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Is not the very concept of religion toxic to humanity? Never before has any

Is not the very concept of religion toxic to humanity? Never before has any species encountered a larger source of hate, bigotry and ultimate and utter lack of ethical direction. Surely such notions of fairies in the clouds ought not be taken seriously in a current day society, especially when such deluded notions can be used to promote acts such as crusades, act against contraception and promote the sexual abuse of children.

I have a feeling you aren't asking if the concept of religion is toxic; you're asking if religion is toxic. But I was a bit puzzled by this:

"Never before has any species encountered a larger source of hate, bigotry and ultimate and utter lack of ethical direction."

After all, bigotry and ethical direction or the lack thereof don't apply to any non-human species that I know of.

But let that pass. I gather you're not a fan of religion. The issue, however, seems to be whether religion is worse than, say, nationalism, tribalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, warped ideology, and general human bloody-mindedness. I suppose that's an empirical question, and God knows that there's a lot of evil that's been done in the name of all these things. But it's at least a somewhat mixed bag, isn't it? For it's a matter of plain fact, that very good things have been done in the name of religion, along with the very bad, and some of the noblest ideals I can think of have deep religious roots. (Buddhist notions of compassion, for instance—or the Christian concept of agape.)

The horrors of Nazism, Stalinism and Mao's cultural revolution weren't committed in the name of any deity, though their vileness arguably surpasses anything that was. There's a lot of evil in the world, and it's perpetrated by the "godly" and the ungodly alike.

This isn't meant to absolve religion of responsibility for the many wrongs it has caused. Furthermore, religion as it's often practiced has its own original sin: believers are often encouraged to believe things with enormous moral consequences, even though there's acres of room for sane people to believe otherwise. But (say I) there's no inherent reason why religious impulses have to be accompanied by dogmatic belief in claims that are both optional and unknowable, let alone execrable. After all, if there's a being worthy of the name "God," that being has to pass the test of moral perfection. This has a consequence: it means that religious ideas that don't stand up to moral scrutiny should be rejected by the believer on the grounds that no God would endorse them. Following supposed "commandments" blindly without asking whether a truly divine being could have issued them is a form of idolatry—the worst kind, in fact. But notice that this means bad religion, unlike a good many bad ideas, contains its own potential cure.

I have a feeling you aren't asking if the concept of religion is toxic; you're asking if religion is toxic. But I was a bit puzzled by this: "Never before has any species encountered a larger source of hate, bigotry and ultimate and utter lack of ethical direction." After all, bigotry and ethical direction or the lack thereof don't apply to any non-human species that I know of. But let that pass. I gather you're not a fan of religion. The issue, however, seems to be whether religion is worse than, say, nationalism, tribalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, warped ideology, and general human bloody-mindedness. I suppose that's an empirical question, and God knows that there's a lot of evil that's been done in the name of all these things. But it's at least a somewhat mixed bag, isn't it? For it's a matter of plain fact, that very good things have been done in the name of religion, along with the very bad, and some of the noblest ideals I can think of have deep religious roots. (Buddhist notions...

I consider myself a socially liberal agnostic from the South. I turn 40 soon

I consider myself a socially liberal agnostic from the South. I turn 40 soon and was a Christian until I was 32 growing up in a southern Baptist family. While discussing today's world and politics with my family and friends, when I don't have an answer that satisfies them they usually change topics by calling me a "liberal" as if it is some sort of hurtful slur. I don't understand this b/c I actually know the definition and their is nothing hurtful about it. My biggest problem with them using this label is that, the one man they taught me to worship for most of my life preached feeding the poor (food stamps), healing the sick (socialized meds), and overly emphasized passivism (turning the other cheek/avoiding conflict), three very liberal ideas that seem to me common logical sense, yet they oppose those people that receive these services that they don't think deserve them. Am I missing something or should I be offended by being called this? The rhetoric I hear from Christians these days about...

I've never quite forgiven Ronald Reagan for making "liberal" into a slur, but letting that pass...

I don't think there's necessarily any inconsistency here. Jesus told us to feed the poor, heal the sick, and turn the other cheek. But he didn't say that the government should be in charge of all this. In fact Jesus had more or less nothing to say about how secular government should be set up (unless you can extract a political theory from his cryptic remark about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's. It's consistent for someone to feel a duty to do what Jesus commanded and also to believe that the government shouldn't coercively extract money from people to carry out this mandate.

As it happens, I'm a liberal and am quite happy to see government tax us to feed people, cure them, educate them, and so on. But I don't think politically conservative Christians are automatically guilty of confusion, let alone bad faith.

I've never quite forgiven Ronald Reagan for making "liberal" into a slur, but letting that pass... I don't think there's necessarily any inconsistency here. Jesus told us to feed the poor, heal the sick, and turn the other cheek. But he didn't say that the government should be in charge of all this. In fact Jesus had more or less nothing to say about how secular government should be set up (unless you can extract a political theory from his cryptic remark about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's. It's consistent for someone to feel a duty to do what Jesus commanded and also to believe that the government shouldn't coercively extract money from people to carry out this mandate. As it happens, I'm a liberal and am quite happy to see government tax us to feed people, cure them, educate them, and so on. But I don't think politically conservative Christians are automatically guilty of confusion, let alone bad faith.

Justice Scalia famously stated that crosses on graves have, well, crossed-over

Justice Scalia famously stated that crosses on graves have, well, crossed-over from an overtly religious symbol to one that may represent any dead soldier. How do philosophers treat such claims? How do we establish when religious practices, symbols, rituals, etc. have entered the secular public domain to the extent that the law can recognize them as such?

I'll have to admit that I think Justice Scalia is full of prunes on this one, as my grandmother would have said. And I think the case was decided wrongly by the Supreme Court. (Here's an account of the decision that's not just neutral, but still... http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/04/28/supreme-court-ru... )

As for your question, it has an empirical component and a conceptual one. The conceptual part calls for deciding what it would mean for a symbol not to have a religious meaning, and the empirical part would be finding out if crosses on graves now have a secular meaning.

The answer to the conceptual question might call for some bells and filigrees, but the basic idea is pretty clear: do most people, including in this case most non-Christian people, agree that a particular symbol (in this case, a cross on a grave) has no religious meaning? If the answer is yes, then Justice Scalia is right. If the answer is no, then he's wrong.

As for how we'd sort out the empirical facts in this case, that would best be left to people who not only understand the issue, but also know how to design good tools (surveys, etc.) for probing such matters. I'm not one of those. However, I'd think some things are clear. We'd want to know, for example, whether most Jews, for example, would be comfortable with the idea of a family member (or themselves!) being buried in a grave marked by a cross. And if the answer is "no" (that would be my guess), then we'd want to know what reasons would typically given. I'd bet a large chunk of my 403B that the answer would be "because it's a Christian symbol and my loved-one isn't Christian."

Since I'm a philosopher, my union card calls for adding caveats. Of course it's not true that each and every use of a cross on a grave is intended to have a religious meaning. We can imagine someone in exigent circumstances marking a grave with a cross just because that makes it likely that people who encounter it will recognize it as a grave. But that doesn't show that crosses have become secular symbols for purposes of the law, and it's an insult to both Christians and non-Christians to pretend otherwise.

I'll have to admit that I think Justice Scalia is full of prunes on this one, as my grandmother would have said. And I think the case was decided wrongly by the Supreme Court. (Here's an account of the decision that's not just neutral, but still... http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/04/28/supreme-court-rules-that-a-cross-is-not-a-symbol-of-christianity/ ) As for your question, it has an empirical component and a conceptual one. The conceptual part calls for deciding what it would mean for a symbol not to have a religious meaning, and the empirical part would be finding out if crosses on graves now have a secular meaning. The answer to the conceptual question might call for some bells and filigrees, but the basic idea is pretty clear: do most people, including in this case most non-Christian people , agree that a particular symbol (in this case, a cross on a grave) has no religious meaning? If the answer is yes, then Justice Scalia is right. If the answer is no, then he's wrong....

Is it fair to label childhood religious indoctrination as abuse ? at the moment

Is it fair to label childhood religious indoctrination as abuse ? at the moment in any given society it's seen as the norm , I often wonder will future generations look back in astonishment at this practice .

I agree with my co-panelist that it's hard to peg this as abuse. But I'd like to focus on a somewhat different issue: the word "indoctrination" is being used to mean an illegitimate way of inculcating beliefs. That's fine, and isn't my issue. But the notion of "religious indoctrination" is left unexamined. And so I want to know what counts.

In particular, suppose someone brings their children up in a religious tradition: introduces them to the texts and doctrines, participates in the rituals, makes clear that s/he is an adherent, and so on. If indoctrination counts as something bad, is this automatically a case of indoctrination? Surely it depends on the details. Suppose that the religious tradition has admirable moral precepts. Suppose it encourages thoughtful reflection. Suppose it doesn't threaten non-adherents with hellfire and brimstone. There really are such traditions; I know many people who belong to them. The tradition may well include metaphysical claims that you think are just wrong. But is that the criterion for indoctrination? If so, it's hard for me to see how it warrants the label "child abuse."

And for that matter, why pick on religion? How about ethical views? When my children were young, I certainly hoped that they would come to share at least the more dearly-held of my ethical views. Near as I can tell, they largely did. Was that indoctrination? Was it child abuse? If it might be, where do the lines lie?

We influence our children in lots of ways. It's not unlikely that if my children had been brought up in a different sort of household, they'd think differently than I do about some things I care about. Some of these things are eminently debatable; some reasonable people would say that the views my children learned from me are wrong. But without a lot more analysis, the word "indoctrination" doesn't get us very far, and without a great deal more analysis, the accusation of "abuse" is even less helpful.

There's another problem with invoking the notion of abuse here. If we label a child-rearing practice abusive, this suggests that we ought to do something about it$mdash;perhaps that the State itself should step in. I don't know about you, but I'm not confident that the State would draw the lines wisely.

So to sum up: maybe some cases of bringing a child up in a tradition count as indoctrination, but it's not plausible that all do. And maybe some of those cases count as abuse. But we'd need to think hard about what we mean when we invoke that word. And even if we decide there's a sense in which some cases of religious upbringing count as abuse, we need to think really hard if we want to take that as a license for any sort of intervention.

I agree with my co-panelist that it's hard to peg this as abuse. But I'd like to focus on a somewhat different issue: the word "indoctrination" is being used to mean an illegitimate way of inculcating beliefs. That's fine, and isn't my issue. But the notion of "religious indoctrination" is left unexamined. And so I want to know what counts. In particular, suppose someone brings their children up in a religious tradition: introduces them to the texts and doctrines, participates in the rituals, makes clear that s/he is an adherent, and so on. If indoctrination counts as something bad, is this automatically a case of indoctrination? Surely it depends on the details. Suppose that the religious tradition has admirable moral precepts. Suppose it encourages thoughtful reflection. Suppose it doesn't threaten non-adherents with hellfire and brimstone. There really are such traditions; I know many people who belong to them. The tradition may well include metaphysical claims that you think are just wrong. But is...

Is there a good definition of magic which does not rule out the existence of

Is there a good definition of magic which does not rule out the existence of magic, but also does not imply that actually magic exists? Magic cannot be "the ability to do impossible things", since this is a contradiction. I wonder if we could define magic as "the ability to violate the laws of physics". The problem is that if we discovered, for instance, that uttering "abracadabra" was a good way to make rabbits appear inside hats, he would have found a new law of physics, wouldn't we? And is it possible to argue that there is no magic without implying that most religions are false? My feeling is that the concept of magic has a reasonable sense only if we accept some religion: magic would be something like the wrong use of entities posited by such religion.

It's an interesting question, and I think it's best considered the context of times and settings in which the idea of magic was taken seriously. I also doubt that there's a lot to be gained by looking for a full-blown definition, but we can learn something by looking at broad commonalities.

First on the bit about magic words and rabbits. If it turned out that saying the right words in the right way could make rabbits appear in hats, then we would have discovered a new regularity in the world, though whether we had discovered a new law of physics is a lot more doubtful. After all, the regularities of the special sciences aren't usually classed as laws of physics, even though physics has to be consistent with them.* We might want to say that this regularity is "natural" because all the events take place in nature (saying the words, the rabbit appearing...) but it wouldn't follow that it wasn't magical. Older notions of magic explicitly included a concept of natural magic.

What counted as "natural magic?" There's no tidy answer, but part of the background was the idea of an "occult quality." "Occult" here means "hidden." The behavior of lodestones (magnets) would have counted as a case of natural magic on some views. From the point of view of Renaissance thinkers, the operation of the lodestone depended on hidden properties. It also acted over distances, which tended to be characteristic of things that were labeled magical.

Neoplatonic thought had room for a concept of magic. The reason was that everything was in contact with everything else by virtue of everything being contained within/infused with the World Soul.

Was this a religious idea? There's no easy answer. It wasn't associated with any particular religion, but it clearly had a strong kinship with ideas that we think of as religious.

Some particularly important magical ideas were bound up with astrological beliefs. Belief in "astral influences" was very common in the ancient world and in the Renaissance. Some of these influences were considered benign. The Renaissance neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino wrote quite charmingly about the things one needed to do to capture these beneficial astral influences—particularly the solar influences. But there was nothing especially "religious" about these beliefs. They were part of a broadly accepted view of how nature worked.

Some astral magic was more problematic. It called for commanding not-merely-human beings to do one's bidding. This was "demonic" magic. Were the demons supernatural? There's no good, simple answer. They were one of the kinds of things taken to populate the world, but their realm was the super-lunar—beyond the moon. The Church certainly objected to demonic magic, but one could believe in the existence of the beings themselves whether or not one was a Christian.

A good deal of what we might call folk magic didn't have much in the way of theory about it at all. My mother told a story of having had a wart removed from her hand by having it "charmed." In one version of the wart charm, the charmer would "buy" the wart for a penny. Many people believed that this worked without any particular view about how it worked. But they would likely have been willing to call it magic.

All this is just the tip of a large and very fascinating iceberg. But the most important lesson to draw is that there neither is nor ever was a single, unified conception of "magic." Magic is an excellent example of a "family resemblance" notion. Furthermore, many magical ideas existed against a background of broader views about the cosmos that have either faded entirely or exist only in attenuate from among contemporary, educated people. But even here we need to be careful. There are thoughtful, intelligent twenty-first century people who would tell you that they believe that there's such a thing as magic. Such people tend to believe more broadly that the mind can influence matter in ways that you and I might reject. However, many of these people wouldn't see any necessary conflict between their own views and science. Their particular views about science might be mistaken (for example, might include misunderstandings of quantum theory) but it wouldn't be because what they believe is somehow essentially incompatible with science.

Occasionally I'll hear philosophers trying to make claims about the concept of magic. My experience tends to be that what they say is crude, ahistorical and far too simple. If you want to get an idea of what it would be like to be a contemporary believer in magic, I'd highly recommend Tanya Luhrmann's book Persuasions of the Witch's Craft. It's a rich ethnographic study by a philosophically-informed anthropologist. And if you'd like a better understanding of magical ideas in the Renaissance, you might want to have a look at Frances Yates' The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, among other of her works. Yates' scholarship certainly has its critics, but it's hard to read her work without getting a glimpse of a much richer idea about what "magic" might once have meant.

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*Notice, by the way: I didn't say that the upper-level laws need to be consistent with physics. If we discovered a new psychological regularity that didn't fit with what physics tells us, then if the regularity really was stable and robust, it would represent a problem for physics, not for psychology. The regularities are what they are.)

It's an interesting question, and I think it's best considered the context of times and settings in which the idea of magic was taken seriously. I also doubt that there's a lot to be gained by looking for a full-blown definition, but we can learn something by looking at broad commonalities. First on the bit about magic words and rabbits. If it turned out that saying the right words in the right way could make rabbits appear in hats, then we would have discovered a new regularity in the world, though whether we had discovered a new law of physics is a lot more doubtful. After all, the regularities of the special sciences aren't usually classed as laws of physics, even though physics has to be consistent with them.* We might want to say that this regularity is "natural" because all the events take place in nature (saying the words, the rabbit appearing...) but it wouldn't follow that it wasn't magical. Older notions of magic explicitly included a concept of natural magic. What counted as ...

Why do some atheists so insistent, especially the militant ones, on promoting

Why do some atheists so insistent, especially the militant ones, on promoting their own atheism when it's clear that no one can conclusively prove that God does not exist? As a former atheist, I now found that God gives my life meaning, makes me happy to go through life, makes me resilient when bad things happen and allows me to forgive more and be freed from anger and resentment. I know a lot of people who found God in just the same way. Why then should militant atheists bother about our religious beliefs when God is a living person who gives our lives meaning, and when they cannot after all ultimately prove that our beliefs are just illusions? P.S. I'd like to thank Charles Taliafero for his contributions here and to philosophy of religion in general. I can't forget your answer to a question posed by a depressed atheist here (April 14, 2011) in which you said "in all honesty, i would like to welcome you back." I can really feel your words personally resonating with me, now that I once again become a...

Let me be the curmudgeon without, I hope, being too curmudgeonly.

I'm glad you've found happiness and meaning. And I'm not going to say that your changed state isn't due to God. But it's at least possible that the change is due to belief in God, and not God himself. As a sort of evidence for this, people with differing and mutually incompatible religious beliefs have been known to find happiness and meaning in those beliefs, even though as a matter of logic, some of those beliefs are wrong. (If you believe X and are happy on that account, I believe Y and am happy on that account, and X and Y aren't consistent with one another, at least one of us is wrong about his actual belief.)

Indeed: atheists can't prove conclusively that God doesn't exist. But that's perfectly consistent with atheism being all things considered the most plausible view—the one with the best arguments, evidence, etc.

That said, I have a lot of sympathy for what you're saying. I don't "get" militant atheists. Overall, I'm not inclined to theism. Overall, it doesn't seem to me plausible enough to command my belief. But I don't think that makes theists idiots, fools or dupes. And I don't feel any need to talk theists out of their beliefs (except when some of those beliefs lead to needless harm and suffering.)

This goes with a larger commitment I try to put into practice. When it comes to matters that are mostly beyond our ken, I try to hold my beliefs lightly. Even though I have various such beliefs, I try to keep myself from being bothered if others disagree and I try not to worry about how I can talk others into thinking the way I do. Maybe that's a place where theists and non-theists might be able to find some common ground.

Let me be the curmudgeon without, I hope, being too curmudgeonly. I'm glad you've found happiness and meaning. And I'm not going to say that your changed state isn't due to God. But it's at least possible that the change is due to belief in God, and not God himself. As a sort of evidence for this, people with differing and mutually incompatible religious beliefs have been known to find happiness and meaning in those beliefs, even though as a matter of logic, some of those beliefs are wrong. (If you believe X and are happy on that account, I believe Y and am happy on that account, and X and Y aren't consistent with one another, at least one of us is wrong about his actual belief.) Indeed: atheists can't prove conclusively that God doesn't exist. But that's perfectly consistent with atheism being all things considered the most plausible view—the one with the best arguments, evidence, etc. That said, I have a lot of sympathy for what you're saying. I don't "get" militant atheists. Overall, I'm...

In the context of "The Problem of Evil" can you help point me to the literature

In the context of "The Problem of Evil" can you help point me to the literature on this sub-category? Lacking this I have dubbed this sub-problem the "God for a day paradox": “If I had only some of the powers of God, I would cure cancer” Am I therefore more merciful than God? Supposedly the most merciful possible Being… Therefore is God’s omni-benevolence (not even that much is needed) itself a contradiction? How can a lesser being even think of a more merciful action (take curing cancer down to a single child; even to just answering a prayer for such a child) than God Himself? It is almost certainly possible to write a computer simulation that would, discover the “cancer mercy” action / rule on its own given an appropriate set of rules guiding “advance being behavior” This outcome would probably be another notch in favor of the Bostrom's “The Universe is a Simulation” argument. Thanks in advance, --JCN

Since you asked for literature on the topic of the problem of evil, let me offer you some sources:

God, Freedom and Evil by Alvin Plantinga (focuses on a 'free-will answer' to why evil exists)

Evil and the God of Love by John Hick (focuses on a 'moral development' answer to why evil exists)

Wandering in Darkness by Eleonore Stump (focuses on a 'superior relationship with God' answer to why evil exists)

The Problem of Evil (Marilyn and Robert Adams eds.) an edited collection with many influential essays from many viewpoints on the issue.

Here's one kind of answer that a theist might offer. You might think, seeing through a glass darkly as you do, that if you only had the power, you'd wave your wand and cure cancer. In fact, however, the argument would go, doing that would bring a host of consequences that you can't even begin to foresee. And it might be that if you fully understood the consequences (remember: the universe is a really complicated place), you'd see that all things considered, you wouldn't want to do this. That may not seem very plausible to you, and I'm inclined to agree. But the larger point is that according to some theists (Peter van Inwagen, for example), if we think we know what would really be the best way to set up a universe for the benefit of its inhabitants, we're fooling ourselves. To make this a bit more plausible, keep in mind that for these same theists, our life on earth isn't the end; the apparent evils of our fleshly existence are only a part of a much larger story. I think that this is a...

Hi Philosophers,

Hi Philosophers, I have a burning question that is troubling me relating the religion versus science debate. I hope I articulate it well enough. Here goes. Mathematically, physicists are close to proving that a multiverse exists. Assuming they do prove this, and that as part of this proof it is deemed that infinity universes exist with both every conceivable and inconceivable possibility and outcome occurring throughout, then is it not fair to say that God certainly exists in at least one of these infinite possibility universes? Adversely, it is also fair to assume that God certainly does not exist in at least one of these universes? Then consider that if God certainly exists in at least one universe, and he is the all-seeing, all-knowing God that religion states he is, then how can he certainly not exist in at least one of the infinite universes? To say that God definitely exists is to, by definition of God, say that he exists everywhere and created everything, yet this notion within the multiverse...

Great question (and great response by Allen). Let me just add a tiny bit, by encouraging you to check out both Norman Malcolm's and Alvin Plantinga's work on the ontological argument. (The latter is a lot more technical and difficult, so start with the former.) From them you get something like the idea that if God exists at all, He exists necessarily (for God surely isn't a contingent being); to say that God exists necessarily is to say that He exists in every possible world. But now, if it's even possible that God exists -- i.e. the idea of God contains no contradictions -- then God would exist in at least one possible world. But if He exists at all He exists in every possible world, so if He exists in one PW He exists in every PW. Now is it possible that God exists? Does the idea of God involve any contradictions? Lots of discussion in the history of philosophical theology on that topic (lots of purported contradictions posed, then response to), but lots of people, even many ordinary atheists, think there's no contradiction in the idea of God, just merely that God contingently doesn't exist. So if you construe the multiverse theory to mean that every possible world exists (not sure it should be construed this way, but let's suppose), and if you think the idea of God involves no contradictions, then it sounds like the multiverse theory could support this line of argument toward God's existence.

hope that's useful!

ap

I think it's a bit optimistic to say that physicists are close to proving the existence of a multiverse, but we can set that aside. There are different ideas of a multiverse in physical theory, but none of the ones that cosmologists take seriously call for showing that literally every possible "universe" exists. Rather, what's at stake is the idea that the totality of the Universe writ large contains relatively isolated sub-parts that have many of the characteristics of the physical universe as we usually think of it. In particular, the values of various physical "constants" would vary across the different sub-universes. But the important point for your question is that this is entirely about physics and has nothing to do with God. God, as usually understood, is not a physical being at all, but a being who (among other things) underwrites the existence of physical things. God doesn't exist within this or any other physical universe on the usual theological view. Put it another way: if the God...

Hello philosophers , recently in a debate with Christians ,

Hello philosophers , recently in a debate with Christians , I made a point that if one claims a relationship with a God or being that can't be seen , heard or touched that they are suffering from a delusion; is this an unfair statement and if so why ?

Just to add a bit to what my fellow panelists have said (all of which seems right to me.)

Even if God can't be seen or heard or touched in ordinary sensory ways, many believers would claim that they have experiences of God. There's a vast literature on this topic, but one interesting recent contribution is by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann: her book When God Talks Back gives a detailed account of how some people, as they understand it, learn to experience God. You can read a brief synopsis HERE (Scroll way down if the page appears not to load properly.)

You might say that these people are mistaken, and you might (or might not) be right. You might say that they are deluded, but unless you simply mean "mistaken," the word "deluded" doesn't add anything. There's no reason to believe that such believers are mentally ill by any reasonable criterion.

As it happens, I'm not a theist. But over the years, I've come to the conclusion that many atheists have a mistaken picture of the religious lives of believers. This leads to a good deal of misunderstanding.

Just to add a bit to what my fellow panelists have said (all of which seems right to me.) Even if God can't be seen or heard or touched in ordinary sensory ways, many believers would claim that they have experiences of God. There's a vast literature on this topic, but one interesting recent contribution is by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann: her book When God Talks Back gives a detailed account of how some people, as they understand it, learn to experience God. You can read a brief synopsis HERE (Scroll way down if the page appears not to load properly.) You might say that these people are mistaken, and you might (or might not) be right. You might say that they are deluded, but unless you simply mean "mistaken," the word "deluded" doesn't add anything. There's no reason to believe that such believers are mentally ill by any reasonable criterion. As it happens, I'm not a theist. But over the years, I've come to the conclusion that many atheists have a mistaken picture of the...

Debating with a theologian over the validity of biblical condemnation of

Debating with a theologian over the validity of biblical condemnation of homosexuality i've been offered a sequence of arguments that seem to me circular. First argument: Divine directives 1. God has given the directive to establish the eterosexual marriage 2. Homosexual acts are condemned in the BIble 3. Homosexuals brake the divine directive Second argument: Perverse heart 1. To brake a divine law willingly is perversion 2. Homosexual acts are condemned in the Bible 3. Homosexuals are perverse Third argument: social deviance 1. To diffuse behaviours that are condemned in the Bible is a form of social deviance 2. Homosexual acts are condemned in the BIble 3. Homosexual are social deviant To me it is obvious that all these arguments implies, as a second premise, the condemnation whose validity is in question. When i have made this observation i have been offered a curios answer: anyone has a worldview that starts from certain unquestionable premise, that are in themselves circular but not invalid....

Interesting.

It's true that we do sometimes rely on assumptions, premises or whatnot that we simply take for granted. In fact, it's hard to see how we could avoid doing that; otherwise we'd end up in an endless regress of justifications. We could use the term "worldview" for broad premises that we use this way, but I'm not sure the term adds much so I'll leave it aside.

But there's another question that leaves an ambiguity in what you're saying. Is the theologian offering an argument that s/he think should persuade a non-believer? Or is he offering arguments that a believer might accept whether or not anyone else does?

If your asking this person "Why do you believe that homosexuality is wrong" then pointing out that it's a consequence of other assumptions that the person accepts and sees as more basic is fine. In that case, he's simply setting forth the internal logic of his view. Whether or not you accept the first two beliefs, there's no circularity in saying "The Bible represents God's directives, and we should obey God's directives. The Bible tells us what God's directives are, and it directs us not to perform homosexual acts. Therefore we shouldn't." There's also no logical jump. If you accept the premises, it's reasonable to draw the conclusion

On the other hand, if what you're asking the theologian is "Why should I, who don't share your religion, think that homosexuality is wrong?" then the arguments are plainly not good enough. They rest on premises that you don't simply accept, and you've been given no reason to believe them. Compare: suppose someone said to this theologian "Utilitarianism is the right view of morality. [That is, roughly: what's right is what produces the most happiness and the least unhappiness.] There are no good utilitarian arguments against homosexuality. Therefore it's not wrong." In the circumstances, that would be no better an argument. The theologian plainly doesn't accept the first premise, and he hasn't been given a reason to.

Now the theologian might say that any reasonable person should see that his premises about God are true. But of course, that's not so. Many clearly reasonable people disagree -- just as many reasonable people don't that utilitarianism is the correct story about right and wrong. There are interesting, serious reasons to doubt that there's a God. And even if there is a God, there are interesting, serious reasons to doubt that a literal reading of the Bible reveals his will. (Likewise, there are interesting, serious reasons to doubt that utilitarianism gets morality right.)

If your theologian turns to insult rather than argument when you ask for clarification, there may not be much point in pursuing the discussion. But it could be pursued. Chances are neither of you would end up convincing the other. But you each might gain more insight into why the other thinks as he does.

But this doesn't say anything about your last question: when is it reasonable to put a premise beyond question?

That's a hard question. For one thing, it's context-dependent. If people who share a broad point of view are arguing about details, it's usually reasonable not to call the shared presuppositions into question. But that's not the only context. For most of us, there are certain views that we're not likely to give up even though we know full well that others don't share them. (Basic ideological commitments are sometimes like this, for example.)

Still, I think we can say at least a little more. One point is a rule of thumb: if the person you're disagreeing with seems sane, thoughtful and well-informed, that's a reason to take seriously the possibility that they might be onto something. Another point is related: sometimes, even though we don't find our opponents' reasons compelling, we can see that they have some force; we can feel their tug. For example: I'm opposed to capital punishment. But I can see how a perfectly reasonable person might come to a different conclusion. That suggest that I should't turn my opposition to capital punishment into an axiom. Similarly: I'm not a theist. But I know plenty of sane, reasonable theists, and I can understand the pull that theism has for them. Once again, that suggests I should't take my non-theism as an unquestionable presupposition.

Beyond that, it's not easy to say much. It sounds to me as though your theologian is not giving enough credit to doubters. That said, there's probably some room for you to give him at least some credit and it might be interesting to see where that leads.

Interesting. It's true that we do sometimes rely on assumptions, premises or whatnot that we simply take for granted. In fact, it's hard to see how we could avoid doing that; otherwise we'd end up in an endless regress of justifications. We could use the term "worldview" for broad premises that we use this way, but I'm not sure the term adds much so I'll leave it aside. But there's another question that leaves an ambiguity in what you're saying. Is the theologian offering an argument that s/he think should persuade a non-believer? Or is he offering arguments that a believer might accept whether or not anyone else does? If your asking this person "Why do you believe that homosexuality is wrong" then pointing out that it's a consequence of other assumptions that the person accepts and sees as more basic is fine. In that case, he's simply setting forth the internal logic of his view. Whether or not you accept the first two beliefs, there's no circularity in saying "The Bible represents God's...

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