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Atheism is turning me into a bad student…

I skipped out on my folklore class last night to attend the “debate” between PZ Myers and Loyal Rue. It was too tempting, considering that the venue was across the street from my class and my prof was rambling aimlessly. It turned out to be a great intellectual discussion about defining religion and science and whether or not they are or can be made compatible.

It seemed that their differences were largely semantic. Rue argued that religion is not by definition incompatible with science, but that in most of its currently practiced forms it tends to contradict science. He believes that we need to create a new religion based on the cosmology of modern science and a progressive and just morality which respects the freedom of the individual.

The problem I (and PZ) have with this argument is that in our culture, the word religion is inextricably linked to supernatural concepts. Although it is important for people to have a unified understanding of the world and where we fit in it, I think it’s unnecessary to call this new story a religion. It adds unnecessary baggage to a great thought.

Another interesting topic, brought up by Greg Laden, had to do with the origin of morality. I wasn’t satisfied with the discussion on this point. Laden seemed to be arguing that morality, though not necessarily from religion, is entirely social and has no genetic component. I’m not quite comfortable with this. It seems awfully close to the idea that many religious people have that there is no morality without faith. Personally, I think ethics and morality come from genetic and cultural sources. It’s reasonable to believe that kin selection and reciprocal altruism have shaped our minds in such a way that we easily learn the ethical system of our culture.

I considered bringing this up, but it was sort of off topic and they wanted to move along. It was altogether a thought provoking evening, although I wish they would plan these events on a day other than Thursday so I’m not so inclined to skip my class. ;)

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16 Comments

  1. I think I have to disagree with you and PZ on this one. While I understand your viewpiont, I think a lot of people (myself included) find a need for some kind of spirituality at different points throughout their lives. Some atheists and skeptics seem to be missing whatever makes people feel this way, and they're probably lucky because of that. Nonetheless, if nonbelievers don't provide some way to scratch that spirituality itch, churches certainly will. I'm not sure about the word religion, though. I'd like to hear more of what Rue had to say on this topic.

    Donna

  2. donna-

    i don't think either pz or myself are attempting to dismiss the needs that have traditionally been met by religion. i feel a very strong sense of awe and reverence toward the natural world that i believe to be much more profound than anything i ever got out of religion. what i'm getting at is that you don't need to have an imaginary supernatural being for that. (at least i don't…i can't speak for everyone, of course.) along my path from catholicism to atheism, the beauty of the world became clearer and clearer the more i understood about how it all works. "unweaving the rainbow" by richard dawkins discusses this topic brilliantly…i'd recommend reading it if you haven't.

    on rue, i'm planning to read some of his books. apart from the semantics of the discussion, i really liked what he had to say, and he was an animated and engaging speaker.

    when it comes down to it, i mostly just think it's great that we're talking about this. i think it's important.

  3. what i’m getting at is that you don’t need to have an imaginary supernatural being for that. along my path from catholicism to atheism, the beauty of the world became clearer and clearer the more i understood about how it all works.

    Well, I completely agree with that.

    Unweaving the Rainbow was not one of my favorite books by Dawkins. I tried to read it several times but I don't think I ever made it all the way through.

  4. While I agree that for most people "in our culture, the word religion is inextricably linked to supernatural concepts." I take exception to the idea that this is always the case. There are religious progressives with ideas about the divine or holy that are consistent with science and reason. I grew up within the Unitarian Universalist tradition, and the very first time I heard about evolution was in Sunday school before I had even begun kindergarten. I was identifying myself as an atheist a few years after that, and this was never criticized or discouraged within that religious community (if anything it was encouraged as being evidence of my thinking about my beliefs and drawing my own conclusions.) Nowadays I see myself as a naturalistic theist, one who does not believe in a personal deity but one who considers my experience of "awe and reverence toward the natural world" to be an experience of what actually is holy in the world. I guess I am in a very small minority, having never a need to reconcile my religious beliefs with science because I had been brought up not seeing science as a challenge to belief but as a means of informing my religious beliefs.

    I also enjoy this topic and lately I've spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if I am only nominalistically theist, since most atheists I know see me as really falling in "their camp" and most of the mainstream religious people I know see me as an outsider as well.

    I wish more skeptics would join in a movement to shape a religion based in a scientific cosmology and progressive morality that Rue is advocating. One might assert that a significant portion of those calling themselves Unitarian Universalist are already doing this and they would really appreciate some help.

    It sounds like it was an interesting lecture. It's a topic I will be thinking about much more.

    Unfortunately, UUism probably won't scratch the itch for the true believers, but I think it may already met the standards that Rue is looking for in the new religion he describes.

  5. The problem I (and PZ) have with this argument is that in our culture, the word religion is inextricably linked to supernatural concepts. Although it is important for people to have a unified understanding of the world and where we fit in it, I think it’s unnecessary to call this new story a religion. It adds unnecessary baggage to a great thought.

    We already have examples of this. The Lions Club. Or better yet – albeit with considerably more social baggage (even anti-religious baggage) – Freemasonry.

  6. I have about as many issues with the "morality" gene as I do with the "religion" gene. Just because something evolved alongside of us doesn't make it genetic, or intrinsic.

    Two life-forms can have a symbiotic relationship without either of them therefore having a gene to encode this behavior.

    What's more, it sounds like a slippery slope towards the typical christian argument that morality was handed down from higher up (in this case, higher up being our genetic code). Like we couldn't have come up with these behaviors through trial and error. After all, our societies are the result of several millenia of survival of those people most successful at surviving in a group. And being successful at surviving in a group means being good at anticipating other people's bahavior. I just don't see how there would have to be some hard-coded genetic sequence to make us behave properly. Morality is in the end, no more than mentally weighing the benefits of a choice. you know, comparing your own gain versus the gain of the group, and in turn, the long-term ramifications of the effects of your behavior on the group against your ability to rely on them on a future date.

    It sounds like this supports "there could be no morality without religion", but I'd say that religion itself is just another attempt at writing down the unspoken rules that form all by themselves whenever someone has to make a decision that could harm both themselves and/or other people depending on the path chosen.

    To me, the alternative would sound like "there could be no morality without having a gene telling us how to behave properly". I find that just as silly as the religious objection …

  7. "I have about as many issues with the “morality” gene as I do with the “religion” gene. Just because something evolved alongside of us doesn’t make it genetic, or intrinsic.

    Two life-forms can have a symbiotic relationship without either of them therefore having a gene to encode this behavior."

    The question of a genetic component to morality ought to be a scientific one, not a matter of personal opinion either for or against. I would have thought that it would be perfectly possible to identify, at a minimum, any genetic component to variation in morality via twin/sibling/adoptee studies. In fact I would be surprised if it hasn't already been done.

  8. My view of morality, which I believe is the best scientifically-supported one, at least based on my readings of Shermer's The Science of Good & Evil and Pinker's The Blank Slate is that morality, much like consciousness itself, is an interesting epiphenomenon, rather that something that has specifically evolved and that has a specifically inheritable genetic component.

    That is, various things we've picked up in the course of our evolution — mirror neurons for learning skills and memory to recall where the good food is and communication to improve group hunting and warnings of danger — when they all come together in a single species play off each other and take on new roles. So that mirror neurons end up driving empathy as well as learning, communication is used to exchange rules for morality, and memory is used to separate out who among you is "good" and "bad".

    There's simply no reason to think that morality itself is a discretely inheritable thing, any more than there is to believe that lurking in the human genome is a "consciousness gene" that we all carry that endows us with self-awareness.

  9. This is an interesting article on a related topic. Sorry I don't have time to comment further this morning…. enjoy.

    The Religion of Humanity from Daylight Atheism

    The commonly accepted etymology of the word "religion" derives from the Latin ligare, meaning "bind" or "connect". Religion, then, is the system of obligations that connect human beings to the gods. Sensible enough – except, I have to ask, how exactly are you supposed to form a meaningful connection with an invisible, unseen, unknown, and very likely non-existent supernatural power?

    No god has ever offered even the simplest tangible comforts one human being can give another: the contact of a hand, a thoughtful favor or a gift. No god comes to us, speaks to us or reassures us in the ways we all do for each other. No god answers our questions or responds to our petitions. Believers send their prayers into the void, and maybe – maybe – if they're lucky, they'll get a vague warm feeling in their hearts as answer, or a random event that works out in their favor which they take to be a sign. This is not the stuff of a deep and meaningful bond, not in the way we bond with our friends and loved ones. With our fellow human beings we exchange secrets, we share laughter and old jokes, we form memories together, we challenge each other and learn about each other. None of those things ever happen between humans and gods.

    Read the rest here:
    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2008/02/the-religi

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