Inference reviews Faith Versus Fact

February 23, 2016 • 11:00 am

It’s a long review on Inference by the well known book critic George Scialabba, it’s called  “Good for nothing,” and it’s generally positive. I’ll take what I can get, particularly in view of the rage of theists.

Scialabba makes one point that I hadn’t taken up, or previously encountered:

For all the vigor with which Coyne pursues his bill of indictment against organized religion, he leaves out one important charge. As he says, the conflict between religion and science is “only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition.” There are other kinds of superstition. Coyne mentions astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing, but religion “is the most widespread and harmful form.” I’m not so sure. Political forms of superstition, like patriotism, tribalism, and the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence, seem to me even more destructive. Questioning authority was humankind’s original sin. It is also the first duty of a democratic citizen. It is something of an understatement to say that organized religions do not, on the whole, encourage the questioning of authority. Hence, it is probably not a coincidence that, among developed societies today, the most humane and pacific are the least religious.

I’m not so sure that tribalism is a form of superstitition so much as a spandrel of our evolved tendency to favor our ingroup: a “family” that’s an expanding circle from our family group and then our small cohesive social groups in Africa. But Scialabba’s right: it isn’t necessarily rational to favor your own country over others, and he’s also right about the negative correlation between the functionality of a society and its religiosity, something I highlight repeatedly on this site.

As for Nazism, Stalinism, and Chinese Communism, always cited as the horrible results of atheism, Scialabba says this:

At this point, believers will object strenuously: Don’t blame us! Look at the history of the twentieth century—the worst crimes were committed by unbelievers. Berlinski (a skeptic about both religion and evolution) has put this point with great force and verve. [I omit the Berlinksi quote; go see it for yourself].

. . . This is masterly rhetoric but faulty reasoning. Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism were rank superstitions, no more tolerant of doubt or committed to intellectual freedom than Counter-Reformation Catholicism or contemporary Salafism. They were secular religions.

Scialabba then mentions the useful aspects of religion in fostering solidarity, citing an fictional passage from D. H. Lawrence about a tribe that has a frenetic ritual dance as the sun sets:

Lawrence always called himself a fearfully religious man. This is as close as he ever came to describing his religion. It is indeed terrifying, as collective emotions can be. But a culture without any such instinctually-based communal rituals would probably be imaginatively and emotionally impoverished. [JAC: I disagree!]

IN SAYING THESE few words on behalf of (mostly natural) religion, I don’t mean to gainsay any of Coyne’s criticisms of supernatural religion. The dogmas Coyne derides in Faith Versus Fact are indeed, as James said of their nineteenth-century versions, “fifth wheels to the coach.” Even more valuable is Coyne’s resolute championing of critical thought and intellectual honesty. But his and others’ efforts do, I hope and believe, have dogmatic religion on the run, however long it may take to complete the rout. Meanwhile, it is important to identify and preserve whatever in religion’s vast and varied heritage may be of use to our emancipated descendants.

I appreciate Scialabba’s kind words. But about that last sentence: I wonder what the Danes, Swedes, and Dutch have preserved of “religions’s vast and varied heritage” to buttress their societies.  Not much, I suspect. My view has always been that as religion dies a natural death, people will find their own ways to fill the lacuna of its missing social functions, but that those lacunae will be filled in different ways by different people. For example, we have secular churches in the U.S., but they don’t have them in Sweden. Having abandoned faith long ago, Swedes have no need of such activities. We can always find secular ways to celebrate births, marriages, and deaths (Swedes sometimes repair to churches to do this, which is fine with me); but it would be presumptuous of me to suggest how such rituals should be conducted.

73 thoughts on “Inference reviews Faith Versus Fact

  1. “I wonder what the Danes, Swedes, and Dutch have preserved of “religions’s vast and varied heritage” to buttress their societies. Not much, I suspect.”

    We’ll keep the art and architecture 🙂

    For its own sake.

    1. Yeah I was going to say “some pretty buildings.”

      I vaguely recall reading a book about religion and secularism in Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries that even after giving up their belief in God, many otherwise people still wanted to get married in a church. I imagine at least some of that sentiment is due to the fact that there are lots of pretty churches that you can rent out for your private party – in contrast civic town halls tend to be busy and somewhat unaesthetic settings.

      1. And it is a long standing tradition of course. It is but lately that the choice of venues have broadened. (Modulo the municipal non-religious alternative, which has existed for some time.)

      1. A shame to destroy such interesting buildings. Take off the crosses and you’ve got a very cool looking library, clubhouse, performance hall, museum, art gallery, restaurant + brewery, etc..

        1. Lots of churches in New Zealand have become cafes, art galleries etc.

          Because we’re a much younger country, we don’t really have the beautiful old churches, but many are an absolute wonder on the inside because of their carvings.

          1. You’ve got some great old churches that would lend themselves to it as well. In Britain I’ve noticed a trend of old churches being turned into homes. There are some beautiful examples of it being done with old stone churches in particular.

          1. The organist was Dennis Jon Wolfgang who has been playing it for almost 40 years, from back in the days when the ICHC was still a church. The organ is a 4000 pipe Kimball organ. There’s an effort underway to collect funds for a restoration effort for the instrument. The think creates a very powerful sound.

            I’ve heard it played a few times at events like this (it was a fundraiser for the ICHC). This time the music was “light” and a bit tongue-in-cheek, including the them from Star Wars. At other times I’ve heard it used to evoke visions of Captain Nemo. I don’t know if it gets played from time to time in “serious” concerts (Bach, etc.).

            The building itself has been undergoing restoration for many years after having fallen into pretty serious disrepair. It is a beautiful old historic building on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1847 by abolitionists. It is the only place in Milwaukee where Martin Luther King, Jr. made a public speech (in 1957).

            I spent years taking my daughter there when she was an Irish dancer.

          2. Yeah… I have no idea what it would involve but I expect there are lots of fabric/leather/rubber (?) components that wear out over time.

            Perhaps Musical Beef can educate us on this subject?

          3. musical beef,

            There is a plaque or badge attached to the organ console, to the left and one level up from the top row of keys, that bears the inscription,

            “Rebuilt by Wangerin-Weickhardt Co Milwaukee Wis”

          1. Coincidentally, I’m just listening to Neil Diamond singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. One one level, that song is crammed full of religious references. On another, it isn’t really religious at all.

            And before that, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Mis, with the line “I dreamed that God would be forgiving” (implication: He isn’t).

            The point, I suppose, is that our culture is inextricably interwoven with religion. I think we can accept the good bits and ignore the religious component.


      1. I wouodnt extend religion too much credit. Verdi and Mozart wrote plenty of great music that had nothing to do with religion, including where the commission came from. If Mozart hadn’t written the Requiem (and, in fact, he didn’t write a great deal of it; his pupil Süssmeyer finished it), maybe he would e written a great 42nd symphony. The credit for art really goes to artists’ creative impulses, which they would’ve acted on, church or no.

        (Also, Verdi was an atheist!)

        1. True, that, except that they did write this stuff as liturgical music. No reason to deny it.

          And yes, I know that Verdi was pretty much a non-believer. And Mozart may have pretty much given up on it near the end, too. 😉

          No doubt there were some non-believers working on great church architecture, too.

          1. Yes, there are at least a few strands of evidence that point toward Mozart losing his faith.

            Not trying to deny that religion was the proximate cause for certain specific pieces being written. All too often, however, theists will claim “the music of Bach/etc” as due to religion, as though we’d be Bach-less without religion. Which is nonsense.

    2. Agreed.

      In travelling briefly in Europe and the UK, I noticed that much of what was worth seeing stemmed from three things – warfare, religion and transport.

      Warfare being the castles, fortified walls etc.
      Religion being the innumerable old churches.
      Transport of course being the bridges and mountain passes.

      If one just magically dematerialised all the castles, churches and old bridges, much interest would be lost.

      It’s all part of the heritage and should be remembered, even if not practised any more.


  2. “For example, we have secular churches in the U.S.”

    I was part of a group here exploring starting a local instance of “Sunday Assembly”, but I kept asking the group what exactly we would do when we met. I didn’t gather from the group that it was particularly dedicated towards rationality or science, they were just non-religious, which meant that we wouldn’t necessarily have anything to talk about.

    The only answer I got was that we would do what the Sunday Assembly brand name required of us….sing songs and have secular sermons. I dropped out after a half dozen meetings and the group self-destructed not long afterwards (not implying a cause/effect relationship).

  3. I feel that few rituals from religion are good influences. Some of them are onerous and divisive. Many rituals are just downright silly and pointless.

    Rituals such as births and marriages can be accomplished by contracts. Any ritual can be celebrated by a party/get together of many or a few. I used to celebrate obtaining a new job by going out for drinks and dinner and once even celebrated when I was laid off.

    I feel that the only parts of religion worth saving are not really of religions’ origin. These are altruism, charity and general kindness and helpfulness to others. These have been emphasized by some religions but they predated and will postdate those religions.

    1. I agree. One reason, I think, that most religious rituals (I’m thinking old religions like the desert dogmas) are not good influences is that they originated long ago in times and cultures in which, 1) mores were not so nice compared to most modern standards and, 2) knowledge of reality was likewise very poor by today’s standards.

  4. I thought that the review was pretty good. I also wasn’t too sure about the part about superstition highlighted in this post: Scialabba uses the term too broadly, and there are better explanations for patriotism, tribalism, and ideological fervour than aligning them with belief in the supernatural.

  5. The term “secular religions” is a bit odd. Certainly at odds with the usual definition of secular and secularism (separation of church and state etc).

    The alternative term “political religions” seems much more accurate.

    1. I have a category I call “irrational ideologies” – though I admit the “irrational” may be redundant. The “good” thing about secular ideologies, such as communism and naziism, is that they promise results on this earth, and can be tested. Thus they usually have a relatively short lifespan – usually much less than a century. Religious ideologies, on the other hand, with their promise of rewards in an afterlife, sometimes seem to go on forever, no matter how absurd they are in this life.

  6. But a culture without any such instinctually-based communal rituals would probably be imaginatively and emotionally impoverished.

    I spend my Sundays taking my kid to museums, art galleries, parks, zoos, and the occasional theater show or movie. These are “communal” – museums are produced by communities, for those in the community – and I suppose our Sunday outings are patterned or regular enough that it could now count as a ‘ritual.’ But I don’t see how religion or even anything religion-like needs to be involved.

  7. …..missing social functions, but that those lacunae will be filled in different ways by different people.
    This, I think, is the function religion provides for people who can’t think of anything better to do.
    It may have been valuable when farmers had limited time for social events. It’s where you caught up on news and met your spouse because the rest of your time was spent working.
    When someone tells me their church gives them a sense of community, I wonder if they’d ever made friends on their own.

    1. It used to be that once married, women only worked in the home too, so they had limited opportunities to make friends of their own.

      The church was where people got the news and gossip too – a sort ot weekly news bulletin was delivered from the pulpit.

  8. “Political forms of superstition, like … the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence…”

    I like how he slips that in.

    Because we know that all comes from god.

    No, Mars.

  9. “I’m not so sure that tribalism is a form of superstition so much as a spandrel of our evolved tendency to favor our ingroup”

    True, but elevating one’s emotional inclination to the status of political or moral philosophy comes pretty close. Example: American Exceptionalism

    1. As an outsider, I’ve started to think that American Exceptionalism is literally dangerous to the country. So many people think the US is the best at everything because of it and there’s no need for change, let alone improvement.

      For example, multiple countries that many in the US look down on because of either their small size or their non-WASP culture are leaving the US in the dust as regards education.

      The US clearly has a broken democratic system as well, but many continue to tout it as The Greatest Ever Democracy.

      1. The reason this thing you call American Exceptionalism is dangerous or bad is that they forget what it really was and then turned it into a propaganda item.

        The Industrial Revolution along with the massive farm acres and raw materials is what made America exceptional. Remember the people who had these things were all mostly Europeans in the first place. Could have done it elsewhere if the land and resources had been there. It is why we replaced Britain when we did. After WWII it was a done deal.

        If Germany and Japan had know what could be done here, they never would have gone to war as they did. Problem is this propaganda machine has twisted all of this into some type of master race of people here in the U.S. and only we could have done this. It’s all distortion. And also, what you did yesterday means nothing today…

        1. Good point.

          It also seems that those who currently espouse American Exceptionalism the most are the same ones who believe the US is chosen by God.

          Look at the Mormons for example – when Jesus comes back he’s coming to the USA.

          1. Exactly….Religion is always at it’s best when it is making stuff up. Exceptionalism with g*d.

        2. The way I see AE is that it is in a way a massive overgeneralization and a refusal to see what is wrong despite the existence of what is admirable.

          One of the interesting things about the US constitution is that includes the seeds on how to improve its own shortcomings. In general, this is the legacy of the Enlightenment.

      2. Absolutely true. Pointing out the error of these claims is taken to be disloyal, hating America. I understand that the British felt the same way about themselves, when their empire covered the globe.

        I don’t think that the Presidential sort of government that we have is held in high regard by political scientists. Most new democracies seemed to institute parliamentary systems.

        1. That’s another thing I’ve noticed – criticism of the US when you’re a citizen is seen as unpatriotic. Here we do it because we love our country so we want to make it better.

  10. Claiming that Nazism, Maoism, etc. are secular religions is to define religion with rather broad brushstrokes. Those other things are, at their core, examples of social and political movements that were centered on a personality cult. I would rather keep things in their categories as best we can, while acknowledging that there is some bleed-over from one to the other.

    1. Religions can be seen as personality cults. Mohamed-ism, Jesus-ism, etc. But, I agree that the definition is a bit sloppy and is needlessly confusing.

  11. I read this yesterday courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily. It was a nice change, since that site seem to have been pushing accommodationism lately. The review was a bit all over the place, so maybe the editors at Arts & Letters read it too fast. I also thought the bit about “political superstition” was a bit strange. I am not sure how patriotism can be equated with belief in god.

    1. I think in some cases religion and patriotism do share some common behavioral traits. For example the traits that result in tribalism. Also belief without evidence or even in spite of counter evidence.

      It seems to me that fervent patriots believe all kinds of bullshit about their countries that are not true for the same basic reasons that religious believers believe all kinds of bullshit about their religion.

    2. It’s not that. It is belief in something which does not exist but which requires us to act in some particular way. It is one more type of opium of the people, if you are taken by such metaphors. If you look into american history seriously, you will find little empirical reason for accepting a notion like “american exceptionalism” (the latest version of manifest destiny or its junior, the Monroe doctrine.)

  12. One thing that always gets me is the claim that nazism is a result of atheism. It is quite clear that it was influenced by Luther and as Sam Harris and many others have pointed out Hitler often equated his persecution of the Jews as part of his Christian duty. Not to mention the use of Gott bit uni on the soldiers belt buckle

    Sam Harris’ writing is found in his Letter to a Christian Nation and Hitler outlines his belief in Chapter Two of Mein Kampf.

  13. An Italian exchange student at university was shocked to find out that some churches were converted into bars or in the case of the Jozefkerk in Arnhem, even a skateboard park!

    As the professor already said, religious rituals have simply been replaced by secular rituals. Secular societies still celebrate marriages and the birth of children, just not in churches.

  14. Including Nazism as an atheist philosophy is an example of the big lie. The fact is that Schicklgruber himself, in every speech and in every writing where he pontificated on religion, he professed himself to be a devout Christian. In addition, in order to join the SS, it was a requirement for the recruit to profess to be a devout Christian.

    In addition, I would cite the late Martin Gardner on the subject of Dialectical Materialism which he opined was really a religion, because, like religious beliefs, it is based on no evidence.

  15. If you look at US propaganda efforts during the Second World War, there was an attempt to construct a faceless totalitarian menace, and to view the political orders in Japan, Italy and Germany as interchangeable.

    After WWII, in the Cold War, the “Fascist Menace” was morphed into the “Communist Menace” which was once against a faceless totalitarian menace, even as Khrushchev was shutting down Stalinist repression and ever-so-slightly opening the door for criticism of the Stalinist era, publishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”.

    Anyway, the “political religion” concept stems from the Cold War, and while it may have some limited utility for viewing the cult of personality in various regime types, it can’t be completely separated from its role in war propaganda.

  16. A heads up: I saw some interesting science articles in Inference, but when I started to dig in I see articles by Berlinski, by Denton, on religion vs science et cetera.

    Googling gets me ID sources lauding “an ID friendly site” and that the journal is based in France. The editores “prefer anonymity”.

    Where did Berliski live again!?

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