Monday, 17 May 2010

How much do you have to believe?

Whilst I agree with this post I was also challenged by it.  How much do we have to believe?  What is essential to our faith?  In this post the same writer suggests a stripping back of belief to a personal relationship, and I have heard David Winter saying that as time goes by he is more and more certain about less and less.  (I recognise that this is an ambiguous statement - for the avoidance of doubt I believe that his intent was to say that there were fewer things that he believed strongly, but those that he did he believed more strongly).  As a pragmatist I want to ask whether these things make any difference to us?

If I can't currently be certain about any of the things in the blog post does it matter whether they ever become resolved?  Or is there a sense in which knowing becomes worse than not knowing?

An old joke goes:
An archaeological dig in the Holy Land unearthed the bones of Jesus Christ. The evidence was compelling, even irrefutable. After checking and double-checking his information, the head of the team of archaeologists became certain that he had found the corpse of Jesus Christ, who therefore could not have been resurrected as Christians had always believed.
Stunned, he called the only person he could think of who was the recognized head of world Christianity, the Pope. After much discussion, the Pope began to understand just how strong the evidence was, and decided that he would have to call together the leadership of all Christian denominations in order to come to terms with this astonishing discovery.
“Who,” he asked his advisors, “is the greatest Protestant theologian now living?” The answer came back: “Paul Tillich.” So the Pope telephoned Paul Tillich and carefully described the way the bones had been found and how convincing the archaeological evidence seemed to him.
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “Do you understand what I am saying?” asked the Pope.
“Ach,” said Tillich in his thick German accent. “Zo there really was a Jesus after all…”
 The article from which this comes goes on to suggest that:
A major goal of his [Tillich's] theological project was to create a version of Christianity which no possible historical evidence could ever falsify.
but how can we possibly falsify what we already have?  I can think of no evidence (short perhaps of a time machine - but even there it could have gone back to a parallel universe) which would prove to me anything about what happened 2,000 years ago.

I think we are left with mystery - and I think that is a good thing!

My question to those who differ from me is what difference would it make to your life if some of the things that you hold as important were to be proved false?  How would it change your life?  What would you do differently?

Perhaps one day we will know the answer to these questions but that day is at the end of time, and not much good to us in living our lives today other than through faith.



    It's one of the contentions of many atheists, that since we can't provide evidence of a God, or any of the many 'truths' of any of the many religions, then the real truth of it makes no difference. They might as well not be true. This means we are all free to be atheists and make what we want of our lives, individually and collectively, to make the most of the best our human heritage.

    But, the fact that there is no evidence for anything divine, or for astrology, or witchcraft, or ghosts, or spiritualism, or the flying spaghetti minster, means we are all free to invent any of the above we choose, commit our lives to them, and if we believe strongly enough, stick together in our belief, affirm our belief, avoid evidence that shows natural explanations, then we can build something that effects our lives. I mean, no one's disputing that Maya religion made differences to lives; or Islamic fundamentalism; or the Inquisition.

    So, maybe some people are happy to go along with stuff for which there is no evidence. I just don't think it's a particularly wise move.

    To us now, much of the history of science is only a few hundred years old. Some of the principles of discovery go back much further, but being less informed the practices weren't always up to scratch. We've ditched the notion of the four elements and the bodily humours, and we no longer bleed to heal unless under controlled transfusions.

    Are there not other avenues of human life where we can accept that not all traditions and beliefs of the past make sense? Can't we take what's good and run with that, and leave the hocus pocus behind? If you have a system of care and community and love that's stood the test of time, was there for us when we had little else because we were so ignorant about the natural world, doesn't it makes sense to take that human natural system and expunge it of the nonsense? Do we really need spooky other beings to help us through the day, instead of each other?

    If we can come this far and recognise that there might not be anything to have evidence of, what should we make of the voices in our heads? Is it too much to recognise this as a vestige of our past, evolutionary of culturally or both? If we think about the real hard work that many believers put into convincing themselves that there is something to believe in, would it take that much effort to convince ourselves that we are really talking to our selves, meditating, listening to our own inner thoughts and giving them a voice?

    It seems obvious to me that there is more to be gained from putting all our effort into the here and now, into us, and not into worshipping the unknowable ancient mysticisms. Perhaps it's just a hard sell to those who's 'God module' lights up, or those who have merely been indoctrinated. It's also obvious I think it's worth the effort, otherwise why would I be troubling you.

  2. As a pragmatist I do see a difference coming from faith. In the places where I have lived if you look around and see who it is that is doing the volunteering then those of faith are punching far above their weight.

    Faith commends actions which appear not to be good for us - but which when we carry them out turn out to be good for us. So there is some wisdom in faith that others don't appear to have kept when they threw out the "spooky other beings" (I accept that some atheists have, but statistically...). Although of course as you might have guessed from my other posts I don't really see God as a "spooky other being"!

  3. I'm not disputing many churches do a lot of good. But the balance of good and harm for many religions isn't so clear - I think good old CofE is an exception. But how genuine is the holding of a faith in a God that many think is not there,or needn't be there, for the faith to do good? Is it really honest?

    In this post I go over the view of Dan Dennett on this type of belief.

  4. I was arguing more that church goers do good apart from their churches. That Christians do more good in the world than atheists, and then seeing in that some hint of the existence of God.

    If you get onto the harm that religion has done that is an entirely different matter! Religions are the human organisations that are set up to uphold the faith tradition and they get it wrong - badly so sometimes. However, I don't think it is fair to criticise the scientific method because there are "scientists" out there who abuse it, so too blaming God for the behaviour of "bad" Christians isn't fair either!

    I will comment on your post over there!

  5. Hi Alan,

    I can accept most of you're first paragraph, if the data supports it. And if it does, then fair enough, believers are nicer than atheists.

    "then seeing in that some hint of the existence of God." - No way! If the evidence supporting the case that believers are nicer exists, then that's all it shows. Nothing more.

    No atheist disputes the fact that atheist can do harm, as can scientists, or anyone from any walk of life. Atheists usually only bring up the bad done in the name of religion when being told that the religious do good, as if that has some implication for the truth of the belief; i.e. if good religious deeds are evidence for God, then bad deeds are evidence against. You can't say that the good deeds count as evidence for and the bad deeds are just down to human nature - the good deeds are down to human nature too, not down to God.

  6. There is never going to be the kind of evidence that you are looking for - that is why hints and nudges are all that we have to go on.

    Where is the atheist Gandhi or Martin Luther King? Genuine question - they might exist, but I can't think of them.

    You will accuse me of circular argument (although "by their fruits shall you know them" comes to mind) but I would want to argue that the really bad cases might have thought that they were doing God's will, but weren't.

  7. Hi Alan,

    "There is never going to be the kind of evidence that you are looking for" - Probably right. That's why I think there's no mileage in the God hypothesis.

    "that is why hints and nudges are all that we have to go on" - We don't accept that for mundane stuff, like whether homeopathy works (well, some do, and that's the problem), so why should we make do for the big questions?

    Atheist Gandhi or Martin Luther King? - Other than the religious association, what precisely do these two have in common that you are looking for?

    "I would want to argue that the really bad cases might have thought that they were doing God's will, but weren't." - And I'd want to argue the same for the good cases.

  8. My use of Godel was to suggest that there are true things which science can't prove. If you are happy to live only with what science can prove that is fine, but I'm not.

    The difference is that homeopathy is open to scientific experiment. As we have discussed faith isn't.

    I am looking for atheists who have made a significant positive contribution to the world. It is one of my "hints".

    I said you would :)

  9. Hi Alan,

    MLK is a genuine exception, but his role as a religious leader, his oratory skills honed preaching, his time, place and colour all conspired to form the legend. But no less a contribution was the opposition of the right wing religious white supremists, the racism that is more prominant in the ignorant uneducated, the same as the more conservative religious base, so I guess religion made him, in sense. MLK's contribution was great, and it moved a lot of black Americans. But he had plenty of liberal white support, so maybe the religious aspect was incidental. Guess you can reconstruct this either way - unless we do serious historical analysis.

    Ghandi is a leader of religion who has the advantage of not only being genuinely wise, but also not so wise - hence his 'racist' bloopers.

    I don't think you're going to find the type of atheist you're looking for - atheists tend not to be charismatic leaders of religious groups, not generally wanting to dictate what others should believe, not particularly wanting to evangelize. On the other hand you won't find many great religious leaders either.

    And I'm not sure what's so great about the fact that someone is a leader of many of the faithful. The gullible are easy to lead, no? How many Roman Catholics are there? Are all the Popes great leaders worthy of acclaim? So, I'm not sure what your hint is going to tell you - that religious leaders take advantage of the gullible more than atheists do?

    Rather than looking for hints and nudges that confirm what you want to find, wouldn't it be better to define what it is you think is worth looking for, defining parameters, then looking for statistical evidence to support of falsify you hypothesis - in other words, evidence rather than anecdote?

  10. Where I am coming from is that to make the kind of change that MLK or Gandhi made you have to be prepared for self sacrifice (after all both were assassinated) and it is perhaps more likely that this level of self sacrifice will come from those of faith. The argument that people of faith believe that their faith calls them to do things which they wouldn't choose - ordination is a good example, most priests I know ran from it for a good while - argues against your "it is what they would do anyway".

    The reason for looking for hints and nudges is that I do not believe that there is scientific proof - and its presence would negate our free will anyway.

  11. I hadn't realised it was part of their career plan. Does this measure of self-sacrifice apply to every assassinated crime boss, every suicide bomber; is it that worthy a measure? Do all crooks choose to be caught and sent to jail? Is having a hard time a worthy measure?

    I don't think there's any proof or evidence, scientific, common sense, or any indication, nudge or hint that doesn't have a simpler explanation.

    What free will? Are you sure we have it?

  12. lol :)

    OK - suicide bombers are a problem, but I don't believe that your other examples believe that it is going to happen to them. As for the suicide bombers - they have that level of faith - but in something that I would describe as wrong (try thou shalt not commit murder?).

    So what is the simpler explanation?

    Don't you believe in free will?

  13. Hi Alan,

    You'd have to give me something specific for me to think about and offer a simpler explanation.

    It's at least debatable whether we have free will. We certainly can't demonstrate that we have, and there are explanations that suggest we haven't.

  14. OK. What is the simpler explanation of the fact that we cannot find non religious people who initiate the kind of change MLK and Gandhi did?

    Your comment "All organisms tend to avoid self harm" from your quoted post suggests that once they knew that they were at risk from their activity then they should have stopped.

    OK - do you live your life as though you think you have free will?

  15. What "kind of change" do you mean? One contributed to anti-discrimination in a political democracy where though everyone was supposedly free and equal, in practice they were not, and this was based on the colour of their skin. The other was political change that lead to independence of a nation that was still goverened by another. It's still not clear what the distinction is that you're asking for.

    There are two elements that I suppose you might have picked up on: their religion and their non-violence. Is it this combination that you are referring to "we cannot find non religious people who initiate the kind of change" - i.e. do you mean religiously driven change, or non-violent change, or religious non-violent change?

    What are you really asking?

  16. "organisms tend to avoid self harm"

    Well, they generally do. But humans seem to be capable of convincing themselves of actions that don't have an immediate benefit, and that are not necessarily beneficial to the individual, probably through the foresight and planning features of the human brain that allow us to see benefit in future results and to see benefit to potential self sacrifice. This isn't a perculiarly religious trait.

  17. "OK - do you live your life as though you think you have free will?"

    Yes, because it looks like that's what we evolved to do. The fact that it's how we naturally see the world explains why it's so difficult to see the alternative. But we also have the natural instinct to see agency where there is no agency. We seem also to be biased towards false positives when seeing dangers - e.g. momentarily thinking a stick is a snake is safer than thinking a snake is a stick. There are all sorts of things that the brain does that seem geared to efficient action at the expense of regular precision - there are computational ideas about the brain that suggest it works on a statistical basis when making judgements; or that it takes short cuts and works in an efficient manner that doesn't reflect reality.

    We sometimes do this conciously too: instead of looking up a destination on a map we'll often go with our current impression of where it might be and use trial and error when we get there; in science we'll often use simpler linear approximations to non-linear problems because it gives and answer that's close enough.

    So there are characteristics of the brain that make us act 'as if' one thing pertains when in fact it doesn't. As we examine the actions of the brain further, we find more and more examples of how it doesn't quite give us the correct view of reality we once thought it did.

    The fact that the loss of one misunderstanding, free will, might cause a problem for another, agent God, isn't a good enough reason to object to it - i.e. because it doesn't suit.

  18. You say that ignoring it ("organisms tend to avoid self harm") isn't a peculiarly religious trait - but haven't found non religious people who do it, whereas there are plenty of religious people who have (though I wouldn't support all of them at all).

    You might argue that this isn't a positive trait - though you seem to accept that it is. Where are the atheist self sacrificers?

  19. I am looking at change to benefit others at the risk to self. I could then add Archbishop Oscar Romero to the list.

  20. I think that religion has loss of free will pretty much covered - just I don't subscribe to those doctrines!

  21. Why I don't agree with that piece by Ayala:

  22. "Where are the atheist self sacrificers?"

    Any atheist that fought on the side of communism in any of the communist revolutions, or against the Nazis in WWII.

    I will agree that there is a tendency for the religious to give up their lives more easily, or at least are more easily persuaded to do so. What is that telling us do you think?

  23. Predestination - Another theological hypothesis. But like all the others it requires a God to begin with, and like all the others it can be made to explain anything you wish; but without any evidence to back up those claims they are no more meaningful that Russell's Teapot.

    You don't subscribe? That's the issue isn't it. It's all voluntary subscription, just like any magazine subscription, to whatever you fancy, without any regard for the journalistic integrity of the content just as long as it affirms what you want it to.

  24. "You might argue that this isn't a positive trait - though you seem to accept that it is." - It can be. That's a subjective matter - whose side they're on, what their cause is. Whether they are religious or not is neither here nor there.

  25. As an over 40 atheist... I risked my life...:
    "As an over 40 atheist... In the Marines I served my country in war time. I risked my life to ensure that people like Sarah Palin have the freedom to stand up and tell the world that I am 'un-American', that I am 'un-Patriotic' and that I am immoral because I’m an Atheist."

  26. I would perhaps be happier with the use of people like Bertrand Russell who were Conscientious Objectors! WWII had so much pressure on people to go and there was so much propaganda encouraging them to. As for Spain - I don't know what you think of communism, but it strikes me that it has many of the elements of religion that you object to.

    The video is awful, but I am against all forms of coercive religion - I do not really consider that religion. For me religion is about finding our own way of living. Jesus talked about the truth setting us free and living life in all its fullness. As +Alan said "Christian faith was a process of personal, spiritual and social renewal, more like a fire than an object or a doctrine.". I see my role as helping people to to discover that for themselves - not to teach them the dogmas. This is best done in community - which is what a church should be - and it will be a coalition of those with many different opinions.



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