Oversimplifying Theism: An Example from Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has suggested one reason it’s so hard for theists and atheists to talk with each other: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”

I have a lot of respect for Dennett. As I wrote in Your Living Mind, I have “sheepishly” come to realize that some of his radical ideas about consciousness are more insightful than they seemed at first. And in Bridging the God Gap I give him credit for being more open-minded about religion than many prominent freethinkers. I think he’s on to something very important in his comment about telling people they’ve lived for an illusion, but I would put the point somewhat differently:

“IF you assume that belief in God is all there is to someone’s religion, then questioning that belief means challenging their whole way of life.”

But that’s a false assumption. Religion is far more than a list of theological doctrines. It involves an incredibly complex array of spoken and written statements and countless hours of worship and fellowship, as well as art and music, moral principles, spiritual practices, spiritual experiences, personal relationships, and involvement with religious institutions.

One can revise or reject theological tenets without invalidating everything else. Atheist Sam Harris, for example, follows many Buddhist teachings without accepting the Buddha’s 2500-year-old worldview. And there are who atheists belong to religious organizations because they value the fellowship, the rituals, and/or their congregation’s ethical commitments (Bridging the God Gap, p. 160).

Because we are drawn to simple stereotypes, we often speak as if we could summarize entire worldviews in a word or a phrase. That makes it very hard to critique someone’s life-stance without seeming to insult and invalidate that person. Our simplistic minds make nuanced dialogue difficult.

Life is strange and our minds are limited. It may be that both religious and secular worldviews are partially right but radically incomplete. I may be correct in claiming that someone is in the grip of illusions. But perhaps my own follies are just as foolish.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the link marked “Follow.”

Also posted at http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com. For the Dennett quotation see:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/books/daniel-dennett-author-of-intuition-pumps-and-other-tools-for-thinking.html?_r=0

“Total Consolation in the Face of Death”

Today I’ll say a little more about Sam Harris’ lecture on death and religion, which is available on YouTube. According to Harris, one reason theists are uncomfortable with atheists is that atheism denies the afterlife. Atheism seems like a “death cult,” he says, because it’s the only view that admits death is real.

I believe the contradiction between theism and atheism is overdrawn, and this is one example. Many naturalistic theists and impersonal theists, as well as some who espouse process theology, deny that our individual consciousness survives death. And I’ve talked with atheists who believe in reincarnation! What’s more, many who believe in a personal God are open to doubt and a sense of mystery. “Yes,” they may say, “I expect that I will survive the grave. But nobody knows for sure, and I realize that this life on Earth may be all that I have.” (See Bridging the God Gap, Chapter Eleven, “God and Mortality.”)

But even if Sam is a bit off base, he’s in the right ball park. In America the vast majority of those who believe in a supreme being also say that this deity will preserve us after death (for better or worse, if you believe in heaven and hell). And Harris is spot-on in maintaining that “the thing for which there is no substitute is total consolation in the face of death.” He does not look to science to provide such consolation, except insofar as science can influence human psychology. We won’t learn to accept death by getting more information. “The answer is a change in attitude.”

To bring about this attitudinal shift, Harris has explored spiritual disciplines with more commitment than most churchgoers. He has gone on Buddhist retreats for months at a time. In his presentation on death and religion, he guides an audience of atheists through a meditation that involves learning “to pay attention to the present moment … not doing anything with it,” just noticing what you experience now … now … now.

[Added on March 1:] How does becoming aware of the present moment produce an attitudinal shift about mortality? The YouTube lecture doesn’t spell this out, but poets have given us some clues:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.” – Robert Frost

Also, my thanks to “Levi” for calling my attention to a 27-minute guided meditation by Harris:

For Levi’s comments on Harris’ book, Waking Up, see:

https://leviathanbound.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/waking-up/ [end of March 1 addition.]

On Monday I’ll be another year older. Changing my attitude about time and mortality becomes increasingly important. I appreciate Harris’ reflections on this issue. For his talk see:

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the link marked “Follow.”

Sam Harris on the Value and Limits of Atheism

My previous post mentions Sam Harris’ UTube talk on death and religion. In that lecture, Harris admitted that atheism offers no positive agenda. Atheism has various positive and negative aspects, of course, but denying the reality of deity does not in itself say how we should live or even how we should conceptualize the universe. And in reality, there are probably as many ways of being an atheist as there are of being a theist.

Harris’ key point is that even though atheism does not affirm any particular life-stance, it is a way of “clearing the space for better conversations.” Rather than discussing metaphysical speculations about invisible realms beyond this cosmos, we can focus on this life that we know. We are who we are. The world is what it is. So what shall we do?

I’ll offer one quibble. People should not have to abandon all talk of deity to engage in this “better conversation.” Harris says that “to not believe in God is to know that it falls to us to make the world a better place.” But those who see God as part of nature instead of as something over and above the physical universe can agree with Sam – we shouldn’t depend on a supernatural bailout. And even those who believe that God helps us can join in this discussion, if they also believe that humans are responsible for making this a better world.

On the other hand, as I point out in Bridging the God Gap, some theists say life on Earth is trivial. An old hymn by Albert E. Brumley claims that “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” And in God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, Anthony Freeman quotes a standard funeral prayer: “‘We give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world’ . . . The whole theme of the service is summed up in one of its sentences: ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery’” (pp. 52-53).

This sentiment can affect people’s opinions about public policy issues. Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that “The hydrogen bomb is not the greatest danger of our time. After all, the most it could do would be to transfer vast numbers of human beings from this world to another and more vital one into which they would some day go anyway.” By this logic it’s really no big deal if we all blow ourselves up, obliterating humanity in a thousand Hiroshimas. (See http://www.hillmanweb.com/reason/piousquotes.html.)

I am drawn to Harris’ idea of clearing a space for a better conversation. Many atheists are good at that. But we need not exclude every person who uses theistic language. Look beyond words and labels, and widen the circle.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the link marked “Follow.”

Sam Harris on Death and Religion

I attend a monthly discussion group that often considers philosophical topics. Our host recently sent us a link to a UTube video of a talk by Sam Harris. Some group members said it was terrific, so I decided to have a look. I have appreciated many of Sam’s ideas, but I thought The End of Faith further polarized communication about religion. However I was extremely impressed with his talk about religion and death:

I invite you to watch it yourself when you have about half an hour. I’ll share more detailed reactions in another post, but for now I’ll just make one comment. Sam’s remarks about the power of religion to reassure people who have lost loved ones to death are both empathetic and respectful. Despite the fact that Harris thinks religion is mostly malarkey, he clearly understands its psychological value.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the link marked “Follow.”

Theists, Atheists, and the Holiday Season

During the holiday season, family members with diverse opinions about theology are often thrown together in religiously-themed celebrations. This web site includes five entries that focus on this challenge:

November 25, 2011: “How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives?”

November 29, 2011: “A Highly Recommended Article – ‘Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents.’”

December 16, 2011: “Do You Dread Christmas Because of Religious Disagreements?
Perhaps It’s Time for ‘The Positive Dodge.’”

November 16, 2012: “Family Time at the Holidays: A Challenge for Theists and Atheists .”

November 26, 2012: “A Song for the Holidays.”

If you can’t access any of these I’ll be happy to send you the link. Generally if you just keep scrolling downward, all 121 entries will eventually appear.

May the remaining days of December offer memorable moments of love, insight, and fulfillment, sending you into 2015 with confident anticipation.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

An Upsurge of Skepticism about Scientific Research

This year I’ve been single-mindedly focusing on finishing my book about consciousness, but now I’m re-connecting with other projects, including this blog.

Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground is dedicated to discovering both practical and conceptual common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics. Today’s posting may seem unrelated to this subject, but I’ll explain the connection shortly.

These days epistemology is a hot topic in several fields of study, including medicine and nutrition. Skeptical scholars have pointed out serious weaknesses in the data that guides our dietary and medical choices. John Ioannidis, for example, looked at 49 highly influential research studies, each of which has been cited over 1000 times in the medical literature. Out of these prominent studies, 16% were contradicted by subsequent studies and 16% showed effects that were quite a bit stronger than those of later analyses. In 24% of the cases there was little or no attempt to replicate findings. Bottom line: Just 44% were successfully replicated (Journal of the American Medical Association, July 13, 2005, pp. 218-228).

Other disturbing articles include “It Ain’t Necessarily So: Why Much of the Medical Literature Is Wrong,” by Christopher Labos (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/829866) and John Ioannidis’ “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124). That’s an unsettling title!

I’m not an expert in research design, but several points made in these and other articles seem very troubling. For example, the article on why most findings are false points out that “As research efforts are globalized, it is practically the rule that several research teams, often dozens of them, may probe the same or similar questions. Unfortunately, in some areas, the prevailing mentality until now has been to focus on isolated discoveries by single teams.” Of course, we should be looking at the overall pattern of findings, not isolated reports that may be outliers. He also notes that many studies are motivated by the desire for tenure or a promotion. These objectives create a built-in bias toward finding something positive to write about. Who wants to conduct a study and admit that it produced no substantive findings?

As Labos notes, “There is a way to guard against such spurious findings: replication. Unfortunately, the current structure of academic medicine does not favor the replication of published results …”

The same is true in many other fields. I have read many studies about theological attitudes, and I find that many scholars cite single reports as if these findings are conclusive and replication is unnecessary.

Atheism and agnosticism are especially under-investigated. I recently read that among self-identified atheist and agnostics, 16% were women in 1993, and 43% are today (Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service, Oct. 24, 2014, http://ncronline.org/news/people/secularism-grows-more-us-christians-turn-churchless). That is a huge change in just two decades. Is it true? False? Basically true but exaggerated? Without replication, it’s hard to know.

Those who do believe in God have been more extensively studied, but many research projects are weakened by the use of an extremely vague definition of “God,” or no definition at all.

So the next time you see a headline with an amazing new factoid about religious attitudes, hum a few bars of that old Gershwin classic: It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.