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The Water of Life

Pat Condell's latest.


 

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While Mr. Condell makes some very important points about the ill-effects of religion, points that we all need to consider with the utmost seriousness, his diatribe falls into the same trap that the atheism/theism debate has been locked in for centuries.

While atheism adds an essential perspective on these complex issues, its chief function, I believe, should be that of the skeptic, to sow the seeds of doubt in a relentless fashion, while expanding the horizons of our ideas about "morality." Atheism looses its strength, however, when it becomes smug, arrogant, and wholly antagonistic toward religion. More importantly, it alienates many moderate religious folk who may otherwise be on side with the thrust of an atheist critique. It's not about lessening our critique, but refining it to address the nuance of our complex world. In other words, moderates are not extremists, and all religion is not bad. It's simply too complex a phenomenon to be labeled either/or.

One final word of distinction here. The atheism/theism model is not the only way to address these issues. I am currently working on a PhD. in the study of religion, focusing on philosophical/political questions on the discourse between secular and religious worldviews. The study of religion, incidentally, is an agnostic and social scientific approach to religion, and NOT THEOLOGY. Ninety percent of people I meet confuse it with theology, including atheists and agnostics, which highlights the very problem that I'm try to point out; namely, that there exists a variety of methods by which we can critique religion without reverting to the simplistic "we're right and they're wrong dichotomy."

I urge anyone interested to look into this discipline, as I believe it offers the best approach to these questions-critical, nuanced, and truly progressive.

that there exists a variety of methods by which we can critique religion without reverting to the simplistic "we're right and they're wrong dichotomy."

Perhaps it is I who is confused, but you seem to be confusing "the study of religion" with "the study of the religious", if you catch my drift.

What you're talking about mostly seems to be "study of the religious". The beliefs themselves are not at issue in this case; only the functioning of the believers. (While atheists tend to think pretty strongly that belief in a religion is ultimately harmful, that is at least somewhat debatable.)

However, a "study of religion", from a neutral, scientific position, is a very short study indeed: "Logically, the invisible celestial teapot people are talking about is most certainly a complete fantasy." To discuss religion further would be like discussing the Emperor's new shirt and trousers after pointing out that his clothes are nonexistent.

As for Condell and atheists like him, their anger and indignation is understandable: They see ill being done by malicious people hiding behind religion and dogma, and in order for society at large to address these problems, the spell of religion needs to be lifted. While the attitudes of people such as Condell may be repellent to some, their aims are noble and their logic is... well, present, which is more than can be said for religious people.

Reply to Frenetic:

Sorry for the late reply (and thanks for your response).

As always with these forums, it's hard to say things well in such a short space, though it certainly keeps the conversation going!

First off, I agree that with Condell and atheists like him, their anger and indignation is understandable. In fact, I'm glad that there are voices like his (along with the New Atheists) as they have done a lot to provoke the conversation rather than soft-peddle the issues. In doing so, they have also helped dispel the misconception that to be atheist is to be a-moral. My concern here is when voices such as these come to dominate the debate (at least from one side), as I believe they have. This is why I think the study of religion is so important.

To clarify, "the study of religion" is the name that is often given to the field that I study (also know as religious studies). Admittedly, the name is problematic, and is perhaps part of the reason that it is so often confused with theology.

This discipline came into being (i.e., as a separate department within universities) after WWII, though its origins pre-date this period. Such thinkers as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and James Frazer (late 19th c. anthropologists and sociologists) were among the first to speak of religion as a phenomenon, and not merely as a confessional belief or in opposition to belief in general. Incidentally, David Hume was probably the first famous philosopher to contest religion on scientific grounds.

In any case, I do take issue with the following distinction:

What you're talking about mostly seems to be "study of the religious". The beliefs themselves are not at issue in this case; only the functioning of the believers.

The study of religion is not "scientific," it is social scientific. It is true that it does not care about "the beliefs themselves," in the sense of them being right or wrong in any ultimate sense. On this it is agnostic. What it is concerned with is the phenomenon that we have come to call "religion," in all its various expressions and guises. Accordingly, it uses the tools of the social sciences and humanities: historical, hermeneutical, philosophical, political, sociological, anthropological, feminist, etc., in order to problematise and hard and fast notions of what "religion" is.

To give but one example, French philosopher Jacques Derrida has done some interesting work on the word "religion" itself, offering up a sort of genealogical excavation of the term. Among other things, he shows how the word "religion" (a word of Latin origin with a particular meaning) has limited our understanding of this phenomenon in a global context, which is often understood very differently in other cultures/languages.

While my field is not concerned with the "right" and the "wrong" of belief per se, it is constantly engaging these questions. How could we study the likes of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, (among many lesser known thinkers) and not address these issues?

The distinction that I'd like to raise here, though I could say much more, is between the conception of religion as a belief in an "invisible celestial teapot" (and all the black and white do's and don'ts that follow) versus a conception of "religion" as an unstable category or term that cannot be reduced to such simplicity.

Religious beliefs, practices, values, etc., vary not only from tradition to tradition, denomination to denomination, but from community to community, and individual to individual. They comprise a highly diverse array of ideas, and not only about a given religious tradition, but about the relationship between different religions, secular culture, and science. All this is to say that it not at all clear what the term "religion" actually means, and what it is that the so-called "religious" actually believe. This is not to say that we shouldn't criticize, but that we should do it in a more nuanced and (dare I say) respectful way.

Reducing the (literally) hundreds of "religions" (that have existed for over 4000 years), that have shaped and continue to shape our world in countless ways, to the question of whether God exists or not, is, I believe, to only cover one angle of a much bigger question.

To me it seems that the important task for progressive minded people (religious, agnostic, atheist, or otherwise), is not to continue to try for the knock-out blow that will determine whether there is a God or not, but rather to 1) problematize our conceptions of religion via the many critical tools we have available, and 2) to recognize that the important thing is that people become adjusted to what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls the "epistemic reality" of a pluralistic world. Basically, this means the recognition that we exist in a pluralistic world of competing values which require that we subordinate our "in-group" values or rules, to the agreed upon conventions of a secular constitution and the rule of law. That is to say, it is less important how people express their values/beliefs amongst a certain group or community, then how they understand the necessity of compromise (and of putting certain beliefs aside) in the public sphere.

To give but one example, when Canada decided to legalize gay marriage in 2003, then Prime Minister Jean Cretin went on record saying that as a Catholic he had some reservations about the issue, but as a representative of a pluralistic society, he had to recognize both the legality/human rights of the matter, and the force of public opinion.

All this is to say that I think we are narrowing the debate (and creating unnecessary enemies) by trying to disprove the existence of God, rather than urging others (and ourselves) to expand our conception of what "religion" is, which leads, in turn, to less dogmatic beliefs and more space for meaningful conversation.

Wow, I rambled on there, didn't I? My apologies!

I'll end here, but I'd I'd love to keep the conversation going...

A truly great rant! Thanks for posting it.

Atheism looses its strength, however, when it becomes smug, arrogant, and wholly antagonistic toward religion.

I totally agree Satinsheeds.

Basically, I think Condell's rant can be reduced to:

"I don't like dogma"

I wish he and others would stay focuses on the actual problem (of dogma) and not get caught up in the politics and personal generalizations that are an inevitable distraction when religion and dogma are presented as interchangeable.

There's almost nothing that Condell (or anyone) can say about religion in general that could not also be said about the general class of institutions which are not-for-profit (i.e. tax exempt). Dogma is not unique to religion; it is everywhere. Nor is dogma even a necessary component of religion. People and institutions of all kinds have their dogmas and such institutions seek to influence government. Relgious institutions are not unique in this way (and in fact this practice is an inescapable part of democracy).

Like other cult-of-personality talking heads, Condell's tough-guy persona relies upon narrowly framing the content of his rants to an over-simplification of a topic that has been artificially reduced to just two sides. In this case it's religion (as he chooses to narrowly represent it) and atheism (which is a word that probably shouldn't even exist). This oversimplification of people and ideas, reduced to factions and labels, can't help but get mired (as it does) in bigoted rhetoric.

That Condell so joyously revels in such oversimplifications in order to stage his attacks against the other side, is where I (and many others) see a parallel between his speech and the speech of those "fundamentalist" he attacks.

Having seen many of Pat Condell's "diatribes" I cannot help but feel that his attitude is NOT against religion per se, but against those who professing religion who decide that they therefore have the right to insist all others do as they would have them do, as well as demanding protection from any criticism of their own actions and beliefs because, by definition, they are religious and thus deserve protection. He does attack fundamentalists - not people who are religious but reasoned.

Apologies for the poor use of English - too many 'whos' spoil the text.

He does attack fundamentalists - not people who are religious but reasoned.

i agree with most of what you said, pedantsareus, and also with most of the above comments (with reservations). but i think you're being disingenous here- you've been hanging around here long enough to know that norm himself holds that religion and reason are mutually exclusive, and it's pretty clear, i think, that condell feels the same way.

riley's statement:

That Condell so joyously revels in such oversimplifications in order to stage his attacks against the other side, is where I (and many others) see a parallel between his speech and the speech of those "fundamentalist" he attacks.

i also agree with, but i can't help but get caught up in condell's "joyous revelling", there's something beautifully human there.

but i think you're being disingenous here- you've been hanging around here long enough to know that norm himself holds that religion and reason are mutually exclusive, and it's pretty clear, i think, that condell feels the same way.

I don't know what that means, unless you're limiting your definition of religion to belief in the supernatural. Religious people like others can be rational most of the time, but the religious abandon their reason when it comes to the supernatural.

norm, i didn't say religious people (who you of course can respect as people), i said religion (itself). do you deny that you think that religion and reason are mutually exclusive?

It depends on your definition of religion, but in general I believe they are mutually exclusive.

so now i'm VERY curious. what definition of religion, that you hold to be accurate, makes religion out to be "reasonable"?

Oh perhaps some Buddhist that doesn't believe in the supernatural.

btw, you might find politikjunky's sam harris link to be helpful in answering this if you're stuck.

You know I agree with him, but I just don't like his smugness. If an atheist like me finds him smug, imagine how unbearable he must be for a person of faith to listen to.

Great points though.

I found this Sam Harris Clip far more interesting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkqUNku54zg&eurl=http://onegoodmove.org/1gm/1gmarchive/2009/01/thewaterofli.html&feature=playerembedded

Tin-foil hat Department: Pat Condell is really Bill Moyers with a crew cut (check for yourselves!).

how did condrell end up with a bc lions shirt?

Frenetic wrote: While the attitudes of people such as Condell may be repellent to some, their aims are noble and their logic is... well, present, which is more than can be said for religious people.
Even if he were't so smug and righteous in his speach, I would still find Condell repugnant both because he uses his speech to foster bigotry, and because I don't think his logic is present at all.

Condell's argument rests on the manifestly untrue premise, that: "Religion doesn't have ideas, it has is dogma" (but in fact religions do have ideas, and not all religions necessarily even have dogma).

The fact that his logic starts with a false premise makes almost everything else Condell has to say, worthless. But it's worse than even that.

Condell's diatribe reminds me of the logical process wielded by a Rush Limbaugh, in his attempts to foster heart felt contempt for selected out-groups. for instance, here's the structure of those logically flawed arguments:

1) Take a broadly used but only vaguely understood label (e.g. "religion" or "liberal" ... or you could make up a new label like "Weapons of mass destruction" (WMD))

2) Create your own simplified definition for that label. This works best if that definition has at least some nugget of truthiness to it (e.g. "Religion has no ideas, it has dogma" or "WMD are weapons that kill lots of people").

3) Make ridiculous associations seem to be reasonable, by sticking two items which are more different than alike together under the same label (e.g. Sarin gas and nuclear weapons are both WMD, and so they are both characterized to represent a similar threat. Unitarianists and Sunni Muslim Pashtuns (i.e. Taliban) are treated alike because they both fall under the label 'religion' ).

4) Play to emotions (e.g. "religions protect child molesters" or "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" )

5) Mock the out group in order to stimulate the human tendency to mob (align into entrenched groups, one against the other). This works to the advantage of the lead ranter, as that ranter then becomes a mob leader.

6) Avoid specifics. Misapply anecdotal evidence to the wider group. Extend associations. Include a lot of satire in you speech which can't be directly addressed by a critic.

It is this type of "logic" as wielded by Condell and others, that fosters bigotry.

The premise you attribute to Condell is a straw man.

For example:

Unitarianists and Sunni Muslim Pashtuns (i.e. Taliban) are treated alike because they both fall under the label 'religion'

You really don't believe that the argument he is making postulates that religion has no good ideas, do you?

It has to do with the principle of charity. If you reformulate a person's argument you should express it in the strongest possible version that is consistent with what is believed to be the intention of the arguer. If there is any question about that intent the arguer should be given the benefit of any doubt.

Clearly there is no charity in your formulation of Condell's argument on the contrary there is a decided effort on your part to paint it in the most negative terms possible.

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You really don't believe that the argument he is making postulates that religion has no good ideas, do you?

Yes, and in fact, I think I'm being charitable in doing so.

Not only does Condell verbally testify in this clip to his belief that "religion doesn't have ideas", but he uses this assertion as the very premise of his argument that it is impossible to engage in a battle of ideas with 'religion' (because they have no idea).

I'm simply responding to where I see the fallacy in Condell's argument.

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Also Condell, I have no doubt, would acknowledge that the Unitarianists and the Taliban are much different people. I'm not attributing such a equivocation to Condell. I simply bring this coupling up as an example of how the (intentionally or intentionally) careless use of labels (like 'religion') can result in the unfair lumping together of groups of people who have in fact almost nothing in common.

No doubt if you had asked Karl Rove: is there a significant difference between the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the threat posed by sarin gas? I have no doubt that he would acknowledge that there is an enormous difference between the two. But then if he continued to confuse the difference between the two (intentionally or unintentionally) by using the label "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD), then how do you interpret that?

Me, I consider the person who does something like that either careless or intellectually dishonest.

I think it's clear that he is speaking of fundamentalists when he's talking about religion. There is certainly no time in a short clip to define something as complex as religion so he relies on a common understanding and expects those watching it to keep his statements in context. The examples he gives are all of that sort. Do you think if someone presented the Sermon on the Mount as an idea of religion he would claim it worthless. He could certainly be clearer but in my opinion to misread the intent takes someone who is decidedly uncharitable.

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I think it's clear that he is speaking of fundamentalists when he's talking about religion.

I agree that what Condell is talking about meets the definition of what should be called "fundamentalism", and yet, not once does Condell use the term "fundamentalist" or "fundamentalism". Which is my point. He confuses the two.

There is certainly no time in a short clip to define something as complex as religion

Simply replace "religion" with "fundamentalism"

It's such a simple, and yet very important thing to do. Put the blame where the blame belongs. The two concepts can in practice be worlds apart; proportionately as different as sarin gas and nuclear warheads. Wielding language that presumes that two such different things are essentially the same, can't help but create confusion, and worse, when you impune people using such unjust generalities, it fosters bigotry. That's why I make a point to call it out.

Try this little thought experiment. Within Condell's speech, replace the term "religion", with "Gay Rights Activism". Does Condell's speech seem bigoted now? In fact, it's quite amusing. Condell speech now sounds exactly like the type of speech you would expect to come from the mouth of Jerry Falwell or Rush Limbaugh.

With few exceptions ALL religion has fundamentalist beliefs. For mainstream Christianity it is a virgin birth and a host of "miracles" the supernatural component. It is that fact that makes it difficult. So is catholicism fundamentalist of course it is but not to the same extent as some fundamentalist. Name the religion's that don't have fundamentalist components. So if Condell uses the term fundamentalist he risks some thinking he is excluding their religion and with it the ideas that amount to wishful thinking. Ideas that have no basis in evidence. There are religions that view everything as a metaphor, but it's hard for me to call them religions.

Of course the thought experiment works with any general term that is why in short pieces like this you get the definition from the context, or you don't and create a straw man to tear down.

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norm wrote: With few exceptions ALL religion has fundamentalist beliefs.

And without exception, ALL ethnic groups have rapists and murderers. And yet, no one would consider it acceptable (based on that fact), to impune "blacks" in general for the prevalence of inner city gang-related crime. If your problem is gang-related crime, then as a reasonable person, you are expected to criticize that problem specifically. Even if it was clear in the speech you give when you used the term "blacks", that what you really meant was the inner city gangs, not blacks in general ... it would not be acceptible

Moreover, I disagree that "nearly all" religion has fundamentalist beliefs, at least not in the way that "fundamentalism" is commonly understood. The adherence to a set of doctrine as practiced by most religion (that I have encountered at least), is not much different than the adherence to doctrine practiced by most any other class of politically or socially minded activist organization. Religion very commonly involves nothing more than a group of people who have organized themselves around a common set of doctrinal beliefs (which they live according to, but don't assert as fact), in much the same way that Republicans or Democrats gather based on their common belief in a particular political ideology and doctrinal political platforms.

Along that point, not only is it common to find religion without fundamentalism, but the phenomena of fundamentalism exists free of religion. The example of political parties serves again to make that point. There exist "fundamentalist" factions of the Libertarian and Republican party that assert the beliefs about the Laissez-faire market as fact (despite lack of evidence) and demand a strict adherence to their ideological-based doctrines in that regard.

The problem here is that you continue to jump between religion meaning a doctrine and religion meaning a group of people. Religion as much as it would like to lays no special claim to any philosophy other than a belief in the supernatural. I think most Christians assert as fact the virgin birth, though I would agree many don't care if I do. Those who don't hold any belief in the supernatural claim to the term religion is one that lacks substance since all their beliefs can just as easily be held by the secular, a non-religious humanist philosophy. Condell is arguing that it is religion and its unique dogma that is the problem not all the people who are religious.

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I think most Christians assert as fact the virgin birth

Maybe most do, but I think it is very common (far from being exceptional) to find Christian communities that don't. For instance, I would guess the Christian community that Kenneth Miller belongs to, would be an example of a very common brand of Christianity practiced around the world, where religion makes a distinction between holding a belief as an article of faith and positively asserting that belief as fact.

The problem here is that you continue to jump between religion meaning a doctrine and religion meaning a group of people.

Yeah, but I think that is always the problem when wielding a label that embodies such a diverse range of concepts. The dangers of doing that, ironically, is kind of my whole point here. Wielding such labels becomes a particular problem however when someone (e.g. Condell) uses the general term to make specific remarks, which only really apply to specific circumstances, not generally.

Condell is arguing that it is religion and its unique dogma that is the problem not all the people who are religious.

What are the unique qualities of religion that would justify Condell linking it to child molestation? What is it about religion (exclusively) that would encourage molestation of children and the institutional protection of the perpetrators against prosecution?

Those who don't hold any belief in the supernatural claim to the term religion is one that lacks substance since all their beliefs can just as easily be held by the secular, a non-religious humanist philosophy.
That misses the point I think. I would argue that belief in the supernatural (while categorically different) is not any more dangerous. Belief without evidence is I think what is at issue (note: I'm of the opinion that the word "supernatural" doesn't deserve to exist). The process of thinking involved, when a person acquires beliefs without evidence is always problematic. The act of asserting those beliefs as facts (i.e. dogma), is always an even bigger problem -- it doesn't really matter that the belief is in fairies or in free-markets -- yes, one is secular and the other religious, but the same problem exists in both.

I'm just glad Pat's back. There was a dramatic pause between his last two posts. Those critiquing his rants; this is his schtick.

Try this thought experiment.

Replacing the word "religion" throughout Condell's speech with, "Libertarianism". Here's a sample of what you get (quite funny):

Somebody said: "You're not going to win the battle of ideas by insulting people you disagree with." Which is a fair point. Or it would be if we were engaged in a battle of ideas. But unfortunately libertarianism doesn't have ideas. It has dogma. And the purpose of dogma is to get in the way of ideas, to stamp them out and kill them off before they succeed in changing anything. Because, as everyone knows, change to libertarianism is pretty much what kryptonite is to Superman. It's about as welcome as garlic to a vampire because it threatens the position of those who control libertarianism for their own narrow ignorant selfish ends.[...] But if libertarians were demanding special privileges all the time and insisting that their beliefs be allowed to dictate the behaviour of others then I'd probably adopt rather a different tone. If libertarians enjoyed a tax-exempt status which they routinely abused to meddle in politics and force their values into other people's lives [...]

Funny. Or try replacing the term "religion" with "the gay rights community". Here's a sample of what you get (also quite funny):

I don't insult people because I disagree with them; people who believe in the gay lifestyle or things like dressing up like members of the other sex or ,even though I don't believe in those things myself. But if transvestites were demanding special privileges all the time and insisting that their beliefs be allowed to dictate the behavior of others then I'd probably adopt rather a different tone. If transvestite organizations were to enjoy a tax-exempt status which they routinely abused to meddle in politics and force their values into other people's lives, or if they reacted with fury, threatening to kill people for the slightest criticism of their beliefs, or if gays were allowed to indoctrinate young children before their minds were fully formed, and if they then molested many of these children [...] And I don't apologise for that. Why should I, when the gay rights community has the barefaced cheek to claim moral authority over us, when anyone can see it doesn't even have any moral awareness. How can it have, when it's so insulated from self-examination by its blind obedience to the constitution? It seems like hardly a week goes by these days that we don't have to listen to some mealy-mouthed lesbian complaining that religion is going to lead to moral anarchy and the breakdown of society. As if people really are stupid enough to swallow this shallow-minded self-serving bullshit. Obviously, nobody wants to live in a moral vacuum. Well, nobody outside politics and banking. But, far from filling this vacuum, as it always claims, the gay rights community has actually caused it by using the constitution as a vacuous substitute for genuine morality, [...]

Riley,

Wielding such labels becomes a particular problem however when someone (e.g. Condell) uses the general term to make specific remarks, which only really apply to specific circumstances, not generally.

Agreed but it is equally a problem when those who for whatever reason don't like the tone. They purposely use the generality, unfairly in my opinion to attack the view.

What is it about religion (exclusively) that would encourage molestation of children and the institutional protection of the perpetrators against prosecution?

It isn't exclusive, but I don't see that as a particular problem. Faulty thinking as you've pointed out comes in all groups. The question is their something about the specific religion that leads to more of this behavior. I don't have specific evidence, but it seems a reasonable assumption in the case of Catholic priests and their vow of celibacy. Other clergy don't seem to have similar levels of the problem, nor does the population at large.

I would argue that belief in the supernatural (while categorically different) is not any more dangerous. Belief without evidence is I think what is at issue (note: I'm of the opinion that the word "supernatural" doesn't deserve to exist). The process of thinking involved, when a person acquires beliefs without evidence is always problematic. The act of asserting those beliefs as facts (i.e. dogma), is always an even bigger problem -- it doesn't really matter that the belief is in fairies or in free-markets -- yes, one is secular and the other religious, but the same problem exists in both.

Belief in the supernatural is belief without evidence, and I agree that is the issue. That's why religion is a problem. The most common definition of religion is belief in the supernatural. I'm interested in why you don't like the term supernatural. Agreed the same problem does exist in both, and since religion is often a champion of faith, even when it conflicts with reason, evolution, geology, etc. it is bound to have more than it's share of the nuts.

I don't think there is any easy or totally accurate characterization of what it is Condell is attacking and agree that it can be a problem.

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