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Mixing Politics and Atheism:

I blogged recently about Larry Darby, the Alabaman atheist Attorney General candidate with strange views about Jews (not to be confused with the Malibu Catholic with strange views about Jews), and one of the commenters wrote:

It certainly seems that, whenever we mix politics and atheism, we get a lot of crazies, whether they're Americans or Communists. This candidacy might provide another excellent argument for the separation of atheism and state.

Oh, wait, that's not exactly what happened. Rather, I wrote that the "Official Presbyterian Publisher Issues 9/11 Conspiracy Book," a book written by a theology professor; and the ocmmenter wrote:

It certainly seems that, whenever we mix politics and religion, we get a lot of crazies, whether they're Christian or Muslim. This book might provide another excellent argument for the separation of church and state.

Both arguments, though, make about the same (low) amount of sense. There's little reason, to my knowledge, to think that the view that we're living under a "Zionist-Occupied Government" is distinctively or even disproportionately held by atheists; that one atheist holds it is hardly an argument against "mixing politics and atheism," however you define "mixing." Likewise, there's little reason to think that a conspiracy theory about the Bush Administration planning the 9/11 attacks is distinctively or even disproportionately held by religious people; that one theology professor holds it is hardly an argument against "mixing politics and religion."

I realize that one can come up with theories about why religiosity would correlate with various weaknesses of character or judgment. One can likewise come up with similar theories about atheism. Or one can suspect, as I do, that these theories, while not implausible, do not seem correct in practice.

But one way or another, "X is [religious/an atheist] who believes stupid thing Y or does bad thing Z, therefore that's a black mark against [religious people/atheists]" -- with zero explanation for why you think the religious or atheists are especially likely to do Y or Z (except that this one particular religious person or atheist happened to do it) -- is an argument that reveals more about the speaker than it does about the religious or atheists.

randal (mail):
I agree with this post totally. But it's strange in that it seems to presuppose a plausibly relevant dichotomy between atheism and "religiousity". Personally, I haven't found a way to interestingly define this dichotomy, where by "interestingly" I mean in a way that produces a politically or morally useful distinction between people.

In some sense, that seems to be the upshot of your post, but you refrain from reaching that conclusion. Why?
8.8.2006 1:48am
JMan (mail):
I am not sure it is a dichotomy. I think this is really a simple matter of one side painting the other side with a broad brush and vice versa.

My only quibble is with the terminology. I think we may be talking about three types of people. Those who support (or at least do not oppose) some measure of religious influence in the government. Atheists. And secular individuals who want to exclude religion from public life but either are privately religious or at least would deny being atheists.
8.8.2006 2:04am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
They only lack sense it that atheism becomes religion. And then, somehow, they both make sense.

This is why I regard myself not as an atheist, but as a Classical Greek Skeptic. Of course, that pretty much shuts down cocktail party conversation - as everyone goes, huh? :)
8.8.2006 2:43am
JDNYU:
How about, "Some asshat working for Reuters was doctoring his photographs from Lebanon. Therefore the MSM is corrupt and worthless. Let's only listen to what LGF has to say."
8.8.2006 2:44am
Rational Thinker:
Perhaps the problem is not religion per se (or atheism per se) but believing in ideas so strongly that one has no problem forceing them on others. To the extent doctrines such as eternal salvation vs eternal damnation are ripe for so presenting themselves, religious people with political power can (potentially) cause a problem. Atheism is not (typically) something one yearns to force on others, in my experience.

Of interest, libertarianism--the idea that (says in part) one may not justly force ones views on others--is the one view one can hold very strongly without the same risk. Is that not an argument for libertarians in power? :-)
8.8.2006 2:56am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Alright consider this claim, "Whenever you elect neo-nazis to office you get alot of crazies" or "Whenever you elect flat earthers/young earth creationists to office you get alot of crazies." Do you dispute the validity of these claims?

Perhaps you want to say that being a neo-nazi/flat-earther/creationist ipso facto makes one a crazy. Yet if so why can't the poster make exactly the same claim. Believing in some omnipotent, omnibenevolent god who is mysteriously engaged in a conspiracy to hide his existance with the one exception of a hooky book which is remarkably similar to many other purportedly holy books/stories which are in fact total fabrications sounds even more crazy than believing that the jews are engaged in some dastardly conspiracy. At least crazy conspiracy stories about people don't require fundamentally rewritting the laws of physics to be true. Besides, once you admit that god is hiding things from scientific detection (his existance) and leaving them to faith it isn't much more crazy to believe young earth creationism is one of these. The fact that most people believe in one of these religions is hardly an argument that this belief isn't crazy.

On the other hand perhaps you want to read these assertions as saying that people with a certain belief (be it religion, neo-nazism or creationism) are way more likely to have poor judgement in other areas. But obviously if someone belives in ridiculous enough things (neo-nazism, uri geller, creationism or whatever) it is reasonable to distrust their judgement in other matters. Yet once you agree to this point it seems that the poster's argument is quite reasonable.
8.8.2006 7:47am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Rational Thinker: Your thesis about the non-prosletyzing nature of athesism is disproven by Logicnazi's post. There are, of course, as many stripes of athesists as there are of religious folks. But in my experience, the logicnazi's post is not atypical. Scratch some atheists and you uncover hostility and a contempt towards the "duped" and irrational faithful.
8.8.2006 10:15am
Ken Arromdee:
Believing in some omnipotent, omnibenevolent god who is mysteriously engaged in a conspiracy to hide his existance with the one exception of a hooky book which is remarkably similar to many other purportedly holy books/stories which are in fact total fabrications sounds even more crazy than believing that the jews are engaged in some dastardly conspiracy.

You might have a point if it weren't for the social dynamics of religion. If someone were not raised from birth to believe in God, if God had nothing to do with their cultural heritage, and if they did not live in a society which keeps reinforcing the idea of believing in God, and the sole reason they believe in God is that one day they heard one guy on a street corner preach about him, if they end up believing in God they're probably crazy. But the world doesn't work that way.
8.8.2006 10:20am
magoo (mail):
"Atheism is not (typically) something one yearns to force on others, in my experience."

Consult Solzhenitsyn
8.8.2006 10:40am
Eugene Volokh (www):
LogicNazi: Could you possibly comment on my point in the last paragraph (which builds on points in the preceding two paragraphs)? I thought I had argued that the commenter's argument is unsound even if one accepts the argument that you are making. Or did that not come through?
8.8.2006 11:01am
Aultimer:

EV: I realize that one can come up with theories about why religiosity would correlate with various weaknesses of character or judgment. One can likewise come up with similar theories about atheism. Or one can suspect, as I do, that these theories, while not implausible, do not seem correct in practice.


The religiosity v. atheism axis isn't the relevant one for craziness - it's the moderation v. extremism (skeptic v. zealot?) axis that correlates with loopiness.
8.8.2006 11:14am
CJColucci:
PatHMV:
I think the point is that, generally, you have to SCRATCH (sorry, I haven't been able to italicize) the atheist first before uncovering hostility and contempt. Hence the claim that atheists, as a rule, don't proselytize.
8.8.2006 11:23am
DK:
I agree with Aultimer.

I have had really bad experiences with both atheist zealots and religious zealots (more with the former, since I went to a top 5 college). One of the core life lessons I have learned is to avoid people who really, really want to convert you, whether they want to convert you to their religion, their lack of religion, their politics, their business model, or their academic subfield. The goal of the conversion and the intensity of belief don't matter, it's the control issues and the lack of respect for other people's boundaries that causes the problem.

I just wish we could come up with a way to separate political zealots from State in addition to separating Church and State.
8.8.2006 11:27am
godfodder (mail):
The vast majority of "religious" people that I know are kind, thoughtful, socially selfless people (the kind that take weekend days off to do things for the homeless, etc) who are on a personal search for meaning. They find this "meaning" in the moral ideas and behaviors encouraged by most organized religions. In short, they are the kind of folks that you would want to live in your neighborhood.

The generalized, abstract attack on these people and their worldview has been largely from the Left, and relies heavily on caracature. Yes, religion is fundamentally irrational, but what conceivable "meaning" in life could ignore emotion? We are not all Spock, afterall. At the same time, it would be a big mistake to insist that religious people are equally "irrational" in all areas of their lives. People are much more complicated than that-- even people who go to church/temple/mosque.

Religion helps provide a sense of community and a moral structure to one's existence. Not everyone's cup of tea, obviously, but nothing too sinister, eh? I worry about people who embrace "belief systems" that destroy a sense of community, and dissolve moral distinctions. These corrosive ideologies come in all shapes and guises-- sometimes they even look like traditional religion, and sometimes they appear quite "scientific."

If they pit "us" against an evil "them," or if they rationalize murder/rape/sadism/cruelty, then they qualify as dangerous crackpotism. And their adherents deserve our suspicion.
8.8.2006 12:00pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Inductive reasoning is a valid analytical tool, but unlike deductive reasoning any particular example of it cannot be taken as absolute confirmation of the conclusions reached. Where things get really sloppy in politics is the use of inductive reasoning to identify prevalencies and probabilities rather than absolutes.

We inductively reason that all swans are white after we see flock after flock of white swans. That premise is falsified by the sight of a single black swan. The suspicious-of-religion commenters are saying not that all swans are white, but that most swans are white. How many black swans must we see before that premise is falsified?

Of course, the premise being asserted is made without conducting any actual reasoning. Rather, the asserters of the premise are cherry-picking examples supporting their argument without actually counting the number of white and black swans to determine the ratio between the two, just as I did by picking out Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and Chairman Mao as the leading examples of atheistic leaders.

If anyone wants to seriously argue that religion tends to produce blood-thirsty leaders, he should back it up by counting the number of religious leaders and the number of atheistic leaders, to see what percentage of each were blood-thirsty.
8.8.2006 12:07pm
Erasmussimo:
Eugene, you misunderstood my comment. Let's parse my statement carefully, shall we?

It certainly seems that, whenever we mix politics and religion, we get a lot of crazies, whether they're Christian or Muslim. This book might provide another excellent argument for the separation of church and state.

The first sentence is an historical observation which can be supported by many examples; surely you will not contest the overall sense of the sentence, although you are free to quibble over the precise meaning of the deliberately vague quantifier "a lot".

The second sentence is where you stumbled. It does not state that the book proves the case for separation of church and state; it declares only that the book provides one argument in favor of the thesis. How can you find anything wrong with such a statement?

Your logical blunder comes in these words:

there's little reason to think that a conspiracy theory about the Bush Administration planning the 9/11 attacks is distinctively or even disproportionately held by religious people; that one theology professor holds it is hardly an argument against "mixing politics and religion."

The argument you counter here is not implicit in my words. I wrote that the admixture of religion and politics produces a lot of crazies, and there's nothing in it to suggest that all these crazies are crazy in the same way. Indeed, the point was driven home by my subsequent citation of other crazies with other follies. My meaning was clear: that the admixture of religion and politics produces a lot of different crazies. I did not in any manner suggest or imply that this single crazy is representative of all Christians. Indeed, the term "crazy" clearly denotes an isolated individual unrepresentative of any particular group. I chose that word for precisely that reason, and you ignored its clear meaning.
8.8.2006 12:23pm
Hattio (mail):
I have to concur w/Aultimer and quibble (only somewhat) with Godfodder. I agree that it's the extremists you have to watch out for. And specifically the extremists who cannot respect the fact that others believe something differently. But, I've known hardcore fundamentalists who could respect others beliefs (without believing their equally valid) and liberal atheists who couldn't. But I will say that I believe Godfodder is closing his eyes, both to the religious who are disrespectful, and to the liberals who are respectful. And there are liberal/left-leaning religious no matter how invisible they are in today's political climate.
8.8.2006 12:37pm
Humble Law Student (mail):
Erasmussimo,

You write, The first sentence is an historical observation which can be supported by many examples; surely you will not contest the overall sense of the sentence, although you are free to quibble over the precise meaning of the deliberately vague quantifier "a lot".
Prof. V was pointing out that your statement, while mildly descriptive, doesn't really say much. So, there are crazies who mix politics and religion. There are just as many if not more, who don't mix the two, but are just as extreme. Its a pointless "point" to make.
8.8.2006 12:45pm
Erasmussimo:
Humble Law Student, if that sentence says little, then there's nothing in it to disagree with, is there?
8.8.2006 12:56pm
Humble Law Student (mail):
Erasmussimo

Unfortunately for your argument, you try to make a broader point without understanding your argument's reach.
8.8.2006 1:52pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Or to put the point differntly surely you would oppose electing a flat-earther/(insert favorite crazy here) to the job of DA or sanitation inspector or other job that had nothing to do with the content of their crazy belief.

Surely you would be right to do so since some beliefs are objectively absurd and it is totally justified to doubt someone's judgement who holds these beliefs.

The various mainstream religions, in particular the religions of the book, are just as absurd as believing the earth is flat or aliens are making crop circles (give me a good argument based on objective evidence for the truth of your religion if you disagree). Even if you think your religion is justified and reasonable at the very least you have to admit that the billions of people whose tenets of faith conflict with your own are believing false things despite a total lack of evidence for their position.

A propensity to believe things unsupported by the evidence which have real consequences certainly seems like a good reason to distrust someone's judgement to me. Surely you wouldn't spell out this argument in detail if you were talking about a belief you truly thought was crazy so why should this author have to do so?

For a more in depth argument as to why religious people should be distrusted in deciscion making take a look at Sam Harris's The End Of Faith
8.8.2006 2:08pm
Goober (mail):
This is asinine, Prof. Volokh. Distrust of the alignment between religion and government has certain precedents in, say, all of John Locke's philosophy. Or, say, the generations who saw the religious wars in Europe. Or, say, the framers of the Constitution. Or, say, the First Amendment.

What is the pedigree of people who distrust atheists in government? Jerry Falwell and assorted others who simply don't like people who don't think you can be a good person unless you believe in God.

To compare the two of them is really quite daft.
8.8.2006 2:17pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Prof. Volokh,

I hope I sorta addressed your point in the comment I just made. I realized my response was insufficient but when I tried to post another comment the server seemed to have gone down. My response to that point is that people seem perfectly willing to accept arguments of the form 'well that person believes the earth is flat you shouldn't be surprised they also believing in an international Zionist conspiracy' without any extra explanation all the time.

I think this is merely a point of conversational charity. If I was to say, 'well the guy you voted for believes the moon landings were faked of course he is a crazy,' conversational charity would require that you assume the poster is arguing that if their judgment on one issue is poor you should expect their judgment on others to be poor as well.

As far as I can see you are just criticizing this poster for not spelling out this argument in detail. I admit it might have been more productive to do so but rather than dismissing them entirely it is only reasonable to read them with the same charity we would read anyone else and assume their sentence was meant to evoke the obvious argument.

As for others who are accusing me of proselytizing I would argue that there is a difference between believing you are right and proselytizing. I mean if someone made a post about how the world is flat surely most of you would respond with comments about how absurd this view is and arguing there is no evidence for it. Does this mean you are proselytizing for round earthers?

I mean look at how we use the term with religious jews. We call (most) jews non-proselytizing but of course they defend the claims of their faith as true. If I was proselytizing I would be going around handing out pamphlets about atheism. Admittedly there are such people and I feel a certain sympathy for them but I'm not (quite) one myself.

Sorry if my earlier posts were a bit worked up though.
8.8.2006 2:26pm
Syme:
Logicnazi, your recent arguments are causing me to doubt your appellation.

First, you (repeatedly) make the claim that someone who believes the world is flat, aliens made crop circles, etc. is crazy (or believe something absurd, which I think you think amounts to the same thing). Now, I take you to be using "crazy" in a non-technical sense, which rather significantly limits the clarity with which we can discuss this issue. My best guess at what you mean is "unscientific," since you also emphasize the necessity of--and indeed priority of--objective verification. It is of course quite clear that flat-earthers are unscientific to the extent that they appear to be making a claim of exactly the sort that science was developed to answer. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that the alien crop circles fits; it may be the case that aliens do make crop circles, notwithstanding the fact that many observed instances of this phenomena have been shown to be hoaxes. However, the truth of the claim at this point largely depends on who bears the burden of proof, something hardly decideable by scientific criteria as I understand them. At any rate, I'm not sure what kind of science could resolve this issue based on your "objective evidence" criteria. I therefore fear that you are either not using the term "crazy" consistently as "unscientific" or are simply using it as a proxy for "things I find inconceivable for either good or bad reasons." That religion is unscientific goes without saying, at least in the sense that it is not based or dependent on the general criteria of indubitable empirical verifiability or falsifiability that science often uses. Perhaps you could offer some clarity about what you mean by "crazy"?

Second, you also argue quite strongly that atheists do not proselytize, or at least, do not proselytize as much as religious crazies. You then append a link to a book that appears to do just what you claim does not happen. Does publishing a book expressing quite tendentiously a particular belief not count as spreading that belief? It is, of course, hardly the sole example of the genre.
8.8.2006 2:49pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Mix any two topics of common interest together and you will find a lot of crazies.

The existence of English soccer hooligans could just as easily provide an argument, using Erasmussimo's logic, for the separation of sport and state.

Nick
8.8.2006 2:55pm
lucia (mail) (www):
NickM,
Interstingly, I think greater separation of sport and state would be wise. (Though the existance of English soccer hooligans is not my main concern.)
8.8.2006 3:12pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
If anyone wants to seriously argue that religion tends to produce blood-thirsty leaders, he should back it up by counting the number of religious leaders and the number of atheistic leaders, to see what percentage of each were blood-thirsty.

Why are you only counting "leaders"? Popes have never killed anyone with their own hands (so far as I know), but their followers have had several sips from Dracula's glass. I hear there are a few religious people in the Middle East who want to wipe a country off the map or something, too.
8.8.2006 3:29pm
Waldensian (mail):

[I]t may be the case that aliens do make crop circles, notwithstanding the fact that many observed instances of this phenomena have been shown to be hoaxes. However, the truth of the claim at this point largely depends on who bears the burden of proof, something hardly decideable by scientific criteria as I understand them.

I think you make a common error regarding science and "burdens of proof" here. You might find this article thought provoking (at least I did).
8.8.2006 7:12pm
randal (mail):
The generalized, abstract attack on these [religiously inclined] people and their worldview has been largely from the Left, and relies heavily on caracature.

There's no generalized, abstract attack. The generalized, abstract paranoia these religiously inclined people have incorporated into their worldview has been fostered largely by the Right, which relies heavily on demonization.
8.8.2006 7:26pm
Broken Quanta (mail) (www):
The trouble, logicnazi, is that your standard of "objective proof" presupposes your atheistic conclusions. Those of us who are, for instance, Christians of a certain stripe, have all the proof we need. But that proof is inherently subjective: it comes from feeling Christ in our hearts. Demanding (or even, in my opinion, looking for) truly objective evidence of God's existence is a fool's errand, because the very nature of Christian faith is that it is personal and therefor subjective. In other words, you've satisfied yourself that God doesn't exist via a process that you specifically designed to exclude the only compelling evidence of His existence that He offers us. Religious believers are no less rational than you are; they simply allow into evidence that which you will not.

As to your argument that the judgement of people like me should not be trusted...well, I'm healthy, happy and prosperous. Distrust my judgement if you like, but I've trusted it for a long time and it's worked out pretty well for me. What's more, I think you can extrapolate somewhat from my experience to that of America as a whole. The United States of America has been a bastion of faith for over two hundred years, and in that time has risen from colonies in the wilderness to the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world. As Prof. Volokh says, you can build elaborate theoretical models that indicate that the faithful are not to be trusted. Empirically, though, those models will all fail. Distrust the judgement of the faithful if you like, but it's gotten us this far.
8.8.2006 8:45pm
Erasmussimo:
I'd like to emphasize that I have no problem with the vast majority of believers. Most are perfectly reasonable people. My observation concerned the crazies at the far end of the spectrum. I certainly have no problem trusting the judgement of most believers, and I would never decide my vote for any politician based on their religious beliefs.
8.8.2006 9:37pm
Moneyrunner43 (www):
Let's use this thread as a brief, unscientific poll to determine who are the intolerant and the tolerant: believers or atheists. Anyone want to count and judge?
8.8.2006 10:51pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Syme,

I just don't think defending your point of view as correct when attacked counts as proselytizing. Yes I obviously linked to proselytizing material just as a non-proselytizing catholic would cite material prepared by proselytizing catholics if an argument over the truth of his faith comes up.

I admit to having sympathy with the proselytizers and I would like to see more people read Sam Harris's book but I don't go around with a mission to convince people I meet to do so. I just defend my point of view when it comes up and in this case I felt he had made some of the points I felt were relevant in the best manner.

Broken Quanta,

I think we are using two different notions of objective here. I mean that inferences from the facts to the conclusions should be objective not that all the evidence should itself be intersubjectively available. Or alternatively that the relevant facts would be just as convincing phrased in a third person fashion (many people have compelling spiritual experiences) as in a first person fashion (I had a compelling spiritual experience).

In other words in this sense it can be an objective fact that I subjectively feel tired or hungry or had a spiritual experience. The question is whether knowing you had such a spiritual experience would lead you to rationally conclude that your religion was correct. That is if you step back and pretend to look at yourself in the third person would you consider the occurrence of this sort of experience to be sufficient evidence to establish your religious belief.

There are certainly situations in which I would take people's personal spiritual experiences to be good evidence for particular religious belief. For instance if we discovered that people's spiritual experiences in different parts of the world all told them that the same religious teachings were true and other, simpler, explanations weren't forthcoming I would take that as strong evidence for a genuine spiritual cause (whether we should assume the spiritual agent producing the effects is truthful or not is another matter).

However, as it happens people have equally compelling spiritual experiences which cause them to believe in contradictory belief systems. It just can't be that both catholicism is right and islam is right (among other things). Thus no matter what your religion is you must accept that compelling spiritual experiences more often cause people to believe in false religious dogma than true dogma (there are more people in all the other major world religions than there are in your own).

Thus while having had a moving spiritual experience might emotionally make one believe your religion is correct you can't support a rule of inference which says that such experiences give you good reason to believe in the religion supposedly verified by such experiences because it yields contradictory results. Or in other words your personal experience of your religion being true isn't good objective evidence for the truth of your religion.

Note though that I kept my claims about dubious judgment restricted to belief in organized dogmatic religion. One might say that all the various spiritual experiences gives us reason to believe there is something behind them but the inferences people make to support particular religious practices are invalid. I personally don't find this argument compelling but I'm not willing to disparage someone who believes in some vague unknown spiritual force/world. However, this still leaves belief in any particular religious dogma (jesus was the son of god, Mohamed was his profit) unsupported.

More generally though this is all beyond the point. All I need to establish to defend the original poster is that it is reasonable to think that someone whose judgement is poor in one area (believes things you think are clearly unsupported by the evidence) will likely have poor judgement in another.
8.8.2006 11:18pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
One more point on the proselytizing issue. I basically feel the standards here are slanted. Insisting on praying out loud during grace, or talking about how your christian faith has helped you through hard times or doing what Broken Quanta just did to defend his faith don't get a theist classified as a proselytizer so why should similar comments about how you believe these beliefs to be irrational and harmful make an atheist a proselytizer?

Or to put it differently I'm happy to be called a proselytizer if you call Broken Quanta a proselytizer for his post as well. It's not a bad thing I just take umbridge at the apparently different standards.

Unfortunately I think what is going on is that we are far more likely to label something proselytizing if it is out of the normal social order thus since religiousness is so deeply entwined in much normal social behavior it is less likely to be labeled proselytizing for similar actions.
8.8.2006 11:24pm
Syme:
Waldensian, I read the article with interest, but I'm afraid I don't see much of a tension--though this could very likely be due to lack of clarity on my part in my original point. At most, I take the article to be saying that the burden of proof is on whatever claim seems to contravene established theory because the established theory has been, at least tentatively, proved. This argument has always seemed to me to be reasonable, but, as the author notes, this is more of a pragmatic principle than anything else. But this decision doesn't arise out of scientific principles--it comes from an assumption of the reliability of prevailing theories.

My basic point was (meant to be) that claiming aliens create crop circles can't be dismissed as "crazy" if "crazy" means utterly unscientific. Good scientific practice could very reasonably incline someone to think that the burden of proof is on the one making the claim in this circumstance, but, again, this strikes me as a matter of pragmatism. I would still like to know what logicnazi thinks "crazy" means and why Sam Harris is not a proselytizer. I think the central point is still that the too-facile statement that believing in any religion is absurd requires a brand of scientific positivism that I had more or less thought wasn't around anymore.
8.8.2006 11:34pm
godfodder (mail):
Logicnazi:
The problem I have with rationalists, such as yourself, is that you fail to grapple with the fruits of your logic. "Thou shalt not kill" is a statement of an altogether different order than "the speed of light is 186000 miles per second." Will you insist that the prohibition against killing is mere superstition because it can't be verified the way that the speed of light can? And if so, do you not see how you open the door to endless evil?

My point is simple: logic has it's limitations. It is a method of thinking, nothing more. It cannot lead to knowledge or wisdom. It leads to the death camps as often as it leads to paradise.
8.8.2006 11:45pm
Syme:
logicnazi, we cross-posted, but I would like to respond to your posts.

A large portion of this thread dealt with whether it makes sense to call atheists proselytizers (apparently an epithet). Insofar as the dictionary definition of proselytizer is someone who tries to convert someone else, well, I suppose we all can be considered proselytizers. But there is clearly a negative connotation as well, which I guess is someone who takes the initiative to try to convince someone that they are wrong. Insofar as some of the posts on this thread take the initiative not only to say that religion ought to be kept out of politics but also that religions are just plain wrong, that seems to me to fit the definition. Of course, one might claim a causal connection between the two points, but not being able to help arguing that religion is wrong because you want to argue that it should be kept out of politics does not make it any less proselytizing.

As for the double standard, I think that might be hard to argue; as far as I know the term proselytizing historically has an almost exclusively religious usage, though I don't know if it has always had a pejorative usage. I wonder, logicnazi, if I understand what you mean by proselytizing.

As for the other arguments, broken quanta will likely give quite an adequate response, but a few points for the road:

1. Sam Harris' book is not a good example of really robust, serious atheistic argument. I very sincerely recommend looking elsewhere.

2. Organized dogmatic religions that I know about (Abrahamic faiths, generally) do not expect their truths to be based primarily or exclusively on subjective experience—though such is perhaps a supplement. Each is rooted in some historical testimony that the believer takes to be reliable as a matter of history.

3. You are still relying on an unstated, unproven premise with your maxim about poor judgment in one area meaning poor judgment in another area. Your posts tend to make me think that you think any type of judgment not exclusively rooted in hard science is going to be poor; uniformly poor judgment is therefore hardly surprising. Further, "area" needs more precision (I have TERRIBLE judgment when it comes to people, but really good judgment when it comes to writing software, but one does not seem like it ought to relate to the other). At any rate, the claim is hardly a matter of logical necessity.
8.9.2006 12:09am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Syme,

1)

I didn't claim Harris's book was a good example of an argument for atheism (it might have that in it as well but I only got halfway through before I got distracted). Rather I cited it as a in depth argument as to why one might think that religious belief causes problems in politics and gives one reason to doubt the judgment of people who hold those beliefs.

Sure if I had been citing a book as an argument FOR atheism I would cite one of the many long scholarly works on the subject. However, there a few books (that I know of) that address the question of whether religious faith dangerously skews decision making.

I did find many of his points quite compelling (primarily that it is absurd to use a different standard of truth for religious facts and other facts) and well done. If you have any specific criticisms I would be glad to hear them but until then the fact that you don't like the book doesn't carry much weight with me.

2) I was specifically responding to Broken Quanta's post where he did justify his religious faith in this manner. Perhaps I was incorrectly assuming Broken Quanta believed in an organized religion rather than just that there was some (unknown) spiritual world but he would have to tell us this himself.

I realize that one justification for most religions of the book is the reliability of their holy book. However, this is obviously not good evidence for the truth of the religion on it's own. In the absence of some extra reason to give the bible credibility there is no more reason that the bible should convince us to believe it's events are true than the Quran or Greek myths should.

Recognizing this epistemic bootstrapping issue (how do you justify the book to justify your religion) many individuals turn to personal spiritual experience to justify their acceptance of the books as true. Additionally once one admits that the bible and similar works are not always literally true one needs some epistemic story about how one recognizes what parts are metaphorical and what parts are true. After all I know many people (weirdly including an Anglican priest) who take the whole jesus story to be metaphorical and not evidence of any actual divine being or resurrection.

3) You are right that I don't have empirical studies backing up this point but I think we all have personal experience that this is true in some areas. Unless you are really going to claim that you would be equally likely to vote for the flat-earther, alien abduction, Illuminati conspiracy theorist for city sanitation manager (or some job where these views aren't going to come up) you are accepting this principle as well.

Obviously I'm not claiming that poor judgment in one area guarantees poor judgment in another. All I'm claiming is that they are positively correlated. Thus if all you find out about someone is that they have poor judgment in area A you should raise your probability they have poor judgment in area B. Nothing you said contradicts this. Also the term area is irrelevant, I could equally well phrase the point as seeing someone make one poor judgment should make you raise your probability they will make other poor judgements.

Moreover, to defend the original post all I need to show is that this is a plausible argument. Even if it is in fact incorrect or just incorrect in this case I've still shown that it is a perfectly valid point and one we wouldn't flinch at if we substituted flat-earther for religious.

Finally your claim that I won't accept any judgment not based in hard science as good just isn't true. For instance people have very good intuitive grasps of psychology and their are plenty of interpersonal judgements (he is in a bad mood etc..) that I'm happy to accept as good despite being based on intuition/feelings. Additionally I'm happy to accept the judgements of say a chess grand master about some position in the game being poor despite the total absence of what would generally be called science.

Now of course I only accept these judgements because I think we have good reason to think they are reliable. I'm happy to admit that I won't accept a judgment as good unless it is supported by evidence to be such but I think that is just part of what it means for a judgment to be good.
8.9.2006 3:02pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
godfodder,

I think the existence of moral facts is a very interesting question. I am unsure if they exist and what they would mean if they did but I'm certainly not going to dismiss them out of hand. If I did you might have a point, also if I just dismissed the possibility there is some realm beyond the physical out of hand as ridiculous (as opposed to just unsupported) your point might be valid.

However, my attack was specifically focused on major organized religions and specifically the religions of the book. At the core of these religion's faith are specific historical incidents. Either jesus was medically deceased for three days and then rose from the dead or he did not. Either mohammed ascended to heaven on some winged beast or he did not.

These are historical facts or not not different than a question about what the king of Babylon ate for breakfast. The fact that these supposed events are deeply tied up in religious belief or the result of divine intervention doesn't change what would be good evidence for these historical events. If I told you that Gilgamesh killed the demon Humbaba the terrible you aren't going to believe my claim without much more evidence despite knowing it was written down by the ancient Babylonians and there is no reason to treat claims about jesus rising from the dead any differently.

I am somewhat sympathetic to part of your point. Many 'rationalists' dogmatically refuse to even entertain the possibility that there could be a 'spiritual' world as well as a physical one. In the absence of evidence for one I think the default position should (by Occam) assume that their isn't one but it totally unjustified to be a physicalist for purely dogmatic reasons. Unfortunately I run into this attitude quite frequently, especially when talking about philosophy of mind. There is a large segment who has a near religious belief that experience is not only supervenient (determined by) brain state but is actually nothing but movement of atoms and electrons. Some of them go so far as to deny that there is even such a thing as experience despite it's evident existence (at least in me) to save their belief in physicalism.

Now if all that major religions did is suggest their might be a spiritual world and entertain speculative hypothesizes about how it worked it would be perfectly reasonable. However, major world religions have articles of faith claiming quite definite facts about the workings of the spiritual world (god is merciful, good people go to heaven etc..). Having dogmatic convictions about things you have no good evidence for is the part that is unreasonable and shows bad judgment.

If there is a spiritual world it is something beyond our experience. We can't take the mythology of ancient cultures as a veridical guide to the spiritual world as the conflicting nature of their accounts is strong reason to believe these mythologies evolved to satisfy social and psychological needs not to describe actual hard evidence about how the spiritual world works. At the very least we have to admit we have no good evidence that say Christianity is more likely to be true than islam.

Thus the situation with religion is much like the situation the ancients were in with respect to the heavens or the microscopic world. It was perfectly reasonable for them to speculate about what they might be but it was foolish and showed bad judgment to dogmatically decide that the heavens revolved around the earth on crystal spheres without any good evidence. Similarly it shows bad judgment to dogmatically decide that religion A is right and all the others are wrong when we have no good evidence for it.
8.9.2006 3:38pm
markm (mail):
"Of interest, libertarianism--the idea that (says in part) one may not justly force ones views on others--is the one view one can hold very strongly without the same risk. Is that not an argument for libertarians in power? :-)"

Why would a libertarian want to hold power? (OK, I sometimes suspect we'd get a better government if we drafted officials via a lottery instead of picking from among those who most desperately want the job.)
8.9.2006 5:53pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Uhh to prevent others from using that power against him and others.

You always want to hold power if for no other reason than to prevent someone else from using it to bad ends.
8.12.2006 6:32pm