Ross Douthat laments the “elite’s” loss of faith

April 11, 2021 • 9:45 am

The answer to Ross Douthat’s title question below is, of course, “no”: the meritocracy, which I suppose one can define as either the rich or the educated, are increasingly giving up religion. And, if history be any guide, they’re unlikely to go back to it. Click on the screenshot below to read Douthat’s elegy for the loss of religion among America’s elite, his reasons why it’s happening, and his straw-grasping about how the meritocracy might come back to God. (Douthat is, of course, a staunch Catholic.)

Last year, by even Douthat’s admission, only 47% of Americans belonged to a church, mosque, or synagogue.  Two years ago, in an article called “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” the Pew Research Center presented the following graphs. As American Christianity has declined quickly, the proportion of “nones”—those who see themselves as agnostics, atheists, or holding “no religion in particular”—is growing apace. (remember, this is over only a dozen years).

The fall in religiosity has been faster among the younger than the older, among Democrats than among Republicans, and among those with more education rather than less.

Douthat calls these data “grim.” Here’s his worry:

A key piece of this weakness is religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia — meaning not just would-be intellectuals but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or “knowledge workers,” the “professional-managerial class.”

Most of these people — my people, by tribe and education — would be unlikely models of holiness in any dispensation, given their ambitions and their worldliness. But Jesus endorsed the wisdom of serpents as well as the innocence of doves, and religious communities no less than secular ones rely on talent and ambition. So the deep secularization of the meritocracy means that people who would once have become priests and ministers and rabbis become psychologists or social workers or professors, people who might once have run missions go to work for NGOs instead, and guilt-ridden moguls who might once have funded religious charities salve their consciences by starting secular foundations.

But this all sounds good to me! Isn’t it better to have more psychologists, social workers, and professors instead of more clerics? At least the secular workers are trained to do their job, and don’t have a brief to proselytize or inculcate children with fairy tales.

But no, not to Douthat. Implicit in his column is the worry that without religion, America would be less moral. (He doesn’t state this outright, but absent that belief his column makes no sense. Unless, that is, he’s interested in saving souls for Jesus.)

As a Christian inhabitant of this world, I often try to imagine what it would take for the meritocracy to get religion. There are certain ways in which its conversion doesn’t seem unimaginable. A lot of progressive ideas about social justice still make more sense as part of a biblical framework, which among other things might temper the movement’s prosecutorial style with forgiveness and with hope. Meanwhile on the meritocracy’s rightward wing — meaning not-so-woke liberals and Silicon Valley libertarians — you can see people who might have been new atheists 15 years ago taking a somewhat more sympathetic look at the older religions, out of fear of the vacuum their decline has left.

You can also see the concern with morality as Douthat proffers two reasons why, he thinks, the elite are prevented from hurrying back to Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad:

One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The tension between this worldview and the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion can be bridged only with difficulty — especially because the American emphasis on authenticity makes it hard for people to simply live with certain hypocrisies and self-contradictions, or embrace a church that judges their self-affirming choices on any level, however distant or abstract.

Again, I’m baffled about why Douthat sees religiously-based morality, particularly of the Catholic variety, as superior to humanistic morality. After all, only religious “morality” prescribes how and with whom you can have sex, the supposed “role” of women as breeders and subservient partners, the demonization of gays, the criminality of abortion, the desirability of the death penalty, and the immorality of assisted dying.  What kind of morality do you expect to get by following the dictates of a bunch of superstitious people from two millennia ago, people who had to posit an angry god to explain what they didn’t understand about the cosmos? You get the brand of religion that Douthat wants us all to have! For he sees religiously deontological morality as better than think-for-yourself morality: the “the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion.”

And it’s clear, as Douthat continues his risible lament for the loss of faith, that he sees no contradiction between rationality and superstition, though the conflict between them, and the increasing hegemony of science in explaining stuff previously within God’s bailiwick, is what is driving the educated to give up their faith:

A second obstacle [to the elite regaining faith] is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.

Thus when spiritual ideas creep back into elite culture, it’s often in the form of “wellness” or self-help disciplines, or in enthusiasms like astrology, where there’s always a certain deniability about whether you’re really invoking a spiritual reality, really committing to metaphysical belief.

There are two misconceptions in two paragraphs. The first is that professors indoctrinate students with the belief that there is no God—we are training them in atheism, materialism, and scientism. But we don’t do that: the students give up God because, as they learn more, they also grasp that, as Laplace supposedly replied to Napoleon, we “have no need of that hypothesis.” If there were actual evidence for miracles and a theistic god, people wouldn’t abandon their faith.

Further, although some of the “nones” are spiritual in the sense of embracing stuff like astrology or crystal therapy, I see no evidence of a rise in embracing of woo as profound as the decline in religiosity.  The example of Scandinavia, which converted from religiosity to atheism in about 250 years, shows not only that religion isn’t needed to create a moral, caring society (indeed, it shows that religion is inimical to this), but also that religion needn’t be replaced by other forms of woo. As far as I know, the Danes and Swedes aren’t fondling their crystals with alacrity.

Nothing will shake Douthat’s faith in God, nor his faith in faith as an essential part of society—in this he resembles his co-religionist Andrew Sullivan—but he does adhere to a form of intelligent design held by those sentient people who are still religious:

Yes, science has undercut some religious ideas once held with certainty. But our supposedly “disenchanted” world remains the kind of world that inspired religious belief in the first place: a miraculously ordered and lawbound system that generates conscious beings who can mysteriously unlock its secrets, who display godlike powers in miniature and also a strong demonic streak, and whose lives are constantly buffeted by hard-to-explain encounters and intimations of transcendence. To be dropped into such a world and not be persistently open to religious possibilities seems much more like prejudice than rationality.

I don’t seem to have had those hard-to-explain encounters or intimations of transcendence. I must be missing my sensus divinitatis! What Douthat takes as evidence for God, like the tendency of humans to be clever but sometimes nasty, can be understood by a combination of our evolutionary heritage and our cultural overlay. The same holds for “a system that generates conscious beings.” It’s evolution, Jake!

In the end, Douthat is as baffled by we secularists’ rejection of God as I am by his credulous acceptance of the supernatural as the only plausible explanation for the Universe:

And my anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Like Pascal contemplating his wager, it always seems to me that if you concede that religious questions are plausible you should concede that they are urgent, or that if you feel the supernatural brush you, your spiritual curiosity should be radically enhanced.

Well, as a scientist one must always give a degree of plausibility to any hypothesis, but when that degree is close to zero on the confidence scale, we need consider it no further. Based on the evidence, the notion of a god is as implausible as notions of fairies, leprechauns, or other such creatures.  And if the plausibility is close to zero, then so is the urgency.  And even if the questions are urgent, which I don’t believe since the world’s well being doesn’t depend on them, they are also unanswerable, making them even less urgent. Would Douthat care to tell me why he thinks the Catholic god is the right one rather than the pantheon of Hindu gods, including the elephant-headed Ganesha? Isn’t it urgent to decide which set of beliefs is right?

But maybe it’s because I never felt the supernatural brush me.

Amen.

 

h/t: Bruce

“Proof” of the afterlife in the Globe and Mail!

April 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Globe and Mail is, I believe, a conservative newspaper, and one would guess that it’s that genre of paper that’s prone to printing palpable palaver that props up religion. (Well, one would guess wrong, as now papers like the New York Times do it as well.)

Here from the new G&M we have Cathy Bohlken, a respiratory therapist from Calgary, telling us how, after having rejected the existence of an afterlife, came to believe in it after all. Click on the screenshot to proceed:

Bohlken tells us that her scientific training led her to doubt the existence of an afterlife—until her boyfriend committed suicide. Then she had the need to get in touch with him, and right there is where the nonsense begins. (I don’t mean to be callous here, as her pain must have been immense, but she uses it to promote woo in a widely-read paper.)

I grieved for months, and in the spring I discovered the TV show Long Island Medium. I became completely mesmerized and decided that I needed to find my own psychic medium, hoping that someone could make a connection to Dave.

I went to see a psychic in Calgary who has a good record of helping law enforcement agencies from around the world locate missing and murdered persons.

And here’s how the psychic convinced her of an afterlife. (Note that Bohlken could have given the psychic her name when making an appointment, which would also allow some preliminary investigation.)

Patricia started the reading by trying to identify the different spirits that had walked in with me. She described one of my grandfathers perfectly, but she also said he was talking about somebody else who was there, someone that was missing the tip of a finger. I didn’t know of anyone that was missing any fingertips. (Later, I learned that my other grandfather had lost the tip of two fingers in a lawnmower accident. He died when I was a baby, so I didn’t remember him at all.) This was one of 50 validations of my life that she could never possibly have known.

Patricia sensed that there was somebody else in the room but the spirit was “wispy,” unlike my grandfather who was strongly present. After several minutes, she asked me if someone had died recently. [JAC: She’s a psychic—she should have known that!] When I told her that my boyfriend had died six months earlier, she exclaimed: “In the first year, it’s darn near impossible to reach them, but I will try because he is here.”

“He can hear you,” Patricia said. “It’s almost like he comes to you gently because you were very angry with him when he left.” She told me stories for almost an hour, telling me things that she could never possibly have known. She described how Dave would sit across from me at the kitchen island. How when I was at the kitchen sink, he would wrap his arms around me from behind. “He’s still doing that.”

She explained that “if you even think of them, it’s … like picking up the phone or having him right in front of you. If you know what you feel like, you’ll know what somebody else’s energy feels like.”

Presumably Ms. Bohlken has never heard of “cold readings“, in which experienced “readers” can make remarkably accurate guesses by noticing subtle expressions and body language, and knowing a few things about the subject. Note as well that Bohlken had a very strong will to believe, which would make her fixate on the information that was accurate and ignore the stuff that was wrong.

There would be ways to test these paranormal activities, like the strictures put into place by James Randi in his famous One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, but no psychic ever accepted the challenge (at least two agreed to, but then backed out). I’m sure Randi could have designed a test to see if this medium could, without hints or prompting, tell things about the deceased she couldn’t possibly have known. Penn and Teller could do so as well. I could try, but magicians are much better at this than are scientists, who don’t know all the tricks.

And here’s the kicker that cemented Bohlken’s belief in the afterlife.

. . . About a week after the reading, I noticed a tingling sensation on the right side of my head when I thought of Dave – as if my hair was standing on edge, this ebbed and flowed depending on the intensity of my emotions. When my mom died suddenly a year later, I was more open to the sensation and I felt her energy differently, and immediately.

“More open to the sensation,” eh? And now Bohlken is about to foist this on the world, making credulous people even more woo-prone:

Patricia left me with a parting thought to consider once my grief had subsided. “It’s almost like you wanted to write a book, and now you have the material,” she noted.

Writing a book was not something I had ever considered, but after my experience, sharing my story is something that I simply have to do.

People want to believe this stuff, of course; who wouldn’t like to live on, or get a message that their friends, family, and beloved are out there somewhere thinking of you?

And, after all, what harm is done by making people think that? The harm is twofold. First, the psychic took money (probably a not insubstantial sum) from Bohlken. The amount spent yearly on “psychic services” in the U.S. is about $2.2 billion, or about $670 for every citizen. Twenty-two percent of Americans have consulted a psychic (that means that those who have pay about $3,000 for the consultations), and 34% believe they’ve had a psychic episode. This is, pure and simple, victimization of the vulnerable.

Second, essays like the one above merely buttress this kind of scam, and also weaken people’s organs of reason. This is exactly what religion does, but of course “psychic services” are just one form of religion.

h/t: Christopher

Andrew Sullivan really does believe in the truth of Catholicsm

April 3, 2021 • 10:30 am

Andrew Sullivan is a semi-pious Catholic who has been reluctant to specify exactly what tenets of Catholicism he embraces. It’s certain that he’s not a Biblical creationist, as he insisted when we famously crossed swords ten years ago. When I maintained that the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 were taken literally by the early Catholic theologians, and are still embraced by many Catholics today, he resorted to invective and obscenity in attacking my claim:

There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable. Ross [Douthat] sees the exchange as saying something significant about the atheist mindset – and I largely agree with everything he says, except his definition of “fundamentalist” doesn’t seem to extend much past Pat Robertson. It certainly makes me want to take Jerry Coyne’s arguments less seriously. Someone this opposed to religion ought to have a modicum of education about it. The Dish, if you recall, had a long thread on this subject in August. No one was as dumb as Coyne.

Well, it was Sullivan who put his foot in his mouth, for all the early Church Fathers, including Aquinas and Augustine, believed that the Genesis creation story was literally true, and about 40% of Americans continue to do so today. Even among Catholics creationism is widespread. Although the Vatican formally has no objections to evolution, many Catholics do. As I wrote in a 2012 paper in Evolution:

27% of American Catholics think that modern species were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since, while 8% do not know or refuse to answer (Masci 2009)

Since then I’ve queried Sullivan about what he really believes as a Catholic. Was Jesus the Son of God? Did Jesus perform miracles? Was he resurrected? Sullivan has never, as far as I know, laid out what he believes, which is very odd for a believer, especially an intellectual one.  But we can be sure he doesn’t think that homosexual acts are a “grave sin” that doom one to hell if unconfessed, for Sullivan is gay.

In this week’s column, Sullivan is back to osculating religion again, and repeating his belief that America would fall apart without Abrahamic religion. Click on the screenshot to read the osculation.

After a year of missing Mass because of the pandemic, Sullivan forced himself out of bed of a Sunday and went to Washington’s National Cathedral. Given his animus towards the Catholic Church’s attitude towards gays, and his hatred of its pervasive sex abuse of children, one wonders why Sullivan goes to Mass at all.

My first guess was that he liked the ceremonies, songs, and sermons, which satisfies some need for ritual and spirituality. And indeed, that’s a big part of it:

. . . The one thing Catholicism teaches the bored and distracted church-goer is that your own mood doesn’t really matter. The consecration will happen regardless. Your inspiration is not the point. And what makes this all cohere somehow is physical, communal ritual — and that, I realize, is what I really miss.

I miss the silent genuflection; the chanting in unison with others; the simple standing up and kneeling down and standing up again. I miss the messy democracy of the communion line, and the faces I recognize from decades in my parish, and the faces I don’t. I miss enacting something ineffable with my body, using words I never chose myself, and using them uniquely in this space. I miss the irrational, collective order of it all. I miss the liberation of submission to something far larger than myself.

Well I won’t denigrate the man for wanting some kind of ritual, though he does admit it’s “irrational”. Why irrational, though? Because the significance of the ritual lies in submitting himself “to something far larger than myself.” And by “larger,” you can bet he doesn’t mean “a big crowd of people.” No, he means God. And since there’s no evidence for a God, he’s submitting himself to a phantom.

I’m always baffled when a smart person, especially a journalist, believes not just in a god, but in the dictates of a particular Church. And, indeed, Sullivan finally admits that he believes some of the tenets of Catholicism:

And, beneath all this, only poking above ground every now and again, I miss the weekly reminder of what I deeply believe within the folds of my consciousness: the command of universal love; the fact of life after death; the radical truth of experiential mystery; and the centrality of the Gospels to eternity. Many atheist or agnostic friends sometimes ask me how they too can have a leap of faith. And the truth is I have no idea. I have never leapt anywhere. I have trudged, stumbled, meandered, persisted, and resisted all my life. But to have one part of my existence directed to the timeless and the mysterious just once a week all my life has given me something priceless.

Here he sets himself apart from Jews and Hindus, and many other believers, by affirming that he does belief in life hereafter and the importance of the Gospels. Further, he has no idea at all why he believes what he does. There was apparently something about Catholicism that resonated with him. (I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that he was brought up Catholic.)

Well, I’m not going to tell Sullivan that he’s basing his priceless feelings on a delusion, but I can say it here.  Is it wrong to condition your beliefs and actions on a religion whose tenets have no empirical support? Yes, of course. Would Sullivan still go to Mass if he didn’t think there was a god or an afterlife? Indeed, the Bayesian analysis of a theistic god surely militates strongly against one, so he’s worshiping something that probably doesn’t exist. Nevertheless he feels it exists, and therefore predicates his life on it—a very odd attitude for a journalist who relies on facts.

Well, maybe I’m being too hard on the man, trying to argue that what brings him solace is fictional. After all, it does bring him solace:

I couldn’t say exactly how this counter-rational aspect of my life affects the rest of me, but it definitely stabilizes things. It gives perspective. It makes the awfulness of the world less intolerable, it momentarily breaks what Michael Oakeshott called “the deadliness of doing”.

and

It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is.

and

I see the calm it gives others too: the repetition of little acts, the recitation of the same words, the unity that such rituals can give a life over the decades. I saw it in my Irish grandmother — rattling through the Rosary like a freight train.

It’s not our brief to tell Sullivan to stop believing in a lie, but it’s perfectly fine to write it here.

As his article winds down, Sullivan argues that one of the benefits of “true” religion—presumably his brand of religion—is that the need for meaning isn’t co-opted into other forms that are harmful. He specifically mentions the fusion of Republicanism with Evangelical Christianity, as well as “wokeness”, which he—and John McWhorter—consider a distortion of religion. Unfortunately, Sullivan characterizes wokeness this way:

. . . .a profoundly atheist view of the world as merely the arrangement of power structures.

I’m not sure how he sees atheism as essential to wokeness, and it’s certain that many of the Woke are religious. But showing the supposed problems with alternatives to religion is the way Sullivan finds reassurance in his belief.

But what I can’t cut him slack for is what he says at the end of his piece: that America would be the worse if it gave up “humble” faith:

These pseudo-religions will fail. They are too worldly, too rooted in contemporary culture wars, too baldly tribal, and too shallow in their understanding of the world to have much staying power. But they can do immense damage to souls and our society in the meantime. They lack the one thing that endures in religious practice: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect.

It took centuries for Christianity to begin to model that kind of humility and conviction, and to reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. And it would be a terrible shame if America threw that glorious inheritance away.

I’d ask him, as I did in an email for his “dissents” section (a comment he never published), how the atheistic countries of Scandinavia and Northern Europe manage to thrive having abandoned their “glorious inheritance of religion”. How do those nonbelievers manage to find solace? And not just that—they’ve constructed governments and societies that in many ways are more humane and moral than America’s.

And that’s my Easter homily.

The Middle East and Ireland losing their religion

February 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two of the last holdout areas for religion—countries and regions that have historically been resistant to nonbelief—are now becoming surprisingly secular. Those are Ireland in the West and seven countries in the Middle East—at least according to recent surveys. The stunning thing about both areas is how fast the change is coming.

Let’s take the Middle East first. There are two studies mentioned in the article below in Die Deutsche Welle (click on screenshot):

The article itself gives data for only Iran, but you can find data for six other countries by clicking on the article’s link to a study at The Arab Barometer (AB), described as “a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan.” (The sample size for that study isn’t easily discernible from the various articles about it).

First, a graph showing a striking increase in secularism across the six nations:

The change from the blue bar to the burgundy one is at most 7 years, yet every index in each country has dropped over that period save for a few indices that appear to be unchanged. The true indices of religiosity itself—profession of nonbelief and attendance at mosques—has fallen dramatically. And remember, this is over less than a decade.  Trust in religious leaders and Islamist parties has also dropped.

Here’s the summary among all these countries. (Note that many Muslim countries, including those in Africa and the Far East, as well as nations like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, aren’t represented.) 

In 2013 around 51% of respondents said they trusted their religious leaders to a “great” or “medium” extent. When a comparable question was asked last year the number was down to 40%. The share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government decision-making is also steadily declining. “State religious actors are often perceived as co-opted by the regime, making citizens unlikely to trust them,” says Michael Robbins of Arab Barometer.

The share of Arabs describing themselves as “not religious” is up to 13%, from 8% in 2013. That includes nearly half of young Tunisians, a third of young Libyans, a quarter of young Algerians and a fifth of young Egyptians. But the numbers are fuzzy. Nearly half of Iraqis described themselves as “religious”, up from 39% in 2013. Yet the share who say they attend Friday prayers has fallen by nearly half, to 33%. Perhaps faith is increasingly personal, says Mr Robbins.

And some data from Iran, not represented in the survey above. Remember, Iran is a theocracy. The survey is for those over 19, and the sample size is large: over 40,000 “literate interviewees”.

An astonishing 47% have, within their lifetime, gone from being religious to nonreligious, while only 6% went in the opposite direction. As we see for almost every faith, women retain their religion more than men.  The “non-religious people” aren’t all atheists or agnostics, but instead appear to be “nones”—those with no formal affiliation to a faith. (This includes atheists and “spiritual people” as well as goddies who don’t belong to a formal church.)

I say that many are “nones” because another study in Iran, cited in the AB article, showed that 78% of those surveyed in the Middle East believe in God: a lot more than the 47% below who professor to being “non-religious” (of course these are different surveys and might not be comparable). Still, in this other survey, 9% claim that they’re atheists—comparable to the 10% of Americans who self-describe as atheists.

And a general remark by a religion expert whom we’ve encountered before:

The sociologist Ronald Inglehart, Lowenstein Professor of Political Science emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of the book Religious Sudden Decline [sic], has analyzed surveys of more than 100 countries, carried out from 1981-2020. Inglehart has observed that rapid secularization is not unique to a single country in the Middle East. “The rise of the so-called ‘nones,’ who do not identify with a particular faith, has been noted in Muslim majority countries as different as Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco,” Tamimi Arab added.

Inglehart’s book, Religion’s Sudden Decline, came out January 2, so it’s brand new, and you can order it on Amazon here.

*************

It’s a pity that Grania isn’t here to comment on this article from Unherd’s new news site The Post, as she always had a good take on Catholicism in Ireland (she was, in fact, a German citizen born in South Africa). These data come from a study taken by the World Inequality Database, which I can’t access. I’ll just give the scant data for Ireland presented by David Quinn (click on screenshot):

The proportion of Irish people who say they never go to church:

2011-2016: 19%
2020:     50%

That is a huge jump!

The proportion of Irish people who regularly attend church (once a month or more often):

2011-2016: 33%
2020:     28%

This shows that the drop in Irish religiosity reflects a rise in who rarely or never go to church, not a falling-off of the regulars. Quinn reports that “just under half of Irish people were coming to church less than once a month four or five year [sic] ago and this is now just 22%. Many of those sporadic attenders have stopped coming altogether.”

Over much of the 12 years this website has been going (we started in January 2009), I’ve written posts showing the decline of religiosity in the West, predicting that it is a long-term trend that will end with religion becoming a vestigial social organ. Yes, it will always be with us, but in the future it won’t be very much with us. But I thought the Middle East would be a last bastion of belief, as Islam is so deeply intertwined with politics and daily life. But that appears to be waning as well, for the Middle East is becoming Westernized in many ways, and with that comes Western values and secularism (see Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for discussion of increased secularism and humanism.) This is to be applauded, except by those anti-Whigs who say that religion is good for humanity.

Quinn echoes much of this at the end of his piece, explaining why Ireland remained more religious than England and the countries of Northern Europe:

Secularisation has swept across the whole of the western world, and Ireland is part of the West. It was impossible for Ireland not to eventually be affected by social and intellectual trends elsewhere. What almost certainly delayed secularisation in Ireland is that, in the years after we gained independence, one way of showing we had shaken off British rule was by making Catholicism an integral part of our national identity. As we no longer believe it is necessary to do this, we are now shaking off the Church.

The third factor is that, as a small country it can be particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. Once, we all went to Mass. Now, below a certain age, almost no-one goes. We were a nation of nuns and priests. Now, we are becoming a people with no direct religious affiliation: a country of ‘nones’.

Amen!

h/t: Steve, Clive

Big-time cognitive dissonance!

January 28, 2021 • 11:00 am

This article recently appeared in Quillette. Given its title, I naturally read it: I was the one experiencing cognitive dissonance! (Click on screen shot.)

It’s a sad story. Author Edie Wyatt was sexually abused for years by someone who lived in her house, a situation exacerbated by Wyatt’s alcoholic, ill, and dysfunctional parents and problematic siblings. Naturally, Wyatt’s life fell apart, but she got herself together sufficiently to go to college. There she became a Marxist, but Marx didn’t save her. And then Wyatt found Jesus:

Under the belief (delusional, as it turned out) that the problem was rooted in my drug and alcohol use, I gave up both. Unfortunately, without that self-medication, I found myself face to face with the underlying pain and paralysing fear. One night, I collapsed on the floor, crying and in such physical pain that I could barely move. I picked up a Bible and read a passage from 2 Corinthians 5—Awaiting the New Body—that left me completely undone.

Not long after, I walked into a suburban Baptist church, full of strange, unfashionably dressed, conservative Christians. I was a Marxist, a feminist, foul-mouthed, a chain-smoker, and desperate. The love I received in that place is the reason that I will defend the rights of fundamentalist Christians to my dying breath. They were the kindest people I’d ever known. They loved me, on principle, and in doing so saved my life.

People who advocate for a world without religion have no idea what it is like to find the relief that I found at that time. My purpose here is not to describe my “Amazing Grace” moment, but to explain why I have no patience for militant atheists. In the face of my evangelical Christianity, progressives (mostly men) have called me every unholy thing imaginable—including, of all things, a paedophile apologist.

No patience for militant atheists because she found Jesus! Do all militant atheists need Jesus? Or should we just shut up about religion?

The prudishness of Christanity also appealed to her:

. . . Objectively, I had seen that by reading the Bible, living cleanly, and changing the company I kept, my life had really improved. It was in relationship with God that I found peace, purpose, and joy. I found I could forgive, I could breathe, I could sleep, and my fear had disappeared.

Looking back, though, I do see why certain practices of evangelical Protestantism were attractive to me. Spaces in churches often are separated by sex. Physical contact between young single men and women is not encouraged. My favourite was the “Billy Graham principle”: Men in the church would not visit me alone as a single woman. The pastor would only meet me in his office with the door slightly ajar, so other staff could see in. I know that churches have been places where many people have not been safe. But the corner of Christianity I’d stumbled upon happened to be genuinely devout (to my knowledge) and serious about holiness. That’s what I liked about it. That’s what I still like about it.

What about white privilege? Well, she said that, like Marxism, it failed her:

My “white privilege” didn’t save me from childhood sexual abuse. Sexual violence almost killed me. It ruined my childhood, made me homeless, and left me with enduring scars. I can debate and theorize about politics as much as the next person. But ultimately, the politics of the modern Left is dominated by its fixation on power. And children have no power.

There’s more discussion of postmodernism and its failures, and of the biological rather than ideological basis of sex. But you can read that for yourself.

All these stances appeal to Quillette, of course, but Wyatt’s story, sad and tortuous as it is, doesn’t cohere as a political statement, which I think Quillette wanted it to be. I’m very glad that Wyatt found solace and peace in Christianity, but she wasn’t saved by God, for God doesn’t exist. He’s like “white privilege”: a phantom concocted to leverage power. She was saved by a group of people who believe in a mythical deity, and that’s fine for those who need it. But the part of evangelical Christianity that seems to be most attractive to Wyatt—the segregation of men from women and the abnegation of sexuality—may have helped her because of Wyatt’s past sexual abuse, but it’s surely not a healthy attitude in general.

What we have here is a self-help story that Quillette has adopted (and possibly helped edit) so comes off as a blow against the concept of white privilege. (And against atheism to boot!) But any white person who has a troubled life, as Wyatt did, could write an article saying that “white privilege didn’t save me.” The problem is that even the purveyors of that gutted concept don’t claim that it always gives white people a great life!

And as for the God part, well I hope that Quillette is not going soft on religion. It’s okay to write about people’s religious experiences, but not okay to claim that God can act where the tenets of social justice can’t.

The final bit:

Because of my experiences, and the newly fashionable denial of reality being promoted by progressives, I find myself sitting with the politically homeless. For now, we are all retreating to old-fashioned liberalism with unlikely new friends—an exodus to a land none of us can see.  This divergent group of progressive dissenters won’t find a land flowing with milk and honey, but we might find a place to speak the truth, to cling to those who belong to us, and protect the vulnerable. I’m not sure there is any higher purpose to politics anyway.

Nor is there a “higher purpose” to anything! 

Yet another accommodationist writes in

December 16, 2020 • 9:00 am

This is the third and last email I’ll post from people reacting to the recent re-publication on Yahoo! News of my Conversation article, “Yes, there is a war between science and religion.”   I stand by what I said and assert again that the incompatibility between the two—war, if you will—is that religion accepts certain truths about the universe without good reasons to do so, while science, with more rigorous standards, has empirical methods for supporting or eroding what we think is true. In other words, religion itself has no way to verify its beliefs, though they can be knocked down by science.

It may sound harsh to say so, but the Abrahamic religions, like most religions—some “secular” faiths like Quakerism or Unitarian Universalism are exceptions—are fairy tales, pure and simple. They may make you feel good, and even motivate some people to do good things, but in the end their factual stories, like that of Jesus, Muhammad and Gabriel, as well as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, are just myths. We have no need to support our morality or behavior with myths.

But some people still like religion because even if it isn’t “true” in the sense of being grounded on genuine circumstances or beings, it still makes them feel good. They like sitting in a warm pew, singing, hearing the soothing ministrations of the pastor, and admiring the stained glass while sniffing the incense. Or they like the sense of ritual involved in a daily puja. Well, the email below came from one of these folks.

Hello Jerry,

Read your recent article. I would have to disagree a little bit.

I am a secular minded person who still attends Christian church. I don’t believe any of the theology. But I find the service comforting nevertheless. And in our church we are constantly reminded to be better persons — not to escape hell but just because it feels right. Why would we throw out the arts, music, dancing, etc. because they don’t express thoughts verifiable by science?  Religion to me is in the same category as the arts.  It’s part of human expression. Some of Mozart’s music is very powerful to me. It raises my spirts. Religious services do the same thing.

Best,
Name redacted

I really don’t have much quarrel with this person’s feelings. If he likes the morality preached from the pulpit (assuming that he doesn’t go to an evangelical Christian or Catholic church, where the “morality” is ludicrous), that’s fine.

I tossed off the email below about about 4 a.m. yesterday, so it’s not particularly eloquent, and I’ve edited it a tiny bit so it doesn’t sound like I just woke up. What I would also say to this person, which I wasn’t sentient enough to add, is that the Scandinavians and northern Europeans, who are by and large atheists, manage to find solace and meaning without having to go to church, much less believing in God. Yet I bet the average Swede still goes to musical performances and museums much more often than he goes to church. You don’t need religion to get the kind of solace that this guy gets from church. And stuff like music and art can arouse the emotion without making you believe in nonexistent divinities. Finally, as I emphasize below, patronizing a religion has the side effect of enabling faith, a defect in the human character that is mistakenly regarded as a virtue.

Anyway, my reply:

Hi,
Yes, if all religion was involved providing a place to go and appreciate the music and quietude and smell the incense and to meditate, that would be fine. It’s all the other stuff that bothers me–the things that Catholicism, Judaism, and Christianity do to people and make them do to other people. You’re admirable in not believing the theology, but religion enables all the people who do believe to create all the bad things that religion does to the world. It’s the factual beliefs, which undergirds the invidious moralities, that cause these problems. Surely you realize this–that by saying that we need religion because you yourself enjoy the non-theological benefits–you’re advocating keeping systems that oppress women and gays, terrorize children with thoughts of Hell, keep little Orthodox boys and girls from getting an education, and so on and so on and so on.
Religious services are fine; it’s what they lead to and support that is bad.
cheers,
jac

“Religions aren’t growing: they’re just growing louder”: Dennett on God and religiosity

November 12, 2020 • 2:00 pm

A while back I was asked to appear on Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s Closer to Truth videos, but I had some issues over Templeton funding (there appears to be none), and the fact that the show always seems to be pushing goddiness.

Given that Kuhn has now interviewed atheist Dan Dennett (see the 8-minute video below), perhaps I should have been more willing to be interviewed, for I see my correspondence with Kuhn simply petered out.  What makes Dan ideal for this kind of show is that he’s affable, pulls no punches about his nonbelief, but also is interested in the phenomena of religion and especially of “belief in belief”: the view that religion is a good thing for humanity regardless of whether you yourself accept a god. As Dan points out, there are more people with “belief in belief” than those with “belief in God”, because the former class subsumes the latter and adds nonbelievers as well. So his interest in religion goes well beyond investigating whether any gods exist.

Dan does a good job here, saying that the Abrahamic god doesn’t exist but that the phenomenon of religion is still worth studying. He notes the steep decline of religiosity throughout most of the world, which just prompts churches to proselytize all the more. As he says, “Religions aren’t growing; they’re just growing louder.” (Dan’s handy with the bon mots.)

My only quibble with what Dan says, and it’s barely even a quibble, is that he’s not all that interested in the existence of gods. Having dismissed the Abrahamic one, he also isn’t interested in whether there is something “real” for which God can be seen as a metaphor (e.g., the cosmos or a Tillichian “Ground of Being” because “the answer to it doesn’t have much to do with how religions flourish and it guide people’s lives in the future.”

That may be true, but if you take moral guidance from the metaphorical god, or pray to it, or inculcate your children in it, or simply take the view that faith plays a role in this process, then at best you’re enabling belief in the unevidenced, and at worst promulgating or preaching bad behaviors.

h/t: Paul

Blatant atheism in The New Yorker!

November 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

James Wood is a Harvard Professor of English, specializing in literary criticism, a practice he regularly engages in reviewing books for the New Yorker. I like his literary work because he seems an advocate of the outdated but still best form of criticism: “New Criticism”, in which works are taken as they are—as aesthetic expressions—not to be dissected with one literary theory of another. Over the years I’ve written about his work now and again, sometimes taking him to task for being critical of New Atheism. And he’s replied to my criticisms on this website, saying, among other things, the following in response to my critique of one of his articles:

Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

I’m not sure where Wood stands now on the tone of the New Atheists, but I think he got Dawkins wrong about cathedrals, for Richard has extolled their beauty as well as the loveliness of evensong. I don’t recall him ever saying that cathedrals should be razed, or anything close to that.

As I recall, I met James for coffee in Harvard Square a while back, as I wanted his take on whether he saw literature as a “way of knowing” about the universe and, as I also recall, he wound up agreeing that it wasn’t, though memory fades. . .

At any rate, in a new piece at the New Yorker, Wood seems to have become a little less respectful of faith and a little harder on its delusional nature, evincing a harder atheism than the New Yorker usually allows to appear in its pages.

His topic is a new book by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist of religion whom we used to meet regularly at this site. My beef with Luhrmann, as it has been with Elaine Ecklund and Krista Tippett, is that, without ever pronouncing on the truthfulness of religious beliefs or tenets, they spend their careers osculating the rump of faith, extolling the virtues of religion while avoiding the delicate topic of whether religious beliefs bear any truth. While that’s ok for sociological or anthropological studies, both Eckland and Luhrmann give little doubt that they really think religion is a good thing, not just an object of study.  And, after a while, this kind of soft osculation, without coming to grips with the question of gods, starts to grate on you.

It seems, too, to have started grating on Professor Wood, as his review of Luhmann’s new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, is pervaded with petulance about her failure to come to grips with the question, “Does God really exist?”  And this winds up with Wood making some of the most atheistic remarks I’ve seen in a magazine not known for confronting religion.

As you can tell from Luhrmann’s title, she sees religious worship and prayer, analyzed worldwide, as a way of creating a Creator, or what she calls “real making.” But what is “real”? Wood notes the problem right off the bat:

This comparative framework suits Luhrmann, precisely because she is not interested in the questions that so gripped me when I was young: what or who is God, and how can we know if this God exists? Luhrmann passes over questions of belief in search of questions of practice—the technologies of prayer. She wants to know how worshippers open themselves up to their experiences of God; how they communicate with gods and spirits and in turn hear those gods and spirits reply to them, and she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,” and adds that her new book is not a believer’s or an atheist’s, but an anthropologist’s work. “Rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship,” she writes. Thus “the puzzle of religion,” as she defines it, “is not the problem of false belief but the question of how gods and spirits become and remain real to people and what this real-making does for humans.” Whether these questions—of belief and of practice—can be separated quite as staunchly as she wishes is the “puzzle” that surely haunts her own work.

You don’t have to read Wood’s essay more than once to see that he thinks the questions of belief and practice aren’t easy to separate. If you’re praying for something, as Luhrmann has (she’s engaged in prayer and worship along with her subjects), you expect that someone is listening with the power to give it to you. Prayer, to Luhrmann’s subject, is not just a gussied-up form of meditation. It is “real-making”.

I haven’t read Luhrmann’s book, but Wood’s take appears to be that she’s overly coy about the “reality” of a divine being, even though she denies believing in a God with a white beard who sits above, observing us go about our business.  But in other places, especially in her previous writings (see my links here), she tacitly accepts the presence of Something Numinous, and avers that her subjects really do think that there’s somebody to worship and pray to.

It’s clear that Luhrmann, like Tippett and Ecklund, think that worship “works,” but there are various ways you can construe that. It can “work” as a psychological device like meditation: by talking to a god, you can feel better and calmer, and, perhaps, arrive at difficult decisions. (One wonders, though, whether a decision is better if reached by consulting an imaginary god than by rational contemplation.) But it’s clear that this isn’t what Luhrman’s subjects think. They use the other two senses of “work”: worship and prayer put you in touch with something divine, and, third, that something divine has the power to affect the workings of the universe. It’s Luhrmann’s avoidance of these second two claims that appears to rile Wood,—as it would rile me. And so we get to read skepticism of a brand that I haven’t before seen in The New Yorker. Here are a few quotes from Wood. Be aware that, like all New Yorker writers, he’s trying to show the delusions of faith without being “shrill.”

Here he discussed the subject of an earlier book of Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back (get it?), a sociological study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship:

Luhrmann tells us that no one at the Vineyard laid out any rules of discernment, but that when she asked people how they knew that God was speaking to them they would revert to four “tests.” First, did a suggestion seem spontaneous, unlikely, not the kind of thing you would normally say or imagine? Second, was what you were hearing the kind of thing God might say, and not in contradiction to Biblical example or teaching? (Luhrmann stresses that the Vineyard’s God is not the severe God of the Hebrew Bible—who, for instance, orders Abraham to kill his son—but the loving God of the New Testament.) Third, could the revelation be verified by asking other people who were praying for the same outcome whether they had heard a similar message? Fourth, did hearing God’s voice impart a sense of peace? “If what you heard (or saw) did not, it did not come from God.”

I have a flyer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that asks “Can We Really Believe What the Bible Says?” and lists three reasons for doing so, the third of which is “God cannot lie. The Bible plainly states: ‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18).” Below this, a friend of mine has written, in pen, “Q.E.D.” The four tests of the Vineyard are beset by a similar circularity, and, in fairness, it’s not clear how any so-called theological test could escape it. The evangelical relationship to God is so possessive, and so near-idolatrous, that it’s hard to see how one could get outside it and manage the necessary “verification.”

What he’s saying in a nice way is what Jesus and Mo express in four panels of their cartoons: it’s circular to say that that something is true because it’s in Scripture, and that we know that Scripture must be true because it comes from God.

Wood also zeroes in on the problem of evil. Perhaps you can avoid theodicy, as some of Luhrmann’s subjects do, by taking the world as a given, not set up by a God, and then relying on a divine being to help you deal with evil. But that’s a non-starter:

The “question of evil,” the ancient dilemma that has driven people to madness or despair—why is the world beset by tragedy if a providential and loving Author created it?—becomes a much easier therapeutic question: why is my life the way it is, and how can Jesus help me to make it better? Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.

That’s a brilliantly understated but trenchant criticism (I love the “”say, the Holocaust” bit). And Luhrmann’s subjects do pray to get certain job interview, so they assume an efficacious god. But Luhrmann evades a direct answer, again resorting to the idea that worship “works”. Wood’s take (the bold is mine):

We aren’t told who or what Luhrmann was praying to. My surmise is that she isn’t sure (a perfectly respectable position), which explains how often her analysis, at the very brink of deciding, as it were, which way to vote, engages in curious slippages of argument. Her major refuge is a kind of therapeutic pragmatism. She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them. But does prayer “work” in the most important sense, of achieving what it proposes—which is to communicate with an actually existing God? Luhrmann won’t be drawn out, committed as she is to a kind of Feuerbachian religious anthropology, in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.

No, hers is not a perfectly respectable position—not if you think that there is someone listening at the other end, and can effect change in your life. I’m surprised, actually, that Wood, an atheist, thinks that Luhrmann’s failure to be drawn out on the issue is somehow “respectable.” It’s not respectable: Luhrmann is being evasive in failing to specify what she means, deliberately courting liberal believers by refusing to come to grips with the issue of whether there is Someone to Pray To. What, exactly, is “made real” by worship and prayer?

Wood ends his piece, and I’m going to give a long final quote, singling out Luhrmann’s big evasion, one that, I surmise, makes Wood think that her book is deeply flawed. To be sure, he never says that explicitly; in fact, he says that it’s valuable. My emphasis in the quote below:

Yet surely prayer can’t be studied solely as a technology or a practice. Prayer is also a proposition. It proposes that God exists and that we can communicate with that God. And evangelical prayer, premised on faith in an interventionist God, goes further, because it insists on a certain connection to miracle. Luhrmann may distance herself from the table-like reality of God, but her evangelical subjects almost certainly don’t. God, for them, is even more real than a table and chairs, and, when it suits him, this real God can do miraculous things with tables and chairs.

There’s nothing intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, to be sure, and only a thoroughly unbalanced reader like this one, with rusty old theological axes to grind, would demand that her writing be other than what it so valuably is. Besides, even when one has decided that God doesn’t exist, one might still hesitate to conclude that religious practice, with its glories and degradations, is just one long unending history of illusion and hallucination. When I was growing up, the evangelical church I attended didn’t offer the only example of how to think about religion. Durham is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, one of the great achievements of Romanesque architecture. I spent long hours inside this magnificent building as a cathedral chorister, and grew to love its gray silence, its massive, calm nave, the weight of centuries of devotion. Sometimes I could almost feel the presence of the faithful stonemasons who, in the twelfth century, arduously placed one stone on top of another.

A friend of mine, with whom, when I was older, I used to have long “God battles” (me against, him for), once teased me with a question: If, as I claimed, religion was just an enormous illusion, was Durham Cathedral “just a mistake”? No, not a mistake—of course not, I replied. “O.K., a great temple, then, erected to honor an illusion? A big stone hoax?” Yes, perhaps. ♦

But there’s surely something intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, for it fails to come to grips with fact that the only evidence she or her subjects have for a god is their own feeling that there is a god: in other words, the emotional reassurance you get from your peers, parents, Scripture, and revelation. And that’s not evidence at all, but confirmation bias. Her failure to admit that there’s no evidence beyond that stuff, when there should be evidence if there’s a listening, theistic God, is intellectually improper. Wood’s statement that he himself is “unbalanced”, with “rusty old theological axes to grind” seems to be self-denigrating cant: Wood is an atheist, and he’s an atheist for good reasons—reasons that Luhrmann studiously avoids.

In the end, Wood calling Durham Cathedral “a big stone hoax” puts him adjacent to Dawkins, who calls religion “The God Delusion.” It seems as though the last few years have drawn Wood closer to the message of the New Atheists that he once denigrated. If so, good for him! The New Yorker could use a few more nonbelievers and less osculation of religion. That would be real-making!

A superb article against the religious indoctrination of children

October 14, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Many of you must have had this experience: walking through the airport, say, and seeing a family of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the little girls dressed like their mothers, and the little boys sporting sidelocks and yarmukes—all destined to grow up into lives exactly like those of their parents. Or you see a Muslim family, with the little girls wearing hijabs and “modest” clothing.  Or Amish and Mennonites, with the children exact miniatures of the adults. And as with the clothing and hair, so the beliefs.  Those children are doomed—doomed to adopt via indoctrination the religious beliefs of their parents. They will never be exposed to alternative points of view, will never have the chance for lives different from those of their religiously regulated and constricted community.

I find this ineffably sad, for this kind of religious (and cultural) indoctrination is nothing less than brainwashing. Famously, Richard Dawkins called it “child abuse”. And although that term angered many, including parents who assert the right to control their children’s religious beliefs, Dawkins was not wrong. It is abuse to limit the lives of children by filling their minds with religious nonsense as soon as they can understand language.

Reader Andy called my attention to this 23-year-old transcript of a lecture by Cambridge neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey: his plenary lecture to Amnesty International. That was nine years before Dawkins’s The God Delusion publicized the “child abuse” argument to the world. Surely Richard derived some of his views from Humphrey, for Humphrey’s are plain, courageous, and eloquent. Further, all of us who have John Brockman as an agent, including Dawkins, read stuff on Brockman’s website Edge, where this essay was published.

Humphrey’s lecture is the best thing I’ve seen written about why parents should not indoctrinate their children with religion, and I recommend it very highly. Click on the screenshot to read the transcript.

Humphrey is far from “strident” here. Though he’s passionate in his arguments, he also considers possible objections—before disposing of them.  And the gist of his argument is in this excerpt:

I shall probably shock you when I say it is the purpose of my lecture today  [is] . . . to argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.

I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed—even expected—to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas—no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

That’s the negative side of what I want to say. But there will be a positive side as well. If children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured [sic] by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world—to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis—as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.

Now when Humphrey rules out “moral and religious” education, he doesn’t mean “moral” in the sense of “you can’t tell your children that hitting others or bullying them is wrong”. He means “morality as derived from the tenets of religion.” The lecture is in fact solely about religious beliefs, and doesn’t rule out teaching your children the kind of “moral” behavior that’s universally agreed upon by all, including secularists.

I won’t spoil the read for you with more excerpts, except to give one more below. Suffice it to say that Humphrey’s lecture is especially good because (like Dawkins’s books) it anticipates and answers counterarguments. Don’t parents have a right to teach their children their own faith? Even if religion is based on false tenets, isn’t it good to teach children those tenets if it makes them happier? And so on.  Humphrey then explains that religious indoctrination deprives the child of the right to hear about alternative beliefs and lifestyles, a form of learning that, if imparted, could give them richer and fuller lives.  In other words, religious indoctrination is like a mental jail in which children don’t ever get out, never breathing the fresh air of Freedom to Explore.

Lest you think I’m violating my determinism here by talking about “choice”, I’m not: I’m saying that you can make an good argument that not propagandizing children is better for them than forcing them to adopt your own beliefs. And perhaps those arguments will influence the brains of religious parents to lay off their kids, or at least prompt third parties to criticize this invidious indoctrination. Children released from religious “jail” then experience environmental inputs into their brains that can lead them to leave their religious lives behind. As an example, Humphrey mentions the Amish who, when drafted as conscientious objectors, were allowed to work in public hospitals—just as I did. Exposed to other ways of living and thinking, many of these did not return to the Amish way of life. (This stopped when Amish elders, seeing they were losing hold of their kids, got the government to agree to send Amish C.O.’s only to Amish-run farms.)

At any rate, here is the criterion that Humphrey uses to judge religious indoctrination as immoral:

So I’ll come to the main point—and lesson—of this lecture. I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system and to chose for them to do so. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

This test, I admit, will not be simple to apply. It is rare enough for there to be the kind of social experiment that occurred with the Amish and the military draft. And even such an experiment does not actually provide so strong a test as I’m suggesting we require. After all the Amish young men were not offered the alternative until they were already almost grown up, whereas what we need to know is what the children of the Amish or any other sect would choose for themselves if they were to have had access to the full range of alternatives all along. But in practice of course such a totally free-choice is never going to be available.

And the second paragraph is the rub: there is no way that Orthodox Jews, observant Muslims, or the Amish, much less adherents to many other faiths, could ever refrain from imposing their beliefs on their children, for their religious beliefs and their lifestyle are almost one and the same. How could a hyper-Orthodox Jew bring up a child in a religion-free atmosphere?

But that’s a different question from “Is it wrong to indoctrinate children?”  It is wrong to brainwash your kids. What one should do to remedy the situation is much harder.

At the end of his piece, Humphreys offers one solution: make sure that all children are given a thorough grounding in science in school. Learning to think scientifically, he avers, and learning how to give reasons for what one believes, and think critically, will inevitably make children question all beliefs and, if they decide to be religious, will at least expose them to a variety of religions rather than the one they would have been forced to adopt. (I suspect the most likely outcome of this process, though, is atheism.)

The problem with this, of course, is that children aren’t given much of a scientific education when they’re young and vulnerable, and many—such as young Orthodox Jews or those who go to madrassas—are given no scientific education at all. Critical thinking courses, which naturally align with science, would help, but those aren’t on the menu for many believers, either. Can you imagine the Amish bringing up their children completely free from all religious doctrine, and making them go to secular schools where they learn science?

Humphrey’s arguments for why religious indoctrination is indeed a form of child abuse are eloquent and sound. His answers to those who criticize his views are also sound: parents do not have a “right” to fill their children’s heads with religious nonsense. What is lacking is a way to remedy this universal indoctrination. Humphrey’s own solution won’t work because it cannot be applied to those who need it most. Still, it’s useful for us to remember that this brainwashing goes on for millions and millions of children every day, and many of those children are forced into a narrow, blinkered life they wouldn’t have if they’d been given a better education.

Here’s a 2011 re-do of Humphreys Amnesty lecture:

h/t: Andy

What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.