Kids and death: reincarnation

2014/08/20

I talked recently about how the topic of death was co-opted by a religious meme that the kids were exposed to, which filled a gap left by their parents’ loud silence on the topic.

Well, we’ve been playing vigorous catch-up since then.

Recently, they asked me about what happens after death and I gave them the three main hypotheses that I could think of: nothing (the naturalist explanation), heaven (leaving hell aside for now), and reincarnation.

It seems that the current leader in their minds is reincarnation. Their imaginations have latched on, and they’re running with it. The day after I introduced the hypotheses, they followed up. I was asked if boys could come back as girls and vice versa. I answered affirmative – “Yes, I think that most people who believe in reincarnation believe that boys can be reincarnated as girls, and girls can be reincarnated as boys. In fact, humans can be reincarnated as other animals, and other animals can be reincarnated as humans.”

So far, when facing these different ideas, they haven’t asked “What do you believe, Dad?”

So I haven’t volunteered. I’ll keep reminding them of the other ideas out there (religious and non-religious), and trust their own self-determination.

I doubt I’d have thought of that approach, or trusted it, if I didn’t have all Dale’s blogging and books encouraging me. Thanks Dale!

Relative and subjective, pot and kettle

2014/08/17

There are a few things that seem to be jumbled together in people’s minds – including my own – on the subject of morality. I’ll try to tease apart the relationships here, both to develop a more coherent picture myself and to communicate that perspective for others to inspect and critique.

Now, some people object to non-religious morality because it is subjective and relative, and therefore not as compelling or defensible as the alternatives. What they seem to mean by subjective is that it is chosen by the individual, rather than imposed from outside. What they seem to mean by relative is that it changes from person to person, depending on their preferences, tastes, and whims.

The alternative that many people offer is a morality based on a god. This sort of morality is thought to be objective, not subjective, because it is imposed from outside rather than being chosen by the individual. It is also thought to be absolute rather than relative because its source is a single unchanging, universal god rather than a myriad of individual, mercurial humans.

This account is simplistic and hides a startling fact about all these moral systems. Let’s dig deeper …

For one thing, there are many types of non-religious morality: utilitarian, virtue-based, social-contract, hedonistic, and others. Not all of these systems are equally subjective – they do not all posit moral rules deriving from the individual. Similarly, not all of them are equally relative – they do not all change from person to person.

My own moral system is based on trio of values which are, I think, fairly common to all humans: value for people’s well-being, value for people’s individual autonomy, and value for true understanding. Most common moral rules fall out of applying these three basic values. It is absolute rather than relative, because it is derived from a shared human nature which changes little over any one lifespan, or even over the course of recorded human history. It is also objective rather than subjective, to the extent that it draws on values that all people share, rather than values particular to certain individuals or groups.

However, I recognize that others might not see it that way. What’s to keep the next person from choosing a different set of basic beliefs from mine? I only have my own sense that these three are basic to defend them as the core of my moral system. So the source of this system may be my particular choice of core values, not some pan-human value set, making this system more relative and less aboslute than I would like. As for being objective, it falls short there too, doesn’t it. After all, it’s just me, a human, declaring it as a moral system, rather than it being imposed from outside.

Now, let’s compare this against religious alternatives. I will take Christians as an example, but I think the following would work for any other god-based morality out there.

Let’s take objectivity: is it imposed from within (ie, by humans) or from without? Well, in principle at least, Christian morality derives from their God – either as part of his nature, or as commands from him, or something else. So in principle it’s quite objective. Only … well, there’s no good reason to think the god has actually communicated any rules. Looking across Christian history, the rules people have ascribed to that god have run the spectrum on virtually every important moral issue, from slavery to homosexuality to abortion to monarchy to women’s rights. The rules that are actually articulated to human communities on behalf of that god show every evidence of coming from people. So, while there may in theory be objective moral rules that God would have us follow, the ones we have before us almost certainly came from humans. That is, they are subjective.

What about relativism: does it change from person to person based on their preferences, or does it apply to everyone regardless of what they want? Again, in principle, God’s wishes would be the same for everyone. They would be absolute, not relative. But again, in practice, we see Christians resolving disputes more often by switching denominations or splitting into separate groups than by rationally compelling assent to one clearly superior position. So, to the extent that we can say anything about Christian morality by looking at the behaviour of practicing Christians, we must conclude that it is highly relative.

I want to stop here to point out a parallel that the more attentive reader will already have spotted. The particular non-religious moral system that I espouse above is both objective and absolute from my perspective: it is imposed from outside any one person by human nature, and it applies to each individual’s actions regardless of whether they wishes it to apply. But in practice, I have no way to rationally compel assent to it, making it relative to my own interpretation of human nature; and to anyone else it would clearly appear to be imposed by me, a human, rather than from outside, making it subjective. On the other hand, religious moral systems are both objective and absolute from their own perspectives: they are imposed from outside by a poweful god, and they apply to everyone regardless of whether they want it to apply. But in practice, religious apologists have no way to rationally compel assent to their systems, making them relative to their particular interpretation of human nature; and to outsiders they appear to be imposed by the human believers, not their chosen gods, making them subjective.

I see two key differences. One is that religious moral systems are more popular and familiar. This makes their claims seem more plausible on the face of it (independent of their actual merits). The other is that I acknowledge the limitations and potential flaws of my system. This makes my claim seem less compelling (independent of its actual merits).

Dirty relativist that I am, I leave you to decide for yourself. Please do drop me a note to tell me what you think – constructive praise or constructive criticism are both welcome.

Not talking about death …

2014/08/13

I’ve learned one thing more acutely than any other as a parent: now is the only time you have. Now is your only chance to have an impact on them.

That might sound like trite, wishy-washy silliness, but a couple of months ago it became rather abruptly real for me.

I have been reading Dale McGowan’s thoughts on humanist parenting since before either of my children were born. His blog, his books, the occasional video or personal email. I’ve learned that it’s important not to insulate kids from different ideas. That you need to be honest and open, and try not to pressure them into adopting your own favorite viewpoint.

And I’ve read that you can start as early as you like. But you know … no hurry, right? I mean, at first they don’t even understand speech. And then, well, they get the words but not all of the abstract ideas. And after that …

When Great Grandma died, it clearly lit something in them. A worry, a curiosity … I don’t know. Some existential human-ness that had so far been dormant. Anyway, at four and six years old, they started talking about it, asking about it.

I was unprepared, and I didn’t respond helpfully.

“Daddy, are you going to die?”

When are you going to die?”

“When am I going to die?”

“I don’t want to die.”

I don’t want you to die either. Or me. Please stop making me think about this.

Yes, of course. My own fears kept me from facing their worries directly, from recognizing them, from engaging them honestly and frankly. What can I say? Deep down I’m still a 4-year-old boy when it comes to facing death, or any of life’s other big questions. A 4-year-old boy with a somewhat larger vocabulary to hide behind.

No problem. I still had time to work out how to approach this better. Let me think about it for a while.

A few months later, we visited the church of some pleasant lads we’d been talking to – Mormon missionaries. This is good, right? Expose the kids to different ideas. Let them know about the great variety around them, and show them how much we trust them to make their own choices.

Deena and I sat through the service with the kids, and then visited a Bible study thing afterwards while the kids went to Sunday school. Afterwards, Kaia had this little craft she had done – a paper drawing of a person, with a transparent overlay, illustrating a person with a soul. She started talking about what happens when a person dies. Their strength goes out of them and goes … well, somewhere.

She was rather vague on the details, but clearly the idea of a life after death had been conveyed. It had been told her as simple truth, by someone who clearly believed it. And so she took it on as simple truth, as she would any other claim from a trusted adult. I really can’t fault the Sunday school teacher, or the Mormon church, for this. That’s their belief, after all.

It didn’t alarm me that she had heard this idea, or repeated it. What alarmed me was the realization that Deena and I hadn’t forearmed her with the knowledge that there are other ideas out there too – that this isn’t necessarily the way it is.

Her grandparents (who are all quite aware of our own beliefs about such things) were rather surprised to be told about souls and heaven by their (so far as they thought) thoroughly heathen granddaughter.

Lesson learned. Since then, we’ve been watching for questions and offering open answers – “That is what some people believe; others believe X or Y.” “Here are some ideas – have some fun with them.”

I’m also keeping an eye out for other hot-button topics. She’s only six, but at the current rate of time passage, by the end of the year she’ll be heading off to college without any fatherly wisdom on relationships, sex, finances, or how to strike the perfect work/Star Trek balance in life.

Anyway, stay tuned for further afterlife conversations. Our new openness in answering questions about death is already paying off.

Scientism: bad word, useful idea?

2014/08/10

Scientism

I really hate that word.

I first read it from someone who seemed to be looking for excuses not to accept scientific results. Rather than argue against them using science, he simply labelled the approach “scientism”. He wanted to denigrate his opponents’ reliance on evidence and reason to answer important questions. I really despise this sort of anti-intellectualism.* Some people would rather hold onto their own beliefs than find out what is true.

That was my first experience. But that is not the only context where people use the word. I’ve recently heard it used in the context of legitimate criticism (in an old episode of the apologetics podcast “Please Convince Me”). There, host J. Warner Wallace was describing and critiquing a real trend among some people.**

He describes the idea like so: “If it can’t be told to us by science then we ought not even be paying attention to it.”

The trend is the idea that “Any important truth can be addressed by science,” and its corollary that “Anything that can’t be addressed by science is unimportant.” It’s a real trend – not only among lay commentators, but among prominent scientists and philosophers. It deserves to be countered.

Why is it a problem? It’s a problem because betrays an irrational ignorance. (Ironically, the people who follow this trend pride themselves on a rational, evidence-based worldview, and would be mortified if they were seen to demonstrate irrationality or ignorance.)

For one thing, the validity of science itself (as Wallace points out) cannot be demonstrated by science. That would be circular. Rather, the methods of science derive from a particular philosophical perspective on epistemology – how we come to believe things. Now, the epistemological underpinnings of science are quite sound. One cannot reject them without rejecting most of everyday common sense. But they are not derived from science.

For another thing, much of the world of human values is separate from science. It’s true that values such as honesty, curiosity, humility, and submission to reality are deeply embedded in the philosophy and practice of science. But other human values, such as compassion, respect, and loyalty are not part of science, nor can they be validated by science. Surely these values are proper and important topics to discuss in any society.

Beyond this, a survey of prominent online dictionaries and encyclopediae indicates that the word is here to stay. Wikipedia, Dictionary.com, Oxford English Dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster all have entries describing scientism. Of course it has multiple definitions, but they all agree that one use is (to use Merriam-Webster’s formulation) “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.

There are also scientists and other advocates of rationality that have weighed in on the value of identifying and criticizing scientism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an article identifying scientism and contrasting it with appropriate science – even calling out beloved scientists Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, and E.O. Wilson for stepping over that line. Massimo Pigliucci has weighed in here and here – in the first one he’s criticizing Steven Pinker’s wander into scientism here. I don’t wholly agree with Pigliucci’s characterization, but he has some valid points. A more prominent example of scientism may be Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, where he seems to want to define morality so that it falls under the purview of science. See this article by him outlining the position.

So, with all of this, why would anyone embrace this idea that the only important claims are scientific claims? It’s not entirely unfounded. For one thing, science does seem to be our best way of identifying true claims. If I can provide physical, repeatable, objectively-recognizable evidence supporting a claim, then everyone has good reason to accept the claim. If I can provide similarly concrete evidence contradicting a claim, then everyone has good reason to reject the claim. That’s the basis of science. To reject a truly scientific claim is equivalent to rejecting the evidence of the senses.

No other approach to knowing things is so powerful. Intuition is useful, but intuitive ideas are sometimes wrong. (How do we know this? Because we can test them. Scientifically.) Unaided reason is fun, and can point us in useful directions, but outside of abstract math and logic, unaided reason is limp without evidence to support it. (Look at how many ingenious, enjoyable, and ultimately wrong ideas the ancient Greeks had about the structure of the cosmos. And those ideas of theirs that were shown to be right? They were shown by – you guessed it – science!) Feelings, traditions, ancient writings … all of these things that people have leaned on and continue to lean on to provide insight, all of them are fallible, and all of them can be validated or invalidated by science.

In philosophy, there are ideas that cannot be tested scientifically. What is the nature of morality? What is the ultimate nature of existence? What does it mean to be conscious? Here are some questions which science cannot, even in principle, answer (although it can provide interesting and relevant clues). Philosophers can answer these questions.*** But their answers are never as robust or as compelling as the answers to scientific questions. Why should I adopt the desire-utilitarian perspective on morality? Why should I buy into the materialist metaphysical model? What’s to keep me from accepting the Cartesian dualist view of consciousness?

So I sympathize with those who conclude that science is the only way to know important things. It is certainly the way we get our most certain, unassailable beliefs. But it’s not enough, on its own, to populate a complete worldview.

If the term “scientism” is to have any legitimacy as a meaningful word (and not just a bogeyman for anti-intellectuals to sneer at), I think it must be used to identify this narrow perspective that dismisses any idea not grounded in science.

As a linguist, though, I still don’t think it’s a great term. For one thing, it carries the derogatory, anti-intellectual connotation I first identified above. It’s a word that at once denigrates another and identifies the speaker with a particular community. And for another, I just don’t think it’s a useful term to try to use more broadly. For example, what do we call someone who engages or embraces scientism? A “scientist”? Sorry, that term already has a very different meaning from what we’re discussing here. A “scientismist”? Too awkard. “Scientism-er”? Uh-uh. “Advocate of scientism”? Perhaps, but that’s not terribly felicitous.

I would love to propose my own term – perhaps explicitly formed as an antonym of “philosophy”: “misosophy” (by analogy with “philanthrope/misanthrope”). “Sam Harris is a misosophist.” “Thoughtful skeptics need to beware of falling into misosophy.”

misosophy [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fi] - the position that the only claims one should accept as true are scientific claims
misosophist [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɪst] / misosopher [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɹ] - one who asserts or accepts misosophy

I rather doubt that my coinage will catch on. It’s a bit phonotactically awkward. On the other hand, I don’t know if “scientism” can catch on either, in the useful-rather-than-simply-pejorative sense that I have suggested here.

What do you think?

————-

Footnotes

* This is a very emotional reaction, so I want to make it clear: I despise the anti-intellectual thought process, I do not despise the people who engage in it.

** I want to be clear, for those who listen to that podcast, that I do not agree with most of what J. Warner Wallace says. He rejects evolution. He thinks there is a strong evidential case for Christianity. He believes that historical claims are outside the purview of science. In other podcasts, he suggests that atheists have no way to ground their morality. I disagree with him about all of these things. But I agree that scientism as he defines it near the start of that podcast is a real thing, and it needs to be refuted.

*** I know many would say that theologians can also answer these questions. I agree that they can, but only insofar as they are acting philosophically. In fact, anyone can answer these questions, and many do. And when they do, they are doing philosophy.

In Faith, in Doubt, in Love All Over!

2014/08/06

IFAIDcover

In Faith and Doubt, which comes out this month (August 2014), is a thorough look through the issues that you may need to navigate in a marriage between a religious person and a non-religious person.The author is Dale McGowan. This Dale McGowan. More importantly, this Dale McGowan. The Dale McGowan who brought us the books Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, and the more-awesome-every-year Foundation Beyond Belief. (He’s done other stuff too – fiction and non-fiction.)

The issues are discussed clearly and in detail, with support from expert opinions, survey results, and a delightful profusion of personal stories from couples with a wide variety of backgrounds. Not all of the stories end in happily-ever-after – this isn’t a rose-coloured view of only the positives. And yet, I came away from the book with a warm feeling of hope for humanity. It’s a well-rounded view of the ups and the downs that avoids all of the hyperbole and polarization that has characterized much of the religious/non-religious dialogue in popular media and books lately (and, to be fair, throughout history).

I was a little surprised to be invited to read an advance digital copy for preparing this review. After all, as a secular humanist married to a secular humanist I’m not exactly in the target demographic. But it turns out that Dale has a lot to say that I ought to keep in mind, both in my own marriage, and in my relationships with other people.

11-humanist

Dale McGowan – image from cockingasnook.wordpress.com

Why in my own marriage? Well, no matter how closely two people identify with the same worldview, there will be some points they disagree on. For example, I consider myself a regrettably-lapsed vegetarian, while Deena is far more comfortable with the omnivorous lifestyle. Also, Dale talks specifically about how some people seem to have more appetite for community than others. In the book, this is offered as an explanation why some people are more drawn to religion than others. But even if you hold the same beliefs and identity, such differences of personality could cause tension if left unrecognized.

What other relationships could benefit from the advice in this book? Most of them, I expect. There’s a chapter titled “Communication and Respect”, where Dale walks through some of the ways we can keep communication open and honest, maintaining respect for the person even in the face of deep disagreements over beliefs. I have religious relatives whose company I greatly value, but who I have felt uncomfortable opening up to for fear of inadvertently kicking up a hornet’s nest. With the tools Dale offers, I now feel safer connecting with those people, discussing important things.

This book also has a lot to say to concerned friends and family of mixed-belief couples. These are people who can have a strong influence – for good or for bad – on a couple’s happiness. When they know what is really likely to be in store, these loved ones can make their influence as positive as possible.

I don’t know how many people enter relationships, only to discover a difference in beliefs and back out – fearful that the difference is just too big to overcome. Those stats don’t come out in any of the surveys Dale talks about – I don’t know how you could even get those stats. Anyway, if you’re in a new relationship with someone who identifies differently from you, reading this book may give you a more hopeful perspective on what may lie ahead.

So, to sum up, if you are or may ever be in a relationship with someone (romantic, familial, collegial, or otherwise) where differences of belief may be involved, I think this book will serve you well in navigating those differences. You will get descriptions of religious and non-religious people (based on real data, not caricatures), and overviews of different approaches to weddings between religious and non-religious people, how to deal with church attendance and other religious practices, issues of communication and identity, managing in-laws with strong opinions on religion, having children, and even navigating divorce (which happens – though at no greater rate than in other marriages).

Check it out. I bet you’ll learn something!

Education hero: Laci Green

2014/08/02

Most of you have probably already heard of Laci Green, prolific YouTuber on various topics relating to sexuality and feminism.

For anyone out there who is even more out of touch than me, let me introduce you to a brilliant, articulate, and prolific mind that, if we are lucky, will help lift our culture into a more sane and happy future.

Here are a couple of highlights from what I’ve seen so far, that might make good starting points for you who are about to become her fans:

A video about “the sex talk” (including why it shouldn’t be the sex talk). Judging by the subjective time it has taken my daughter to reach age six, I anticipate her graduating high school and moving out in about three days. I need to start considering how to tackle the topic of sexuality with her. Laci’s video hits all of the high points, without being all “Here is the script you must follow”.

Feminism. I know that I fall down on this. I’m a man, and I get so many passes and advantages that women don’t get. I’m lucky enough to have a wife who gently points it out to me when I’m being a privileged ass, and I think I’m improving. Slowly. But it still amazes me that there are people who don’t think gender inequality is a problem. Are you one of those people? Maybe you should watch this video, and be prepared to feel humbled. Are you not one of those people? Then you should watch this video too, and get ready to cheer.

She also has frank and general-audience-appropriate discussions of a wide variety of topics. I’m learning stuff from her that I had wondered about but couldn’t bring myself to ask. And through it all is a very clear message: it’s okay to be who you are, how you are. You deserve respect, and you owe other people respect.

She’s a great role model – not only for women, but for anyone who values openness and respect. She’s also a lot of fun.

She’s on Twitter (@gogreen18), Facebook, and Tumblr, as well as on YouTube.

If you have a particular favorite among her videos, link to it in the comments below. Or offer your own suggestion about a good public figure for communicating positive messages about sexuality and feminism.

Sarah and Jason talk about open-mindedness

2014/07/31

I’m going to break out of my rather insular habits today.

Rather than offering a post full of my own thoughts, and only my own thoughts, I’m going to point you to a blog exchange between two other folks: Sarah, a relatively new atheist blogging at My Post-God Life, and Jason, a Christian blogging at Jason Trivium. I’ve just discovered their blogs – they seem to be spending a fair amount of time commenting and responding to each other’s ideas.

What really got my attention was their discussion of open-mindedness. Here is Sarah’s offering: “How Far Should We Take Open-mindedness?” And here is Jason’s response: “Re: How Far Should We Take Open-mindedness?

I’ve been reading a fair bit of professional apologetics and philosophy lately, so I could say a lot about how each of them has missed some refined points, or how I might have made a particular argument differently. But what I think is wonderful is (a) they are both able to articulate their position clearly and briefly, and (b) I think each has presented a perspective that represents a large number of people with a similar identity. More than that, as they comment on each other’s blogs they remain respectful and thoughtful without compromising the ideas they hold.

So go check them out, and check out other offerings on their blogs.

Well, how would you describe it?

2014/06/22

From Kaia, my six-year-old daughter:

The time is six, dot-high, dot-low, five, three.

I almost don’t want to teach her the names of punctuation marks, just to see what she comes up with.

Do you have any stories of clever names that kids (or others) have given to common orthographic scratchings?

Belief without evidence (6 of 6): Comparing and evaluating

2014/06/20

So, since introducing this series, I have identified five elements which might be considered my “dogma” – things that I cannot prove with reason and evidence from other, more basic principles.

Claims about reality:
R1. Induction. (What has come before can tell us something about what to expect next.)
R2. Other people exist.
R3. Non-just-nowism. (The world is not a trick designed to deceive us.)
Values:
V1. People matter.
V2. Truth matters.

Ultimately, I can only support these by saying, “I choose this.” I do not say this with apology or sheepishness: everyone has basic beliefs. In fact, I think most people share these specific basic beliefs, or some other set that includes them. (Please let me know if you or someone else actually rejects any of these, and why.)

I have also pointed out a few things that have been claimed as points of secular dogma, but are not:
a. How to reason.
b. The methods and conclusions of science (including materialism).
c. Atheism.

And finally, I have noted some common things that religious people add to the above list of basic beliefs in order to hold their more elaborate (and, I think, more vulnerable to refutation) worldviews:
i. God exists (and has various definite properties or traits).
ii. Sacred scriptures communicate important truths about reality.
iii. Inner feelings can directly reveal cosmic truths.

If you think I have missed some point of dogma that I hold, or misrepresented one of the ones listed above, please tell me about it. If you think I have overstated the case for religious dogmas, please let me know how I’ve misstepped.

But in the end, what is the point of this?

At one level it is simply a response to those who accuse atheists and other skeptics of having as much faith as the believers (or more). My contention, given the above, is that I (and most humanists and atheists) have fewer assumptions than religious people. We accept less on faith than they do – though I acknowledge that we must all accept some things “on faith”.

To which most of you will respond “Obviously!” … In my defense, though, I wrote all of this because it is clearly not obvious to an astonishing number of the (religiously) faithful. One example prominent in my mind is Lesslie Newbigin, the author of a book I am currently reading with a friend.

At another level, I think the current undertaking is valuable as an exercise in introspection. It is common for atheists and other skeptics to assert that others take things on faith, but we don’t. This is a simplification. One goal of skepticism – an important and valuable goal – is to take less on faith, but nobody can entirely escape the burden of basic assumptions. It is important to be aware of our assumptions – not only to help us guard against wrong or unnecessary elements in our basic beliefs, but also in order that we can respond with appropriate frankness and, yes, humility, when confronted by claims (accusations?) that we, too, use faith.

So: introspection, self-knowledge, humility, and an appropriate basis for responding to our neighbours. I think this was worth six not-too-long posts. Here are some questions I have for you:

  • Do you agree that avoiding unnecessary assumptions is a worthwhile goal?
  • When you examine your own beliefs, do you find similar assumptions to mine? More? Fewer? Different?
  • I thought before starting this series that I’d come up with two or three basic assumptions, and I found five. Do you think I could (or should) pare my list down?
  • Do you think I actually have more assumptions I haven’t acknowledged? Please let me know.

 

Belief without evidence (5 of 6): A religious inventory

2014/06/18

I have listed some basic beliefs and values that I hold, and that I think others hold too. And I have pointed out some things that are often claimed as points of humanist/atheist/skeptic dogma, but are definitely not. Now I would like to have a look at further beliefs – basic dogmas – held by religious people.

i. Existence of a god.

For many believers, this is the irrevocable core of their beliefs. They do not believe in a god because of experiences, or evidence, or reasoning. They just believe. Their belief in a god is a personal point of dogma. This is how organized religions tend to treat their gods’ existence. They do not lead their congregants through the evidence supporting the belief; they simply assert the god’s existence, and go from there.

For others however, belief in a god is a consequence of some personal experience, or of a philosophical chain of reasoning. As a non-believer, I may conclude that they have misinterpreted the evidence, or that they have reasoned poorly from the evidence to the conclusion. Even so, I should concede that at least they are putting this on the table as one that stands or falls on evidence and reason. That is, for these believers, the existence of a god is not a basic dogma but a conclusion from evidence and reasoning.

Note that, aside from a rarefied few deists, believers don’t stop at proclaiming the existence of a god, but add many specific characteristics of that being: moral traits, aesthetic preferences, emotional behaviours, creative and divinatory abilities, and so on. Each such trait is actually a separate unsupported belief – I group them here only for convenience and brevity.

ii. Historical reliability of sacred scriptures.

Christians have the Old and New Testaments; Jews have the Torah; Muslims have the Quran and Hadith; Hindus the Gita; Sikhs the Guru Granth Sahib, Buddhists their various important texts. Written or oral tales carrying the weight of incontrovertible or sacred truth seem to be present in every culture.

Individual believers vary in the extent to which they take these stories literally. For example, were Adam and Eve actual historical figures, or metaphors for humans’ early attitudes toward the divine? Either way, though, the stories told in the scripture have some sort of special significance, either as historical texts or as literary guides to life. The literalist claim is of course the strongest, and carries the greatest burden of proof; but even the moderate, metaphorical approach often sets that tradition’s sacred text above those of other religions.

iii. Inner feelings can directly reveal cosmic truths.

Many (but certainly not all) religious traditions have made inner feelings of some sort or another into an unassailable source of truth. The claim is that their god has “imprinted” knowledge on their hearts, and that because it comes from their god it should be taken as true without subjecting it to rational examination.

There seems to be no way to demonstrate this as reliable by other means (for example, deriving it from observation and reason). While some rely on religious texts to back up this claim, there are many who hold this point of dogma while trying to distance themselves from any organized religion.

There are many other claims that could be listed here, depending on the religious tradition and the individual. There are historical claims, which are either extra assumptions or fall under the reliability of scripture, making that assumption carry more weight. There are claims about morally privileged cultural practices, often but not always connected to scripture in the same way.

I include these not to argue against them as ridiculous, or even wrong. (I think most of them are wrong, but that is a discussion for another time.) I include them to point out that religious believers make at least one or two extra assumptions, on top of those made by secular humanists like me.

Next up: where does all this discussion of basic beliefs get us?


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