You can’t explain a variable with a constant

Courtesy of reader Jocelyn Stoller, comes this video, of respected philosopher of science Jim Woodward discussing whether or not religious beliefs explains things like suicide bombing and the moral right in the US.

Answer: not likely. Watch part 2 at Youtube.

37 thoughts on “You can’t explain a variable with a constant

  1. Hi John! Off topic; but I like what you have to say (mostly/sometimes?) and lurk around occasionally. The only Australian blog I ever bother with . (I am Australian – retired chartered accountant). So; thank you.

    I was led here a year or two ago from Dan Finke at Camels with Hammers who has you on his blog-roll. (Crazy kid that he is, he is doing a 24hr ‘blogathon’ at the moment, 4.30 am his time. If you catch this comment in time, go and give him another Aussie word of support!)

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    1. Unfortunately at home I have only a very slow and bandwidth limited internet connection, and at the university I am not permitted to watch such videos and I am expected to do the work I am here for. So I can’t watch the whole thing myself. Is there a textified version somewhere?

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  2. His points are obvious and correct, but if taken seriously, they fatally undercut about 75% of Gnu Atheist rhetoric, don’t they?

    PS: This is from the “Beyond Belief” conference in 2006, which was really at the beginning of the Gnu movement rather than the end of it. My experience watching those videos back then was that it was an attempt by Dawkins et al. to convince academia at-large to get on board with the Gnu program, and more or less complete failure to do so, since many of the claims don’t make much sense. The talks by Melvin Konner, and even Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are both epic in their own way, and both undermine the narrow hard line taken by the Gnus.

    From wikipedia:

    =============
    Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, the first of The Science Network’s annual Beyond Belief symposia, held from November 5 to November 7, 2006, was described by the New York Times, as “a free-for-all on science and religion,” which seemed at times like “the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.” According to participant Melvin Konner, however, the event came to resemble a “den of vipers” debating the issue, “Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”
    =============

    It looks like they didn’t get beyond 3 annual conferences:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Belief_%28symposium%29#Beyond_Belief

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    1. That would explain the quaver in his voice. He really was nervous, given the Names in the audience and his criticisms of them, and we all know how effective some of those Names can be with the vituperative rhetoric.

      I wish I’d gone to that conference, though…

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      1. Yes, it was a little difficult to listen to him in the second part due to the obvious discomfort he was experiencing. Good on him though for expressing his views.

        I have to say, I think he’s right and am glad for it. As much as I’ve loved getting involved with the gnu shtick on the past and still think it does good regarding atheism being loud and proud, I think the thesis that we need to eradicate religion to have any hope was one that if true, meant we’re fooked! Better then, if we can ameliorate situations with locally useful stuff than a global eradication program.

        Anyway, my unoriginal 2c.

        Happy New Year John!

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        1. I didn’t think he sounded nervous. That’s mostly just my opinion, but also: professors who are leaders in their field, with successful programs and tenure have approximately zero reason to be nervous about e.g. Dawkins & Harris. If such professors are worried about anything, it’s mostly about other authorities in their field; the gnu debate is mostly a debate happening in the pop-science culture. If anything, it seemed to me that the gnu skeptics like Woodward and Melvin Konner were mostly worried about how the gnus were going to drag down the reputation of science and endanger liberal values through their rhetoric. E.g. Melvin Konner said something like, “I beseech you, in the name of Darwin, think about what would happen if it became illegal to teach your children your beliefs on religion [which is what the "religious upbringing is child abuse" rhetoric implies]. In a world where the government has this power, I promise you, it won’t be the religious families this power gets used on, it will first get used on you and me.” (paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it)

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          1. It is possible that he was not nervous but upset. However, I think he was expecting the kind of aggressive counterattack these guys are known for, and few academics generally like to deal with that.

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          2. If you watch the whole video without first taking a side (a debate judging technique), it is blindingly obvious that he undermines his own point #2. Juxtapose his argument starting at around 2:00 with his comments starting around 6:10. He undercuts his own argument. Just to make it that much more obvious, I’ve done a few substitutions of his arguments at both places to make it clear:

            Around the 2:00 mark:

            Very specific empirical evidence is required to suggest that belief in religion leads to good. About # 2 that religious faith or particular religious doctrines lead to the various good outcomes that we’ve been talking about. I think there are some basic methodological points that need to be made. You should bring to claims like 2 the ordinary standards of scientific evidence and assessment that you would insist on in other contexts. If you have something that is varying, like the incidence of prevalence of civil rights, 150 years ago or 100 years ago there was relatively little women’s suffrage not to mention slavery, 200 years ago, there was even less. You can’t I think very adequately explain this variation in incidence by appealing to something that’s constant, like the content of the Bible. And I don’t think eiter it is a very good explanation or something that would would be accepted by any thoughtful social scientist simply to appeal to what the suffragists or abolitionists themselves would say. You’ve gotta find factors that covary with those who are or are not civil rights activists and you need to formulate and exclude alternative hypotheses. So it’s not good enough to just have the hypothesis that the content of the Bible is responsible for women’s suffrage or civil rights and pile up all sorts of evidence, say by quoting the Bible or quoting civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King themselves in support of this, you need to think about what the alternative explanations would be and you need to systematically exclude these. I’m very far from being some sort of expert on civil rights, but my intuition would be that all sorts of local factors, facts about particular political actors, facts about particular historical contingent events are gonna be better explanatory factors than the content of these people’s religious faith, and I would assume that the same is true about the rise of gay rights.

            Around the 6:10 mark:

            I’ve heard it claimed that very little bad has been uniquely motivated by religion. I think it is simply an empirical fact that the white supremacy movement in the United States drew on religous inspiration. If you look at the history of the white supremacy movement both in the United States and in Britian, you’ll find religious leaders and religious arguments figuring centrally in that. So that’s just an empirical fact. As scientists, you shouldn’t deny it.

            Whatever else Jim Woodward may excel at doing in other contexts, arguing consistently and following his own condescending prescriptions for Gnus was not on display on that particular day. This is the first view of Jim Woodward’s work I’ve ever seen. While I can’t judge him professionally on this small amount of evidence alone, at least in the limited context of these two short videos, he has played at philosophy very badly.

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    2. Wow, he’s a philosopher? And obviously right? I think he is trivially wrong because of self contradiction and mischaracterization of his opponents. He quite facilely hoisted himself by his own petard. He outlines three major planks of the supposed Gnu opposition (before it was called Gnu):

      1) God doesn’t exist;
      2) Religion can result in very bad outcomes;
      3) Replacing religion with a secular alternative is the best solution.

      He doesn’t contest #1, so that plank stands (in this context — John will certainly disagree in general).

      As for #3, that is a gross mischaracterization of a movement that, if it has any unifying theme at all, is best characterized as skepticism of and opposition to religion rather than replacement of religion. Such notables as PZed have often railed against finding a replacement for religion as have other member of the Gnus. On the other hand, some Gnus do want to substitute an alternative. Still others prefer, above all else, to increase the visibility and acceptance of atheists and their skeptical stances on religion (so-called “out atheism”). In any event, #3 isn’t a core plank of Gnu atheism, and as such, his opposition to it is irrelevant to the broader movement.

      My response to #2 will be a separate comment. That’s where the petards ahoisting will reside.

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      1. Just out of passing interest, where can I find a list of the core Gnu planks? They seem rather protean to me, and every time somebody challenges one of them, someone else will say, “but that’s not a core view”.

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        1. John S. Wilkins:
          Just out of passing interest, where can I find a list of the core Gnu planks? They seem rather protean to me, and every time somebody challenges one of them, someone else will say, “but that’s not a core view”.

          Sounds like a familiar refrain. There is never a religious aspect that is “characteristic of religion”. Yet I would argue that Gnu atheism (repeating myself):

          if it has any unifying theme at all, is best characterized as skepticism of and opposition to religion rather than replacement of religion.

          As evidence that Woodward’s #3 characterization is wrong, I cited one prominent member of the Gnus that disagrees strongly with it. And I’m sure you could name at least one prominent member that does fit Woodward’s #3.

          In evidence of my contention, I submit that an overwhelming majority of prominent Gnus and their fellow travellers (ie readers, listeners, sympathizers, etc) agree with my characterization. It may not be the largest minimal characterization of Gnus, but it is the best I can do on short notice. But it is clear that Woodward is pretty wrong on this, given that I don’ t think Gnus are out to replace religion with secular humanism.

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          1. Nor do I, but I do think they aim to replace it with something. Secular humanism is a positive philosophy not shared by all atheists, of course. Some are not humanists (which I take to have particular, and in my opinion, some false, tenets). Some might not be secularists (which I take to mean that government should be neutral with respect to religious beliefs), thinking that government should actively discriminate against religious beliefs. By some, I mean the popular views, not those of the “leading” Gnus, who front a movement we cannot characterise, but seem to be able to mischaracterise.

            I think the general tenor of the Gnu atheism is that we should remove religion from society. Woodward may be wrong, and I may be wrong, that this implies replacing it with something else (scientific thinking? reason? rationality?), but obviously I don’t think I am wrong (or I would change my mind).

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          2. Actually, I don’t see that Gnus want to replace religion with anything. Of course, I could be wrong. But I think the goal is something like secularism, but construed more broadly in societal rather than governmental terms. Basically, I think they intend to drain religion of authority by discrediting it such that people will (preferably) abandon it of their own volition or (at the very least) keep their religious beliefs more private.

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          3. That, of course, I have no objection to (nor can anyone), so long as there are no sanctions for remaining religious.

            I’m unsure how the “teaching children your religion is child abuse” claim is consistent with that. Parity implies that I should be able to teach my children to be a secular humanist, if I am one, without penalty or sanction (which of course is problematic in the US), but beyond that I don’t see how teaching a child one’s beliefs, even if they are contrary to fact, is child abuse as such, if one is not going to sanction against religions that teach contrary to fact claims.

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          4. I agree. The only niggling thing that bothers me about your comment is that Gnus seem not to have come to a consensus on the “teaching children your religion is child abuse” question. As far as I can tell, the question was never of that nature, even when Dawkins proposed it. I think the gist was more of the flavor of “teaching children certain repugnant beliefs is child abuse”. And he outlined what he (subjectively) identified as repugnant religious beliefs. I assume you’re mainly referring to Ch. 9 in TGD. In any event, I’m not sure where I come down on whether teaching children anything is “abuse”. Again, I could always be wrong, but I’ve no sense that this is an issue that unites Gnus, Dawkins notwithstanding.

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        2. I think that’s because gnus aren’t a unified thingy with a doctrine. More a grouping of atheists who think that religion has been given an undeserved place of respect for too long. Beyond that, it’s whacking season….So I don’t know why it shouldn’t be protean. Wait until the gnu pope asserts control, then you’ll have your dogma. :)

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          1. That’s fine, but then one cannot object to what Woodward says by saying “As for #3, that is a gross mischaracterization of a movement that, if it has any unifying theme at all, is best characterized as skepticism of and opposition to religion rather than replacement of religion”, can one? I mean, either the movement can be characterised and its core theses criticised, or it cannot be, and so one cannot mischaracterise it.

            My reading is that Jim was rejecting some of the claims made at that conference by the speakers there, who were stating their claims as characterising the movement. I might be wrong. Either way it doesn’t change the fact that JJE’s objection is self-defeating.

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          2. I don’t see my that my objection is self defeating, but I’m happy to be corrected. I could just be plain wrong perhaps (esp. if he was addressing particular talks), but not in a self-defeating way. If (as Nick and John seem to be implying in their back and forth) these ideas are to be applied to Gnus, I think they are wrong for the reasons I set forth (I believe the evidence points to Gnus having only a few very broad unifying tenets — and those tenets don’t in my mind include replacing religion with anything). If nobody actually thinks these ideas actually apply to Gnus in general (in particular point #3), I am indeed wrong and concede the point, as my comments were not directed at the characterization of a handful of atheists at a particular conference.

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  3. “in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role” NYT.

    Brian “… the thesis that we need to eradicate religion to have any hope was one that if true, meant we’re fooked!”

    Spot on Brian and bravely said Prof Woodward. Totally logical and in accordance with observation of human behaviour. It is the human animal that tends to the irrational, and popular ideologies such as religion are merely symptoms of inbuilt human irrationality.

    Anyone hoping to engineer a New Rational Homo species is on a fool’s mission, and a dangerous one at that, since the artificially created 100% rational human would most likely be a horror.

    The cure for mad dogma is not yet another mad dogma.

    And just to add to the commentary on suicide bombing, wasn’t the originator of this as a modern political tactic actually the secular far left wing LTTE in Sri Lanka rather than any religious group anyway?

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  4. I think we have a tendency to run with political/ cultural/ social perspectives that have a specific cultural and historical development rather than some inherent disposition towards madness or irrational thought.

    I thought that was the point Prof Woodward was trying to make.

    I don’t think that popular ideologies such as religion or the way the sceptical community have had a historical and cultural tendency to view belief in over- simplistic terms is a sign of long- term stupidity, irrationality or madness.

    But I may be wrong and simply displaying fault lines in my own education and cultural bias.

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    1. Interesting that you equate irrationality with madness, Jeb. Similarly the ultra-atheists seem to equate irrationality with badness. Maybe we’re not talking the same language here, because to my way of seeing things the word “irrationality” is not a pejorative any more than “rationality” is. Irrationality also includes a whole range of essential human capabilities like instinct, emotion, intuition, imagination, empathy, compassion and so on.

      Of course irrationality has its negative sides, but so does rationality, which can be cold, uncaring, inflexible and ruthless, not to mention dull and unimaginative.

      I would argue that we cannot eradicate irrationality from our nature any more than we can eradicate rationality, nor would it be desirable to do so.

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  5. Yes a language thing. You’re use of mad dogma threw me was not quite sure where you were coming from or in what sense you were using the term irrational.

    I am not sure if the sense I use rational when it comes to belief is particularly correct but I think if a belief which is not empirically demonstrable or logical can be used to achieve a specific purpose and objective and the ones that interest me with regard to belief are social, political, cultural, then they are best described as rational or at least reasonable and understandable.

    Not dealing with a hard, rigid static realms of thought when it comes to belief, significant ebb and flow between the different concepts and words we use to capture the phenomena.

    So no I don’t think in the way my words may imply with regard to irrational beliefs, I just don’t have the language or terms to express myself particularly well.

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  6. The more I think about the arguments presented in the video, the more dreadful they appear. The apparent thesis “you can’t explain a variable with a constant” seems to be either complete logical nonsense or sophistry. Of COURSE you can explain a variable with a constant. It all depends on how causation works in an individual case. So, either the guy is just wrong or is intentionally oversimplifying. If he were to simply say “you can’t explain a variable exclusively with a constant” he might have been on firmer footing, but he doesn’t. If he had’ve said that, it would have rendered his talk toothless (example: ‘explanations are complicated, but we can’t rule out the Koran as causative any more than we can rule out “local circumstances”‘).

    One counter example overturning his dubious logic would be a number of strains of yeast containing varying constructs containing green fluorescent protein (GFP). One strain might have a constitutive promoter, one may contain a heat shock promoter, and one may lack a promoter altogether. Perhaps there are even strains with valid promoters but a truncated GFP. Across all cases, fluorescent cells, when they exist (and they don’t always exist) REQUIRE an intact GFP and a promoter. Of course, at times, other ingredients are required (like heat, if GFP is under a heat shock promoter), but in all circumstances, this potentially variable trait requires an explanation that very well can be constant (the GFP sequence). This isn’t a claim of exclusive causality (and again, I doubt this is a tenet of Gnus). However, being this open about sharing causality between circumstances (the political environment) and “constants” (like the Koran) would’ve rendered this talk less controversial and far less useful for present rhetorical purposes at Evolving Thoughts.

    And at the end of the day, when someone asks a biologist “what causes that green color when you shine light on the cells?”, a biologist could honestly answer with the constant “GFP”, even if he didn’t know what promoter it was under.

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  7. J.J.E.:

    it is blindingly obvious that he undermines his own point #2. … Just to make it that much more obvious, I’ve done a few substitutions of his arguments at both places to make it clear

    If I look at your first substituted argument, I find that you and Woodward are both making the exact same point, namely that you cannot explain a variable solely with a constant. The only difference is that he is pointing out the problem in the claim, “Belief in God (or religious faith or particular religious doctrine) is responsible for bad outcomes…,” where the bad outcomes in question have been around for a much shorter time than religion itself, while you are pointing out the problem in the mirror-image claim “Belief in God (or religious faith or particular religious doctrine) is responsible for good outcomes…,” where the good outcomes in question have been around for a much shorter time than religion itself. The examples in your arguments differ, but the flow of logic and the overall thrust is the same.

    If I look at your second substituted argument, I see that you have failed to make a proper mirror image of Woodward’s original argument. He had said, “I’ve heard it claimed that nothing good or morally worthwhile has come out of religion.” The proper counterpart to that is “I’ve heard it claimed that nothing bad or morally execrable has come out of religion. Your purported counterpart, “I’ve heard it claimed that very little bad has been uniquely motivated by religion,” is not only too soft (because it has “very littte bad” instead of “nothing bad”) but throws in a bit about “uniquely motivated” — which has no counterpart in Woodward’s original words, especially not the “uniquely” part.

    More to the point, while it would be wrong to say that religion is responsible for the civil rights movement — in the sense of it being a sufficient cause — it is perfectly fine to make the weaker statement that the civil rights movement happened to come from religion, especially in response to such an extreme claim as “Nothing good has come from religion.” In short, you saw a contradiction because you failed to distinguish between two kinds of claims:

    1) Religion is sufficient cause for X.
    2) X came out of religion.

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    1. I don’t disagree. However, I don’t think that clears Woodward of that internal contradiction. Indeed, he even admits as much in the Q&A afterword, but excuses himself by fiat: “there is evidence that religion causes good things” (paraphrasing here). He fails to mention any however. He both tried to refute the principle of “explaining a variable with a constant” and then turned right around and explained a variable with a constant. The beautiful thing about this argument is that one doesn’t need to take a side on “you can’t explain a variable with a constant” to know that Woodward was wrong, as he took both sides. At least Sam Harris cited the socioeconomic status of the 9/11 bombers. As weak s that is, it is at least some evidence.

      Additional self inflicted wounds from his talk stem from his self righteous demand for evidence on point #2, followed by his failure to provide any on his own assertion that religion causes good outcomes. Nothing wrong with a bit of self-righteousness from time to time, esp. in asking for evidence. And when laying out an argument, one can forgive the occasional unevidenced speculation or brain storm. But juxtapose both in the same talk? Bad form.

      The other guy (not Woodward) supported the anti-Gnu position far more adroitly. I still think he’s largely wrong, but not obviously so.

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  8. John S. Wilkins:
    That’s fine, but then one cannot object to what Woodward says by saying “As for #3, that is a gross mischaracterization of a movement that, if it has any unifying theme at all, is best characterized as skepticism of and opposition to religion rather than replacement of religion”, can one? I mean, either the movement can be characterised and its core theses criticised, or it cannot be, and so one cannot mischaracterise it.

    My reading is that Jim was rejecting some of the claims made at that conference by the speakers there, who were stating their claims as characterising the movement. I might be wrong. Either way it doesn’t change the fact that JJE’s objection is self-defeating.

    Notwithstanding this, PZ is still the best gnu! He’s worth at least a Dawkins and I think a PZ is worth two Coynes. Discuss. :)

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  9. Again, your original claim of contradiction rests on a failure to distinguish between two things:

    1) Religion is sufficient cause for X.
    2) X came out of religion (with no claim that religion was a sufficient cause of X).

    Now you have added that Woodward supposedly said, according to your paraphrase, “there is evidence that religion causes good things” in a “Q&A afterword,” but there’s no Q&A at the end of the video, not even the second part. The video ends as soon as Woodward finishes his lecture. I don’t trust your paraphrase, given your poor history on this thread of Woodward’s argument, and I’m not going to search YouTube for some other Q&A to which you didn’t bother to provide a link.

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    1. “poor record”? ” I don’t trust your paraphrase”? Christ man, you must be loads of fun at a bar. One single alleged lack of precision on a point that didn’t matter to the substance of a discussion and you are accusing your drinking partners of acting in bad faith. That’s simply not cool or collegial.

      Woodward acknowledged and challenged Sam Harris’ establishment of this contradiction.

      Woodward:

      First of all, in saying that the civil rights movement in the United States had a religious inspiration, I was not all suggesting that we could establish that simply by taking the word of the people who were involved in it. There are detailed historical studies of the origins of the civil rights movement that support this analysis, and that’s just the sort of thing I’m recommending.

      (Transcription accuracy limited by cutting out false starts and my own slow typing speed. It is quite close, but listen for yourself, because apparently I’m not trustworthy.)

      First bold is acknowledging Sam’s diagnosis of the contradiction and second bold is him denying that contradiction and doubling down on the claim that “there is evidence that religion causes good things”.

      So, there’s your Q&A afterwards and there’s your clear acknowledgment by Woodward that he did in fact claim that “there are detailed historical studies that support that the civil rights movement had a religous inspiration”, or in more general terms “there is evidence that religion causes good things”.

      As I asserted earlier, this is the instance wherein Woodward asserts by fiat that he has evidence on his (ie “there are detailed studies”).

      Sam did better. While it may be a brute fact that religion causes more good than harm, the only way to establish this is with evidence. Let’s say I made an unevidenced claim that religion causes more harm than good and then I tell you you need to provide evidence to establish the contrary, you would certainly call me out on my lack of consistency and demand my evidence. This works both ways and Woodward was simply not up to the task of doing that. Ergo, his performance was a flop.

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  10. J.J.E.:
    Actually, I don’t see that Gnus want to replace religion with anything. Of course, I could be wrong. But I think the goal is something like secularism, but construed more broadly in societal rather than governmental terms. Basically, I think they intend to drain religion of authority by discrediting it such that people will (preferably) abandon it of their own volition or (at the very least) keep their religious beliefs more private.

    I disagree, JJE. It seems to me that militant atheists implicitly demand the replacement of religion with something, since from my observation of people, many need religion or some form of metaphysical comfort in order to be able to get through the horrors that life throws at us and the resulting despair. Maybe existentialism or whatever other atheist framework is enough for some, but for many people, no, that’s just not enough. Without some form of transcendent belief existence is just too bleak for most people, especially the poor who have little or nothing but a huge weight of suffering loaded on them.

    I still don’t see evidence that it is possible to curb religiosity amongst any but a comfortable metropolitan elite anyway, but even thinking to take religion away from people without offering something satisfying instead seems completely unreasonable – irrational even.

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    1. Another iteration of the back and forth between Gnu and anti-Gnu points. We’ve got the makings for many of the standard anti-Gnu tropes:

      Charges of militant atheism? Check.
      Paternalistic condescension toward the faithful? Check.
      Claims that in the absence of god(s), life is bleak for all but the elite? Check.

      Re: replacing religion: As I pointed out earlier, one of the most “strident”/”militant” (dare I say terroristic, or is that too far over the top) high profile Gnus is PZ Myers who adamantly rejects replacing religion with a secular alternative.

      Finally, “implicitly demand”? Clearly you can’t suggest “demand” aline without any evidence to that effect (and I’m aware of no Gnu that demands such), so you smuggle in the word cloaked in the adverb “implicitly”. After all, if it is implicit, perhaps the evidence is just really hard to see? But that’s just using language to impute motives upon your opponents that they don’t acknowledge and often actively disavow.

      Why not just phrase it a bit more directly and say: “Yes J.J.E., you are absolutely right, Gnus don’t have a unified position urging that religion be replaced with an alternative. However, it is my contention that, due to unintended consequences arising from human nature, an alternative to religion is required. If religion disappears, the vacuum it creates demands a replacement.”

      That way you don’t put words into the mouths of your interlocutors.

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