VillageIRC religion discussions

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This page is for summarizing some of the more interesting discussions in the irc:// chatroom on VillageIRC. Specific chatters will not be identified (by nickname or real name) without their permission.

There was ultimately a lot more to many of these discussion than I have had time to map out; anyone else should, of course, feel free to add their own observations. If you were in the room at the time but do not have a log file, I will be happy to send you mine. --Woozle 17:18, 11 February 2007 (EST)

Unresolved Issues

2007-02-11 summary

Some additional loose ends which came up at various times:

  • Chatter 1 made a reference to the "Einsteinian religion"; what is this referring to? See Einsteinian religion
  • What are the arguments against Dawkins' points (of which Chatter 1 believes Dawkins should have been aware but did not address)? (Woozle needs to read The God Delusion before trying to analyze those arguments, and expects to be able to do so fairly soon.)
  • Woozle raised this question earlier, but didn't really understand the response: If no two religions agree about what God is, how can anyone take the idea of God seriously? A rephrase, since that wording apparently wasn't clear: How can anyone think that there actually is a God when no two observers can agree on what that might actually mean? Or, put yet another way, how can anyone be so certain that there is one when there's all this conflicting information about it?
  • Did we resolve the conflict between (on the one hand) holding up the Bible as a source of moral authority and (on the other) the fact that there are many passages which can be severely and tragically misinterpreted if taken out of context? ...which is parallel to the question of how one can say anything is a good source of moral authority when you have to pick and choose which bits to follow, which bits to re-contextualize, etc.

2007-01-27 21:16:05 EST: quoting the Bible out of context

(Woozle said) Here are some questions which came to me as I was watching the Richard Dawkins video:

  • If the Bible is being "quoted out of context" by those who attack religion (e.g. Dawkins), then why is there not more of a faith-based initiative (especially within the more moderate areas of Christianity) to publish a clearer, better-written version of the Bible which is harder to misunderstand?
  • Why is there not more horror expressed by moderate Christians regarding the abuses of these "out of context" passages by those who *do* take them literally, such as those who believe adultery and homosexuality should be capital offenses?
  • Where is the list of parts of the Bible which no civilized, reasonable person would take seriously?

Response was essentially "you can't just rewrite the Bible".

Counter-responses include (only the first one was brought up at the time):

  • the existence of the Jefferson Bible
  • the fact that there are thousands of different versions of the Bible, not to mention annotations presenting interpretations and historical background for all or part of it
  • the fact that we certainly interpret the "word of God" the way we see fit; why not rewrite it to be more in line with the best ways in which people actually understand it? (If "best ways" is too vague or open to argument, then we could either apply criteria such as "doing the least harm", which would lead to rules such as "no stoning anyone for any reason even though the Bible states that stoning is required punishment for particular transgressions", or it could represent the particular views of specific sects of Christianity – something which would be useful to have regardless)

Subsequent conversation clarified some points, but did not resolve the original questions nor address these follow-up points.

2006-12-11 14:46:30 EST: church vs. truth

(Woozle said) And now, #673 in the ongoing chat series of Woozle's Fascinating Theologically-Related Questions Intended to Inspire Thoughtful Discussion: Which is more important – loyalty to a/the church, or learning truth? (That is, if one had to choose. Hypothetically speaking.)

Answers to this question took a very twisty path, and uncovered some new lines of inquiry:

A chatter said:

Chatter 1 said:

I hold no loyalty whatever to "a church" but wholly and totally pursue The Truth. However, The Truth is best available from God, who knows things we don't, and which are not even currently available for us to test and observe. God has said that in wisdom and order He would deliver Truth to us through trustable and consistent channels... "That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;" have found that fount of Truth, the channels that God officially set up to help and guide and support His children in The Church.

In other words: Loyalty to the truth is more important than loyalty to the church, but the church is the best source of truth.

This at least explains the speaker's reasoning, but doesn't really address the intended question; the question was subsequently rephrased as "what would you do if the church seemed to be at odds with the truth?".

the changeability of science

The chatter's answer to this seems to be displaying a misunderstanding of how science works:

Chatter 1 said:

Current scientific method(s) allow for exactly five senses as permissible observation, and yet that very science has proved that our five senses are inadequate to perceive the complicated fabric of the universe (reference sub atomic particles, neutrinos, black matter, the distant side of the the universe and any part of the universe covered by "pre historic")

Science "theorizes" the existence of dark matter.... but cannot show it to you. And as you say, tomorrow they might say "oops, got that one wrong, our new theory is...." – and their new theory will be no more real (no more provable, no more likely to be the real truth, no more likely to not be refuted in ten years) than their last – how can you know it is true?

This response seems to be based on some misperceptions:

  • Misperception: In order for something to be true, it must be perfect, complete, and unchanging
  • Misperception: New scientific theories replace or even contradict old ones, rather than being part of a process of gradual refinement
    • Reality: old scientific ideas are not replaced by new ones because the old ones have gone out of fashion, but because the new ones produce results which fit the data better, the classic example being the theory of planetary motion where mathematical "epicycles" were ultimately replaced by orbital mechanics based on Newton's laws of motion. ("Fashionableness" may indeed affect the popularity of particular scientific ideas, but that is a cultural activity outside the scope of science itself.)
  • Misperception: The fact that theories on the frontier of science are often rather changeable calls the whole body of scientific understanding into question
Woozle responded:

If you're talking about "dark matter"... yes, that's on the very edge of what we know about; it's all highly theoretical at this point. But God doesn't say anything at *all* about why the universe is contracting when it should be expanding, does he? So you have no answers at all about that, while at least science can look at the question and start sketching some ideas.

People did the same thing with electricity, decades/centuries ago... we used to have no idea what it was. (People told Ben Franklin he was tempting the wrath of God to go trying to find out about lightning, didn't they? Or was that a made-up story?)

Chatter 1's response was basically that God didn't give us any information about cosmology because it didn't affect our happiness or well-being.

Responses to that argument:

  • Then why is it crucial for science to be correct and certain in this area? Let's look at other areas which are more important and do affect our lives, like evolution and geology (both flatly contradicted by "young earth" claims).
  • How can you be sure it won't turn out to be important, once we understand it? If the church had had its way, we'd still believe the earth was the center of the universe, among other things. (Note to self: start article about religion's track record as compared with any other method of making decisions; a list of historical truths suppressed by religion would be a useful part of that.)

innate moral sense

Chatter 1 then changed to another angle, and brought up a couple of examples of people who had "followed their gut" to arrive at a decision which both flew in the face of convention and yet was (we agreed) was morally correct (rejecting slavery at a time when slavery was the norm).

(This would be in agreement with one of Dawkins's key points that we all have an "innate moral sense", and that even the most devout fundamentalist "cherry-picks" their beliefs from scripture, following their own sense (or perhaps that of a church leader) of right and wrong rather than (despite all claims to the contrary) faithfully obeying or believing every word of the Bible.)

Chatter 1 then claimed that "Modern science proclaimed blacks and natives lesser humans.", presumably meaning the science of the time. We need some attribution for this; my understanding is that any such claims at the time may have claimed scientific backing, but they were no more scientific than the oil-company-backed "independent studies" showing that global warming isn't happening.

So, unresolved issue: Who made that claim? Source material is needed. If indeed respected scientists were in agreement with this, then it would reveal some serious flaws in the scientific process, and we need to investigate what processes eventually led to the overturning of this erroneous paradigm. Just on the face of it, though, "lesser humans" does not sound like a credibly scientific designation.

It would also seem reasonable, again, to look at the historical track record of "faith-based" decisions and "scientifically-based" decisions. The anecdotes referenced above do not seem to be especially strongly based in either science or religion, but were merely two people being free to follow the dictates of their own consciences.

Another follow-up question, then, is who is more free to follow her/his own conscience: someone who has to reconcile everything they believe or do with a set of unchangeable doctrine, or someone who is willing to trust their own observation and reason?

reason vs. doctrine

Ultimately, it seemed to come down to the question of whether you trust observation and reason (the five senses, as augmented by various tools which greatly extend those senses, plus basic rationality and the ability to follow a logical argument; "real-world evidence") more or less than you trust the church and its doctrine to help arrive at the truth. The observation that the church has a very poor track record with regard to the truth is itself an "observation" requiring "reason" to understand, while the church's eternal counter-argument of "we're still right, ignore the man behind the curtain" is basically irrefutable if you're willing to trust unthinkingly.

We are left then with the following question: Are religious believers aware that following church doctrine essentially requires a willing suspension of their ("God-given") ability to reason in certain areas? Or do they maintain that everything they believe is based on a rational understanding of the facts available to them?

2006-11-12 13:02:49: The purpose of religion

Woozle asked: What is the (primary) purpose of religion? Not so much "Why/how did religion arise?" as "Why is religion a good thing?" "Why should anyone want religion?"

One chatter replied that God exists whether or not we want him to, but also said that this was more of a side-thought than an answer to the question.

Chatter 1 had this to say:

Chatter 1 said, paraphrased:

There is a "war" going on, at the moment ("moment" meaning for the duration of the history of the world thus far, and I only use the word "moment" because the history of the world is just a tiny dot within the bigger timeline) for "the hearts and minds of men".

The leaders of the two sides are both sons of God. The older of the two wished to follow His Father's plan. He understood the true nature of the fight, that an opposition couldn't actually win, and it would be SAD if it did.

The younger one selfishly wanted to rewrite the plan, changing it to make him as the center and "Hero" at the expense of the happiness and well being of mankind.

The Father rejected the alternative plan because it was not in the interest of mankind. The younger brother got mad, and the Father kicked him out of heaven so that he could not harm the others there. That younger brother is Satan. Mad and rejected, he wants nothing but the destruction and sadness of mankind.

(Aside: Satan is a real, living entity, and working actively to harm mankind.)

Our purpose on earth is to learn the eternal path of happiness, conducive to the laws of nature. Conforming ourselves, by our own choice, to that path of happiness and in the process becoming happy, learning the secrets of the universe, and gaining in understanding and ability.

The Father wishes to aid us in our journey; Satan wishes to distract, obstruct, and put us off course.

Because both sides are anxious for us to succeed or fail respectively, and have each stepped up the pressure to go in their direction, moral choices by definition come down to a choice between them. They are mutually exclusive.

The Father wants us (but wouldn't force us, and isn't in any way dependent on our doing so, although He would be sad if we didn't) to go to "church", where it is easier to convey to us the instruction to succeed and easier for us to obtain support from others pursuing the path, obtain the "ordinances" required for entry into God's realm in the afterlife.

(Tangent: Ordinances are the binding contracts between us and God that allow us to be forgiven of mistakes &dnash; God allows forgiveness for mistakes, even repeated mistakes – and to obtain the permission to act on earth with God's authority to doing God's work. They are contracts: you agree to some "rules", and God agrees to some mercy, and blessings, and opportunities to grow.)

Woozle's editorial notes after the fact: This nicely sets up the whole "black and white, us-vs.-them, all-or-nothing" thinking in which dogmatic memes thrive and spread. Some obvious follow-up questions include: what evidence is there for the existence of Satan as a living creature? (Is that evidence any better than the evidence for the existence of God?) What does Satan stand to gain by destroying humanity? What specific powers does he have, and how do his powers compare to those of God? How do we know these details?

Tentatively Resolved Issues

These issues seemed resolved to me, but as there wasn't much discussion it's hard to be sure. --Woozle 15:42, 11 February 2007 (EST)

2006-12-22 19:27:42 EST: "Men are weak"

The argument that "leaders are appointed by God, and God already knows that all Men are weak and will make mistakes, then criticizing them because of it is unhelpful" can be used to justify absolutely anything the leaders might choose to do, regardless of how stupid it might be – which makes it hardly a justification at all, even if some of the things the leaders do are correct or even directly ordered by God. (For that matter, the argument only says that they were appointed by God; couldn't they still be imperfect and make mistakes? Isn't it likely that ten reasonably intelligent people would be more likely to spot a mistake than the person committing it?)

2006-12-22 19:27:23 EST: Internal Consistency

The LDS doctrine is not internally consistent (e.g. the bits where Joseph Smith says one thing at first, and then something else 10 years later; first it was a dream, then later it was an angel, and earlier accounts said he was with his brothers, but he later said he was alone, which would have to be the case if he talked to an angel and nobody else even noticed anything...).

Resolved Issues

2007-01-05 16:17:07 EST: Milksop Jesus

Dawkins did not call Jesus a milksop; he did use the term "milksop" (or something similar), but was referring to a specific portrayal or image (in the marketing sense) of Jesus promoted by Catholicism, not the actual Jesus as given in scripture. "Jesus's milksop persona owes more to" Victorian (mis)interpretation than to Jesus himself. Nor does Dawkins say that Jesus is an "easy target"; he was calling God/Jahweh an easy target because of God's bad behavior in certain places (mostly in the Old Testament).