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Another Angle on “Fundamentalism” (and how to avoid it)

September 29th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 30 Comments

A blog newly added to my neglected reading list is teo @ UP, an Afrikaans blog by a couple of theology students at, or from, the University of Pretoria. (One of the bloggers is Cobus van Wyngaard, who also blogs in English at my contemplations.) A recent post by Cobus, generasiegapings, emerging, en ander dinge wat ek by hoërskool vriende leer, included this comment:

Nog meer ekstreem kies party vir fundamentalisme, wat vir jou sê dat net hierdie kerk (ja, ek weet hulle sê die Bybel, maar daarmee bedoel hulle eintlik net my interpretasie van die Bybel, en dus per implikasie net my kerk) die antwoorde het, en vertel jou dis sonde om op ander plekke in die wêreld te gaan luister.

If you understand Afrikaans, go read the original post to see what he was on about. In the case of this post of mine, I’m focusing on the ideas and implications of the concept of fundamentalism that his post inspired. In short, the relevant clause from Cobus’ post is this:

Fundamentalism: it tells you that only “this church” has the answers, and that it is sinful to go listen to other sources.

What concept does this “fundamentalism” word point to then? The basic principle is this: “we are right, those that disagree are wrong — listen to the right sources, avoid the wrong sources — believe/think these correct things, reject those incorrect things”. Combine with that principle the realisation that everyone is right about some things and wrong about some other things, then the “fundamentalism” label points to a concept unrelated to being right or wrong, and rather to a certain attitude.

(For the purpose of this post, expand your concept of believe or belief to extend to those things you think — “I don’t believe anything” is an absolutely lame cop-out.)

Now… we all believe the things we believe, because we believe those things to be true/correct — assuming we really believe them. (Yes, I’m stating a tautology, please bear with me. And read that sentence again and think about it.) If we give up on believing something is true, we… um… we stop believing it. (Duh.) Are we on the same page so far?

In contemplating the meaning of “fundamentalism” in this context, two cases or understandings present themselves to me (and unfortunately so — I was hoping to focus on one, but I can’t neglect the other).

Personal Fundamentalism

The first is personal fundamentalism. This concept of fundamentalism deals with personal beliefs and how they are constructed and developed. How firmly are these beliefs held? Can they be changed, developed, replaced? Beliefs/thoughts/ideas which are non-negotiable to the believer/thinker/philosopher are their fundamental beliefs — with respect to those beliefs, the believer/thinker/philosopher is a fundamentalist.

Fundamentalism started out as a positive term used by a group to describe themselves. (Source: Wikipedia – fundamentalism, citing two sources.) When understood in this sense, we all have fundamentals, and are all therefore fundamentalists of some sort.

When Richard Dawkins or his fans argue that he or they are not fundamentalists, they are typically arguing about personal fundamentalism, and they typically mean they will revise any of their beliefs if presented with evidence to the contrary. They are arguing that their epistemology is a non-fundamentalistic one, leaving them open to new understandings and ideas. (Epistemology: the study of the nature knowledge and justification, and the extent to which we have either. [src])

Thus: their ideas about epistemology are the right ideas, and other ideas, lower standards, are wrong. See where I’m going with this? They have as their fundamentals a certain epistemological standard. Keep on digging, and you should be able to find anyone’s fundamentals, fundamentals about which they could be proud to be called fundamentalists. Even, dare I say, nihilists! While my first thought was that they’d be an example of no fundamentals, I think maybe it requires a certain fundamental mindset to take you to nihilism: insisting, as a fundamental, that you don’t accept any fundamentals that are unprovable…?

As much as I like high epistemological standards and appreciate the particular ways in which Dawkins and fans are not fundamentalists, I will continue to insist on pointing out the other ways in which they are. When I do something like point out ways in which we are all fundamentalists, I hope to disarm name-calling and start talking about the actual concepts at hand.

Developing good fundamentals is certainly fundamental to living a good life. (Take as broad a view as you can on the meaning of “good” here.)

Interpersonal Fundamentalism

In personal beliefs, you can have an intense conviction of a particular belief/idea, living by it fully, but still be open to replacing or revising that belief/idea. Rephrased: being prepared to reexamine and change your beliefs or ideas does not mean you cannot be very serious about those beliefs or ideas while holding them. (Hint: all you need is humility to be able to let go of older ideas, and eagerness and a positive mindset in embracing new ones.) So I have no qualms about ideas and beliefs held strongly and dearly. Instead…

Introduce the big complicator for all aspects of human expression: interpersonal relationships. In moving away from the ego-centric concerns of personal fundamentalism, we discover an interpersonal version of the concept:

I’m right and you’re wrong. Period.

…what I do have qualms about, is the way we communicate and interact about our ideas and beliefs.

The interpersonal version of “fundamentalism” is the one I care about most, because it impacts other people. As I mentioned earlier, we are all right about some things, and wrong about others, and often it is a real waste of time — or even actively harmful to our well-being — to critically analyse every belief or thought/idea we have. Since we sincerely believe we are right about the things we are right about (there’s that tautology again), we effectively believe that those that don’t believe the same things have incorrect beliefs.

Given that this is the case for all of us, the concern should rather be about the way we interact about our differences. If we all try to convert everyone over to our way of seeing things, convince them to let go of the things we believe they are wrong about and start believing/thinking the things we believe we are right about, and we do so for everything, we will be fighting for ever. It will get us nowhere.

And this will always be the case, because there is too much that we disagree about and always will disagree about. (Never mind factual claims right now, we are talking about interpretive things, subjective things, we’re talking about Meh. Arguably that is all we really have to go by: consider (Re?)Introducing Meh and Lah and discuss it there if you want some clarity on this idea.)

This is where democracy comes in, for example: we know there are many things we will never agree on, and it is a waste of time arguing about many of these things, so we develop compromising systems by which we can settle on a decision or course of action that we decide is good enough for now. This works in some spheres, but not in others.

Getting back to the point… the interpersonal understanding of “fundamentalism” deals with how people interact, not about whether they are right or wrong. If using this understanding of the word, many Richard Dawkins fans would certainly be fundamentalists as much as any religious fundamentalist: they approach interpersonal conversations with the attitude and thesis of “we are right and you are wrong”, and often whack you over the head with it as often and as hard as they can. Ditto for religious fundamentalists. Who is right and who is wrong is not the point, because, remember, we are all wrong and we are all right. The point here is how we interact. I think this is the concept pointed to by the word “fundamentalist”, when people label Richard Dawkins or his fans as such.

Here are then some of my suggestions to those that wish to avoid coming across as fundamentalists in this interpersonal sense:

  • Remind yourself that you are wrong about a great many things, and that there are many things that you do not yet know and never will know.
  • With some momentum picked up from the previous point, consider, even if for only a moment, that you may indeed be wrong about the belief in question, and that the other might be right. Basically, try to mentally take yourself a notch closer to center on the “Dawkins scale”, even if only temporarily for the purpose of a particular interaction.
  • Approach interactions with the knowledge that you agree about some things and disagree about other things. Build and develop some common ground based on your agreements. Try as best you can to understand the experience and worldview of the other and how they see things and experience things. In that regard, stretch and challenge your talent for empathy to the point that it becomes a trained skill.
  • When discussing disagreements, have some goal or purpose in mind. Know why you are discussing or debating a particular disagreement, and focus on that purpose or goal. Be clear about it: explain the reason you are disagreeing and why you consider this particular issue to be important.
  • Listen! Be helpful and proactive in encouraging the other to formulate their concerns — in order to clearly demarcate what the discussion is about.
  • As soon as you realise a discussion is only about you being right and them being wrong, rather than about some actually useful purpose, stop! Think for a moment. There is most likely a better use of your time, one that makes a much greater or useful contribution in the grand scheme of things. Maybe you could encourage the other to focus on positive contributions rather than fighting about the trivialities. (For my use of the word in this context, it is a triviality if you cannot identify a good reason or purpose for arguing about it.)
  • Be humble in you demeanor, don’t allow confidence about your message, belief or idea turn you into a bully.
  • Be prepared to walk away with the disagreement unresolved. Better yet, make it your intent to do so. I suggest aiming to avoid resolving the issue, as I believe the aim should be to stretch and encourage thinking. You shouldn’t be aiming to establish a new authoritarian relationship (where one is right and the other is wrong), but rather to try to create a mutually nurturing mindset. The ideal is to encourage something akin to metanoia (Wiktionary: “A fundamental change of mind; Spiritual conversion”), which is something personal and internal. And it should be for both of you.

    With regards to the purpose that drove the conversation, let the other draw up conclusions for themselves, in their own time, maybe after the conversation is finished (even long after). Don’t break your head over it though… while there was a purpose or focus for the conversation, what you should carry away from it for yourself, is a better understanding of the other, a better understanding of how their mind works, what makes them tick, why they operate the way they do. Ideally it should lead to something of a metanoia in yourself as well.

    Whether this happens gradually or in a sudden flash of Eureka! does not matter. Life’s a journey. May any eventual conclusion be one of mutual cooperation rather than one of victory and defeat.

These are just my suggestions. You are of course welcome to not follow them. You are welcome to have fun being a bully, as much as others are welcome to call you a fundamentalist.

If, however, you think I may be onto something here, or you want to discuss these ideas, in agreement or disagreement, or in figuring out how they can be applied, please do so!

Bear in mind I’m a bridge builder, my goal is to facilitate trade and travel between two banks — cross pollination is beautifully creative, in memes just as much as in genes. Here is a potentially worthwhile exercise: reread this post while mentally role-playing a resident of the opposite bank. The most useful contributions for my goals are those that work both ways.


Suggested thought-provoking reading material that can also serve as more food for discussion: Richard Lewontin: Billions and Billions of Demons, a critical review of Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.”

Categories: Religion and Science
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30 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Cobus // Sep 29, 2008 at 2:30 am

    I firmly believe that the best way to counter fundamentalism is to create community…

    I like your suggestions. Rather than respond, I’d like to point to others which I think help us along in this conversation:

    A friend, Kevin Parry, who is an atheist, talks about the problems he has with the New Atheism. It was this approach which I believe has made room for many fruitful conversations between Kevin and Christians, which include his very devout wife Cori.

    Dominic Crossan talks about fundamentalism, and gives what I consider the best definition I’ve ever came upon. It was this video that gave be respect for this man, also the way in which he says it maybe more even than what he says.

  • 2 Kenneth Oberlander // Sep 29, 2008 at 10:31 am

    I’ve just read the Kevin Parry article. I disagree on a couple of points.

    I think his statement that fear is the reason for vocal atheism is a bit…simplistic. I also think a certain amount of disgust and anger at fundamentalism (read Dawkins article on 9/11) play a part.

    It is also manifestly wrong to say that any of the new atheists ignore the good parts of religion. Dawkins waxes lyrical on the tremendous historical and cultural value of the Bible, for one. Dennett also discusses the potential virtues of religion. From what I’ve read, the only new atheist that is virulently anti-religion is Hitchens. The point here is, to all of these authors (sans Hitchens) the negative aspects of religion drastically outweigh its positive aspects.

    On evolution leading to atheism. To me, this is wrong. What the idea of evolution does do is knock over one of the strongest arguments for the existence of god, namely the argument from design, or the Paley watchmaker argument. This is one of the most potent pillars of support for faith in many people I know. Because a perfectly natural explanation exists for these phenomena, this argument is fallacious. It cannot be used to bolster your faith. Evolution doesn’t lead to atheism per se. It just eliminates one of the most powerful arguments for god.

    As regards his major point. The concise rebuttal I’ve heard most often is: how far has being nice and unchallenging gotten atheists in the past?

    Hugo, sorry, I’ve commented more on the other piece than on your own post!

    I’m in two minds on your “everyone is a fundamentalist about something” argument. Depends on your definition of fundamentalism…

    I remember reading Richard Lewontins Billions and billions of Demons a while ago, and for some reason remember disagreeing with it, but I can’t remember why. If I get a chance, I’ll reread and post my thoughts.

  • 3 miller // Sep 29, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    If we define fundamentalism as an attitude of “we are right, you are wrong”, then a little fundamentalism isn’t a bad thing. In its mild form, fundamentalism simply amounts to a willingness to try to persuade. I, for one, am glad that I have been persuaded so many times throughout my life. However, it has only ever worked out for me through the medium of public writing. In a face-to-face argument, people tend to overestimate the probability that they will persuade the particular person standing in front of them within that particular argument.

    With that in mind, I do not really consider Dawkins and company to be fundamentalists, at least not the bad kind. They have only written books, given talks, built communities. What they may have done is incite fundamentalism amongst atheist activists. But to understand it from their point of view, they really do think religion is important, at least as important as, say, politics. Think of the depths which people go to for politics. For better or for worse, atheist activists are the same way.

  • 4 Hugo // Sep 29, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Lovely comments all around!

    @Cobus, that Crossan clip will probably feature as a filler on this blog when I next need one. ;) I have yet to read Kevin’s post.

    @Kenneth, no problem discussing a linked-to post. It’s certainly quite on-topic. I have much respect for Dennett’s nuanced take on things, it should be relatively clear that I’m somewhat of a fan of his, in some senses. I’ll dig up some of Dawkins’ more positive things later, it would do me good to see more of that side of him.

    Being “in two minds” is great, mission accomplished. ;) It reflects seeing things from multiple viewpoints, and means you at least tolerate, to some degree, my abuse of words. I’m pretty much in two minds about most of the things I write myself!

    About Lewontin’s review (which apparently featured in the recent “seminar” *cough*, that’s how I came across it): I also have things I disagree with. But what I do like in particular, and why I point to it, is the thought-provocation with regards to the challenges of teaching science. I touched on it in the post I wrote about the first three episodes of Cosmos: the series isn’t as useful in a re-education application, even if it is good at introducing curious and interested people to what science has found.

    In short: scientists are typically trusted on the grounds of being an “authority” on a subject. This is unavoidable, because the body of knowledge is just too huge.

    @miller, I concur.

    Being confident about your ideas does serve as the best motivation to share them. It takes a special kind of person to enjoy or be motivated to argue a point they don’t feel strongly about themselves. (Debaters, lawyers…?)

    This post more or less concludes (I hope) thinking around “in what way might Dawkins be considered to be a fundamentalist?” – the chance is very good that I’m going to run with Crossan’s definition in the future. I now have these posts to refer back to, and these ideas to argue with, should I run into specific cases where it might be useful.

    S Glossary. I’m definitely going to start up a glossary some time, hopefully before Christmas.

  • 5 Ben-Jammin' // Sep 30, 2008 at 9:12 am

    From Kevin Parry’s post:

    But where the New Atheists have erred, I think, in their approach is that they have alienated themselves from other groups which include Muslims and Christians alike who also share the same concerns about religious fundamentalism.

    Of the religious moderates and liberals I have conversed with who find Dawkins troublesome, none have lessened opposition to fundamentalism as a result. They just don’t like Dawkins / Harris / Hitchens.

    My generalizations: Both religious fundamentalists and naturalists have generally consistent epistemologies. Both are more likely to actually act in accordance with what they say their beliefs are. Religious liberals have inconsistent epistemologies but are likely to actually act in accordance with what they say their beliefs are. Religious moderates have inconsistent epistemologies and don’t act in accordance with what they say their beliefs are.

    As far as the ‘writing about the evils of religion and neglecting the good of religion’: The first and most important aspect of the case is whether theism or atheism, supernaturalism or naturalism, should be held true or false. You can’t even make a judgment about whether religion is a net good or a net evil without first answering the true / false question. Flying jet airplanes into skyscrapers or curing AIDS in a homosexual patient can both be good or evil, depending on whether or not certain versions of Islam or Christianity are true. Once you determine which worldview is best supported, the question becomes whether or not there is a reason to advocate for that worldview. Does having a false worldview lead to harm (from the viewpoint of the worldview that is best supported)? The cases for both supernaturalism and authoritarian morality being net negatives if naturalism is true are pretty solid, I think.

  • 6 Cobus // Oct 1, 2008 at 1:37 am

    But against what will you measure true/false? What would form your criteria? Some form of so-called objective reasoning?

    I’m a theologian, not a philosopher, so excuse me if I’m misquoting something here, but wasn’t it Levinas who said that ethics should form the foundation for philosophy?
    Didn’t Derida say that justice is the one concept that cannot be deconstructed?
    Didn’t Jesus preach orthopraxy much more than orthodoxy? Ethics more than dogma?

    If good and evil is not at the heart of what we are talking about, then we cannot talk about true or false. With which I’m not saying that ethics form the only possible conversation, simply that it cannot be left for the second round of conversations, but should be part of the first.

  • 7 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 1, 2008 at 3:46 am

    But against what will you measure true/false?

    If you ask me, by our best uses of logic and inductive reasoning from evidence. Basically, math, science, critical – historical method, etc. If you ask others you’ll get some other epistemology.

    If good and evil is not at the heart of what we are talking about, then we cannot talk about true or false.

    If I don’t have any idea of what a person is, an animal is, disease is…I have no idea how you arrive at a system of oughts.

    From a previous post of mine on the topic:

    “Assume two parents. For the contexts of our decisions in this hypothetical, we both value our children’s welfare more highly than anything else.

    Person A is me. I hold beliefs generally consistent with atheism and metaphysical naturalism.

    Person B believes in an eternal afterlife spent in heaven or hell. Going to heaven or hell is conditional. Children who die young enough will automatically go to heaven, as they have not yet reached the age of accountability (say, 7 yrs old.) I’ll call these beliefs ‘B’-ism.

    In both of our cases, we believe it is considerably less than assured that all of our children will adopt our belief systems.

    Person A / me:

    “I intend to teach my children to be skeptical and think critically. Their conclusions will be their own. I believe my children’s lives will be likely to be better by my teachings, as they will be more likely to arrive at true beliefs, allowing them to make better decisions. I am not going to indoctrinate my children to believe ‘B’-ism because I don’t believe it to be true.”

    Person B:

    “I believe ‘B’-ism to be true. I estimate my chances of my children meeting the conditions to go to heaven to be 50%. If I kill my children before they turn 7, they will automatically go to heaven. Eternal consequences are infinitely more important than finite ones. Therefore, I will drown my children before they turn 7.”

    Both parents are making decisions with the exact same goal. Both parents would also completely agree about the observable effects of all the actions involved. Both are honestly making the correct decision in the context of their beliefs to maximize the welfare of their children. Where it gets really interesting (to me, anyway) is if you look at A’s actions in the context of B’s beliefs or vice versa. Both parents are then taking pretty close to the worst possible action in the context of valuing their children’s welfare. Person A is quite likely going to send their children to hell for all eternity and person B is going to end the children’s only lives well short of when they otherwise would have ended.”

    If you see a decision that is good under both A-ism and B-ism, I’d love to know what it is and how you got there.

  • 8 Cobus // Oct 1, 2008 at 4:58 am

    I firmly believe that the best way to counter fundamentalism is to create community

    From my first comment on this section. To which I’ll return shortly.

    Now, you seem to have a very high view of reason:

    If you ask me, by our best uses of logic and inductive reasoning from evidence. Basically, math, science, critical – historical method, etc.

    but I appreciate the fact that you acknowledge the problem that others would call on some other epistemology.

    I believe the problem of our highly individualistic culture is evident from your comment. If I want to determine good and evil by first determining true and false, and then deducting good and evil from that, then you find exactly the situation you described. Although I don’t think you’ve taken it to its logical conclusion.

    In this everyone decide upon an approach. And what determines this? Whatever, it doesn’t really matter, cause you can’t say its wrong. I accept certain preconceived ideas, you accept others, and we simply continue on our different paths, with no bridge to bind us. Because, coming from my preconceived ideas, my perspective on truth looks completely sensible, and same for you. And really, what does it matter? Should I challenge my idea of truth simply for the sake of truth? If ethics are not in view, why would I even bother even more on truth, except if I’m of the philosophical kind. The search for truth become a very nice exercise for some, but what becomes the motivation for the continuing search?

    The logical conclusion, however, of your example I believe is that B would not only kill its own kids, but also that of A. Since the good thing would be not only to get my kids to heaven, but also those of A. Actually, since the kids of A has a much larger than 50% chance of not going to heaven, it would be even “more ethical” to kill the kids of A before they are 7. What right does A have to raise its kids that way in any case? And the other way around as well: A would have to take B’s kids away, and provide them with education consistent with atheism. That will be the good and right thing to do. Both cases will lead to fundamentalism of some sort.

    Rather, the starting point should be ethics and community. Although it might not fit with certain rationalistic views, communities all over history has found ways of finding what is good and what is evil. Although differences of nuance existed, a fairly common view emerged, many times from trail and error. Philosophical traditions attempts to give rational tools to determine what is ethical, and this is important, especially in solving moral dilemmas. But these tools is not what first formed the ethics. Not murdering was decided within community, by searching for what is good for the community. Justise cannot be deconstructed…

    Yes, my preconceived view has a rather high view of humanity, but then humanity in community. No, we might not solve the problem within the first conversation. And no, the best argument might not win. But in time the community finds ways (sometimes using philosophical tools, sometimes using rationalism, sometimes using ways which some would consider unethical, and future generations would consider unethical, such as many of the wars of the past) of determining what is good, and what is evil.

    In its search for truth Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, really believing that this was the right thing to do, since it stemmed from the rational truth of the place of Jews. Had they rather searched for good, and searched in community…

    Just to clarify. I’m not saying we search for good, and derive truth from that. I say that the search for good must be part of our first conversation, our base conversation. Questions of truth might also form part of this, but deriving good from some objective truth has lead to points in history which the community, upon looking back, and many times from experience and not rational thought, had to say was evil. This in the end then formed truth…

    OK, I’m rambling now, sorry for the extremely long comment Hugo!

  • 9 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 1, 2008 at 8:11 am

    I accept certain preconceived ideas, you accept others, and we simply continue on our different paths, with no bridge to bind us.

    The only preconceived things I accept are my experiences. I cannot doubt an experience while I am having it. All else is built up from there. If you accept preconceived ideas in addition to that, I contend that you are erring.

    Whatever, it doesnt really matter, cause you cant say its wrong.

    Sure I can. I just did. Why can’t I?

    And the other way around as well: A would have to take Bs kids away, and provide them with education consistent with atheism. That will be the good and right thing to do.

    You would have to take B’s kids away, yes, and that’s exactly what we do. I think every nation on the planet would currently consider drowning your kids murder and lock you away. Many have some version of child protective services that would take the kids away before the parents could drown them. If we’re talking about a case without the murder, with more moderate supernatural beliefs, then the decision whether or not to take away the kids is usually clear-cut the other way. On an individual basis learning supernaturalism – even if in error – is not that harmful to the individual.

    In its search for truth Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, really believing that this was the right thing to do, since it stemmed from the rational truth of the place of Jews.

    The Nazis search for truth? Yah, they were a real inquisitive bunch…

    You consider the views of Jews held by the Nazis to be rational? That can’t possibly be what you mean… ‘The place of the Jews’ is much more of a value distinction than a truth distinction anyway.

    Eradicating polio also stemmed from the ‘rational truth’ (your words) of the place of polio. Should we have done neither? Both? One or the other?

    Just to clarify. Im not saying we search for good, and derive truth from that. I say that the search for good must be part of our first conversation, our base conversation.

    I’m talking about investigation first, not conversation. If you’re saying that in practice I should have a basic set of ethics the whole time then I fully agree.

    Changes in a person’s view of what is will change their view of what we ought much, much more than the opposite.

  • 10 Kenneth Oberlander // Oct 1, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Although it might not fit with certain rationalistic views, communities all over history has found ways of finding what is good and what is evil.

    If anything, this just reinforces the necessary moral strictures for forming and maintaining a community. It says nothing about the truth or falsity of the moral strictures involved.

    Although differences of nuance existed, a fairly common view emerged, many times from trail and error.

    Again, the very fact that this emerged out of trial and error (which I don’t think is entirely true) reflects that only certain types of behaviour are consistent with the formation of any community.

    Philosophical traditions attempts to give rational tools to determine what is ethical, and this is important, especially in solving moral dilemmas. But these tools is not what first formed the ethics.

    Agreed. But these rational tools can help to explain how they form.

    Not murdering was decided within community, by searching for what is good for the community. Justise cannot be deconstructed

    I disagree with this. For example, societies that tended to greater levels of murder would not be as successful as societies that didn’t. It is a generally self-pruning process.

    In its search for truth Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, really believing that this was the right thing to do, since it stemmed from the rational truth of the place of Jews. Had they rather searched for good, and searched in community

    Agreed with Ben-Jammin on this one. The Nazis were wholesale against any search for truth.

  • 11 Cobus // Oct 1, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Let me start out by saying that I respect the level of this conversation! But I expect nothing less from readers of someone who write on the level that Hugo does.

    Obviously, there seem to be very deep differences in our approaches, however, the only way to find these and get them challenged, would be in community, so I hope the conversation can continue.

    OK, so let’s start with a few notes on Nazi Germany:
    Both pre and post-WW2 Germany had some of the most sophisticated philosophers and theologians. Think of Kant (1724-1804), Nietzsche (1844-1900), Heidegger (1889-1976) and Habermas (1929-present) in philosophy. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Bultmann (1884-1976), Pannenberg (1928-present) and Moltmann (1926-present) in theology. The pre-WW2 German intellectual tradition could well be considered the height of modern society! And still, this society was able to commit some of the worst atrocities in human history. True, some were against what was being done, but many German intellectuals actually approved the Nazi regime. The best proponents of critical-historical method came from Germany, Nazi Germany! This very fact was responsible for much of the disillusionment with modern philosophy, and provided the soil for the emergence of post-modern thought. Nazi Germany forced modern society into recognizing that pure rationalistic thought wont lead to the utopian dream that liberal (in it’s original meaning, not what it has become today) thought proclaimed. Oh, and this would be the picture that historical-critical methods would help us paint.

    Looking back, it’s easy to critique the Nazi’s, but from the near side of history, the philosophical tools lacked to change a society… and this in the most philosophical and technological advanced nation of the time. So, I consider the views concerning Jews held by Nazi’s evil. However, 1930 intellectuals to a great extend considered the views rational.

    Concerning the parents:
    True, most all societies have brought things in place that will take the kids away form parent B. But is wasn’t because of logic, science, math, and definitely not because of historical-critical method. It was ethics, and let’s remember, mostly religion, that brought this into being. So, although society did decide that parent B was wrong, it didn’t do so because it first arrived at some form of objective truth, but rather because of what was good.

    Concerning preconceived ideas:
    If you consider your only preconceived ideas to be your own experiences, doesn’t that reveal a bias towards individualism? The same bias that Descartes had when he said: “Cogito ergo sum”. And would the historical-critical method then be part of your experience?

    Concerning rational thought:
    I’m not against rational thought (oh, and just for the record, I’m very positive about the historical-critical method which you so love, but then developments in this direction over the last 2 decades need to be kept in mind, where the method started to recognized its own limits). I don’t consider rational thought to be immoral. I don’t think rational thought is necessarily a prerequisite for the good, or that good necessarily stem from the rational.

  • 12 Kenneth Oberlander // Oct 1, 2008 at 10:32 am

    oh, and just for the record, Im very positive about the historical-critical method which you so love, but then developments in this direction over the last 2 decades need to be kept in mind, where the method started to recognized its own limits

    I’m interested. Could you expand on this statement please.

    I dont think rational thought is necessarily a prerequisite for the good, or that good necessarily stem from the rational.

    Agreed. But, again, what we consider good can indeed be analysed, and the origins of and variation amongst “good”ness be understood, using rational approaches.

  • 13 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 1, 2008 at 11:10 am

    The pre-WW2 German intellectual tradition could well be considered the height of modern society! And still, this society was able to commit some of the worst atrocities in human history.

    A decade of poverty and humiliation following the Versailles treaty had quite a bit to do with it. Now you’re trying to paint an equivalence between the Nazis who stomped out freethought and rejected secular ethics and those who promoted them!

    “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . . we need believing people.” – Adolf Hitler, Speech, April 26, 1933

    “We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

    - Adolf Hitler, Speech in Berlin, October 24, 1933

    “In Freethinkers Hall, which before the Nazi resurgence was the national headquarters of the German Freethinkers League, the Berlin Protestant church authorities have opened a bureau for advice to the public in church matters. Its chief object is to win back former churchgoers and assist those who have not previously belonged to any religious congregation in obtaining church membership. The German Freethinkers League, which was swept away by the national revolution, was the largest of such organizations in Germany. It had about 500,000 members…”

    - The New York Times, May 14, 1933, page 2, on Hitler’s outlawing atheistic and freethinking groups in the Spring of 1933, after the Enabling Act authorizing Hitler to rule by decree

    But is wasnt because of logic, science, math, and definitely not because of historical-critical method.

    It absolutely is dependent on science. If the society based their laws on a supernaturalist worldview, you could have mandatory human sacrifices to keep the gods happy. (Aztecs? I forget.) You could have honor killings being considered right. If our society took B’s worldview seriously, B’s actions would be as uncontroversial as a vaccination. Our society does not take B’s worldview seriously – Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity for believing this way and acting on her beliefs.

    If you consider your only preconceived ideas to be your own experiences, doesnt that reveal a bias towards individualism?

    What else is there that I cannot doubt? Think about it. I can consider any interpretation I assign to my experiences to be possibly wrong. I can have my senses defeated by an illusion. I can have false memories. I can make errors.

    Epistemological regress – ‘I know A because of B, and B because of C, etc.’ has to end somewhere. The bare minimum you can take without justification is only your own experiences. Everything else could be false – you need some justification for believing it.

    And would the historical-critical method then be part of your experience?

    You’re misunderstanding what I’m saying, I think. This is how one of those PhD smart guys says it:

    One of the big issues in epistemology is the problem of infinite regress. “I believe the sun will rise.” “How do you know that?” “Because it always has.” “How do you know that?” “Because my memory and human records confirm it has.” “How do you know that?” “Because I’ve examined those memories and records.” “How do you know that?” And so on. It looks like this could go on forever. It seems like any answer you give can be doubted. We can always keep asking “How do you know that?” And this isn’t the only line of regress. “I believe the sun will rise.” “How do you know that?” “Because it always has.” “How do you know something that’s always happened will continue to happen?” And so on.

    The difference between these two lines of questioning is that the first is about the facts, while the second is about which rules are valid when interpreting those facts. Every rule is doubtable, because exceptions are always possible, and every fact is doubtable, because we could always be mistaken, someone could always have made an error, or lied, or our memories could be inaccurate or false, and so on. Thus, the problem of regress is just this: Where is it reasonable to stop doubting, to stop asking questions? When should we just shut up and believe?

    …To say something is “properly basic” is to declare that it’s something we get to assume without needing a reason to believe it. In my epistemology, however, in direct contrast to Plantinga’s, only what is literally undeniable gets to be called “properly basic.” For I believe we need a reason, at least some reason, to believe anything else–if it could be false, if there is any chance it could be false, then we need some reason to believe it isn’t false. It needn’t be a weighty or elaborate or air tight reason. Any genuine reason will do. But if we need even a tiny little reason to believe something before we are warranted in believing it, then that belief cannot be called properly basic.

    For example, the fact that our thoughts and “interpretations” exist at the moment we experience them is undeniable, regardless of whether they are true or correct, and therefore our belief in the existence of those thoughts and interpretations is properly basic. Likewise, it can also be undeniable that there exists at this moment an experience of our “interpretations” cohering well–or not cohering well–with everything we are experiencing at the same moment. Now, just because we are experiencing an interpretation of the facts that is cohering well with everything else going on, doesn’t mean it is cohering well (we could be in error about that), nor does such coherence mean our interpretation is true (since there are often countless explanations of the same facts that are equally coherent). But the fact that we are experiencing that coherence is undeniable. Since it cannot be false that we are experiencing it right here and now, it is properly basic. We get to believe we are having that experience without needing any reason to believe that, other than the one reason entirely contained within itself: the fact that it cannot be false…

    I accept no preconceived ideas beyond the absolute minimum. Everything else is justified; perhaps flimsily, perhaps wrongly, perhaps correctly. The justifications can be examined, discussed, corrected, etc. – you CAN say I have it wrong – whereas preconceived ideas cannot.

    I dont think rational thought is necessarily a prerequisite for the good, or that good necessarily stem from the rational.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the latter. For the former, not so much. (shrug.)

    If you take out rational thought as a prerequisite, don’t you have to classify both A and B’s actions as good? Both are correctly maximizing the same value of their child’s welfare in the light of their pictures of what is.

  • 14 Cobus // Oct 1, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    I’m not responding on every little sentence, but rather to some key points which I believe can help the conversation along.

    The Nazis
    Is the only form of rational thought atheist thinking? Is religious thought necessarily non-rational?

    Why were Hitler able to sell these ideas to this rational country? Why didn’t the philosophical foundation of Germany lead to the good? And for that matter, why would we consider the actions of Hitler as evil?

    Historical Critical Method
    My own research is on historical-Jesus research, where since the time of Albert Schweitzer the idea that historical reconstructions is not objective, but always reflect the biases of the historian. The historical reconstructions of the historian always reflect the historian. That fact has been recognized more and more over the past few decades. That is not to say that the method is without value! I at least would not say that, but simply that the limits of our objective reasoning need to be recognized.

    oh, the parents
    The conversation started out saying that both A and B hold their respective views. Both consider them to be rational, to be true. Now, society has decided that B is the worse parent, but on what base? That of truth? Did society decide it because B hold to supernatural beliefs? Or because they first found the acts of B to be evil, and therefore found it false? I still don’t see that it was rational thought that caused society to see B as evil, although rational thought (in your understanding of it at least) would also bring us to this depiction.

    And on your depiction of religion… for most of history societies have based there worldviews on religious thought, on some form of worldview which recognize the “more”. Looking at history it would seem like this actually formed societies where human sacrifice was totally unacceptable…

    Descartes
    Your approach remind me of that of Descartes, thus you are in good company! He also attempted to doubt whatever is possible, and build his worldview from that. However, ever since Kant, and still more later on, this view has also received some critique. So this critique would have to be recognized as well. You work from the assumption that only working from what you can’t doubt will bring truth, but that is an assumption!

    thus…
    Point is: Religion has cause a lot of evil to happen. In its extremes religion has sanctified human sacrifice, and even child sacrifice. But 20th century secularism has created an environment where wars rage on, where for the first time in history it is considered acceptable if civilians is killed in wars.

    The problem was inherent in the argument right from the start. If you first need to decide upon truth, then whatever fits this view would be good. But many different understandings of what is true exist, and views on what is good seem to transcend these. Faith is not inherently evil, neither is atheism. Neither is inherently good either.

  • 15 Kenneth Oberlander // Oct 1, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Is religious thought necessarily non-rational?

    I would prefer to say that religious thought is inconsistently rational. Given the starting assumptions, I think most religious folk manage to build up internal worldviews that are relatively consistent. But the starting assumptions themselves are not necessarily true, and seldom questioned. And evidence to the contrary is either ignored, or falls prey to confirmation bias.

    Why were Hitler able to sell these ideas to this rational country? Why didnt the philosophical foundation of Germany lead to the good?

    The Weimar Republic was by no means a paragon of rationality. Although I doubt any country can be considered such a thing. People are emotional animals. Animals purely in a non-pejorative, evolutionary sense.

    In Hitler’s case he was playing on centuries of entrenched, irrational, endemic anti-semitism. He was playing on people’s irrational side. To tragic effect. Not to mention the judicious use of violence and intimidation. An effective and not very pretty package.

    That is not to say that the method is without value! I at least would not say that, but simply that the limits of our objective reasoning need to be recognized.

    Well, any method of historical reconstruction carries an element of error or bias. If we know of the bias, however, we can account for it. This doesn’t invalidate the reasoning per se, just that we need to take other factors into account.

    So this critique would have to be recognized as well. You work from the assumption that only working from what you cant doubt will bring truth, but that is an assumption!

    No. Well, not in my day job, anyway. There is always some element of doubt associated with any interpretation of a fact. It is the degree of doubt that is important. By using rational thought, and evidence, we are trying to decrease the amount of doubt associated with the truth. That is what scientists do: quantify our degree of doubt about reality. Hopefully, we can get the doubt surrounding some aspect of truth down to the point where it would be so ridiculously small that it would be silly not to provisionally accept it as the truth. A sufficiently good approximation of the truth is still good for a lot of things, even when we know that it is only an approximation. And we can generally improve on our approximations.

    But 20th century secularism has created an environment where wars rage on, where for the first time in history it is considered acceptable if civilians is killed in wars.

    Really? Can you build an argument blaming secularist thought for this? In any case, secularist thought has also created the internet, an average life expectancy increase of three decades, vaccines and antibiotics for many of humanity’s most deadly diseases and a green revolution that can feed six billion people, not to mention the most complete and accurate picture of the universe that humanity has ever held. As an addendum, but relevant: the biggest killer in humanity’s history is not war, it’s famine, and disease. I would say secularist thought comes out a net plus.

    Faith is not inherently evil, neither is atheism. Neither is inherently good either.

    I would tend to agree, with one caveat: dogmatic, unevidenced faith can often be a vehicle for what we call evil. We all have faith in something. It’s where this faith is held in all certainty against the evidence that I would say we have a problem…

  • 16 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 1, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Is the only form of rational thought atheist thinking?

    There is no rational case for theism. It’s not close. I’ve looked.

    Is religious thought necessarily non-rational?

    Give me a definition of how to classify thoughts as religious or non-religious and I’ll answer. Otherwise we’ll be talking past each other.

    You work from the assumption that only working from what you cant doubt will bring truth, but that is an assumption!

    ? OK. If I additionally assume something else to be immune from doubt, without any reason to believe it is true, how does that make for a better epistemology?

    But 20th century secularism has created an environment where wars rage on, where for the first time in history it is considered acceptable if civilians is killed in wars.

    What? This is completely false. On a per capita basis, the 20th century has been much less violent than most of human history. It has always been considered (not by all, of course) acceptable in war if civilians were killed pre-20th century.

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html
    http://www.edge.org/q2007/q07_1.html

    “Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View

    Paradoxically, one of the biggest reasons for being optimistic is that there are systemic flaws in the reported world view. Certain types of news for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions are massively over-reported, others such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world massively under-reported.

    …So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.”

  • 17 Hugo // Oct 2, 2008 at 12:47 am

    I’m not very into this conversation, for reasons of time pressure, firstly, but secondly as this is (inevitably) a conversation framed around things I don’t exactly want to frame. You know me, trying to redirect the conversation, and move away from talking about “supernaturalism”. ;) So… for what it’s worth, just a couple of thoughts:

    @Ben in 7: I disagree with your cute summary. ;) But don’t let me side-track the conversation. I’ll maybe make a new post on “liberals” and “epistemologies” later.

    @Ben in 9, your experiences are shaped by your beliefs? (Stupid example: if I believe life is not worth living, by confirmation bias I’m likely to experience it as such.) My point is that worldview has an impact on experience.

    Values, facts, truth… Borg pointed out in a book I read recently, that in modernity we have become “fact fundamentalists” – we equate truth and fact. By implication, he suggests there is a thing that is “truth”, that is not fact. Some tribes started some of their stories with “I don’t know if it really happened, but I know it to be true.”

    I suggest that rationalist-atheists and theologians are talking about slightly different ideas of “truth”, the latter being more focused on values and how we should behave. We should not kill, is then considered a “truth”, but it is certainly not a fact. Unless you take the mathematical game-theory approach and have some value/goal/purpose for humanity as your leap-of-faith. (Or Darwinian survival?) But the average person in the street does not care about that kind of thing… they’re not rational, they’re human? ;) I’ve begun pondering the meaning of the word “truth” in similar fashion as I’ve been pondering the meaning of the word “fundamentalist”.

    For an extreme: take the broad, highly inclusive set of all things that could be considered “true”. Think more broadly than you’re already thinking. Now subtract the set of things that are considered “factually correct”. What is left? That’s what I want to think about: those things that are left. ;)

    Stupid example, again, of “truth” in colloquial use: “out of sight, out of mind”… “ah, yes, that’s true!” and then… “absence makes the heart grow fonder”… “yup, definitely true”. Stupid example, because in each case you could say there is an obvious context that is being referred to, and this context is included in the message. This context? Experience, worldview… Looking at things, listening to statements, coloured by a particular context. Now consider the golden rule, or some mythological narratives underlying a culture to be such a context, what impact does this have on the way “truth” is communicated, with reference to that context?

    As you see, I digress and veer away from the actual conversation being had. Maybe my interjections might spark some interesting thoughts or discussions within the context of the conversation, but I’ve realised the futility of wanting conversations framed in my favourite way, and don’t want to derail the conversation… so I will restrict my comments to few and far between (thank time pressure for helping me with that).

    Re: Hitler and needing a religious foundation… I guess I can’t make a case for “the golden rule” as a religion? Believing in the value of life and existence as a “religion”, the first fundamental leap of faith?

    Yay for Kenneth’s “we all have faith in something”! No worries, Kenneth, I’ll fight the quote mining of that clause with you. ;)

    Oh, and for a parting thought: what about the evils of overpopulation? Encouraging overpopulation might be evil, then… maybe we actually need disease and famine. *ducks and runs*. ;)

  • 18 Hugo // Oct 2, 2008 at 12:56 am

    Oh, on another note. Cobus is busy with an M and has a “mini-dissertation” with a deadline in 5 days. (And 25 pages to go, he tweets.) Do urge the guy to not write too many comments too regularly here… ;)

    Cobus, onthou, hierdie gesprek sal nog steeds hier wees oor 5 dae… Sterkte!

  • 19 Cobus // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:04 am

    OK, I’m gonna try and shorten my responses considerably, to rather try and get to the core of our difference.

    @Ben: Religious thoughts would be those coming out of a worldview which is “open” rather than “closed”. A worldview which work with the concept of a “more”. From my own theological background I would call this more God.

    @Kenneth: If being aware of my bias can make it possible to totally compensate for my bias, how does this differ from the optimism that I can be totally unbiased? I think the only way in which we can compensate for biases, all of us, is within community. Only others can help me compensate for my biases. Oh, and then there is the biases of our times… only other generations would be able to help us with that. One reason for listening much more seriously to generations gone by, since we won’t be able to hear the critique of generations to come.

    Let me just get something straight: Is anyone saying that truth (understood as the correct thinking, not in any personalized way such as would be found in the Christian religion) necessarily lead to the “good” and not having truth to “evil”? Cause I am not. And I think that is what the conversation was about at first, not true?

  • 20 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:21 am

    @Ben in 7: I disagree with your cute summary. ;)

    We’ve been agreeing entirely too much lately. :)

    @Ben in 9, your experiences are shaped by your beliefs?

    Of course. Does this mean that you can doubt you are experiencing your experiences while you are having them? Does this mean you should add something else to experiences as the undoubtable basic part of an epistemology? I don’t understand your point.

    By implication, he suggests there is a thing that is truth, that is not fact.

    Sigh. I’ll bite my tongue.

    I guess I cant make a case for the golden rule as a religion? Believing in the value of life and existence as a religion, the first fundamental leap of faith?

    I don’t see why you couldn’t. The bar for creating a religion is pretty low.

    Encouraging overpopulation might be evil, then maybe we actually need disease and famine.

    From what I understand, humans under stress of disease, famine, and war tend to have many more children. None of them actually reduce population (barring extremes like genocide.) Only education and prosperity seem to lower birth rates enough to lower population.

    Do urge the guy to not write too many comments too regularly here

    Cobus, take care of your real world stuff. Hugo, don the sparring gear! :D

  • 21 Cobus // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:30 am

    this community is really helping me to find the “good”, even if it means that the “truth” can wait;-)

    I’ll hopefully have the draft of the M, just a mini-dissertation really, ready by Friday, if anyone of you fine people is interested in providing some critique over the weekend it would be appreciated, since I’ll be doing the final editing on Monday, and printing on Tuesday. I’ll upload it to my blog somewhere Friday (if all goes well).

  • 22 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:45 am

    Is anyone saying that truth (understood as the correct thinking, not in any personalized way such as would be found in the Christian religion) necessarily lead to the good and not having truth to evil? Cause I am not.

    I also am not. One could have a perfect view of the reality and still value things that I would call evil.

    Religious thoughts would be those coming out of a worldview which is open rather than closed. A worldview which work with the concept of a more. From my own theological background I would call this more God.

    Hmmm…unless I substitute ‘includes the natural and supernatural’ for ‘is open’ and ‘including only the natural’ for ‘closed’, I have no idea what the first sentence is saying.

    And I think that is what the conversation was about at first, not true?

    I didn’t think it was. I thought it was more like: A person wants to defuse a bomb. His intention is to defuse the bomb; he very much does not want the bomb to explode. The better he understands the bomb, the better he can decide what he ought to do to defuse the bomb. If he ends up with basic things wrong, like thinking that electricity flowing to the trigger defuses the bomb, his ideas about what he ought to do will lead to worse results. You can have a set of values, including ‘I don’t want this bomb to explode’, but in order to turn this into some sort of ethics (A set of principles of right conduct), you have to have some understanding of how the bomb works. Same with reality.

  • 23 Hugo // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:52 am

    Literally LOL’ing at your wonderful empirical defense against “we need war and famine!” argument. ;) I’ve lately wondered why I’ve only come across sci-fi that fine/tax more than two children, rather than more sci-fi where people are encouraged to have more, considering the birth-rate in some choice first world countries…

    Of course. Does this mean that you can doubt you are experiencing your experiences while you are having them? Does this mean you should add something else to experiences as the undoubtable basic part of an epistemology? I dont understand your point.

    I’m certainly thinking more about values and your subjective attitude and approach to how to live a “good life” (and for the average person, who doesn’t over-think things like I do / we do / rationalists do, with suitably decreasing emphasis on the “over” part).

    Here’s my functional-focused apologetic/explanation/translation for Cobus’ idea:

    @Ben: Religious thoughts would be those coming out of a worldview which is open rather than closed. A worldview which work with the concept of a more. From my own theological background I would call this more God.

    Religious thought is thought that explicitly draws on the wisdom and experience of a religious tradition. There is an idea (to use understated words) that is called “God”, in those traditions, and much real and valuable knowledge is expressed in terms of, and in the context of, that particular idea.

    Furthermore, I’ve heard much about the myth of a demythologised humanity… and see the likes of Philip Pullman talk about developing a mythology (that is as true to empirical/secular reality as possible), hear things about Joseph Campbell’s input, and then there’s Brian Cox wishing the scientific narrative of the universe’s beginnings can be elevated to myth level (need the link where I mentioned this earlier, for context?), etc… Humanity works with its narratives, it’s “myths” in the academic sense (not the urban-legends sense).

    So, amongst those that embrace the myth/narrative-based aspect of human nature, some believe in developing new myths and narratives, others focus on developing and mining the great value found in the old narratives. The latter are the “religious”, though I think largely in “emergent” ways, and also dream of a “religionless Christianity” – Bonhoeffer.

    The difference in approach between the camps is one of continuity versus redesign. Both are about languages for speaking about what I call “the divine”.

    Hmm, check this out:

    http://www.geocities.com/capitolhill/1764/religionless.html

    Might be tough to appreciate that fully? But maybe exposure to my ramblings here might soften you up to appreciate Bonhoeffer’s theological language more fully? ;)

    With that, I’m off to bed. I might only reply again this weekend.

  • 24 Hugo // Oct 2, 2008 at 2:03 am

    Nope, one more, @ the bomb analogy.

    Ben talks mostly about the supernatural. As does most atheists. It’s the supernatural where the battle is at, the believing in deus ex machina.

    Theologians talk about values and way of life, expressed in terms of the language of scripture and narratives people grew up with, and convert to, because they are powerful narratives. The concern about the supernatural isn’t really the primary concern. Given their sphere of influence, it is typically a good idea to not even think about how literal/factual these narratives really are, and rather leave it somewhat unresolved. The functional approach.

    And from there many discussions all around the point, and my ponderings and attempts at finding a good framing in which I can best contribute constructively, rather than engage directly in a destructive debate all-around-the-point with “supernaturalism-focused thought” in the one camp and “narrative-based ethical teachings on how to best live life” on the other.

    “Religion-yes versus Religion-no” is too black-and-white for me, I’m a wannabe memetic engineer after all. I want to work on extracting and keeping the good, while overwriting the bad. (Not erasing the bad, many humans don’t seem to respond to that very well. The best thing, in terms of memes, is to find the good ones and more refined memes to present, which end up displacing the bad ones or making the bad ones unnecessary. Makes for a more peaceful progression.)

    Meh, I’m side-tracking again, aren’t I, and being overly verbose. I’m basically sketching out my beliefs and dreams about the matter, and rather frankly at that, knowing full-well that this isn’t the only approach. I just hope rehashing in new words might serve to give new insight in why and how I’m trying to frame conversations, and why I’m loathe to bite on certain lines of debate.

  • 25 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 2, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Im certainly thinking more about values and your subjective attitude

    Deciding which values to hold is an entirely different ball of wax. I don’t know how you justify valuing health and happiness except by consensus.

    There is an idea (to use understated words) that is called God, in those traditions, and much real and valuable knowledge is expressed in terms of, and in the context of, that particular idea.

    I can’t believe you wrote this. Now you’re taking my position; that religious traditions DO have an idea called “God.” Not that it’s a place-holder word to be re-defined for different people and different times.

    But maybe exposure to my ramblings here might soften you up to appreciate Bonhoeffers theological language more fully? ;)

    I think, with my brain wired the way it is, that this is unlikely. ;)

    Hmm, check this out:

    Following link…Ugh. “The thing that keeps coming back to me, is what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ for us today?” Alright, alright, I’ll bite the bullet and read it…

    That was a lot shorter than I feared it would be. It made a little sense, but I don’t know what I was supposed to get out of it.

    Background on my exposures and such to religion ( mainly for Cobus, I think Hugo knows much of this ):

    I was raised Catholic. From a very early age, I thought the priests and religion class instructors were wrong. I didn’t speak up about it because as far as I could tell, those around me didn’t believe it either. They didn’t act as if Catholicism were true. I tended to ignore religion and religious people as much as possible until after 9/11 and Bush’s election.

    So I started talking to religious people, in real life and on the internet. I read books they recommended. (not in any particular order: Christian Apologetics by Norman Geisler, The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, God and the New Atheism by John Haught, The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel, re-read all 4 gospels and Acts…maybe some others that have escaped my memory.) I’ve participated in multiple online Christian forums.

    Of the atheist best sellers, I liked Hitchens’ just because it was well written. I couldn’t finish either Dawkins’ nor Harris’ books. The one I liked best is Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.

  • 26 Hugo // Oct 4, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Indeed, a whole ‘nother ball of wax, and something I propose is more important to theologians, and to religion in general, than… um… science?

    I cant believe you wrote this. Now youre taking my position

    They’re not mutually exclusive. So… another attempt to explain what past posts were all about:

    I don’t claim it is a place-holder word to be re-defined, but I do claim it is an idea (or better: understanding) that develops. In the west, it is an idea that developed from e.g. a polytheistic understanding, via a henotheistic one, to a monotheistic one, and on to ideas like the “ground of being” and such. The fact that the general population lags behind theologians’ understanding is an unfortunate situation, and something I touched on in Popular Religion and “Elite” Religion.

    Now some take as “base definition” of God the idea that God is the “creator of the universe”. This is a justification for worship, rather than a functional definition: whether “God” created the universe or not makes no difference to the role “God” plays in people’s lives — I’m sure you will agree. So what is “God” then, primarily, if the “creator of the universe” idea is secondary?

    Back in polytheistic times, worshipping a particular god was clearly not about worshipping the creator of all that is. My posts aimed to dig into what functional role, and hence functional definition, God plays.

    Theologians learn that humans have a “god-shaped hole”. They have a desire/need to connect to something. I can cite anecdotal evidence from friends that losing belief in God makes humans prone to believing or latching onto all sorts of other things, be it aliens or new age crystals or psychic powers. Some people argue for a “proof” of the existence of God based on this God-shaped hole. Where this “proof” is misguided, is in connecting this “hole” to “creator of the universe” or “supernatural intervention”: that is a leap to make, not a logical or rational connection. However, the way in which they are logically and factually correct, rationally, is that a “hole”, a need, certainly defines that there is “something” that is needed, that is “missing”, in order for it to be called a hole.

    So what is this thing? And that is what my posts are about, primarily. That is where Dan Dennet’s advice to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it” connects to the idea of God — it talks about what theologians call the God-shaped hole and how to fill it.

    The role of “God”, then, is filling the God-shaped hole and providing meaning to a person’s life. God as meaning assigner. Existentialists say we create meaning in our own lives. One way of creating meaning is to commit your life to an idea, an ideal, a God.

    So when you’re talking functional, and about the God that theologians study, we’re talking more of the God of faith than the God of the philosophers. The fact that the two ideas are not separated in most people’s minds, does not make the “God concept” any less a case of the God of faith. But theologians care about the God of faith, and atheists talk about the God of the philosophers. And the fundamentalists also talk about the God of the philosophers and use that to bolster up their commitment to their “God”. Which ironically becomes more about knowledge (derived from a divine-revelation epistemology) than about way-of-life.

    Now having just cited four of my recent posts and tried to put them into some kind of context, I hope they’re a bit clearer? Also how this connects with the more easily accepted “God as an idea”?

    That was a lot shorter than I feared it would be. It made a little sense, but I dont know what I was supposed to get out of it.

    Some promising anthropological theories on the origins of supernatural-beliefs in human religion relates to cooperation between humans. This brings the God idea back to a shared story, a shared narrative, used to build tribal unity.

    In such a tribal context, some people feel called… they feel their calling in life is to serve as shepherds to the tribe, to help direct the tribe’s morality and focus and value system and foster cooperation and compassion beyond the level that mere genes can accomplish. These people are the theologians, the priests, the rabbi’s, and are the keepers and explainers of the tribe’s mythology (narratives). These people feel called to serve needs many tribe members have. (Even if you don’t, there are many people that do. Many people that feel a need to be part of something like a church, even though they can’t cope with church in its most common form. From there, things like UU, and the emerging church movement’s outreach to the post-churched or un-churched.) Ekklesia.

    Boenhoffer is one of those, and that letter is thinking about “how do we build community in a post-religious world”, still drawing on the narratives and tradition that is so incredibly valuable. Boenhoffer is talking about how church, in the sense I’m on about, is about community, standing in the center of the village, as a way of life, rather than a deus-ex machina explanation for anything we can’t understand or do not yet know. The God of Faith rather than the God of the Philosophers.

    And that is the direction of this blog, and I hope you appreciate that and understand the nuance and trickiness of such dialogue. We will yet hack out the best ways for various people, everyone, to contribute — both those that dislike the tradition and the language, and those that are committed wholeheartedly to this particular language to talk about the divine (which has nothing to do with “interventionalism”, but can be considered “super-natural” — how about extra-natural? — in the sense that it doesn’t deal with the natural, but with the meh, the subjective interpretation and dreams of human minds and their attempt to live divine lives with divine values).

  • 27 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 4, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    something I propose is more important to theologians, and to religion in general, than um science?

    Of course. It is of little or no importance to science. It is of great importance to people, scientists and non, and has a whole discipline all to itself – ethics.

    But theologians care about the God of faith

    Show me, please, where a theologian is clearly saying that he is talking about a concept only because it is functional for people, not because he believes it to be a real feature of the objective world.

    If you’re saying theologians themselves don’t know that that’s what they’re talking about…I have great problems with someone telling me they know what I think better than I do. I assume they would too.

    Theologians learn that humans have a god-shaped hole. They have a desire/need to connect to something.

    Perhaps. Perhaps growing up and being taught to ‘connect to something’ from a young age creates such a hole where one need not exist.

    Boenhoffer is one of those, and that letter is thinking about how do we build community in a post-religious world, still drawing on the narratives and tradition that is so incredibly valuable.

    How about evaluating what traditions are worth keeping and what aren’t, and moving on. By creating narratives that include ‘we don’t know now, we might figure it out later, and we might be wrong about what we think we know now’ – acknowledging that we are creating the narrative as part of the narrative?

    http://man.org/humanists-acquiring-canadian-churches/
    “A disaffected branch of the United Church of Canada has voted to join a Humanist association in reaction to ongoing disputes within its national executive around social issues. At least three churches in Canada have ratified their merging with Humanism this year, and more may follow.

    The process began when a downtown Vancouver church with less than a hundred members struggled with severe funding and vandalism problems, and offered its historic church for sale to clear its debts. A Vancouver Humanist group that had been leasing premises inquired, and instead of purchasing the church agreed to merge the two congregations and to assume the churchs overhead. Its name has been changed to The Humanist Church and the arrangement is attracting increasing interest across Canada…”

  • 28 Hugo // Oct 6, 2008 at 2:48 am

    Ambiguous statement from my part… I also meant that science is not as important to theologians, but the additional and unintended meaning that values are not important to science is also valuable. ;)

    Show me, please, where a theologian is clearly saying that he is talking about a concept only because it is functional for people, not because he believes it to be a real feature of the objective world.

    You want it clear-cut and labeled – very modernistic. ;) I don’t mean it in a black and white sense, I mean it more in a primary emphasis kind of way. How far it goes beyond that, I don’t know, but for what it’s worth, my defence:

    I base my opinions on conversations with or talks by various theologians, as well as my impressions of the books I’ve been reading. For this understanding, I could suggest reading Borg or Crossan – won’t have the clarity you’re asking for, but I believe you’ll see what I mean. Or read the “angry” Spong for more clarity. (Maybe I abuse quotation marks a lot, but often I don’t know how else to convey the idea I’m trying to convey.) Even that Boenhoffer letter is, for me, some evidence in favour of my understanding. I would also point at Peter Rollins’ work, it being the source of the “God of faith and the God of the philosophers” post. But he’s probably more of a philosopher than a theologian. Nevertheless, I still think the ideas that travel in (sophisticated?) theological circles are all cross-pollinated. And the influence of Peter Rollins’ work is still spreading? In particular in “emergent” circles, I guess.

    Some of my conversations were with “my” pastor. I still have notes of a conversation from around June, which I threw together in the process of beginning to write a post — with his permission. Maybe I should finish that one as an example? Some extracts: I touched on the disagreements that exist about the factuality of the resurrection, he jumped directly to the importance of the meaning of the narrative for humanity, i.e. irrespective of its factuality. On the afterlife? “I don’t know, we don’t really have evidence either way.” “Now you sound like a scientist!” I responded, grinning. I think in these circles going with “I don’t know” on a number of things helps build and maintain bridges…

    Also check the Crossan youtube clip that Cobus linked to: emphasis on Crossan’s example that metaphorical interpretations/understandings can have the exact same effect/conclusion as a literal interpretations. (He takes things metaphorically.)

    I also attended some talks organised by the Stellenbosch faculty of theology. A comparative religion talk I attended late last year, organised in Stellenbosch, dealt with Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and… um… I can’t remember the fourth right now. These were compared to Christianity, in defence of the value of Christianity. The comparisons were not on the grounds of which were “factually correct”, the comparisons were on the grounds of the effect of the religion. Islam was considered strong in community, Buddhism in personal spiritual practises, for example. I can dig up the notes somewhere, but it isn’t so important right now. The point is these talks dealt with the effects of the faith, the “God of faith”, not with arguing who really created the universe. A style of apologetics that can influence choice between religions, promote one religion above another, but certainly cannot talk to atheists.

    The Canadian story sounds interesting. That’s Canada for you. And they’re not a third world country where people are struggling with high levels of uncertainty and fear for the future, wanting some reassurance and reacting by grabbing onto fundamentalism. In South Africa at least, the theological faculties have their hands full just reassuring the general population that they still believe in Jesus. I have heard warnings about the theological faculty being spread via both famous pentecostal churches in Stellenbosch. I’ve heard Shofarians celebrate at the miracle of a theological student “getting saved” (born again, or in other words taking the [supernatural] Shofar-viewpoint/interpretation of the Bible…) — a miraculous event in “the godless institution” that is the theological faculty… They also insist on labeling a number of lecturers or faculty members “atheists”. For these reasons, I believe theologians do choose their words carefully. Misunderstandings spread so quickly, and knee-jerk defensive reactions shut down conversation and drive people over to revival/pentecostal/charismatic churches, aka “Bible believing” churches, as they label their particular interpretation or understanding of the text, as they search for “pure” religion not influenced by these scary theological ideas that they don’t like hearing about.

    Now on challenging the status quo in religion… who does that most effectively? Back in the day it was the prophets that stood up against the status quo, that called out for reform and pointed out the bad that was permeating the culture/theology/behaviour of their times. Talking to Theo, he points out there are things he cannot say as leader of Stellenbosch Gemeente. He has a congregation that he cares for and that he represents when he’s wearing his SG hat. However, as Prophet (an artistic duo, him and Koos, singing, talking, entertaining, commenting on things that can often only safely be commented on through use of humour) he can be more daring and outspoken. (In the past, two decades ago?, they even got themselves banned from the airwaves for some time, for saying things people didn’t want to hear.) The point being that the place for prophetic challenges to the status quo and the place for pastoral care for a congregation is often not the same place. Which is why I’d love to see Theo and Koos get going with something like a blog for Prophet.

    And that idea also resonates with my idea of the role my blog could maybe eventually play, the area in which it could contribute. Theology isn’t my profession, a congregation is not my source of bacon, I’m not associated with any church or faculty or theological framework. I should probably distance myself more from the people and organisations that I’ve associated with already. That then gives me the space to be something of a “social outcast”, like many of the prophets of old were, a seemingly crazy guy living in the hills, challenging the status quo with some controversial ideas, or protest through action: I recall one married a prostitute in an act of protest. But I will certainly still pick my words and battles carefully, because it is a waste of time and effort to fight the whole world all at the same time, or to be just “yet another so-and-so”. I have my niche and my communication strategy, and some specific plans that are being held back by one little detail (but hopefully not for too much longer). I must just find or make the time. I have a whole queue of blog posts I want to write. A number of the posts I write, are written for the purpose of referring back to them when a certain kind of challenge comes up. Preparation. Because I won’t have time to address things thoroughly in the spur of the moment.

    After all that, I do also realise I should probably prepend e.g. my statements about theologians’ attitudes and/or beliefs with something like “the way I see it, I think they believe and mean …” — because yes, otherwise it sounds too much like a just-so story itself. So how many “theologians” would take exception to my appraisal above? Quite a number, probably. You certainly do get the more “conservative” guys (whatever that means, conservative and liberal is rather ill defined when you get into more sophisticated theological circles).

    *sigh*, are we ever going to stop arguing about this kind of thing?

  • 29 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 6, 2008 at 3:59 am

    Ambiguous statement from my part

    Oops. The other way of reading it never even occurred to me. So much for my reading comprehension.

    You want it clear-cut and labeled – very modernistic.

    True. I yam what I yam. (Popeye, if you’re unfamiliar with the reference.)

  • 30 Crossan’s Definitions for Literalism and Fundamentalism // Oct 7, 2008 at 12:23 am

    [...] to Cobus for providing a link to this video clip in a comment on the previous post — John Dominic Crossan on The Dangers of [...]

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