aspose file tools*
The moose likes Rattlesnake Pit and the fly likes What do you think about Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and company - the Big Moose Saloon
  Search | Java FAQ | Recent Topics | Flagged Topics | Hot Topics | Zero Replies
Register / Login
JavaRanch » Java Forums » Other » Rattlesnake Pit
Bookmark "What do you think about Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and company - the "new atheists"?" Watch "What do you think about Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and company - the "new atheists"?" New topic
Author

What do you think about Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and company - the "new atheists"?

Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
I might as well jump in with both feet

The basic premise these guys promote is that "religion poisons everything".

Late edit based on public demand: "Does religion poison everything it touches?"

book

So we could say John Lennon had it right 40 years ago.

I think they've got some compelling arguments...


Spot false dilemmas now, ask me how!
(If you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much room.)
Steve Luke
Bartender

Joined: Jan 28, 2003
Posts: 4181
    
  21

Bert, I read the threads which kicked this forum off, and I don't mean to be contrary... but the phrase "religion poisons everything" is not a phrase you can have a reasoned debate about. I am not saying religion and faith aren't in the category that can't be discussed rationally, I am specifically talking about that phrase. It feels intentionally inflammatory because it is an all or nothing statement. You immediately are saying there is no merit in the disagreeing point (because whoever disagrees has been poisoned). The same is true from the opposing view: they can't agree with any part of the argument or point (and so can't give that statement merit at all) because doing so immediately invalidates their point of view.

Personally I have no skin in the game, but I would probably respond with: "I think any such general and overarching stereotype is false" and be done with it. Note that I didn't provide any reasons why I think that way: but then again you didn't provide any discussion on the original comment either, so rather than a discussion this would be simple statements that could not be reconciled (and so debate is more or less useless).

Can you re-state without making a statement that is sure to draw an impassible line?

A few additional pointers:
1) Providing some backup to the summary you posted would help. It leads to debate rather than simple unqualified statements.
2) Example articles, debates, or summations of the people and points of view you are discussing would help, so people interested in the debate don't have to do as much leg-work and we can get the same source material that you are using to come to your conclusion.


Steve
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
Steve,

Well the title of the topic isn't the phrase you're taking issue with, so that's for starters.

But let's talk about the phrase you're concerned with. Why isn't this a plausible premise for a debate? Why couldn't a debate be based on the question:

Does religion poison everything it touches?

(I don't agree with your logic that any dissenter is by definition poisoned.)

As for links, if someone asks I could point to a zillion links - these guys have literally hundreds of hours of youtubes available.

(I love it, right off the bat we're debating about debates )

But mostly, the phrase you take issue with was NOT the proposed topic - it was a summary statement of their orientation - just to give readers a sense who these guys are.
Maneesh Godbole
Saloon Keeper

Joined: Jul 26, 2007
Posts: 10523
    
    9

Even I got the impression, the topic under discussion here was religion poisons everything.
Bert,
Maybe you can provide a brief summary of these guys and what the new atheists are all about.


[How to ask questions] [Donate a pint, save a life!] [Onff-turn it on!]
fred rosenberger
lowercase baba
Bartender

Joined: Oct 02, 2003
Posts: 11479
    
  16

so I'll dive in and go meta...

Religion is 'something'. Does religion poison religion? if I put DDT into a big barrel of cyanide, is the barrel now poisoned?


There are only two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors
Jeanne Boyarsky
author & internet detective
Marshal

Joined: May 26, 2003
Posts: 30938
    
158

Chapter 13 of Christopher Hitchens book (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) is titled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?". I'd argue that for some people it does. Some people/groups have morality and religion intertwined. Of course there are examples where religion makes people behave worse as well. Very few things are universal.

Since I haven't read the book, I can't comment on whether he addresses "does religion make people behave worse." Which seems more relevant given the title of the book.


[Blog] [JavaRanch FAQ] [How To Ask Questions The Smart Way] [Book Promos]
Blogging on Certs: SCEA Part 1, Part 2 & 3, Core Spring 3, OCAJP, OCPJP beta, TOGAF part 1 and part 2
fred rosenberger
lowercase baba
Bartender

Joined: Oct 02, 2003
Posts: 11479
    
  16

Jeanne Boyarsky wrote:I'd argue that for some people [religion] does. Some people/groups have morality and religion intertwined.

But is that religion that makes them better, or the morality? Surely the two are separate. A person can have morals and no religion, and can have religion and no morals.
Jeanne Boyarsky
author & internet detective
Marshal

Joined: May 26, 2003
Posts: 30938
    
158

fred rosenberger wrote:But is that religion that makes them better, or the morality? Surely the two are separate. A person can have morals and no religion, and can have religion and no morals.

I'm saying that for some people, the two are so intertwined that is might not be possible to tell which of two is causing the morality. For example, we have people on the train saying "if you don't do X, you will go to hell." On the surface, I think the religion gets the credit for doing the right thing. But there are also religious people who do evil things in the name of god. So there needs to be an aspect where people want to be both moral and religious.
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
It's really common for the question of the source of morality to enter in to this discussion. Perhaps worth a separate thread...

A couple of obvious points though:

- All the major scripture is filled with immorality, so you have to do huge amounts of cherry-picking to get morality from scripture.
- How is it that some of us claim to know how to *correctly* interpret the same scripture that's available for all of us to read? Do some of us get a secret decoder ring?
chris webster
Bartender

Joined: Mar 01, 2009
Posts: 1849
    
  16

Bert Bates wrote:It's really common for the question of the source of morality to enter in to this discussion. Perhaps worth a separate thread...

Religion, scripture and moral codes are often intermingled but they are not the same thing. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans had religion, but no scriptures as such. And their gods were mostly like humans with superpowers - always bickering, fighting, scheming and generally causing mayhem for each other and for humans - rather than paragons of virtue or morality. Religious observance was about keeping the gods off your back and on your side, not about proving your "morality". But Romans and Greeks also had strong concepts of morality, which derived from philosophical traditions rather than "religion" - think of people like Plato or Marcus Aurelius. However, modern Western religion is based ultimately on Judaism, where philosophy and ideas of morality are far more closely intertwined with the religious tradition, which is probably why we tend to confuse these things. "Morality" becomes part of the tension in humanity's relationship with God and how to prove oneself worthy of God, as in the Calvinist Christian dilemma: am I damned or saved?

Incidentally, I'm an atheist but I still don't believe religion "poisons everything", quite the contrary: JS Bach was profoundly religious and it inspired him to create some of the most sublime music ever made. Religion is like any other human invention: as good or bad as the people who use it.

PS: I wasn't going to bother with the snake pit, but you've already drawn me in, curse you all!


No more Blub for me, thank you, Vicar.
Steve Luke
Bartender

Joined: Jan 28, 2003
Posts: 4181
    
  21

Bert Bates wrote:It's really common for the question of the source of morality to enter in to this discussion. Perhaps worth a separate thread...

I think it belongs here, as it tends to be central to the discussion of "does religion poison everything." It can be argued (convincingly in my opinion) that you do not need Religion to be moral or define morality. I believe that they are two different things. But I would also argue that religions' primary purpose is to deliver and enforce moral doctrine - its reason for being, if you will, is to define morality. That doesn't mean you can't be moral without religion but it means you can't really be a religion without defining a morality. The religious stories are mostly stories meant to deliver moral messages.

So, even if we dismiss the absurdity of the statement "religion poisons everything" (I mean really, does it poison beer making? Some of the best beers where / are recipes developed by monks :P) morality is a topic very central to religion. So the question is: does religion poison morality? Is the morality of a religious person (mind you not a particular religion, and not a particular time period, but all religions and all time periods) worse than the morality of a non-religious person? Is the morality of a society influenced by religion worse than the morality of a society not so-influenced?

Bert Bates wrote:A couple of obvious points though:

- All the major scripture is filled with immorality, so you have to do huge amounts of cherry-picking to get morality from scripture.
- How is it that some of us claim to know how to *correctly* interpret the same scripture that's available for all of us to read? Do some of us get a secret decoder ring?

Those are awfully narrow points, pretty specific to a few religions and thus not really applicable to religion in general. Very few religions say the general populace can't read and interpret scripture (if their religion even has holy text). For those religions that do have a scripture-caste, they are normally akin to scholars in a particular field: they have studied referenced and cross-referenced. They have read and re-read, spending years on the subject and often delving deeper into a specific aspect of the text to get better understanding. Do they have secret decoder rings? No, they have more experience and access to resources and more time doing research. Their 'interpretation' can be trusted more than a casual reader's because the casual reader doesn't spend the time to get as deep in the subject. It is why we trust a quantum physicist's interpretation of a paper on phase space formulation then the interpretation of the math teacher at a local high school.
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
Chris,

I agree with most of what you said, to take it further, theologists will often argue that without God there can be no morality. In my experience that argument, when pursued, usually leads to hair-splitting, corner-case based, hyper-philosophical questions of semantics in which the original questions are lost in the noise.

I'd summarize it by saying that non-religious folks argue that morality is innate and the religious call it God-given.

As far as Bach is concerned (and other religiously funded awesome stuff), the question has to be asked, "What would artist X have created if funded by a secular philanthropist?". Typically, we'll never know.

Steve,

Since my initial summary has *become* the discussion I softened it slightly to read:

"Does religion poison everything it touches?"

I'd say that ALL the *major* religions of today have scripture that MUST be cherry-picked in order to arrive at what we'd all agree to be moral. For example, the Old Testament, the New testament, and the Quran ALL approve of slavery. So the religious have to sidestep those passages. Can you think of any religion today that doesn't have such issues with its scripture?

On scholars: I'd say that unless the scholars you refer to are secular, their research always starts from an extreme bias. Their job is to make their scripture "square" with reality and they jump through hoops to do so. I'd be interested in a link to a scholarly work that isn't obviously biased, and doesn't use fallacy-ridden arguments or self-referencial arguments to make its case. In other words, when you cut through most religious scholarship, a fundamental premise is that the scripture being studied is the word of God because it says it is.

On physicists and scientists in general: Scientists live in a world of peer review and skepticism and evidence. Theories get overturned every day. For example, particle physicists can't really explain quantum mechanics and they acknowledge this. But they can make astoundingly accurate, evidence-based predictions based on the *theory* of quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, the religious make extraordinary, supernatural claims based on no evidence at all.

Does religion poison morality? You bet, and not only in the distant past, but today as well.

-In sub-Saharan Africa the church's stance is that AIDs is bad, but condoms are worse.

- Closer to home, stem cell research, corruption of the study of science, corporal punishment, women's rights, and hopes for end-times are just a few of the ways in which religion is corrupting morality.
Paul Clapham
Bartender

Joined: Oct 14, 2005
Posts: 18907
    
    8

chris webster wrote:Incidentally, I'm an atheist but I still don't believe religion "poisons everything", quite the contrary: JS Bach was profoundly religious and it inspired him to create some of the most sublime music ever made.


But that's cherry-picking. There are many other people who wrote lots of very good music -- Giuseppe Verdi for example -- who weren't at all religious. Picking one example where religion didn't poison something doesn't prove that religion never poisons something.

However I have to say that I don't think religion poisons music either. At least I can't think of an example where it does.
Steve Luke
Bartender

Joined: Jan 28, 2003
Posts: 4181
    
  21

Paul Clapham wrote:
chris webster wrote:Incidentally, I'm an atheist but I still don't believe religion "poisons everything", quite the contrary: JS Bach was profoundly religious and it inspired him to create some of the most sublime music ever made.


But that's cherry-picking.

The contention was that religion poisons everything. Finding one example of something that isn't poisoned is enough to disprove the theorum.

There are many other people who wrote lots of very good music -- Giuseppe Verdi for example -- who weren't at all religious.

Noone made any statement non religious people or secularism. So I don't see how this is germane.

Picking one example where religion didn't poison something doesn't prove that religion never poisons something.

The statement wasn't that religion poisons some things. It was that it poisons everything. Showing something it doesn't poison does disprove that.
Ernest Friedman-Hill
author and iconoclast
Marshal

Joined: Jul 08, 2003
Posts: 24187
    
  34

Bert Bates wrote:On the other hand, the religious make extraordinary, supernatural claims based on no evidence at all.


No. Religious folks with supernatural beliefs do this. So do non-religious folks with supernatural beliefs. There are religious people without supernatural beliefs. I am one. Ask me about it sometime.

I don't think religion poisons everything any more than sports poison everything, or music poisons everything, or politics poisons everything; or gender relations, or race relations, or the stock market. I think all human institutions are flawed, because humans are flawed. I think you could make an excellent case for each of the preceding things being the root of all evil in modern society. For example, look at the false hopes and moral bankruptcy that professional sports gives to our young people. Look at the idleness and gluttony that sports on TV means for millions of Americans. Student sports injuries, misplaced priorities at Universities, looting after Super Bowl wins, global soccer riots... yes, the world would be a better place without sports.

I read Hitchens about a year ago. I found that he starts out amusing, but ends up thin and sad. Despite the large body of evidence he could have cited to make his case, he still feels the need to distort and exaggerate. He points out many problems with organized religion, but I think he fails to prosecute a compelling case that it should be discarded, because he doesn't look at both sides of the issue.

[Jess in Action][AskingGoodQuestions]
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
We might have a semantics problem here... Yes, I would like to understand religion without the supernatural! (That starts to sound like common sense morals!)
Ernest Friedman-Hill
author and iconoclast
Marshal

Joined: Jul 08, 2003
Posts: 24187
    
  34

A Rabbi told me once that if "atheism" means "not believing in a supernatural being sitting on a throne someplace" then he is an atheist, too -- and in that sense, so am I.

I subscribe to a conception of God articulated by the founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan; a weak paraphrase would be that God is those properties of the universe which make human life possible. This definition is amazingly powerful and works in virtually every positive and worthwhile assertion about the nature of God ever uttered:

* Did this God create Man? Yes, of course, it's almost a tautology.
* Is this God worthy of praise? Yes, of course. Being happy to be alive is isomorphic with praising this God.
* Does God "want" us to make moral choices? Yes, of course. By benefitting mankind, God increases.
* Does God "want" us to be good shepherds over the Earth? Duh.
* Does God "want" us to care for the weak, poor, or infirm? Yes. If we make their lives possible, we are quite literally doing God's work.
* Does God "want" us to gather in His name? Sure; by coming together, we can do more good works.

Note how it *doesn't* work in false assertions about God?

* Does God "want" us to have wars? No.
* Does God "want" anyone to be killed or subjugated in his name? No.
* Does God "want" us to give all our money to Televangelists? No.
* Does God "want" priests to be celibate? Uh... no.
* Does God favor any of us over others? No.

Now, you can take this definition and apply it to a religion and see if it works out. It certainly does for some organized religions. And if belonging to one that stays true to these ideals, and following their rituals and customs helps you stay in tune with this definition, and helps you remember a calling to serve a higher moral purpose, then where's the harm?


Paul Clapham
Bartender

Joined: Oct 14, 2005
Posts: 18907
    
    8

Steve Luke wrote:
Paul Clapham wrote:
chris webster wrote:Incidentally, I'm an atheist but I still don't believe religion "poisons everything", quite the contrary: JS Bach was profoundly religious and it inspired him to create some of the most sublime music ever made.


But that's cherry-picking.

The contention was that religion poisons everything. Finding one example of something that isn't poisoned is enough to disprove the theorum.


No, that's not right. Or more precisely, your claimed disproof isn't right.

For example to prove or disprove the statement "Measles is a dangerous disease" it isn't sufficient for me to point out that I had measles and I survived. It's necessary to look at the effects of measles overall. Likewise you can't just say "But, Bach" because that doesn't look at the effects of religion overall.

Now, having said that, my original refutation of your claimed disproof wasn't right either. Looking at instances of non-religious composers says nothing about the effects of religion overall.

And I still think you're right that music isn't "poisoned" in the sense in which Dawkins uses the word here. So technically, the proposition is disproved and that's the end of it?
Bear Bibeault
Author and ninkuma
Marshal

Joined: Jan 10, 2002
Posts: 61654
    
  67

Ernest Friedman-Hill wrote:I subscribe to a conception of God articulated by the founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan; a weak paraphrase would be that God is those properties of the universe which make human life possible.

That is a fascinating viewpoint that I'd never heard before, and that resonates strongly with my own feelings and beliefs.


[Asking smart questions] [Bear's FrontMan] [About Bear] [Books by Bear]
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
That's fantastic Ernest!

But I think we have some semantic differences to work out.

Most definitions of religion that I've seen include the idea of the supernatural. And most religions that I'm aware of have some set of scripture as a part of their foundation.

What you described I think could be labeled "common-sense morality" (although I'm still searching for the most widely used term). You didn't mention any scripture or really anything supernatural. In fact - though I'm no expert in philosophy - what you said seems to be very consistent with philosophical "naturalism".

To be clear, I think that religion as I know it to be defined (I always reserve the right to be wrong), often strays from the "common-sense morality" mentioned earlier, to the detriment of all. So I don't in any way mean to marginalize or trivialize "common-sense morality" - mankind hasn't yet achieved it and we'll be far better off when we do. I might even go so far as to say that that's my main goal with discussions like this - to further the spread of common-sense morality and to marginalize any forces (e.g. almost all "religion"), that work against that goal.
Ernest Friedman-Hill
author and iconoclast
Marshal

Joined: Jul 08, 2003
Posts: 24187
    
  34

I don't want to constrain my case by arguing only from one (or a small number of) specific examples of real religious practice, so I'm trying to keep this as general as possible, but I think it's possible to have scripture and not fall into this trap, as long as the attitude toward the scripture is correct -- the correct attitude being the explicit recognition that multiple (infinite) valid readings are possible. Dogma is always bad, but there's nothing wrong with treasuring an artifact as part of our natural or cultural heritage, and trying to extract meaning from it.

I have some nice neutral examples. First: Shakespeare. Everybody knows (some of) it; everybody quotes it. These quotes, knowingly or unknowingly, are used as self-evident justifications and explanations for all sorts of behaviors and events. This is perfectly healthy. What would be unhealthy would be ascribing hidden meanings, or asserting that Shakespeare intended for us to do X, so we are commanded to do so unquestioningly.

Second: the fossil record. It tells us about our own natural history, and we constantly interpret and reinterpret it. Multiple competing meanings consistent with the data can all exist simultaneously, and that is fine. Some questions about it will never be answered, and that's fine too. We keep trying. Some of the things we learn are relevant to our lives now, and some aren't. Just because Cro-Magnons may have hunted and eaten Neanderthals (a recent, controversial assertion) can't be used to justify hunting and eating some other group now, but this doesn't mean the "scripture" is invalid.

As I said, I don't want to go down the road of arguing the relative merits of existing religions, so I will not, but the attitude toward scripture I describe here is a living and valid one in existing modern religious practice, so I would argue it's possible to get it right, and religion does NOT poison everything it touches.

This does NOT mean that many terrible things haven't happened, or continue to happen, in the name of religion -- just that this is not an essential property of religion per se, but unfortunately, of humanity.
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
Ernest,

It still seems like we're just arguing over semantics. I'd say that in the context of discussing religion, Shakespeare and fossil records - wonderful as they both are - simply don't qualify as scripture.

So perhaps I needed to couch the thread more specifically like:

"Do the common religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddism, Hinduism...) - the ones that 98% of religious people in the world follow - poison everything they touch?"

But honestly it seems like the burden is more on you Ernest, when you choose to redefine commonly used words.

So to be clearer, when I say scripture, I'm referring to the commonly held examples like the Old and New Testaments, the Quran, the hadith, the Torah, and so on. I mention these because they form the backbone of what MOST people are referring to when they discuss religion and scripture.

Ernest Friedman-Hill
author and iconoclast
Marshal

Joined: Jul 08, 2003
Posts: 24187
    
  34

Well, as I said, I didn't want to have the "religion X is better than religion Y" debate, but the general attitude I described -- the one about allowing for multiple, individual interpretation -- is the classical Jewish attitude toward the Torah, and the specific implementation I implied -- where the Torah is a human artifact, yet still a cultural heritage to be celebrated, is well within the mainstream of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaic thought -- i.e., the faith of a significant fraction (possibly the majority, I'd have to look it up) of American Jews.

I think you're committing the same rhetorical sin that Hitchens does; he sets out to prove that "Religion is bad" and then admits only a definition of religion that is, by inspection, bad. Who can rationally argue that superstition and dogma are good things? The way to disprove his thesis is not to argue that point, but rather to invalidate the argument by exposing the fact that his definitions are bogus.
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8883
    
    5
(fast replies indicate that I'm looking for excuses to NOT do what I'm supposed to be doing )

Ernest,

I can't really speak for Hitchens, but I'm looking at the vast majority of religion and its practitioners. A quick Google told me that there are perhaps 15 million Jews worldwide, and you are discussing a small percentage of all Jews. So perhaps 1/30 of 1% of all religious people in the world follow your path?

So yes, I like the sound of what you've described, and you can say that you've disproved the original premise. Congrats

But - call me sloppy - I'm interested in the predominant cases. I'm sure you can find other "good" religion - Jains perhaps?

As far as arguing that superstition and dogma are good - that's what 99% of religious belief implies! It's that 99% I'm worried about. It's that 99% that messes with contraception, that blocks stem cell research, that abuses women, that glorifies poverty, that wants to teach pseudo-science, that legalizes corporal punishment...

Now you might say that not all of the 99% are extreme like that - true. Let's say most of that 99% - the majority, we could call "religious moderates" - fair term? Harris makes a strong argument that the religious moderates, by their inaction, give cover and credibility to the extremists. We live in a world in which there are blasphemy laws, in which we're told not to offend religions. A world in which cartoons of Muhammad cause world-wide rioting. We live in a world where being "a person of faith" is viewed as a virtue. When it should mean "that guy'll believe just about anything". Startling numbers of people in the U.S. are creationists and/or intelligent design-ists. Huge percentages (40%, 50%?) believe that Jesus will return in the next 50 years.

These beliefs are not benign.
Amit Ghorpade
Bartender

Joined: Jun 06, 2007
Posts: 2716
    
    6

I would also bet that religion is the reflection of morality. So if X religion asks/requires its followers to behave well and benefit mankind (all life on the planet) as a whole, then I would not call it poison.
Now the good or bad is decided by individual followers and their moral values.
Also I do not relate God to religion. In my view religion is the way I am supposed to behave by birth or maybe by choice later on and God is a belief.
People behave in the way required by their religion with the belief that their God will recognize their work and treat them appropriately in current or after life.
I would really like to see the day when everyone believes in one religion, that is humanity. So even if religion had poison, it is up to the individual to be poisoned or not.

SCJP, SCWCD.
|Asking Good Questions|
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://aspose.com/file-tools
 
subject: What do you think about Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and company - the "new atheists"?