David Thompson


Blog powered by Typepad

« Friday Ephemera | Main | Deep Throat »

October 19, 2008


Matt M

"But if she were, her belief would be no more at odds with science than is Obama’s stated belief that Christ is Lord"

It'd be a difference of degree, surely? Slightly irrational vs. quite irrational.

But, other than that: Amen.



But how exactly would you measure the degree? I mean, where’s the obvious distinction in the comparison above?


So Obama's religion is more rational than Palin's religion? How?

If we’re going to compare, we’ll need direct quotes from Obama and Palin themselves, not third party speculation.


It seems to me the more obvious distinction isn’t metaphysical at all – i.e. I don’t think it’s a matter of weighing miracles and deciding which is more impossible. Can an impossible thing be *more* impossible than another impossible thing? Is that how impossibility works – in degrees? Or is it a matter of counting the number of impossible things a given candidate believes? This miracles business is trickier than I thought.

But there is, I think, a distinction in terms of assumed insincerity. Now, one might prefer to assume insincerity (in this matter at least) to assuming credulousness or irrationality. But I think it would be better, if not good, to acknowledge that’s what’s being assumed, if it is.


speech Obama gave that was a true step forward for Atheists in America (I am a strong atheist), is Obama religious? probably, but he does see that there is more than one side --

here's a video of the whole speech - http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid353515028?bctid=416343938

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the torchbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.


> Christ is said to have resurrected a corpse, made the blind see, walked on water, and turned water into wine.

If Christ were a republican.
Christ is reported to have made the pensions system more insolvent, put doctors out of jobs, failed to swim, and turned encouraged alcoholism.


"The man who would lie about that would lie about anything."

That doesn't follow. A gay politician might lie about his gayness if he needs the votes of a homophobic majority. An atheist might lie bout his lack of belief if he needs the votes of a Christian or Muslim majority. It doesn't prove that he'd lie about absolutely anything (eg Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction).

Tony Blair converted to Catholicism immediately after leaving office. Do you seriously believe Catholicism only suddenly attracted him AFTER he left office? Isn't it obvious he had already mentally reconciled himself to Catholicism while Prime Minister, but chose to conceal it from the voters, and only avail himself of it when he no longer needed their votes.

It's perfectly possible that Edward Heath was actually gay, but he concealed this fact from voters because of homophobia. Even if this was true, it doesn't prove that he would have sold UK defence secrets to the USSR to protect the secret of his gayness.

It's perfectly possible that Benjamin Disraeli believed in the truth of the Jewish religion and was only pretending to be an Anglican. It doesn't follow that he'd lie to the British public about absolutely anything.


There is another side of the coin, the Biden/Pelosi side, which the same writer discussed (very well, I might add) on Oct 9, particularly with regard to Pelosi. Both claim to be devout Catholics, or at least sincere believers in the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Biden claimed to pray the Rosary regularly if not daily. Pelosi claims only to be a devout Catholic who has studied doctrine, at least as it applies to abortion. Her bishop appears to have a different opinion, yet no one except devout Catholics seem to be concerned about the degree her 'Catholic-ness", as it were.

A Catholic is not required to be a Young Earther, but they are required to believe that the Pope proclaims God's truth on Earth when he speaks ex cathedra. Such is the office of Pope. Belief in this authority is part and parcel of the definition of Catholic, as it were. Any similar claims made by a non-Catholic would probably one be heard in a compound full of very weird adherents. It seems unlikely that any of those adherents would be serving in the House or Senate.

Consider that Pelosi is at odds with the Church on abortion, and that Biden has effectively been excommunicated in Pennsylvania for his stance abortion. What does this say about the degree of their "Catholic-ness"? A convenient position that protects them from scrutiny by other Christians? An example of "other-Catholic-ness"?

Ah, the vagaries of politically acceptable religious belief. Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic politician, was attacked politically for the crime of actually believing what the Church teaches. For Pelosi and Biden, the Left not only accepts the hipocrisy of their political leader, they seem to insist on it. The more, the better



“That doesn’t follow.”

Yes, I agree, that’s the weakest part of the argument. It doesn’t follow, so far as I can see. But CR’s broader argument does highlight an assumption and double standard which seems fairly common and is worth noting for what it is. I was also intrigued by the prospect of weighing miracles to see which is more impossible, and thus more irrational. It’s the kind of thing that entertains me.

Incidentally, re those weapons, this may be relevant. I don’t want to start a discussion about it; I just thought it might be of interest:



Georges is (are?) right. Many people find it expedient or even necessary to conceal their consciences. I doubt many folks would have the required courage to be an open infidel living permanently in an Arab Muslim country. The Shi'a developed taqqiya - deliberate deception about one's true faith - because of Sunni oppression. It has other uses, of course.

I’ve never directly lied to anyone by openly claiming to be a particular faith, but I’ve certainly allowed people to draw erroneous conclusions. It’s just not worth it to alienate every religious person I meet by insisting their particular creed is silly or irrational or whatever. Is this dishonesty? I think it’s simple courtesy. There’s always a chance they’re right, and neither of us are finding out until we’re dead. Why provoke an argument?

Concrete social policies are a different matter. Believe whatever you like about the afterlife. Follow your conscience wherever it leads you. I don't care. If your beliefs require interference in my life... Maybe you should get a hobby. Have you tried target shooting? I find it relaxing. Capisce?

This is the origin & foundation of polite society, in my opinion. A Constitutional Republic requires free citizens, not sheep. I am so lucky, so blessed by God if you prefer, that I was born in just such a Republic. I am not happy that the vision of my forefathers has been clouded by poisonous Euro-isms, but I cherish what remains.


I'm not completely convinced of the counter-argument that someone who will lie about religious faith will not necessarily lie about anything. For example, if I will lie to my wife about an affair, why wouldn't I lie to her about how the car got scratched or my financial situation or whether I've been sticking to my diet or not? In for a penny, in for a pound.

I suppose it would matter how highly the person under scrutiny for the possible lie prioritizes religious faith relative to the audience of the lie. If Obama, as is probably likely, considers religious faith "the opiate of the people", he probably doesn't see lying about it as a big deal, whereas lying about something really, really, really important like gay rights would be anathema (religious terminology definitely deliberate here) to him and his ilk. But, I do think that someone who would lie about religious faith would also lie, in a political context, about supporting policy positions that, on some level, flow out of religious faith for part of the electorate, e.g., if someone believes that the state should not support position X because of a religious tradition against position X (or its underlying moral implications), I believe that someone who would lie about religious faith would also lie about not supporting position X. It ends up six of one, half dozen of the other.

Then again, the audience can draw inferences about how the person would govern if that person thinks so little of religious faith that he would lie about it. Some will be OK with it (this is my own personal position in most instances where the individual's actions are in conformity to what I would like them to be, although not as it pertains to the "wealth-spreading" moron Obama), but some would find it a deal-breaker ("What, that SOB is lying about believing in Christ? I'll never vote for him, then").


Hi venividivici.

Here's a quotation from Brian Eno which I think is very pertinent to this discussion:

"One of the cornerstones of the democratic process is that discussion should be rational and that the bases upon which decisions are reached should be accessible to everyone. Religious beliefs do not fall into that category."


Re the Eno quote, I’d agree that democracy is at its best when informed by rational debate and the testing of ideas. That’s almost a theme here. I, for one, like to know *why* people think in the ways they do. (I scarcely need to point out that “because God says so” isn’t a meaningful answer, and the alternative form - “because I *think* God says so” – isn’t terribly impressive either.) If someone - religious or not - wants to tell me why, say, abortion cannot simply be a matter of personal choice, I’m all ears. If, however, the argument is limited to talk of “souls” and “God’s will” then it’s unlikely to get us very far. A coherent explanation is generally required, whatever the initial motive. But there are limits to this argument, or at least there are things to bear in mind.

A great many decisions and preferences - not least political ones – have little to do with disinterested logic or an apprehension of reality. Very often a rationale is grafted piecemeal onto a preexisting disposition. If pressed, this rationale may be discarded and traded for a different one which suits the same purpose; but that swap doesn’t necessarily indicate disinterested thinking or logical acuity, and the two arguments may even be contradictory, though emotionally consonant. At its worst, it’s front-end camouflage and somewhat misleading, since the arguments being presented will change, often erratically, with little or no underlying continuity.


Trying to figure out which religious belief is less impossible is like trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The last two comments here are getting the nub of the argument - in many human situations, people do not make decisions based solely on logic, but instead on intangible feelings, which often have NO rational basis. It is the way humans work. Those of us who do not accept that these feelings come from a diety, need to figure out a counter-argument without invoking a diety that sounds just as attractive. Unfortunately, people who really want to be rational do not tend to dissemble - instead they often point out the weaknesses in their rational arguments, and the non-rational use these weaknesses to their benefits. See, e.g, engineers.

And, in fact, I would argue that it is not really a good idea for an entire society to live a rigorously logical existence. I happen to actually LIKE some of the more emotional aspects of non-rational living. We just have to keep plugging and hope that any one group of crazies (of whatever belief) doesn't take over entirely.


"Can an impossible thing be more impossible than another impossible thing?"

Personally I think the nub of the religion problem is received truth. If you accept received truth then ipso facto you cannot be behaving rationally. You have to be prepared to accept that sacred texts might be wrong in part. It might be possible to independently come to the same conclusions and then find a religion that coincides and then claim rationality but then I don't think that's what anyone thinks of a religion or what any religious believer does.

That said let me play Devil's advocate.

Most religions are faced with the dilemma of what to do when some of the sacred texts start to clash with reality. Now you might kill the heretics or try to rationalise some bits: Lazarus wasn't really dead, once Jesus started sharing the 5 loaves others in the 40,000 copied, Eve's story was allegorical and not meant to be taken literally and so on. No one takes Revelations seriously any more except a handful of fundamentalists and Horror writers. That process I would suggest has gone on since the dawn of Christianity to greater or lesser extent.

So the first point of query is can you seriously have a calculus of impossible belief without taking some account of how the individual thinks about that particular miracle. It seems to me that left wing commentators project their own views onto both Palin and Obama. In the former case she is a literal believer, in the latter he is allegorical or perhaps merely ticking the box.

The second point query is that rationalist philosophers had the concept of natural law without needing to have a god to underlie it, (although of course having a god made it work too). Natural Law is there even when we don't know it. Rational enquiry is supposed to reveal it to us but that doesn't mean we won't take blind alleys or mistakes. Part of Natural Law is the recognition that human nature may make us blind to things that a truly dispassionate person might see. Thus only two years ago the best minds thought that biofuels were a "good thing" and the skeptics were apparently venal or foolish. Now we know that biofuels are a bad idea. That idea was tested to destruction in quite a short time, other rational ideas may take decades.

Socialists believe they can build a planned economy which will provide us with a better world. The idea that clever people can use rational means to determine which plan is best and to act upon it is superficially appealing yet the reality doesn't measure up. Hayek tells us that it won't work and the reasons why. There are two many variables, the bureaucracy tends to distort the objective and so on. Whilst we may be individually more or less rational, the sum of us all is less rational than the parts. In effect he is telling us that we have a god that failed.

Yet the appeal of a centrally planned benevolent state remains as strong as ever. More so amongst Obama's supporters i suggest.


"At its worst, it's front-end camouflage and somewhat misleading, since the arguments being presented will change, often erratically, with little or no underlying continuity."

So your saying it's bad to have more than one argument?


Reasons for pretending to believe in God.

Some actually do, but far less than you might imagine. Dan Dennett explains several strategic reasons for educated agnostics and atheists to pretend to believe in God, which I summarise here. Dennett reckons that many Presidents have actually been atheists. The reasons are actually very powerful.

1. Fear
* of "catastrophic collapse of consensus", viz. the failed state.
* that secularism is not a strong enough glue to hold society together.
* of loss of confidence in societal conventions and institutions.
2. Love. Wanting to:
* avoid disappointing or hurting our loved ones, some of whom may consider apostasy to be a betrayal.
* continue to respect nice people who believe in absurdities.
3. Guilt - of letting the side down. It also involves punishing those who refuse to punish. This generates a mutual thought police, perpetuating the cycle of guilt.
4. Trapped. This is a form of groupthink. You have put so much investment into your faith that you dare not admit your error. This is how all confidence tricks work. Britain and France started building Concorde, and were trapped in the contract they had signed, despite strong evidence that it was going to be a failure. Other examples are the ground nut scheme of the post-war Labour government, or the crass genetic theories of Trofim Lysenko.
5. Embarrassment. Not wanting to appear to have made a silly mistake, particularly if you have been an ardent proselytiser. This is the "Emperor has no clothes" scenario.

As I believe that few "religious" people, really believe in God, if you take these away, and I suspect that 90% of the support for the major faiths would collapse. Religion is a massive confidence trick. I strongly recommend Dennett's talks.



“So [you’re] saying it’s bad to have more than one argument?”

No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying there are some people who will, if pressed, discard one superficially logical argument and swap it for another, while carefully disregarding any contradictions between the two. In effect, the logic is used in bad faith and becomes a defensive tactic rather than a means of approaching truth. For some, the objective isn’t to arrive at clarity or a rational resolution – and certainly not to concede an error, even if that would be the logical conclusion. Instead, the idea is to protect an emotional or ideological preference by repeatedly moving the goal posts while ignoring errors and contradiction, in the hope that one’s opponent will get exhausted or bored and simply give up.


Often the appeal to religious authority is just a way of saying "don't argue - it's off limits". I think we should argue, and be prepared to acknowledge that our assumptions might be wrong.

I once watched a TV show in which a Green activist discussed climate change with various people, including James Lovelock. Lovelock persuaded him to change his mind, and support nuclear power as the best way to quickly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. When he went back to argue with his erstwhile Green friends, he said that discussing nuclear power with them was like discussing condoms with the Pope. He meant that their opposition to it was not rational, and that no amount of evidence or reasoned argument would have any effect.



“He meant that their opposition to it was not rational, and that no amount of evidence or reasoned argument would have any effect.”

I suspect that the more a political outlook is defined in oppositional terms, the more likely such behaviour is. Particularly if the outlook in question is regarded by those who hold it as confirming an oppositional ‘lifestyle’. Criticism of an idea can then be construed as an attack on one’s identity and personal “authenticity”. Far too much is invested emotionally to tolerate criticism in a realistic way.

I’ve had exchanges with diehard Greens that were eerily similar to exchanges with evangelical ministers.

Steve in San Diego

Obama worships Obama. He is the messiah he has been looking for.

Religious beliefs are not going to lead a President to a mad decision at odds with the general secular tendencies of whatever movement that they rode into office. As a practical matter, a President can't just do whatever he/she wants.

Evangelicals get courted, and then pretty much get stiffed after the election. They never learn -- perhaps four years is a long time. Also, believe it or not, not all evangelicals think that religiously-driven, (worldly) political activism is a good thing.

Steve in San Diego


Someone had to post it. It might as well be me.

Dave M

To say that walking on water or turning water into wine is "impossible" is simply overstating the case. In theory, if you were to suddenly teleport three feet to the left, that would just be a HUGE coincidence (most of your component particles happening to randomly do that at the same time). Miracles are pretty much just contrary to the way things usually work, not absolute physical impossibilities. A 6,000 year old Earth, on the other hand, is contrary to both a reasonable reading of Scripture (the Author of which never said, "The reason I'm including these geneologies is so that you can just add up the lifespans of the Patriarchs and thus somehow date geological phenomena that pre-date the creation of Man), and pretty much EVERY observable aspect of physical reality (the visible stars would have to be way, way closer than they seem to be, radioactive decay would have to work completely differently than every theory we've got, etc). The po-mo form of Young Earth Creationism is just an artifact of the politics of public education, IMO. About a dozen people claim to believe in it, and they are lying. I know Palin isn't one of them, because she dosen't drool.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Amazon Link