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Re-evaluating the value of religion

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

This essay was written on August 13th, 2003 and edited slightly for this post:

Is religion a value to mankind? Some alleged benefits which have been attributed to religion include: scientific and philosophical principles, technologies such as the printing press, the colonization of the new world, great works of art such as Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel, monasteries that preserved and carried on knowledge during the Middle Ages, social institutions such as charities, schools, and universities. It’s undeniable that all these things have benefited mankind and that religion played a part in them.

On a personal note, I have  benefited greatly from the Judaism. A Jewish organization helped my parents come to America, placed me in private school so I could learn English and Hebrew, sent me to summer camp, paid for my trip to Israel, and even helped fund my college tuition. In addition to these material benefits, I learned a lot about history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew, and social interaction while attending Sunday school and then helping to teach it for three years. Many of my religious teachers were intelligent and inspirational people who taught me many things in the classroom and by example.

So, it is indisputable that religion has done many good things for man. Is this sufficient evidence to conclude that religion is a value to man? The fact that an institution does good is not sufficient evidence that it is good overall. Consider a profession which is not considered desirable despite doing some good for people: medical quackery. A quack who sells a fake remedy for all ailments provides some benefit to people: the placebo effect often makes people feel better, and the alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs contained in remedies were often effective and making their users feel better. However, despite the benefit he provides, the quack also defrauds people, does not fix underlying health problems, and often addicts his patients to his “medicine.” Even though the quack provides a benefit, a real doctor could provide a greater benefit to people without the accompanying harm. Thus, when evaluating religion, we must consider the total effect, not just isolated benefits, and evaluate whether the benefits religion provides are essential to its nature.

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Are philosophical claims scientifically provable?

by David Veksler David Veksler 1 Comment

This question makes the logical fallacy of the stolen concept.  The question of what is “scientifically provable” is derived from our metaphysics and epistemology.  We use our basic philosophy to derive the epistemological standard by which to investigate the specific aspects of reality (e.g. physics, chemistry, mathematics, and economics).  To demand that philosophical statements be scientifically validated is to demand that a derivative which depends on philosophy be used to prove philosophy.  This is like trying to build a house by assembling the roof, walls, and windows before the foundation.  It is fine to examine the whole structure of knowledge to verify that it is internal consistent and sound.  But we cannot use a higher-level deduction to prove the premise that it depends on.   The only way to validate philosophical claims is to use reason: to use logic to validate abstract ideas by reducing them to sensory evidence.

What is the difference between science and philosophy?

Science is distinguished from philosophy by subject matter: science studies the specific nature of the universe, and philosophy (of which religion is a primitive form) studies the fundamental and universal of the universe and man’s relationship to it.  Both are concerned with facts, but they differ in subject matter and the standard of evidence.  In the field of philosophy, we must be logically rigorous, but we cannot, and need not measure the physical evidence quantitatively as in the subject-specific sciences.

Science is made possible by the acceptance of certain philosophical axioms in metaphysics and epistemology. In metaphysics, science requires recognizing that all entities behave in a causal manner according to their nature. In epistemology, it recognizes that man is capable of perceiving and understanding reality by the use of his senses, and because his consciousness is fallible and not automatic, he needs to actively adhere to reason and logic to reach the right conclusions.  Science requires a systematic method to collect evidence and correctly interpret it because knowledge of how nature works is not self-evident.

Science is different in degree from informal empirical methods such as “trial and error” and in kind from non-empirical methods such as revelation, astrology, or emotionalism.   But the basic method – of rational investigation based on the evidence of reality must be used in all fields, whether philosophy, law, chemistry, mathematic, or cooking.

More:

The One Minute Case for Science.

What if we took religion seriously?

by David Veksler David Veksler 1 Comment

Virtually no one in the West takes religion seriously.  This is fortunate, because if people did, there could be no such thing as “Western civilization.”  With 82% of Americans professing a belief in God, does this sound like a silly statement?  Let me explain.

The Origin of Religion

The definition of “religion” varies between cultures and scholars, but generally speaking, it originated in pre-history as a solution to a problem:

At some point at the dawn of history, men discovered themselves to be in possession of powerful mental abilities able to perceive the events around them and communicate them to others, but they lacked an explanation for most of the cause of these events.  These men needed to know how to act in response to these events, both social and natural.  Instinct and imitation no longer sufficed in complex social structures and dynamic environments.  Men responded to the challenge by inventing religion.  Religion provided both an explanation of natural phenomena and a set of rules for social behavior.  It was a primitive form of philosophy — a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of existence and man’s relationship to it.  The nature of these beliefs evolved dramatically over time:

1. The Animism of Primitive Man

Primitive pre-literate man dealt with the chaos of nature by creating animistic spirits which he begged to improve his condition.  Since his prayers and offerings were no better than chance, he led an unpredictable existence dominated by fear.  Nevertheless, a philosophy of existence, crude as it was, was an important survival asset to the first human settlements.  Many thousands of years of pre-history passed in this state.

2. Technological Priesthood & Early Civilization

The first civilizations organized spirits in polytheistic anthropomorphic cults, which held centralized political and religious power.  The technological priesthood was an elite which was either closely related to or was ruling elite and monopolized the dissemination of both practical knowledge and supernatural doctrines (there was little distinction between the two), and was thus able to control the peasant masses which it taxed and enslaved to remain in power.  Their monopoly of technical knowledge was the cause of their eventual downfall:  Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoa, the Indus valley civilization, the cults organized around the Hebrew temple in Palestine, and the native New World empires successfully kept their secrets from the masses, but were all destroyed by innovative external invaders.

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Faith is emotionalism, Part 2: Perception versus Emotion

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

(This is the second part of selections from a Facebook debate.  Part 1 is here.)

Introduction:

The key to my disagreement with the theist hinges on the question of “Can we know God?” or “Can have knowledge of the supernatural?”  The theist says yes, we use both experience and the “sensus divinitatus” to acquire knowledge of God.  I disagree – I believe that knowledge of reality can only be obtained through reason, and the supernatural is by its very definition opposed to reason.  Furthermore, the “divine sense” the theist refers to is just emotionalism.  In this post, I will focus on the essence of our disagreement by examining in detail the nature of this supposed divine sense and reveal it to be pure emotionalism.

To recap three key points from my last note:

  • I reviewed valid and invalid means of acquiring knowledge and concluded that truth can only be reached by perceiving it and integrating sensory data – e.g. reason.
  • Emotions are a kind of thinking that tells us about our mental state.
  • We can learn from others, but ultimately new knowledge is formed by integrating new evidence into our own experience of reality.

Introduction: Faith is emotionalism

My key criticism of the theistic argument for faith is:  it is emotionalism.   But emotions are not evidence of reality, only of one’s mental state.  Neither revelation nor any other evidence for the supernatural is possible.   I believe this argument is sufficient to disprove all religious convictions, as all other (i.e. “historical”) arguments for the supernatural are revealed to be absurd once a proper epistemology (e.g. reliance on the senses) is assumed.

The Nature of the Senses

Let’s begin with the senses we agree on: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.    This much has been known since Aristotle.  What is the exact nature and method of these senses?

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Faith is emotionalism, Part 1: Epistemology

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

(In the next few posts, I’m going to re-post selections from a Facebook debate:)

Many apologetics claim that their faith is based on reason and evidence. In fact faith is just a kind of emotionalism.

Two analogies:

Suppose you decided to base your knowledge of reality on the result of dart throws. Whenever you have some doubts about something, you write four possible answers on a dart board. You would aim the dart in the general direction of the board, turn off the lights, and throw. Whichever answer is closest to the dart becomes your conclusion.

What is wrong with this methodology? If you adhere to the correspondence theory of truth (that for a belief to be true, it must correspond to reality) then you should realize that answer “chosen” by the dart has no correspondence to reality. Why not? Because there is no causal connection between your ideas and the random path taken by the dart. The dart’s path is not a valid proof of your conclusion because it is not derived from observation or logical consideration of the ideas in question.

Frustrated, you try another methodology:

You will write down the four answers as before, and then take a large dose of hallucinogenic and amnesia-inducing drugs. You will pick the answer in your drugged state but have no memory of how you selected it when you are sober again. Is this conclusion valid? Now, you are not depending on random chance, but on a distorted version of your own mental processes. Is your method any more valid? No – there is still not causal connection between the idea and your drugged ravings. The answers are you most likely to choose will probably correspond to your existing conclusions. But it will still not be any kind of proof or evidence.

Reason means a valid epistemology:

In order for evidence to be valid, there must be a valid epistemological process. To prove that a claim is true, we must verify it by deriving a conclusion step by step from the evidence of our own senses in accordance with the laws of logic. This process is known as reason. If we fail to rely on our senses and logic, we might as well be throwing the allegorical darts in the dark. Doing so willingly is irrationality.

What is the “evidence” given for supernatural claims?

There are two possible kinds: empirical claims and non-empirical claims. Empirical claims are based on observation, such as “the universe exists, so God must have created it” or “I saw Jesus on a piece of toast I ate last week.” These claims are wrong, but they do not involve faith, since they can be proven or disproven. No one would take such arguments seriously however if it were not for claims based on non-empirical evidence – faith. This takes many forms in different religions, but generally it is a kind of “revelation.” Ultimately, all revelation can be reduced to emotionalism. How so? This requires an understanding of the nature of emotion:

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Christianity and socialism glorify human suffering

by David Veksler David Veksler 2 Comments

 

This is Angelique. She wanted to die with dignity

This is Angelique. She wanted to die with dignity

Here is a tragic tale about a woman affected with a terrible terminal illness who only wished to die in peace. Instead, her months were spent in terrible pain, and her last hour was spent “vomiting faecal matter” as her brother “held a bowls under his sister’s chin.” Before her death, Ms. Flowers begged her society for the right to die as she wanted:

“The law wouldn’t let a dog suffer the agony I’m going through before an inevitable death. It would be put down. Yet under the law, my life is worth less than a dog’s.”

Her brother ads:

“How can that be right? How can society believe terminal patients should be put through awful agonising deaths? 

What is to blame for this perverse reversal of morality which defines “compassion” as the glorification of human misery? At first, I was tempted to blame the socialist mentality of Australia’s ruling Labor Party. Under the collectivist ideology, human beings are slaves of the State, and may not live or die except by the State’s judgment that they are of use to Society. On the other hand, the religious ideology is that human beings are animated corpses, souls given a temporary lease on mortal life for the sole purpose of blind obedience to their deity, who may not live or die except by the ruling of his earthly representatives.
In this case, it may be both as Austrialia’s current prime mister is a vocal leftist commited to integrating Christianity into the political sphere.

Christian fundamentalists put freaks on parade

by David Veksler David Veksler 79 Comments

Christians and other mystics sometimes argue that religion makes people moral. I disagree: morality is a practical science which can only be understood by rational consideration, not emotionalism (the epistemological method of faith). To the extent that religious dogmas and religious people preach and act morally, they derive their principles using the same rational methods and the same evidence that is available to everyone. Since rational moral claims need no mystical basis, it is only the irrational and immoral actions which require religious justification. To the extent that religious beliefs as such influence people’s actions, they can only influence them to do wrong – sometimes unspeakable and sometimes trivial, but still evil.

For the most part, modern Western religions, such as those in the United States, merely consist of mindless time-wasting rituals. They are evil in the sense of distracting people from more productive activities, especially from more productive means of finding moral guidance. Nevertheless, for the most part, and despite their religion, most Americans are good and productive people, who pay lip-service to a dogma highly diluted by Western philosophy and modern science.

The prime candidate for the moral monopoly of religion in America is the domain of life and death. This is where the real evil of religious influence becomes evident. One particularly despicable influence of religion was out on display when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. One of Governor’s Palin’s qualifications for the presidential ticket is that she gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome in April.

The fact that Palin’s baby has Down syndrome is certainly tragic. Down not only severely impacts the health and life-expectancy of the child, is also a tremendous burden on their caretakers. (Aside from my personal observation, my girlfriend has worked closely with Down parents and their children.) As an unpredictable genetic disorder however, the symptom cannot be blamed on anyone. Except for this: since January 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended Down screening for all pregnant women, and so Governor Palin knew that her fetus had Down’s, and decided to continue her pregnancy anyway. Furthermore, she has turned her decision into political leverage in the upcoming election as proof of her moral virtuousness:

“How refreshing that now we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women,” said Janice Shaw Crouse of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.

Whereas previously, a Down’s child could be born without the prior knowledge of the mother, going forward, a parent with a Down’s child will likely (at least in the developed world) have made a conscious choice to have that child. The child represents a sacrifice made by their parents for their faith. As the recommendations of ACOG are implemented nationwide, Down children (and eventually those with other genetic disorders) will increasingly become symbols of faith – a freak show meant to communicate the “family values” of their parents. They will be a symbol of religious reverence in the same way as the scarred backs of Catholics who flagellate themselves, or Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire, or Sunni Muslims who mutilate their girl’s genitals or Shiites who bloody their and their children’s heads with swords.

Genuine moral virtues – such as integrity, honesty, and productivity are not useful as evidence of religious virtue. To the extent that their practical benefit is visible to everyone, they do not represent the special domain of religion. To demonstrate religious virtue, it is necessary to sacrifice authentic moral values in favor of “religious” values. The particular object of the sacrifice is not important – there is nothing particularly “biblical” about being prolife (the Christian bible just as easily supports the opposite position.) If Christian fundamentalists decided that cutting of one’s hand sufficed as proof of moral virtue, they would still be guilty of evil, but not much more so than the numerous other ways that people of all kinds find to be self-destructive. What is really vicious about fundamentalists in America is that the prey on the most vulnerable –poor pregnant young girls and women, those dying from painful terminal illnesses, the loved ones of brain-dead patients, — and children afflicted with terrible genetic illnesses.

One can at least grasp the moral indifference with which a fundamentalist can force a single young mother to abandon her goals and dreams and condemn her and her child to poverty. But what can we say about a parent that chooses a life of suffering upon their child? If we are morally outraged by child rapists, how should we judge a parent who chooses a lifetime of suffering on their own child?

Did Christianity's underdog origins allow the success of Western Civilization?

by David Veksler David Veksler 2 Comments

It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Christianity and some schools of Buddhism, every other major world religion were created as a means for the ruling regime to justify its grip on power as an expression of divine will. The divine hierarchy of the Old Testament’s angelic pantheon reflects and perpetuates the rigid social hierarchy of the ruling elite of its society. The god of the Old Testament demands taxes (sacrifices) accepts no competition (he murders over two million unbelievers) or critical questioning of the law, and presents a facade of voluntary submission (convert or face annihilation).

The New Testament on the other hand, was written before Christianity transformed to an institution of theocratic dictatorship. It presents a personal rather than collective choice (submit or you will burn in hell, as opposed to your tribe/descendants.) This subtle distinction may be responsible for the success of Western civilization, as secular rulers did not feel personally threatened when reason eroded the power of the church. (Of course, that did not stop the church itself from butchering secularists for as long as it could.) This is still not possible in the Islamic and Confucian world, where the secular and divine authority is united in a single institution. The attempt to introduce Aristotelian philosophy by Ibn-Rushd in particular, was wildly successful in the West, but because rational questioning was a threat to current regime, it was snuffed out by the institutionalization of doctrines such as the taqleed.

In Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism has allowed a similar erosion of divine authority, creating the “Asian Tigers.” In this light, Communism can be seen as an attempt to preserve the union of divine and secular authority.