Is Religion Good?

The Library at Alexandria: Hours, M-Th 9 am - 4 pm

You can vote on the question today at the Center for Inquiry website. That’s right, the people who offered you Blasphemy day and the Cartoon Cavalcade and the Campaign for Free Expression now want you to “take” a quiz! It’s simple: don’t do any research. Go with your gut:

On balance, is religion beneficial for humanity?

* Yes, definitely.
* Yes, probably.
* Probably not.
* Definitely not.
* Don’t know/can’t answer

I avoid such surveys because like this one they are usually loaded dice, like the ones we will be treated to by CNN or MSNBC this week asking whether we think Christine O’Donnell is a good witch or a bad witch.

Christine O'Donnell

They create the illusion that Big Media care about what you think, when they don’t, or that you have something interesting to contribute to a controversial topic, when you haven’t.

As I read this little MCQ I recollected (or perhaps in Lockean terms “I associated it from”) my eleventh grade classroom, when a nun asked, sniffing the air, “Who farted?” There is something very funny about hearing a heavily habited woman say “fart.” So funny that six of us wanted to take credit. And there is something even funnier about six people wanting recognition for one small event, five eager boys and one dishonest girl flapping their hands just to be told to find a toilet.

It doesn’t matter a fart however whether you think religion is beneficial to humanity or not. It is like asking if Houyhnhnms are beneficial to Yahoos.

“Religion” (to use a term that has become categorical for superstition and stupidity in the CFI lexicon) and humanity are joined like horse and carriage. Beneficial, therefore, to the extent that you want to be driven forward in history

Can't have one without the other....

Most people would want to begin by saying that religions gave us, directly or indirectly, primitive science.

But that isn’t the only criterion for benefit: Whether we are talking about Sumer, Mohenjo Daro or the ancient Babylonians or Aztecs, early astronomy, calendars, mathematical notation, literacy in the form of liturgy and prayers, and myths–religion is there.

Mohenjo Daro, Sindh (Pakistan) 2600BCE

Religion gave us the primitive (“priestly”) elites that shaped and modified scrawls and pictures into more familiar writing systems. In the west, through the Scholae monasticae at Padua, Bologna, Oxford, and Paris, religious life was responsible for the first universities and the very development of what we now call scholarship: systematic study of individual subjects. Learning. From writing we developed a copyist tradition; that is how learning in all fields was mediated. It is true that monks prayed a lot. But it is also true that they copied everything. That is why we have it.

The forerunners of what would become the sciences, the arts, philosophy, serious astronomy, letters and music are grounded in ideas of mystery and dignity that came from religion and were mediated by its institutions–not by hermit atheists in the hills above Rome just waiting for their chance to be heard. We all moan (and should) at Galileo’s fate, but almost never recall his conviction that his “instrument” would be useful for biblical interpretation.

And it isn’t just the early and medieval west where religion was hitched to learning. In pre-Islamic India, Vedic culture raised the idea of reading and teaching to the highest rank among the Brahmins. Islamic culture took leaps ahead when it encountered their mathematics, art, political organization and architecture, beginning in the eighth century CE.

In the Islamic world, the original idea of the madrasah was similar: al Azhar (10th century), al-Qayrawan and Timbuktu produced seats of learning, where the idea of religious duty propelled the learning of secular subjects like botany, biology and medicine, not to mention technical subjects like engineering and hydraulics. The Qayrawan mosque held the most complete collection of treatises on botany in the ancient world–in four different languages.

In a positive way, religion fueled the renaissance with amazing works of psychology and devotion–Pico’s Oration, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hobbes’sLeviathan, More’s Utopia. Bacon wrote his Novum Organum, on scientific method, in 1620. Erasmus had published the first critical Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516. Both were made possible because the century prior to Erasmus, printing had become available throughout most of Europe. Newspapers, broadsides and Bibles were everywhere, on street-corners and in parish churches by 1611; but most people who wanted to know how to read learned to read the Bible. That is what German peasants and American slaves have in common.

Page from Gutenberg Bible, 1455

In a negative way, the creation of the printing press fueled the most important theological debates of the Reformation. At the long side of those debates, and also because of a pressing religious dilemma, a small edifice to learning was founded on the eastern shores of New England in 1636:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust. And as we were thinking and consulting how to effect this great work, it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard (a godly gentleman and a lover of learning, there living among us) to give the one-half of his estate (it being in all about £ 1,700) toward the erecting of a college, and all his library. After him, another gave £ 300; others after them cast in more; and the public hand of the state added the rest. The college was, by common consent, appointed to be at Cambridge (a place very pleasant and accommodate) and is called (according to the name of the first founder) Harvard College.

To be honest, I am flummoxed that any organization that thinks it has anything serious or interesting to say about religion or secularism can be so persistently ignorant, so unashamedly dumb about details. Is there a model of historical development that has been kept from us? One in which religion plays no “beneficial” role? Has the Spirit of Light been imprisoned by the forces of faith ere these many centuries?

Alas, that last question is not entirely facetious. A lot of atheists follow a strange line of historical progress:

Ancient stuff, whatever
Plato and Aristotle (secular humanists)
The Dark Ages (Library of Alexandria destroyed by drunken monks)
The Crusades (jury out: kept Muslims in their place)
The Inquisition (bloody horrible intolerant religion at work)
The Renaissance (not bad, but too much religious art)
The Reformation (the what?)
The Enlightenment (prisoners of conscience set free; America founded)
Darwin (messianic age begins)
Everything later,
Except 9/11 (more bloody horrible religion at work)

And, no, the library at Alexandria was not destroyed by drunken monks. You have three choices: (a) Julius Caesar in 48BC, who underestimated what the burning of the Egyptian fleet would mean to buildings close to the harbour of Alexandria; (b) the Christian bishop Theophilus, in the process of Christianizing a pagan temple to Serapis (the popular story told by Gibbon and ever after by everybody else); or (c) the Muslim caliph Omar in 640CE. Omar allegedly was provoked to to this when he said, “These [books at Alexandria] will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, whereby they are superfluous.” It comes as no surprise that the source of this information is the thoroughly despicable Christian bishop, Gregory bar Hebraeus, who spent most of his idle time making up nasty stories about Muslims.

It is not often you get a choice of religions to blame for the destruction of all the world’s learning, which, by the way, Alexandria certainly wasn’t.

My strong recommendation is that this be the topic of CFI’s next pop quiz:

Who do you think burned the Library at Alexandria? The only rule is, don’t consult any sources. Go with your gut.

138 thoughts on “Is Religion Good?

  1. This is an extraordinarily eloquent and phenomenally learned, entertaining and broad article. The eleven point parody of atheists is absolutely justified, and probably abysmally less burlesque than we’d like to believe.

    Is the world good? What an extraordinarily ignorant and ludicrous question for such an enormous human phenomenon – historically sensationally so significant – demanding similar ignorance and ludicrousy of their respondents. Who are their respondents – would not the majority be atheists? Aren’t we going to have a particularly biassed result? In any case, having used the convenience of market research interviewing as a means of survival during my first time as a student, and falling back on it thereafter to supplement irregular and meagre income from theatres, I have witnessed the fickle nature of human replies to such an array of possibilities. I’ve had respondents flip from ‘definitely’ liking chocolate icecream to ‘not particularly’ liking it (as much as strawberry). And that was only on Tuesday. What happened the next day? They ate the whole container and slid to not liking ice cream at all. Surveys might be interesting for discovering that as many Dutch Catholics used contraceptives as Protestants did in the 1960s, or discovering how many people would prefer wind power to coal, but this current question is perfectly pointlessly ridiculous. Perhaps the result will give the CFI the self assumed authority to be even more hostile towards religion. But the results will necessarily be based on gut ignorance, dumbness of detail…. “It is like asking if Houyhnhnms are beneficial to Yahoos.” It is as much fantasy as Gulliver.

    Brilliantly funny, detailed, knowledgeable, worldly and wise as usual…

    x

  2. I think the skeptic movement does a lot of good promoting specific causes such as teaching evolution in the schools and beating down hoaxes. It does a very poor job in carrying on the continuity of Western humanistic culture.

  3. RJH’s remarks are as always lucid, persuasive, excellent.
    The even wider answer to the question of course is this: It all depends which religion you’re talking about — or which sect — or which interpretation of which religion — or how tolerant such interpretations are of other interpretations and other religions. Thus the test of a religion lies outside it, in whatever moral principles we may find to be solidly based. A difficult moral question, but I for one do think there are objective moral values — which are the test and standard by which we must measure the different sects of different religions.

  4. Certainly well to remember what “religion” has contributed to humanity’s cultural and intellectual evolution. However, a more reasonable position seems to be to ask whether it’s well past its “best-before” date, the answer to which seems to be a resounding “yes” – you may wish to take a look at the Pew Forum “Landscape Survey” for the number of people – even the nominally religious, not just atheists – who agree with that assertion.

    To be using those contributions as some sort of “get-out-of-jail-free” card, or as a whitewashing brush, doesn’t look particularly credible or helpful. Rather like insisting that the early precursors to the human eye – as in planaria flatworms – should be the held up as the exemplar, as the sine qua non, of vision. Far more helpful, I think, would be to ask what elements of the religious “vision” might be worth retaining, and which elements should be thrown out with the bathwater.

    • Steersman, you said
      However, a more reasonable position seems to be to ask whether it’s well past its “best-before” date, the answer to which seems to be a resounding “yes” – you may wish to take a look at the Pew Forum “Landscape Survey”

      Well, I did look at the PEW report, as you suggested, and you seem to have badly overstated your case.
      This is what PEW actually said:

      In recent years, Pew Research surveys have found evidence of a gradual decline in religious commitment in the U.S. public as a whole.“. See here

      Moreover, most of the increase has been in the so-called ‘Nones’. Well, what do the ‘Nones’ believe? This is what PEW had to say:
      However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%).See here

      Moreover, 58% of the ‘Nones’ pray daily! Amazing.

      So, what does the American public predominantly think of religious institutions?
      88% – bring people together/strengthen community bonds,
      87% – play important role in helping poor and needy,
      78% – protect and strengthen morality.

      I think it is fair to say they overwhelmingly think religion is a good thing though one should note they are critical of some aspects of religion.

      I fail to detect a ‘resounding yes’ to religion being ‘well past its best-before date’.
      The truth, as usual, is a nuanced, complex thing that resists being reduced to simplistic sound bites. It is better to stick to the facts.

      • Peter:

        Perhaps you looked at a different report than the one I was referring to; try this one and note Question 39c on page 173 (print version):

        Religion causes more problems in society than it solves

        While I will concede that the 34% who “completely agree” or who “mostly agree” might not entirely support my “resounding yes” claim, I still think it rather significant.

      • Steersman, I gave the link to the PEW reports. Follow them to see that I quoted PEW verbatim.

        Turning now to the report you quoted, the sum of those that completely disagree and mostly disagree with the statement ‘Religion causes more problems in society than it solves’ is 62%. That is nearly twice the 34% on the other, negative side.

        Then compare that with 78 – 88% who say that religion has a valuable role (details above) and I think my conclusions stand.

        To see this in context one must understand that religion has been subjected to highly organized and sustained attacks by atheist fundamentalists.
        Atheist fundamentalists, such as Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, Harris, Hitchens and others have launched a tidal wave of highly public attacks on religion. Adding to this, the Catholic Church has been weathering its paedophile crisis, though will soon have its house in order.
        What is significant is that religion has weathered the storm of adverse publicity so well.

        Yes, the storm of adverse publicity has dented the public’s perceptions of religion. This mostly explains the figure of 34% that you quote. What is surprising is that 62% disagree. What we see at work here is the great resilience of religion in the face of persecution. And this is because religion does great good and meets important needs.

      • Peter:

        And this is because religion does great good and meets important needs.

        You mean, important needs like “the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience”? Bertrand Russell:

        The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists – that is why they invented hell.

        Really nice bunch of people.

      • Atheism wasn’t imagined before the evolution of charity and charitable organisations. “Atheists are in a difficult position. A lot of modern religion is progressive, ethical and socially responsible–not about “supernaturalism” or a tyrannical ancient God. Atheists, on the one hand, risk giving the impression that they are campaigning against compassion and basic human values, or on the other that they are in a fight to finish off a dinosaur that was killed by liberal theology while they were sleeping.” (Joe Hoffmann.) Not many evolved Christians belief in a literal hell. Religious people can be a ‘really nice bunch of people’ just as Bertrand Russell was a really nice person and deliciously and delightfully wise and witty and wonderful as well.

      • Steersman said “Really nice bunch of people

        Yes indeed, they are really nice. Your deliberate sarcasm missed the mark because you inadvertently stated the truth. As a practising and devout Catholic I can tell you that everywhere in the Church I meet people like that.

        But they are more than nice.
        They are compassionate and caring. In their own small way they try to make a difference and alleviate the pain and suffering around us. All around me I see people in the churches in my little city doing what they can. And this happens in every town and city across our country.

        Could we do more? Yes we could and should. I am sometimes ashamed that I don’t do more. Every Mass that I attend I hear exhortations to lead a moral life and do more to help others. All around me I see ordinary, fallible people trying to be extraordinary and do the extraordinary. Far more often than not we miss the mark but we keep trying. Becoming a better person is a long and arduous path with many mistakes along the way.

        I have given references to the great good that the Catholic Church does and, as the PEW survey shows, the American public recognises this. The comment by Obama is the most striking example of recognition of the work of the Church.

        Your reply is to ignore all these facts and to throw out some polemic from a religion hater. That is not at all a useful reply and it completely misses the mark, which is a shame, because there is room here for a sophisticated discussion.

      • steph:

        Atheism wasn’t imagined before the evolution of charity and charitable organisations

        That might be considered debatable:

        While the earliest-found usage of the term atheism is in 16th-century France, ideas that would be recognized today as atheistic are documented from the Vedic period [1700 to 1100 BCE] and the classical antiquity.

        Though it might be considered debatable when charitable organizations first showed up on the scene.

        A lot of modern religion is progressive, ethical and socially responsible ….

        And a lot of it – presumably at least some 33% of the US population based on various Pew surveys – is regressive, unethical and socially irresponsible – a set of attributes that encompasses no small part of Catholicism. If that weren’t the case then I expect that “New Atheism” wouldn’t be finding as much traction as it is.

        Atheists, on the one hand, risk giving the impression that they are campaigning against compassion and basic human values …

        I really don’t think there is much chance of that given that much of their criticism is predicated on a not insignificant degree of compassion for those who are literally brainwashed by fundamentalist religion, including much of Catholicism. You may wish to read, or re-read, the passages in Dawkins’ The God Delusion where he addresses that rather brute fact.

        … or on the other that they are in a fight to finish off a dinosaur that was killed by liberal theology while they were sleeping

        Certainly a dinosaur, but, considering things like the Dover trial and the ongoing efforts of fundamentalists to eviscerate the educational system over the teaching of evolution, I would say that that “dinosaur”, that “rough beast”, still has a problematic degree of life still left in it. But then again, I guess if one is isolated in some ivory tower one might not see or appreciate the consequences of its depredations, its rather notable savagery.

        Not many evolved Christians [believe] in a literal hell.

        Yea, well, when the Catholic Church actually repudiates much of its entire catechism, including its mumbo-jumbo about the Eucharist that it emphasizes in innumerable parishes across the land every Sunday, then I’ll consider that you might have a point there.

        Religious people can be a ‘really nice bunch of people’ ….

        No doubt. But when push comes to shove, when their religious precepts are called into question, the “religious” can be remarkably nasty. You may wish to consider the case of Jessica Ahlquist who was subjected to any number of insults – including death threats presumably from the compassionate, the ethical, the responsible Christian cohort – over her insistence that a prayer in a school contravened the principle of the separation of church and state. Yea – nice bunch of people.

      • Peter:

        Yes indeed, they are really nice.

        Yes – as long as you agree with their religious precepts. Not so nice otherwise – as mentioned previously, you make wish to consider the case of Jessica Ahlquist.

        But they are more than nice. They are compassionate and caring. ….

        Bully for them. When you can point to the Catholic Church repudiating much of their catechism then I might consider that there is some substance behind that claim.

        … because there is room here for a sophisticated discussion.

        Not until you – and Catholicism in general – considers the possibility that much of their catechism and dogma is little more than wishful thinking, moonshine, and a “childish dependence on improbable disruptions of natural law” – being charitable.

      • Steersman, you said “… consider the case of Jessica Ahlquist who was subjected to any number of insults” and followed up with the remark “Yea – nice bunch of people.

        Yes, I considered that case and saw that you very conveniently ignored this part of the link you referenced:
        Religious leaders from the Rhode Island State Council of Churches rallied to defend Ahlquist and condemn the language used to describe her.“, as you said, Yea – nice bunch of people.

        Now why would you ignore that?

        Hmm?

        Now why would you ignore all the great good done by the Catholic Church? I have listed some of it for your convenience! Did you even bother to read those links? (I doubt it) Are you congenitally incapable of recognising the good that people do?

        Hmm?

        Now why do you take the bad behaviour of a small minority and use that to smear religion in general?

        Hmm?

        Are you incapable of recognising that any human institution will have some bad people in it, doing bad things? (for example the sexual controversy at TAM) (or Clinton and Obama, for that matter)

        Hmm?

        Why are you so determined to take the behaviour of a few bad apples and smear the entire institution with it?

        Hmm?

        Would the answer perhaps be that you have allowed religious resentment to become such a powerful obsession that it distorts your judgement and clouds your ethical thinking?

        Hmm?

        I suspect this must be the case since you quote from Dawkins.

      • PCAWH:

        As Daffy Duck says, “despicable”. Although of course I don’t see that I qualify as that, at least not for being particularly dogmatic and ignorant which I’ve been arguing are the particularly problematic aspects of religion – which very few other than “New Atheists” seem to be willing to do much about.

      • Peter:

        Now why would you ignore that?

        Not really ignoring it, but the problem is the death threats, not that some religious leaders happen to speak out against them. You may wish to reflect on Pascal’s observation: “Men [and presumably women] never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”.

        Now why would you ignore all the great good done by the Catholic Church?

        As a matter of fact, I’ve acknowledged that “good” – being tempered by some questions about motivations and about who’s paying the freight – several times, here and on other posts, and have generally commended those who have done so. But, in passing, you haven’t acknowledged my list of “atheist charities”, nor conceded that your “big fat zero” was rather wide of the mark. However and more importantly, you have yet to address the argument implied in my quotes of T.H. Huxley, that the ignorance and claims to infallibility that are intrinsic to much of Catholicism qualifies as a not-insignificant source of evil in the world.

        Why are you so determined to take the behaviour of a few bad apples and smear the entire institution with it?

        Rather more than a “few bad apples” – you may wish to reflect also on the Church’s policies regarding stem-cell research, abortion, gay rights, the use of condoms and their preventing the spread of HIV in third-world countries, and the Adam-and-Eve myth – for starters – and consider what grief there might be that follows from them.

        Would the answer perhaps be that you have allowed religious resentment to become such a powerful obsession that it distorts your judgement and clouds your ethical thinking?

        Perhaps that “religious resentment” is predicated on some clear ethical thinking that it is egregiously wrong for the religious to impose their beliefs on defenseless children?

      • SM:

        Atheism wasn’t imagined before the evolution of charity and charitable organisations. Charity, care for the elderly and ill etcetera has been around since the origin of human community. Atheism as we know it today, ie a rejection of theism, to an ignorance of what ‘theism’ is when it is free from the ‘supernatural’, to just plain denial that anything other than conservative religion counts as religion at all, did not exist before the breaking of the Enlightenment and the achievements and advances made in the sciences. It was the Enlightenment that provided humanity with alternative ideas. Was Shakespeare an atheist? No. There was no atheism in Endymion. People who rejected the human imaginations of ‘God’ and organised religion, were still ‘theists’. Shakespeare had a caustic view of the Church and organised religion but his work is saturated with religious allusions, assumptions and imagery. In the same way ancients were accused of ‘atheism’, they were only rejecting the religion of the state. The world is not America. Time is too precious to reread Dawkins. I am sure you will contradict everything I have said as you contradicted everything Joe Hoffmann wrote in the quote I provided and everything I have said previously. You seem to be demonstrating the type of anti-religious new atheism you and I both deplore.

      • steph:

        Charity, care for the elderly and ill etcetera has been around since the origin of human community.

        Good point.

        Atheism as we know it today, ie a rejection of theism, to an ignorance of what ‘theism’ is when it is free from the ‘supernatural’, to just plain denial that anything other than conservative religion counts as religion at all, did not exist before the breaking of the Enlightenment and the achievements and advances made in the sciences ….

        I’ll concede that it is a least quite likely that “atheism” has evolved over the centuries. But I note again that the Wikipedia article on the topic talks of atheism having a lot longer pedigree than from the Enlightenment – in particular, I recollect seeing several ancient Greek philosophers rejecting the “supernatural” forms of then current gods. But maybe it is a question as to exactly what is encompassed by the term – rather like “feminism” which has, according to the same source, some 17 different “ideologies” that come in under that umbrella. In light of that limitation or source of confusion I tend to be skeptical about broad or categorical statements on such topics.

        Somewhat apropos of which, you may wish to peruse a recent article in The Week titled “Memo to Atheists: God’s not dead yet” which addresses, or at least raises, that issue, specifically the difference between a “ground of being” type concept of God – which isn’t particularly problematic in itself – and the anthropomorphic baggage that many insist has to be accepted with that concept – and which happens to be exceedingly problematic. A difference that even Dawkins has emphasized while making pretty much the same judgement:

        Nevertheless, I wish physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs, and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason. [The God Delusion; pg 41]

        Don’t think it helps either for many of the critics of the “New Atheism” to suggest that all New Atheists are unaware of that difference – which certainly looks like some political opportunism in at least some of the former.

        I am sure you will contradict everything I have said as you contradicted everything Joe Hoffmann wrote in the quote I provided and everything I have said previously. You seem to be demonstrating the type of anti-religious new atheism you and I both deplore.

        Not everything, as evidenced by my agreement with your first point. But I think it less a case of “contradicting everything Joe said” and more one of offering a different interpretation or perspective – presumably something permitted under the rules of civilized discourse which seems to be one of the watchwords in this neck of the woods – which you are at liberty to attempt to refute. Unless you expect it to be accepted as gospel truth.

        As for your “anti-religious new atheism”, I think that is a serious misjudgement or misreading of what I’ve been saying as I think I’ve provided explicit support here for that “metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists”, that “ground of being”, while explicitly rejecting the anthropomorphic and supernatural “baggage”. Something I’ve repeated in several comments in that “Memo to Atheists” article, not to mention on no few other sites.

        Really think it would help a lot if more people were to differentiate between those two aspects or definitions of “god” – and of complementary aspects of “New Atheism” – not least in forestalling some “bait-and-switch” tactics – getting agreement on “ground of being” concepts, and then switching it with egregious mumbo-jumbo; using the former as the thin-edge-of-the-wedge – by various religious fundamentalists.

      • Steersman, you said “Rather more than a “few bad apples”

        Really? You know this for a fact do you?
        What do you mean by ‘Rather more than a “few bad apples”‘?
        One or two more? Or a great deal more? The majority? The overwhelming majority?
        I am sure you must have checked your facts before you made your sweeping generalisation.

        Hmm?

        So why not share the facts with us and give us the numbers.
        What percentage bad apples are there?
        How do you know this? What are your data sources?

        Remembering of course that I am a Catholic and speak only for Catholicism. Which is fair enough because Catholicism is the largest single religious group.

        And while you are about it you might like to explain these findings from the PEW survey:
        88% – bring people together/strengthen community bonds,
        87% – play important role in helping poor and needy,
        78% – protect and strengthen morality.

        It would seem from these replies that the overwhelming majority of Americans have a strongly positive view of religion. Why do you think that is? It would seem that this is unambiguous evidence that the American public thinks the religion is good.

        I realise you belong to the 13% who don’t agree. Do you perhaps think that the opinions of your tiny 13% are somehow far more important than the 87% majority?

      • Steersman, you said “Perhaps that “religious resentment” is predicated on some clear ethical thinking that it is egregiously wrong for the religious to impose their beliefs on defenseless children?

        Gosh, what a strange statement. For 12 or so years, from the age of five, we adults impose our beliefs on defenseless children. It is called education and encompasses a wide variety of subjects. Yes, some people do actually believe our educational system is a cruel and unusual punishment(egregiously wrong?) but we persist with it knowing that it is ultimately good.

        No, wait, what you really mean is that religious people are not allowed to give their children a religious education. Why ever not? We educate our children in a great variety of subjects so why is religious instruction banned from the mix? Is it egregiously wrong to instruct our children in mathematics? No, you cry! Then why is it egregiously wrong to give to our children religious instruction?

        Your ‘clear ethical thinking‘ is anything but ethical or clear. This seems to be a clear case of religious resentment clouding both your judgement and your ethics.

      • Steersman, you said
        you have yet to address the argument implied in my quotes of T.H. Huxley, that the ignorance and claims to infallibility that are intrinsic to much of Catholicism qualifies as a not-insignificant source of evil in the world.

        Then don’t give me some vague, ephemeral implication that can’t be tested or examined.
        Rather give me the hard, specific facts, give me your data, give me your sources and show how Catholicism is ‘a not-insignificant source of evil in the world.

        I have given you the hard, specific facts that show the great good that Catholicism contributes to the world.
        It is time for you to stop implying and to start delivering real facts instead.

        Remember that I abandoned atheism and have spent the last five years in a Catholic community. I have seen first hand the great good that Catholicism does and I have completely and utterly failed to see any evil in what they do!!!! I have been able to see what really, actually happens on the ground. Perhaps you should take your nose out of Dawkins’ books and also see what really happens.

      • Peter:

        Gosh, what a strange statement. For 12 or so years, from the age of five, we adults impose our beliefs on defenseless children.

        I thought you might grab at that piece of straw. The point is that there is a very significant difference between the facts and theories and methods of science – of many different types, including that of history – and the dogmata and superstitions of “religion” and “Rules for Thinking with the Church”. Between facts such as that the Earth is not the center of the universe, that it wasn’t created 6,000 years ago, that species develop because of evolution not because of Jehovah’s whims; and egregious manifestations of barbarism and ignorance and superstition and savagery such as that the myth of Adam-and-Eve is literally true, that Jesus was resurrected and will come again biding his time in heaven with the rest of the “church triumphant”, that the saints are available – Dial-a-Saint – for intercession in our daily troubles.

        Looks to qualify as some highly questionable if not actually egregious intellectual dishonesty to fail to differentiate between, to conflate those two very different situations, those two entirely different kettles of fish. The first is education; the second is, purely and simply, brainwashing and the crippling of young minds.

      • SM – You claim you recollect seeing in your Wikipedia page that several ancient Greek philosophers reject the “supernatural” forms of then current gods. That is precisely my point. This does not equate with non theism and atheism of today. It is not a rejection of theistic ideas. As with Shakespeare they were sceptical and critical of current constructed religious views but this is not atheism or a rejection of living ‘religiously’ whatever that means. Most modern evolved Christians as well as observant Jews and Muslims living in integrated societies also reject the ‘supernatural’ in accordance with the evidence of science.

      • Steersman, I know you won’t turn a critical eye on your own beliefs. Why would you? You and the fundies–christian, atheist, whatever–are the wise ones.

        “which very few other than “New Atheists” seem to be willing to do much about”

        Really, mate?

      • PCAWH:

        Steersman, I know you won’t turn a critical eye on your own beliefs. Why would you? You and the fundies – Christian, atheist, whatever – are the wise ones.

        How do you reach that conclusion? Particularly as far as I’m concerned since, if I’m not mistaken, I’ve provided no small amount of factual evidence to support my arguments. But I wonder what other supposed “beliefs” of mine you might have in mind.

        “which very few other than “New Atheists” seem to be willing to do much about” Really, mate?

        I did say “seem” for a reason, that being that it is rather difficult to say precisely what are the religious beliefs of those “willing to do much about” the depredations of the religious. However, you might note that the Member Organizations and the Endorsing Organizations lists of the Secular Coalition for America – Dawkins is a board member – contains no few entries for those who are explicitly atheist. And you might note the issues they address.

        In addition, there is the Freedom From Religion Foundation who seem to appeal to those who are “free from religion” – a plausible definition or a reasonable facsimile thereof for atheists if I’m not mistaken – and who seem also to address a number of problematic issues related to “religion” riding roughshod over some rather important principles. Apropos of which, you may wish to peruse this list of some 20 cases where “Intelligent Design” proponents have attempted to gut the educational system.

        While it is maybe a moot point what percentage of those and similar organizations are explicitly atheist, although it seems a significant number are and a significant percentage of the balance implicitly so, it seems that support from “modern evolved Christian” groups is notable for its absence.

      • Steersman, you said:
        the second is, purely and simply, brainwashing and the crippling of young minds.

        I have found again and again that your extravagant hyperbole withers away when exposed to the clear spotlight of the facts. So let’s have a look at the facts and see whether young minds are crippled.

        Here, in my own country, the final school year matric results have just been published. Let us have a look at the crippling result of Catholic education, shall we?
        See this link
        78% – Overall, country wide pass rate,
        91% – Catholic schools pass rate.

        No evidence of crippled young minds here.
        But wait, this is not the USA, so let’s have a look at the USA, shall we?

        Catholic and other Christian schools top public schools in average ACT, SAT scores
        Lessons From Catholic Schools for Public Educators

        High attendance and performance
        Empirical evidence in the United States and Australia indicates that education performance and attendance are greater in Catholic schools in contrasts to its public counterparts. Evans and Schwab (1998) in their experiment found that attendance at Catholic schools in the United States increases the probability of completing high school or commencing college by 13%.[29] Similarly, an experiment conducted by Williams and Carpenter (1990) of Australia through comparing previous examination by private and public schools concluded that students in private education outperform those from government schools on all educational, social and economic indicators.[29]

        Source: Catholic School

        No evidence of crippled young minds here either.

        Finally, let us have a look at this comprehensive meta-study:
        Religion promotes self-control, health, well being and social behaviour
        That seems like another good reason for giving children religious instruction.

        You are fond of throwing around extravagant hyperbole and your latest one, “…crippling young minds” is just more of the same. The facts are in direct contradiction to your claims.

      • Steersman, you said:
        some highly questionable if not actually egregious intellectual dishonesty

        Be careful here. Extravagant ad hominems are invariably a sign that you are losing the argument.
        Shall we stick to the facts? Hmm?

        For example, while discussing religious instruction for children you drag in that hoary old chestnut about Ignatius Loyola’s ‘Rule’s for thinking with the Church’. Those 400 year old rules were part of an instruction manual(Spiritual Exercise) for Jesuit novitiates of that time. What on earth has that go to do with today’s religious instruction for children? Seriously, do you know of any child that is today schooled in those rules? I doubt that my parish priest even knows of the contents of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. If you like, I will ask him. It should be instructive.

        See what I mean about sticking to the facts?

        You should not be so quick to throw around accusations of intellectual dishonesty. Your accusation is apt to boomerang on you.

      • Peter:

        Let us have a look at the crippling result of Catholic education, shall we?

        Strain at the gnat and swallow the camel whole. I wasn’t referring exclusively to Catholics and was including, implicitly at least, the more traditionally fundamentalist where the problem is even more pronounced.

        However the point isn’t how good Catholics might do at biology or mathematics, but that when their talents in those or other areas conflict with Church dogma it is the former that comes out on the short end of the stick. One can have a crippled arm while still being able to run or even win the 100-yard dash.

      • http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/02/08/educating-children-catholic-schools-doing/

        Catholic schools for 75 years have outperformed schools in the public sector, and even though the schools are now almost 100% laicized, this is still the case. I hope you aren’t comparing “Christian Academies” and home schooling with a tradition in education that goes back to Monte Casino. The Catholic church was doing education long before state run schools were dreamt of. And in immigrant America is was the clear inferiority of a public school system that required boatloads of Irish. German and Italian monks and nuns to develop a school system in which dogma has always been the least part of the curriculum. Btw, it was simply called catechism. Don’t pronounce on such things until you read a bit more about the history of education in the United States or the history of education in general. Hell man, even Oxford and Cambridge were founded by wandering Franciscans who got tossed out of Paris.

      • Steersman, you said
        I wasn’t referring exclusively to Catholics and was including, implicitly at least, the more traditionally fundamentalist

        which of course was why you referred to Saint Ignatius Loyola in that comment. And you are the guy who so frequently throws out accusations of intellectual dishonesty.

        One can have a crippled arm while still being able to run or even win the 100-yard dash
        Your strained analogy stretches credulity beyond breaking point.

        You make this astonishing claim that we cripple young minds (without the slightest evidence, mind you). I reply with hard evidence showing that Catholic education outperforms state schooling across three widely separated continents and you counter with this lame(pardon the pun) analogy about winning the 100 yard sprint with a crippled arm.

        Ignoring for a moment your complete and utter lack of facts, have you ever tried a 100 yard sprint? I failed with only a broken thumb. Your ludicrous analogy fails on every count. You might as well have been using a prosthetic mind.

        You made an extreme and unsubstantiated claim that was easily shown to be false. No amount of analogies(lame, crippled or otherwise) can rescue your false claim. And in case you didn’t know it, the last time anyone made a practice of crippling minds it was called lobotomy.

      • Joseph:

        With all due respect, I think you and Peter and several others are badly missing the point. It isn’t the training in the sciences and the humanities that is the issue, but the literal brainwashing with supernatural mumbo-jumbo that permeates much of Catholicism and which has any number of pernicious consequences. It is maybe an extreme analogy – although the benefits of such seem to derive from the heightened contrast they provide – but I’m reminded of the scenes in the movie Slumdog Millionaire of gangsters “blinding children in order to make them more effective as singing beggars”:

        Not only are these children being forced to beg for money, but a significant number of those on the streets have had limbs forcibly amputated, or even acid poured into their eyes to blind them by gang masters. Those who are injured tend to make more money, which is why they are often abused in this way ….

        A crippling which is arguably not all that far removed from that intrinsic to Catholic and fundamentalist Christian dogma, a case in point being this Forbes article asking “Can [Catholic] Theology Evolve?”, the answer to which seems to be a resounding “Most emphatically not!” Requires a much longer view than I’m capable of to think that the consequences of such are outweighed by their supposed benefits.

        But considering that you wrote the Foreword to Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not A Muslim I would have thought that his quotation of Huxley – about “ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil” which I first saw there and which I’ve quoted several times here and elsewhere – might have had more influence on your opinions than it apparently has had.

        I seem to recollect that Barbara Tuchman quoted the aphorism that “To study history is to be blind in one eye, but to not study it is to be blind in both”. While I will readily admit, maybe in some contradistinction to some of my “brethren”, that the Catholic church and “religion” in general has made significant contributions – in the past – to humanity’s progress and evolution, one might suggest focusing on its current and future costs and whether it is largely past its “best-before” date. Though it is, of course, a moot point what might replace it, but it seems to be very much the question of the hour and of some urgency.

      • Peter:

        You make this astonishing claim that we cripple young minds (without the slightest evidence, mind you).

        Let me know when the Church admits that the Adam-and-Eve story is only a myth and then I’ll consider retracting that assertion. As for evidence you might actually try reading this Forbes article.

      • I probably shouldn’t but I’ll bite. SM, the Catholic Church of Aotearoa was the only church to oppose the marriage equality bill when it was passed by parliament. The leaders of the other churches in Aotearoa, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist etcetera were instrumental in getting the bill to parliament, and wrote a joint letter to the Catholic Bishops, criticising their opposition. The myth of Adam and Eve is mentioned in the letter by the Aotearoa church leaders. It is a myth and assumed to be a myth and taught as a myth in church as are other stories in the bible. This is the reference to Adam and Eve, originally penned by a lovely freethinking humanist I know, the Revd Glynn Cardy of St Matthews-in-the-City, Auckland :
        “The Adam and Eve text you refer to is a mythic story which has woman being fashioned from man’s rib. Historically it has not been interpreted as presuming the man will have only one wife. The text was used by Jesus to prohibit divorce, a position most churches have repudiated, but was not to promote a nuclear family of dad, one mum, and kids.” And here is a link to article and text and while you’re at it, you should take a tour round the website and read a few ‘sermons’. You might wake up to evolved post enlightenment Christianity. Naturally this is not a uniquely Kiwi or isolated experience. It is what today’s religious community teach (except the catholic bishops)
        http://stmatthews.org.nz/news.php?nid=260

      • S:

        You might try quoting exactly what you’re referring to. And letting out of moderation those comments that you are apparently referring to. At least for context if not courtesy.

        But I’m happy to see that other churches happen to be a little more rational about their mythology than the Catholic one is about the Adam-and-Eve myth. However, my criticism was directed at Peter and the Catholic Church. Although one might also wonder at what mythology is still accepted as gospel literal truth by the churches you referred to.

      • SM – When you say ‘the Church’, it implies an homogenous whole. If you are describing Catholic doctrine, your noun is insufficient without the epithet. Your overwhelming conviction that the modern Churches remain anachronistic biblical literalists would be proved wrong if only you took time to browse the website I gave you, read the results of research by Abby Day from Oxford, on modern belief, preparing yourself to be self critical instead of sarcastically throwing the bitter insinuation: ‘one might also wonder at what mythology is still accepted as gospel literal truth by the churches you referred to’. None steersman, none. No mythology is accepted as literal truth. Not even heaven, hell, resurrection, virgin births or biblical ‘God’ images let alone dreams and signs. I am becoming more convinced that you don’t want to know, and you will not explore beyond your own environment with an open mind. Modern churches do not teach ancient belief conflicting with scientific evidence as literal truth. The Bible is a collection of writings through history, read as stories, parables, ancient codes of living, and metaphor, and the modern Churches teach that, they teach that the BIble is a collection of ideas evolving through history in context.

      • Steersman,
        you made an extravagant claim that we (Roman Catholics) ‘cripple young minds’.
        I replied with clear evidence of the good results of Catholic education that spanned three continents and surpassed the results of state education.
        You replied with a really lame analogy about winning a 100 yard sprint with a crippled arm. It seemed you had briefly changed your claim from crippling a young mind to crippling a young arm!
        I pointed out the ludicrous nature of your analogy.

        I thought you would have the good sense to let matters rest but you repeat your unsupportable claim, again without evidence.

        Sigh, let’s spell out the obvious.

        Do you understand the meaning of the verb ‘cripple’? Let me paraphrase, it is to substantially harm something so that its core function is significantly impaired.

        Now let us apply this definition to a young mind, as you did. You claim that we substantially harm young minds so that their core function is significantly impaired. How are we to know this is true? Well that is simple, there is an easily observable and measurable outcome, core function is significantly impaired.

        Now here is the strange thing, we don’t observe significant impairment of the core function of their minds. Quite the reverse, the measurable outcomes suggest their minds are working rather nicely, thank you. In fact, if we really impaired young minds there would have been a world wide outcry and Catholic education would have been hastily disbanded. That has not happened and Catholic education is held up as a model of good education.

        For heaven’s sake, Steersman, stop beating a dead horse to death. You made an extravagant and patently untrue claim without the slightest shred of supporting evidence. It is time for you to retire gracefully from the field.

        Not that I expect you to. It is a trademark fundamentalist trait to make extravagant, unsupportable claims, advance them with wild rhetoric and beat down the sceptics with ad hominems such as ‘intellectual dishonesty’.

        And that is a shame, because this is the blog site of an eminent scholar where thoughtful discussion should be the norm.

        Can I suggest we move on to discussing RJH’s most excellent essay On Not Quite Believing In God. His references are worth reading too. I think we could have a really fruitful discussion there.

      • Peter:

        Steersman, you made an extravagant claim that we (Roman Catholics) ‘cripple young minds’.

        That you’re apparently unable or unwilling to address either my comment about the myth of Adam-and-Eve or Steph’s own comments thereon kind of proves my point. Although fundamentalist, evangelical Christians seem to be just as bad if not substantially worse.

      • S:

        When you say ‘the Church’, it implies an homogenous whole.

        I kind of thought capitalizing the word implied the Catholic church, but the context – me talking to Peter, a self-identifying Catholic, as well as a link to a discussion on Catholic theology – should have made it quite clear that I was referring to the Catholic church. But I see that several definitions suggest that the capitalization can imply other denominations so I might consider throwing in an adjective or two in the future – may even pay them extra.

        Your overwhelming conviction that the modern Churches remain anachronistic biblical literalists would be proved wrong ….

        And your evidence that that is the nature of my “conviction” is where? Seems to me that I’ve been rather circumspect – on a great many blogs, including Joseph’s (here for example) – in emphasizing the fact that not all Christian churches are crippled by the “monster of literalism”; the Canadian priestess Greta Vosper put it thusly a few years ago (something I’ve probably quoted several dozen times in half-as-many places):

        Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the [literal] word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are the ones who must throw that monster out with the bathwater. [MacLean’s, March 31, 2008]

        However, that a significant percentage of Muslims may be law-abiding citizens is hardly sufficient justification for turning a blind eye to the rather nitty-gritty fact that a not-insignificant percentage of them have a penchant for repudiating the principles of democracy, if not for being terrorists engaged in murder and mayhem; that most of us are law-abiding is hardly sufficient justification for closing-up all of the police stations.

        Similarly, you might want to note, as I’ve repeatedly indicated with my links to the Pew Forum study, that some 33% to 60% of Americans – and some 23% to 59% of American Catholics – are apparently rather committed to that literalism; while I’m certainly happy to note that St. Matthews count themselves among “Progressive Christians” and that they stood against the Catholic Church on the marriage issue, the point even there is that “Regressive Christians” are a “non-trivial” problem – doesn’t help at all to try to sweep that rather brute fact under the rug.

      • Steersman, my dear friend,
        may I suggest you take more seriously my invitation to discuss RJH’s essay, On Not Quite Believing In God. In his collection of good, entertaining and colourful essays this one stands out as truly excellent. It really repays careful reading. His essay about the Devil and Manichaeism is another good one and might be more to your taste.

        As for your remark about Adam and Eve, that is a classic attack by mis-direction. We often did that in the army. When we were taking strain in one sector we would launch a vigorous attack elsewhere in the hope it would divert attention. In your case, it is too little, too late and ill-conceived, your trenches have been overrun and the occupants bayoneted. Note well my deliberate use of metaphor based on a kernel of truth, to convey another truth.

        Did you know that the special claim to fame of English literature is our(the English speaking world) children’s literature? It is extraordinarily rich, compelling, entertaining and diverse. Here is the Telegraph’s list of 20 greatest children’s books. My list would look somewhat different but that is not important.

        I know from experience that young minds thrive on these stories, my children could not get enough of them. They became adept at distinguishing between metaphor and fact. They quickly understood the role of narrative in conveying useful moral instruction. They loved extending the stories in graphic and unxpected ways. Their minds became imaginative, flexible and creative. Their language skills increased by leaps and bounds, laying down a foundation that would serve them throughout life. Their reasoning skills improved likewise. The most important gift a parent can give his children is to take them on an extensive tour through our wonderful children’s literature. Their minds grow and flourish in this stimulating environment.

        My children loved the story of the three little pigs. The damage was not to their minds but to my lungs as I huffed and puffed to comical effect. One day I made the mistake of telling them there was a sequel to the Pied Piper of Hamelin (it only existed in my mind). For the next three months I was compelled to deliver the sequel, nightly, in installments. Today my grown children remember my extended story telling with great affection and admiration. No crippled minds here, they are now professionals with rewarding careers.

        Steersman, I urge you read the Harry Potter series. It is not too late to master some useful spells, they become very handy as one gets older. But never let on to those sterile thinkers, your humourless, unimaginative compatriots, the New Atheists. Your reputation would be irredeemably damaged.

      • Is steersman your real name? Or as you have done with Pancakes and Wild Honey, can we abbreviate with an acronym.

        Uh huh. Another tedious monologue, the continuing contradictions with no end. I’m surprised you seem to devote so much time to argument on the internet. Was there life for you before the internet. When you write a comment on the worldwide web, you are not only addressing Peter, but you are writing to the world. The world doesn’t know what you think about capitals or contexts.

        Your overwhelming conviction that the modern Churches remain anachronistic biblical literalists in anything at all, is demonstrated in your continual insinuations and bitter response ‘one might also wonder at what mythology is still accepted as gospel literal truth by the churches you referred’ a ‘question’ to which the answer is ‘no mythology is accepted as literal truth’. You seem oblivious the ‘secular Christianity’ which is modern evolved Christianity without ‘God’ demonstrated by modern evolved teachers today. Look up Lloyd Geering, a favourite contemporary ‘theologian’. He doesn’t believe in that old Christian God and all the biblical frills but he is a Christian teacher and no ‘atheist’.

        Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is just what Fungusmentalism does. I find your opinions about modern Muslims nauseating and racist. I have never disputed your claims about American Christianity.

      • S:

        Consider it a proxy for a real name, to be treated pretty much the same as yours. And you might note that Pancakesandwildhoney indicated to Joseph close to two weeks ago that he was ok with “PCAWH”, and that while I used the latter once or twice, maybe even three or four times, subsequently – not prior – I’ve also gone back to the full name.

        … to which the answer is ‘no mythology is accepted as literal truth’.

        You and Pancakesandwildhoney do seem to have some difficulty in recognizing that, as Joseph rather succinctly and cogently put it, “much of religion is plainly wrong and humanly injurious” – somewhat incongruous then that he should be asking “Is religion good?” But some might consider it somewhat problematic that he too is apparently willing to give that a pass for its supposed though highly dubious benefits.

        I find your opinions about modern Muslims nauseating and racist.

        Can’t really be considered “racist” since “Muslim” isn’t a race. And you might note the article on stereotypes which starts off with:

        A stereotype is a thought that may be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things. These thoughts or beliefs may or may not accurately reflect reality.

        Further – and apart from the fact, as I’ve emphasized in several places and in several ways, that “modern Muslisms” are less of a problem than those, close to a majority in the US, who are still stuck in the seventh century (I would recommend the gay Canadian Muslim (?) woman, Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today) – you may also wish to note these observation from Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not A Muslim [Foreword by one R. Joseph Hoffmann, so it’s not like I’m quoting anathametized or proscribed texts], specifically his Chapter 7; Is Islam Compatible with Democracy and Human Rights?, and subsection “Why Islam Is Incompatible with Democracy and Human Rights”:

        I propose to examine Ann Elizabeth Mayer’s Islam and Human Rights. This is a very important book on Islam, and even though I have one fundamental reservation about her book – to which I shall refer later – I find her analysis excellent and very persuasive. Ms. Mayer shows with the utmost clarity how in various Islamic human rights schemes, “distinctive Islamic [my emphasis] criteria” have been used to cut back on the freedoms guaranteed in international law, how for many Muslims the international guarantees exceed the limits of rights and freedoms permitted in Islam. Ms. Mayer also shows how the official Islamization programs in, especially, the Sudan, Pakistan, and Iran, have led to serious violations of the human rights of women, non-Muslims, the Baha’i, the Ahmadis, and other religious minorities. In these countries Islamization “did much to eliminate due process, to erode the independence of the judiciary, to place legal proceedings under the control of political leaders, and to convert courts into instruments of repression and intimidation. Thus, in all three countries Islamization became associated with a decline in the quality of the administration of justice.”

        Warraq’s conclusion for the chapter:

        The major obstacle in Islam to any move toward international human rights is God, or to put it more precisely, in the words of Hurgronje, it is the reverence for the sources, the Koran and the Sunna. In the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR), we are told that it is Divine Revelation that has given “the legal and moral framework within which to establish and regulate human institutions and relationships.” The authors of the UIDHR belittle human reason, which is deemed to be an inadequate guide in the affairs of mankind, and they insist that the “teachings of Islam represent the quintessence of Divine guidance in its final and perfect form.”

        My “repudiating the principles of democracy” hardly looks like much of a stereotype to me, much less an inapplicable one.

      • Congratulations… Such a funny precocious and yet such a predictable lad you are. I knew you’d reply but you’re so fast and efficient – just like one minute noodles. You’re on the internet poised to contradict. I am well aware of Joe’s positive opinion of acronyms for pseudonyms and both sweet Pancakes and I agree. You pedantic ‘offence’ is quaint. You pick and choose and yet it is you who have difficulty recognising that what I have said about evolved religious practice does not contradict the observation that “much of religion is plainly wrong and humanly injurious” – it is the religion that is unevolved – and often ‘devolved’ – and stuck in the past and predominates in America. Such ‘doctrine’ especially as humanity ‘born in sin’ and belief in ‘hell’ and much more.

        Of course I know Islam is worldwide but the practised type you entertain as representative is observed by people of particular origin. I am sure you’re friendly with Pakistani atheists etcetera but that is not the point. Nevertheless it is amusing you choose to ignore it.

        … and then you go on and on and on and on and on forever and ever and I’m quite bored and have other places to be and real responsibilities. So do you surely.

  5. RJH has looked at the past but the best answers come from the present.
    See for example my G+ postings here:
    Obama says churches do more
    Religion promotes self-control, health, well being and social behaviour
    Missionvale Care Center
    Catholic and other Christian schools top public schools in average ACT, SAT scores
    Lessons From Catholic Schools for Public Educators
    Decline in religious belief correlates with increasing income disparity

    Or you could try asking the large numbers of people at our soup kitchens, medical clinics, hospices and aid distribution centers. You could try asking the school children that we aid with books, furniture and classroom renovation projects.

    Finally you might ask how many schools are run by atheists, how many hospitals are run by atheists, how many clinics are run by atheists, how many universities are run by atheists, or for that matter, how many soup kitchens are run by atheists. The answer(no surprise) is close to a big fat Zero.

    • Peter will enjoy that whenI first expounded on this issue at the Center for Inquiry, a “leading” secular humanist organization, their immediate response was to organize a sort of atheist equivalent of Catholic Relief Services–this being hurricane Katrina days. Their choice of name for the new initiative however was…infelicitous: CFI CARE, and the result proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that in general atheists are both uncaring and stingy.

      • Comparing the charitable works of faith-based vs. atheist orgs is uninformative:
        1) Orgs like CfI never claimed or intended to be charitable. They have a narrow mission: to promote skeptical thought;

        2) While believers do charity as believers, the non-religious do it as people. My father serves on the board of the local (secular) food bank; I do a lot of pro bono work for regional (secular) animal rescue groups. I can’t imagine the point in forming atheist food banks or atheist no-kill shelters;

        3) One thing all those very happy, very non-religious countries have in common are extensive, government-run social service networks. The alternative — minimal social services augmented by a thousand points of light — is markedly less effective in alleviating suffering.

        I accept that religious orgs do considerable charitable work. But as government or private secular entities can do the same work just as well or better, religion is redundant in this area.

      • Matt,
        I can’t imagine the point in forming atheist food banks or atheist no-kill shelters;

        And yet atheist organizations put considerable effort into attacking religion and attacking manifestations of religion.
        I find this very revealing of who you are, your effort goes into mean spirited attacks while our effort is directed to compassionate ends. How about turning that organization and talent to compassionate purposes?

        There is a vast world of suffering out there and we need all the help we can get. So why not drop the mean spirited attacks and join us in our compassionate work. This is where the real need is and we would welcome your help.

        government or private secular entities can do the same work just as well or better

        But do they? I have already quoted Obama to you. As I have noted before, you have this remarkable facility for ignoring evidence you don’t like. Obama should know since he spent some time doing social work in Chicago and he had direct experience of working with the Catholic Church.

        In any case the need far outstrips the resources. We need to involve as many as possible. We cooperate with private and governmental organizations and welcome their participation. Believe me, the suffering don’t care what ideological label is on the aid parcel.

        Which reminds me, you have failed to reply to my comments about your awful Stats 101 blooper correlation. You have failed to reply to the good peer reviewed studies I provided. You continue with your false assertions and blithely ignore the countervailing evidence.

        Why is that?

    • I have no idea what personal ideas on the meaning of life are held by leaders of hospitals, ‘clinics’ (of whatever), universities or soup kitchens. In Australia, UK and New Zealand they are not part of the job description because it is irrelevant. Society is secular. THe countries are run by secular governments, neither ‘religious’ nor ‘atheist’. The individual members of parliament contribute to society despite race or creed or sex or ‘sexual orientation’. WHen I was at Nottingham all I know was that the vice chancellor wasn’t ‘religious’. Neither was the VC of either Victoria or Massey, two universities I studies at in Aotearoa. I have a cousin who was the head of Queens Hospital in Nottingham and he was a self identifying ‘atheist’ (ie he didn’t believe in the biblical god ideas). Let’s see, Dr Bird who runs a women’s clinic at Wellington hospital, was quite a religious atheist and outspoken on matters like abortion. WHen I was at teachers’ college students were generally silently non religious – ie they had never believed and were not opposed to religion as practised in a moderate form because it was not shoved in their face by society, education or government which are all completely agnostic as personal belief is personal and irrelevant. Morality is human law, and conscience. We all hopefully have our codes for living well together. But whether or not is a religiously based code or not is not the difference between good and bad. People are people have independent self critical minds. If they don’t, they tend not to be ‘good’. I know the council have facilities for approaching poverty here in Napier and I wouldn’t have a clue if they’re theists or not. They’ll be far too busy with public weekend activities to attend church. Where do you get your “big fat Zero” and what is your evidence apart from hearsay?

      • Steph, thanks for your interesting reply.
        On re-reading my comment I realize that I should have been more explicit. I was not talking about atheist individuals, or religious individuals. As you said, they are to be found everywhere. I was talking about atheist and religious organizations, not individuals. I’m sorry if I confused you with my loose use of terminology.

        Religious organizations (and notably the Catholic Church) are active in running hospitals, clinics, schools, aid projects, etc. My point is that religious organizations do a great deal of good. This is in answer to the question – is religion good?

        I contrasted the great good done by religious organizations with the paucity of activity on the part of atheist organizations, hence my claim ‘close to a big fat Zero’. You ask for the evidence. Well, that is easy, all you have to do is go to the many web sites of atheist/humanist organizations and look for evidence of welfare charitable work. Try it, you won’t find much. What you will find is an overwhelming obsession with attacking religion and hardly any concern with helping the suffering, needy and underprivileged.

        You may reply that there are a great many ‘secular’ organizations doing a large amount of charitable work, and this is quite true. But you must be careful with the word ‘secular’. Secular does not mean atheist, it means organized in an inclusive way that admits all belief systems, giving none any preference. So, for example, our city government is, by this definition, secular and it has a programme of charitable aid. We have numerous secular(using my definition) service organizations doing the most admirable work to aid the needy. These secular organizations are, for the most part, populated by people of all belief systems. But they are not atheist organizations.

      • No I wouldn’t suggest ‘secular organisations’ are doing charitable work. I would suggest ‘organisations’ are doing charitable work. I know that secular is not ‘atheist’ or ‘religious’. But I understand now that you were talking about organisations operating under ‘atheist’ umbrellas. They leak, you know, they’re so holy, those fundamentalist atheist umbrellas. Ironic really. The religious umbrellas can’t be holy enough… because they’re being human and kind perhaps.

    • Peter:

      Doctors Without Borders seems to be an entirely secular if not atheist charity. And this Non-Prophet Week article describes “the annual charity week for the irreligious in the United Kingdom”. And this list of secularist organizations provides links to other similar charitable efforts. Long ways away from a “zero”, fat or otherwise.

      But while one can certainly commend the religious for whatever empathy, compassion and “fellow-feeling” that those charitable works might entail or be motivated by – motivations that I rather doubt are unique to the religious much less to Christians, one has to, I think, consider what the true costs of those “charitable works” really are – even apart from the $82 billion dollars the American government gives to religious organizations in the way of tax-breaks and subsidies. And while I guess that many might think that all of the examples you listed are worth their “souls”, it seems that a great many others don’t. Apropos of which is Joseph’s recent quotation of Diderot:

      The priest’s system is a tissue of absurdities and by it he secretly maintains ignorance; reason is the enemy of faith, and faith is the foundation of the priest’s position.

      And, speaking of the religious maintenance and promotion of ignorance, there is always the insightful T.H. Huxley:

      For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols. Of infallibility, in all shapes, lay or clerical, it is needful to iterate with more than Catonic pertinacity, Delenda est. — T. H. Huxley, Science and Hebrew Tradition.

      All very well to tout the charitable works that the religious perform – even if such acts might be exacted under the threat of eternal damnation. But quite another to use them as some kind of a whitewash of the very pernicious and problematic consequences of their beliefs, and their imposition of them on others – beliefs that generally manifest little more than a “childish dependence on improbable disruptions of natural law”.

      • Steersman,
        let me reply by repeating what I said to steph:

        But you must be careful with the word ‘secular’. Secular does not mean atheist, it means organized in an inclusive way that admits all belief systems, giving none any preference. So, for example, our city government is, by this definition, secular and it has a programme of charitable aid. We have numerous secular(using my definition) service organizations doing the most admirable work to aid the needy. These secular organizations are, for the most part, populated by people of all belief systems. But they are not atheist organizations.

        As for the rest of your shop-worn accusations, let me repeat what I said earlier in reply to you:

        So, what does the American public predominantly think of religious institutions?
        88% – bring people together/strengthen community bonds,
        87% – play important role in helping poor and needy,
        78% – protect and strengthen morality.

        I think it is fair to say they overwhelmingly think religion is a good thing though one should note they are critical of some aspects of religion.

        I fail to detect a ‘resounding yes’ to religion being ‘well past its best-before date’.
        The truth, as usual, is a nuanced, complex thing that resists being reduced to simplistic sound bites. It is better to stick to the facts.

        I think their opinion carries considerably more weight than that of an atheist suffering from religious resentment.

  6. Steersman, all you’ve done on this thread and others is attempt to confirm your own opinions rather than get at truth. Where is your Platonic spirit of inquiry? If the evidence/argument does not fit with your opinion, you conveniently omit it, as Peter highlighted above, or you just dismiss it out-of-hand by changing the subject or attacking a straw man. For instance, you’ve been going on about how bad Catholic education is in America and worldwide, on this thread and others, when Peter and Joe demonstrated that, in fact, the opposite is true, you claimed you were talking about homeschooling and the like. I mean, really, man?

    However, I do think some aspects of your argument have merit, but, on the whole, your argument here is very weak. In fact, one might say it is both counter realistic and counter historical. The most sensible response to Joe’s question is Joe’s answer: “Yes, no…sometimes.” But you can’t even concede that. For you, religion must be wholly bad. I try not to deal wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. For you, though, it seems everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to some rather primitive modes of thought. And, in fact, your somewhat silly positioning of the debate here is, basically, an old, religious one known as: The War between Good and Evil. The problem is that both sides to it are caricatures.

    NA is a dogmatism without appeal. It’s someone who sees themselves as the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. It seems you have a desire, in the words of Rousseau, “to force men to be free.” I think that sort of mindset is a similar sort of dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene, unshakeable conviction in the minds of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose. The notion that, as Kant argued, a rational judge, can discipline me, because I am irrational and some rational person must “teach” me to act, properly, that I am not capable of self-direction like an idiot, a child, or a savage.

    But, you see, I don’t buy into final solutions, be they from divine messages or the pronouncements of history or science or the mind of an individual thinker, because I think conflict of values is an intrinsic, irremovable element of human life. Existence, to contradict Hegel and Marx, is a metaphysical chimera. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. In truth, I suppose I have little use for your naive belief in human progress. Of course, if nature is truly blind and pointless, then your naive belief in human progress seems absurd, right? It would require that man take on this sacral ultimacy and absoluteness, and see himself as free and wise, as the Promethean godlet who can control history for his own ends in order to create meaning and value ex nihilo out of the blindness of process. Such a pessimistic view of being and optimistic view of man, is self-contradictory and unempirical, and thus doomed to collapse at the slightest breath of reality.

    • This is an impressive reply with so many themes that I can only comment on some.
      You say:
      For you, though, it seems everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to some rather primitive modes of thought.

      Yes, I agree that a naive certainty of rightness is at the heart of the problem. It is a certainty that is predicated on another certainty, that the thinker has all the facts and has sufficiently powerful reasoning to make an authoritative judgement.

      Why do we become so certain? I think it is in part because we naturally reduce the chaos of our observations to an internal model. This internal model is a simplified view of the world, containing, we hope, its’ essential characteristics while discarding the irrelevant. Some people contain small and rigid models with the result that their observations of the world must be forced into an inadequate model. Attempts to do so introduces cognitive dissonance. This cognitive dissonance surfaces as hostility and polarization. Other’s have larger and more flexible models that can more readily accommodate new knowledge or experiences. They are ready to build on or extend the models. Thus they experience less cognitive dissonance and are more open to other points of view.

      Quite why some people have restricted model building capabilities I can’t say. But it appears to me that effective model builders have have a good appreciation for metaphor, poetry and narrative. This allows them to perceive reality in richer, more varied detail. It is as if they have colour vision while small model builders can only see in monochrome and are even unaware of what they do not see.

      Models are not static things, they change as we alter our perspective and new vistas are revealed. We must consciously change our perspective or we will not see the new vistas. This lesson was brought home to me by my beloved mountain hiking. As I look up the mountain slope I experience doubt. What is the right line? How will I get up there? So I move and climb higher. As I do so, new folds, peaks and valleys come into view and are revealed. In them I see new lines and new opportunities. As I climb my perspective changes, my view of the mountain becomes more complete, I understand it better and finally I choose the line that will take me to the top. Sometimes I choose a bad line and must retreat or deviate. The key here is to keep moving and discover new vistas so that finally the right line to the top is found. I love my mountains, they are a living metaphor for much of life, in so many different ways.

    • Pancakesandwildhoney

      For you, religion must be wholly bad. I try not to deal wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites.

      You can’t be reading what I’ve written very closely if that’s what you think as I’ve quite clearly, and in any number of posts, conceded some value in various aspects of “religion”.

      … because I think conflict of values is an intrinsic, irremovable element of human life.

      Quite likely. But that doesn’t mean “we” should argue simply for the sport of it – otherwise we would still be debating whether the Earth or the Sun was the center of the solar system at least (technically neither as both rotate, more or less, about a common center of gravity).

      Of course, if nature is truly blind and pointless, then your naive belief in human progress seems absurd, right?

      Pray tell, where have I said that “nature is truly blind and pointless”??? As for “naïve belief in human progress”, you may wish to peruse John Paul’s letter that was referenced in that Forbes article, a salient statement in which is this:

      For the impact each [religion and science] has, and will continue to have, on the course of civilization and on the world itself, cannot be overestimated, and there is so much that each can offer the other. There is, of course, the vision of the unity of all things and all peoples in Christ, who is active and present with us in our daily lives – in our struggles, our sufferings, our joys and in our searchings – and who is the focus of the Church’s life and witness. This vision carries with it into the larger community a deep reverence for all that is, a hope and assurance that the fragile goodness, beauty and life we see in the universe is moving towards a completion and fulfilment which will not be over-whelmed by the forces of dissolution and death. This vision also provides a strong support for the values which are emerging both from our knowledge and appreciation of creation and of ourselves as the products, knowers and stewards of creation.

      A “naïve belief in human progress” or a manifestation of that “vision” which I’ve argued, in several places, is one of the few redeeming aspects of “religion” in general and of Catholicism in particular?

      Although that Catholicism still insists on some literal truth to its founding mythologies is, arguably, a seriously fatal flaw in its vision. Moot point whether it will correct that before the judgement of history puts it in its dustbin along with beliefs in Ahura Mazda and Zeus.

      • Steersman,

        Have you conceded there is some value, perhaps more than you would care to admit, in religion? Great, but what are you going on about then? Fundamentalism? Why? We agree with you on the dangers of fundamentalism, which, in point of fact, is why myself and, I would imagine Joe, keep telling the NAs to grab a mirror.

        “that doesn’t mean “we” should argue simply for the sport of it”

        No, Steersman, it means that the ends of women are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, and that the possibility of conflict–and of tragedy– can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.

        So, you don’t think nature is blind and pointless? Pray tell, how do you not believe this, if you are an atheist naturalist?

        As for a naive belief in human progress, it means that history is not a continuous process of intellectual and cultural evolution in a single straight line, it means that any future is imaginable.

        “Moot point whether it will correct that before the judgement of history puts it in its dustbin along with beliefs in Ahura Mazda and Zeus.”

        See naive belief in human progress. Do you think religion is going somewhere? Better check the data, my friend, because it’s not. Anyways, religion is an integral part of human culture, perhaps the most integral part. Cutting religion out of human culture is neither as easy nor as beneficial as removing a bad mole.

        Zeus? Yes, Being itself is just like Zeus. You sound like some first-year philosophy undergrad who thinks, because he read a couple of books his church didn’t like, that he’s an atheist. Mate, I can tell from your collection of comments on this blog that you have no idea what atheism is, you don’t know even know what you don’t know.

      • Pancakesandwildhoney:

        Great, but what are you going on about then?

        I had kind of thought that I was “going on about” answering the question of both the hour and of the OP: “Is Religion Good?” The answer to which seems to be that it is a decidedly mixed blessing, and that it might actually be the better part of wisdom to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” – the prospect of which seems likely to be strongly enhanced by differentiating between them to begin with.

        So, you don’t think nature is blind and pointless?

        Actually no, I don’t – you may wish to consider the phenomenon of emergence. Maybe a moot point though whether that is only a fortuitous accident or not. However, there is “purpose”, and then there is “purpose”: not all purposes are created equal, so to speak, or have the same degree of “rectitude”; we have some “obligation” to choose wisely. Apropos of which, T. H. Huxley:

        Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. It may seem an audacious proposal thus to pit the microcosm against the macrocosm and to set man to subdue nature to his higher ends; but I venture to think that the great intellectual difference between the ancient times with which we have been occupied and our day, lies in the solid foundation we have acquired for the hope that such an enterprise may meet with a certain measure of success.

        The history of civilization details the steps by which men have succeeded in building up an artificial world within the cosmos. Fragile reed as he may be, man, as Pascal says, is a thinking reed; there lies within him a fund of energy, operating intelligently and so far akin to that which pervades the universe, that it is competent to influence and modify the cosmic process.

        While one might raise an eyebrow at his “imitating the cosmic process” – presumably we humans are part of that process, even if that might be somewhat of an open question – his “ethical progress of society” seems to qualify as a perfectly credible goal, purpose, and vision.

        Pray tell, how do you not believe this, if you are an atheist naturalist?

        And pray tell, where have I self-identified as an atheist, naturalist or otherwise? As for naturalism itself, seems it is a somewhat ambiguous or problematic term; hard to see how anything that “is” – even “god” if it exists – could be construed as anything other than natural, even if it isn’t explainable in terms of current or future science.

        Do you think religion is going somewhere? Better check the data, my friend, because it’s not.

        So you’re perfectly a-ok and jake with the “much of religion [that] is plainly wrong and humanly injurious”? Cool.

        You really might want to try differentiating between those different facets and aspects of behaviour that all seem to come in under the rubric of “religion”.

        Zeus? Yes, Being itself is just like Zeus.

        But “ground of being” type ”concepts” and “hypotheses” aren’t all of what comes in under that rubric, that want to be let in the door behind that “wedge”. To coin a phrase, there’s the rub.

    • “NA is a dogmatism without appeal. It’s someone who sees themselves as the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final can only be willfully wicked.”

      Evocative prose, but complete straw man. Atheism is simply lack of belief in deities, arrived at by skeptical reasoning based on the (lack of) evidence. Dogma entails authoritarian pronouncements of truth without evidence, accompanied by doctrinal certainties. Where are atheism’s holy scriptures? Its precise rites? Its call to accept Teh Revealed Truth over outside evidence? No, atheism is merely the solution to a logical proof, not a dogma, much less a religion.

      “New Atheism” is just a bunch of atheists with the audacity to do what believers have always done — openly express their beliefs and attempt to convince others. Kinda our version of Mark 16:15-16, except not so harsh on those who aren’t persuaded. And we try to persuade (or ought to) not by demanding blind acceptance of dogma, rather by suggesting you apply evidence-based reasoning to the question of god.

      As for tolerance — secular societies respect freedom of religion. Even the officially atheist countries of the Warsaw Pact permitted religious practice. Compare that to theistic societies, not just of the past, but today, where in at least a dozen countries, apostasy will get you imprisoned or executed.

      Finally, a note on disagreement. I harbor no real hope that I’ll get you to agree with my views, I’d just like for you to disagree with my actual views.

      • You mean New Atheism? Try this one pronouncement on for size: “God doesn’t exist. No God. Period. End of discussion.”

        “Atheism is a solution to a logical proof.”

        That statement makes no sense whatsoever. Do you mean some list of sentences all of which are either premises of some argument or can be inferred from those premises entail atheism?

        “New Atheism” is just a bunch of atheists with the audacity to do what believers have always done — openly express their beliefs and attempt to convince others.”

        Fallacy. On, at least, two counts. Btw, the questioning of biblical authority started way back with St. Augustine and the early Fathers and the questioning has not been quiet since.

        As for the rest of your comment, it is all really beside the point, although I would recommend you read a good contemporary history book.

        The point, my dear chap, is that religion is good, bad, and sometimes both at the same time. Moreover, New Atheists NEED to wrap their heads around the fact that there is profound difference between serving and worshiping God and being interested in religion. Religion, within which God is an idea, is a concept whose history we can trace, and which we can analyze, define, and even revise. Religion is more than, simply, belief in God. It is also human culture. There is a history, a phenomenology, a psychology, a sociology, and a comparative study of religion. And within this system God is only a part or idea that occurs within the larger, more complex phenomenon of religion. New Atheists have proved incapable of grasping this line of thought.

        You are right that religion shows us the dangers of absolute certainty, the harm that that sort of belief can cause. But religion isn’t reducible to its worst or best elements, because it isn;t all evil and it isn’t all good; it’s just human culture.

        Oh, and quickly, a secular society is not automatically atheistic.

      • Matt “And we try to persuade (or ought to) not by demanding blind acceptance of dogma, rather by suggesting you apply evidence-based reasoning to the question of god.

        ‘And we try to persuade’, now that is good for a laugh. You(New Atheism) lampoon, you pillory, you scoff at and you deride. You do your best to tear down public symbols of religious belief, you do your best to limit public expression of religious belief. You have the bare faced effrontery to call this ‘persuade’. Again and again leaders and camp followers have declared their aim to destroy religion. Can you really make this claim with a straight face – “And we try to persuade
        Sam Harris has even gone so far as to claim that it can be permissible to kill people for their beliefs. That is a bizarre form of persuasion.

        ‘blind acceptance of dogma’, really? Are you so completely ignorant of the long and deep tradition of Catholic philosophy that questions and examines all points in great detail? Really Matt, you should at least do some nominal research before trotting out your blindly dogmatic assertions.

        ‘suggesting you apply evidence-based reasoning to the question of god’. In fact we do. See Anthony Flew’s book for an example of how to do this. My own conversion was a result of such evidence-based reasoning. But you know, your demand also works in reverse. You claim there is no God, where is the evidence for this claim? Please surprise the world by producing evidence there is no God. Then, while you are about it, produce some good philosophic arguments that there is no God. Hard, hey! All atheism can do is attack the arguments of theists but they cannot produce affirmative arguments of their own that there is no God.

        ‘secular societies respect freedom of religion. Even the officially atheist countries of the Warsaw Pact permitted religious practice’
        I am beginning to seriously wonder about your blind adherence to atheist dogma. Does it prevent you from doing even the most rudimentary fact checking? Let me help you out with some links to the subject.
        1) See this comprehensive article that details extensive prosecution of religion by secular authorities in the Soviet Union.
        2) See this comprehensive article about the persecution of Christianity in the Warsaw Bloc.

        Let me give you a delightful example of blind adherence to atheist dogma. Jerry Coyne launched a wide ranging attack on David Bentley Hart’s new book – ‘The Experience of God’, see here.
        But, wait for it, Jerry Coyne has not read the book. Really, he admits it himself. That must be a textbook example of ‘blind dogma‘. Jerry Coyne, with no sense of irony, has driven the BS meter right off the scale. He has become a parody of himself.

      • Pancakes wrote: ‘Try this one pronouncement on for size: “God doesn’t exist. No God. Period. End of discussion.”’

        Are *you* willing to discuss the possibility that God does not exist? What evidence would convince you of that?

        “That statement makes no sense whatsoever. Do you mean some list of sentences all of which are either premises of some argument or can be inferred from those premises entail atheism?”

        You claim that a deity exists. You provide no proof for your claim. So I search for proof and find none. I conclude that your claim is false. Is that really so hard to follow?

        “The point, my dear chap, is that religion is good, bad, and sometimes both at the same time. ”

        I acknowledged that organized religions do both good and bad. What’s your point?

        “New Atheists NEED to wrap their heads around the ….”

        LOL. I’m always amused when someone corrects me as to what I *really* believe and what I’m *really* thinking. It’s clear that an open exchange of ideas is not what you’re interested in. It’s also clear that you’re too enamored of your straw man atheist to actually hear what I said. I wish the two of you a long & fulfilling relationship.

      • Matt,
        Are *you* willing to discuss the possibility that God does not exist? What evidence would convince you of that?

        Do you have any evidence at all that God does not exist?
        Please do give us the evidence, it might be a world first.
        Note we are talking about “evidence” and not hypothetical, conjectural possibilities. You did after all introduce the word ‘evidence’ into the discussion.

      • Matt,

        I don’t have to be willing to discuss the possibility that God does not exist, because it is a real possibility that I acknowledge, and a metaphysical view I respect. That said, I find God qua God’s existence more probable than God’s non-existence. Also, as for what would convince me, a couple of arguments more compelling than their rivals would do it, I imagine. Btw, I don’t think you can illuminate any area of this subject for me–I am student of logic and math after all–but maybe you can, who knows?

        Matt, I was pointing out that your sentence is incoherent. Why? Because you cannot have a solution to a logical proof. That makes no sense. What you can have is an argument where the premises entail some particular thing, which is what you meant I think. Go to my blog, if you want an argument. I study aspects of this stuff at university. And I have several essays on my blog examining various facets of the issue. But on this particular thread it is really off-topic.

        Matt, if you don’t respond to the primary points of an argument but to superficial aspects of it, then I think it is you who are not interested in a serious discussion.

        Also, you might want to read up on the fallacy straw man. If there is no genuine article of NA, then how can I be guilty of the fallacy?

  7. By listing historical examples of “primitive science”, writing, taxonomy, etc. employed in the service of religion, you imply that religion was both necessary and sufficient for these sciences and arts to develop. Two examples are sufficient to disprove your assumption. The Polynesians developed astronomy not to mark holy calendars, rather to find new islands. The Sumerians developed writing not to pass down edicts from the gods, rather to track inventories and record business transactions.

    It’s specious to argue that the arts & sciences arose, or could only maturate, under the gentle wing of religion, when they were clearly spontaneous products of human ingenuity post facto harnessed to religion’s plow. A closer examination of their origins (Georges Ifrah’s _The Universal History of Numbers_ would be a good place to start) would reveal a mundane, secular origin and impetus for each.

    So, it’s quite easy to imagine science flourishing in an alternate world, free of religion. Where, for example, materials, labor & the study of architecture, instead of being diverted to the construction of medieval cathedrals, were applied to aqueducts and sewers. A far better world, too — albeit where putative souls were at risk of putative eternal suffering, but where real bodies were spared the real suffering of cholera.

    Once the modern scientific method began to understand and explain the world, instead of merely cataloging it, science and religion became irreconcilable. For both make concrete claims about the how’s and why’s of the world, and science’s answers belie those of religion. Another clash: whereas modern science is self-correcting, religion, like any dogma, is set in stone. So we see evolution and cosmology growing ever more precise and accurate over time, while Genesis hasn’t had a rewrite in over 5,000 years.

    Science and learning may have long served as religion’s obedient plow horses. Science now, however, declares religion obsolete, and boldly claims to be able to answer any & all questions. Not surprising, as in a scant four centuries the modern scientific method has solved every riddle put to it, while religion, despite millennia of an exclusive, no-bid contract, has failed to provide a single correct, unambiguous answer to anything. And, with the rapid advances in brain science and evo psych, religion’s last bastion of relevance — morality, ‘good & evil’, the ‘meaning of life’ — is already falling to Science.

    • “The Sumerians developed writing not to pass down edicts from the gods, rather to track inventories and record business transactions.” This is false; the priests kept the records and the writing system was developed largely to preserve their religious calendar, creation myth, and festival liturgies. The functional use of writing fro record keeping is contemporary not prior to its religious use. Prot-Biblosyllabic and early Hebrew follow just the same pattern, as do all Semitic and non-Semitic ANE languages as well as Phoenician. Every Sumerologist and Assyriologist knows this. Having spent a couple of years trying to decipher the glyphs in an Akkadian class at Harvard I can tell you that it is impossible to say what you have just said with a straight face. I am not an expert in Polynesian culture but surely you need to account for the difference between a literate culture (one that produces a writing system and a literature) and oral cultures with navigational skills. One of the ways we are able to link these cultures btw is through language and mythologies. Your position is typical of the overgeneralized approach that begins with a dichotomous view of religion and science rather than an evolutionary one, and then seeks dichotomies everywhere. It’s a master theory approach that is only possible by not looking at evidence, not knowing the languages, and reading the wrong secondary scholarship.

      • I can be forgiven for having that impression, as it’s what’s commonly taught, and also found in two random google hits:

        “Sumerian cuneiform is the earliest known writing system. Its origins can be traced back to about 8,000 BC and it developed from the pictographs and other symbols used to represent trade goods and livestock on clay tablets.”
http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sumerian.htm

        “[simple & complex tokens were] used for record keeping. In particular, the plain tokens, given their long timespan and their widespread use, most likely counted agricultural items like grains or cereal. On the other hand, complex tokens were used to record manufactured goods …. one of the earliest examples of complex tokens was found in the temple of Inanna … [in] … Uruk. This implies that the temple institution used clay tokens to record goods manufactured for the temple.”
http://www.ancientscripts.com/cuneiform.html

        But granting your point about sumerian, are you really still asserting that things like writing and astronomy would not have developed without the existence of religion?

        Finally, is that your best pitch for the value of religion? The Aztecs also developed a written language, charted the heavens, build great edifices adorned with art, all placed in service to their religious practice of tearing the beating hearts out of their human sacrifices. Per your argument, the Aztec religion was also “good.”

    • Matt, my dear friend, every time I read one of your comments I see holes large enough to drive entire wagon trains through them.
      Let’s start here:
      Science now, however, declares religion obsolete
      Please show me the peer reviewed papers that declare religion obsolete.
      Do you know how science declares anything?
      Let me explain(very roughly). They construct a hypothesis to explain an interesting question, they propose means of testing that hypothesis, they test that hypothesis and write an academic paper about it.
      Then, they submit the paper to a journal for peer review. Following that, it is published. Once published it is subject to critical comment by the science community. Consensus builds around good papers and their findings become part of the canon of good science as others cite them. Some papers remain controversial and some become discredited. It is a harsh process but an effective process.

      Now that you understand how science declares things I am eager to see how, as you claim, science has declared religion to be obsolete. Please list the peer reviewed articles and count their citations. Hmm?

      Not surprising, as in a scant four centuries the modern scientific method has solved every riddle put to it
      Now, if I was to believe you, science would have come to a standstill, since all riddles are solved. Happily for the job security of scientists, a huge number of riddles remain to be solved. Here is a small sampling of some fundamental unanswered riddles:
      1) where do the laws of nature come from?
      2) what gives the laws of nature such prescriptive power that they act everywhere, all the time, exceptionlessly?
      3) what happened before the Big Bang?
      4) what creates consciousness?
      5) how did life begin?
      I could go on and on but there is no point since these are enough to discredit your claim.

      science and religion became irreconcilable. For both make concrete claims about the how’s and why’s of the world
      This is the favourite New Atheist claim and I have to say that it is a brain dead claim. Science and religion address entirely different issues. Science deals with the observable and testable, religion deals with issues of morality, meaning and purpose. These are different realms that only touch in peripheral ways. Religion is not a science text book and has never pretended to be a science textbook. That is a fiction created by New Atheism. Religion makes certain, limited existential claims in metaphorical form. The very few existential claims made in metaphorical form are there for spiritual purposes to illustrate its claims about meaning and purpose, not for scientific purposes. It should be obvious that religion could only make these claims in metaphorical form for the simple reason that scientifically correct claims would have been incomprehensible for thousands of years. It is true that some religious fundamentalists attach literal meaning to these metaphorical statements and that is rather unfortunate. I will readily concede that for a long time a literal meaning was attached to metaphorical statements. That was inevitable while the science was not available.

      To illustrate the Catholic Church’s stance, it created the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to facilitate collaboration between the sciences and the Church. They did this because they are firmly committed to the thesis that the scientific method is the best way of learning more about the observable universe. The reason for the Catholic Church’s commitment to science is surprisingly simple. They believe that the laws of nature were created by God and the laws of nature are God’s will. Thus they believe that scientific investigation reveals how God willed that the Universe should be ordered. Thus the Church wholly, completely and enthusiastically supports the scientific method. Through science we discover how God acted. Paul Davies called the laws of nature ‘the mind of God’.

      The so-called conflict between science and religion is an imaginary conflict created to facilitate the Atheist Delusion. This should be obvious when it is realized that the overwhelming majority of the Church’s claims are about morality, meaning and purpose. Only a tiny minority of the Church’s claims have scientific implications and these are easily resolved when it is understood that these claims are metaphorical in nature and it is understood they must necessarily be metaphorical.

      • “Only a tiny minority of the Church’s claims have scientific implications and these are easily resolved.”

        That God intercedes based on prayer, or that souls exist and move to an afterlife are very concrete, non-trivial, non-metaphorical claim about reality, which have profound ramifications.

        “Science and religion address entirely different issues. Science deals with the observable and testable, religion deals with issues of morality, meaning and purpose. ”

        I reject NOMA. I assert that Science considers everything observable and testable; all questions answerable in principle if not in practice. Anything that is not must be considered non-existant. I assert that, not only does religion not have exclusive ability to address morality, meaning and purpose, it does a lousy job at it.

        This is a fundamental disagreement, one I don’t expect to be resolved. My only aim is to have believers understand where we stand, instead of bashing a straw man.

      • ” Here is a small sampling of some fundamental unanswered riddles:
        1) where do the laws of nature come from?
        2) what gives the laws of nature such prescriptive power that they act everywhere, all the time, exceptionlessly?
        3) what happened before the Big Bang?
        4) what creates consciousness?
        5) how did life begin?

        “I could go on and on but there is no point since these are enough to discredit your claim.”

        LOL. You could go on and if you wanted to continue to expose your glaring ignorance of science. We have answers to each of those.

      • Matt says “We (?) have answers to each of those.” I certainly hear this a lot from reductivist scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Victor Stenger. But I am not at all sure “answers” is the right word. Don’t you mean models? especially concerning the live question what came before the big bang? http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130502-what-came-before-the-big-bang for example. Please don’t think I’m searching for God on the edges of uncertainty–in the gaps, so to speak. And I think science is remarkably good at turning models into plausible answers, over time and when the resources are available. But unlike the more hubristic cosmologists –Neil Degrasse Tyson being both the most lucid and the most arrogant– I do think we need to acknowledge that certain concepts like infinity and eternity belong both to scientific cosmology and to the religious imagination. I think some of what the religious imagination does with these concepts is in fact a cheat; but I’ve noticed that the truly great scientists, perhaps Einstein and especially Planck are the most notable–are not just willing to preserve a degree of humility in their approach to the question but (as Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould granted) a degree of utility to both mythical and religious constructs. Planck’s ground for such humility is pretty basic and trumps your LOL, I think: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” Do you know of answers that would render Planck’s humility unjustified, or are you going to invoke the papal We {know], whatever it refers to?

      • Matt says “I assert that Science considers everything observable and testable; all questions answerable in principle if not in practice. Anything that is not must be considered non-existant.” This is called begging the question. It is committed when someone uses as a premise some form of the very thesis at issue.

        Matt says “We have answers to each of those.” Do you? You know what happened before the Big Bang? That’s a really bold assertion. You understand consciousness, do you? Another bold assertion. You also know how life began on this planet? Wow! Another bold assertion. You also know why the universe seems fine-tuned? You should publish these papers, my good man. I would be interested to see them.

        Of course, we have some ideas about these things, mostly theoretical hypotheses, competing ones at that, but not what one would call “answers,” or even close to being “answers,” in the scientific sense.

      • Matt:

        I assert that Science considers everything observable and testable; all questions answerable in principle if not in practice. Anything that is not must be considered non-existent.

        I kind of think that I have to agree with much of Joseph’s recent comment on that point – for instance, string theory postulates extra physical dimensions that seem to have some support in mathematics, although I certainly couldn’t prove it – rather decidedly well outside my salary range. But, in addition, considering that there are, supposedly, something like 10^500 different models for string theories – at least according to Lee Smolin in his The Trouble with Physics [highly recommended], some argue that the theory is neither observable nor testable, even in principle and even though one of those might actually be true and “existent”.

        Further, while Jerry Coyne seems to think that Freeman Dyson is tainted for having also accepted Templeton money, you might want to consider the latter’s observations on a “theory of everything”:

        Gödel’s theorem implies that pure mathematics is inexhaustible. No matter how many problems we solve, there will always be other problems that cannot be solved within the existing rules. […] Because of Gödel’s theorem, physics is inexhaustible too. The laws of physics are a finite set of rules, and include the rules for doing mathematics, so that Gödel’s theorem applies to them.

        However, while that, and much more besides, does give, I think, some justification for “faith” of one variety or another, I think it is also important to differentiate between the “blind faith” of “religion”, and the more rational faith of science and secularism. Although that is not to say that “religion” is entirely devoid of a rational and humanist “faith” of sorts that has some credibility and value – even if its over-reliance on a problematic literalism might be construed as not just shooting itself in the feet, but, in fact, cutting its own throat.

      • John Gribbin has done a good job illustrating why asking ‘What came before the Big Bang?’ is like asking ‘What’s above the North Pole?’

        I consider Planck possessed with such an exceedingly sharp mind as to make humility almost superfluous for him. But if the “mystery of ourselves” Planck referred to was along the lines of consciousness, then the relatively young brain sciences are making dramatic progress in unraveling them. In Planck’s day, however, such mysteries could well appear inscrutable.

        It’s a fascinating question you raise, whether we (by which I mean, ‘humankind’) will ever run up against an hard, impenetrable barrier to knowledge. So far, each time it seems the case, we push through. I’m filled with awe that we can, for example, infer that lower-dimensional ‘branes’ create higher-dimensional universes, or that we’ve detected evidence of at least four instances when our universe ‘bumped into’ another universe or universes. But if we ever do encounter such a boundary, I expect it will be closed to all modes of inquiry, with theology or metaphysics having no special advantage in peering beyond it.

        Are scientific models (and theories and laws) “answers”? I’d say ‘yes’. I’m fully aware of the complaint that, while they neatly resolve the how’s, what’s, where’s and when’s, they can’t answer the why’s. But, if by ‘why?’ is meant ‘what (or who) caused it?’, no meaningful answer can be given, as it’s not a meaningful question for these subjects. We must — to employ an hackneyed term — shift our paradigm.

        Our minds evolved to make sense of what someone called “Middle Earth”, a world of middling-sized things moving at middling speed and lasting for middling duration. Anyone’s who’s ever tracked and caught a fly ball (or hunted a mastodon) is proof of that faculty. Cosmology deals with the incredibly tiny and incredibly large, the incredibly fast, the incredibly short or long. To make sense of all that, we need to cultivate a new Weltanschauung.

        One example is the Planck Length, and indications that a quantized Planck Time also exists. It frustrates our analog-tuned minds to no end that the universe may actually be digital. (On the flip-side, it neatly resolves Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.) Infinities and nothingness are just as vexing to our Middle Earth minds.

        As homo faber, we also expect to find a conscious agent behind every phenomenon. So we created a slew of gods to fulfill that role. This perspective, too, is inadequate for tackling the ‘big questions.’ The Theory of Evolution (it’s so robust, really, as to merit the title “Law”) describes a conscious-less, purposeless process. Neo-darwinians have resolved even questions troubling to Darwin, such as development of the eye, and altruism in eusocial species, in the process frustrating ‘Gappers.’

        So, to ask ‘but why did life arise?’ is non-sensical, considering that, given a billion years and the conditions found on early Earth, self-replicating molecules were pretty much inevitable. Proceeding to ask, ‘but why were conditions like that?’ leads to infinite regression which can only be terminated by a causa sui. You may find my response, that a quantum vacuum fluctuation is causa sui, unsatisfying. But I am no less satisfied when, to my ‘why does God need no cause?’ the theist replies, ‘He just doesn’t.’ Of no greater value-add is the deist’s application of a thin, godlike veneer to the universe. Since both violate Occam’s Razor, I’ll stick to my quantum fluctuations, make peace with the fact that no suitable answers exist to appease my Middle-Earth mind, and focus instead on the satisfaction and wonder of our ability to solve all those how’s, what’s, where’s and when’s.

      • Matt,
        all questions answerable in principle if not in practice.
        That is an incoherent statement. Science is ordered empiricism. If it cannot be answered in practice it is not science and cannot be answered by science. It is that plain and simple.

      • Matt,
        I assert that, not only does religion not have exclusive ability to address morality, meaning and purpose
        No it does not have exclusive ability to address them, but that was not the claim. The claim is that science cannot address them. The various branches of philosophy certainly address these issues.

        You ought(pun) to know there is a vigorous debate about deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, as Hume famously put it. That debate continues to this day with a great many prominent philosophers maintaining that ‘ought’ simply cannot ever be derived from ‘is’. Massimo Pigliucci is a famous example of this. I mention him because he is also an activist atheist which should give him some standing in your eyes.

        I would love to see you give the mathematical formulas that derive our ethical principles. Then we could at last resolve the long standing debate about deontology vs virtue ethics vs consequential ethics.

        Sam Harris dodges this question by assuming that consequential ethics is the answer but why? how? Sam Harris’ position about science and morality is incoherent because his starting position is a choice you cannot derive from science. It is simply his personal opinion but he ignores the fact that virtue ethics is a mainstream position among leading philosophers(and the Catholic Church).

        Your claim that science can address morality, meaning and purpose is an empty wish devoid of facts.

        You should see Candace Vogler’s book ‘Reasonably Vicious’ where she argues cogently that rationality can just as easily lead to vicious ethical behaviour.

      • Matt,
        all questions answerable in principle if not in practice. Anything that is not must be considered non-existant.
        You seem to have fallen into a trap of your own making. If we accept your statement at face value we have to accept that multiverses/and or cyclic universes are non-existent.

        The reason is obvious enough. The entropy at the start of the Big Bang had to be accurate to one part in 10^10^123(Roger Penrose). There are not enough particles in the Universe to describe that number. What this means is that the Big Bang is an absolute information horizon, no information will be preserved through the Big Bang. We cannot observe or test any model about anything that precedes the Big Bang, not even in principle. So, according to you, multiverses must be non-existent.

        But in any case, your logic is plain nonsense. The existence of a thing does not depend on our powers of observation and discernment. You are defining existence as that which we can observe. On what basis? How on earth do reach that conclusion?

      • Matt,
        LOL. You could go on and if you wanted to continue to expose your glaring ignorance of science. We have answers to each of those.
        LOL is a vacuous argument which may usefully tell us something about the person making the argument.

        Your claim to have answers shows only ‘your glaring ignorance of science‘.
        Let’s start with what happened before the Big Bang, shall we?
        The two dominant models are those of the Multiverse and the Cyclic Universe. They are mutually exclusive, operating in very different ways. They cannot both be true. There are other models by the way.

        So which one is it? That is already a riddle and you claim that all riddles have been solved.

        I have already pointed out to you that the entropy at the moment of the Big Bang had to be accurate to one part in 10^10^123. This makes it impossible for information from prior events to survive passage through the Big Bang.

        So how on earth can we observe anything before the Big Bang.
        Now there is another riddle for you that science has not solved.
        Your claim is beginning to look more and more vacuous.

        The famous philosopher, David Chalmers has written about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and he points to our total inability to solve it. He finds the problem so intractable that he maintains that consciousness must be a fundamental property of the laws of nature, one that we have not yet detected.

        Now that is another riddle that science has not solved. If we had solved it we would be producing conscious machines. We know that has not been achieved so once again your claim is false.
        Your claim is beginning to look totally vacuous.

        Matt, give it up. You made an extravagant claim(that science has solved all riddles put to it) which is plainly untrue. Stop flogging a dead horse. Your intransigent dedication to defending your mistakes is to, put it mildly, incomprehensible.

      • Matt,
        So, to ask ‘but why did life arise?’ is non-sensical
        No, what is nonsensical is the claim I asked that question.
        Please go back and you will see I asked the question “How did life arise”.
        Why is a metaphysical question that science cannot answer.
        How is an empirical question that science can answer.

        Except that science has not answered it. There are many hypotheses but none have been empirically demonstrated to be true. The bottom line is surprisingly simple. We have not yet been able to create life from inanimate chemicals. Until we can do that it remains a riddle.

      • Matt,
        John Gribbin has done a good job illustrating why asking ‘What came before the Big Bang?’ is like asking ‘What’s above the North Pole?’
        Terrible analogy. I can easily answer that question by projecting the Earth’s axis into space and identifying the elements that it intersects with. It is all a matter of choosing the right perspective.

        In any case, many reputable cosmologists are indeed asking that question, hence the debate about multiverses vs cyclic universes.

      • Matt,
        Are scientific models … “answers”? I’d say ‘yes’.
        They are answers when they receive empirical verification. That is the whole point of science.
        If they cannot, or have not yet been verified they are not science, they are not answers, they are merely informed speculation.

        Let me remind you again that the two main competing models for events prior to the Big Bang are the multiverse and the cyclic universe. Now which one is it? How will we know which one, or neither for that matter, is true?

        A related question is this. Are we the only universe? How will we know?

        Until we can find a way to make actual observations that are capable of verifying the models in question we only have interesting hypothetical models but no answers. That is the position today and so we have the game of pick-a-model to suit your metaphysical prejudices. But in this case we don’t have answers.

  8. “So, what does the American public predominantly think of religious institutions?
    88% – bring people together/strengthen community bonds,
    87% – play important role in helping poor and needy,
    78% – protect and strengthen morality.

    “I think it is fair to say they overwhelmingly think religion is a good thing though one should note they are critical of some aspects of religion.” — Peter Smith

    That is a fair assessment, though it’s also noteworthy that the US is an outlier among the western world in it religiosity. I also find it interesting that the two most important roles seen for religion, strengthening community bonds and charity, neither require religion to be achieved, nor are the primary purpose of religion. As for the third, polls repeatedly show that Americans (especially Catholics) do not look to their churches for moral guidance, instead picking & choosing which edicts to obey & which to ignore.

    • Matt,
      …noteworthy that the US is an outlier among the western world in it religiosity
      True, but but not relevant to the question posed by RJH, ‘Is religion good?’.

      the two most important roles seen for religion, strengthening community bonds and charity, neither require religion to be achieved,…
      No, but religion does seem to do it well and the American public clearly agrees that in these instances, religion is good. Only 13% disagree.

      … nor are the primary purpose of religion
      We would disagree with you. Community is important to religion(Where two of you…etc) and we are commanded by Christ to perform acts of charity. Love is given as the first commandment and we show love through our community and to the unfortunate.

      …Americans (especially Catholics) do not look to their churches for moral guidance…
      Except that 78% think that the Church does protect and strengthen morality. That certainly implies some form of moral guidance.

      Individuals may claim some wiggle room, especially when it comes to contraception but you should remember that is only one small part of the Church’s moral teachings. Priests hear confessions every week and they are intimately familiar with their congregants’ moral failures. They will tell you what each of us knows from personal experience, that the commitment to live a moral life is a long and difficult path with many mistakes along the way. Sainthood is hard to achieve!

      Let’s not forget the question posed by RJH in his title “Is Religion Good?”.
      The American public(PEW report) have given religion a favourable report card, despite the fanatical campaigning by atheist fundamentalists and the unfortunate paedophile scandal.

      Now let’s examine more evidence of the effect of religion on society.
      Large drop in violence at Angola prison after Bible college started
      Obama says churches do more
      Catholic and other Christian schools top public schools in average ACT, SAT scores
      Decline in religious belief correlates with increasing income disparity

      Finally, let’s have a look at what some researchers say about the effect of religion on society.
      Religion promotes self-control, health, well being and social behaviour
      Authentic Happiness Theory Supported by Impact of Religion on Life Satisfaction: A Longitudinal Analysis with Data for Germany

      The American public, many media reports and work by researchers all say much of the same thing, religion in various ways, has a positive effect on society. That is not to say there are no wrongs, clearly there are since the Church is populated by ordinary and fallible people. Do these wrongs define the Church or is the Church defined by the great good it does? We think the Church is overwhelmingly defined by the good it does and the American public seems to agree with us. Nevertheless, the wrongs in the Church cause us great sadness, and while you may not yet see it, I can assure you that the Church is being cleaned out and renewed. We will go from strength to strength.

      • Peter, I’ve addressed some of your specific points in comments that are still in moderation, so I won’t repeat myself here.

        For religion to be deemed beneficial, it’d have to exert a *net* good effect, but more heat than light would be shed by getting into a back & forth weighing the specific harm organized religions have inflicted over the ages, vs. the helpful aspects, some which you’ve listed. I’d rather tackle the question from a broader perspective, by assessing the necessity of religion, and its ‘value-add’ to society.

        None of the ‘social service’ functions of organized religion cannot be done equally as well through secular organizations. Nor is religion required as a moral guide or to provide meaningful lives, as the non-religious successfully derive moral compasses and purpose from other sources. Religion cannot even be said to contribute to happiness. According to the UN, the five nations with the greatest number of happy people are (with percent of the population non-religious):

        1. Denmark (81%)
        2. Norway (78%)
        3. Switzerland (56%)
        4. Netherlands (76%)
        5. Sweden (83%)

        http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/09/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf

        Across the board, there is a distinct correlation between happiness and lack of religion. The lower a country is on the happiness list, the more religiously inclined it is.

        I was taught that the primary work of the church was salvation, which Pope Francis emphasized when he said “[t]he Church is not a shop, she is not a humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO. The Church is sent to bring Christ and his Gospel to all.” As evidence that religion is beneficial to humanity, this is problematic. For one, the putative benefit is delivered only in the afterlife. And you have no evidence of this.

        Second, salvation through Christ applies, obviously, only to christianity. Christians are a plurality, but most of the people in the world adhere to another, or to no, religion. Each has unique keys to salvation which are incompatible with the others. As the true purpose of religion is to ‘get right with’ (the) god(s) / secure a spot in the afterlife, and since religion as a category can’t either: 1) give a straight answer, or; 2) prove any of its contradictory answers actually work, one must conclude that religion is of no benefit to humanity.

      • Matt, I will check but I don’t see anything from you in moderation. There is sometimes a lag due to my schedule, but usually not more than a day or two. Your 1-5 above is interesting. It suggests that in northerly climes God is not as popular as sunlight.

      • Joseph:

        I see that I have probably half-a-dozen comments still in moderation. Too “scrappy”? Unlikely to resonate with the “choir”? Discordant echoes?

      • Joseph:

        Or maybe just a busy schedule; I stand corrected. But thanks. Although I note there is one in your “The Paltry Cause” that is still in moderation.

      • Steersman,

        If all you can do is, seeing as we don’t have Dostoyevsky to stop you, beat a lame horse, then I don’t give a damn if your comments stay in moderation until Judgement Day.–care to interpret that literally, Steers? The great irony, though, is that someone as dogmatically certain as you would make a joke about an echo chamber. Glass house, anyone?

      • Pancakes:

        Is it not true that the title of the original post, and presumably the question of the hour, “Is Religion Good?” And is it not true that Joseph himself said “much of religion is plainly wrong and humanly injurious”? [here’s a hint]

        Hardly seems to qualify as flogging any type of a horse, alive or dead, to be attempting to elaborate on that “plainly wrong and humanly injurious” aspect. I guess unless one has pretty well made a commitment to turn a blind eye to that rather egregious fact.

      • Matt,
        weighing the specific harm organized religions have inflicted over the ages,
        You seem to have missed the present tense in the title of RJH’s essay – ‘Is Religion Good’
        A previous boss of mine would rather pungently ask, at this point – ‘why are we looking up a dead horse’s arse?’
        The past is very interesting to historians (and forensic pathologists) but right now RJH is asking about the present good of religion. We can always argue about the past another time. As an aside, do you really think Prince Charles should be held accountable for the wrong doing of King Henry VIII?

        Returning to the present, you do an astonishing thing, you blithely ignore some excellent, peer reviewed studies that show how religion contributes good to society and instead you point to a supposed correlation that would be laughed out of Stats 101. Why do you do that? Did you read those studies? (probably not). How can you ignore good research and argue as if the points had never been made? Are you blind to evidence that contradicts your metaphysical worldview or do you wilfully ignore it? Some people would call that disconfirmation bias!

        Now let’s turn to your Stats 101 blooper. Do you perhaps know that cross country comparisons are plagued by confounding factors, that each country has unique circumstances not present or weakly present in other countries? Do you know that teasing out these confounding factors is vital before any conclusions can be drawn? Do you know that there are advanced statistical techniques for identifying these confounding factors and removing their effects? Do you know that we must look within countries so that we cancel out the cross country confounding factors?

        This is why the second study I quoted is so important, it was a longitudinal study(in Germany). It shows very clearly that life satisfaction increases as people become more religious, over time, and that the reverse is true, as people become less religious so too does their life satisfaction decrease. I will leave you to work out why longitudinal studies are so important(it should be obvious by now).

        The results of this careful academic study directly contradict your crude data. The name of the game is confounding factors. Think about it.

        But then I gave another good meta-study and you simply ignored it as well. Do you habitually ignore things that contradict your metaphysical world view?

        It is just not good enough to argue as though your opponent had never spoken. If you cannot engage with your opponent’s arguments you should rather get on your soap box at Hyde Park Corner.

        None of the ‘social service’ functions of organized religion cannot be done equally as well through secular organizations
        Another good example of my point above. I have already pointed to Obama’s quote saying that the Church is more effective at delivering aid than the state is. Presumably you know that the Catholic Church is a large player in delivering aid services. What do you think would happen if the Church disappeared overnight? Who would step up to supply the missing services. I can assure you that atheist organizations, on their present showing, would do very little. And by the way, who do you think populates those secular organizations? You will find they are mostly religious believers.

        Be careful with your simplistic interpretation of the Church’s purpose. A balanced interpretation would include the following:
        Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.“(Matthew 25)

        Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.“(Matthew 25)

        A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13)
        And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22)

        Then you claimed
        Nor is religion required as a moral guide or to provide meaningful lives, as the non-religious successfully derive moral compasses and purpose from other sources
        Really? How do they do it? Is Miley Cyrus your moral compass? Is twerking the new social good?

        one must conclude that religion is of no benefit to humanity.
        Except, of course, I have listed a great many well documented benefits. You have this wonderful facility of dealing with unwelcome evidence by ignoring it. You really should go back to Hyde Park Corner.

        Matt, I am actually quite surprised by your simplistic reasoning. If a Martian sociologist came down to Earth he would likely observe the following:
        1) every society on the planet has developed religious beliefs,
        2) religious institutions are the oldest and most durable institutions on the planet,
        3) religious beliefs continue to dominate.
        Our Martian sociologist would then ask why this should be. He would probably conclude that human society evolved these institutions and beliefs because they fulfill an important purpose(why else?). He would conclude they are so extremely durable because they continue to fulfill an important purpose(why else?). Another aside, did you note how many millions of people attended Pope Francis’ Mass at World Youth Day? And he would then ask what that important purpose is. I will leave it to you to work out the answer as a class exercise. Before you do that I urge you to read Edward De Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats. A last aside, compare the mean spirited tone of Dawkins’ public remarks with the generous, loving and conciliatory tone of Pope Francis’ public remarks.

      • I too find that on occasion my comments disappear into the moderation sinkhole. On reading the moderation page I noted that comments may well disappear if they are dull, pedantic or overlong. Sadly I have to admit that many times I am guilty and so I have suffered a well deserved fate. Actually RJH is more tolerant than any of us deserve.

      • Peter:

        His blog of course. Although it might look more credible, and garner a few more page views – presumably of some importance if one really has a serious commitment to changing how people think and what they think about – if he were to allow his readers to make that judgement, or at least express their opinions on what is submitted, blogs apparently being different critters from academic journals. Otherwise many are likely to conclude that a questionable bias or favoritism is in play, that it too has all the makings of a “ghetto”, if a more erudite one.

      • Steersman,

        Is it not true that all of us have agreed with Joe? Do you really think you can newly illuminate any aspect of that for Joe or for Steph or for me? Religion is bad, Steersman. Really bad sometimes, even. But guess what? It is also good. Really good sometimes even. Sometimes it is a bit of both at the same time. It is just human culture. It’s part of who we are as humans, dude. It’s neither the Devil nor the Savior. The homo religiotificus is neither a natural kind nor a fatal outcome of human history. It is one of our own cultural products that we have to evaluate. Both hosannas and exorcisms are to be avoided; they take us nowhere.

      • As pancakesandwildhoney has said so clearly, religion is a cultural product and this remains true whether or not God exists. Cultural products reflect their milieu and their context, In the best of religion we see the best of the culture and in the worst of religion we see the worst of the culture. The nobility of the religion reflects the nobility of the host culture and the wrongs of religion reflect the wrongs of the host culture.

        How could it be otherwise? No institution has ever been immune to the conditions of its host culture. Believing in God does not inoculate the institution and nor does God inoculate the institution to give it immunity.

        That said, does religion have an innate tendency, an innate bias? Religion is after all a powerful, durable and omnipresent institution. This suggests that society evolved the institution to meet important needs and its innate tendency should reflect those needs.

        RJH, as an historian of religion, is best qualified to comment on this. I am not an historian and I know too little about other religions to comments usefully about them(others deem themselves qualified to pass judgement on everything!!!). I have however immersed myself in Catholicism for the last five years. I have gone in, on the ground floor, so to speak, and I think can say with some degree of certainty what actually happens in practice among ordinary practitioners of religion, in the Catholic Church(in my region).

        So, in broad outline what have I found?
        1) the Church teaches morality and this reflects the moral teachings of the New Testament,
        2) the Church advocates love as the basis of morality,
        3) the Church teaches a strong devotion to God as the motivation and warrant for moral behaviour,
        4) the Church practices its teachings in a programme of charitable work,
        5) the Church has institutional practices for encouraging and reinforcing moral behaviour.

        My observations suggest this is the innate tendency, the innate bias of Catholicism. This is not to say there are no wrongs. I have seen no evidence of wrongs but that simply means it is infrequent enough that they were not visible in my small sample size.

        I happen to think that the intersection of secular power and religion is both a potent thing and a bad thing. History provides many examples of this. One reason is that secular power is adept at harnessing other institutions to its own ends. Another reason is that the motivational power of religion can be bent to bad ends.

        Happily we have moved past that phase by separating religion from the state. Religion has reformed itself and is reforming itself, which is what we would expect, given its innate moral bias. New Atheism, with its ignorant, unrelenting and obsessive insistence that religion is evil, will soon find itself stranded high and dry on the reef of irrelevancy. That is the problem with obsessions, they become blind to circumstances and impervious to change.

        As RJH said in another essay, the real debate is about God’s existence. Having navigated these debates as part of my conversion I know that we can engage in these debates with confidence.

      • Pancakes:

        Glad to see that you’ve agreed that religion can be “really bad sometimes”, although “very often” or “most of the time” seems more appropriate – really hard to see how the egregious brainwashing of defenseless children can call for anything less than Huxley’s “Delenda est”.

        In any case, while I can at least sympathize with the argument – and have said so many times – that many in the “New Atheist” movement are rather too quick to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as far as religion is concerned, your position, and apparently that of Peter’s, seems rather too self-serving in giving a pass, in turning a blind eye to that “really bad” stuff. Evolution does’t happen, that “long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization” doesn’t take the next step, unless we separate the wheat from the chaff, unless we enhance or limit if not destroy the societal environments in which the good or bad should or should not flourish. As someone said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing”.

      • Steersman,
        Otherwise many are likely to conclude that a questionable bias or favoritism is in play, that it too has all the makings of a “ghetto”, if a more erudite one.

        Well, we are guests here and play by his rules. I think the trick is not to become too emotionally invested in the process. After all we do have real lives. I lead a rich and varied life but do enjoy RJH’s essays, even though they are so often critical of my religious viewpoint. I mount a spirited defense of my views and RJH is very tolerant of my dissenting voice so I think there is hardly any bias or favouritism in evidence.

        I do think we need to tone down the rhetoric somewhat and I include myself in this advice. When I kneel in Church I invariably ask God to forgive me for my intemperate words and give me the strength to be more thoughtfully tolerant. Last Sunday, when I got up from prayer I saw two large patches of blood on my trousers by my knees. Oh no, I thought God has punished me for my intemperance! But no, the explanation was much more mundane. I had taken a bad fall on some rocks while trail running, skinning both my knees. Maybe that was my punishment, to be forced to kneel on skinned knees.

        By now your cognitive dissonance meter has hit full scale but don’t worry, these are just playful remarks. I regularly take hard falls on these rugged trails. I think the message here, for this blog, is to be more playful and less committed.

      • Peter Smith wrote: “You seem to have missed the present tense in the title of RJH’s essay – ‘Is Religion Good’”

        Peter, you’re moving the goal posts and playing loose with defining terms.

        Our host lists achievements of religion dating from the 8th to 17th centuries. But now I’m only allowed to talk about religion today?

        The CfI question was, “On balance, is religion beneficial for humanity?” Our host has paraphrased that as “Is religion good”? So why fault me for examining whether religion as a practice/concept provides a *net* benefit?

        You seem to define “Religion” only as ‘organized religious groups’, and “Good” as just ‘doing good deeds.’ That’s part of the equation, but not the whole.

        You also focus almost exclusively on Roman Catholicism — which happens to be a church I’m extremely familiar with, but it’s not the only church. If you wish to extol the benefit of religion, you’ll need to do so for: jainism, scientology, wahabi, Branch Davidian, Christian Science, wicca, and yes, the cults that worshipped Loki, Tlazolteotl, Kali, Sekhmet — and don’t forget Innana, to whom we are indebted for the creation of writing.

  9. Peter Smith wrote: ‘Then you claimed
“Nor is religion required as a moral guide or to provide meaningful lives, as the non-religious successfully derive moral compasses and purpose from other sources”
Really? How do they do it? Is Miley Cyrus your moral compass? Is twerking the new social good?’

    Hmm. Are you stating that all atheists lack morals? What if I vowed to kill anyone foolish enough to claim that a god could emanate from something as unclean as a woman’s private parts. Would that be moral enough for you?

    • Matt,
      Hmm. Are you stating that all atheists lack morals?
      You should stick to my actual words.

      The Church has
      1) a careful programme of moral education,
      2) provides regular and systematic moral priming to back up the moral education,
      3) has institutions to encourage and reinforce moral behaviour,
      4) has programmes to extend our moral education.
      Just recently a guest Jesuit philosopher gave our congregation a series of lectures on moral philosophy.

      When I look at the secular world I see these elements are mostly absent. And I see no evidence of organized atheism providing any form of moral education. I do note that Grayling wrote the dull as ditchwater “The Good Book” which is languishing in well deserved obscurity, so that hardly counts.

      Your last sentence is incoherent. What on earth makes you say a thing like that?

      • Matt, in case you missed it. My polemical reference to Miley Cyrus was intended to illustrate the point that society subjects us to powerful perverse moral priming. This perverse moral priming permeates society and has a particularly strong effect on the young and immature.

  10. Peter Smith wrote: “I have listed a great many well documented benefits. You have this wonderful facility of dealing with unwelcome evidence by ignoring it. You really should go back to Hyde Park Corner.”

    Peter, your gish gallop has left me in the dust, so grant me some time to catch up.

    * I asked whether you attributed the scholastic success of parochial students to the catechism, or rather the superior funding and discipline of parochial schools. Because your links indicate the latter.

    * The correlation you graph between decline in belief and income disparity (in the US?) is unpersuasive as:
    1) You propose no causal mechanism;
    2) An abundance of alternate & more plausible causations exist to explain the two trends as unrelated;
    3) The inverse correlation can be found outside of the US;
    4) Similar correlations could be made between decline in belief and decline in crime, drunk driving, cost of laptop PCs, etc., with similar persuasiveness.

    * I will carefully read the meta-study you cite, but as it was funded by Templeton, I am wary of bias.

    * The UN has many flaws, but religious bias is not one of them. To this former political pollster and market researcher, the UN Happiness survey (at first glance; it’s 86 pages long) seems carefully constructed and executed. Its findings are also corroborated by several other studies.

    * One politician’s opinion is hardly “documented evidence”, and I really couldn’t care less what obama has to say about anything. His claim is in any case belied by all those happy, secular nations with their extensive social service networks, their excellent public education, and their scarcity of poverty & suffering.

    • Matt,
      the scholastic success of parochial students
      the Catholic school system is evidence of the good that Catholicism contributes to society. The same is true of their hospitals, hospices, medical clinics, universities, aid distribution and relief work etc.

      correlation you graph between decline in belief and income disparity…You propose no causal mechanism
      The decision to apportion income between management and workforce is, in the last resort, a moral one that balances one’s own desires with the needs of others. That management claims increasing share of the wealth is an indication of growing moral disregard for the good of others. The Church is by far the most important source of moral priming in society. As its influence has declined so has moral priming declined with the effect seen in the graph. Dan Ariely has shown very clearly that absence of moral priming promotes dishonest behaviour.

      it was funded by Templeton, I am wary of bias.
      Any excuse to avoid confronting the evidence, hey? Instead of vague hand waving about bias why don’t you show actual examples of it. Really, it is an awful excuse to ignore unwanted evidence by attaching the vague and unsubstantiated label of ‘bias’ to it.

      In any case, it is a meta-study. Go through the copious references and you will see what I mean. You surely can’t be claiming that all the previous independent studies were somehow tainted by the later meta-study. That would really be magic and you don’t believe in magic.

      UN Happiness survey seems carefully constructed and executed
      I’m sure it is. But the correlation you made is an awful and crude one. Did you not understand a word I said about confounding factors? How do you explain that the careful longitudinal study in one country completely contradicts your conclusions? It was carefully designed to avoid confounding factors.

      I gave you another study that shows the relationship between life satisfaction and religious behaviour. It gives copious references to support its conclusions.

      Why are you so determined to turn a blind eye to such copious evidence?

      One politician’s opinion is hardly “documented evidence”, and I really couldn’t care less what obama has to say about anything.
      Obama has extensive experience in welfare work in Chicago. He has experience of cooperating with the Catholic Church This gives weight to his statements since he is knowledgeable and drawing on his experiences. He was speaking as President and this gives his words added weight.

      I really couldn’t care less what obama has to say about anything.
      That is a shabby reason for discarding evidence you don’t like.

      happy, secular nations with their extensive social service networks
      You really have missed the point.
      Let me remind you again, the question was “Is Religion Good?”
      I give you convincing evidence of the great good done by the Catholic Church and you reply that some ‘secular’ states do a good job. Well, that is just wonderful, we need more of that. But how on earth does that disprove my thesis that the Church does great good? You seem to have become very, very confused.

      On reading your comments I am tempted to conclude that the New Atheist motto can be accurately summarized as follows:
      Hear no good,
      See no good,
      Do no good.
      With apologies to the three monkeys who don’t deserve such an unfair association.

      • “the Catholic school system is evidence of the good that Catholicism contributes to society.”

        Evidence only that the RC ‘does good deeds.’ Which I’ve acknowledged repeatedly, so pointless for you to harp on incessantly. See my earlier comment about net benefits.

        “That management claims increasing share of the wealth is an indication of growing moral disregard ….”

        This trite observation is not a workable model for the casual mechanism you claim exists. Nor does the hypothesis explain periods in America’s past when even higher religiosity correlated with even greater income disparity, nor other, present-day nations where the correlation is inverse. All in all, an egregious perversion of statistical methods to support an a priori conclusion.

        “Really, it is an awful excuse to ignore unwanted evidence by attaching the vague and unsubstantiated label of ‘bias’ to it.”

        I said I’d read it carefully, and I fully intend to look at the sources to judge the meta-study’s interpretations. There is no serious doubt, however, that the Templeton Fund has a pro-religious bias.

        “… the correlation you made is an awful and crude one. ”

        The distinct correlation between happiness and non-religiousity is undeniable. I haven’t gotten to possible causation yet, but if you wish to reject the relevance of the correlation via “confounding factors,” then a good start would be to enumerate those factors.

        “How do you explain that the careful longitudinal study in one country completely contradicts your conclusions?”

        Yeah, I don’t have the space here to explain the inherent fuzziness of sociology, and it’d certainly be a waste of time, given your habit of cherry-picking data.

        “I gave you another study that shows the relationship between life satisfaction and religious behaviour… Why are you so determined to turn a blind eye to such copious evidence?”

        You gave me a link to your Google+ page. In trying to keep up with your rhetorical four-beat canter, I must have missed it. Give me the direct link, and I’ll have a look.

        “Obama has extensive experience in welfare work in Chicago…. He was speaking as President and this gives his words added weight.”

        If you want to swallow whole the hagiography of the so-called ‘community organizer’, go for it. Nevertheless, I reject the alleged authority of the man, and reject your fallacious appeal to authority — all your frequent appeals to authority.

        “But how on earth does that disprove my thesis that the Church does great good? You seem to have become very, very confused.”

        Let’s make a deal. I’ll acknowledge that organized religions indeed do much good via charitable acts — no biggie, as I’ve already done so repeatedly. In return, you recognize my assertion — not agree with, just recognize — that: 1) the *net* benefit of religious practice is negligible or negative; 2) the social service role of organized religions are redundant.

        *
        If you give me the link to that study, we can discuss that. Otherwise, I’m not inclined to trudge over the same ground over & over with you, especially as you willfully misinterpret my words. Nor do I find constructive the frequent, condescending snarks and allusions to my stupidity during what was intended to be an honest, intellectual debate. I can only chuckle at the hubris of a new convert to Catholicism lecturing an old apostate on the inner workings and broader purpose of that institution. Granted, you knew nothing about my experiences or expertise when you disparaged them. But that’s kinda the point, eh?

      • Matt,
        Nevertheless, I reject the alleged authority of the man,
        You can reject anything you like but if you cannot produce substantive reasons for your rejection your words are hollow and carry no weight. So why not step up to the plate and give solid, substantive reasons for rejecting his statements?

        The record is clear, we know what he did in Chicago. His experience seemingly qualifies him to make that judgement. Now, if you disagree, please give us some solid facts.

      • Matt,
        Yeah, I don’t have the space here to explain the inherent fuzziness of sociology, and it’d certainly be a waste of time, given your habit of cherry-picking data.

        Please do explain by looking at the study and showing where it is faulty.
        Perhaps you can show how I have done cherry picking by listing the countervailing evidence I ignored? Good luck with that. As it happened, the study used a large, publically available data set constructed over many years. I really would like to see how this imaginary cherry picking was done.
        Really, you have given a most shabby excuse for ignoring a study. It looks rather like wilful ignorance.

      • Matt,
        “Let’s make a deal. I’ll acknowledge that organized religions indeed do much good via charitable acts — no biggie, as I’ve already done so repeatedly. In return, you recognize my assertion — not agree with, just recognize — that: 1) the *net* benefit of religious practice is negligible or negative; 2) the social service role of organized religions are redundant.”

        Hah, some progress, religion does good.
        Now please do show me how “the *net* benefit of religious practice is negligible or negative“.
        I’m not talking about opinions. We already know all about your opinions. Please give some good, hard data, preferably academic studies.

        You might want to think carefully about the meaning of the word benefit. That simple word encompasses a wide range of meanings and similarly the benefits of religion to society encompasses a wide field.

        Then, while we are about it, show me that the “the social service role of organized religions are redundant.
        I know, for example, that in my own country the need is so large that secular services can only address part of the need. Secular and religious services combined still fail to address the total demand, by a large amount.

  11. Matt,
    Peter, you’re moving the goal posts”
    Not at all. The grammar of the title is crystal clear and leaves no room for doubt.

    and playing loose with defining terms.
    Gosh, I insist on accuracy and you accuse me of playing loose! Are we reading the same essay?

    Our host lists achievements of religion dating from the 8th to 17th centuries. But now I’m only allowed to talk about religion today?
    He is free to do so, but I am addressing the actual question.

    Surely it must be obvious to you, that whatever the history, what actually matters is the here and now. I thought you had grasped the point of my pungent analogy! RJH has made the point repeatedly, and I agree with him, that New Atheism has an awful grasp of history. As a scholar of history he really should know. Debating the past with people ignorant of the past is an exercise in futility. You might as well discuss quantum physics with the plumber. You have no idea how many times New Atheists have insisted that Hitler was religious and a Catholic. When people make such claims I shake my head in despair at such dumb, thick headed, obstinate stupidity. Don’t they read anything besides the historically illiterate Dawkins? I know nothing about the depth of your knowledge of history but I will know the answer if you agree that Hitler was religious and a Catholic.

    But it hardly matters. What matters is the present conduct of religion. Moreover it is accessible to direct observation and study. As examples of that I have given you two good studies that definitively show the positive effects of religious belief. But I note you studiously refuse to examine or credit the findings. I have given you a good list of the benefits accruing from Catholicism and you blithely ignore them. If you refuse to accept good evidence from the present then I despair of any kind of debate with you on the basis of our incomplete knowledge of the past.

    You also focus almost exclusively on Roman Catholicism
    Of course I do. It would be stupid of me to comment on matters I know little about. I will only comment on Islam(as an example) after I have studied it and become fully informed. That is advice that others would do well to heed. You should bear in mind that Dawkins’ thoroughly discredited playbook is an awful guide to the truth.

    • Peter:

      Surely it must be obvious to you, that whatever the history, what actually matters is the here and now.

      Seems to me that much of Joseph’s entire point is that history has, or should have, some bearing on choices made now, on directions to take in the future. Something you apparently more or less agree with since you are castigating some “New Atheists” for having “an awful grasp of history” – although you apparently wish to condemn the entire movement and every member of it for that “sin”.

      And the history of “religion” – at least much of Christianity and Islam for the last 1500 to 2000 years – has been marked, if not badly marred, by a remarkable degree of dogmaticism and literalism, by an insistence on the truth of various claims that are largely contradictory and totally lacking in any evidentiary support at all. As T.H. Huxley put it:

      The truth is that the pretension to infallibility, by whomsoever made, has done endless mischief; with impartial malignity it has proved a curse, alike to those who have made it and those who have accepted it; and its most baneful shape is book infallibility. For sacerdotal corporations and schools of philosophy are able, under due compulsion of opinion, to retreat from positions that have become untenable; while the dead hand of a book sets and stiffens, amidst texts and formulae, until it becomes a mere petrifaction, fit only for that function of stumbling block, which it so admirably performs. Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation. …. —T. H, Huxley, Science and Hebrew Tradition

      And that “pretension to infallibility” seems still to be as much a part of Catholicism now as it was when Loyola made his “Rules for Thinking with the Church” some 500 years ago – with the same “baneful” consequences. The “Church” may have changed some of its spots but underneath it is still the same “rough beast”.

  12. Steersman,
    really hard to see how the egregious brainwashing of defenseless children can call for anything less…

    Well, at least we are no longer crippling young minds. Now, according to you, we are brainwashing defenseless children.

    More extravagant hyperbole that just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
    We educate children, in fact there is a huge educational system that does this. As parents and educators we defend our children. I took great care to ensure my children were never defenseless and their educators exercised similar care. The defence was both physical, intellectual and moral.

    More to the point, where and how does education become brainwashing? Do you even know what brainwashing is? Let me help you:
    a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas

    Systematic effort to destroy an individual’s former loyalties and beliefs and to substitute loyalty to a new ideology or power. It has been used by religious cults as well as by radical political groups. The techniques of brainwashing usually involve isolation from former associates and sources of information; an exacting regimen calling for absolute obedience and humility; strong social pressures and rewards for cooperation; physical and psychological punishments for non-cooperation, including social ostracism and criticism, deprivation of food, sleep, and social contacts, bondage, and torture; and constant reinforcement. Its effects are sometimes reversed through deprogramming, which combines confrontation and intensive psychotherapy.

    Do you begin to see how false your extravagant claims are?

    • Peter:

      Well, at least we are no longer crippling young minds. Now, according to you, we are brainwashing defenceless children.

      Let’s see what the dictionary has to say about the word:

      crip•pled, crip•pling, crip•ples
      1. To cause to lose the use of a limb or limbs.
      2. To disable, damage, or impair the functioning of: a strike that crippled the factory.

      Seems perfectly reasonable to me to assert that “brainwashing” someone is to “disable, damage or impair their functioning”, in this case being able to differentiate between fact and fantasy – you have some actual and factual evidence that heaven and hell actually exist, that Jesus was literally resurrected, that the saints are waiting to answer calls – Dial-a-Saint – to intercede in people’s daily trials? If I’m not mistaken that inability is frequently characterized as being delusional.

      And I note that Wikipedia defines brainwashing as “to affect a person’s mind by using extreme mental pressure or any other mind-affecting process”. I wonder how you would characterize the lurid descriptions, horrific by design, of the torments of hell used in both fundamentalist “hell-houses” and in Catholic dogma? You may wish to, although I doubt you will, consider some of the criticisms of those prime and entirely edifying examples of Christian charity and compassion here, some even from more rational and progressive Christians. As for “extreme mental pressure”, you may wish to re-read my quotations, on another of Joseph’s threads, of Dawkins describing the experiences of a young Catholic girl “who spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.” As Bertrand Russell put it:

      The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists – that is why they invented hell.

      Nice bunch of people.

      In addition, you might note that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which I might note has been signed by every country in the world except Somalia, South Sudan and the United States, a situation that Obama has described as “embarrassing” [understatement of the year], and one due largely to “the opposition of religious conservatives” – stipulates that “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Curious, is it not, that Catholics raise children who turn out to be Catholics, that Muslims raise children who turn out to be Muslims, that Sikhs raise children who turn out to be Sikhs? Most people, at least those with functioning “cognitive dissonance meters”, would probably conclude that what is in play there is some serious and egregious abrogration of those children’s rights to “freedom of religion”. And of thought; “brainwashing” in-deed.

  13. Peter Smith wrote: “Sam Harris has even gone so far as to claim that it can be permissible to kill people for their beliefs. That is a bizarre form of persuasion.”

    What were Harris’ exact words, again? Could you please quote or link to them? And what did you think when you read his formal denial of that?

    “Let me give you a delightful example of blind adherence to atheist dogma. Jerry Coyne launched a wide ranging attack on David Bentley Hart’s new book – ‘The Experience of God’, But, wait for it, Jerry Coyne has not read the book. Really, he admits it himself. ”

    Since you follow Coyne, you’ll recall:
    1) He has the book on order;
    2) He tentatively responds to the summary of Hart’s argument as — presumedly accurately — described in the book review.

    That is not dishonest. And, if the review was inaccurate, Coyne will assuredly to revise his assessment after reading the book, which is the antithesis of dogmatic.

    I’ve read the review. As far as I can tell, Hart’s ‘amazing new proof’ for the existence of God is:

    God is unfalsifiable. QED.

    That’s laughable and infantile.

    • What were Harris’ exact words, again? Could you please quote or link to them?
      “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”
      Sam Harris – The End of Faith, page 53. I have a pdf copy of his book.

      And what did you think when you read his formal denial of that?
      He qualified his words but not disavow them.
      The only acceptable response is to completely disavow them. In the first place he carefully chose those words and admitted they were an extraordinary claim so we can assume he really meant what he said. In a society driven by ethics and the rule of law we cannot even begin to consider killing someone for their beliefs, no matter what the qualifications and excuses. The idea is sick and disgusting.

      Since you follow Coyne, you’ll recall:1) He has the book on order;
      Almost everyone(except Coyne) reads the book first and then reviews it. Why is Jerry Coyne exempt from such a simple, commonsense procedure? Oh wait, Coyne already knows everything so that exempts him from reading the book. I suppose that sums up New Atheism.

      Coyne will assuredly to revise his assessment after reading the book
      Big Mouth Jerry Coyne change his mind and admit mistakes? That would be a real first. I can’t wait to see it.

      I’ve read the review. As far as I can tell, Hart’s ‘amazing new proof’ for the existence of God is: God is unfalsifiable. QED. That’s laughable and infantile.
      Let me get this straight, you too have not read the book but you feel fully qualified to make this judgement? You must save a lot of money on buying books.

      The Four Wise Atheist Monkeys spoke, saying,
      verily, verily I say unto thee,
      See no good,
      Hear no good,
      Speak no good,
      Do no good,
      and the Fifth Atheist Monkey added,
      Read no good.

      • 1) Were atheism a dogma, I’d have to accept everything The Prophet Harris says. It’s not, so I don’t;

        2) Are we keeping a tally now of whenever an atheist advocates killing over beliefs, vs. when believers do? Are you sure you want to go there?

        3) You must have attended one of those ‘Quote-Mining for Christians’ training sessions. FTR, Harris’ reply
        http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2#killing

        … and his quote in context:

        “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”

        4) “There is, in fact, no talking to some people.” Seems I agree with Harris on at least one thing.

      • Matt,
        Are you sure you want to go there?
        Yes, I do. Can you quote a present leader of the Catholic Church advocating killing for belief?
        I’m quoting a present, living leader in the atheist movement, now please quote a present, living leader in the Catholic Church.
        Pope Francis? One of today’s Cardinals?
        Well, let’s hear the quote!
        Hmm?
        Sudden silence!

      • Matt,
        … and his quote in context:
        Oh my gosh, you are just digging your hole a little deeper.
        Don’t you read your quotes? Let me help you out.

        First he says:
        1)”Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.
        OK, fast forward to his justification:
        2) “inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.
        3) “otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.

        So, what is going on here in his rather convoluted construction?
        1) He states an obvious truth, we may kill people in self defense.
        2) He goes on to say, by implication, that we could kill people who inspire extraordinary acts of violence. A dodgy truth.
        3) Therefore we can kill people for holding the beliefs that may motivate violence. A moral falsehood.

        Do you see the fallacy here? An obvious truth is used to defend a dodgy truth which is then used to defend a falsehood. So we use self defense to motivate killing for belief. What shabby, immoral reasoning.

        His logic is false, his morality is dreadful and his judgement is awful. No sane person in the Western world should be advocating killing for belief. Why? Because we automatically legitimise their killings for the same reason.

        His judgement is awful for another reason. Our best long term defence is the rule of law. When we embrace killing outside the rule of law we weaken our own institutions and give encouragement to others to flout the rule of law.

        But none of this should surprise us. Any system as bereft of values, morality and meaning, such as New Atheism, will automatically arrive at such brain dead ethical decisions. The best example of that was atheist Soviet Union and atheist Communist China.

      • Matt, by your logic, if Christianity were a dogma, then I would have to accept everything the Pope says or the Bible says. It is not, so I don’t.

      • Matt,
        “I’ve read the review. As far as I can tell, Hart’s ‘amazing new proof’ for the existence of God is: God is unfalsifiable. QED. That’s laughable and infantile.”

        To repeat, you have not read the book but you can judge its contents!
        But this is becoming a habit. I provide some really good references to the beneficial effects of religion. You blandly wave your hands and dismiss their contents without a single substantive argument.

        It is extraordinary, you know the answers so well that you can judge the book before reading it. You know the answers so well that you can dismiss careful studies, again without examining them.

        I am in complete awe of you. How do you acquire such knowledge that questions can be answered before they are asked? Wait, I know the answer, we lack free will and this is a rigidly deterministic world where all outcomes are predetermined. My consciousness is an illusion and choices are an illusion. Therefore falsehood is an illusion and you are automatically right in everything. QED. I knew there has to be a logical explanation.

      • Matt,
        Were atheism a dogma, I’d have to accept everything The Prophet Harris says. It’s not, so I don’t;

        Good, glad to hear that.
        Now that is out of the way, do you support his claim we may kill people for holding certain beliefs?
        Do you think it is wise for someone in a leadership position to advocate killing people for holding certain beliefs?

        I’d love to see how closely you hew to the Party line.

  14. “You do your best to tear down public symbols of religious belief, you do your best to limit public expression of religious belief.”

    That’s upholding the Constitution’s ban on public symbols of religion. I defend your right to express your beliefs in public, just not to co-opt public space or resources when doing so.

    “You claim there is no God, where is the evidence for this claim? … [atheists] cannot produce affirmative arguments of their own that there is no God.”

    Dang! I can’t disprove leprechauns, either, which means they also must exist.

    No, Peter — you’re the one making the claim; you’re the one with the burden of providing evidence. cf. Russell’s teapot or “The Dragon in My Garage” from Sagan’s _The Demon-Haunted World_

    • Matt,
      That’s upholding the Constitution’s ban on public symbols of religion.
      For a very long time the practice was tolerated because it reflected a public consensus. Why suddenly start reversing this consensus? What happened to simple tolerance when it does no harm? The long term interests of society are best advanced by a policy of respectful tolerance based on a spirit of goodwill. New Atheism instead follows a policy of mean spirited intolerance. No wonder the public has such a poor opinion of atheism.

      • Peter:

        Considering what has been accepted in the past as part of a “public consensus” I would think you wouldn’t want to put very much weight on that concept.

        Particularly given your touting of the supposedly superior “moral priming” afforded by “religion” – you may wish to peruse this exemplary case in the “Bible belt nation” of the consequences of “respectful tolerance” and “public consensus”.

      • Steersman,
        Yeah, and I received six strokes of the cane for not wearing my school hat on a weekend trip into the nearby city.
        Bullying is wrong and abuse of power by teachers is wrong, regardless of the putative reasons.

        But what does your just-so story show?

        Let me suggest a much more reasonable interpretation.
        A wrong committed in one place for one reason cannot be used to justify a wrong committed in another place for another reason. It is a basic principle of justice.

        Let me suggest something else. I know this will stick in the gullet of New Atheists.
        If we all started practicing tolerance based on goodwill and respect the world would start becoming a much better place. Tolerance requires a respectful understanding of the other person’s position, a willingness to concede a little. A bombastic insistence on your entitlements breaks down tolerance, polarizes people and hardens their insistence on rights, to our mutual detriment. Tolerant respect earns acceptance and reciprocal tolerance, reducing conflict and increasing understanding.

        Why do you think the American public has such a poor opinion of atheists?

      • You’re cracking me up, Peter! One minute, you’re all about the importance of adhering to the Rule of Law, the next, you want special dispensation to violate the US Constitution. One or the other.

      • Yes, Matt, I can see tolerance is a foreign word in your vocabulary. Which helps to explain the rather poor opinion the public has of American atheists.

        You ask ‘One or the other
        That is a false dichotomy. There is a third way, tolerant respect based on understanding, give and take.
        I find it so revealing that you refuse to recognise this alternative. It is emblematic of the hostile, mean, intolerance of atheist fundamentalism that goes by the name of New Atheism.

      • Peter:

        But what does your just-so story show?

        Let me suggest a much more reasonable interpretation. A wrong committed in one place for one reason cannot be used to justify a wrong committed in another place for another reason. It is a basic principle of justice.

        I kind of think that you’re missing the point there Peter – or simply refuse to confront it. It really isn’t a case of using a “wrong committed in one place” to justify another wrong in another place, but one of trying to identify the primary cause for a spectrum of problematic events and behaviours. And since “religion” is a notable common element in many of them, most rationalists and skeptics, those not too badly brainwashed, are more likely to entertain the idea that “religion” itself is the common cause. And as mentioned and as Pascal noted:

        Men [and presumably women] never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

        And which might then lead most skeptics and rationalists to ask what it is about “religious conviction” that leads to or causes that state of affairs. And while there are, of course, other reasons or causes for doing evil, and while the murky depths of the psychology behind them are not easily fathomed – although Russell’s “the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists which is why they invented hell” tends to clarify matters – it seems to me that the dogmatic certainty that is the hallmark of religion has to qualify as a major and primary cause.

        If we all started practicing tolerance based on goodwill and respect the world would start becoming a much better place. Tolerance requires a respectful understanding of the other person’s position ….

        Considering the great many manifestations of religious intolerance all over the world, including within the bastions of Christianity – on the frontlines and in the rear-echelons – that’s a real thigh-slapper there Peter. When the Vatican gets around to conceding that much of their literalist dogma – which undergirds that intolerance – is only mythology at best then I’ll consider that they’re starting to practice what you’re preaching.

        Why do you think the American public has such a poor opinion of atheists?

        Uh, maybe because some 60% of them are besotted with fundamentalist, literalist religion – including much of Catholicism – and resent being denied their daily fixes? Just a guess, mind you.

      • Either we adhere to the Constitution, or we allow violations of it. That’s no false dichotomy.

        It’s not just atheists who consider it important to enforce our laws; Americans United, for example, has many members — board members, in fact — who are religious and even clergy.

        Church:state separation is to your personal benefit, Peter. Catholics are a minority in the US, and it wasn’t too long ago that ‘papists’ were discriminated and persecuted.

    • Matt,
      you’re the one with the burden of providing evidence.
      You are ignoring the obvious truth. Anyone who makes an assertion carries the burden of supporting his assertion with evidence, premises, logic etc. By making the assertion you assume the burden of providing support for the assertion.

      If you want to assert that God does not exist then you assume the burden of motivating your statement and providing evidence. If you can’t do that you are well advised to remain silent.

      Of course, New Atheism is well known for dodging this requirement, which only goes to how unbelievably weak their position is. If their position was strong they would unhesitatingly give evidence to show God does not exist. Instead they cower behind a pathetic excuse. Pathetic behaviour covering up a weak position..

      • “If you want to assert that God does not exist then you assume the burden of motivating your statement and providing evidence. If you can’t do that you are well advised to remain silent.”

        Then why aren’t you silent about God, since you’ve yet to prove your assertion? Why have you ruled out Horus, Shiva, Astarte, Woden as Gods, seeing as you can’t disprove their existence?

      • Matt,
        Then why aren’t you silent about God, since you’ve yet to prove your assertion?

        You have missed the point. I don’t have to prove my assertion. From a strictly scientific point of view both my assertion and your assertion are unprovable. When faced with two mutually incompatible but unprovable assertions you have two strategies left. You can be agnostic or you can ask which assertion has the greater probability of being true, given the preponderance of evidence. This is exactly the strategy used very successfully in civil law.

        Now you should know the fundamental difference between civil law and criminal law is that civil law is decided mostly on the balance of probabilities while criminal cases require proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

        In fact almost everything in life is decided on a ‘balance of probabilities’ basis. I cannot prove that I will arrive at my destination safely but I know, on the balance of probabilities, there is a sufficiently good chance that I will arrive safely. This ‘balance of probabilities’ is the essential guideline we use with most decisions and we all do it all the time, in a simple intuitive way. When I went skydiving I believed the balance of probabilities favoured my survival and they did, despite one hair raising event involving myself. There was only one fatal accident in our club while I was there. I certainly could never prove I would survive. The acceptable degree of probability will vary depending on my needs and circumstances. I loved skydiving and consequently was prepared to accept a lower probability than most people were.

        If we were required to prove the successful outcome of all choices life would grind to an immediate stop. If we use the balance of probabilities approach to life, why then must we prove the existence of God? In fact we don’t have to. All we have to do is ask whether the balance of probabilities, given the available evidence, favours the theist hypothesis over the atheist hypothesis. And we believe that, on the balance of probabilities, the evidence favours the theist hypothesis over the atheist hypothesis. In fact, if we take this approach, the atheist hypothesis looks singularly weak.

        Why have you ruled out Horus, Shiva, Astarte, Woden as Gods, seeing as you can’t disprove their existence?
        Because you are committing that most elementary of all mistakes, asking the wrong question. The question is whether God exists. The question is not what name or label we should assign to God. Sure, you can ask that question but it makes no sense at all until you have decided that God exists.

        References
        1. Preponderance of evidence
        Preponderance of the evidence
        Preponderance of the evidence, also known as balance of probabilities is the standard required in most civil cases. This is also the standard of proof used in grand jury indictment proceedings (which, unlike civil proceedings, are procedurally unrebuttable), and in family court determinations solely involving money, such as child support under the Child Support Standards Act.
        The standard is met if the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. Effectively, the standard is satisfied if there is greater than 50 percent chance that the proposition is true. Lord Denning, in Miller v. Minister of Pensions,[4] described it simply as “more probable than not.”

        2. Legal Burden of Proof
        The burden of proof is often associated with the Latin maxim ‘semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit’, the best translation of which seems to be: ‘the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges.’

      • “You have missed the point. I don’t have to prove my assertion. From a strictly scientific point of view both my assertion and your assertion are unprovable.”

        Per the scientific method, a claim is lent credence based on the extent to which is can be demonstrated to be true, either via evidence &/or a predictive model. We can’t technically disprove gravity, but we accept it to be true. Were you to claim that things can fall up, I don’t need to lend your claim the slightest bit of credence, just because someday something might fall up. So far, every single observation has found that things fall down; further, we have a precise, predictive way to explain why.

        Your claim that God exists has not been demonstrated via evidence. Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. It also offers zero descriptive or predictive value. Finally, it’s unfalsifiable, and, per the scientific method, unfalsifiable claims are to be dismissed out-of-hand.

        *

        “Now you should know the fundamental difference … the evidence favours the theist hypothesis over the atheist hypothesis.”

        A very long-winded way to say “wishful thinking.”

        *

        “you are committing that most elementary of all mistakes, asking the wrong question. The question is whether God exists. The question is not what name or label we should assign to God. Sure, you can ask that question but it makes no sense at all until you have decided that God exists.”

        You’ve decided that a theistic God exists. So I asked why He’s the Judeo-Christian God, not any of the other 39,999 deities humans have invented over the ages. And you dodged the question.

        *

        “Preponderance of evidence….”

        For God? What evidence?

      • Peter:

        When faced with two mutually incompatible but unprovable assertions you have two strategies left. You can be agnostic or you can ask which assertion has the greater probability of being true, given the preponderance of evidence.

        While I can generally agree with that general claim, I would say that your “we believe that, on the balance of probabilities, the evidence favours the theist hypothesis over the atheist hypothesis” suggests that you’re somewhat unclear on the details if not that you seem to have your thumb on the scales. More particularly, you might note the following from the Wikpedia article on probabilities:

        … there are two major conflicting categories of probability interpretations, whose adherents possess different views about the fundamental nature of probability:

        1.Objectivists assign numbers to describe some objective or physical state of affairs. The most popular version of objective probability is frequentist probability, which claims that the probability of a random event denotes the relative frequency of occurrence of an experiment’s outcome, when repeating the experiment. This interpretation considers probability to be the relative frequency “in the long run” of outcomes. ….

        2. Subjectivists assign numbers per subjective probability, i.e., as a degree of belief. The degree of belief has been interpreted as, “the price at which you would buy or sell a bet that pays 1 unit of utility if E, 0 if not E.”[6] The most popular version of subjective probability is Bayesian probability, which includes expert knowledge as well as experimental data to produce probabilities. The expert knowledge is represented by some (subjective) prior probability distribution.

        But both rely to a substantial degree on “experimental data” – on prior runs or experiments: one knows from having rolled a single die a great many times in the past that when one rolls it again in the future any given number of the six is likely to occur one-sixth of the time. Pray tell, where is your “experimental data”, where is your “prior probability distribution” of “test runs” of the “universe”, some of which were created by “gawd”, and some which were not? Even apart from the impracticality of that experiment, that the subject is, apparently, by definition in the realm of the supernatural seems to preclude you from ever coming up the data you are desperately searching for.

        In addition, the historical record showing that anthropomorphic deities have turned out to be a bust – some 10,000 to 100,000 of the critters by some reports – tends to provide pretty solid sets of “experimental data” and “probability distributions” that support the statistical inference that any and all of their current anthropomorphic ilk – Jehovah and Allah for examples – are likewise highly improbable. Your “favours the theist hypothesis” looks to be so much moonshine – at best.

        Looks to me like you’re just whistling past the graveyard. Like everyone else – except most people are prepared to acknowledge that fact.

    • I think God qua God is a great deal different than teapots and dragons and leprechauns. For one, I can in principle empirically verify these things because they are physical things, and given what I know about the physical world I have no good reason to believe that any of these claims–about dragons and teapots and so forth–are justified.

      Also, I think it is a great big logical mistake to assume that negative truth claims do not have a burden of proof. All truth claims have a burden of proof, in my mind, positive or negative. But what is really annoying about these type of arguments, and I am surprised Russell missed it, although I think he was doing something quite a bit different with his analogy than many suppose, is that something so trivial as these instances do not have a greater burden of proof than their alternatives. For instance, suppose I insert the name Bob Hope in for some fictional character in some story, then the person who claims Bob Hope does not exist has a greater or, at least, equally great burden of proof as the person claiming they do exist.

      Of course, all of these arguments hinge on the belief that the non-believer and believer only disagree about the existence of God and agree about everything else in the universe. Which is untrue.

  15. Peter Smith wrote — “I am beginning to seriously wonder about your blind adherence to atheist dogma. Does it prevent you from doing even the most rudimentary fact checking? Let me help you out with some links to the subject.
1) See this comprehensive article that details extensive prosecution of religion by secular authorities in the Soviet Union.
2) See this comprehensive article about the persecution of Christianity in the Warsaw Bloc.”

    Admittedly, I was relying not on wikipedia, rather my personal, anecdotal experience — my visits and conversations with my aunt, a nun in East Berlin.

    But did I say religions weren’t persecuted? I said they were permitted, and contrasted that to theistic governments, past & present, where apostasy is a capital offense.

    • Matt,
      I said they were permitted
      Please actually read those references. When you destroy churches, imprison priests and harass religious activity one can only conclude that the permissions are so nominal that they hardly exist.

  16. ‘“Can you quote a present leader of the Catholic Church advocating killing for belief?
    I’m quoting a present, living leader in the atheist movement, now please quote a present, living leader in the Catholic Church.”

    Oh, my — I seem to have stumbled onto the “Is Catholicism Good?” debate by mistake.

    Is that where you’ve relocated the goal posts this time? What amazing debating prowess you have, to dismiss my examples of modern religions doing things like issuing fatwas and executing apostates, by suddenly excluding Islam from the rubrik “religion.” Televangelists praying for natural disasters to strike ‘sinful’ regions? Nope, not Catholics. No doubt, were I to mention catholic clergy — Anglicans don’t count as ‘religion’, right? — in Africa goading their parishioners to persecute & murder homosexuals and accused witches, you’d only play the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Since I’m discussing whether religion as a practice is on the whole beneficial to humanity, and you’re changing the topic on the fly, this is fruitless.

  17. “John Gribbin has done a good job illustrating why asking ‘What came before the Big Bang?’ is like asking ‘What’s above the North Pole?’

    “Terrible analogy. I can easily answer that question by projecting the Earth’s axis into space and identifying the elements that it intersects with. It is all a matter of choosing the right perspective.

    “In any case, many reputable cosmologists are indeed asking that question, hence the debate about multiverses vs cyclic universes.”

    What, you’re dismissing Gribbin’s analogy without even having read it? Shameful!

    Semantics seem to trip you up, so let me rephrase: ‘What’s North of the North Pole?’ Are you familiar with the notion that time may be non-linear prior to or just after the big bang?

    When you refer to ‘multiverses’, do you mean the existence of universes other than our own, or Wheeler’s concept?

    When you refer to ‘cyclic universes’, do you mean the topology of this universe, or the hypothesis of cyclically colliding branes creating successive universes? How, exactly, is the latter incompatible with Wheeler’s multiverse?

    Why do you cherry-pick Penrose’s figures on entropy, but reject as “impossible” his findings based on COBE data?

  18. “How did life arise…. Except that science has not answered it. There are many hypotheses but none have been empirically demonstrated to be true. The bottom line is surprisingly simple. We have not yet been able to create life from inanimate chemicals. Until we can do that it remains a riddle.”

    I can imagine someone very much like you, Peter, pontificating back in 1858: ‘How did the diversity of life arise? It’s an unsolved riddle; therefore, God must’ve done it!’

    It’s clear you’re not very familiar with the work that’s been done on naked replicators; a shame, considering some fascinating recent articles are available online. But your greatest failing by far is your complete misunderstanding of how the scientific method works, leading you to criticize Science for failing to perform the way you simplistically imagine it should.

    I’ve stated that I consider robust models and scientific Theories ‘answers,’ and that they’re vastly superior to any answers religion can conjure up. You continue to play semantic three-card monte. I think this discussion has run out of track.

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