Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Are there rational grounds for religious belief? (various skeptical musings)

There's no point in arguing with those who assume that a religious perspective is justifiable by dogma--the mere presence of Scripture. Those who believe the dogma may be justified rationally (as the jesuits used to assert) must, on the other hand, overcome various Theology 101 chestnuts: the problem of evil, claims of immateriality (i.e. a Soul), status of other faiths, Scriptural fallibility (i.e. Scripture vs. Team Darwin) and the basic epistemological issue of why anyone should accept any religion as a true account of reality, rather than say a commnon-sense physico-logico account.

That may be unsubtle, and not very appealing to those who work for Christendom Inc., but many theists continually assume that those issues have been settled in their favor, when of course they haven't been.

Kant himself rejected the classical arguments for a deity (tho' his comments on the Design argument are interesting, and rather relevant, given the Dawkins hype), and there are I think far more philosophers and scientists arranged on the skeptic side (e..g, that there are no convincing, rational grounds for religious truth, or for an omniscient and just God) then there are rational theists. There does not seem to be a shortage of irrational theists however.

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Is the existence of miracles used to confirm the truth of Scripture? If it is, then obviously other religions and cults claim miraculous events so the mere presence of claims that a miracle occurred doesn't really prove anything: that water was instantly converted to wine is about like saying the Buddha levitated. The catholic church routinely confirms miracles, yet as Chris Hitchens (yeah he's a callous mother-f-er on occasion) pointed out in a great essay on Mother Theresa's death, the confirmation is in no way scientific or objective: it's usually based on flimsy, anecdotal evidence (and an incredibly sentimental process as well). It may be thought such claims of miracles are amusing or charming, but as Hitchens points out, the belief in miracles acutally does great damage to rationality as a whole.

I shall let Mr. Hitchens speak for himself (and for rationality), since he does it much better than I:

"Those of us who are against miraculous claims for the more obvious reasons--that the laws of nature do not respond to petitions and that what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof--have a tendency to forget that this vulgarity and hysteria also increases the sum of misery on Earth, without at all diminishing it in the false promise of the afterlife."

Additionally, most supposed miracles are rather trivial, when you think about it: campesinos don't need to see The Virgin of Guadalupe , they need dinero, trabajo,----panocha.........

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Quote (from Christian blogger):

"in order to do that without actually investigating each miracle- or religious experience-claim, you'd need to give arguments for why we shouldn't believe in miracles or see religious experience as evidentially weighty"

In other words, prove to you that pigs don't fly. I have never seen a flying pig in person or photos. I don't know anyone who has, and never read any history indicating that pigs do fly. I did see a drawing of one with wings on a website. But it was not flying.

You are right, though to some degree: all the laws and rules of physical science could be overturned tomorrow and pigs might fly, just as Hume said tomorrow his billiard table might obey different physical laws--I would agree there is no logically necessary reason why physical laws could not be overturned. But I'd wager the probability of the pig flying (or billard balls flying backwards after the break of the table) is about the same as Jesus out strolling on the waves or the Virgin of Guadalupe making her annual appearance in the reflection of some campesino's windshield or whatever. Bayes theorem shows this too: each day a miracle has not been confirmed increases the unlikeliness of the original anomaly having occurred.

Mystical experiences are another thing. We here at Contingencies don't doubt many people have those experiences, but they in no way demonstrate or confirm theological concepts. Recently some experiments have shown that the mental state produced by monks and nuns meditating or praying can be electrically stimulated in various brain lobes. So what was thought to be a calm "oneness with god" or satori was in fact some biochemical process in the corpus callosum.

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Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s Brother Karamazov doesn’t believe in God, or rather, if He does exist, He must be opposed. Ivan (who I think we can imagine has read some Voltaire [as had Jefferson] and other French or English skeptics and scientists) claims, if such a “God” existed, He allows wars, Napoleons, plagues, all sorts of injustices anyways: so He kills the innocent, while commanding us not to do it. And by definition God would both have commanded the deaths of innocents and known about it, programmed it in a sense. Ivan thus rejects “God” (Nietzsche also enjoyed reading some FD). I don’t think he suggests that everything is permissable, merely that theological concepts of justice are absurd. (Of course some nut like Kierkegaard chooses to believe anyways, as do most fundies and catholics: tsunami wipes 300,000 people off the earth {a disaster at least 10 times that of the Lisbon quake of Arouet's era), and the fundies march to Church and say it was a sign of Gott).

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