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Posts Tagged ‘atheism

My 2008 book, The God Allusion, now online

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This is just a quick post to let you know that my 2008 book, The God Allusion, is now up on the website.
To check it out click on the image below.

God Allusion


Written by tomtomrant

7 May 2013 at 7:21 pm

The Atheist, the Believer and the Confusion on both sides

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This is another piece written for my philosophy class. I’m sure there are “logical” holes and “unverified statements” in it but, honestly, I think it’s a tautology to correctly reason for the inappropriateness of reason. It’s like using emotion to be impassive. (This is another article in my series surreptitiously themed, ‘philosophy is just applying the logic systems of reason to experience, feelings and perception and then wondering why it all doesn’t make sense’…)

“The Christian begins the recital of his faith with the words, ‘I believe’, and it would be an utter distortion to construe this as anything like ‘I have inquired and found it reasonable to conclude’.”

“A person’s belief in anything, including religion, should be directly dependent on the evidence in favour of it.”

Discuss. Is the first of these claims right? The second? Both? Neither? Explain why.

These two statements represent the philosophic debate surrounding religious belief. The atheist thinks religious belief is ‘irrational’ because it is not verified by evidence. The theist argues that the basis of religious belief is not evidence but ‘faith’. I will argue that both misunderstand each other. The second statement is more incorrect as it treats religious belief as if it were a scientific hypothesis instead of a personal conviction. These things are very different. The first statement, made by Richard Taylor, is more correct but Taylor goes on to use faith as supporting religious belief which, as we shall see, is also problematic.

The contention here surrounds the definition of belief – there are two conflicting interpretations involved. The first defines belief as conditioned and adjusted by evidence – this belief we shall call a hypothesis. This is exemplified by the second statement above. The second definition is not conditioned or affected by external evidence – this belief is what Michael Scriven considers as simply confidence in an idea. I believe the impression is much stronger than this; it is really a personal conviction, as represented in the first statement. A hypothesis and a personal conviction are very different things, the former involving knowledge content – a hypothesis expresses fact content about the external world – the latter experience content – a personal conviction is subjective, internal and feeling-based.

Of these two ideas, it is important to note that one is not simply a poor or invalid version of the other. Consider: an incorrect hypothesis is distinctly different from a personal conviction. A personal conviction is expressive of personal experience or subjective impressions. Examples include statement like, ‘I believe in true love’ or ‘I really enjoy playing tennis.’ These statements cannot be ‘proved’ using external evidence as they involve some internal personal evaluation – they are subjective. Contrast this with statements like, ‘I believe I can jump from a ten-storey building and gravity will not pull me down,’ or ‘I believe I can drink arsenic and not die.’ Apart from being externally verifiable through evidence, these statements also do not involve subjective evaluation – they have no feeling content or ‘meaning’ without their factual value.

The cause of contention regarding religious belief is that these two concepts – hypothesis and personal conviction – have become mixed up, their definitions blurred. The situation is rather like that involving a smoker who enjoys smoking so much, it gives her such a personal buzz, that she claims it must be good for her despite the evidence against this. The personal conviction, ‘I enjoy smoking’ has been confused with the hypothesis concerning the physical effects of smoking on the human body, ‘I believe smoking is good for me.’ Examination of the physical effects of smoking (the evidence) by a scientist can invalidate the hypothesis but, unfortunately, for many a smoker this does not affect the personal conviction that smoking is enjoyable. Similarly, the theist’s personal conviction that God exists is not threatened by any evidence to the contrary, however this is only a personal conviction, I am not sure what the hypothesis is that the atheist attempts to invalidate. It may be something like, ‘A physical God exists somewhere overlooking our lives.’ Note that if this is the hypothesis, there is no physical evidence to examine here. God as a physical presence technically cannot be proven to not exist any more that it is possible to prove any negative statement. The atheists position here is that, since physical evidence cannot prove God’s existence, God is merely unlikely.

It has always concerned me that the atheist usually attempts to prove belief in God is irrational rather than harmful. The implication that anything irrational is necessarily valueless or worthless is a disturbing disparagement of important irrational elements in life such as emotional experiences, creativity, love, meaning, etc. Some more extreme atheists have argued that religious belief is harmful but these usually involve criticism of elements only peripherally associated with belief such religious wars, paedophile priests, conservative moral values or hypocritical church leaders. Science might equally be disparaged with reference to nuclear disasters, pollution or chemical warfare. These unflattering elements have no vital link to the core of the belief and prove nothing.

So what is the core of religious belief? To get to the answer to this question we need to examine the common traits of religious experience not popular hearsay or negative offshoot ideas. Michael Scriven says that the popularity of an idea such as religious belief cannot be trusted as evidence in its favour. I agree with this view – just because a large group of people believe something does not mean that they may not all be wrong. But Scriven contradicts himself when he goes on to dismiss religious belief based on refuting the popular views of religious people. This is not examining the physical effects of the belief – it is listening to hearsay.

If Scriven were a medieval doctor trying to discover a cure for disease, what he does here would be like listening to the superstitious stories of the survivors who claim that “I prayed to God,” or “I wore this lucky charm to keep off the devil.” He ignores the physical experience of his patients who, unbeknownst to them, may have saved themselves by simply washing more frequently. Such a doctor ignores the physical symptoms and listens to superstition and hearsay.

The ‘symptoms’ of religion do not include the usual ideas which atheists ‘disprove’ as ridiculous such as a physical God or the system of metaphysical punishment and reward, or even ideas like the Trinity. The essential religious element is a powerful awe-inspiring feeling, of wonder, of the numinous, a strong emotional intuition for a sense of rightness or emotional truth. This feeling is the basis for the personal conviction of religious belief. The internal source of this feeling is the reason why external evidence does not affect such a belief. Furthermore, the conviction ‘God exists’ is only one particular expression of what the religious experience is or means. By challenging this conviction, the atheist philosophy only challenges the particular verbal expression and not the religious experience itself. This is attacking only an associated idea again.

In reality, this verbal expression – ‘belief in God’ – only amounts to something like a metaphor which attempts to describe the religious experience. There is some objection to this idea by religious people as it seems to belittle God, but, significantly, every word we use to describe strong feelings is a metaphor to some extent. When I feel sad, this is an indistinct personal feeling which I may gauge as ‘sad’ or ‘sorrowful’ or ‘suicidal’ or ‘a bit down’. When we experience a personal attraction to another person we may call this ‘love’ or ‘lust’ or maybe I just ‘like’ them. It is significant that we often cannot easily tell which it is. This shows that the words we use are only expressions, verbal approximations for emotional feelings. However, these effects definitely exist to us despite their relatively insubstantial nature and our imprecision in naming each state definitively. Scriven dismisses metaphoric religion on the basis that most religious people deny this reading but once again, he does not listen to his own council – he is listening to hearsay and popular ideas instead of addressing the basis of belief.

So it seems that both sides in this debate are making vital errors. The religious believer, overcome with a powerful feeling of the numinous, explains this as ‘belief in God’, then makes the mistake of over-interpreting this literally, positing a physical God, and denying the feeling and metaphoric basis of the ‘power that fills his soul’. The atheist then comes along and correctly refutes the over-interpreted idea, but rather than criticising the theist’s verbal expression of ‘belief’ as too general or confusing, he dismisses the religious experience altogether. This rightly offends the theist because the atheist is essentially censuring him for having a meaningful experience, indeed this experience is the source of any and all awe-inspiring feelings in anyone’s life. Just as no one is necessarily unable to experience love or anger, even the atheist can feel the awe-inspiring ‘religious’ feeling too, it is simply that the atheist refrains from naming the experience as anything other than ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. (This vagueness may, disturbingly, devalue such an experience, which is what can happen if you over-emphasise rational thought).

So in conclusion, the first statement is closer to the truth because the second disparages religious belief based on an inappropriate definition – it says all forms of belief must be based on hypothesis which is not the case. However, the first statement is used by Taylor to suggest ‘faith’ is the basis of religious belief and ‘faith’ is another cloaking metaphor for the religious feeling which is only called upon because it is conveniently vaguer and so less refutable by scientific hypothesis. However, later in Taylor’s article he quotes Hume describing faith as “a continuing miracle in [a believer’s] own person.” What could this bizarre sentence mean if it is not a metaphor expressing poetically a numinous feeling-impression? Until either side of the argument is willing to admit the experiential nature of belief or define properly their use of the word ‘belief’ then both sides will be arguing against each other’s own misunderstandings.

Written by tomtomrant

23 November 2011 at 12:16 pm

‘The God Allusion’: 1. METAPHOR

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Does God exist or not?

Many of us don’t much care, of course. Aren’t there more important things, such as friendship, or love, or leisure?

In this book I want to demonstrate how myth[1] and the gods can inspire a healthy life.

These ideas are not new; sages of the past may have read the great myths in a similar way, but this is not a history book. How certain ideas developed can only be the subject of speculation; I am neither an anthropologist nor a historian. Nor am I proposing conspiracy theories – no political intrigues or Da Vinci codes. I am interested in living myth, here in the present.

It is obvious that mythology is not logical. It is not science. Mythology engages with science as much as, say, music does. You can analyse the auditory receptiveness of the human ear, but this won’t help you write a symphony. Scientific reasoning is what science is for.

And myth is not history. Myth engages with history as much as, say, painting does. To paint a picture of Napoleon, the artist is concerned with the painting – the framing of the form, the colours used, the texture, the style. The artist might need to research the customs of the period, but history isn’t the chief concern. History is the material; the inspiration and the arrangement of this on the canvas is the craft. So mythology can make use of historical forms, but not as a record of past events and times. That is what history is for.

It is easy to dismiss mythology on grounds of science or history – surprisingly easy considering all the debate, even bloodshed. Mythology is concerned with mythological thought. And mythological thought is concerned with metaphor.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech; a resemblance is suggested between two things that are not literally the same. For example, ‘All the world’s a stage’. This is not to be confused with a simile, which is worded in a more ‘rational’ way: ‘The world is like a stage.’ There is nothing unusual about a simile – even scientists use them to explain complex theory.

But the more complex the metaphor, the harder it is to convert back into a simile and understand it with a basic ‘equals’ sign (e.g., the world = a stage).

My sister is good at swimming.

Simile: ‘My sister swims like a fish.’

Metaphor: ‘My sister is a fish.’ (You might say, “My sister is such a fish, you know.”)

It is easy to prove that my sister is not a fish; she does not have scaly skin or gills. Mythologies are lies in the same way that the world is not actually a stage, and my sister is a not a fish. This is all very clever and not untrue, but foolishly missing the point of the metaphor in the first place.

Furthermore, if ‘my sister is such a fish’, do you believe in the fish? This is just as ridiculous. The fish is a metaphor, and the simplest kind, based on the pattern, ‘Something IS (represented by) something else.’ Metaphors can get much deeper than this:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

Much of Shakespeare’s power comes from his apt and expressive metaphors; here the stage-world metaphor is extended to include the actors-people metaphor too. You might say this makes his metaphor ‘more true.’

This is what is meant by religious or spiritual truth. Not the truth of a mathematical formula or a logical syllogism, but the truth of a Bach fugue or a Shakespearean sonnet.

The simplest metaphoric narrative is an allegory, where, for example, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs clearly represent Communist leaders (who are ‘more equal than others’) and the animals of the farm yard are the repressed multitudes of society. This sort of metaphor is simple because it is obvious what the metaphors are referring to; the whole book is easily reduced to an essay about the dangers of Communism. There is also the fable, where the Big Bad Wolf may represent, but more obscurely and mysteriously, the nature of Gluttony.

When a metaphor refers to something very mysterious and even contradictory, it edges toward myth. In Douglas Adams’ novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Ford Prefect says he will show us how the universe will end. He says to imagine that his wine glass represents the temporal universe – then he smashes it. (This is also a good example of the merrily insane spirit of myth.)

Another example: my sister is a fish because she swims a lot. My uncle is a fisherman because he is attracted to scantily-clad female swimmers and would like to ‘catch’ one. One day, my uncle goes ‘fishing’. He sits by the pool and casts his line out into the water, hoping to catch a juicy fish. Suddenly, a shark grabs his line and pulls him into the river. He is almost drowned, but happens to grab hold of a log and floats downstream. He is washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island. What does this story mean when we translate it back into its references?

Casting his line in the river might represent sitting by the pool and winking at female swimmers, but what does the shark represent? What does it mean to say he was almost drowned? Perhaps here is his comeuppance for being such a lecherous old womanizer. But what ‘is’ the log that saves him (it could be any number of possibilities)? And the uninhabited island is even more mysterious…

Similarly, what does it mean that Mary gave birth without having sexual intercourse? Or that Jesus was not born of woman? How can you have a virgin birth? The answer isn’t found by examining the human reproductive system. This is a metaphor. What kind of birth is not a physical one? That would be a spiritual birth of some kind. The metaphors point toward mystery.

And vaguely pointing to a mystery is all a myth can do. Mythic metaphors can’t force conclusions, at least not like fables, allegories, similes or logical syllogisms. Mythological symbols can only ‘point the way’, after which we are on our own with our troubled thoughts. (This may be why they are often misinterpreted; seen as the “cause” of war or psychosis – they are psychological dynamite.) Myths, experienced and lived, promote a special type of thought – a possession of mind – that may hold the key to existence. The mythological realm is the jumping off space, the Way Between, the departure gate to the Great Unknown, a mysterious journey into night and back again into day.

“THE GOD ALLUSION” is a unique response to Richard Dawkins’ best-seller “The God Delusion”, but that isn’t all. It lucidly explores what myths ‘mean’, shedding some light on their mystery and purpose, relating them directly to our modern lives. Myth concerns the deeply personal as well as the universals that make us human. Unlike other works on this subject, the book doesn’t set out to divide but to unite the world in a game of life. This is explored through drama, music, sport, dance, drawing from blockbuster movies, evolution, Shakespeare, psychology, even advertising. God is not a fact and God is not a lie, God is an allusion, a word we use to indicate a personal and enticingly-meaningful mystery beyond all words and forms that inspires a powerful, exhilarating experience of being truly alive.

Written by tomtomrant

12 August 2010 at 10:37 pm

Posted in myth, religion

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Richard Dawkins & the Theists

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I watched (or tried to watch) Richard Dawkins in his Q&A episode and found it really very irritating. It was just atheists versus theists and it seems to me that both sides make the same blunders – so much so that it is pretty painful to watch (much like watching two people fighting over lack of water when you know there is a well full of fresh clear water right next to them that they both fail to notice).

There is something very one-sided about both “belief” in a religion and “trust” in rationality. I think these two groups – the religiously devout and the rational atheist – belong together, as in they are both interpreting life in the same way, but each has a different eye open. It is hard to say which is more important: religious feeling (including Love, Meaning and God) or rational thinking (including Logic, Science and Reason). And I am frustrated because I believe choosing between these two is a stupid argument. Without meaning or reason, life would be near impossible. The debate over which is more important is explosive because each is equally important.

What makes this difficult for people to see? Only the social and historical brandings of races, religions, sciences, and other socio-political divisions that separate individuals into opposing groups. Here are a few sentences from a short book called “The God Allusion” I wrote a couple of years ago (but which I’ve been rather lazy in getting around to sending to publishers):

Science (including rationality) is concerned with understanding.
The theory must be consistent and comprehensible, not personal or emotional.

Mythology (including religion) is concerned with experience rather than understanding.
(Myth is too subtle for science.)

These are the only areas in which science and myth have respective authority.

So: It is ridiculous to apply reason to a religious rite – a religious rite does not set out to define the physical universe.

And: It is ridiculous to invoke myth to argue for, say, a geocentric universe – whether we say the Earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the Earth has no bearing on an individual’s experience of life (the experience of either configuration is subjectively identical).

Myth over-interpreted as literal fact is destructive because deep down we know we are wrong. We suppress our doubts and our beliefs then become violently compulsive.

‘Idolatry of the real (facts, sciences etc.)’ involves making judgements based on literal fact rather than emotional worth. We’ve mistaken the truth of the story for the experience of the story.

Science is true and myth is true.
Conflict arises from mixing up the definition of the word ‘true’ –
1. literally true, a fact
2. emotionally alive, a true experience.

What is factually true and what is meaningful are often completely at odds.
Literal truth is not necessary in myth because it isn’t necessary for something to exist for us to be moved by it. E.g. the movie monster that we know is not real, but we can still be scared.

“This mythic image (e.g. God) is highly meaningful for me, makes me feel emotionally alive. This experience is true (definition 2). Therefore, the image itself must be true (definition 1).”
However, this is not always so and it is not necessary for this to be so.

I think this is a very big issue for our age. Listening to Dawkins again on ‘Sunday Night Safran’ on Triple J, the squabble continues. There is John Safran who loves the inter-group scandals, the politically-dicey controversies and the rationally ludicrous dramas stirred up by the religious/racial groupings (and I suppose he does a good job at dissipating some of their deceptive solidity). Yet John cannot admit that his rationality and wit is only good for exposing (and therefore destroying); and exposing facts or hypocrisy only aids in understanding (forming judgments) on that very social-political level – this does not touch the ‘religious truth’ at all. He talks to Father Bob, who as a Catholic priest comes from within one of these dividing groups. He can only “blather on” in sometimes surprisingly insightful ways but he cannot find the terms to say something concretely meaningful because he cannot admit that his “religious feeling” (that he knows so well is somehow significant yet diametrically opposed to Dawkins’ rationality) applies only to individual experience; in short, he would find the very terms he needs in his own religion if he could acknowledge Jesus, Mary, God, the Cross – the whole mythology – as a metaphor rather than oddly inexplicable and nonsensical facts (with a pleasant social agenda).

Anyway, that’s my waffle on. (Father Bob gets so close to – and yet so far from – hitting the nail on the head in the Dawkins interview that it is, once again, an annoying near-breakthrough.)

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2010 at 12:59 pm