Talking about God (Or Not) Part 2

17 Jan

Recently I came across a comment to the effect that the evidence in support of the existence of God was ‘overwhelming’. The contributor gave no indication of exactly what he considered this evidence to be, but I can’t criticise him for that, he was replying to a post on someone else’s blog, so he probably didn’t feel able to go into too much detail. Maybe I should have followed the link to his blog to see if he’d expressed his views at greater length elsewhere.

I was tempted to take issue with this comment, but I wasn’t. As I’ve indicated, it was a comment on someone else’s blog and I’m not sure about the etiquette of  commenting on the comments left on other people’s blogs. Maybe I’d be encroaching on the blog owner’s prerogatives. Besides, I wanted to comment at some length and I thought maybe I should save it for my own blog.

As an atheist, obviously I don’t think that the evidence for the existence of God is overwhelming. If I did, I wouldn’t be an atheist.

I accept that many people find the evidence for the existence of God convincing, but I suspect that this is largely because they are already convinced that God exists.

I seriously doubt that anyone who came to the question with no preconceived ideas on the subject would find that evidence convincing, but then again, I can’t claim to have come to this question with no preconceived ideas on the subject. I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember.

As I’ve said in an earlier blog, I don’t believe that most people arrive at a conclusion on whether or not God exists as a result of a rational (and possibly not even an entirely conscious process). It’s my impression that people become atheists or believers at a very early age and once they’ve become one thing or another evidence and argument is used to support the position they’ve already reached. This is why, in my opinion, most debates on the subject very quickly become entrenched and acrimonious.

But enough of that, time to move on to something new.

One of the things I’ve been reminded of recently is the way that a discussion about whether or not God exists tends to veer off into a discussion of whether or not religious faith is a good thing (Which itself can deteriorate into slanging match over the alleged vices and virtues of atheists and believers).

As an atheist I suppose it might be expected that I would come down on the ‘religion is the source of all evil’ side of things, but, as a matter of fact I don’t.

In fact, I think the question is unanswerable in practice and pointless in any case.

In order to answer the question of whether or not religion is a Good Thing, I suppose you could draw up a list of all the good things associated with religion and then another list of all the bad things. Then you’d have to compare the two lists and decide on balance whether the good outweighed the bad.

I think the difficulties involved in this process should be obvious, so I won’t labour the point. Obviously you’re going to have no real agreement as to the extent that either good or bad things on your lists are dependant on religion, you will also struggle to reach agreement as to the relative importance of any given item on either list in relation to other items on the opposing list. You may also find a surprising lack of agreement as to which list, good or bad, certain items should go on.

In other words, your chances of reaching agreement at any stage in the process are remote to non-existent.

An alternative strategy might be to look for examples of societies, communities or even individuals that have been either atheist or religious and compare them. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the detail, but I think the problems associated with this are comparable to those I’ve outlined above.

Hence my conclusion that the question is unanswerable in practice.

I think the question is probably pointless because the plain fact is that religious faith is a feature of human life and all human societies that I’m aware of (even where it’s officially banned) and I don’t see that changing in a big hurry.

I think there was a period during the mid twentieth century where religious belief seemed to be in decline and it didn’t seem to be impossible that some day religion would simply fade away, but towards the end of the twentieth century there was a resurgence in religion and, as of now, it looks as though it’s here to stay. (Equally we could say that atheism isn’t likely to just fade away either).

I’m all in favour of dialogue, but I don’t see the point in conducting two parallel monologues where actual communication seems to be at a minimum and exasperation seems to be at a maximum.

I should also admit that I’m as prone as anyone else to the temptation to correct other people when I think they’re wrong, but as I’ve said, although I belive that there is no God, I see no realistic prospect of changing anyone else’s opinion on the subject. The most I can do is, perhaps, to reassure someone who is already an atheist but not comfortable about it. Or possibly to exasperate believers. And even if I could talk someone out of their religious beliefs, would that make them better or happier people? I doubt it.

So given that I seem to have decided that there’s no point in arguing about whether or not God exists and also that there’s no point in the debate about whether or not religion is a good thing, what are we left with?

Well,  maybe we could try treating each other with a bit of respect?

(It’s unhelpful to imply that people who believe in God are deluded, nor is it accurate to suggest that atheists are any more prone to immorality, or amorality, than believers).

Maybe we should concentrate on debates where some kind of progress is possible. (I’m well aware that philosophers are still debating many of the issues first raised in Ancient Greece, but the fact that they haven’t reached a conclusion and don’t seem likely to, doesn’t mean that no progress has been made or that none is possible. Simply clarifying the question and the significant issues arising from it is also progress).

And if we can’t manage that, maybe we should take Voltaire’s advice and cultivate our gardens without arguing.

Although maybe all I’m really saying is that I think a civilised and informed debate on these subjects could be a lot of fun, but I’m sick to death of the way it always seems to fall into one kind of rut or another.

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8 Responses to “Talking about God (Or Not) Part 2”

  1. Lucille Hunter 19/01/2012 at 6:35 pm #

    I’m kind of agnostic, basically, but I went to Catholic schools growing up and you know what? It really wasn’t at all bad. No one tried to convert me, we were taught the scientific theory of how the universe started in science class and the religious theories in Religious Studies (which I took at an advanced level in 6th year), sometimes hymns were sung during the odd assembly and it was altogether an okay experience, as far as as high school etc can be. So, sticking with the religion I know best, Catholicism, I have to say that all the anti-Christian anger that people display during religious debates makes me kind of sad. Tolerance and respect are good things.
    I find it interesting, however, the way atheism for some people is like some kind of ‘movement’ these days, almost like a religion itself, with boards and forums and slogans and atheists trying to ‘convert’ the religious. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

    • fekesh 20/01/2012 at 12:13 pm #

      I went to a non denominational school (Unfortunately I took ‘non-denominational to mean ‘secular’ which it clearly doesn’t). I must admit I went through a phase of self-righteous indignation about being obliged to attend assemblies that involved some of the trappings of as religious service (ie hymn-singing and the odd half hearted attempt at something like a sermon), but essentially these assemblies were little more than an administrative proceedure to check that we were all presnt and accounted for.
      I suppose my background in the West of Scotland makes me suspicious of faith based schools. You’re probably aware that we’ve got a long and inglorious history of sectarianism in this part of the world and I think that seperate education for different faith groups is unhelpful in this context.
      As a matter of fact, I’m in favour of a clear separation of church and state. Aside from the fact that religion and politics can become a pretty toxic mix, I think it’s the only fair arrangement in a multi-faith society. The logical implication of this would be the disestablishment of ther Church of England (Which isn’t necessarily an anti-Christian position, some Anglicans would agree with this conclusion, albeit for different reasons)and also the general principal that state schools should be secular schools. (Which isn’t to say that I want to ban faith schools, I just want to keep the state out of religion and I think there’s a real need to be wary of bringing faith into religion).
      I’m glad to read that your experience of attending a Catholic schools was pretty positive, I’m aware that some faith schools provide a very high standard of education. Others seem to be more worrying, but then again non-denominational schools can be pretty harrowing at times. (The first two years of my secondary school experience was more like an extended survival situation than a normal education).
      It’s funny the way perceptions shift with point of view. You’ve commented (quite rightly) on agressive proselytising atheists, but from my point of view I seem to be more aware of intolerance and arrogance from some (a minority)of those who want to promote religious belief.
      I know that the Pope touched a chord with many people when he was talking about as ‘aggressive secularism’ and I definitely take your point about treating people with respect.(Personally I often agree in principle with what Professor Richard Dawkins has to say, but I still cringe at the way he says it. Nice, reasonable demeanour, but often far too confrontational and far too dismissive of other view points in what he’s actually saying. If he wants to persuade people, he’s going about it the wrong way).
      Having said that there are some pretty scary believers on both sides of the argument (in my experience every community throws up it’s share of numpties and bigots and atheists are definitely no different in that respect) and it should be pretty clear by now that I’m really not into proselytising.
      As I’ve said, I think debaing about religion can be fun if the debate is conducted on a civilised basis, but all too often it just veers into a despair-inducing rut.
      To borrow an image from William MacIlvanny (The Papers of Toney Vietch, a Glasgow based detective story). Picture the battle of the Somme where no one can actually die. Nothing really happens, but Oh my God, the noise.

  2. Lucille Hunter 20/01/2012 at 6:52 pm #

    My experience at school was très, très nightmarish thanks to the other pupils. Other than that it was fine. It wasn’t a requirement to be a Catholic to attend, and most of my fellow classmates weren’t Catholic, although they did mostly support Celtic over Rangers (which reminds me of a boy from a different school who me and my friends used to hang around with during our lunch break and the time he ran into the middle of our playground wearing his Rangers scarf and yelled “‘Mon the Proddies!” before fleeing. Yes, I’m afraid in the east of Scotland, sectarianism was more funny to us than anything).
    I’ll often defend Christians. I think it’s because of all the incredibly dedicated and nice Christians I’ve met in my life. The Minister at my grandparents church who visited my mother in hospital after she gave birth, just to see baby me and check she was okay, despite knowing that she didn’t attend church and was actually a heathen Pagan at that time, for instance. My old boss, who was actually only a year or two older than me, and a very dedicated Christian and was the nicest and most honest person I’ve ever met. We used to have debates, because both of us were too calm and accepting to get annoyed about each other’s beliefs although we did stop once when I said, “So according to your beliefs, I’m going to hell?” and he got very upset at the thought.
    I don’t know, I’ve been around Christians for most of my life, through school, through my grandparent’s church, and they’ve never offended me. That being said, maybe if I lived in the bible belt in America I would feel differently.
    I don’t disagree about separating the church and state, mixing religion and politics makes it more toxic indeed, and politics are toxic enough to begin with.

    • fekesh 21/01/2012 at 7:13 pm #

      I suspect that other pupils are often what makes school years nightmarish, although some of my teachers seemed determined to make their mark on that score as well.
      I don’t think sectarianism is quite as bad these days as it was back when I was at school. (John Lennon might disagree, though). Back in the day the Orange Lodges could pretty well bring Glasgow city centre to a standstill when they had their march. These days the ranks of the Orangey bar-stewards (Polite version out of respect for your ladylike refinement and delicate sensibilities)are looking pretty thin in Glasgow itself, but things are different a bit further down the coast.
      I do recall being asked if I was a ‘Proddy’ or a catholic when I was at primary school (The clear implication being that if I gave the ‘wrong answer’ it would be bad for my health and wellbeing. I tried telling them I was a Buddhist (precocious child that I was) but then I was immediately asked if I wa a protestant Buddhist or a Catholic Buddhist. I had to rely on my intuition to find the right answer. Unfortunately my intuition is about as reliable as my charm and I’ve got the scars to prove it.
      Having said that the charmless individuals involved in this kind of nonsense aren’t very interested in the theological niceties of transubstantiation or the doctine of papal infallibility, it’s really just tribalism. (Or maybe just racism as traditionally the Catholic community in the West of Scotland, and elsewhere, have tended to have Irish ancestry).
      What’s weird is the fact that a lot of my friends have tended to be Catholics (by upbringing, at least). And some of them were actually practicing Catholics. Statistically this is unlikely given the demographics in the areas where I’ve lived and worked, but I really don’t choose my friends on the basis of their faith or sect. In general I’d rather spend my time with intelligent and civilised Christians, or followers of any other faith, than with ignorant and bigoted atheists.

  3. vikkilewis 22/01/2012 at 1:36 am #

    I agree absolutely that most people don’t reason their way to belief or non-belief, but there is one pretty major exception, which is–Aristotle. He constructed a perfectly rational chain of reasoning that ended, inevitably, with God. You can’t argue with his logic, although you are perfectly at liberty to take exception to the principles from which he constructs his argument, and in fact a lot of philosophers did, most notably Descartes and Kant. (Interestingly enough they also both tried to construct an unassailable chain of reasoning to prove the existence of God, but they both failed.)
    Of course the first difficulty you run into when you’re coming at the argument from the religious and not the atheist side is not just the desire to prove you’re right, although that’s there too, but also in most cases the divine command to try to convert people to your way, which is, from your point of view, the right way. The result, which is usually mudslinging, mutual undermining, etc, instead of true missionary work, is one of the things I hate about present-day religion and one of the reasons I’m so unwaveringly entrenched in the Catholic idea of predestination–I love to argue these things, but I don’t have to win. I think a lot of the reason God arguments get so ugly is because the religious person thinks the salvation of souls depend on his winning the argument. I don’t think this. If I lose the argument I can smile pleasantly and walk away, not seriously affected in faith or emotion.
    FYI, Aristotle’s argument is in the Physics and the Metaphysics, and also in a condensed form in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, but the St. Thomas work might be a little suspect because it is, after all, a work of theology, whereas the Physics and the Metaphysics are purely philosophy. Also, the philosophical evidence I see for God–not any particular God, not Allah or Christ or Zeus or anything, just a god–seems to me to be convincing, but I can easily see how it wouldn’t be to someone else, and not necessarily in a ‘you’re obviously wrong, how could you miss that’ kind of way either.

    • fekesh 22/01/2012 at 10:42 am #

      You’ve probably noticed that I tend not to concentrate on philosophical arguments for or against the existence of God. As a sometime student of philosophy I became aware that none of these arguments is really conclusive. I agree with you about the quality of Aristotle’s reasoning, but I would agree with Descartes and Kant about his premises. (No big surprise, I suppose).

      You could say that maybe I’m copping out of the hard work involved in engaging with the arguments in detail, and there’s some truth in that, but it’s also that I’m less interested in how people justufy their beliefs than in why they believe in the first place.

      You say that ‘the philosophical evidence I see for God–not any particular God, not Allah or Christ or Zeus or anything, just a god–seems to me to be convincing, but I can easily see how it wouldn’t be to someone else,’.

      Would I be right in sugesting that while this evidence might support your belief in God, it isn’t necessarily the root cause of it? I’m assuming that if the origin of your faith was the philosophical evidence then it might be a lot harder for you to see how it wouldn’t convince others. (That might, or might not, make you a ‘better’ Christian or philosopher or whatever, but it wouldn’t make you a better person or someone I would necessarily want to talk to).

      I suppose my point is that people often seem to find evidence or argument convincing, or not, because of their pre existing convictions about the conclusion.

      Maybe it’s my flirtation with existential philosophy at an impressionable age, or maybe it’s just that I’m curious about things I don’t understand, but I really would like to know how and why someone who believes in God actually came to hold this belief. What I mean is that I’m looking for the origin of that belief, and not the defence of it.

      My problem is that I’m concerned that if I try to ask this question it might be taken as yet another atheist having a go at someone’s faith. That really isn’t what I have in mind.

  4. Edward Fraser 27/01/2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Ha, was this on my blog?

    • fekesh 27/01/2012 at 2:20 pm #

      Well, spotted. Yes, it was in a reply to your post ‘Ed’s Truths’.
      As I said in my post I was tempted to reply directly but I wasn’t sure how you might feel about that. After all, it’s your blog.
      Glad you liked the post.

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