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Response to Dalla's latest rant

The following was inspired by a wonderful, angry and, alas, somewhat misplaced rant by my friend and intellectual sparring partner, Nolan Dalla. It can be found here, and should be read before continuing.

Believing in a unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable mystical entity is, on the face of it, absurd. The notion that there is some transcendent character, one we call God (though there are scores of names for him/her found around the globe), who has been here forever, who is omniscient and all-powerful, who created us and/or our planet and oversees current events is just weird. So here, count me on the side of Lord Dalla.

The notion, entertained by Nick in his interesting comment, that because science hasn’t figured out what was before the big bang or that we do not yet understand the biochemical mechanisms that allowed self-replicating organic forms to emerge surely shouldn’t lead us to conclude that these things must be due to God. Appealing to an unknowable entity to answer scientific questions is, well, a cop-out. And the watch on the beach gambit has long been put to rest.

First, science isn’t the game of the known. It is the game of the unknown. It is the not knowing of things that makes the process go. As someone who spent a half-century as a cognitive scientist studying the human mind I can tell you that the mystery is where the magic is, where the joy of discovery lurks. If we knew all the answers we’d be done. It’d be finished. We’d all just go to the seashore and drink beer. All good scientific discoveries open more unknowns than they answer.

Second, I’d like to ask believers to ask some questions, ones I think all religious people should ask themselves. If you have and are still a believer, that’s fine. But do ask.

Here’s one: what was here before God? If you answer by saying God was always here then I want to know why you find it difficult to think that matter, space and time were always here. Or that our universe is but one among many or that it is a single interation in an infinite cycle of big bang followed by big bang.

Here’s another: where did God come from? He had to come from somewhere, right? Just like the universe had to come from somewhere. If you answer that we don’t know the answer and therefore choose to merely have faith, that’s fine. Just ask.  

Let’s try one more: Why would our God care about us? Why would he give a rat’s ass about a cinder-speck of a planet whirling around a perfectly boring star in just one of billions (yes, that’s right billions) of galaxies each of which contains billions of stars? I mean, talk about hubris! If your answer is that he’s taking care of all the others too, that’s fine. Just think about it.

And just one more here: Why would he/she have waited four billion years to craft the first hominids and then another 150 thousand or so to allow Homo sapiens to emerge and then another couple of tens of thousands before he ‘gave us his first born son?” If you think that he’s working on some grand plan here, that’s fine. But ask.

Now, back to Nolan. Look man, what you’re missing is what I tried to get across in my earlier riposte. Religion is easy, atheism is hard. Belief in the transcendental is a walk in the park, doing science is hard. Accepting the existence of mystical creatures with over-arching powers is a piece of cake; carving out an understanding of life without the support of such a belief system is hard.

And, to give Nick his due, he’s got more than a few good points to make. None of them have any theological or ontological merit but they have a good bit of psychological and sociological merit. As noted in my previous rant on evolution (scroll down for it), we know that there are deep reasons why religion and religious belief systems are universal, found in all human societies. Some of them go back to basic mechanisms like agency detection and kinship systems but others derive from the importance of these commonly held beliefs to the communities of persons who hold them.

Yes, people pray and it does no good. Interestingly, back in the late 1800s Sir Francis Galton did the first empirical study of the efficacy of prayer. It had none. But it is satisfying. It is satisfying like a chant is to a group of mystics or the ritual rocking of Jews davening or the aimless crossing of oneself before stepping into the batter’s box. It’s part of one’s upbringing. It’s like borscht for dinner on a cold night in the Urals, a bowl of dahl for lentil lovers in India, the clicking of chopsticks at a meal in Hunan. It becomes part of one’s culture, of one’s daily life. You will not improve the lives of believers or diminish their suffering by using logic or history or science or any other rhetorical or empirical device to separate them from their rituals, their beliefs. Many religious people ultimately move away from their beliefs, many pull the mantle of agnosticism about their shoulders, others embrace atheism — but they do it by asking themselves questions and finding that the answers they had don’t satisfy any more.

Nick, one more thing: What intrigues me about your position is your seeming openness to alternatives. One of the things about many religious people is that they assume theirs is the only true faith and, importantly, that their voyage of discovery was the only true path. You seem not to do this and I applaud. When we have so many variations on belief systems, formal religious doctrines, texts, rituals, creation myths, etc. it forces us to conclude that they cannot all be right. If they cannot all be right it would it laughably unlikely that exactly one of them would be. So, therefore, none of them are. If none are then there are only two ways to resolve this dilemma:

  1. abandon religion, all religion,  for it is silly and wrong
  2. see one’s religion, not as some precious set of truths but a framework within which to live a good life, reduce suffering, embrace others, support the needy and welcome diversity – while acknowledging that all these things can be done in the absence of the belief.

Finally, Bruno: Religion didn’t begin as you characterize it. There’s an awful lot of research on this. It goes back to a cluster of perceptual, cognitive, social and emotional mechanisms that have a long evolutionary history in our (and other) species. Scroll down for a quick overview of some of it.

Okay, done now….. 

Reader Comments (2)

I removed all but this last one. As noted, I am always ready to talk with those who hold views different from mine. Usually both of us learn when this happens -- even when one of the participants begins by utterly misunderstanding the position the other has taken.

May 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterArthur S. Reber

Mr. Reber,
In "Response to Dalla's latest rant", you wrote:
"Yes, people pray and it does no good."
Reply: Have you talked personally to every single person worldwide who has ever uttered a prayer? If not, then your audacious statement has no merit whatsoever. Please delete ALL my comments.
Thank you

May 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom

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