enforcing morality upon us all."

The question isn't whether morality will be enforced. The question is: whose morality will it be?

It's also interesting that you so object to morality. Do you really want to live in a nation where morality is a debased joke? Where people don't think twice about robbing, murdering or raping? Or even aborting their babies? Be careful what you wish for.

ModNewt said...

They [the religious right] can't leave the GOP soon enough.

The trouble for the GOP would be that they'd be in the same boat they were prior to 2000, splitting votes with religious candidates and losing the White House.

Trouble for the GOP, but better for the rest of us who prefer the fiscally conservative to the religious.

lindsey said...

Also, I'm confused. Is Dennet an evolutionary psychologist? I thought evolutionary psychologists considered religion an ESS or Evolutionary Stable Strategy. If you look at the birth rates among religious people and secular people, it's pretty clear the religious right will win in the end because they're actually growing their population. It seems obvious that the group who rejects birth control and abortion will win in the end. How can non-belief be more logical if in the end, it causes extinction? This reminds me of the prediction that Mormonism will come to be the majority Christian faith due to the power of the womb.

lindsey said...

His belief that religious belief is caused by some sort of parasite or brain infection is interesting in light of opinions I've read indicating that homosexuality as well as creative genius are caused by brain bugs.

ModNewt said...

Harkonnendog said...
If, as I suspect, Christians are generally happier and have MORE children, does that mean those who choose NOT to be Christians are like that ant?

Certainly religion is good for some people. I wish I could believe in the afterlife; it would make the notion of death so much more pleasant.

I know those who are religious wont like this analogy, but drug addicts probably report being happier than average (when on drugs) and almost certainly have more children, statistically. What's your point? I think "Opiat for the masses" comes to mind when I read your post.

Ann Althouse said...

"I wish I could believe in the afterlife; it would make the notion of death so much more pleasant."

Maybe if you could manage a superficial, complacent belief in the afterlife, you'd feel fine. But if you really believed in it, you'd be scared as hell. Literally. Seriously, even in heaven, how do you picture the second billion years?

ModNewt said...

lindsey said...
If you look at the birth rates among religious people and secular people, it's pretty clear the religious right will win in the end because they're actually growing their population. It seems obvious that the group who rejects birth control and abortion will win in the end.

So you are what your parents make you? What's the point of living if you can't change. I was raised in a very religious Catholic household but have abandoned religion.

The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 (www.atheists.org/flash.line/atheist4.htm) found significant growth in the number of people "identifying with no religion." increasing from about 8% in 1990 to roughly 14%. As societies become more weathly (and more educated I would argue), they become more secular.

ModNewt said...

Seriously, even in heaven, how do you picture the second billion years?

Kind of scary, me pulling this one out:

Between grief and nothing... I'll take grief. - Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off

bearbee said...

When I read that this or that person said or did something or other and that others gasped and marveled at the brilliance of whatever was said/thought/written, I try to imagine the billions upon billions of galaxies, planets, stars that exist and how that marveled brilliance has not even the impact of a grain of sand or of an atom or whatever is smaller, and I wonder how anyone can be so certain that there is no god.

lindsey said...

"So you are what your parents make you?"

In the genetic sense, yeah. Also, there's been speculation there is a gene for religiosity. It's possible when you get older you'll return to your religion.

"What's the point of living if you can't change."
Uh, happiness, laughter, love, puppies and kittens? Chocolate cheesecake. I can keep going. Why do you want to change? I mean. Everyone wants to be better at something or prettier, but it's kind of sad to think that your only reason for living is so you can change who you are.

"I was raised in a very religious Catholic household but have abandoned religion."

That's nice. I know lots of people who've done the same but eventually returned or, in the case of my mother, never went back. I was raised basically without religion, though we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That was the extent of our religious observance. When I was a kid, I always took going to church as a punishment. I still don't go to church often, but I am fascinated with it.

Pete said...

ModNewt,

You wrote, "Between grief and nothing... I'll take grief. - Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

I've no doubt you quoted the movie correctly but I believe the original quote comes from Faulkner.

Other than that, Victoria pretty much covers my points so I'll just keep quiet.

Ann Althouse said...

"Between grief and nothing... I'll take grief."

Can you begin to imagine the you that you would be after a billion years of this grief and knowing that you were still only just beginning? I must put you at the superficial and complacent level if you dare to say yes.

AlaskaJack said...

Ann, you are assuming that time exists in the afterlife just as it does in our universe of atoms and molecules. It may not. Besides, there may be a lot of things to learn and experience and a couple billion years is hardly enough time to do it in.

jvgordon said...

While I have admiration for other work of Dennet's (in particular, Freedom Evolves), I suspect that he has fallen into a trap that many atheists have fallen into, which is that they do not really know and understand any seriously religious people, so they cannot accurately examine the effects of a strongly held religion on otherwise sane people.

While I know this is only anecdotal empirical evidence, my recent experience and friendships with strongly religious Christians and Jews have been uniformly positive, and I would not hesistate to say that these are some of the best people I know. Even though my strongly religious friends have a quite different view of Truth than I do (I am essentially a libertarian agnostic with an empirical/ scientific view of Truth), they seem considerably more sane than some of the left-wing academics I know, in that they largely accept reality, though they anticipate a world beyond that which is observable.

Sadly, I suspect Dennet's view is largely informed by stereotyping based on the leaders of groups on the Religious Right, who are not representative of the majority of strongly religious people who generally live lives of quiet faith and good works. These strongly religious people may mostly agree on the moral and policy positions of the Religious Right, but their approach is one of love, and not of intolerance or hate, as sometimes seems to be assumed by outsiders viewing the strongly religious.

Thorley Winston said...

OTOH, it is true that the majority of Orthodox Jews, famously like Michael Medved, lean Republican.

Actually I don’t believe that Michael Medved describes himself as an “Orthodox Jew.” IIRC on his radio show when asked the question, he said that he’s a “conservative Jew” rather than belonging to either “Orthodox Judaism” or “reform Judaism.”

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vbspurs said...

Seriously, even in heaven, how do you picture the second billion years?

Spending a billion years with my grandmother?

Heavenly.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

Actually I don’t believe that Michael Medved describes himself as an “Orthodox Jew.” IIRC on his radio show when asked the question, he said that he’s a “conservative Jew” rather than belonging to either “Orthodox Judaism” or “reform Judaism.”

I've read his memoirs, published last year.

He's mentions repeatedly, that he is an Orthodox Jew, full stop.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

Other than that, Victoria pretty much covers my points so I'll just keep quiet.

Thanks, Pete.

And Falkner is a lot better than the actor who was caught peddling kiddie porn alongside Pee Wee Herman.

Although, darn it, I love Edward Rooney. And his secretary too.

Cheers,
Victoria

AlaskaJack said...

I fear Dennet is becoming something of a crackpot. I'm told that he spends a great deal of his time trying to locate exactly where dream images are located in the brain. Consistent with his dogmatic materalism (brought on I suppose by some sort of organism chewing on his brain), he is quite certain there are actual images in there somewhere that are projected onto some sort of organic screen. He promises us that his next project will be to identify exactly who it is that is watching that screen.

me said...

"It seems obvious that the group who rejects birth control and abortion will win in the end. How can non-belief be more logical if in the end, it causes extinction?"

Reminds me of the plethora of current articles about how Europe may have destroyed itself by allowing rampant Muslim immigration without integration -- their fertility rates far outstrip that of Europeans, and some say Europe will be a Muslim continent someday. Just because a group of believers is very fertile does not mean their beliefs are better or more logical. Personally I'm hoping European/Western values, such as democracy, equality, freedom of thought, etc., "will win in the end."

amn said...

I think the Rothstein essay badly misportrays Dennet. I haven't read Dennet's book, but heard an hour-long interview with him on the NPR show On Point [http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2006/02/20060201_b_main.asp]
and if his book demonstrates the same kind of thinking as he did in the interview he is not anti-religion. In the interview his main point is that we have lots of tools for studying religion scientifically but have avoided using them because of science/religion barrier. Studying religions rigorously, he argues, will be necessary to understanding how to address many of the problems that world will face in this century. What is it about religon, especially fundamentalist religion, that makes it so easily spread? And when religion becomes dangerous (say, killing people over cartoons) how can it be controlled? Dennet is merely making the point that there is no reason for scientists to be hands-off with religion.

Harkonnendog said...

Modnewt,

"I know those who are religious wont like this analogy, but drug addicts probably report being happier than average (when on drugs) and almost certainly have more children, statistically. What's your point? I think "Opiat for the masses" comes to mind when I read your post."

I think you're wrong on both counts, Modnewt. The only drug addicts I know who are happy, at ALL, are pot addicts... as for being happier on average because you count when you are on drugs... come on man, go meet some (non-pot) drug addicts and find out how completely wrong you are... how can you even seriously think something like that?

They don't have more children on average either, I bet.

As for the opiate of the masses meme... many people MUCH smarter than you have been Christians or members of other religions- there may be aspects of Christianity, and other religions, that you just don't understand? is it possible? ;)

ModNewt said...

Harkonnendog said...
I think you're wrong on both counts, Modnewt. The only drug addicts I know who are happy, at ALL, are pot addicts...

I've known plenty of drug addicts (my father ran a methadone clinic) and when on heroin they are very happy. And why am I limited to non-pot illegal drugs? Drunks are happier when drunk, and folks on Prozac are happier with their Prozac. And that was the point of my analogy. If, as you argue, religion is able to make you happy and without it you are less happy, what's the difference? Especially if religion is wrong and their is no god.

As for the opiate of the masses meme... many people MUCH smarter than you have been Christians or members of other religions- there may be aspects of Christianity, and other religions, that you just don't understand? is it possible? ;)

I never said religious folks aren't smart, just wrong about this one issue. You are right about a couple of things: I don't understand religion at all and I'm not especially smart. Many smart people are wrong too though.

ModNewt said...

Pete said...
I've no doubt you quoted the movie correctly but I believe the original quote comes from Faulkner.

I knew the quote didn't originally come from the movie, but it is much funnier in the context of the movie. I guess not only am I not as smart as I think, I'm not as funny either.

To steal another quote from Dennis Miller, maybe I need to find my own god. One who finds me both smart and funny.

ModNewt said...

Ann Althouse said:
Can you begin to imagine the you that you would be after a billion years of this grief and knowing that you were still only just beginning? I must put you at the superficial and complacent level if you dare to say yes.

Shoot, I can't imagine the me that I will be 10 years from now, much less a billion years. I know I like my existence even when it is boring, or lonely, or when it hurts.

I'm not even as advanced as the "superficial and complacent level" you backhandedly ascribe me to. I don't believe in an afterlife. Do you really think most religious people have something more than a superficial notion about what the afterlife might be like? They mostly picture clouds, harps and pearly gates.

Harkonnendog said...

"I never said religious folks aren't smart, just wrong about this one issue."
I don't see how this goes along with the opiate of the masses thing...

"If, as you argue, religion is able to make you happy and without it you are less happy, what's the difference? Especially if religion is wrong and their is no god."
I'm not arguing it does that- I'm arguing that IF it does that, then the idea that people are religious despite the fact that it hurts is wrong- and that, IF religion DOES make you happy and healthy, more likely to have kids etc, than those who are NOT religious are like the ant.

At least that's what I think I'm arguing.... lol....

I didn't count pot (and I GUESS prozac would be the same, not sure) because I don't consider it an opiate strength drug- in other words they don't take you out of yourself the way stronger drugs do..

As for pot, I see nothing wrong with taking it because I think it does benefit people more than it harms them... not all, but some people I know... Not me. Honestly, not me :)

Johnny Nucleo said...

Ann Althouse said: "Maybe if you could manage a superficial, complacent belief in the afterlife, you'd feel fine. But if you really believed in it, you'd be scared as hell. Literally. Seriously, even in heaven, how do you picture the second billion years?"

If an afterlife exists, it would exist outside of time. Time is a function of the physics of this universe.

There is no way for humans to grasp what "time" might "feel like" in a incorporeal afterlife, though it might be like experiencing eternity in a single moment that never ends (Huh?).

Jack said...

The most glaring problem with Dennett's analogy is that, whereas we have direct evidence of the physical worm in the case of the ant, he can point to no similar physical cause for the persistence of religion. Instead he suggests that religion is an idea "that has lodged in their brains." But this is a categorical error, since ideas, being non-physical, cannot lodge anywhere. Yet Dennett does not stop there but goes on to say that religios belivers practice submission "despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend," completely ignoring the fact that his own statement is completely lacking in scientific evidence. It is a good thing that irony is also non-physical or it would long ago have smothered Mr. Dennett and his like.

PatCA said...

Sippican, those are lovely sentiments indeed!

Johnny Nucleo said...

Smilin' Jack said: "As an atheist myself, I don't need to be convinced [that there is no God], but I am curious about why so many of my fellow humans believe the weird things they do."

Many athiests believe in weird things too, like Love, Beauty, Morality, and Justice. If there is no God, such ideas are nothing more than sentimental fantasies.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Modnewt said: "If, as you argue, religion is able to make you happy and without it you are less happy, what's the difference [between it and drugs]? Especially if religion is wrong and their is no god."

A few differences:

- Religious addiction rarely causes people to steal from their grandmothers.

- Drug addicts are not known for their charity work.

- Drugs tend to kill you; religion tends to extend your life.

- Drug addicts tend to be better rock stars than religious people; religous people tend to build more cathedrals, hospitals, schools, cities, and empires than drug addicts.

- Drug addicts are not known for sharing their drugs; religious people don't mind, and some of them absolutely love it.

- Drug addicts tend to vomit more than religious people.

- Religious people tend to be more judgemental than drug addicts.

Some similarities:

- Both can be volatile.

- Both can be violently stubborn.

- At heart, there is a certain sadness that motivates them.

- They are both looking for the same thing.

AlaskaJack said...

Althousefan, you make a very good point. When asked about the concepts of Love, Beauty and Justice, the atheist is most often either reduced to silence or else he pronounces them to be simply matters of convention--"sentimental cultural fantasies" that vary from culture to culture.

Their most recent tactic, however, borders on the comedic; they have taken to trotting out some unhinged entomologist who claims to have observed Love and Justice at work in ant colonies--proving that these virtues were selected out by evolution.

In my many conversations with these folks, I have noted a common trait: They have great difficulty grasping abstract ideas. Plato knew them well. He described them as "lovers of sights and sounds" who, while they know of many beautiful things, lack all comprehension and knowledge of Beauty itself.

ModNewt said...

Many athiests believe in weird things too, like Love, Beauty, Morality, and Justice. If there is no God, such ideas are nothing more than sentimental fantasies.

Why does one need God for these things. Morality and Justice, for example, make society work better. To me they are really unwritten contracts. Others have argued, however, that morality is a genetic trait. An animal whose neck lengthens over the ages to reach leaves on higher trees due to a gene does so, presumably, so that the genes owner will live longer.

Morality works for us... helps us and our children live longer. Therefore the morality gene wins (since those without the morality gene produce fewer offspring).

As far as beauty goes; we all have heard that it is in the eye of the beholder, so why is god required?

ModNewt said...

In my many conversations with these folks, I have noted a common trait: They have great difficulty grasping abstract ideas.

Oh nonesense. I'm sure I can find you many an atheist quantum physicist or computer game programmer (both of which require complex and abstract thinking). I have no evidence to back this up, but I would bet a Dr. Pepper that there is a higher percentage of atheists in the quantum physicist world than in the general population.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Modnewt,

The only fundamental difference between humans and animals is free will.

If you're thinking, Well we have consciousness, we are self-aware: Remember, consciousness requires thought, which requires will. If thought is not willed, it is not thought, it is instinct. If thought is an illusion then it is just very sophisticated instinct that seems like thought but is not. In that case, we are computers, like animals, bound by our programming.

(For the record, I love animals. They are our cousins and should be treated humanely.)

Let's assume humans are as you suggest - nothing more than clever apes - the ultimate natural computer - and free will is an illusion. (You're thinking, That's not what I'm suggesting. But it is.)

If free will is an illusion how can one be morally culpable for evil? If one does an evil thing, how is it his fault if it was instinct? If one cannot be held responsible for one's actions then how can morality exist?

Yet morality does exist, if by morality you mean a notion of "rightness" (at least in theory, specifics notwithstanding) that appeals to a "higher power" or "transcendent truth" or "greater good" for it's authority: A belief in a theory of "ought".

But, if free will is an illusion, so is any theory of ought.

So if that's the case: If a million dollars is what you want and it was guaranteed that you would not get caught and that the theft would have no detrimental effect on society - that is, you are guaranteed that no negative consequences would befall you or your offspring or anyone or anything you cared about - why not steal it?

If free will is an illusion there's only one answer: I just don't feel like it. But I'm asking you: What if you did feel like it?

This is all basic stuff, but it seems like many athiest intellectuals have never really grappled with it. For all their sophistication - I must admit, I'm thinking of Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly admire - their athiesm is as crude and shallow as a child's understanding of God.

Also, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. That's just something people say.

If there is truth in the saying it is that beauty is real, but sometimes very few people recognize it.