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Interviews with a Muslim

Last year, on the day after the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at Regensberg University, on the subject of Christian truth, and of Christian dialogue with other faiths, especially Islam. Although there has been plenty of media coverage of the Pope's remarks, and of the reaction by Rage Boy and other Islamists, one part of the story has been conspicuously absent: the text from which the Pope's remarks were taken. So this article supplies the missing context.

In 1391 in the East, Islam was ascendant, and Christianity barely hanging on. Manuel II Paleologue ruled the Byzantine "Empire", a territory not much larger than an American state, consisting of Constantinople and some small parts of modern-day Greece and Bulgaria. Accordingly, Manuel was obliged in the early 1391 pay tribute at the court of the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet I.

There, Manuel met a very learned, older Persian gentleman, who asked Manuel to discuss with him the comparative merits of Islam and Christianity. The Persian, who perhaps was a professor, explained that he had already learned much about Christianity, but he wished to discuss the topic with a genuine advocate of Christianity, rather than with a Muslim giving an incomplete defense of the Christian faith.

So for 26 nights, the pair debated. The discussions were recorded by some members of Manuel's court, probably to the benefit of their prince. The full dialogues have been recorded in Greek, and the dialogue of the seventh night has been translated into French, presumably because of its significance. It was from the 1966 French edition, translated and edited by Theodore Khoury, that Benedict XVI quoted, Entretiens Avec un Musluman: 7e Controverse (Interviews with a Muslim: 7th Controversy). No edition presently exists in English. (The French translation of the dialogue itself, without Khoury's extensive analysis, is here.)

Guest101:

The dialogue cannot reasonably result in the conclusion that "all religions are equally true," for all of the three faiths contain statements of theological fact that are incompatible with the notion that any religion is as good as any other.

It certainly can, if the ultimate conclusion is that the truth value of all religious is equally zero. That probably is not the sort of "absolute theological truth" that you would prefer to acknowledge, but everything we've learned since the fourteenth century points to it as the most plausible conclusion.


[DK: It's pretty unrealistic to expect that serious interfaith dialogue among, for example, a Conservative Jew, a Roman Catholic, and a Sunni Muslim, is going to result in all three of them concluding that all their faiths are false, and that atheism is true.]
9.12.2007 1:44pm
whit:
" but everything we've learned since the fourteenth century points to it as the most plausible conclusion."

um, not really. some would argue that quantum physics and other neato keen discoveries about the true mystery of the universe, of life, and of consciousness imo suggest there might be a bit more to life than meets the eye (of the simple materialist).

some guy got it right a long time ago... "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy"... or something.


[DK: I would also say that since the 14th century, we've acquired vastly more historical knowledge about the early centuries of all three Abrahamic religions, which makes it much easier for people to make informed decisions about many of the claims of those religions.]
9.12.2007 2:35pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
whit:

That's fine but the fundamental mistake of most theists is to confuse the idea that there might be something out there that they don't understand or is even bigger than them with the claim that there is this specific thing out there. Heck, even believing in god alone (just as a powerful being who created the world) isn't so unreasonable where things run off the rails is that everyone assumes they know a hoard of facts about god's nature (he is good, he doesn't lie, he intervenes with worldly miracles, he is not testing us to be logical rather than faithful etc.. etc..)

------
As far as this dialog goes I have trouble believing that any two college educated individuals in modern times would have so much trouble defending their beliefs.

I mean let's take for a start the argument about islamic religion reviving laws from the mosaic code. That doesn't even suggest that on the whole the mosaic code had to be better than the christian code just that some of their laws where a good idea.

Ultimately debates over religious dogma are kinda silly because the only point worth debating is whether people should have any confidence in the fundamental revelation (should we believe mohammed was a prophet or a crazy dude) and once you move beyond that it can be used to justify anything.
9.12.2007 2:47pm
Gordo:
Thank you, David Kopel, for this enlightening and interesting post. Your final point is well-taken - the reaction to Pope Benedict's remarks shows that many in today's world are unwilling or unable to engage in frank religious discussion.

And the easy atheist answer, "a pox on all your houses," is no answer at all to the world's problems. The hard atheist answer - to enter the debate and make logical and complex arguments, is as beyond the average atheist as it is beyond the average Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
9.12.2007 3:01pm
Matt P (mail):
"follow their example by engaging in hard-headed and soft-hearted interfaith dialogues


True,

The arguments about the Jewish Christian and Islamic laws are based upon the the assumptions of the Islamic faith, ie.(Mosaic law good, Christian law better, Islamic law best. This is reasoned by the Islamic understanding of progressively perfected revelation ending with Mohammad. The validity rests not in proving that Christian laws are superior or even saying that the Mosaic law was a failure, but only in saying that the theory of progressively perfect revelation is inconsistent with the law taking a detour through Christian law on the way to Islamic law if the Mosaic law had something correct in the first place.
9.12.2007 3:09pm
Zathras (mail):
These dialogues sound very interesting and useful as a model of interfaith discussion--it is a shame that only one of them has been translated.
9.12.2007 3:15pm
wfjag:
That's fine but the fundamental mistake of most theists is to confuse the idea that there might be something out there that they don't understand or is even bigger than them with the claim that there is this specific thing out there.

Actually, Truepath, that's also essentially the same mistake atheists make -- assuming that there is nothing out there.

It is called "faith" for a reason -- it cannot be proved or disproved. It is a choice. The fundamental laws of physics are reduced to mathmatical formulas. Math is not moral, immoral or amoral -- it is simply math.

There is no way to derive any moral or ethical code from math. You must inject assumptions about morality and ethics [And, no, I don't believe in "natural law", because it cannot be derived from the laws of physics without injecting assumptions].

So, the choice boils down to believe or not to believe, or to avoid confronting that fundamental question.

The logical course of action for a non-believer is to get, by whatever means, all he/she can for him/herself, and have no concern for anyone else, past, present or future -- since this is all there is. Of course, the non-believer has to worry that "maybe I'm wrong about that after-life thingy."

For the believer, the choice is to attempt to each day live a life that is closer to the ideals of his/her faith. And, if he/she is wrong about that after-life thingy, he/she will never know.

Agnostics get the worst of both approaches -- "Should I really go for hedonism and selfishness? But, am I a better or happer person for that? And, should I or shouldn't I worry about that after-life thingy? Maybe I should just try not to think about it?"
9.12.2007 3:40pm
Jay Myers:

So this article supplies the missing context.

It's not a bad article, but I have to raise an objection about how well it provides an accurate context for the discussion. "Accordingly, Manuel was obliged in the early 1391 pay tribute at the court of the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet I." The full context is that Manuel was a hostage in the Ottoman court. During his time as a hostage he was forced, among other things, to take up arms against his father's empire. Also, the only reason his time as a hostage was so short is that he fled the Ottoman court upon hearing of his father's death.
9.12.2007 3:53pm
Guest101:
wfjag,

Actually, Truepath, that's also essentially the same mistake atheists make -- assuming that there is nothing out there.


This is the common mistake theists make-- assuming that atheists' non-belief in an unprovable proposition is epistemically equivalent to the theist's affirmative belief in some unprovable entity. It's simply a matter of burdens of proof-- I'm entitled to refrain from believing in God until you give me some good reason to accept your assertion that God does exist. For a long time, theism seemed a plausible explanation for many observed phenomena-- the gaps in our knowledge were so large that God could easily fit in them. That is no longer the case, and as the expanding scope of human knowledge has provided naturalistic explanations for such phenomena that don't rely on the intervention of a supernatural agent, the plausibility of any postulated divine agent has accordingly constricted.

The rest of your post is pure nonsense. The idea that holding a particular empirical belief may make you happy, or make you live a better life, is simply not a logical basis for adopting that belief (though it may be a powerful irrational incentive to do so). Even assuming for the moment that atheism/agnosticism leads to selfishness and hedonism and suicide and whatever else the alarmist theist screed du jour is, none of that provides any rational foundation for accepting the premise of God's existence.
9.12.2007 3:59pm
e:
wfjag - Be careful equating atheism with hedonism or immorality. Morality can derive from both reason and mythology. That's probably why many of our fables and myths teach similar values. Also probably why religious interpretations change over time. There are some good lessons in the Bible as there are in other stories written by wise men as a product of their times. I try to live a "good" life because I realize life and the universe are majestic even without god(s). I know that there is an afterlife in social memory. I want my children to live and prosper in a safe and just society. I do not risk losing that moral compass because I hear what I think to be a divine voice directing me to rob or rape or kill. I do not think that my wrongs will be or need to be forgiven by something beyond mankind. I know my time is limited, so I figure out how to live meaningfully to have positive impact on civilization and environment.
9.12.2007 4:05pm
Orielbean (mail):
I would append that last comment by the statement that any believer, atheist, agnostic, whatever, should worry about that "after-life" thingy. If they don't worry, they are no different from the person who constructed the elaborate set of after-life belief, or chose to subscribe to one of the readily-available constructs.

You can choose to believe that our laws of physics and language of math help to accurately express the reality that we live in and can measure. Indeed, the atheist can understand that there is a fixed amount of space or materials on this world, and so should live a conscientious life that avoids oppressing other people with their own choices or greed.

Because science can measure pain, I try not to harm living animals. Because math tells me it is more efficient to walk a mile than gas up the car for a short commute, I make an ethical choice. Math does not have morality, but it is a language that can express the cost of a choice. You develop your own moral or ethical code by understanding the cost of a choice. It could be "if I steal, I don't go to Heaven" or "if I steal, that shopkeeper goes out of business" and have the same external effect on the world.

Religion tells you the cost of every choice and leaves little to the imagination. Science and math tell you the cost of the choice as they understand it today, and leaves the door open to future impact analysis.

I enjoy the life I live. Science and math allow me to measure the cost of my decisions, and the potential future impact of those decisions. This allows me to maximize decisions that bring me pleasure and happiness. Maybe the guy next to me enjoys hurting other things, and uses science to further that end. But you cannot say that knowledge without faith does not create any sort of morality or ethics. How does deity worship create that code?

Jesus's lessons work perfectly fine as a moral and ethical code if you take the God and Father out of it. You don't need to believe in a religion to perform acts of kindness on the world.
9.12.2007 4:06pm
Seamus (mail):
In contrast, modern Islamo-fascists abhor even guide dogs for the blind as unclean, and dogs are banned from "Saudi" Arabia.

I don't understand the scare quotes. Do you also talk about "the 'Hashemite' Kingdom of Jordan"? Or "the Union of 'Soviet' Socialist Republics"?


[DK: I think it's ridiculous and improper for a ruling family to name a country after itself. Imagine if the U.K. were "the Windsor United Kingdom." One difference between Saudi Arabia and Jordan is that for the latter, we all call the country "Jordan" whereas for the former, the rulers have conflated their own name with the country's name, in popular Western usage. Hence the need for scare quotes to illustrate the illegitimacy of the name. If lots of Westerners used the official name of Jordan, then it would be equally appropriate to put "Hashemite" in scare quotes. I had never thought about scare quotes for the USSR, but if the evil empire were still around, it might a good idea to put scare quotes on "Soviet" and "Socialist", since the country was not actually run by workers' councils, and since the economic program was closer to kleptocracy than to socialism. A similar point applies to the various tyrannies which falsely incorporate "people's", "democratic" and/or "republic" into their name. Like the "People's Republic" of China.]
9.12.2007 5:07pm
Jeff Dege (mail):
"Morality can derive from both reason and mythology."

Actually, if Hayek is right, no workable morality can derive from reason. For the simple fact that the complexities of organizing a functioning human society are beyond the capacity of any human or group of humans.

In his view, only evolution can create a workable morality - through experimentation and failure. Myths propagate these evolved moralities. Or religion, if you prefer. But attempts to replace them with reasoned moralities are doomed to fail.
9.12.2007 5:37pm
Paul A'Barge (mail):
"...who asked Michael to discuss with him..."

Who the hell is Michael?


[DK: I corrected it to "Manuel." Thanks for spotting it.]
9.12.2007 6:18pm
Frog Leg (mail):
"The idea that holding a particular empirical belief may make you happy, or make you live a better life, is simply not a logical basis for adopting that belief (though it may be a powerful irrational incentive to do so)"

Wow, you can't contradict economics any more than that. We are utility maximizers. Choosing something that does not maximize one's utility can only be viewed as wrong. If religion does make you happy, or have you live a better life, it seems that atheism diminishes one's humanity.
9.12.2007 6:21pm
Reader (response to Guest 101):
Guest 101: you are confusing agnosticism and atheism. If you simply don't have active belief that God exists, you are agnostic, and your statement about burdens of proof is correct. But if you are an atheist (i.e., you believe God does not exist), then you are in the same boat as theists, and must defend your belief.

If you do not understand this, you are not an atheist.
9.12.2007 7:22pm
K Parker (mail):
Orielbean
Because math tells me it is more efficient to walk a mile than gas up the car for a short commute
Sorry, "math" tells you no such thing. It only helps you quantify the difference in cost once you've decided, by some means other than math, that energy usage or monetary cost is more important to you than time savings.
9.12.2007 7:29pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Frog Leg:

The point was that even if believing something makes you happy, that fact by itself does not make the belief true. At least not in the sense that the word "true" is normally used.
9.12.2007 8:38pm
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):

you are confusing agnosticism and atheism.


You are assuming these terms have hard definitions when they do not and their context has some absolute reference. Some dictionary's say agnosticism implicitly includes the assumption that nothing can be known about the existence of a god, when that is a presumption as theistic as any. And there is relative atheism - though I don't yet know if there was a universal creator or not, (we might be making our own universes soon according to some) that still doesn't change its just as likely that I'm god and forgot as it is that Jehovah, Odin, Allah or any of the other magical omnipotent sky fathers created and manage the universe, i.e. the chance of any of them is virtually nil.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell called himself a 'teacup' atheist - there may be a tea cup orbiting between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter but there is so little information to indicated it that its best to act as if there isn't. Is that still an agnostic as far as you're concerned?
9.12.2007 8:39pm
SenatorX (mail):
Also I have read (and used) the terms Strong atheist, where one proposes there is no god and Weak atheist where one doesn't feel they are required to respond at all to un-refutable propositions. I think there is a difference and consider myself in the second group.
9.12.2007 10:32pm
FilG:
While there is only a French translation of the dialogue, google language tools help folks who do not read French:

Translated to English

Off-topic: I have found their Chinese->English very valuable.
9.12.2007 10:35pm
Kamatu (mail):
"The hard atheist answer - to enter the debate and make logical and complex arguments, is as beyond the average atheist as it is beyond the average Christian, Jew, or Muslim."

We have a Winner! The most amusing bit is the various collection of humanist/atheist/materialist/agnostic believers claim logic and reason for their authority and then make gross logical errors. (Not saying the others don't, but that isn't the source of their authority.)

Simple thought, if you think Mark Twain had a relevant and timely definition of faith, how does this make anything other than too ignorant to have an opinion?
9.12.2007 11:11pm
TZ (mail):
I notice someone earlier brought up faith. As far as I know faith is a belief in something that cannot be proved or disproved but the believer has good reasons to think it is valid. For example- I believe my mother loves me. I can never prove my mother loves me, but there are many reasons that I have seen to make me think that she does. This definition is where most people get confused when they try to explain the basis of their faith. Some feel that tradition provides the best reasons to have faith in something, some people science, some literature, etc. etc. etc.... Bottom line- everyone has faith in something, even if that something is nothing; for that is in itself a reasoned conclusion that cannot be proved. I happpen to believe/have faith in a God. I cannot prove he exists, and he hasn't been proved to not exist either. (More on this later) However, based on the logical order and complexity of the universe, as well as the fact that everything came from something, I believe the source, the ultimate power/rationality behind it all is an entity I call God. Furthermore, this is backed by thousands of years of tradition and reason that make logical assertations about God's nature and will based on the order of his creation. Again, reasoned assumptions that are not always provable.

The two metaphors that chiefly back up this concept are the clockmaker's analogy of the universe and argument that everything came from something. The clockmakers' analogy states that the universe is a mechanical construct that obeys physical and mathematical rules, similar to a pocketwatch. If you saw a fully assembled pocketwatch on the ground would you assume that the pieces happened to fall to the ground in such a way that it worked perfectly; or would you reason someone put it together? Clearly the more reasonable assertation is someone assembled it. It could have randomly fallen into place, but it is not likely. Therefore, is it more likely the universe was assembled by something that created the big bang or that it was a mathematical anomaly? If so, what then created the math? The second argument looks at the fact that everything came from something. You had a mother, she had a mother, etc. Astronomically as well, the earth and sun all had to come from somewhere. Further, if you go all the way up the chain, you reach something, and I like to label this entity God.

I think that you can rationally discuss your beliefs like this all the way down to very particular ones such as beliefs about communion, etc. but wow that would take a long time. The world is a complex place, and so therefore are people's beliefs about it since the reasons can be complex as well. However, these all can be enumerated and compared in a valutative way. Of course, people will always have different opinions on the weight of certain arguments based on their views and world experience, but they always have a reason for them, even if that reason is as simple as someone told them it was true (which is a complex argument in itself as to why they would believe that person). However, bottom line, we should always be asking why, and should never accept partyline answers about these matters, even from other faiths.
9.13.2007 1:38am
fishbane (mail):
There is no way to derive any moral or ethical code from math. You must inject assumptions about morality and ethics [And, no, I don't believe in "natural law", because it cannot be derived from the laws of physics without injecting assumptions].

I wonder if people making this argument are doing so in good faith at times. It comes up so frequently, and is simply incorrect.

As one example, we have good reason to believe that in many species, altruism arises because it provides evolutionary advantage, even if it fails to protect the practitioner or provide it the opportunity to produce offspring. This is a scientific approach.

Humility, as anyone who has studied a difficult profession should have had ample opportunity to learn, improves one's ability to learn. This is an extremely simplistic humanistic approach.

Cooperation with those around you improves one's options in life, avoids discomfort, and generally leads to better outcomes. This is an extremely simplistic version of a utilitarian/natural law hybrid approach.

Arguing that athiesm requires sociopathy as a natural outcome due to lack of moral grounding is not a serious argument.
9.13.2007 4:06am
Ken Arromdee:
I would append that last comment by the statement that any believer, atheist, agnostic, whatever, should worry about that "after-life" thingy.

This is only true in a narrow sense that I suspect you won't like. Like the difference between believing that there's a God and believing that there's a specific God who is good, tells the truth, produces miracles, etc., there's a difference between believing in an afterlife and believing in a specific one. Sure, for all I know there could be an afterlife. But there could be an afterlife where all good people go to heaven--or one where all good people go to Hell and all evil people go to Heaven--or where only atheists go to heaven--or where left-handers all go to Hell--or where killing the innocent gets you 72 virgins--or where you get to play a chess match against Death and you go to heaven if you win. But I don't go around worrying that I should improve my chess ranking because it might help me get into heaven.

I may need to worry about whether there is an afterlife, but worrying about whether any specific act improves my position there is utterly pointless. After all, I don't know anything about it; *any* activity could help or hurt my position there.

On the other hand, if you really mean "you should worry about the particular things my religion says affects the afterlife," then no. An atheist has no particular reason to worry about your religion's afterlife as opposed to someone else's, or as opposed to some equally plausible possibility that no religion happens to be using right now.
9.13.2007 11:09am
anduril (mail):
In a comment on "The inexplicable NYT attack on the Pope" a reader appropriately characterized Benedict XVI's argument as "quite reasonable." The recovery of reason has been a consistent emphasis of Benedict's papacy--as a key to the West's recovery of spiritual health. There is a rather remarkable passage in the speech, one that got little attention. In this passage the pope says:
In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's "voluntas ordinata." Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

It would be unreasonable to expect even a religion writer at the NYT to recognize the full significance of what the pope is saying here. Duns Scotus was one of the most eminent thinkers of the Middle Ages. He was known as the Doctor Subtilis, or Subtle Doctor, for the acuteness of his reasoning, and his thought has had a significant influence even to the present day (for example, John Henry Newman was a Scotist, a topic that is dealt with in the wonderful book, The Keen Delight). Duns was a Franciscan and is still held in high esteem by that order, one of the most important orders in the Church. Yet Benedict is saying that this great thinker's characteristic position of voluntarism
gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.

Regarding this Ibn Hazn, who takes a characteristic line of Islamic thought to an extreme, Benedict quotes "the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that:

...Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

In effect, Benedict is suggesting that there is room for dialogue between Christianity and Islam because a very prominent line of Christian thought has gone off the rails in exactly the same way-or at least in a very similar way-as the traditions that have been criticized as most extreme in Islamic thought, and which are probably rejected by the majority of Muslims. Moreover, by acknowledging the role that a prominent theologian played in propagating ideas that have very dangerous tendencies, Benedict is acknowledging that the Church shares some degree of responsibility for the spiritual crisis of the West. He is truly issuing an invitation to a reasoned dialogue both to the world of Islam but also to those in the secular West who are concerned for the future. This subtlety, of course, was entirely lost on the NYT.

For my part, I welcome Benedict's call to recover the intellectualism of Thomas Aquinas. It is precisely Thomas' reasoned intellectualism that offers a common ground for dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews--and, yes, with secular people of good will as well.
9.13.2007 11:59am
Guest101:
Reader,

Debating the line between atheism and agnosticism is about the most boring and fruitless line of discussion that I can conceive-- the modern secularist equivalent of angels dancing on a pin. The distinction between "active disbelief" and "lack of belief" is a purely semantic one when burdens of proof are taken into account. I find that theists have failed to satisfy their burden of proof to bring forth some affirmative evidence in favor of the existence of God, and therefore I rationally disbelieve in the Judeo-Christian God in the same way I disbelieve in Zeus and Martians, and for the same reasons. If you prefer to think that I'm an "agnostic" about Zeus and Martians, feel free-- this is a point on which labels to more to obscure reason than to elucidate it.
9.13.2007 1:14pm
Reader (response to Guest 101):
Guest, that doesn't make any sense - you disbelieve in Martians because people who believe in Martians have failed to set forth evidence proving their existince?

No one believes in Martians, and we know with scientific certainty they do not exist. I presume *that* is why you disbelieve thier existence (and that you have no uncertainty on the issue).

That's different than your view that no one has proven God exists, so you'll presume for now he does not.

Just think of things this way, and I think you'll see you misunderstand what agnoticism means: the line between agnosticism and atheism is essentially the same as the line between agnosticism and theism. It's true that it blurs at some point (when someone has a fair amount of active belief/disbelief but is still uncertain), but if the difficulty of drawing the line leads to conclude that no line exists, then don't you have to lump atheism, agnosticism and theism together?
9.13.2007 2:09pm
Guest101:
Yes, Reader, I disbelieve in Martians because people who believe in Martians have failed to put forth sufficient evidence of their existence. That's exactly why. You seem to misunderstand the nature of scientific "certainty" and the scientific method, which is simply a matter of ascribing belief to the propositions best supported by the available empirical evidence but always remaining open to assessing additional observational evidence that might call earlier conclusions into doubt. (I would recommend Carl Sagan's excellent The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark as an introductory text on this point). There really is no difference in the process of reasoning leading to my non-belief in Martians and my non-belief in God, though the God question is obviously trickier since the empirical questions are more complicated.

I don't understand the basis of your assertion that my understanding would require eliminating the line between theists and non-theists. Theists tend to believe either 1) that empirical (i.e., scientific) evidence for the existence of God is unnecessary because faith is sufficient to justify that belief, or 2) the available empirical evidence supports the conclusion that God exists. Non-theists reject those propositions. I do, as noted above, resist the suggestion that a meaningful distinction exists in the non-theist camp between popularly-defined atheists and popularly-defined agnostics. Some strains of agnosticism argue that the question of God is not only unsettled on an empirical basis but literally unknowable; I question whether that is really a qualitatively different perspective than the atheist perspective I have described here as well, but it seems at least arguably more so than the semantic distinctions you're trying to impose.
9.13.2007 2:33pm
wfjag:
I apologize for not responding sooner, but other matters required attention. I do appreciate the thoughtful comments and discussion. I also appreciate the fact that unlike most discussions of any subject involving "faith", the comments reflect that generally the people who submit comments on this site understand the importance of "professionalism" -- which includes knowing that while you many vigorously disagree with someone, that does not justify either personal attacks or sophistry.

Guest101 wrote:

This is the common mistake theists make-- assuming that atheists' non-belief in an unprovable proposition is epistemically equivalent to the theist's affirmative belief in some unprovable entity. It's simply a matter of burdens of proof-- I'm entitled to refrain from believing in God until you give me some good reason to accept your assertion that God does exist.

and,

Theists tend to believe either 1) that empirical (i.e., scientific) evidence for the existence of God is unnecessary because faith is sufficient to justify that belief, or 2) the available empirical evidence supports the conclusion that God exists.

I disagree with both assertions. "Faith" is belief. Whether you choose to believe there is something or believe there is nothing, there is no proof. I believe you fail to understand the differences between "faith" (belief when there can be no proof), "assumption" (belief until facts can be established so that the assumption is affirmed, modified or refuted), and "proof" (facts established with sufficient support). No one bears any burden of proof to prove to you the existence or not of a deity. It is your personal decision. The decision affects your outlook and actions, and so has consequences.

e wrote:

Be careful equating atheism with hedonism or immorality. Morality can derive from both reason and mythology.

I don't. However, a short comment does not lend itself to fine distinctions. Hedonism is certainly a foreseeable result, but not the only one. For example, atheism can also lead to the Objectivist point of view. If you don't wish to read all of "Atlas Shrugged", just read John Galt's speech and skip the other several hundred pages, and then compare that to your definition of hedonism. And, I don't believe that "hedonism" is limited to "Drugs, sex and Rock and Roll" -- although that is a popular characterization. Hedonism is essentially pursuit of personal pleasure for its own sake. If growing flowers or helping old ladies safely cross the street provides someone personal pleasure, and that is why that person does such things, then those are examples of hedonism.

I do believe that atheism requires amorality. Whatever such person's beliefs about "good" or "bad", those beliefs are personal determinations. This is different from morality or immorality, which is based on the concept that there is "good" and "evil" that do not depend either on personal determinations or social norms.

To derive morality even in part from mythology, you have incorporated the underlying assumptions of faith on which such mythology is based.

And, while I generally agree with Jeff Dege's response (no workable morality can derive from reason), I do so for somewhat different reasons. Historically, resort to "reason" provides no basis to conclude that morality can be derived from reason. The Age of Reason was a popular understanding of the late 19th/early 20th century European and American intellectual thought. It ran into the hard wall of the realities of WW I. The political and military leaders of both sides were educated as men of reason. While it may be true that the Czar believed he ruled by divine right, the Russian aristocracy was fluent in French (some of them could not even speak Russian) and had been educated in France, or learned from French teachers or tutors imported to Russia. The only time the slaughter was suspended was the Christmas truce of 1914. On the Western Front, various units decided on their own to stop, at least temporarily, killing each other while they observed and shared their mutual faith. The military and political leadership of both sides, all men of reason, ensured that the truce was ended and never re-occurred. See "Silent Night" by Stanley Weintraub.

There are many other examples of the truism that as to reason and science "We do things because we can, and not because they are right or wrong."

And, I am not contending that faith will necessarily prevent genocide. Utopian societies, which seek to develop some sort of new human consciousness based on some egalitarian ideal, not infrequently engage in genocide. In the 1930s, the leaders of the USSR, a nation whose ideals were based on the Marist belief of developing a "Communist Man", showed little hesitation in executing thousands, sending thousands of other to gulags, and in causing massive starvation in the Ukraine. More recently, although on a much smaller scale, the Rev. Jim Jones ordered his followers to kill Cong. Ryan and his party, and then kill their children and themselves.

Orielbean wrote:

Jesus's lessons work perfectly fine as a moral and ethical code if you take the God and Father out of it.

I assume that you are referring to Sunday School Jesus -- the guy who said to bring the children to him, said to turn the other cheek, turned water into wine, and feed the multitudes with only a few fishes. There is also the Jesus of Luke 12:49 to 53 (among other examples) who said:

"I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! . . . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; . . ."

You can look up and read the rest of it. There's not much "Peace on earth, goodwill to men" in it, and similar passages. Understandably, Sunday School teachers don't tell the kids that Jesus intends to incinerate them -- that would probably upset them and their parents.

The Gospels, including the Gnostic Gospels, the Qur'an, Jewish Prophets, and most Eastern religions set strict codes of conduct and, while recognizing an "imperfect man", contend that people should strive towards perfection although there is no hope of reaching that goal.

TZ wrote:

However, bottom line, we should always be asking why, and should never accept partyline answers about these matters, even from other faiths.

I wish I had expressed myself nearly as well.

fishbane wrote:

Arguing that athiesm requires sociopathy as a natural outcome due to lack of moral grounding is not a serious argument.

I do not think that anyone made that assertion. Rather, you appear to conflate very different concepts. There is no doubt that the environment in which one is raised, including the "moral grounding", influences whether someone becomes a sociopath -- using the DSM-IV criteria. Still, there are many examples of people raised in very "moral" homes who become sociopaths, and also many examples of people raised in horrible homes who become very "moral" people. Obviously sociopathy has a strong genetic component. The concepts of faith -- belief there is something or nothing, neither conclusion being subject to proof -- is wholly different from determining the effects of nature and nurture.

Some comments appear to contest the idea that belief in "morality" -- the idea that there is good and evil not dependent on personal beliefs or social norms -- is not relevant to whether someone becomes depressed or not. Generalizations about human emotions are chancy at best. Psychology is a "soft science"and there are always examples and counter-examples. Still, I submit that J. Robert Oppenheimer life is an excellent example for consideration. Oppie was one of the most brilliant scientists. He was well grounded in the concept of secular ethics -- having attended the Ethical Culture School -- which stressed consideration of ethical issues within a secular framework. However, while he considered it to be "moral" to use the A-Bomb against the Nazis, he had serious questions about the morality of using it against the Japanese and was deeply depressed due to the role he played in that. That he was ethnically Jewish, had cousins in Germany, worked with many from Europe who had experienced Nazi persecution, and feared that the Nazis would develop atomic weapons are not moral considerations -- although they were valid considerations. However, given the slaughter of some 100,000 civilians by the Japanese defenders of Manila, and what occurred on Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa -- 98% or more of the Japanese military personnel fighting to the death or committing suicide, and 90% or more of the civilians either being killed, or voluntarily or at bayonet point committing suicide -- using A-Bombs to finally force Japan to surrender without invasion and deaths of nearly all of the Japanese, is not an immoral conclusion. Similarly, in 1946 he was a leading advocate of all nations partially renouncing sovereignty so that all nuclear resources, research and development, military and civilian, were under UN control, but by 1947 had joined the Atomic Energy Commission and saw his mission as helping the US develop more and bigger nuclear weapons. He suffered much depression as his positions changed. A plausible conclusion is that while there is no doubt that he tried to be an ethical person, his secular ethical philosophy did not provide him an anchor for his belief system, and this caused him much anguish.

Specifically, fishbane, was Oppenheimer an atheist? I cannot say with certainty. Because J. Edgar Hoover took a personal interest in him, he may be the most wire-tapped and observed man in US history. The FBI accumulated thousands of pages in his file. His references to religion and faith are passing, at most. He may well have been an atheist, but certainly was no sociopath.

I thank all of you for most thought provoking observations and arguments. The Socratic method has merits.
9.14.2007 4:04pm