Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dogma and Reason...

As the result of some comments on my last post I think its time for a lecture on religion vs reason.

It seems that many people accuse folks who espouse rational secularism as being as dogmatic as religionists. While it is true that I put my "faith" in reason, it is a completely different animal.

Religion derives its authority from revelation: usually an interpretation of ancient scripture or teachings. While most will argue that there are some lessons to be learned from these sources, most religionists assume that the text is somehow "inspired" and that we can not only learn from them, but that we should organize our life around them as the foundation of such things as morality, ethics and "right vs wrong".

The rationalist takes a different approach to life; in a phrase: "where's the data". I want to know why a course of action is right/wrong (beneficial/harmful)... I am skeptical: I at least need a credible line of reasoning.

As a rationalist, if new evidence comes to light... if a new argument is presented, well -- a previously held opinion should change.

One of the common arguments I encounter is the idea that rationalism isn't any better than religion: especially when you are talking about it's implications to society and politics. The old arguments about Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot immediately come up. I think I'll just quote Sam Harris here since he is far more eloquent than I:

People of faith regularly claim that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the 20th century. Although it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements were little more than litanies of delusion--delusions about race, economics, national identity, the march of history or the moral dangers of intellectualism. ...

Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields are not examples of what happens when people become too critical of unjustified beliefs; to the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about specific secular ideologies. Needless to say, a rational argument against religious faith is not an argument for the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. The problem that the atheist exposes is none other than the problem of dogma itself--of which every religion has more than its fair share. There is no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

That is what I advocate: reasoned, skeptical thinking -- on any subject. In a word, science. If being "dogmatic" about that makes me equivalent to the religionist, well -- pass the wine and gimme an Amen.


Capt. Fogg said...

Blaming things on Atheism is a weak argument since there is no atheist dogma and all atheists have in common is dislike of belief without evidence. It's a bit like saying Stalin was a bad guy because he didn't drive a Chevy.

Of course Stalinist Communism is a religion in itself - it just doesn't use the word God, but it depends on received texts, the authority of an elite and punishes disbelief.

RR said...

That's exactly my point capt: most of the horrific social experiments of the last century relied more on dogma that reasoned, evidence based thought. These systems were more like religions that science.

You nail it: To blame them on atheism is a completely false argument.

Intellectual Insurgent said...

These systems were more like religions that science.

This is a convenient argument. Anything that isn't reasonable must be religion.

RR said...

Whether or not its convenient isn't relevant: it's true.

Religion's central, distinguishing characteristic is that it is based on (ancient) revealed "truth" ... "Truth" that isn't verifiable via evidence or even logic... "Truth" that is (in many cases) at odds with both 1- what we understand about the universe and 2- common sense (e.g. - a merciful god used to advocate stoning women who weren't found to be virgins on their wedding night. How many rhetorical and metaphorical hoops do you have to jump thru to make that 'teaching' reasonable? Seriously...)

Further, religious belief DENIES the validity of evidence and refuses to accept criticism based on it (e.g. - there is no evidence that anyone has risen from the dead). Why else do people insist on teaching creationism in school? Or that man and dinosaurs co-existed? Why, because the religious rely on DOGMA.

Its the SAME for the failed social/political systems you bring up: they completely suppress(ed) criticism, dissent and/or "evidence" (that the system was/is flawed). The "high priests" of those systems steam-rolled ahead with the same "facts be damned" attitude you see from the righteous who argue humankind is approx 8000 years old.

If you don't buy it, please tell me how "not believing" in a god (let alone the right one) necessarily leads to immorality. GW seems to believe in god is one of the most immoral leaders in this century.

Intellectual Insurgent said...


Put your money where your mouth is. You are a foot soldier for GW. You are a foot soldier for unthinking dogma.

Your blog is nothing but endless critique of the failure to use reason, but it is the height of irrationality to go put yourself in harm's way in a foreign country where no one did anything to you.

I might buy all this anti-religion pseudo-intellectual righteous indignation from someone who walks the walk, but you're crying about GW while going off to kill people he tells you to kill.


You point your finger at religion, yet say nothing about the military, which is an even older institution of control based explicitly on unquestioning obedience.

RR said...

Come on ... Again you draw invalid/incomplete analogies. You indict military people for blindly following our elected leaders yet I doubt you can conceive of a system which serves the defense mission, functions with unity of purpose, yet allows individuals to questions motives/orders/reasons. If you have such a system please let our representatives know about it.

Is the military a "dogmatic" institution: in a sense - certainly. But its an organization that takes it orders from the elected populace -- its dogmatism is based on rules that the populace (via your elected representatives) agreed to... Those rules are in YOUR hands and can be changed. I believe in that system because without it, the military becomes a free-for-all where individuals act on their own conscience. That simply does not and cannot work.

Do I disagree with some of the decisions our leaders make? Sure. However, I realize I don't have all of the information and I don't disagree to the extent that I feel I need to resign. The system isn't completely "dogmatic" in that is is ultimately based on the will of the people -- and I can't think of a better system in which you have control yet accountability. It will self-correct.

As you know, I don't agree with the decision to go into Iraq: I think it was the height of arrogance and stupidly. However, now that we are there we owe the Iraqi people a chance for peace... Believe it or not, when you talk to them, they want us to stick around until security is better. That doesn't mean they like us... It doesn't mean they agree with the decision the president made to invade: but it DOES means that we should deal with the situation responsibly. If my presence can make a positive difference -- which I think it can -- I'll stick with it.

I see that as ultimately rational... On the other hand, your libertarian streak colors your views to the point that individual liberty trumps societal obligations. If we all took views as stated, there'd be no society: just anarchy.

RR said...

Oh yeah - I forgot: Since you think it appropriate for me to resign since I'm "one of GWs foot soldiers"... don't you think it appropriate for you to renounce your citizenship since you are part of a war mongering nation?

Intellectual Insurgent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Intellectual Insurgent said...

That is what I advocate: reasoned, skeptical thinking -- on any subject. In a word, science.

Apparently, not on all subjects...

However, I realize I don't have all of the information

I believe in that system because without it, the military becomes a free-for-all where individuals act on their own conscience. That simply does not and cannot work.

Indeed. Heaven forbid individuals act on their own conscience.

You're no different than those at whom you point fingers. Reason except on those subjects in which you have faith.

RR said...

Ok -- first note that the discussion has shifted from the original argument (religion/political systems and dogma) to ad hominem: if you don't think my actions are in line with my arguments, that's one thing -- but apparently you've given up on the original point.

As for the military -- Imagine what it would be like if you told your subordinates to "storm the hill in an apparently suicidal attack" ... many would say to themselves "hey, this is crazy, we can't win -- I'm not doing it". The point is we condition (yes, condition, that's what boot camp is all about) soldiers to obey orders without question. In this case it may be a suicidal attack. Maybe the strategy is to sacrifice a group of men in a feint attack to make an opening for an attack from the flanks. The point being, in the military, you fully understand that you are not going to have all of the information -- however, you have sworn to carry out the orders of those appointed above you.

Is this system flawed? Sure -- it relies on humans who inherently having human failings. However, I cannot think it a better system by which you get a group of people to put themselves into some ugly situations with the goal of defending the populace.

Ignorant leaders are discovered -- alas it takes time to weed them out.

Hence I don't have 'faith' on this subject -- I simply don't see a better way to maintain, control and motivate a fighting force which is obviously necessary in our world.

Capt. Fogg said...

I'm wondering how this can be construed as dialog what with all the custom tailored but ill fitting usages of words like Faith.

RR said...

Not to mention the poor execution (grammar) of the original post.

Unfortunately I write a lot of this junk while I'm waiting for a compilation or another function (here at work) to complete. I realized how shoddy and difficult to read it was only after going back and reading the original post.

I shouldn't use the word 'faith' at all when referring to my own positions. If a reasonable argument; new data or other evidence comes to light I am prepared to change my view.

skip sievert said...

How is it one can equate science as a belief system when...
a belief system is supported by nothing more than an opinion. ---
Science is nothing more than the prediction of the next most probable.---
Any belief system is supported by nothing except imagination, while the next most probable is supported by observation of some phenomenon that can be recreated under the same conditions by anyone, at any time and the result will be the same.
This is science. This is how fact is established.--- One can imagine anything, however it can only become science when it can be measured i.e. detected either directly or remotely. Failing this it simply does not exist.

Capt. Fogg said...

RR. I wasn't criticizing your writing, only pointing out that your critics deliberately equivocate by using the word faith in two senses to make antithetical ideas seem similar. We agree that Religious faith does not depend on verifying facts by observation and experiment. Science does. Atheism doesn't do anything in particular except not to believe in magical gods just because someone says so.

As Mr. Sievert says, science is about probabilities based on experience. Religion is about certainties based on the will to believe - or sometimes the fear of not believing.

It's wrong to accuse scientific method of being a dogma. Dogma dictates belief, Science only dictates procedure. But of course you know that.

The question isn't whether evil grows more out of faith than science or out of lack of faith. The question isn't whether people can misrepresent or misuse either one - it's obvious that they do. Evil, however is a property of humans and a property that neither science nor faith are good at repressing. That's why the Stalin as Atheist argument is as dishonest as blaming Hitler's evil on his vegetarianism. If both religious and non religious tyrants kill people, at least atheism isn't the reason. Religion usually is.

Atheism isn't a school or cult where you're taught dogma. It isn't anything. It isn't a club and most of all it isn't a fashion. There have always been atheists, there have always been people who question and investigate, it's just that now it's become harder to burn them at the stake in most countries and so they're less afraid to contradict God's murderers.

skip sievert said...

It does seem funny Fogg that this single issue bedevils so many people.... that people equate secular ideas connected with science to a belief system.
Really it is hard to make out where this comes from except ... ignorance.

Nature instilled in all mankind, primary sexual desires and
interest to assure the procreation of the species. Nature provides
all limitations on human activity. Nature has assured that mankind
cannot do that which is unnatural. If it is possible to do, it is natural.
No violation of natural law is possible. The consequences of
all human activities are natural. Nature is not ambiguous, nature
is not arbitrary.
All theory, philosophy, law, or hypothesis are man-made and
thus subject to change at mankind’s whims. All facts, found or
future, have always existed. Fact is nature’s foundation; facts are
never repudiated by facts. Opinions are never facts.