Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Why should I study religion or astrology?

15 comments
Recently, on Alonzo Fyfe's AthiestEthicist blog, there was a visitor Tom Gilson of thinkingchristian.net. He has made the argument on his own blog that in order to criticise religion one needs to study it. He has also pointed this criticism at Richard Dawkins.

Well in order to pursue any field, in order to become interested in it and feel it warrants further investigation, indeed something that might become important to me, I need to impose a filter on the huge range of ideas and tools out there. How do I decide what is worth pursing, apart from the fact it has pricked my interest?

Consider, for illustrative purposes, astrology. In order to know whether it works in reality or not, how do I need to study it? Do I need to read the literature  and develop some skills in casting and interpreting horoscopes in order to decide whether it works or not? Or, instead, do I need to look at the claims of astrologers and see if they match reality? 

What are the types of questions I could ask of astrology, positive answers of which could encourage me to pursue it further. Such question would be can astrologers match people to star charts or horoscopes - ensuring there are no hidden clues to their birth dates in what they provide to the astrologers? Can astrologers rate each other in terms of abilities to cast and interpret accurate horoscopes? Can people identify their own star charts or horoscopes? Does the ability of astrologers improve with training and experience? If the answer to these questions are all in the negative then there is no reason for me to pursue or study astrology any further. If the answer if positive, there is at least a reason for me to pursue it further, if I am interested.

Well Geoffrey Dean has provided some remarkable meta-analysis of over 300 studies on astrology. (Actually over 500 now this is the first link I could find). It was a remarkable one in that it does not, like many other meta-studies, apply a methodology filter to eliminate dubious studies -this almost invariably leads to those being criticised complaining about biases in such filtering of methods. Now taking all the studies by astrologers and psychologists, without filtering over poor methodologies, he still found that that there is no relation between astrologers ability to rate each other, improved accuracy with time and experience, the capacity for astrologers to match people to star charts or horoscopes and peoples ability to match themselves to their horoscopes. The result is an overwhelming negative on all counts. The only thing to conclude is that I would strike astrology from my list of topics worth pursing. Further, I do not need to study astrology as astrologers do in order to criticise it.  

Well I and I recommend everyone else, should use same principle as the above illustrative example for everything. 

So consider religion. In order to pursue this further what do I need to find out? In this case there are two inter-related questions, not only is religion worth studying as it adherents do, but which religion? Are there objective methods that can distinguish the pursuit of one religion over another?  If there are not, then there is no internal basis to select one religion over another. Still one can then look at the effects of different religions on societies, past and present - to seek an external basis and chose the one that has the most beneficial results on society, if one is so interested.

Looking at Tom Gilsons' claims in favour of Christianity, the way he has presented and argues it on both blogs, he has presented zero evidence that shows his religion is, on an internal basis, better than other religions. There are no criteria he offers that could not and has been used by others to prefer their religion, or god, over his. The choice he has made is entirely subjective, due to random factors such as the religion he was born into and the social influences he experienced given where he was educated and lives. This is the same as for many others, whether they keep or change their birth religion or sect. This is no criteria to select one over another. And the same goes for reading sacred texts, interpreting personal revelations, choosing one authority over another whether based on popularity or clarity and so on. All are entirely subjective choices. He fails to provide an  internal basis to select on religion over another. 

Similarly looking at external criteria his religion has led him to repeat old canard such as 
I think that it might be more relevant to consider the irreligious people out there -- particularly the atheists -- who are calling for the sacrifice of my life, health, and liberty. The twentieth century is a catalog of atheist regimes regularly calling for such sacrifices on the part of religious people. The Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Yugoslavia, and Poland come to mind.Please provide evidence that similar injustices on the part of religious people represent the rule rather than the exception!
Well I did and you can read his poor response there. (Note he did not produce the Hitler canard, and I grant that that is in his favour). Now this was based on Teapot Atheist's data I used in my post where the point I was making is that this is a bad argument, and one I do not recommend either theist or atheist to use. It is the fact that Tom Gilson used this argument is indicative that his religion is again a topic not worth pursuing, since it can only encourage such (arguable) bigoted and prejudicial thinking by relying on sophistry such as selective reasoning to make a case. Relying on sophistry and selective reasoning, whether it leads to a claimed bigotry and prejudice or not, is not to be recommended. This is one example of the equivalent of the failure of astrology to discourage one to pursue that topic further.

So on what basis should I, Alonzo Fyfe or Richard Dawkins for that matter, study his variety of Christianity?  He has provided nothing, so far, to justify this. Now would it matter if none of us (as it happens I and, I believe, Alonzo are familiar with his reading recommendations but we need not have been) have read his reading recommendations?  No, until he can provide plausible evidence either of his religion and/or his exposition or presentation style (or both) there is no basis to pursue it further. It is in this sense that this is equivalent to my illustrative position on astrology. I have sufficient information to criticise it as needed in terms of its external effects on society. We do not need to read his recommendations, but only need to look at the examples of him and others who do rely on such literature. 

Two caveats here:

I have no issue with Tom or anyone else pursing their Christianity as a private matter and that goes for anyone else, regardless of what it is they value and choose to devote themselves to. Indeed I support and endorse a society that everyone be free to pursue whatever value they choose. I just draw the line where such pursuits can potentially or actually have deleterious effects on others. Using bigotry and prejudice being a significant litmus test for such effects. 

Secondly I am not specifically trying to target Tom Gilson, this is really a general point, he has just made it a relevant one sufficient for me to post on this, given my interactions with him on two blogs.

Postscript: I owe an apology to Tom Gilson. The quote I attributed to Tom was actually by Doug. Tom Gilson did reply to my comment but I will address this in a future post.

15 comments:

Tom Gilson said...

fg,

You attributed this quote to me, but I didn't write this.

I think that it might be more relevant to consider the irreligious people out there -- particularly the atheists -- who are calling for the sacrifice of my life, health, and liberty. The twentieth century is a catalog of atheist regimes regularly calling for such sacrifices on the part of religious people. The Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Yugoslavia, and Poland come to mind.Please provide evidence that similar injustices on the part of religious people represent the rule rather than the exception!You said I had a poor response to your answer on that. I'm sorry, but if you think Genghis Khan, the Persians, the emperor of Japan, and Hitler were theists, then you need to look up theism in a good dictionary.

Your statistics even with respect to the actual theists are suspect. See here, here, and here. The Crusades had more to do with Anglo-Saxons not catching on to the implications of Christianity (very counter to their prior cultural values) than with Christianity itself.

As to this:

"he has presented zero evidence that shows his religion is, on an internal basis, better than other religions. There are no criteria he offers that could not and has been used by others to prefer their religion, or god, over his. The choice he has made is entirely subjective, due to random factors such as the religion he was born into and the social influences he experienced given where he was educated and lives. I'm laughing, actually. You have strayed far, far, far beyond the information you've been presented with, psychologizing me as you have here; and you've missed other information I've given. I've said more than once in these discussions that I'm trying to stay focused on the topic at hand, and I've linked to other places where I've presented the kind of evidences you think I have never looked at. The evidences are many and massive, and I'm not going to try to get into them in a blog comment.

My purpose with Alonzo, as I have said there, has not been to argue in favor of Christianity's truth, but to argue against his position that people of faith should be excluded from discussions on ethical decision-making. If my purpose were to argue in favor of Christianity as an overall belief system I would have done that. But I like to stay on a topic.

To save some effort for you, and especially for other readers here, I'll provide those links again: here and here. There are libraries full of other evidences besides these that I have written. So here I shall read back to you what you yourself wrote:

"Relying on sophistry and selective reasoning [and selective reading and misattribution--TG], whether it leads to a claimed bigotry and prejudice or not, is not to be recommended."Why should Alonzo study Christianity? Because we are a very large proportion of the Western population, whom he was apparently trying to brush aside from participation in ethical decision-making--and because he was doing so based on what I maintain is an inaccurate and stereotyped distortion of Christianity. In other words, he should study Christianity because he presents himself as having something to say about Christianity. If you don't have something to say about Christianity, then it's up to you whether you know anything about it; but if you're going to write about it, you ought to know something about it.

Why should Dawkins study Christianity? Funny you should link to the post you did (I'm laughing again). That post was about Dawkins studying science! Do you think he ought to do that?

That final point, the misattribution you made, your misidentification of other religions as theistic, etc. lead me to suggest you read more carefully... for the sake of your own thinking and writing.

Tom Gilson said...

For some reason this software here stripped the paragraph breaks after every close-italics tag in that comment. It was not my intent to make it that hard to read. Sorry about that anyway.

faithlessgod said...

Tom

I have corrected the mis-attribution in a Postscript in the post. Is this OK?

faithlessgod said...

Damn you blogger you just lost my long reply to Tom. I must your comments technology on your site is much better than blogger here.

Your paragraphs looked okay to me.

Will reply (again) when I have time later today.

faithlessgod said...

Tom: "You said I had a poor response to your answer on that. I'm sorry, but if you think Genghis Khan, the Persians, the emperor of Japan, and Hitler were theists, then you need to look up theism in a good dictionary. "There are two points here.

First of all you have now raised the "Hitler was an atheist" canard. Of course this is typical speech of an atheist:

"My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.
In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.
To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people."
For more see the freethinker (I chose this post because I just read it, timely huh?).

Now this brings me to the second point which I made here. If you want to make such arguments over "atheists" and "atheist regimes" then for rational consistency and the avoidance of double standards one needs to apply the same standard to classify theistic regimes and the hence statistics I presented via Teapot Atheist here (Yes responding to Doug not you)

However you did reply there:
"Your list includes a very large number of religious persons who were not theists by any stretch of the definition. Theism is one category of religion that basically includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I am arguing only for Christian theism"

Which immediately destroys any argument over "atheist regimes"!!!! As I said:
"There can be no double standards in such a list. If you to exclude all non-christian theistm , then I will exclude all so called communist and fascist atheism (even though much of it could be argued is specifically Christian inspired too) since such view are not what I nor the large majority of atheists I know personally and otherwise support."So your ending comment here:
"your misidentification of other religions as theistic, etc. lead me to suggest you read more carefully... for the sake of your own thinking and writing."
is, let us say, disingenuous.

I will address the other part of your comment in my next comment (to ensure blogger does not screw up again).

faithlessgod said...

Tom:"Why should Alonzo study Christianity? Because we are a very large proportion of the Western population, whom he was apparently trying to brush aside from participation in ethical decision-making--and because he was doing so based on what I maintain is an inaccurate and stereotyped distortion of Christianity."He was doing no such thing. He was making an argument that there is no rational or ethical justification for people of faith - any faith not just yours - to have any special dispensation, privileges or protection when making arguments over policies that could harm others. This was addressed to anyone of any faith who think that their faith alone enables them to lower the standards of evidence or allow non-evidence based arguments into the decision making process.

There simply is no need on this basis to study yours or anyone else's faith. If you have a different conception of faith to that being addressed it makes no difference. As I said briefly here and in more detail in previous comments:
"As I have already said here, if you think there is evidence to support your case, your faith is irrelevant, the evidence can and must be considered on its own merits."Another relevant post I just read is Faith and Reason by Massimo Pigliucci.

You said"You have strayed far, far, far beyond the information you've been presented with, psychologizing me as you have here; and you've missed other information I've given"Sorry I was, mis-attribution aside, referring to your comments at Alonzo's blog and various posts on your blog that I perused. All I can say is what I stated in general there, not specifically to you:

"For example, if the evidence offered is that “God commands it”, “it is in God’s nature and that is always good and why god commands it”, “it is written in a book authored by God and that is my justification”, “God revealed to me this is why it should be so” or anything like that then such evidence and reasons must be exposed to the same scrutiny as any other evidence in support or against a policy that can harm others. Such types of purported or tentative evidence would fail to pass muster and count as legitimate evidence in a court of law and should be dismissed as illegitimate or pseudo-evidence and reasons."

Crispian Jago said...

Despite supporting your opinions on the potential deleterious effects of dogmatic religious worldviews, I think there is a certain amount of validity in the comment that one should study religion in order to criticise it.

I take on board your comments on how to filter out what beliefs to study from the sea of unfounded beliefs we have to choose from. However, I would argue that whilst the evidence supporting religious beliefs, like astrology is lacking, it has a strong enough grip on enough of the worlds population to make me want to study why that it is. Arming yourself with detailed knowledge of any particular sacred text merely pumps the rational mind with more ammunition. And indeed I believe exposing children to a multitude of beliefs in an unbiased way is an effective inoculation against the spread of religious memes. So I’m all for studying religion, I’m just not so keen on preaching it.

faithlessgod said...

Woops lost the last line of my previous comment. Here it is:

This is what I mean by the basis on which to study anything, if there is no external evidence in support of it - similar to my astrology example - then I have no reason to study it further as an adherent (of a religion, astrology or anything else) would.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Chrispian

I broadly agree and as both Dennet and Dawkins argue for to study and educate our children on "all religions, warts and all" [Dennett]. However this was not my point here.

To expand upon the astrology example, granted many do believe it, to vary degrees or commitments, one can examine why they believe in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it.

Tom's point, mistaken in my view, is that one cannot criticise religion without specifically studying his religion but anyone of any religious sect could say this. This is the usual moving the goal posts problem that infects such debates. I am examining to various degrees what various different religions have in common and only as to their potentially deleterious affects on others in society.

It is quite possible that many religious beliefs are benign or inert in this regard and that include belief in the gods. However Tom has excluded himself from this category by raising the Hitler canard. I fail to see how an advocate or adherent of a religion who uses the Hitler canard can be providing me with evidence then encourages me to study his religion as he wants me to. More likely we need to defend against such bigotry and only on that basis might this possibly warrant such a study.

nymphette said...

Very interesting documentation from this discussion. I am a fledgling novice - so I don't intend to get in too much on the debate.
But, by the fact that I found this by chance, whilst looking into religion vs. astrology, it is good study for me.

faithlessgod said...

Hi nymphette (great handle BTW)

When I have time I will redo this post, fixing the mis-attribution and making the core point clearer here. I will also spin out the issue over (a)theistic atrocities (my mistkae to imx these themes together) into another post to re-emphasize why this is a bad argument, whoever makes it.

waywardsister said...

Could it then not also be said that in order to choose a religion, one needs to study all of them? I'd imagine few people do this, as most of us land in our religious affiliation by default of birth.

Anyway, I suppose Tom is ok with those of us who were raised with a specific religion, and have since become happy, well-adjusted athiests. :)

faithlessgod said...

Hiya waywardsister

"Could it then not also be said that in order to choose a religion, one needs to study all of them? I'd imagine few people do this, as most of us land in our religious affiliation by default of birth."And the high prevalence this phenomenon alone is evidence against any religion being true but instead being selected based on familiarity and comfort and such like.

Sorry but I dont see why Tom can conclude what you claim. Must be missing something?

Sabio said...

Indeed, reading his material would make you a more interesting critique.
Further, being a former believer would make you even more interesting.
For those who don't believe but have studied may not even have the capacity to believe.
People with capacity and indulgence understand to a degree a believer can feel !

faithlessgod said...

Hi Sabio
 
First I am not happy with this post and will redo it when I have time. I, unfortunately confused the issue by addresing Tom Gilson here and will seperate out these points in future posts - once I have completed an interesting discussion with Tom and others on his blog (albeit on a different point now).
 
It is true I am not a former believer but why does that make this less interesting? I hold that anyone has indeed had some strange beliefs at sometime in their lives for which they could not provide legitimate reasons as to why they held them. This applies to everyone. See John Brockman's book on this answered by many scientists. So everyone does have the capacity to believe in the sense that I think you mean.
 
The goal, well my goal, is the opposite. To not need nor rely on such ungrounded beliefs at all. That, if you will, is my "spiritual" practise and path to wisdom.
 
Now I did try to become a beleiver in the religious sense when I was a kid but no-one could every provide any reason that make sense. That is why I am not a former beleiver but it was not through not trying!
 
Further my underlying interest in all this is the affect on the social interactions amongst all of us, whatever beleifs we have. This is surely an important question.