[FoRK] TASPOR WAS: Confession

Dr. Ernie Prabhakar <drernie at radicalcentrism.org> on Wed Jan 30 16:58:44 PST 2008

Hi Corinna,

I apologize for the delay, but I finally got around to catching up on  
email, and did want to respond to some specific  comments you directed  
at me:

On Dec 20, 2007, at 3:54 PM, Corinna Schultz wrote:

> Arguments such as "look at the world -- there must be a creator", and
> "my sister was saved from that hurricane by a miracle", and "when I
> prayed for this guy, he got his dream job", and "the Bible is a
> special book, written by God to show us how to live" are all subject
> to examination because they are making claims about how the world
> works.

I agree.  Arguing from anecdote is a fairly weak argument, but it is a  
fairly common one (even on this list :-).  Much better to examine the  
evidence rigorously.

> There are many of us who have looked into it, found that there is a
> common thread of irrationality (and disregarding evidence, etc)
> running through such claims (apart from the social/psychological
> forces I mentioned above), and therefore any religion which makes
> similar claims can be dismissed.

I think you've lost me there.  You're argument seems to be:

a) Person X makes claim "A"
b) Person X is irrational
c) Religion Y makes claim "B"
d) Claim "B" is similar to claim "A"
e) Therefore, religion "Y" is also irrational

Perhaps oversimplifying, but I want to make sure I'm understanding you  
correctly, or at least figure out where I'm misunderstanding.

> Furthermore, the kind of thinking which promotes these sorts of claims
> is *dangerous*. And so we say that religion itself is dangerous.  
> It's the greatest
> source for promoting that kind of thinking.

I fear you've lost me again.  Your argument seems to be:

a) Person X makes an irrational claim "A"
b) Person X is religious
c) Therefore, religion promotes irrationality

Certainly, *many* religious traditions do encourage (or at least  
tolerate) irrational speculation.  However -- as has been discussed ad  
naseum on this list -- many of the world's greatest scientists were  
extremely religious.  So, would it not be more productive to try to  
isolate *when* and *why* certain forms of religious enable irrational  

[Plus, I would also argue that superstition and magical thinking are  
closer kin to the kind of irrational thinking you describe, which is  
actually antithetical to most organized religions, which have rich  
intellectual and philosophical traditions. Sure, you could lump them  
all together to prove your point, but I think we'd learn more by  
making finer distinctions].

> Which is not to deny that religious people have done all sorts of
> wonderful things in the name of their religion, myself included, that
> might not have otherwise happened (my husband and I allowed an ex-con
> to live with us for a while so he could have some breathing room to
> get his life back together).

Thank you.

> But the sort of thinking that believes in religious claims is the sort
> of thinking that results in great evil. Non-religious people are not
> immune from such thinking, but they usually don't take it so far as to
> cause great evil.

I guess it depends on what you mean by "usually."  Can you quantify  
that statement? Certainly, most atheists don't turn into mass  
murderers -- but neither do most Christians.

Or are you defining "religious" to include things like Marxism and  

> Now, you can argue that the social cohesion and aesthetics and even
> philosophical value of religion is very important. And I agree. *BUT*
> why not keep the good and throw out the bad?

Actually, that *is* what I am arguing for.  For people to make more  
precise distinctions, so we can keep *all* the good and throw out  
*all* the bad.

> Stop making irrational truth-claims about the world, and get on with  
> promoting civilization.

Again, you've lost me.  I'm confused as to which truth claims you  
consider "irrational" and which you consider "self-evident." For  

a1) All human beings have worth
a2) All human beings are created in the image of God

b1) We have a moral duty to promote civilization
b2) We have a moral duty to please God

c1) What is good for society is morally right
c2) What God commands is morally right

The sets (1) and (2) both seem to me equally "irrational" or "valid"  
-- and liable to abuse.   Where (if anywhere) do you draw the line?

> People (and I think you are one, Ernie, correct me if I'm wrong) think
> that it must be taken as a package deal, that you cannot separate the
> aesthetic, etc from the global truth-claims, and that since everyone
> agrees that the one is important and valid, we must also accept the
> other.

No, absolutely not.  I consider religion (including my own!) deeply  
corrupt, and in desperate need of reform.  I expend an enormous amount  
of effort in trying to determine which truth-claims are worth pursuing  
and which need to be discarded (or at least ignored).

However, I _would_ argue that aesthetics and values ultimately derive  
from _some_ global truth claims, even if implicitly in a non- 
foundational way.  As such, I think it is important to understand  
which claims people are espousing, and their logical (and social)  

> Plus you (people in general) make arguments that misuse words
> and equivocate and gloss over logical problems, and seem to
> *willfully* misunderstand...

Alas, that seems to be par for the course on FoRK. That's *why* I was  
begging for a "truce", where we could actually sit down and define our  
terms and ferret out any misunderstandings (willful or unintentional).

> And that's why it's exasperating to argue religion, especially with
> someone who is otherwise rational and intelligent. I think the problem
> is that we see distinctions where you don't, and so we argue past each
> other and make no headway.

I completely agree.

So, why don't we try to approach the problem scientifically, and nail  
down our definitions, assumptions, and asserted facts in order to  
enable meaningful forward progress?


I don't claim it is a perfect starting point, but it is *a* starting  
point.  Perhaps you can improve upon it?


-- Ernie P.

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