Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - III

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion-- several of them. --  Mark Twain

Some theologians and some folks who themselves are not religious but think that religion is a necessary illusion for lesser mortals contend that the characterisation of religion by the New Atheists is a caricature and takes aim at only the low hanging fruit. Well, they should come down from their ivory tower and mix with actual believers a bit more.The majority of people I know seem to think that god is a magic guy who fiddles around with the laws of nature for your benefit if you pester him long enough.  In this debate, one side describes a concept of god that I encounter regularly. The other side describes a concept that would be alien to most people I meet. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
We are much better off if we know the best available approximation to the truth - and if we keep before us a keen apprehension of the errors our interest group or belief system has committed in the past.  In every case the imagined dire consequences of the truth being generally known are exaggerated.
Often  Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan are referred to as atheists who spoke about religion with calmness and respect unlike those loud New Atheists. But they don't seem to have shown all that much respect.  They must have received as much opprobrium from believers during their lifetime. Now that they are safely dead  and can't answer for themselves, they are being co-opted into the category of 'nuanced' atheists.

And what about Dawkins? He has the patience of a saint. He keeps answering the same inane questions and quotations mistakenly attributed to him without losing his cool. People say exactly the opposite of what he has actually said. As he said in another context in The Extended Phenotype - 'There is a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.' People seem to be surprised that he doesn't actually possess fangs. If he had written far more polemical works on any other field of human endeavour say, economics or politics, he would have passed under the radar of most people but speaking about religion in less than deferential terms is beyond the pale.

The famed 'religious tolerance' is on display in this video where Dawkins reads some of the hate mails he receives. It is always a matter of preaching what one does not practice. And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?  Even mild criticism in measured tones comes as a slap in the face for many believers. Hitchens' observation in this interview rings true:
“I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness. Amazing.”
I can understand Hitchens' exhortation to Dawkins to be more strident. People who don't know a shit about evolution make silly statements because of their religious beliefs. It is is not hard to guess where I stand on accomodationism.

I sometimes see an article or debate where some believers will extol the virtues of their faith. It all seems so infantile that I soon move on to something else.  One can only think, 'Okay. Now what?' The only interest is in seeing how words can be strung together to form grammatically correct sentences that don't mean anything. The competition of superstitions and the hair-splitting discussions about picayune details in their holy books makes one wonder if Homo is really sapiens. They all remind me of a story about George Bernard Shaw that I saw in this post:
I remember the story (probably apocryphal) attributed to George Bernard Shaw.  He supposedly asked a woman at a party if she’d sleep with him for a million pounds.  She responded, “Well, I’d have to think about that.”  Shaw then asked, “Well, would you sleep with me for one pound?” The woman answered indignantly, “Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?”  Shaw answered coolly: “Madam, we’ve already established that.  Now we’re just haggling over the price.” 
Similarly the various religions seemed to be just haggling over the price. They all have superstitious beliefs (of course, there are fundamental differences between beliefs) of some kind that boggles the mind. Believers are quick to see the absurdities in other religions but their own religion is a different matter. It was wearying trying to read the minutiae of various company policies. They are all experts in obfuscation, circumlocution, mystification, self-righteousness etc. which give you the impression that you are trying to catch gas. It is simpler to look up this table.  It is hard to disagree with Sam Harris or the other religion baiters. As Julian Baggini writes:
Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother. 
(I don't agree with his gratuitous comment about Dawkins in the beginning of the article. It seems a fashion among some sections of the intelligentsia to establish their 'nuanced atheist' credentials by first dissing Dawkins.)

Secular morality keeps changing over time due to advances in human knowledge and religion is brought kicking and screaming into line. Only when it comes to Buddhism does a religious leader say something different from what most religious people say. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
In theological discussion with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science.  When I put this question to the current, Fourteenth, Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.

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