Comments on Heathen’s Progress, by Julian Baggini, Part Two

Comments on Heathen’s Progress, by Julian Baggini, Part Two

Last September Julian Baggini began a series of essays which can be found on the web site of The Guardian. His goal is to clarify issues that divide theists, atheists, and agnostics, and hopefully find some common ground. In his October 7 post, “How not to be a dogmatic fundamentalist,” he notes that people tag non-believers as “militant” if they simply state their opinions emphatically. Similarly, those who reject theism are often called “avowed” atheists, which reminds me of the way people used to be tagged as “avowed Communists” or “avowed homosexuals.”

Baggini is good at clarifying muddy issues. For example, he makes a distinction between how clearly we believe something versus how strongly we believe it, and “our willingness to contemplate its potential falsity.” Some people who know exactly what they believe are quite open to feedback and criticism, and some who have extremely fuzzy theologies hold their vague beliefs fanatically. Some who believe passionately are courageous enough to realize they may be wrong, whereas some whose beliefs are shaky are afraid to examine them for fear they’ll fall apart. So beware of jumping to conclusions that, for example, those who state their convictions strongly are always closed-minded, or that those who speak tentatively are always open-minded.

For Julian, what matters most is “how much we really engage with our critics. It’s about taking seriously the best case for the opponent being right and the strongest case that you might be wrong.” Amen to that!

If you’ve read Internet exchanges about religion or politics, it must be achingly obvious that many people enjoy insulting those who disagree with them. One would think that a blog like Heathen’s Progress would attract fair-minded readers. Some of those who read that blog do try to be objective, but others sound like schoolyard bullies.

Yesterday while perusing comments by Baggini’s readers, I decided to see which ones scored the highest approval ratings, indicated by the number of people who took the trouble to click, “Recommend.” Posts given the thumbs-up by 25 or more readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning: “Rubbish,” “You’re making ridiculous leaps,” “Atheism is essentially irrational,” and a scornful reference to “Dawkins and all you ‘atheist’ lot.”

What a contrast to the even-handed tone of Heathen’s Progress. Merely juxtaposing Baggini’s essays with these mean-spirited jibes shows that we have plenty of room to mature as a society.

Another excellent Heathen’s Progress post is “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold” (October 14). Here Julian explains why traditional religious teachings inevitably clash with science. If taken literally, many statements of fact are clearly false. For example, it seems to me that some sacred books imply that Earth is flat. And as Carl Sagan notes:

“In 1993, the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, issued an edict, or fatwa, declaring that the world is flat. Anyone of the round persuasion does not believe in God and should be punished. Among many ironies, the lucid evidence that the Earth is a sphere, accumulated by the second century Graeco-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, was transmitted to the West by astronomers who were Muslim and Arab. In the ninth century, they named Ptolemy’s book in which the sphericity of the Earth is demonstrated, the Almagest, ‘The Greatest.'” (See Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World p. 325.)

Even religious liberals may struggle with scientific principles such as the causal closure of physical reality. Science operates on the assumption that all events which have a cause have a physical cause. So where is there room for divine action? (Quantum physicists speak in terms of probability factors rather than causes, but the same problem arises. Does God intervene in physical events, or not? Such interventions would violate causal closure.)

Science and religion will sometimes disagree, but Julian Baggini does an admirable job of showing how to disagree without being disagreeable.


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2 thoughts on “Comments on Heathen’s Progress, by Julian Baggini, Part Two

  1. Even religious liberals may struggle with scientific principles such as the causal closure of physical reality. Science operates on the assumption that all events which have a cause have a physical cause. So where is there room for divine action?

    In a specific example involving religious liberals, I’ve heard the Unitarian Universalist minister in my congregation emphatically reject the prevailing scientific understanding of evolutionary biology (an unguided and undirected process without an overseeing intelligence directing it). She didn’t like the theological implications and said that the evolutionary process only “appeared” to be undirected/unguided but she really knew better.

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