The Christian Delusion, Take 1

I guess we all know what that is…

I’m reading a book now, (The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails) edited and partly written by John Loftus, of Debunking Christianity fame and {ahem} fortune. I had previously reviewed his first book, originally titled Why I Rejected Christianity, but subsequently published by Prometheus with the more positive title, Why I Became an Atheist.  I’m three chapters in, and thought it would make a great topic to post about, so as I proceed through the book, I’ll stop and post about it. It won’t be so much of a review as a travelogue through the book, perhaps to pique your interest.

My general feeling this far into the book is that this is a wonderfully conceptualized project brought to near perfect fruition. I can only hope that if the rest of the book works as well as the first three chapters, the end result will be the downfall of Christianity, at least from an academic perspective. No pressure, though.

It’s written as a series of essays by writers such as David Eller, Richard Carrier, Hector Avalos, Robert Price, and others knowledgeable in their particular fields of study. Almost all of them have Ph.Ds after their names, (not that one should be impressed with appeals to authority), and they contribute their particular essays on subjects within their area of expertise. In the end it lends a higher air of credibility to the final product, as there are numerous subject matters and areas from which one can analyze and criticize  religion, and Christianity in particular, and each one of those areas is handled by an author with clearly heightened and specialized knowledge. With footnotes, no less. :)

Loftus’s first book was written as a personal and intellectual refutation of the Christian apologetics he was trained under, that he made a career out of, and subsequently rejected. This one takes a slightly different tack.  So far it seems to be aimed at believers who may be looking for the intellectual rationale for questioning, and eventually rejecting, the religion of their birth.

The big question in religion has always been, at least for me, the 180 degree, point/counterpoint query about the existence or non-existence of god.  The essays in this book place that query front and center. The first chapter written by David Eller, who wrote, among others, Natural Atheism, is devoted to the cultural milieu in which Christianity arose and continues to thrive. His point that culture is so wrapped up in religion, and vice-versa, is well taken. With a global culture so diverse, it’s no wonder there are something like 38,000 different varieties of Christianity integrated into that culture.

I’d never thought of it this way before, but it’s so clear how religion intrudes into and takes over all aspects of life, from our habits of speech (“God Bless You” when you sneeze), to critical life events such as birth, death and marriage (even creating artificial events like christenings), to our bodily habits and dress (“circumcision” and “burkha”), institutions, art, even our concepts of time and dates (this is the year 2010 A.D. “Anno Domini”, after the birth of Christ). Religion so permeates our culture, that it’s well nigh impossible to divorce our attitudes about it to look at it objectively.

Valerie Tarico addresses the psychology of belief in the second chapter. Where once the phenomenon of belief seemed to point to the supernatural for its own existence, we now are pretty sure it comes from three things: The brain, the brain, and the brain. Our brain, confronted with matters unexplainable, created religion to explain them. Cognitive research coupled with Occams Razor, explains supernatural beliefs, and it turns out there is no supernatural. What we have, however, is an astounding ability to talk ourselves into believing there is; because it’s easy; because we’re still developing; because we’re human. We haven’t evolved into the perfect rational Vulcan – yet.

The next chapter by Jason Long collects in one place a good summary of the current research into self delusion – why we convince ourselves that there is a god when there is no evidence for it. It starts at birth, with familial and cultural indoctrination. It’s partially explained by how the mind evolved to perpetuate our species, by developing a fine tuned sense of  pattern recognition. Once our beliefs are fixed, our mind  creates defenses such as cognitive dissonanceconfirmation bias and other rationalizations designed to keep beliefs intact. This all works below our individual radars, so that we don’t feel the deceit we talk ourselves into.

Long askes a question that has often bothered me:

What good is a biblical scholar who refuses to consider that his point of view may simply be wrong? …Should we honestly believe that a biblical apologist who began with the notion of an inspired Bible would readily consider the possibility that his holy book is fundamentally flawed?…What’s the point in listening to people like this? p 75

I’ve often wondered when watching or reading debates between atheists and theists, that the underlying premise for the debate is flawed. One debater is neutral, assuming nothing, while the other is committed to a belief he says he’ll never deny. It’s not a debate, a true debate of opposing views. It’s a battle to see if one can knock the other off his high horse, while the other fights to stay on. It’s intellectually dishonest, and while entertaining for the two sides to watch, it accomplishes nothing. Theists should be disqualified from defending their belief, until they accept the basic ground rules of legitimate rhetoric: an open mind and a willingness to be dissuaded. Otherwise, they bootstrap their arguments with mere citations to their beliefs, the same beliefs they  attempt to substantiate. It gets so circular and tiresome.

One other small factoid I gleaned from Long

…”of 43 studies carried out since 1927, on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection,” and even of those four none indicated anything to the contrary. In other words, the higher your intelligence or educational level, the less likely you are to be religious. p.77

I tried to explore this here a few months ago, and I still think there is a strong correlation between intelligence/education and lack of belief. Conversely, there is a strong correlation between low self esteem and belief, as Long also pointed out.

It’s not that theism makes you stupid (though watching the Texas Board of Education, one begins to wonder) but that low intelligence attracts the safe comfort of religion, where higher intelligence doesn’t shy away from stretching to find answers.

Anyway, to be continued…

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20 thoughts on “The Christian Delusion, Take 1

  1. Theists should be disqualified from defending their belief, until they accept the basic ground rules of legitimate rhetoric: an open mind and a willingness to be dissuaded.

    The pompousness never ceases to amaze me; here you are preaching about having an open mind, and look at how incredibly narrow-minded and selective that statement was.

    ..there is a strong correlation between intelligence/education and lack of belief.

    I like that you phrase your statement conservatively, but I wonder: how does this not lead to, “atheists are smarter than theists?” I ask because, if one were to criticize your position as, “atheists are smarter than theists,” I’d bet my last dollar you’d object to having your position described thusly. Yet, your statement – phrased conservatively as it is – seems to afford no other conclusion. So, am I missing something? Or, is your position fairly described as “atheists are smarter than theists?”

    Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a provisional statement. It may well be that simple “correlation” is the extent of your positive claim, e.g., it’s possible to argue the existence of a correlation without necessarily proffering an explanation.

    • The pompousness never ceases to amaze me; here you are preaching about having an open mind, and look at how incredibly narrow-minded and selective that statement was.

      Oh, Cl, Cl, Cl. You’ll never change. You remind me of those fundamentalist Christians in many ways. Afraid to confront the claim head on, you snipe at the claimant.

      You’ll have to read the book to catch the allusion, but it takes an open mind to understand the conflict of interest the theist has in debate. It takes a closed mind to assume the automatic standing of the theist in debate. Which way does your mind go?

      Let me give you a quote from William Lane Craig, Christian apologist and consummate debater.

      Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, and not vice versa.

      Open mind or closed mind? It’s one or the other.

      how does this not lead to, “atheists are smarter than theists?”

      Some people might come to that conclusion, but “smarter” is a subjective opinion, so the statement, to me doesn’t say much. For example, Francis Collins, I believe, is much smarter than me. But on one subject, in my subjective opinion, he’s wrong. Our relative “smartness” in that equation is somewhat irrelevant.

  2. cl said

    The pompousness never ceases to amaze me; here you are preaching about having an open mind, and look at how incredibly narrow-minded and selective that statement was.

    So rather than address the substance of the point – that in debates theists often put themselves in a position that assumes what they should be required to demonstrate – you choose to attack the form of the argument. Is that because you can’t actually refute the point itself?

    I like that you phrase your statement conservatively,

    That’s simply statistical correctness – that’s what one can conclude from these results.

    but I wonder: how does this not lead to, “atheists are smarter than theists?” I ask because, if one were to criticize your position as, “atheists are smarter than theists,” I’d bet my last dollar you’d object to having your position described thusly. Yet, your statement – phrased conservatively as it is – seems to afford no other conclusion. So, am I missing something? Or, is your position fairly described as “atheists are smarter than theists?”

    How would you honestly characterize the outcome of those studies?

  3. Thank you for the review == makes me want to buy the book.
    I am deeply enjoying one of Hector Avalos’ books , so if he is one of the authors …

  4. Thanks. I haven’t gotten to Dr. Avalos’ chapters. He wrote Chapter 8, Yahweh is a Moral Monster, and Chapter 14, Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust. Hopefully, I’ll blog about those chapters when I get there.

  5. Loftus had a blog a few years ago but I lost track of it somehow. He was a very interesting guy to talk to. I have read his first book, it was good.

    I don’t think that “intelligence” is the per se factor in things like “faith” and “belief”, but more a WAY of thinking. Perhaps a resistance to, or even an inability, to do the mental tricks required to accept the conditions necessary for things like “faith” and “belief”?

    • Hi Sarge.

      I linked to his blog up in the post. It’s called “Debunking Christianity”.

      There clearly is a correlation between intelligence and belief, though. Exactly what the mechanism is, is not clear, and requires further study. Neurologists and other scientists are doing that now. My relatively uninformed opinion is that the higher the intelligence, the more likely you are to want to expand and increase your knowledge. This leads you to seek out more education, which in turn exposes you to new and creative ideas of other people. You learn new and radically different ways of looking at reality in the process.

      A good education incorporates a healthy dose of skepticism in it. With new and competing information, you learn to pick and choose information that seems more or less correct to you.

      Being human, with different brains, different upbringings, different cultures, different educational processes and exposures, you’re surely going to end up with a population with a multitude of different beliefs, but for some reason, on the whole, those with more intelligence and education seem to gravitate to a skeptical, rationalist, and even atheistic viewpoint regarding the existence of the supernatural. There will always be exceptions, but nothing in life is 100%, and frankly, those exceptions force you to constantly test and retest the stuff you call knowledge. If we all thought alike, it would be a boring, bland world, and the quest for knowledge would have ceased long ago.

      Sort of the way it seemed during the Dark Ages, when the Christian worldview ruled with an autocratic hand..

  6. One elephant in the room that seems to avoid detection rather well:

    The large majority of scientists are non-believers. I am a scientist and I work with scientists. The thing about advanced science, is that knowledge of the universe eliminates the need for magical explanations. While a handful of scientists will claim that their studies help them to “learn the mind of god,” very few competent working scientists would subject themselves to snickers and derision by introducing their gods in conversation.

    Most scientists, unfortunately, are completely quiet on the issue in mixed company. For most, it is as LaPlace said to Napoleon: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

    • One elephant in the room that seems to avoid detection rather well:

      The large majority of scientists are non-believers.

      Yes, and one of the reasons why I find this significant is that when you point this fact out to believers, they get defensive (See Cl). In fact, a common response from some of the less sophisticated believers is a reactionary anti-intellectualism.Rather than seriously contemplating that intelligent people might be right, or at least have something worthy of further scrutiny, the defense narratives of religion kick in and those non-believing scientists are dismissed as untrustworthy precisely because they are more intelligent. It’s a clearly irrational response, and its patent irrationality is indicative to me that the non-believing scientist just may be on to something.

      I think of the more intelligent, the better educated than me, as teachers. If I can learn from them, great. The fact that a great majority of scientists are atheists actually teaches me something, and I pay attention to that fact.

  7. SI,

    You remind me of those fundamentalist Christians in many ways.

    Really? Likewise.

    Afraid to confront the claim head on, you snipe at the claimant.

    Afraid? Of what? Your selective focus?

    Let me give you a quote from William Lane Craig, Christian apologist and consummate debater..

    What? You want a cookie? Let me give you a quote from John Gribbin, professional science writer who holds degrees in physics, astronomy and astrophysics. The context was the (then) newly-discovered evidence suggesting the Big Bang and the universe’s “beginning,” and the “difficulty” Gribbin alludes to is the philosophical implications of that evidence:

    [T]he best way around this initial difficulty is provided by a model in which the Universe expands from a singularity, collapses back again, and repeats the cycle indefinitely

    Open mind, or closed mind? It’s one or the other. It takes an open mind to realize that “conflict of interest” tends to be a problem for humans of all stripe, including your beloved scientists and everyone else, not just theists.

    If you can admit that, we don’t really have much of a problem here.

  8. efrique,

    So rather than address the substance of the point – that in debates theists often put themselves in a position that assumes what they should be required to demonstrate – you choose to attack the form of the argument. Is that because you can’t actually refute the point itself?

    Not at all. I did not “choose to attack the form of the argument.” I expressed my opinion that SI expresses pompousness. That’s not attacking the form of the argument.

    As far as the “argument” goes, I simply assumed it should be self-evident that “conflict of interest” is not an exclusively-theist condition. SI says, “Theists should..” when actually, “Anyone in a debate should..”

    How would you honestly characterize the outcome of those studies?

    At face value.

  9. Conversely, there is a strong correlation between low self esteem and belief, as Long also pointed out.

    I suspect a strong correlation between self-esteem and intelligence. The appeal of religion is that it provides for a “personal revelation” path to knowledge. It’s easy, no work required. It’s also less satisfying.

  10. Efrique: FYI, yes, you’re absolutely correct and now, should you choose, you’ll be lead off topic and down the rabbit hole with cl as he hems and haws about anything but the point of the post for as long as you continue to reply and play along. You’ve been warned, so that’s that.

    Anyway, the book sounds interesting but more so for deconverts. Would you say that’s a fair assessment or no?

  11. Philly,

    I am arguing that anyone in a debate “should be disqualified from defending their belief, until they accept the basic ground rules of legitimate rhetoric: an open mind and a willingness to be dissuaded.”

    I get that you derive satisfaction from insulting others, but would you agree or disagree with that statement?

  12. cl

    I’m not sure whether you are even aware of this, but christianity nowadays have retreated to this pretty much as a debate position – trying to get the opponent to acknowledge that we don’t know all things, that there are gaps in our knowledge, that we must have open minds, that Hume maybe had it wrong – and then, halleluja, into that concession we pack all things Jesus.

    I fondly refer to it as the Theology of Leading With The Jaw, or The Incredible (!) Shrinking Iceberg stratagem. Not very effective, but entertaining.

    • It already has a name, “god of the gaps”, and it’s not unique to Christianity. In fact, it’s not even unique to religion. In lieu of absolute certainty concerning something (and remember, absolute certainty is a myth), then it’s possible, however improbable, that X is true. That’s the formula, which although technically is valid, can’t be used as a warrant for accepting claim X, but that’s precisely how they do use it. Cl, or Randall, or Rudy, or whatever the fuck he’s calling himself this week is most certainly aware of this because he employs that gambit frequently.

      This is why I refer to religious belief as an indulgence, like drugs, alcohol, or chocolate donuts, because the arguments for belief all boil down to excuses or rationalizations to indulge in it, just as one would make up an excuse to drink, smoke, or down that whole box of donuts.

  13. mindyourmind,

    I’m aware that there are Christians who make arguments from ignorance. This does not justify SI’s selectively-focused claim that “theists should…”

    As PhillyChief rightly points out, arguments from ignorance are not exclusive to religion at all.

    However, as PhillyChief wrongly points out, absolute certainty is not a myth. Furthermore, when he accuses me of “employing the gambit,” note that what he DOES NOT do is include anything even remotely resembling a shred of actual evidence to support his claim. Making baseless accusations without evidence seems pretty strange for somebody who wears such big “rationalist” hat, wouldn’t you agree?

    Lastly, notice that instead of actually agreeing with me regarding the last question I asked him (because I know that he does agree; he’s not that hard-headed), he simply vomits out more accusatory drive that confirms his anti-cl bias. I guess some atheists are just like that.

    • Making baseless accusations without evidence seems pretty strange for somebody who wears such big “rationalist” hat, wouldn’t you agree?

      Damn, fucking irony meters aren’t worth the hypothetical scrap they’re made out of.

  14. The internet is a wonderful place. You can find a lot about a variety of topics, and about specific individuals. For instance, you could peruse this blog, my blog, and several others and go through the comment threads and see what I say vs what cl (aka godless randall, aka sf atheist, aka chris long, aka rudy bazorda, aka ???) says. That’s perhaps the best, although most laborious route. You could poll bloggers as well, or sit and wait and see what develops next here, mindyourmind. Oh, I did document a small fraction of his nonsense before. Anyway, thanks to the internet, you have options. :)

    Right so to tie up some loose ends, absolute certainty is a myth. Beyond cogito ergo sum, we can’t know anything with absolute certainty. Everything is merely a different degree of probability, and I didn’t answer cl’s question because to do so would contribute to his efforts which were accurately described by efrique. I don’t know with absolute certainty that they will, but probability is VERY high. ;)

  15. Most of these atheist-theist “debates” are dog-and-pony shows rather than actual scholarly debates. Moreover, they are intended to influence the audience, not the participants. Therefore, the expectation of visible open-mindedness on the part of either participant is probably unrealistic. The same is true of most pre-election “debates” between political candidates. Even if the debaters are persuaded to shift, if not discard, their positions, they’re probably not going to do it right there, at that moment; after all, in the audience’s minds, they may have won the debate. One may see a change in subsequent debates or speeches in the way they frame their positions, or they may actually make statements/proposals that they would not have made before. But, honestly, I’ve never seen a debate where one party says to the other, “You’ve persuaded me. I’m changing sides.”

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