Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nagel On Dennett on the Fear of Religion

Thomas Nagel wrote:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)”

But, many complain, Nagel isn't a real atheist, in fact, he's got to be a theist in disguise. Real atheists don't suffer from the fear of religion. 

OK, how about Daniel Dennett, in this passage from Darwin's Dangerous Idea: 

 "My own spirit recoils from a (personal) God in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage.  I know, I know the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free, it would kill me.  Safety demands that it be put in a cage.  Safety demands that religions be put in cages, too . . . . .  We just can't have the second-class status of women in Roman Catholicism."  

Now try to tell me the fear of religion doesn't exist. 

27 comments:

planks length said...

Equally interesting is THIS FINDING by the PEW Research Center that 37 percent of American self-identified atheists and agnostics actually believe in God!

And if that weren't bad enough for the atheist camp, THIS FINDING, also from PEW, shows that atheist have the lowest retention rates (defined as children raised as atheists who self-identify as such as adults) of any religious/non-religious grouping. (Only 30% - Hindus have the highest, at 84%.)

William said...

planks,

The Pew study suggests that we should reconsider most "empirical philosophy" studies of the kind which are based on the assumption that people understand what the researcher is talking about :).

John Moore said...

It's normal for atheists to fear religion because atheism is a doubting activity. Atheists are unsure of everything, including atheism itself. So the fear that you might be wrong is an integral part of being an atheist.

On the other hand, religious people can't fear atheism. Religion is a believing activity, and whenever you fear you might be wrong, to that degree you are not being religious.

I wonder if any Pew surveys ask religious people whether they fear atheism. I wonder if any religious people who say yes would realize they lost their religion in that moment of doubt.

planks length said...

Interesting, John. Truth is, I have no fear of atheism in and of itself. I find it to be self-contradictory and logically incoherent. Also, it explains nothing - it is nihilism, quite literally personified.

Which is why I do very much fear atheists. They're batting a thousand so far, in that whenever they have managed to achieve power, they've ended up creating a veritable Hell on Earth. The 20th Century is one giant cautionary tale against giving atheists any sort of control over government and/or society.

Crude said...

It's normal for atheists to fear religion because atheism is a doubting activity. Atheists are unsure of everything, including atheism itself.

Evidence please? If I produce various atheists expressing 99% confidence in the truth of atheism, or certainty that atheism is true, this claim would be blown out of the water - and it's easy to produce as much.

To that end, I only have to go so far as Richard Dawkins with his scale of certainty in God's non-existence, and that example can be multiplied.

If your response is 'Ah, but if you have even .0000001% doubt, you're not certain!', then a lack of certainty isn't exclusive to atheists - in fact, it's a part of every religion.

Religion is a believing activity, and whenever you fear you might be wrong, to that degree you are not being religious.

So, Nagel and Dennett are both religious, but in their worries that they are wrong and that God may exist, they're not being religious?

By the by, John - how certain are you that your definitions and views on this subject are solid and reflect reliability? I'd like to see how religious you are.

John Moore said...

Ah, we could argue all day about what atheism really means. Is it a mere lack of belief, or is it a positive belief in a lack of God? If it's a lack of belief, that goes along with my rule-of-thumb that atheism means doubting.

Religious people seem to want atheists to claim certainty. That would put atheists in the same category as religious people themselves, and we could then dismiss atheists as just another misguided religion, like Islam or Hinduism or Wicca.

But what if atheists don't really claim any certainty at all? That's a new category, I think. Religion = certainty. Atheism = doubt.

Of course I'm not certain about this. It's just a suggestion.

oozzielionel said...

Do atheists have doubts about doubting?

B. Prokop said...

I think we already have a category for that - it's call agnosticism.

B. Prokop said...

Mine in response to John Moore, not Oozzie (who must have pressed "Publish" the same instant I did).

Crude said...

John,

Ah, we could argue all day about what atheism really means.

No doubt, but that has nothing to do with what I put forward.

You suggested that 'atheism is a doubting activity'. I responded with examples of prominent atheists who express near-certainty about their atheism - so much for the doubting activity.

Likewise, a 'lack of belief' is not a doubting activity. A doubt is just another belief - 'X is not true or likely not true'. A lack of belief is not an expression of doubt. The bottle of Heinz on my shelf 'lacks beliefs'. It's not doubting anything.

At the same time, it's trivial to point at a lack of certainty as central to religious belief. There is a recognition that one is not intellectually certain of this or that; hence, we trust. We take risks.

See, John, I think you have a problem that repeatedly comes up in these discussions. You try to work out idiosyncratic idealized definitions of 'religion' and 'atheism' that makes the former seem terrible and closed, and the latter seem great and open. But then when I point out how your definitions don't match reality - see Dawkins and is 6.9~ out of 7 certainty that there is no God - then you just kind of drift away from the topic.

Stay with the topic. You defined atheism as a doubting activity, and atheism as incompatible with certainty or near-certainty. Okay; then what to do with these atheists who are certain or near-certain? Are they not atheists? Are they... religious?

John Moore said...

Most atheists are like Dawkins in that they admit there's a chance they might be wrong. And yes, I think even 1% uncertainty counts as uncertainty.

Religion means nothing less than 100% certainty. If you admit you might be wrong, God will be angry at your lack of faith. It's like telling your wife that you're only 90% sure you love her. Do you think she'd be glad about that? Both love and faith must be whole-hearted. There's no such thing as tentatively loving someone or provisionally having faith in God.

Prominent atheists tend to speak as though they are certain, but I suspect this is just for rhetorical effect. It's hard to rouse up your audience if you're always hedging and qualifying what you say. But when you nail them down on the key questions, those atheists will admit they're not 100% certain, just like Dawkins.

Crude said...

John,

Most atheists are like Dawkins in that they admit there's a chance they might be wrong. And yes, I think even 1% uncertainty counts as uncertainty.

Oh, okay. So long as you have the tiniest sliver of doubt - the slightest and tiniest possibility that you are wrong is what you're open to - then you're not religious.

Any religious person who is open to their possibly being wrong is, by the definition of John Moore, not religious after all. That rules out... oh, just about every religious person ever, right up to Saint Paul.

Religion means nothing less than 100% certainty. If you admit you might be wrong, God will be angry at your lack of faith.

'Religion means' according to who? You?

See, this is what I mean. You make these bold statements, but all indications are you're just making these things up, striving to find some way where 'atheist' means 'sunshine and puppies' and 'religion' means 'everything evil'. Then when the contradictory evidence is brought up, you just kind of breeze past it. Hence...

Prominent atheists tend to speak as though they are certain, but I suspect this is just for rhetorical effect.

Okay. So prominent atheists when pressed are open minded and open to doubt, because when you press them you suspect they'll admit to a .00001% chance of their being wrong. Religious people can't do this, and if they do they're not religious after all.

But, on the upside, at least you recognize that you can be wrong about everything you're saying here. Which is convenient, what with the evidence pointing at the fact that you are, as a matter of fact, wrong.

B. Prokop said...

"Religion means nothing less than 100% certainty."

Where in the world did you get that idea? Read the very last lines of the Gospel according to Matthew, which includes this astounding line: "And when they saw [Jesus] they worshiped him; but some doubted."

Doubted? After having been with Him for three years, witnessing countless miracles (to include the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, walking on water, calming the storm, turning water to wine, and raising the dead), and then finally seeing Him resurrected and glorified after the most definitive death possible? And they still doubted? These are, after all, the 11 apostles.

Yes indeed, John, doubt is very much an integral part of Faith. Your weird and very idiosyncratic idea of what religion entails is just plain wrong. (And of that, I am 100% certain!)

Papalinton said...

Still quoting the bible as the definitive source, I see.

B. Prokop said...

Yup.

Chris said...

This thread has brought up a topic that has been a peev of mine for a while. Atheists today typically say that agnosticism pertains to knowledge whereas atheism pertains to belief.

But, what do they mean by "knowledge"? Does this mean certainty? If that's the case, then an agnostic atheist is someone who is not certain about their lack of belief?

Hugo said...

"an agnostic atheist is someone who is not certain about their lack of belief?"

No, it's someone who doesn't know if God exists and does not believe God exists. Very few people are gnostic about the God question.

B. Prokop said...

I believe the original meaning of "agnostic" was someone who maintained that definite knowledge (about anything, really) was inherently unknowable - that there would forever be a degree a uncertainty about everything.

But nowadays, with our habit of using language sloppily, it just means anyone who is not sure whether God exists. (I.e., he may believe such knowledge is theoretically obtainable, but he personally does not know.)

Papalinton said...

PapaL: "Still quoting the bible as the definitive source, I see."
Bob: "Yup."

PapaL: Smacks of Sola Scriptura to me.

B. Prokop said...

No "sola" about it. I've got more than one tool in my toolbox. But when it comes to nails, a hammer is very much "definitive". When it comes to screws or bolts, other tools are appropriate.

Papalinton said...

It's at this time one wishes Illion would respond.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic, Just sum up for us what Christians want and what atheists want. And be done with the subject. Here are my attempted summations:

http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2014/04/what-do-christians-want-what-do.html

Jakub Moravčík said...

'Religion means' according to who? You?

Well, in Roman Catholicism, if you concede that Church teaching could be possibly wrong in only single thesis, you are commiting a mortal sin. And yes, for me this is horrific.
I do not know if any other confessions, christian or non-christian, put similar duties to the believers. Do somebody know?

It's like telling your wife that you're only 90% sure you love her."

This is not the first time I see the comparison of faith to matrimony but I think this is misguiding. Because your current or possible (wo)man will not tell you that if you do not marry her/him or if you do not give her a certainity of 100% love, you will be eternally damned.

B. Prokop said...

"in Roman Catholicism, if you concede that Church teaching could be possibly wrong in only [a] single thesis, you are commiting a mortal sin"

Not true, Jakub. Or, at least, not strictly true. It is only sinful to deny any portion of the Church's teaching when you know that teaching to be true, yet nevertheless deny it. The will must be actively involved for there to be sin. Doubt, in and of itself, is never a sin.

The disparate treatment of the pagans and the heretics in Dante's allegory The Inferno is illustrative here. In the First Circle, we find the virtuous pagans, who through no fault of their own, did not possess the True Faith. They were placed by Dante outside (above) the judgement seat of Minos, and were therefore not subject to any punishment. On the other hand, in the Sixth Circle we come upon the heretics, who are past (below) the Walls of Dis, which allegorically symbolized for Dante the conscious participation of the will in evil. So the heretics (in Dante's allegory) are subject to punishment, whilst the pagans are not.

Jakub Moravčík said...

By the way, when we are at wishes (f.e. Nagels one), I recently guided a survey called "A survey of philosophical wishes", where respondents had to answer questions as whether they wish God to exist or not, whether they wish free will or determinism, objective morals or moral relativism, validity of realism or nominalism etc. I know you do not know czech language but if you wish to put it to translator here is the link to the results.

Jakub Moravčík said...

@B. Prokop:

I really wish you were true but I am afraid you are not. And that is because of one Catechism from the beginning of Twentieth century, where is written that we commit a sin against first commandment when we CONCEDE, that Church COULD POSSIBLY be wrong in some article of faith. Which is much stronger condition than the "heretic" one.
Of course, it is possible that I understood something wrong, but so far I don´t think.
If you want put this to translator.

B. Prokop said...

Jakub,

Damn! Being fluent in Russian, I thought I might be able to plough my way through your Czech site. But alas, although I can make out many individual words, the overall meaning eludes me.

By the way, I've twice visited your beautiful country, but have never been to Ostrava. I regard Prague as one of the wonders of the world - everyone should see it!