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Monday, October 15, 2007

Please make it stop

Below, I am shocked to find that I disagree with Kevin Drum on something related to atheism although we are both atheists and I think he is a genius. Much worse, I agree with Lee Siegal. Now I find I disagree with Ezra Klein too. Owwww. For those who didn't click the link, I thought that Drum's criticism of Siegal's criticism of some anti-religionists (such as Richard Dawkins) was not justified given his brief quote of Siegal (who I will *not* read). I think that Drum assumes that Siegal claims that all atheists are anti-religinists, that is that all people who are sure that there is not God also argue against religion and claim that they reject the sort of reasoning (or non-reasoning) which leads the religious to be religious. I am sure that there is no God and I do not argue against religious faith or the methodology (or absence thereof) practiced by the religious. As far as I know (and I have no intention of checking) Siegal does not criticize me.

Klien quotes more which shows that Siegal is, indeed, very silly, arguing among other things that

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

So you can't imagine something without believing that it really exists ? Huh ? But note the argument is directed at "anti-religionists" who "attack" not all people with no religious beliefs or even all people who have no doubt about the falseness of all religious claims.

Klien continues however

Siegel continues:

The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency...

These things either aren't matters of belief, or are things for which we believe with good evidence. Falling in love with someone is a matter of having one's emotions and desires attach to your beloved, not forming a belief. (When we talk about 'true love', we mean love that's genuine, not love that correctly describes reality in the way that a true statement or a true belief does.) Expecting kindness is a genuine belief -- namely, a belief that others will be kind -- but it's usually based on evidence. That humans have a degree of sympathy and kindness is an empirically verifiable part of human nature, and we often have good evidence for believing that others will be kind to us in the right circumstances. Sacrificing some of our self-interest, like falling in love, isn't a matter of false belief. It's a matter of having the kinds of emotions and desires that motivate altruistic behavior.

I beg to differ on two points (same as with Drum). Romantic Love often involves irrational beliefs and yet, I think, its often a very good thing. Calling the belief that ones beloved is extraordinarily wonderful in the absence of solid evidence an emotion not a belief means one should also be willing to call a belief that the universe is guided by a benign intelligence an emotion not a belief. Yet an anti-religionist will not accept the second as it is a form of religion. Klein calls love an emotion which we should not insist be based on evidence or abandoned. I would guess he feels the same way about the faith of some religious people (not of Osama Bin Laden and many others but of some). If I am right, he is not the target of Siegal's argument and doesn't notice.

More interestingly, I agree that there is something very close to religion in believing in goodness. Believing in altruism is rational. Having favorable feelings towards altruism is a matter of emotions not belief. Believing that altruism is objectively good (which is by no means required to be an altruist) is something else entirely. It is a belief which can not be based on evidence. If we interpret Siegal as claiming that believing in "goodness" implies believing that there is something other than our beliefs and feelings that makes some actions good, then he has found something which is not religion but has a similar combination of strong claims and no evidentiary support.

the above is a forced reading, but I, for one, believe that the rightness and wrongness of actions exists separately from our beliefs about right and wrong in the same way that Australia exists separately from my belief in Australia. People who criticize the "the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic," disagree with me on that one and argue that my beliefs in right and wrong aren't objectively true or false but rather more like my liking of choclate than my belief in Australia. I disagree with them. I am an atheist. Siegal is making a valid distinction between anti-religionists and atheists. Drum, Klein and Black, noticing his evident idiocy when he talks about art and belief in human altruism, don't seem to notice this.

Kleins larger use of quotations makes it clear why Siegal drives people who have better things to do to remark on his idiocy, but I think that, like Drum, he misses a distinction.

Duncan Black, however, has Siegal (and me at least in these 2 posts) nailed

"they've never really gotten past the level of marijuana enhanced late night freshman dorm conversation (a lovely thing, but not the final path in our intellectual journeys)."

touche Atrios, and wow this is great stuff. I am so blasted.

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