Sunday, December 15, 2013

Notes and Observations from a Religion vs. Atheism “Debate”

by Gary Berg-Cross

On Dec. 7th, 2013 Perry King, Deacon of the Universalist National Memorial Church and  Don Wharton, Organizer of the DC Region Atheists participated in a 2-person debate called: Religious Faith versus Atheism.

It was well attended with a mix of people, one of whom was Mathew Goldstein who wrote a to-the-point, well reasoned &  skeptical blog called Protestant Universalists as activism allies on it.  I was there too and had some thoughts similar to Matt’s but took some notes on other aspects as well such as the ebb and flow of issues, tactics and emotions. I hope these annotated notes help recreate the flavor of what I experienced. You can see an early part of the debate here and get a sense of the speakers demeanor.

As debates of this kind go this was as polite as it probably gets. Certainly there fewer pyrotechnics as with the brothers Chris and Peter Hitchens debate or one of Dawkin's debates. Here the speakers were not kin, but still familiar with each other from past conversations. They showed a degree of respect for each other in the midst of a congenial audience made up of people are both sides of the issue, but liberal minded.  Indeed at times the most heat came from intense efforts by assigned moderators to keep the 2 speakers to 5 minute time constraints. Still, it wasn't as intentionally humorous as a religion-atheist debate among comics Jamie Kilstein &  John Fugelsang on "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell."

The event started with each side explaining their organizations and what they stand for and who they were allied with. Perry could point to the UU values from the Enlightenment - “Freedom, Reason and Tolerance.”  Don Wharton faced with a liberal stance took a clever tactic of emphasizing secular, humanist & scientific positions and alliances such as the AHA and DC Coalition of Reason, rather than starting with atheist ones. Indeed for most of the early debate it might have been termed Religion vs. Secularism.
In the 2nd round each side staked out some additional territory.  King expanded from the Enlightenment to what he at times called a Modern or Post-Modern Religion.  He used relativism to jumps over the hard search for truth with a string of statements that- “absolute truth does not exist". Realities are instead multiple, they are subjective and dependent on an individual's worldview of framework (Drat we should have never spent the time trying to convert those Indians). The Deacon could gesture to this idea and rattle off some thinkers but his main thrusts came with statements like:

Religion asks the question of meaning.  It’s been around a long time…Religion is not so much a set of beliefs as a set of language and symbols about what is unknown or transcendent.

This idea of religion knowing something about the unknown might have generated calls for explanation, but we weren't in the Q& A so the conversation moved on from this very sticky foundational point. It’s the type of thinking that is hard to make progress against at time limited debates.  You can choose to address 3-4 of the arguments made but if you try to pick up this one it will consume all your time.  It’s a very asymmetrical situation and I give Don high marks for navigating these obstacles. Faced with this choice when he had the floor he countered King with a simple question of:

 “what is real? and ‘this is self delusion’, ‘let’s define what is real.” 
(See my blog on myths for some discussion of delusions. Rational analysis for the masses, alas, remains an unfulfilled Enlightenment goal.)
Perry’s response was to cede the floor a bit and retreat from knowing.

“Can any of us know what is real?”  “How did it all begin?”

Not a great response from an “Enlightenment fan” but such stances postponed the issue till later in the debate when there was more time for the important issues on the human capacity to know. If you draw on thinkers of the past I like for example, Heraclitus 500 BCE whose stance on how human understand reality included (Paraphrased by John Sowa, 2003):

“Everything is in flux. But what gives that flux its form is the logos; the words or signs that enable us to perceive patterns in the flux, remember them, talk about them, and take action upon them even while we ourselves are part of the flux we are acting in and on.”

These rhetorical questions can be taken on with a gesture to that part of Science that studies human cognition.  What aspects of Science do you believe in and what limits do you set and why?  Is continental drift “real”?  Doesn't seem likely, but it now seems pretty certain along with mass extinctions, comets that hit the earth, supernova and quarks. I prefer knowing the knowable, rather than faithfully “knowing” the permanently mysterious unknown.

If Deacon King could wave at being compatible with Science, Don could ask “What does that mean?” And he could point to Epicurus and the problem of evil which provides it own big discussion area that is hard to take on. Each side had some of their favorite zingers.  Probably Deacon King had more such as:

“There is no conflict between Religion and Evolution….but Dawkins knows nothing about Religion!” or
“UU stands for the underdevelopment of arrogant atheists who are intolerant of Religion.”
“What do I mean by faith?  It’s personal.” (Ah, I guess not subject to scientific study? Calling doctor Freud......)
It’s mean to tell kids there’s no Santa Claus.”

The Deacon did have a host of easy to believe and popular wisdoms to throw into the debate and could bring the sides together with a cheery:

 “The enemy is dogma in any form.”

While agreeing on many issues of social tolerance points of real disagreement were to be found as the conversation continued.  Don argued that Religions convince people that they are members of a moral tribe and neuroscience supports this maximization of tribalism, which has its downsides. See Us Against Them: How Tribalism Affects the Way We Think .

Don threw in ideas relating religion and the idea of purity and authority figures from Jonathan Haidt's studies of intuitive, moral underpinning as political attitudes:

This moral foundation, which involves having compassion and feeling empathy for the suffering of others, is measured by asking people how much considerations of "whether someone cared for someone weak and vulnerable" and "whether or not someone suffered emotionally" factor into their decisions about what is right and wrong. As you can see, liberals score considerably higher on such questions. But now consider another foundation, "purity," which is measured by asking people how much their moral judgments involve "whether or not someone did something disgusting" and "whether or not someone violated standards of purity or decency." Conservatives score dramatically higher on this foundation.

But as we veered onto social science these too were subjects that did not land as conversational topics for any length of time. The impression I got was that Don’s atheist-secular side was grabbing more of the space of the argument.  If this were a chess game the early openings had been played and Don had major pieces deployed. 

Deacon Perry was playing a different game though and chose not to get into evidence from social and neuroscience.  

“Never say “delusions” when talking to a faith-based community,”

A good line enjoyed by the audience. I guess a comeback might be:

 “Don’t say ‘take it on faith’ when talking to an empirical science audience.”

Before we knew it the Deacon was on a different tactic.  He ceded the territory of being critical of the Bible, but within faith.  To him the Bible is a pre-modern document, but it is the source of divine inspiration (take it on faith, I guess).  As Christians we should only look at the “good stuff.”: I should note here that Deacon King seems to talk about the Bible mostly in terms of the New Testament.

OK, I’ve heard this inspiration talk before and the question that comes up in my mind is that there are separate criteria to judge what is “good” in this or any other book.  We don’t need religious criteria for this. We've golden an silver rules for quite a while.  We might agree to call the criteria “humanistic.”  That would be good to agree on or even discuss.

What was discussed was Don’s point about beliefs from groups like Christian Scientists. How do we confront the absurdity of their truth claims? Perry said “we are trying to liberalize them.”  He again fell back on the claim that there is important truth in the Bible.

Don’s chess game advanced a notch again and moved to the claim of life after death, “It’s a problem.”  Group leaders use this promise to impose their interests and notions of ethics on the community. It’s a delusion and akin to people deluding themselves about climate change. Perry responded, “It has great value.”

This exchange opened the doors a bit to the societal value of Religion and the related issue of who do we blame more for what has gone wrong (e.g. cultural conflicts, war etc.). One thinks of Paul Kurtz observation that:

All the great religions have grown by attacking those about them. 

To the request that we need a more secular society the Deacon could only suggest that Norway has more suicides than the US (not true it turns out to be true – Norway has about the same rate.  There is an effect for the absence of sun in winter which shows up in many countries so Finland has a higher rate than the US).

Which cultures are happiest?  Don suggested the secular, Scandinavian ones. Again this is supported by UN survey studies based on not only longevity and prosperity but also the belief you can count in others in times of trouble, perception or corruption, generosity etc. There were many of these statistical skirmishes throughout but Don was clearly in better command of the facts and supported conclusions. Take the issue of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot all being “atheists.”  Don was ready with refutations on Hitler’s Catholic background, Stalin’s Russian Orthodox upbringing and Pol Pot’s training in a Buddhist monastery.  It was quite something to see vague claims swatted down by Don’s knowledge. One might have added the inconvenient observation that George Bush was “born again” and his wars killed hundreds of thousands.
It was equally interesting to see emotion-laden topics dealt with.

When the idea of Hell was introduced as based on human experience Don could parry that, yes, hellish experiences are real and we learn from them but there is no supernatural Hell.

More difficult was the topic of secular accommodationism of Religion  vs confrontation or Religion by the New Atheists (“confrontationisst” include  bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Aliand Richard Dawkins. – Some trending elements of secular accommodation disturb and trouble Don. Paul Kurtz might fall into the accommodationist category if only because he worried that New Atheism confrontation was an unproductive strategy. Don’s counter (and Mathew Goldstein’s position) is to “stand firm on truth claims.”  One of Don’s memorable lines in this debate concerning how confrontation hurts people’s feelings was to pivot from people to ideas –  – “Ideas don’t have feelings.”  And he added that secularists are comfortable in their feelings at the end of life.”

Modernity (Perry cited an atheist Freud and others here, well they aren't up to data but I guess were considered modern) and post modern ideas on religion was a topic at times included the limitations of science – it doesn't have final answers. One like look to A.C. Grayling on this idea of certainty and knowledge. Yes, Science’s mindset is always in progress and prepared to un-set and revise, but that mentality is a strength rather than cock sure certainly that is fixed. Both Perry and Don cited the value of critical thinking, but Perry urged that we not try to wipe out all of tradition and world views found in myths.  They have a special truth one supposes and we should be informed by people who came before us.  Well yes, remember those old natural religions that had thunder gods and credible displays of religious devotion, such as:

fasts, food taboos, self-scarification, extravagant rituals and other “hard-to-fake” behaviors.

It is part of reliably transmitted religious demonstration showing a believers’ sincere faith to observers and potential converts.  I could see some of this behavior at the debate.  Perry would occasionally invite Don to come to service – we hope to convert you yet. Not all of us have Don’s ability to groan or sigh away these entreaties in a persuasive way. A good example of this was Don's reaction to Perry's appeal to thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as a source of modern wisdom.  Don had actually read Chardin and groaned noting that that Chardin had his own brand of confusion.

As a culture generating species, we humans assimilate key information from our groups, and therefore human brains probably have built in cultural learning biases that enable us to quickly pick up the culture around us (language too). But a pre-conscious tendency to learn from others makes us vulnerable to being misinformed if not duped. This has been called the “evil teacher problem” but remember preaches are teachers). Evolutionary Psychologists speculate that we have developed a defense.  Human cognition is equipped with something called epistemic vigilance. It’s a suite of skills and preferences that guard against such manipulation by smooth talkers among us.  Better to be converted by truth and not tolerate manipulation. And so on to the question of what should be tolerated.

Perry did ask pointedly, “Can you respect my mother who goes to church on Sunday?

Don’s response was a re-post.  Religions have more control over women. And by the way should a LGBT person respect a homophobe?  There are limits.

At this point there was time for Q & A from the audience. One of the first ones was whether Don say religion going away and what would replace it.  Don pointed to Sunday Assembly as an alternative. Perry thought that we were in a Post-Christian age and needed to redefine Religion but that it would always be with us. But a thoughtful UU member asked Don if he would be happy in effect with nothing by their total capitulation to the atheist idea.  

Another question concerned the possibility of an alliance between secularists and liberal religions like the UUs. We might ally around climate change, peace and civil rights.

A question is whether we can cooperate on these, while ideas of God and Religion are enshrined in laws. It's still a good question and yet this was a good, liberal minded debate.


Don Wharton said...

Thanks for a most excellent overview for those who were not there. I have one small quibble with your summary.

This line, “The enemy is dogma in any form” was a major and very much intended theme of my opening statement. However, your post reads as if Perry King were the one that used it. Perry King might haved echoed it but if so I don't recall that happening.

Gary Berg-Cross said...


Yes, I was able to capture a portion of what was said, and I have notes that Perry did say this about dogma mid-way in and perhaps as a way of harking back to your opening on dogma to, in effect, say that as a liberal thinker he was in agreement with this.

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