Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thank You for your Social Consent

I came across an atheist blogger of whom I was not familiar. Her blog is the self-named Greta Christina's Blog

I found her short recent post, Religion Relies on Social Consent interesting.

I’ll admit this up front: her post is generic (religion) but my response will be, for the most part, specifically Christian.

One thing I didn't like in her post--but is unfortunately quite common--is the use of the Reductio ad Hyperlink argument. This is where a bold assertion is hyperlinked, giving the impression that a substantive, on-target argument awaits you on the other side. For example, she writes, about religion,
“At best it’s almost certainly wrong”.
The "almost certainly wrong" there, as here, is a link. Surely it is a scholarly article arguing convincingly that religion is "almost certainly wrong." No, it is a link to one her own posts—a "top ten list" enumerating the reasons, all very common, why she doesn’t believe in God.

She uses the Reductio ad Hyperlink argument again, here:
Religious beliefs are either unfalsifiable — in which case we should reject them on that basis alone — or they’ve been falsified. It has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything.
The link, you may have guessed, takes you to another of her posts which does not, in fact, demonstrate that religion has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything.

Of course it is not only religious believes that are unfalsifiable. I have pointed out before you can, on lucky occasions, encounter internecine warfare on the atheist uber-rationalist sites over questions like "Is animal testing ever ethical?" Or heated brouhahas on gun control, veganism or (perhaps especially) libertarianism. When one atheist uber-rationalist argues with another over animal testing it is because in their "hearts" one holds belief A, that people have no more value than, say, a lab rat, and the other holds belief B that people are at least slightly more valuable than lab rats. Beliefs A and B are unfalsifiable beliefs--not based on rational thinking (othewise they wouldn't disagree!) but on irrational presuppositions that they obfuscate by calling them "values"--which are of course indistinguishable from religious beliefs. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Now, as to Greta Christina's thesis, which she has been “kicking around for sometime,” it is this: 

Religion cannot stand on its own—it relies on social consent. Remove the social consent and religion, it is be believed and hoped, will collapse under its own weight. She tells us:
So those of us who think religion is a bad idea — mistaken at best, flat-out harmful at worst — have to deny our consent.
Let us examine how the consent is to be denied. How does Greta Christina argue that religion is perpetuated?
It perpetuates itself through people not asking hard questions
Well, if this is true you have to blame the gnu atheists--because they ask the least challenging, and most utterly boring questions. Ever. For example Dawkins's seminal question of religion is: if god made everything, who made god? Still, if they did ask good questions, I doubt it would have the desired effect. Because the old atheists, like Betrand Russell, did ask hard questions. Yet it did not seem to harm Christianity or "deny consent" when there were smart atheists asking hard questions. On the contrary I would say it strengthened Christianity by forcing self-examination. No need to be a Berean when, say, PZ Myers's intellectual contribution, in terms of challenging Christianity, is to take pictures of communion wafers in a trash can. Russell caused Christians to dig into the bible to address is criticisms. Myers and the gnus cause us to scratch our nether regions and click on espn.com to search for something, anything, interesting. Continuing:
It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful and will result in punishment, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. 
Examples please? I have never witnessed, in either evangelical Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, any  admonition that asking questions is sinful and will result in punishment. Indeed, building on the point above regarding the failure of gnu atheists to ask anything challenging--the difficult questions for Christianity are asked by only one group: Christians.

The second point is also wrong. At least for Christianity. It--understandably because almost all atheists get this wrong--treats faith as something that one musters up and is therefore virtuous. The bible, of course, teaches that such a notion is utter nonsense:  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8) Faith, in and of itself, is not virtuous. It's a gift.

But even if it were true--where does social consent come in? Are you graciously allowing us to have faith? What action would you take that would result in a denial of social consent if this entire point were true? 
It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life.
Actually I never was taught that morality is found in religion, even Christianity. Religion is man-made. Religion can't do squat. Instead I have always been taught that God provided a moral compass for all people. So unbelievers and believers, given that the source of their morality is the same (God, not religion) have, to first order, the same morality. Nor have I ever heard that leaving Christianity will automatically result in a desperate, amoral life. On the contrary, what is common to hear in a Sunday sermon is an admonition that our behavior is indistinguishable if not worse than unbelievers--who often live admirable lives. 

As for pointless--I'll concede that point.

But again even if it were true--where does social consent come in? Would you make it criminal for us to argue that morality comes from religion? What act are you proposing to counter this form of perpetuation?
It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are extra-vulnerable to believing whatever they’re taught.
And what do you propose? That it is illegal to teach your religion to your children? If so, would you stop there? Or would other ideas that parents indoctrinate their children with come under review? Children adopt the politics of their parents too. I adopted my father's Ayn Randism (Objectivism). Until such time as I jettisoned it--about the same time many of the kids of religious parents were walking away from the faith of their parents. Could parents teach their kids to be Objectivists? Communists? White Supremacists? Vegans? Meat lovers? 

It is true that my child-brain was vulnerable and readily aligned itself with my father's politics. But it didn't stick. God or evolution (or both) seems to have wired people to, as they approach adulthood, start thinking on their own. That may be why in any given church you will find a great diversity of pedigree. Some come from religious families. Some, like me, from non-religious families. Some kids stay in the church. Some leave. 
 It perpetuates itself through social and even legal protections that keep religious leaders and organizations from suffering consequences when they behave despicably.
It would be hard to argue, especially given the scandals in the Catholic Church, that there is not some truth here. However if the solution is to vigorously enforce all laws, and to exact appropriate punishment for any member of any church that commits a crime, and to punish the church officials who cover up such crimes--there were do I sign the petition?  
 It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. 
My counter to this is that I have the greatest job in the world. Tenured professor. And most of my colleagues are atheists. Many are vocal. In the bible belt. They seem to be doing quite well. I don't see the evidence for your claim.

Still, I'd like to know, once again --what do you propose?
So those of us who think religion is a bad idea — mistaken at best, flat-out harmful at worst — have to deny our consent.
But how? Most of what you described is self-perpetuation. All I can see for you to do, given you list of what perpetuates religion is:
  1. Get the gnus to do something useful beyond self-aggrandizement and preaching to the choir
  2. Criminalize teaching religion to your children
  3. Prosecute criminals and those who harbor them in the church
Is there something I missed?

Based on this essay, I won't lose any sleep over a denial-of-consent attack.

I actually missed the end of her post. There she writes that denying social consent is one of the biggest reasons for atheists to come out of the closet. Somehow this, in and of itself, denies social consent. I don't see how, but I am all for atheists coming out of the closet. The numbers of self-identified Christians in the US is absurdly high. No doubt a great many of them are closet atheists. It is a win-win if they would come out of the closet. Atheists masquerading as Christians because of family or peer pressure is no good for anyone. So I completely support her call for more atheist billboards, clubs, etc. Anything that reduces the stigma of being an atheist.

The difference is that she thinks this would hurt the church (religion), whereas I see it as an invaluable service to the church. 

1 comment:

  1. Heddle, glad to see you blogging again.

    Beliefs A and B are unfalsifiable beliefs--not based on rational thinking (othewise they wouldn't disagree!) but on irrational presuppositions that they obfuscate by calling them "values"--which are of course indistinguishable from religious beliefs. Pot. Kettle. Black.

    Hmm, I'm not sure that rational thinking means that all answers agree; you can be entirely rational but include unknowns or tentative statements. What many 'uber-rationalists' do though is hedge their degree of certainty in their results by how much non-rationality was involved to get to that belief; theists, not so much.

    I know this has been brought up before so I'm assuming you don't agree with it, but many people see a significant difference between normative or value statements as opposed to empirical ones. 'Ethics' is subjective by definition; 'exists' and 'occurred' don't have nearly as much wiggle-room. I think that's a pretty important difference that makes them very distinguishable.

    the difficult questions for Christianity are asked by only one group: Christians.

    Yes, and I assume that the difficult questions for astrology are asked by astrologers. If there's really any question where the problem lies it is with the presuppositions, which is something I've never seen you defend beyond, 'one day I didn't believe, and the next I did'. (Although to your credit you are up-front about your presuppositions) Not all presuppositions are equal. Atheists like Russell weren't required to critique Christianity on your terms, which is, 'assume the Christian god exists and then point out the problems'; the incoherency of some points of religion just gave him that opportunity. Additionally I find the idea of, 'only Christians ask the tough questions', to be a little disingenuous because it is not as if any of the potential answers believers would entertain to these tough questions would impact their certainty that God exists one iota.

    Do you disagree that the fewer presuppositions there are the better? I'm confident that you take all of this atheist's presuppositions, if we can really even call them that, as a given also, since they're all necessary for your big honking presupposition that the Christian god exists. I see very little equivalence in the number and content of presuppositions I take vs. you, but maybe I'm not who you are referring to since I don't consider myself a gnu.