Rushdie on Religion and the Imagination

Last Wednesday night, I had the chance to sit in on a fascinating conversation on “Religion and the Imagination” with Salman Rushdie. The author of Midnight’s Children [soon to be adapted for film by Deepa Mehta], The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and East, West was, of course, the perfect person to launch Columbia University’s newly founded Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. The Institute’s mission is to “bring together scholars and students in various fields to reflect and respond to the issues brought about by the “resurgence of religion and, with it, religious and cultural intolerance and conflict [that] are emerging as powerful forces in the new century.” Rushdie2.jpg

Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature, introduced Rushdie as someone who has been “fighting religious intolerance with humor, proving that we can fight moral seriousness with humor.”

The stage in Columbia’s always inspiring (and very crowded) Low Library Rotunda was set simply with two arm chairs–one for Rushdie, who was was all suited up, and the other for his “interviewer” Gauri Viswanathan, Professor of Religion and Comparative Literature, dressed as always, in a sari. The conversation was an intellectual one peppered with doses of Rushdie’s subtle (and sometimes pointed) humor and the topics of conversation ranged from everything to his relationship with religion and his hopes for robust religious debate to his thoughts on Obama’s win earlier that week.

“We don’t live in a world of drama, dance, and love… We live in a world of death, destruction, and bombs… I’m hoping something happened on Tuesday that will change that,” Rushdie said, referring to the election of Barack Obama. “I have no utopian tendencies. I’m good at seeing what I don’t like. But this week, I do feel optimistic,” Rushdie laughed. “It’s an odd feeling, one I’m not familiar with. The last time I felt like this was after the election of Tony Blair and look what happened!” Rushdie paused as the audience chuckled at his dark skepticism, then added, “ I hope it’s not that way this time. Actually … I don’t think it is.”

More on the evening’s highlights below the fold. Professor Viswanathan got the evening started by asking, “What does literary imagination add to religious imagination?”

“All literature began as sacred literature,” said Rushdie. “There aren’t words to express some things except religious words, for example, the ‘soul’. I don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, yet there isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood. Whether you’re religious or not you may find yourself obliged to use language shaped by religion. … As Arthur Koestler wrote, “There’s a ghost in the machine.’”

What Rushdie says he has found most useful about religion is its power to create myth, which he does draw inspiration from in his writing. “The amount of complexity pushed into a small story” is what impresses him, he said, giving an example of how a single myth can be interpreted in so many different ways. This, according to him, is similar to what religions have in common; a single religious text can also be interpreted in myriad ways.

He went on to emphasize that though his books address religion, he is not, however, religious. “I am not interested in devotion. I’m not interested in writing books other than those that express inter-human devotion, which is temporary.”

Gods, the way he sees it, were invented by human beings to answer the two big questions of life: One, the question of origins: “Where do we come from?” Two, the question of ethics: “”How should we live?”

“I don’t need religion to answer those questions,” said Rushdie, proposing that religion has been wrong on both counts. “Regarding origins, I think you can say [they are all wrong.] The world was not created in six days and God rested on the seventh. It was not created in the churning of a giant pot. Or the sparks unleashed by the udders of a giant cow against the boulders of a a gigantic chasm. And regarding ‘how shall we live,’ I don’t want answers that come from some priest. … When religion gets in the driving seat, it becomes an inquisition. I would prefer that the answer to these big questions came from debates. The debate is the thing from which flows the ethical life.”

And, yet, Rushdie’s books have and do take on religion and ethics and the supernatural. How come? How does he square the two?

“Miracles, magic, imagination, they all argue inside me. I don’t reconcile them,” Rushdie laughed. “Creative writing is an implicit argument against pure rationalism. The way an imaginative piece comes to life is mysterious. The bit of me sitting here [in this hall] is rationalistic, but when I’m writing books, something weird happens; and the result is what you would call supernaturalism. As a person, I don’t need it. As a writer, I need it to explore the world. That tension, it’s just there. It’s just so.”

Later on that evening, Rushdie acknowledged that though he can’t quite explain it, he does believe in the “mystical experience” or the “phenomenon called revelation” that St. John the Divine and Joan of Arc experienced. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it sounded to me like he was hinting that there may be a bit of revelation in the writing process as well.

Given the mission of Columbia’s new Institute, it was natural that the conversation should steer toward questions of conflict and religious extremism. Rushdie lamented the self-destructiveness within religions and praised the creation of Columbia’s Institute for its role in promoting healthy debate and discussion on the role of religion in public life. He talked about how his attempt to depict early convulsions of the birth of religion (namely Islam) in Satanic Verses was viewed as heretic.

“There is so much contemporary scholarship about the origins of Islam,” Rushdie said. “If you insist that the text is the uncreated word of God, then the social and economic conditions of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century are unimportant, because God works on a broader canvas than that. If, however, you are willing to look at the text as an event inside the history of the period, it illuminates the text. And I think it’s a tragedy that it’s not really acceptable to do this inside the tradition.”

“It’s a great shame in the world of Islam that so much contemporary scholarship is not permitted because of the divine origin notion,” he said. “… because historicizing the text would really open up and illuminate it.”

During the course of the evening, Rushdie reminisced somewhat nostalgically about the Islam he knew as a youth. “I grew up in that world where people could still be devout Muslims (like my grandfather who prayed five times a day) and yet, we as children, could make fun of him, asking him why spent more time with his bottom up in the air than not … He’d get cross with us, but also laugh and invite us to debate with him.”

Something I didn’t know before this evening was that Rushdie is not really Salman Rushdie’s family name. His father invented it because he was an admirer of the philosopher Ibn-Rushdie.

From the Huffington Post, this passage captures (near-verbatim) the points that Rushdie made:

One of the reasons my name is Rushdie is that my father was an admirer of Ibn Rush’d, the 12th century Arab philosopher known as Averroes in the West. In his time, he was making the non-literalist case for interpreting the Koran.
One argument of his with which I’ve also had sympathy is this: In the Judeo-Christian idea, God created man in his own image and, therefore, they share some characteristics. By contrast, the Koran says God has no human characteristics. It would be demeaning God to say that. We are merely human. He is God.
Ibn Rush’d and others in his time argued that language, too, is a human characteristic. Therefore it is improper – in Koranic terms – to argue that God speaks Arabic or any other language. That God would speak at all would mean he has a mouth and human form. So, Ibn Rush’d said, if God doesn’t use human language, then the writing down of the Koran, as received in the human mind from the Angel Gabriel, is itself an act of interpretation. The original text is itself an act of interpretation. If that is so, then further interpretation of the Koran according to historical context, rather than literally, is quite legitimate.
In the 12th century, this argument was defeated. It needs to raised again in the 21st century.

“I wouldn’t mind having another go at that,” Rushdie told the audience, aligning himself closely with his 12th century namesake.

During the course of the evening, Rushdie mourned the loss of the “composite culture of Kashmir which used to be neither Muslim nor Hindu” and where members of both religions would stop by the same roadside altars to pay homage to Sufi saints. “It’s sad to see that gone,” he said. “The self-destruction of Muslim culture by other Muslims is a grievous wound.” (One audience member was quick to point out to Rushdie in the Q&A session that followed that Hindus and Muslims in India do both still pay homage to Sufi saints, even in Kashmir.)

Referring to the fatwa placed on him and the perception of his work as anti-Islamic, Rushdie argued, “Ideas shouldn’t be seen as being antithetical to argument,” pointing out the argumentative Jesuit tradition as an example. On another occasion, Rushdie has said, “All other major religions have gone through this process of questioning, but remain standing. An Islamic questioning might well undermine the radicals, but it won’t undermine Islam.”

“Relativism is the dangerous death of liberalism,” Rushdie said, calling himself a believer in universalism. “We human beings are more genetically the same than we are not so there are universal rights and culture or religion can’t be an excuse to say “Let them kill novelists because it’s what they do!”

“The answer to religion is not no religion but finding another way to be with religion,” he proposed, arguing for a world where “there is no suppression of religion.”

He thus supported his position:

“We are language animals and we have to be allowed to use language. This is a universal right. You take language away from human beings and you take humanity away. Similarly, we are dreaming animals who live richly through our imagination. You have to imagine the hyperlink before you can construct the hyperlink. You have to imagine the wheel before you can construct the wheel. What starts as a dream becomes a reality. To tell us there are dreams we can have and we can’t have is a crime against humanity.”

It was an inspiring and relevant evening, where Rushdie came across at times as an idealist who still dreams of pitching a tent where ideas can be discussed. “Ideas are not permanent so maybe a tent is a good place to discuss ideas,” he said at one point in the evening.

66 thoughts on “Rushdie on Religion and the Imagination

  1. I remember reading about Ibn Rush’d in a class on Islamic history in college and thinking “Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to the sensible ones?”

    In a lot of ways it is politically convenient to say “My religion gives you a simple, easy to follow checklist for getting into heaven.” If you abide by some simple rules you’re in. It’s a simple message to put down on a missionary tract and it spares people the trouble of doing any intellectual heavy-lifting and all the self-doubt and existential angst that comes with it.

    Messages that stress genuine spiritual inquiry generally bubble up and find an audience, but it is almost always a small subset of the general population and the quick and easy checklist is a strong temptation for the hopeless and the greedy alike. Both groups are prone to self-delusion. The hopeless because it is the only way to remain somewhat sane in a brutish and dehumanizing life and the greedy because they like to think themselves better and more entitled than others.

  2. Hi, I didn’t know that the position I accepted after college would require me to spend so much time on the internet to spam the message boards of my targeted demographics, but it just goes to show there are things you can’t learn in school. I’m not even using my real name? Couldn’t tell that could ya? Eh? Go on, pick up a book.

  3. Gods, the way he sees it, were invented by human beings to answer the two big questions of life: One, the question of origins: “Where do we come from?” Two, the question of ethics: “”How should we live?”

    this is an atheist &/or philosophical answer (philosophical because philosophical theists might say the same). the empirical data doesn’t support this.

  4. It’s all about the Rushdie and the Hitchens (christopher hitchens) … we gotta get them both in a discussion or interview

  5. Hitchens? Really? I don’t see what a knee-jerk anti-religionist trotskyite has to contribute to any intelligent or honest conversation on religion. I listened to a debate between him and Dinesh De’Souza once and the stupidity on both sides made me want to scream.

  6. I listened to a debate between him and Dinesh De’Souza once and the stupidity on both sides made me want to scream.

    I kind of agree, it is interesting how annoying both ends of the spectrum are, in terms of the finality of their views.

  7. Rushdie is a great wordsmith but a man’s gifts and talents don’t give him moral certitude. He has hurt the sentiments of a large majority of people and awarding him the booker of booker’s was similar to naipaul getting the Nobel for his disdain for the third world. Rushdie, for all his deftness is guilty of islamophobia

  8. I think that all he was arguing for was the freedom to be able to critique and debate religion. Everything else is his personal point of view. It’s just that because of who he is people pay more attention. If I were to say all this, nobody would really care.

  9. Hitchens? Really? I don’t see what a knee-jerk anti-religionist trotskyite has to contribute to any intelligent or honest conversation on religion.

    Apart from Hitchens’ p.o.v on the Iraq war, I believe he makes sound arguments about religion. He can actually break his points down into the simplest form which I have not seen in religious leaders. I think “intelligent or honest” is exactly what is missing in the arguments made by the religious figures examples: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1u_pyZ-ybw8&feature=related "Religion is not imposed?"] and the only thing that hitchens brings to the table in “conversation on religion”.

  10. But Hitchens doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. Just because he breaks down his opinions succinctly and with a British accent doesn’t mean his opinions are especially informed or worthwhile. He argues based on strawmen in which he holds up the most extreme practicioners of a religion as the standard, he completely ignores the philosophical and theological aspects of religion in favor of just looking at them from a materialist perspective, and he quite clearly has not spent any time studying the subject from the perspective of a practitioner.

    The lack of respect for people with different beliefs is what is at issue. The assumption by people like Hitchens that anyone who is religious must be stupid or ignorant is just plain condescending.

    Evangelical atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins are every bit as bad as the jihadis and christianists they deride. Just because their little tribe is too small to do any harm doesn’t mean they are substantially different from any other type of militant evangelist.

  11. re: Hitchens – I think that Abdolkarim Soroush is an excellent philosopher/scholar who has reconciled political/theological/epistemology from a particular (Iranian shi’ite / post-enlightenment western) perspective. I don’t agree with him about all, but his ideas are really exciting – not as much of a sourpuss as hitchens.

  12. 12 · NaraVara said

    But Hitchens doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. Just because he breaks down his opinions succinctly and with a British accent doesn’t mean his opinions are especially informed or worthwhile. He argues based on strawmen in which he holds up the most extreme practicioners of a religion as the standard, he completely ignores the philosophical and theological aspects of religion in favor of just looking at them from a materialist perspective, and he quite clearly has not spent any time studying the subject from the perspective of a practitioner. The lack of respect for people with different beliefs is what is at issue. The assumption by people like Hitchens that anyone who is religious must be stupid or ignorant is just plain condescending. Evangelical atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins are every bit as bad as the jihadis and christianists they deride. Just because their little tribe is too small to do any harm doesn’t mean they are substantially different from any other type of militant evangelist.

    I’m so tired of hearing stuff like this.

    First of all, Hitchens and Dawkins are not evangelical. They have never said that supernatural things ABSOLUTELY do not exist. They simply point out that “God” is just as likely as anything else that is magical: fairies, flying spaghetti monsters, etc. People are just more partial to their own religious ideas because they have been raised in them.

    Second of all, you can respect people as a sentient beings without respecting their ideas. If someone’s ideas don’t stand up to logical reasoning, then why should we pretend that they make sense?

    Third, Hitchens points to the most DEVOUT practitioners of faiths, not the most “EXTREME”. The people that are labeled as extremists and radicals are the ones who actually do what is specifically prescribed in the holy texts. It is so obvious that these texts are products of their environment. The thing about religion is that it depends on the allure of magic and divinity to push through the dumbest, illogical, backward ideas out there. The only reason people even bother trying to keep these holy books relevant is because they think they were written by something magical. The ideas of Dawkins and Hitchens don’t depend on who wrote them being respected. Hitchens is a self-admitted alcoholic, but it doesn’t matter. His books stand alone. The ideas and arguments are well put together and make sense. This cannot be said of the Bible or the Koran.

  13. 12 · NaraVara said

    Evangelical atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins are every bit as bad as the jihadis and christianists they deride. Just because their little tribe is too small to do any harm doesn’t mean they are substantially different from any other type of militant evangelist.

    I suppose it all depends on whether you believe in and relish the fruits of science, secularism and enlightenment thought. Every bit as bad though? I thought you claimed they were merely condescending and disrespectful? In any case, you are getting into strawman territory yourself. Hitchens has much more to offer than being an Oxfordian blowhard. (He is an avowed ex-Trotskyite by the way, if it matters, and a longtime close friend of Rushdie’s.) It’s just not true that he “ignores the philosophical and theological aspects of religion.” That’s pretty much his launching point.

  14. “Miracles, magic, imagination, they all argue inside me. I don’t reconcile them,” Rushdie laughed. “Creative writing is an implicit argument against pure rationalism. The way an imaginative piece comes to life is mysterious. The bit of me sitting here [in this hall] is rationalistic, but when I’m writing books, something weird happens; and the result is what you would call supernaturalism. As a person, I don’t need it. As a writer, I need it to explore the world. That tension, it’s just there. It’s just so.”

    Well said. Even though I don’t like Rushdie.

    Rationality is a user interface, it makes comprehensible (to oneself and others) the buzzing, blooming complexity that goes on between the ears. Which itself is a filtered reflection of the buzzing and blooming confusion that is the world. Looked thus, rationality is not much different from the checklist handed out by the religions, except that the rational rules are based primarily on visual perception and the sense of causation, both of which are “boxes” imposed on the world by our evolutionary history. The uniqueness, and the tragedy, of human beings is that we recognize this box and try to fly away from it, but always come crashing down.

    People like Dawkins believe the interface is all there is to the machine. Religious zealots believe the interface is a sham, and the machine is controlled from above. Both offer boxes. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in a different dimension, and doesn’t involve a box.

  15. It seems to me that Rushdie’s politics has evolved in recent years. Immediately after the fatwa years, he was predisposed, like the extreme Right in America (and the U. K.), to lump all Islam in one vile bucket. Only more recently has he seen the error of his (and their) ways, and become the more nuanced Rushdie I’ve always imagined him to be.

  16. He has hurt the sentiments of a large majority of people and awarding him the booker of booker’s was similar to naipaul getting the Nobel for his disdain for the third world. Rushdie, for all his deftness is guilty of islamophobia

    You may want to read Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie discusses, among other things, Islam, Satanic verses and Naipaul’s Islamic journey with his usual eloquence. The final piece (not my favorite), is titled Why I Have Embraced Islam.

  17. Third, Hitchens points to the most DEVOUT practitioners of faiths, not the most “EXTREME”. The people that are labeled as extremists and radicals are the ones who actually do what is specifically prescribed in the holy texts.

    You’re doing it too now. You’re just assuming that those interpretations of the texts that coincide with your biased account of religion being all about retrograde values is the proper interpretation, making no room whatsoever for the fact that some very smart people all throughout history have been able to make some very sound and cogent rational arguments in defense of their religious traditions and beliefs. I’m sorry. But anyone who tries to claim that religious beliefs are, by definition, irrational has not done any serious reading on the theology of any of the world’s major religions. Religions have irrational practicioners just like pretty much every belief system, religious or not, that has ever been created. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth or meaning there.

    I suppose it all depends on whether you believe in and relish the fruits of science, secularism and enlightenment thought.

    Because the two are mutually exclusive. You’re not setting up a false dichotomy at all, no sir. It’s not like there has ever been an accomplished scientist who was also a devoted follower of one tradition or another. It’s not as if religious scholars like Aryabatha, Averroes, Pythagoras, Thomas Aquinas, and others never accomplished anything to further along human society.

    No sir.

    Every bit as bad though? I thought you claimed they were merely condescending and disrespectful? In any case, you are getting into strawman territory yourself. Hitchens has much more to offer than being an Oxfordian blowhard. (He is an avowed ex-Trotskyite by the way, if it matters, and a longtime close friend of Rushdie’s.) It’s just not true that he “ignores the philosophical and theological aspects of religion.” That’s pretty much his launching point.

    Where’s the strawman? He clearly does not respect the ideas of religious people long enough to even consider that they might have something worth saying. He starts from the assumption that they’re wrong and follows a long trail of biased evidence and proselytization from there. Anyone who purports to have an absolute handle of THE TRUTH and pompously goes around deriding anyone who disagrees is, frankly, not worth the time. Hitchens and Dawkins have both perfected the art of disguising smugness as evidence, but it doesn’t fly.

  18. 19 · NaraVara said

    You’re just assuming that those interpretations of the texts that coincide with your biased account of religion being all about retrograde values is the proper interpretation, making no room whatsoever for the fact that some very smart people all throughout history have been able to make some very sound and cogent rational arguments in defense of their religious traditions and beliefs. I’m sorry. But anyone who tries to claim that religious beliefs are, by definition, irrational has not done any serious reading on the theology of any of the world’s major religions

    Dangerously close to a No True Scotsman fallacy there. An argument made against those who are the most devout, by nature of logic, implies that the argument also applies to the entire group of practicioners who identify with that faith. The classical argument of “They don’t truly reflect the teachings of X religion” doesn’t hold water since that’s just moving the goalpost to suit your whim.

    To touch on the second point – Yes there certainly have been some extremely smart people in history who’ve believed in religion, Issac Newton being an example of that. But to claim “cogent defense” is patently ridiculous, when any claim ever made was always promptly debunked 5 minutes later, only to be reiterated a hundred years later under a new guise (See Pascal/Aquinas wager). In any event, the percentage of indivdiuals who self-identify as agnostic/atheist in the scientific fields is relatively high and only increasing with time (Wikipedia tells me 93% of National Academy of Science members)

    I do have to agree with the charge proselytization levelled against Hitchens/Dawkins. They’re often long winded and should instead perfect the art of hurling pithy, stinging one liners, as actually trying to hold any meaningful debate just wastes their time.

    Other than that, you keep plugging away – I will defend your right to believe in whatever the hell you want, but it’s a fact that religion is loosing its grip. I give it another another century, and hopefully by that time it’ll all have just been a bad dream.

  19. 19 · NaraVara said

    Because the two are mutually exclusive. You’re not setting up a false dichotomy at all, no sir. It’s not like there has ever been an accomplished scientist who was also a devoted follower of one tradition or another. It’s not as if religious scholars like Aryabatha, Averroes, Pythagoras, Thomas Aquinas, and others never accomplished anything to further along human society.

    With the exception of Aquinas, if you took away religion, those men would still be remembered as great men and would have furthered along society. They might have even accomplished more! Aryabatha’s greatness and fame (which is not at the level it should be in the west) is due to his contributions to mathematics and astronomy. Averroes was a renaissance man and is well-known precisely for liberating philosophy and science from theology. What I know of Pythagoras is that he was a great mathematician and a mystic if anything. Aquinas was a great theologian but even without a religious persuasion could have clearly been a great philosopher and furthered along or enriched human society.

    Where is the false dichotomy? Certainly intelligence or genius and religious belief can coexist in an individual, but it’s not as though the latter is a foundation for the former. You say that “Anyone who purports to have an absolute handle of THE TRUTH and pompously goes around deriding anyone who disagrees is, frankly, not worth the time.” That seems close to being an anti-religious sentiment. Faith or belief is affirmed by its absolute intimacy with the truth isn’t it? If you are objecting to the deriding, then I understand. But that’s Hitchens’s tone, not the thrust of his case. I personally don’t have absolutist convictions in any direction and I’m not always in agreement with Hitchens and definitely not Dawkins, but I think they raise important questions for these times.

  20. 18 · Amol said

    You may want to read Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie discusses, among other things, Islam, Satanic verses and Naipaul’s Islamic journey with his usual eloquence. The final piece (not my favorite), is titled Why I Have Embraced Islam.

    That collection is almost twenty years old. Rushdie said he was “deranged” when he claimed to embrace Islam: “It was deranged thinking. I was more off-balance than I ever had been, but you can’t imagine the pressure I was under. I simply thought I was making a statement of fellowship. As soon as I said it I felt as if I had ripped my own tongue out. It became the moment I hit rock bottom. I realised that my only survival mechanism was my own integrity. People, my friends, were angry with me, and that was the reaction I cared about.”

    Since then he has gone even more fiercely or openly in the other direction. His position today is pretty evident in his signature of the “MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism”

  21. I give it another another century, and hopefully by that time it’ll all have just been a bad dream.

    I doubt that, it will probably turn into a nightmare soon.

    Paradoxically, one of the engines driving the nightmare would be science, technology and modernity. Rationality and questioning take up lots of processing resources (just as GUIs); as the world becomes more complex and fast, there will be less cognitive resources available for rational thought, even as the level of required comprehension increases exponentially. Faith will be the slide-back option, and it will bring with it totalitarianism.

  22. Dangerously close to a No True Scotsman fallacy there. An argument made against those who are the most devout, by nature of logic, implies that the argument also applies to the entire group of practicioners who identify with that faith. The classical argument of “They don’t truly reflect the teachings of X religion” doesn’t hold water since that’s just moving the goalpost to suit your whim.

    Religion isn’t a basket of beliefs or a checklist that you subscribe to. It’s a framework for interpreting the nature of reality. The fact that you’re trying to act as if the people in the checklist camp somehow constitute the entirety of religious practitioners is on par with saying all economists are neoliberals. It just shows that you’re trying to hold up an exception and treat it as the rule because it suits your biases, but it bears very little resemblance to the facts on the ground.

    To touch on the second point – Yes there certainly have been some extremely smart people in history who’ve believed in religion, Issac Newton being an example of that. But to claim “cogent defense” is patently ridiculous, when any claim ever made was always promptly debunked 5 minutes later, only to be reiterated a hundred years later under a new guise (See Pascal/Aquinas wager). In any event, the percentage of indivdiuals who self-identify as agnostic/atheist in the scientific fields is relatively high and only increasing with time (Wikipedia tells me 93% of National Academy of Science members)

    Are the endogeneity issues in such a figure not blatantly apparent to you? You don’t think that maybe people who spend 8 years studying in an environment rife with non-believers might absorb the norms and standards of the group they work in? What exactly constitutes a “scientist” by the definitions of this study anyway? And for that matter, how does that figure at all reflect whether those members of the scientific community believe religious beliefs to be irrational? All it means is they don’t subscribe to them. It says nothing about their opinions on the logic behind them.

    Other than that, you keep plugging away – I will defend your right to believe in whatever the hell you want, but it’s a fact that religion is loosing its grip. I give it another another century, and hopefully by that time it’ll all have just been a bad dream.

    Another century? Ha! I believe Bernard Shaw tried to say the same thing. And even where mainline religious traditions erode you find a bunch of people opening up to neo-paganism, transcendental meditation, and various other forms of “new age” beliefs. Read more Tillich and get back to me.

    With the exception of Aquinas, if you took away religion, those men would still be remembered as great men and would have furthered along society. They might have even accomplished more!

    Every single one of those men made their discoveries before the development of the scientific method.

    How about this. It’s pretty obvious from your blithely dismissive tones that neither of you nor crimson have ever actually engaged in a critical philosophical examination of your own assumptions before. So let’s settle on a lexicon since it seems like we’re talking past each other.

    What do the words “religion” and “science” mean to you?

    This isn’t a trick question or a rhetorical trap. But from the comments you both have made it is apparent to me that you are not operating on the same definitions of “religion” that most actual religious people might identify (It’s a pretty ambiguous idea to start with. Especially when you throw our pesky Dharmic ones into the basket.) I suspect, also, that your notion of “science” is also a fair bit removed from the generally accepted meaning of the word because the claim that science will eventually replace religion betrays some ignorance of the dimension in which scientific inquiry can operate.

  23. Rationality and questioning take up lots of processing resources (just as GUIs); as the world becomes more complex and fast, there will be less cognitive resources available for rational thought, even as the level of required comprehension increases exponentially. Faith will be the slide-back option, and it will bring with it totalitarianism.

    Do you honestly think that people would willingly build the kind of world where they don’t even have enough spare energy to stop, evaluate, and think about what is going on around them? Kids are eventually going to stop looking up at the night sky and being enthralled? Really?

    What kind of world would this even be? It certainly wouldn’t be any kind of society we would recognize as human.

  24. There are schisms among the atheist public intellectuals. The Dawkins camp excoriated Sam Harris, author of “End of Faith” and neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, for treating consciousness as something “real” and for giving some topics (e.g. ESP) serious consideration. He has been derided as a crypto-Buddhist and Vedantist even though he is clear that he is against all religion. So in this regard I do see something similar to religious fundamentalism among atheists, there is no mercy for those who don’t subscribe to physical reductionist explanations of consciousness.

  25. 24 · NaraVara said

    This isn’t a trick question or a rhetorical trap. But from the comments you both have made it is apparent to me that you are not operating on the same definitions of “religion” that most actual religious people might identify (It’s a pretty ambiguous idea to start with. Especially when you throw our pesky Dharmic ones into the basket.) I suspect, also, that your notion of “science” is also a fair bit removed from the generally accepted meaning of the word because the claim that science will eventually replace religion betrays some ignorance of the dimension in which scientific inquiry can operate.

    You are asking me to define religion and science! That is above my pay grade. I wouldn’t even pretend to know how “most actual religious people” define religion. Neither would I or did I claim that “science will eventually replace religion,” but in certain aspects of inquiry such as cosmology, astronomy, medicine, and so forth, (even theology now enjoys the company of biotheology or neurotheology) and in certain social spheres, that has certainly long-since happened.

  26. 26 · sloppyjoe said

    There are schisms among the atheist public intellectuals. The Dawkins camp excoriated Sam Harris, author of “End of Faith” and neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, for treating consciousness as something “real” and for giving some topics (e.g. ESP) serious consideration. He has been derided as a crypto-Buddhist and Vedantist even though he is clear that he is against all religion. So in this regard I do see something similar to religious fundamentalism among atheists, there is no mercy for those who don’t subscribe to physical reductionist explanations of consciousness.

    And perish the thought of questioning whether your sensory perceptions are accurate portrayals of the ultimate reality. This is what bugs me most. Science is pretty limited in what it can explain. It is relegated to drawing conclusions based on empirical observations. Empirical observations need to be interpreted and filtered by your finite human brain. The brain’s processing capacity is limited and shaped to process information in a very particular way. Generally to enhance our species’ survival value.

    But when you start trying to explain ultimate reality you hit a roadblock since the scientific method is really bad at coping with things you cannot directly observe. To claim that what you see with your eyes is an accurate picture when we know all the limits of our own brains is a pretty enormous leap of faith.

  27. You are asking me to define religion and science! That is above my pay grade.

    You can’t have a discussion unless you can settle on a common language. We’re both speaking English but it’s clear we are defining out words differently.

    Defining science is actually pretty easy. It’s a system of thought designed to acquire knowledge of the natural world through empirical observation. There are several assumptions embedded in there. One is that the way you see things is the way they really are. Basically, what if you’re in the Matrix? What if it’s all just one big delusion? (Not that far from teachings of the Vedanta actually.) Another is that because something happens one way right now that’s the way it will always happen forever and ever and ever. In most things we see in our everyday lives it is a pretty valid assumption to make. But once you get down to quantum theory it starts to stretch the assumption a little (and my sanity a LOT.)

    Religion is a bit harder to define because it actually is several different things at once. It encompasses shared cultural practices, norms, and values as well as philosophical and theological teachings about the nature of the universe and the ultimate reality. On top of that, it also encompasses a sense of community and identity. Religious traditions are all three of these things at the same time. But when the evangelical atheists talk about it they usually fixate only on the first clause about societal norms and values. The idea of religion as being a forum of communal identity is often regarded as illegitimate by many people for reasons I don’t really understand.

    Conveniently, of course, they completely ignore the philosophical frameworks that religions establish for people. This is probably the most important and useful aspects of religious beliefs and the part that usually requires the most intellectual effort. Of course guys like Hitchens never bother to challenge these head on because most legitimate theologians (i.e. not Pat Robertson types) are pretty smart cookies and would beat his flabby logic to a pulp.

  28. Another is that because something happens one way right now that’s the way it will always happen forever and ever and ever.

    I find that to be more true of religion than of science. Natural Selection and evolution explain the some major changes in life in the natural world

  29. 28 · NaraVara said

    But when you start trying to explain ultimate reality you hit a roadblock since the scientific method is really bad at coping with things you cannot directly observe. To claim that what you see with your eyes is an accurate picture when we know all the limits of our own brains is a pretty enormous leap of faith.

    Huh? What a justification for the spouting of unverifiable bullshit!

  30. Religion isn’t a basket of beliefs or a checklist that you subscribe to.

    Any religion IS a checklist. How can you deny that?

  31. Let’s see: atheists don’t believe in God. Personally, I don’t believe atheists, but that’s another discussion. (and I am not implying anything about foxholes)

    To understand a religion you must go to the source, or as close to it as you can get. Even Sagan got something out the Veddas; various agnostic philosophers gave credit where credit was due, to J.C. There are few Jews raised in an even tangentially Jewish household who would deny the influence of their religious traditions. The first word of the Talmud is “read” — or that’s what I heard.

    Religion has created whole cultures, given them context and content. Science will never “create” a culture; it will continue to illuminate it–there’s nothing new about science. The Greeks, the ancient Hindus, the Muslim (yes) Persians and Arabs, all encouraged science at one time, and indeed, were famous for it. Muslim civilization was at its height when it was also the most “scientific.” Many clever folk among you will gnash at my observations, decry them as simplistic. However, they are correct as far as they go. right about everything. Science is one long, trail of revisions. We are in a transitional period of human history. We do “know” more about the universe (ha!) but to consider that we know so much we can now be certain there is no “god”, (an intelligent, creative force invested somehow in humans and their environment), is nonsense. Atheisism is a life-style, a personal preference. So if Hitchens considers the concept of god and religion to be the same as fairies and fairy tales, well, ok. Not too original there. But he’s a leeetle premature methinks. I’d like to “know” a bit more before committing myself to non-belief.

  32. “…right about everything. Science is one long, trail of revisions.”

    part of my sentence got eaten by this godless machine. I meant to say “scientists have never been right about everything.”

  33. 33 · calm overview said

    Many clever folk among you will gnash at my observations, decry them as simplistic. However, they are correct as far as they go.

    Amen to that, I say!

  34. 30 · sbw said

    Another is that because something happens one way right now that’s the way it will always happen forever and ever and ever. I find that to be more true of religion than of science. Natural Selection and evolution explain the some major changes in life in the natural world

    Okay, first of all if you’re still using the word “religion” as a term diametrically opposed to “science” then you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said.

    Secondly, you observe an apple fall from a tree in a certain way at a specific time and place. To draw a scientific conclusion from that you will have to assume that the apple wall fall in the same way (holding all else constant) in every place in the universe at every time in the past and the future. Of course, you can’t test whether this is so, all it is is a leap of faith.

    Huh? What a justification for the spouting of unverifiable bullshit!

    Really? Verify to me that you’re not a brain in a jar being fed information. The fact is any time that you make a truth claim it rests on one leap of faith or another. You can’t try to run from this fact by throwing profanity at me, but you can’t deny this.

    Like I said. The trouble with these evangelical atheists is that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I don’t think there has been an atheistic philosopher who actually knew his shit since Nietzche.

    Any religion IS a checklist. How can you deny that?

    By actually reading the religious doctrines from an endic perspective and without any hostility towards the subject matter. What exactly is the checklist to get into heaven for being a good Christian? With the exception of some fringe doctrines it is made quite clear that works don’t get you grace. And what about being a good Hindu? Now that’s an even more complicated story and I have no idea how you would go about categorizing it.

    At the end of the day the rules religions prescribe are simply societal norms designed to make it obvious who is on or out of your religious group. Seriously, you people need to read some more Tillich.

    To understand a religion you must go to the source, or as close to it as you can get.

    That’s not necessarily true. The source is important and often a good source of wisdom. But if you fixate on the scripture itself you are going to miss out on a lot regarding the day to day practice of religious tradition. With regards to something like Hinduism, for example, what would the “source” even be? Generally it is regarded as the Vedas, but just the Vedas without the Upanishads, the Mahabaratha, the Ramayana, and all the various Puranas will give you just a very small picture of what Hinduism means to a practicing Hindu. And that’s without even mentioning all the personal and familial traditions that get passed down that haven’t been committed to the page.

  35. 36 · NaraVara said

    Verify to me that you’re not a brain in a jar being fed information.

    somebody’s been watching too much sci-fi, it looks like. or taken a big hit of some extra-strong stuff…

  36. 37 · gobbledygook said

    36 · NaraVara said
    Verify to me that you’re not a brain in a jar being fed information.
    somebody’s been watching too much sci-fi, it looks like. or taken a big hit of some extra-strong stuff…

    Smugness is not, and has never been, a substitute for smarts. Either furnish some proof that it isn’t a leap of faith or admit your beliefs are as grounded in unverifiable premises as anyone else’s.

  37. 25 · NaraVara said

    Tillich

    Well, we’ve already built a major chunk of that world. How many kids do you think look up from the TV and their video games to the sky?

    As a species, we don’t have a choice on what we build, because our collective actions are not rational and thought about, as a population, we go about building our world much like termites build their nests. We are developing our current technologies because that’s where our trajectory, mostly based on self-fulfillment, has brought us. And that trajectory will continue on, until it collapses.

    For those of you who think everything about religion is bunkum, here is a book. If you manage to read both the volumes (which I suspect you won’t), and you still think religion is bunkum, then you will at least have the credentials to make that statement.

    In parting, a running joke about “objective” knowledge.

    Dawkins and Dennett make love, and Dawkins asks: Was it as good for me Dan, as it was for you?

  38. A few points (no particular order) addressed to all the posters above:

    • I agree with the posted definitions to a point. The most important thing about science is the ability to accurately predict the outcome of events even when things are not controlled. The accumulation of knowledge is nice, but not the goal. And religion isn’t hard to define: a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power. Notice the bit about the supernatural power. Any collection of ideas needs to have one of those to join the religion club.
    • Saying that S & R are not opposite and do not intrude into the other’s sphere is just being an apologetic. They do. One makes claims, the other probes those claims.
    • Atheism is not a belief – it is a lack of belief (nothing less, nothing more)
    • Burden of proof is always on the positive, never on the negative. The default state should be lack of belief.
    • The great thing about the scientific method being that if indeed we were just brains in a jar, it should be possible to design an experiment to find out!
    • If you want to go all PoMo, fine, its just that I choose to accept a set of logically consistent principles that weren’t written by agrarian goat herders 2 millenia ago.
    • I was aware that Shaw expressed a similar sentiment. I am however an eternal optimist.
    • Ever wonder why a civilization is always at its height when it is at its most scientific? Get a critical mass of people together and all of a sudden, some of them decide to make the world a better place by you know, being rational and stuff. Correlation does not imply causation.
    • I doubt there’s ever been a theologist that knew their stuff. Notice how petty comments like that sound..
    • Little premature… more like you’re a little too late to the party. Any set of ideas that is logically inconsistent from one line to the other should have been thrown out the minute it was fabricated.
    • Checklist for christianity.. follow the bible (first decide on a version & translation). But wait, doing that apparently doesn’t make you a “real Christian” ™ to others.
    • No need to accuse anyone of taking a hit of the strong stuff. Comes across as childish, and just reinforces negative perceptions.

    I would like to keep going, but I’m not replying after this. Good fences make good neighbours and all that and I don’t feel like burning fences, considering that I actually like SM.

  39. 3 · razib said

    Gods, the way he sees it, were invented by human beings to answer the two big questions of life: One, the question of origins: “Where do we come from?” Two, the question of ethics: “”How should we live?” this is an atheist &/or philosophical answer (philosophical because philosophical theists might say the same). the empirical data doesn’t support this.

    Really? I’m intrigued. What’s the explanation offered for religious belief in that book?

  40. There are always going to be conflicting views when one gets talking about religion, so I suggest we take that as a given and proceed with this dialogue with respect for each other’s views. Just a gentle reminder before things get all heated up :)

  41. it should be possible to design an experiment to find out!

    Um, no. You cannot even design a good experiment to rule out competing hypothesis in neuroscience. Can’t say more than that, because it would be a treatise on the methodological difficulties in neuroscience/psychology. Try reading a paper in Neuropsychologica for a sample.

  42. 41 · sushmoney said

    What’s the explanation offered for religious belief in that book?

    I don’t know about that book specifically, but two popular evolutionary theories are that religious belief is a spandrel, and that it has some evolutionary benefits in terms of community.

  43. 38 · NaraVara said

    Smugness is not, and has never been, a substitute for smarts.

    for someone who claims there is no absolute certainty, there has been no shortage of proclamations in each comment.

    Either furnish some proof that it isn’t a leap of faith or admit your beliefs are as grounded in unverifiable premises as anyone else’s.

    of course, the non navel gazer would ask, in response to your reverie borne of another long night of substance abuse: if there is no difference in anything verifiable in either of the scenarios, who cares?

  44. 39 · Norman said

    Dawkins and Dennett make love, and Dawkins asks: Was it as good for me Dan, as it was for you?

    This has to be a joke coined by atheists, ‘cuz the Mormon church sure wouldn’t countenance this kind of sinning. Nor would saddleback. or most episcopalians. or… (pick your favorite, i believe, the term on this thread is “fringe doctrine”)

  45. chicken and egg make love. chicken asks egg if she came. egg says: “no, you came first, that’s why i didn’t come at all.” “well,” chicken says, “the way you were screaming ‘oh god’ led me to believe you no longer needed the big bang.”

  46. This has to be a joke coined by atheists, ‘cuz the Mormon church sure wouldn’t countenance this kind of sinning. Nor would saddleback. or most episcopalians. or… (pick your favorite, i believe, the term on this thread is “fringe doctrine”)

    Ah, you seem to be catching on. So maybe there are atheists who don’t believe in “objective” truth? How are they different from theists who think atheism based on “objective” truth is bunkum?

  47. “Ever wonder why a civilization is always at its height when it is at its most scientific? Get a critical mass of people together and all of a sudden, some of them decide to make the world a better place by you know, being rational and stuff. Correlation does not imply causation.”

    Sloppy–needs more precision, definition. We are approaching 7 billion people on this planet. If there was ever a critical mass, it’s here. They are not, however, united and inspired around a common goals, beliefs, sense of place and purpose in the universe. Not happening now.

    Get a “critical mass together”? What is your definition of a “critical mass”? Does this mass have to be organized around what they consider inspiring and guiding “truths?” Because that is what the “critical mass” of believers were, when their faiths were young and their vision clear and certain and unambiguous. Now among the true believers, it is often dark and unambiguous. Very dangerous.

  48. - I agree with the posted definitions to a point. The most important thing about science is the ability to accurately predict the outcome of events even when things are not controlled.

    Only sometimes. Theoretical physics gets pretty out there with its predictions sometimes, especially with regards to the big bang. They are scientific, but not all that predictive or verifiable since they’re basically postulating about a world universe that looks nothing like our’s.

    And religion isn’t hard to define: a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power. Notice the bit about the supernatural power. Any collection of ideas needs to have one of those to join the religion club.

    Doesn’t really encompass the real meaning of the word. It’s good enough for a dictionary but doesn’t really cover the communal, cultural, or philosophical aspects.

    - Saying that S & R are not opposite and do not intrude into the other’s sphere is just being an apologetic. They do. One makes claims, the other probes those claims.

    Not all claims are scientifically verifiable. Scientific inquiry is pretty much entirely limited to things that are amenable to materialism and positivism. The claims you’re asserting that religion makes, which I assume would involve the claims on naturalistic phenomena like evolution and the origin of the universe, aren’t all that relevant to religious inquiry. People only take those claims seriously if they already subscribe to a religious tradition. Nobody gets turned on to a religion based on how its mythology operates. People who actually have religious experiences, especially converts from one belief system to another, almost universally come to religion from either lived experience (epiphany) or through philosophical inquiry.

    - Atheism is not a belief – it is a lack of belief (nothing less, nothing more)

    Technically agnosticism is a lack of belief since it makes no explicit truth claim. Atheism makes a truth claim: “There is no God.”

    - Burden of proof is always on the positive, never on the negative. The default state should be lack of belief.

    This ignores that any truth claim anyone attempts to make is predicated on one leap of faith or another. When you do quantitative research one of the first lessons you learn is that you never accept a hypothesis. At best you fail to reject it.

    - The great thing about the scientific method being that if indeed we were just brains in a jar, it should be possible to design an experiment to find out!

    So how exactly would you do an experiment to test whether or not your perceptions are no deceptive? Everything about a schizophrenic’s world-view might be internally, logically consistent. But he’s hallucinating so his internal consistency isn’t really applicable to the reality. Likewise with the limitations of knowledge of the entire human race.

    - If you want to go all PoMo, fine, its just that I choose to accept a set of logically consistent principles that weren’t written by agrarian goat herders 2 millenia ago.

    Generally the principles were developed by clergy who accepted alms or tithes from the agrarian goat herders specifically so they could specialize in philosophical inquiry. So the blithe dismissal isn’t really warranted.

    - Ever wonder why a civilization is always at its height when it is at its most scientific? Get a critical mass of people together and all of a sudden, some of them decide to make the world a better place by you know, being rational and stuff. Correlation does not imply causation.

    Once again you’re making the assumption that not being materialistic = not being rational. This is circular reasoning. You’re explicitly defining religious belief as irrational and your only evidence seems to be constraining the definition of the word “religion” to mean “those beliefs which are irrational.”

    - I doubt there’s ever been a theologist that knew their stuff. Notice how petty comments like that sound..

    I’m open to reading one. But at some point atheistic philosophers decided to stop having conversations with others and just start talking amongst themselves. If you can point me to one since Nietzche who has actually studied religious beliefs with an open mind I would be all ears. The closest I have seen is Ayn Rand but she. . . never mind. I’m not getting started on her.

    - Little premature… more like you’re a little too late to the party. Any set of ideas that is logically inconsistent from one line to the other should have been thrown out the minute it was fabricated.

    Once again. You need to actually demonstrate logical inconsistency. Not just assert it.

    - Checklist for christianity.. follow the bible (first decide on a version & translation). But wait, doing that apparently doesn’t make you a “real Christian” ™ to others.

    Once again. You’re taking a small subset of the whole and pretending it represents the entire group. And you claim they’re the most “devout” yet your definition of “devout” seems to be “the most extreme within the group.” It’s another circular argument.