Saturday, March 01, 2008

"The Problem Isn't God"

In the last post, I quoted Vox Day from The Irrational Atheist [a downloadable E-book] about Messrs. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

While both men are too cautious to ever come right out and state that they believe religion is the direct and primary cause of war, most likely due to the fact that it is so easy to disprove such a belief, they nevertheless attempt to insinuate that this is the case by repeatedly associating religious faith with group violence and military conflict . . . This is done by claiming that while religion is not the explicit cause of most wars, it is still responsible for the fact that those wars are taking place because religious faith is the reason there are two different sides in the first place . . . by constructing a pair of shaky parallel arguments based on the idea that religion causes division.
Certainly, that last post largely destroyed any argument from observation and/or evidence that religion is a major direct cause of war. What about an argument that rests on reason or intuition? This is called an ontological argument:
Its most famous application is an argument for the existence of God, first used by St. Anselm of Canterbury, and it states that because we can conceive of God, something of which nothing greater can be imagined, God must exist. René Descartes also made use of a variant of this argument, but it has never been an important part of Christian theology due to its rejection by Thomas Aquinas. Its fame is more due to its later resurrection and rejections by David Hume and Bertrand Russell.

Richard Dawkins describes the ontological argument for the existence of God to be an infantile one. He pronounces himself offended at the very idea that “such logomachist trickery” could be used to produce such grand conclusions. And he’s correct to reject it, in my opinion, as ontological arguments boil down to the idea that if something can be conceived, it therefore must exist. No supporting evidence is necessary, mere reason and intuition suffice to prove the matter. Daniel Dennett scorns it as well, describing it as the logical equivalent of a carnival fun-house illusion. -- Vox Day
Day characterizes the argument described in the first quote above as exactly an ontological argument, and cites both Dawkins and Harris as employing such arguments despite their disdain for there use in proving God exists. What are the "shaky parallel arguments" they both employ to cover this? Vox Day:
  1. Religion causes division between people. [Day points out this is an ontological argument in itself]
    “Religion is undoubtedly a divisive force.” -- Dawkins

    “The religious divisions in our world are self-evident" -- Harris
  2. Religion provides the dominant label by which people are divided into groups.
    “Without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge.” -- Dawkins

    “The only difference between these groups is what they believe about God.” -- Harris
  3. Wars are fought between divided groups of people with different labels.
    “Look carefully at any region of the world where you find intractable enmity and violence between rival groups. I cannot guarantee that you’ll find religions as the dominant labels for in-groups and out-groups. But it’s a very good bet.” -- Dawkins

    “Religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past.” -- Harris
  4. Therefore, religion is the implicit cause of war.
    “The problem’s name is God.” -- Dawkins

    “Faith . . . the most prolific source of violence in our history.” -- Harris
Superficial thinkers who know very little history find this argument compelling because the statements flow nicely from one into the other, and because there is a certain amount of truth in each of the assertions that lead up to the final conclusion. It cannot be denied that religion HAS been known to divide friends and families as well as entire nations. Religion HAS provided a marker by which opposing groups identify each other. War IS fought between divided groups of people bearing different labels; it takes two to tangle. The problem is that merely stringing together three statements that are factually true in some circumstances does not always lead to a logical conclusion.

Consider the same argument, only this time substituting three similarly valid assertions.

1. Pelicans eat sardines.
2. Pelicans improve the sardine species through aiding natural selection.
3. Natural selection is the mechanism through which evolution occurs.
4. Therefore, pelicans are the implicit cause of evolution.
Day goes on to examine the division of Europe into kingdoms - replete with subsequent wars - branching from Charlemagne's son's attempt to divide the Frankish empire into 4 pieces for his sons; and then one of those sons dividing his section into 3 more parts for his sons. From the death of Charlemagne in 814 through 860 - 5 different wars had been fought; and
More wars were fought over the centuries, the Eastern and Western Franks grew more and more apart, until finally it reached the point where they spoke separate languages, possessed separate identities, and, in the end, adopted different forms of Christianity. But the division of the Franks into Germans and Frenchmen predates the division of Christendom into Catholics and Protestants by more than 675 years.
As Day points out using this example, the vast majority of divisions between groups of people are not religious; and religion is not the dominant label by which most distinct groups are indentified.
Day: "The Problem isn't God"

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly