09 August 2008

Religious "ideas": not interesting or profound

Joshua Minton wrote this posting in response to a couple of earlier comments of mine on his site, but comments on the new posting are disabled for some reason, so I'll respond here (I recommend reading his posting before you read this response; the original comment thread is here).

I don’t believe in the literal word of the Bible or any religious text. This doesn’t mean I don’t see value both ethically and culturally in these texts, just that I don’t hold them up as a point of worship to justify the hatred (however subtle) of other people over ideation.

This is a fairly common perspective nowadays, but it's based on the assumption that the Bible or other religious texts have some profound ethical or philosophical significance or raise questions which need to be addressed. I don't believe they do. The Old Testament is an incompetent forgery from beginning to end; the scheme of salvation proclaimed by the New Testament is perhaps the most logically-incoherent concept ever devised by the human mind, while the whole tale from the virgin birth to the sacrifice and rebirth of the deity is utterly ordinary and run-of-the-mill to anyone who actually knows about the common mythology of the ancient Middle East. The whole Bible is a rambling and befuddled collection of primitive gibberish; there is nothing interesting or profound about it at all.

Anyone who reads this site regularly will notice that, in contrast to many atheist bloggers, I rarely discuss the subject of religion and atheism at all -- it only comes up when some particular thing draws my attention to it. To me, it would seem odd to focus so much on something I don't believe in. Just as I don't believe in the Christian God, I don't believe in unicorns either; but to devote posting after posting to rehashing all the reasons why unicorns probably don't exist, why it would be bad or foolish to believe in them, etc., would seem bizarre and obsessive.

Saying that "people who don't believe in unicorns are just as brain-dead about unicorns as people who do believe in them are" would probably mean something, but whatever it would mean would, as far as I can see, be neither interesting nor true.

We do not truly know from where we each (meaning our individual ego consciousness) came from and where we each go to when the brain ceases functioning (which is the scientific definition of death).

As I said in the original comments, we actually have a fairly good basis for thinking that consciousness simply stops when the brain dies, even if the evidence for this falls short of what we need for de facto certainty. There is not the tiniest hint of evidence to suggest that consciousness "goes" somewhere at death. (Anybody who is revving up to post a comment about "out-of-body experiences" or suchlike rot, please refrain; if your knowledge is so limited that you think that's real, you're not really in a position to contribute.)

I think it's very possible, by the way, that science will eventually nail down a definite answer to this question as it has to so many others. There is absolutely no possibility that religion will ever have anything useful or valid to say about it. Zero. The answers to those questions about reality that science cannot yet answer will not be found in the confused mythology of ancient desert nomads who knew far less about nature and the cosmos than the average gum-chewing high-school kid of today does.

But let’s say that this understanding of our own mortality and about how our senses and science will never be able to pierce the veil of mystery that surrounds our existence was understood to be a law of nature like gravity?

I can't speak for other atheists, but this isn't my position at all. I think it's entirely possible that science will eventually be able to prove the non-existence (or existence, in the unlikely event that that turns out to be the case) of an afterlife. More to the point, it's already clear that the phenomenon of aging and biological death is just an engineering problem which can be solved in principle and will probably be solved within a few decades. Death is no more inevitable or an eternal fact of our existence than smallpox or illiteracy.

What do you do with a fact besides accept it? Gravity doesn’t give a shit if you think it’s untrue.

Yes, but our understanding of how gravity works has yielded a number of useful technological advances. Future progress in our understanding of how the brain generates consciousness will do so as well. Religious "explanations" of gravity, if there have ever been any, would have been as worthless and useless as concepts like the "soul" are.

The remainder of the posting I found mostly incomprehensible; perhaps the reader will have better luck than I did. I will say that I don't know where the whole concept of "groveling before sheer fact" comes in (perhaps the Nietzsche reference went over my head). I am fairly sure that, if I die, my consciousness will simply cease. I no more "grovel" before this fact than I "grovel" before the fact that the Earth is round or the fact that the Sun is bright. These things are simply facts, to be taken into account when they are relevant, ignored otherwise. "Groveling" doesn't enter into it.

And religion doesn't have anything of value to say about any of this. Even in Sanskrit.

6 Comments:

Blogger Larro FCD said...

"The answers to those questions about reality that science cannot yet answer will not be found in the confused mythology of ancient desert nomads who knew far less about nature and the cosmos than the average gum-chewing high-school kid of today does."

I love that good analogy but I'd wager that your average gum-chewing high-school kid might take offense at that!

"I think it's entirely possible that science will eventually be able to prove the non-existence (or existence, in the unlikely event that that turns out to be the case) of an afterlife."

I believe this also. And if in fact it does turn out that there is an after-life, I doubt very highly it would be anything akin to what most religious claim it to be.

Yeah, the Nietzsche thing went over my head too.

He's losing me at "Our minds are as delicate as the skin of an overfilled balloon. And like the air in a pierced balloon, the content of our minds can be expelled with any breach. Groveling before this sheer fact is puncturing the skin of our mental balloons and even when the content has been expelled completely, the structure is still intact and functioning on a biological level in the moment. The analysis of sensory information in the moment along with its categorization and storage as experience has ceased to function yet the mind is still working. What has happened? Can you see it? The secret of death."

Secret of death? An extraordinary claim that, as always, requires extraordinary evidence. Additionally, if something has ceased to function then how is it still working?

09 August, 2008 08:06  
Blogger handmaiden said...

Let me try to unravel this a bit But the atheist says this is all. This is the mind state Nietzsche referred to as, “Groveling before sheer fact.” Some are okay with understanding it all ends as an intellectual notion. But let’s say that this understanding of our own mortality and about how our senses and science will never be able to pierce the veil of mystery that surrounds our existence was understood to be a law of nature like gravity?


The reference to Nietzsche & the atheist “groveling before sheer fact.” seems to be a way of using Nietzsche to accuse atheists of some kind of fatalistic Nihilism. That would be a card stock & Juvenile way of interpreting Nietzsche. Nietzsche never means Nihilism to be taken as a conclusion of what happens when you deconstruct a belief system down to nothing. ( if this is what Joshua Minton is implying)

For instance, In his book "On the Genealogy of Morality" Nietzsche is reversing perspective. He is breaking down those things that make nihilism possible. Nietzsche is re-evaluating the foundations of human values. The conclusion that Nietzsche's writing brings me to is that life is to be lived in & for itself, he believed in self creation. If anyone is capable of this it is the atheist. & That is not nihilism.

When people accuse atheists of nihilism & use Nietzsche to do it, that really ticks me off.



Our minds are as delicate as the skin of an overfilled balloon. And like the air in a pierced balloon, the content of our minds can be expelled with any breach. Groveling before this sheer fact is puncturing the skin of our mental balloons and even when the content has been expelled completely, the structure is still intact and functioning on a biological level in the moment. The analysis of sensory information in the moment along with its categorization and storage as experience has ceased to function yet the mind is still working. What has happened? Can you see it? The secret of death.

I also have no idea what this means.

Death is an empty balloon?
I'll never look at discarded condom the same way again. :)

09 August, 2008 11:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks, Larro, for the comment, and thanks, Handmaiden, for the elucidation of Nietzsche from an expert -- certainly an expert compared to me! Accusing atheists of nihilism is a bread-and-butter anti-atheist tactic, and I suspect that Nietzsche was being invoked as a handy utensil for that purpose.

To be fair, I don't actually know whether Josh is a theist or not. He's a good guy. We just have very different views on certain subjects.

And like the air in a pierced balloon, the content of our minds can be expelled with any breach. Groveling before this sheer fact is puncturing the skin of our mental balloons and even when the content has been expelled completely, the structure is still intact and functioning on a biological level in the moment. The analysis of sensory information in the moment along with its categorization and storage as experience has ceased to function yet the mind is still working. What has happened? Can you see it? The secret of death.

My first thought was that this means the belief in a spiritual afterlife is similar to passing gas, but I just don't know. :-)

Death is an empty balloon? I'll never look at discarded condom the same way again.

Well, when one of those bursts at the wrong moment, the likely result isn't the end of a life. Rather the opposite. :-) Ah, well, such are the mysteries of the universe.

09 August, 2008 16:22  
Blogger FranIAm said...

I'm staying out of this one. Not to be a coward, but what is the point?

I just did want to acknowledge my ongoing commitment to reading your blog, especially on this topic.

Off I go - into the night.

10 August, 2008 17:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

FranThouArt -- glad you're still reading -- hope you'll continue to comment on other topics.

10 August, 2008 18:31  
Blogger FranIAm said...

You cannot shake me that easily- that much be clear by now!

11 August, 2008 14:45  

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