Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Should we promote tolerant religion?

There's an interesting essay at Positive Liberty: While Europe Slept, by Jonathan Rowe. It made me stop and think. I'm an advocate for peaceful co-existence with religion; and have debated this up and down the blogs in recent times along with lots of other opinionated folks with diverse notions of how we relate to religion and to religious believers. The author of the above essay also advocates the gentle conciliatory approach, but with a bit of a twist.

You may want to read Jonathan's essay first, and then come back here to see what wisdom I can add. Because -- despite being a milk and mildness atheist myself -- I can see scope for my more hardline "new" atheist colleagues to use the same evidence Jonathan submits to argue for a negative effect of mild tolerance.

Jonathan adds a wrinkle to the notion of tolerance. He proposes that the founding fathers of the USA had a conciliatory approach to religion in which they deliberately promoted a notion of "authentic" religion that was consistent with their own secular ideals of liberality and tolerance. No matter that the actual divines of the time were still burning heretics and seeking to promote their notion of "right" religion with all the possible force available... the founding fathers deliberately chose to single out and promote forms of religion that were "compatible with liberal democratic, secular, pluralistic norms".

Jonathan proposes that we should be doing the same thing right now, with Islam. That is, in talking about Islam we should at every opportunity emphasize that "authentic" Islam is a religion of peace. As he says in the essay:

Whenever I criticize the more extreme elements of Islam, I always stress that most Muslims say this doesn’t represent the authentic version of their faith. Now, in truth, I have no idea whether I’m right and may well be engaging in a Straussian lie. But, if Islam, as a faith, isn’t going away — and I don’t think it is — Muslims must be convinced that a more liberal, sober and rational understanding of their faith is the authentic one. This is exactly what Madison tried to do with Christians in his Memorial and Remonstrance.
Can we identify a scientifically convenient authentic religion?

As I read this, I immediately thought of the ways in which we atheists approach religion. It's a hot topic in the blogsphere -- is religion the enemy of science? Or is religion (the "right" religion, of course) compatible with science?

The hardline approach is that religion and science are implacably opposed. Individuals may find a personal reconciliation; but only at the cost of their own personal consistency. It's an uneasy truce between opposing forces, and it invariably means that theists descend into unscientific nonsense at some point in this alleged reconciliation.

The conciliatory approach -- mine -- is that religion itself is consistent with science; though of course there are individual believers (creationists, for example) who hold views that are unambiguously falsified by the findings of scientists. But we tend to say that science is a process for finding things out, and that it can't find out everything. We tend not to think of science as requiring a belief in metaphysical naturalism, even though most of us actually do seem to be metaphysical naturalists -- disbelievers in God and in the supernatural. No matter; we admit that some of our scientific colleagues may have radically different metaphysical perspectives; and as long as they don't try to bring in the supernatural as a way of distorting the actual methods of scientific investigation, we don't mind what they believe. If you really can form your beliefs in such a way as to avoid being directly falsified by a line of empirical evidence, then you can be consistent with science.

Now there's something to be said for the notion that we are promoting as "authentic" a form of religion that is highly unusual and quite distinct from traditional religion all down the ages. It's not quite a total humbug, because religion does change over time; and there are plenty of religious leaders trying to promote an expression of their religion that remains fully consistent with all the discoveries of modern science. We tolerant atheists approve and encourage them.

But what if we succeed?

What will be the result? In the short term, I think the tolerant approach is pragmatic, and it may even succeed in making it possible for many in the churches to drag themselves out of the nineteenth century and share in the marvelous insights that are gained into our world when you look at it directly. And it seems that it worked for the founding fathers as well; modern religion (Christianity, at least) now recognizes many of the ideals of the enlightenment; ideals of human freedom and liberty and individual rights. Indeed, most Christians insist that this is "authentic" Christianity, and that the modern secular state only manages to retain such "Christian" ideals because of the beneficient influence of believers.

That's humbug. Religion has matured; and modern secular humanism has had a substantial positive effect. The process is not complete; but it's there, in my opinion.

And yet, and yet. Look at what we have today. The influence of religion on the social and political life in the USA is immense -- far greater than in other first world nations -- and it is to your detriment. Perhaps your founding fathers would have been better to discard any religious rhetoric altogether, and not be shackled with the Sisyphean task of dragging religion along with them as they built a new society.

You see, even if individuals of wisdom and circumspection manage to live peacefully with science, or with unbelievers, in each new generation this needs to be rediscovered. In each new generation, there are bound to be new believers who are intolerant, irrational and unwise. It's right there in the holy book; it is not a natural thing to impose tolerance and scientific literacy in ancient texts going right back to the bronze age.

Perhaps the USA would had avoided the problems she now has with such a substantial influence of religion on political and social life, if there had been less of a deliberate attempt to promote an improved modernized version of religion.

Here I stand, for the time being.

I'm still a tolerant atheist. I still think that religion can be compatible with science, for those believers who deliberately let all the findings of modern science inform the content of their faith.

I can't manage it myself; but I don't charge that others who find a stable reconcilation are necessarily being inconsistent. I'm not particularly concerned to persuade them to change, unless they want to engage in mutually respectful debate and discussion, in which case I will argue that there's excellent reason to think no God exists. I do aim to be persuasive for that position, though relaxed if others are not persuaded.

I am much more concerned with promoting a good education in science and history, and to that end I am happy to hold up as examples of "reasonable" religion those who do manage the reconciliation. And in this I am actively trying to influence the shape of religion in the future, despite the fact that I am not religious.

My own guess is that this is the most effective approach for addressing the problems with science education posed by creationism and other forms of pseudoscience. My own guess is that shifts in religion of this form will also tend to erode religion. There is an inertia to our beliefs. It's not easy to move them, but once they start to shift they do tend to continue to slide. It's not my objective, but it is my expectation that in encouraging a more "reasonable" religion, in the sense of one that is reconciled with the findings of science, I am also contributing to the gradual erosion of religion.

But I think I do understand the concerns of my more hardline fellow unbelievers. What do you think?

(Thanks to Bob Englehart for the cartoon. See it in his blog.)


  1. When you call yourself a "tolerant" atheist do you mean to imply that I am "intolerant" because I challenge religious people to defend their beliefs?

    If so, I reject your definition. Like you I am a tolerant atheist. Just because I enter into a discussion about religion and science does not mean that I am intolerant toward people who disagree with me. Please don't make the mistake of equating disagreement with intolerance.

    You probably don't make that mistake on any other issue. For example, I imagine that you disagree with people who support certain political parties. Does it automatically follow that you are intolerant of them? Is it true that only the people who assiduously avoid political debates are "tolerant" and everyone who engages in them is "intolerant?"

  2. No, Larry; I am not calling you intolerant. Not at all. In comments a few days ago at your blog I noted that you ARE tolerent.

    When people pick a term to describe themselves, they try to use a word that gives a quick feel for a characteristic of their approach.

    It's quite wrong to say that they are thereby saying that everyone else can be described as the negation of that word.

    I am not calling you intolerant. You asked earlier, at The Neville Chamberlain Atheists in your blog, for a term that could be used to describe the kind of position I take. I don't mind what you call me; but I think the similae with Neville Chamberlain is highly misleading. You also didn't like it, for slightly different reasons. In that thread I proposed "tolerant atheist" as a possible descriptor.

    Here I was just trying out that descriptor. It's not a case of calling everyone else "intolerant".

    But what did you think of the essay itself?

  3. Great essay, Chris!

    I think there is one thing that is commonly overlooked when getting into discussions about the superiority of one or another approach to religion. That is this: these positions have more or less existed in one form or another since the dawn of the Enlightenment, and can even be traced back further. On my side (the more radical atheo-rationalist side) our antecedents would be Diderot, Voltaire, Hume and d'Holbach. One your side (the liberal believers and conciliatory secularists) notable antecedents would be Berkeley, Kant, Priestly and our own Benjamin Franklin.

    I think that the politico-religious ideopshere is more or less epiphenomenal, and our cultural and social attitudes toward religion are influenced by the dialogue between hardcore anti-theistic rationalists, conciliatory secularists, liberal believers, and even opponents to all or most of their ideas (Burke comes to mind here). My personal opinion is that the American ideosphere is in such dire straits because hardcore atheo-rationalists like myself have been, for the most part, shut out of the discourse. This even applies to the more conciliatory types, like yourself, who are still largely considered outside of "reasonable" interfaith dialogue in my country. I understand you're an Aussie, so that really doesn't apply to you, I'm just using a particularly illustrative example.

  4. This is a wonderful and thought-provoking article. Thanks, Chris.

    Here's a thought: I always thought that "tolerant" presupposed the existence of things that you detest. Tolerance of free speech, for example, would presuppose the existence of speech that you find horrible, such as racist speech, and would mean that you allow it to exist. It does not mean that you must allow it to go unchallenged.

    I therefore agree that unless you, Larry, are advocating the abolition or suppression of religion (and I've seen no evidence that this is the case), then you are tolerant.

    Chris' qualification is also correct: "tolerance" is not an appropriate differentiation between Larry's position and that of Chris.

    But I agree with Chris: It's Larry, PZ and Dawkins that need the qualification to their "atheism".

    Atheism is a lack of belief in deities. Strong atheism is a positive disbelief in deities. Nowhere in this definition is there a requirement to be anti-theistic. That's an extra, and that's what needs the additional adjective.

  5. This was a really good, really thorough essay. Awesome. (Of course, your care and thoroughness doesn't surprise me in the least. It's always a constant, with you!)

    I think it's wonderful when atheists and theists can find common ground, or when theists or atheists can find common ground among their own brethren, even when there is disagreement. I consider myself theistic, but having been atheistic and knowing the rationale of that position VERY well, I can honestly say that I'd sooner have a good, thoughtful conversation with someone who wanted to learn, communicate and share their thoughts ANY day rather than one with someone purely antagonistic to those they disagree with. (And you're absolutely one of the former.)

  6. No, Larry; I am not calling you intolerant. Not at all. In comments a few days ago at your blog I noted that you ARE tolerent.

    When people pick a term to describe themselves, they try to use a word that gives a quick feel for a characteristic of their approach.

    It's quite wrong to say that they are thereby saying that everyone else can be described as the negation of that word.

    But calling yourself a "tolerant" atheist has no meaning unless there are other kinds of atheists. It's perfectly clear that you mean to distinguish yourself from other atheists who do not fall into the category of "tolerant" atheist.

    I'm not one of those other kinds of atheists and neither is PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins. So, who exactly are you excluding from the category you wish to define?

    Which atheists are not "tolerant" of other points of view?

  7. Okay -

    If you using "tolerant to separate yourself from other atheists I would like to see a more clear definition of the difference. You refer to Larry Moran and PZ Myers and call them tolerant, and yet still try to set your position apart. You may have commented to Larry that you don't consider him intolerant, but are you trying to appease him in that?

    I would like some clarification, because it seems to me that it is the religious that are most guilty of intolerance (not all, but even the "liberal Christians" have been condescending and patronizing towards me) and that the people that are holding the religious to standards of rationality are the ones that are being contrasted by your post.

    What is Friendly Atheism?

  8. How about we just use "lenient" instead of "tolerant"?

  9. How about we decide what to call Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers first? Then we can decide what to call Chris by contrast.

  10. It think it's clear that "tolerant" is a bad word. I tolerate something if I don't like it but am prepared to put up with it, e.g. not seeking its legal prohibition. I think that there are good reasons to be tolerant, but that's not the issue here. By my lights, you, me, Larry Moran, Richard Dawkins, and just about anyone else with a naturalistic worldview, turns out to be tolerant.

    I'm not sure you need a label; as I understand you, you simply take the position that you would like to engage religionists in gentle dialogue, rather than attacking their positions with passion. Surely there's room for people with both approaches.

  11. Thanks Russell...

    If you look at my essay, you can see that the main use of "tolerant" was with respect to religion, contrasting religion as promoted by the founding fathers able to exist peaceably in a pluralistic society, with the intolerant religion of those who would burn heretics, outlaw apostacy, and actively repress unapproved religions.

    I then also used it of my own approach as an atheist... but here it is totally different since we don't actually have a group of atheists wanting to persecute Christians or outlaw religion.

    I repeat, I have no intent to label other atheists as intolerant. I don't think my use of the word is entirely wrong, however; because I think tolerance is used not only to contrast pluralism and enforced uniformity; it is also used to contrast vocal disagreement and the active attempt to disuade, and a relaxed willingness to let the issue stand to one side while we focus on areas of common ground.

    I'm happy to debate religion and God's existence with believers who also enjoy debate. But I tend to drop it when others don't really want to debate the matter, and move on to other things.

    I think it is fair to say that I adopt a more tolerant position with respect to religion than PZ Myers. I'm not calling Paul intolerant; I'm looking at one particular subject on which we clearly have some differences in approach; and indeed some disagreement as what is the best approach.

    But basically I think there is room for both, and a positive advantage in having both approaches at work.

    There is also a real substantive difference, which I hope to take up in more detail sometime. I think that religion and belief in God in particular is consistent with science. I think God does not exist; but I don't insist that belief in God is inconsistent with science. Some people disagree with me on this point. I'm sure we'll talk about it in this blog one day fairly soon.

  12. Ah, no, you've got it backwards. I apparently despise religion more than you do; because I then put up with it, I'm being much more tolerant than you are. You can only tolerate something if you actively dislike it, after all -- if you like it, no tolerance is required in order to permit it to exist.

    Perhaps the word you're looking for is "respectful". I am not at all respectful of religious thought.

  13. Chris, I am reading this discussion between you and PZ on both of your blogs, and the main observation I have is that PZ is fundamentally more tolerant. You happen to be arguing over one particular issue - whether it is more "tolerant" to attack religion directly or not, but let's look at tolerance more generally. The main prerequisite for the kind of tolerance that enables a constructive debate free of coercion (in other words, the tolerance we certainly should promote) is separating the idea from the person. When discussing an idea, one should leave the person holding the idea outside of the discussion - especially if that person is the opponent in the discussion. If the topic is religion, it should not be relevant whether the religious people (or atheists, for the other side) are good or bad people.

    What I see is that PZ consistently separates the belief from the believer, while you do not. Admittedly, the argumentum ad hominem you commit is the "opposite" one, perhaps better called pro hominem - you say positive things about the believer - but it is still the same fallacy. The results may seem pleasant now, but, if this is your approach to discussing ideas, how will you avoid it if your experience with people holding the idea becomes negative? How will you remain "tolerant" then?

    You may say that it matters more, for practical living, what people do than what they believe. I would agree with that, but that would be changing the issue. If you want to get along with people to get things done, you shouldn't discuss religion in the first place; but if you are discussing religion, then stick to it and discuss it, not them!

  14. "What I see is that PZ consistently separates the belief from the believer ..."

    PZ, the guy who caricatured believers, the ones to which the likes of the NCSE were supposedly "toadying," as "pious twits" and little old ladies who faint at the sight of monkeys"?

  15. I think before trying to get religion to agree with science you might concentrate on the more modest goal of getting your numeral to agree not only in number but also in *case* with your noun.

  16. anonymous says: getting your numeral to agree not only in number but also in *case* with your noun

    This sounds really important. I originally had my blog named improperly (check the url) and then renamed it (check the title) based on information from a Latin helper. Is it still wrong?

    By the way... I don't have a religion.

  17. Well now. You've called me on my spur of the moment comment, so I'll actually have to think it through :-)

    The relevant page of a Latin grammar is here:

    Numerals, of course, have their number "built in": "two" is always going to be plural, in Latin at any rate. So we don't need to worry about that.

    We see that the masuline is "duo", the feminine "duae" and the neuter "duo". That's the nominative case.

    Now, I am assuming that "quartuncia" is formed from "uncia" meaning a twelfth part (hence penny or inch). "Uncia" will be first declension, therefore grammatically feminine. Nominative plural is therefore "quartunciae", and in order to agree, the numeral must also be nominative plural, which we saw above means that it has to end in "ae".

    So it should be "duae quartunciae". As you can see from the table at the end of the page linked above, "duas quartunciae" would be pairing a noun in the nominative with a numeral in the accusative.

    As far as the specific argument in your article goes, I'm not so sanguine that it can be done. Whereas some versions of Christianity, Catholicism and Anglican or Episcopalian protestantism for example, took rationality seriously, both for internal reasons and because they had to endure the criticisms of the Enlightenment, nowadays I'm worried by the growth of what I think of as "mad" versions of Christianity, which don't seem to pay rationality any attention at all, as well as an Islam that seems to think that frightening someone into not criticising you is just as good as defeating their argument.

  18. Thanks! I am completely clueless on Latin; you just need to look at the URL see see what I mess I made of it at first.

    When the error in "Duo Quartuncia" was first called to my attention, I had a look at some grammar sources and was blown away by all the declensions and gender and case and so on. There are about eight different ways to write "two", in fifteen categories. They are all plural of course; other words have even more forms to consider.

    The choices are: duo, duae, duorum, duarum, duobus, duabus, duos, duas.

    I was advised to use the "accusative" declension rather than "nominative". I admit, I have no idea what that means.

    Now I am concerned that I've given "duas" as accusative but "quartunciae" as nominative; which I gather is your reading. Sounds disturbingly likely to be true. Thanks. I shall double check.

    I absolutely agree with you on the growth of extreme irrational forms of religion, and I am unstinting in criticism of that. What I would love to see is more people within the religion who don't share the extreme forms speak up and try to bring about more rational forms.

    Where there is disagreement between me and more hardline atheists seems to be on whether any one form of religion can be said to be more rational than another (I think it can) and whether it is a good thing to encourage the moderate forms (I think it is, both for its own sake and also because I suspect the shift tends to end up eroding religion altogther).

  19. Argh. You're right.

    I should say either "Duas Quartuncias" (accusative) or "Duae Quartunciae" (nominative).

    I'll sleep on it.

  20. I find it interesting that so many scholars have clear recollections of the intolerance and atrocities committed several centuries ago by Christians yet seems to be ignorant or forgetful of any such acts and atrocities committed by the avowed atheists of the Soviet Union, China, and their various allies less than a century ago.

    But to return to your essay, I would suggest that any attempt for a Western society to coax tolerance and coexistence from a Muslim population using the methods of the American Founding Fathers set upon Christian groups is doomed from the onset.

    When one studies the New Testament, and point to the example of Christ, and the writings of Paul and others, one sees nothing but tolerance and civil obedience: Love your neighbor, love your enemy, turn your other cheek, render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1), “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…” (I Peter 2:13), “Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”(I Peter 2:17) The poster children for the citizen Christians would probably be the Amish, not the typical “Fundamentalists.”

    Conversely, to invoke the Koran or the Prophet would not get the same results. The Moslem is taught to submit only Allah and those who serve Him. Furthermore, they are to coerce those around them who will not submit to Allah to pay tribute or with their lives. One should remember that the only ways Al Qaeda deviates from the Koran is (1) they target Moslems as well as Infidels, and (2) they often commit suicide while doing it. Other than that, they are model citizens, according to their core document.

    I am not saying that the typical Moslem in the West still holds onto these core values, anymore than the typical Christian eschews modern conveniences, voting, and even, on occasion, fighting.

    I am just saying that tolerance is not a core value of Islam, and the only reason predominantly Moslem Turkey can have a “secular” government, is that, while all religions are equal, Islam is more equal than others.

  21. Hi there-- I came to this page by way of your post on Archaeopteryx in response to the Creation Museum (an excellent post, by the way). I'm a classicist (a student of Latin and Greek) by trade, so I can offer you a quick run-down of the grammar in your blog title:

    Cases in Latin signal to the reader how a noun is being used. In brief, the nominative is used for the subjects of sentences, the genitive for possession ("of [noun]") and prepositions, the dative for "to" or "for" constructions ("she gave the book to [noun]"), the accusative for direct objects of verbs and prepositions, and the ablative for "by" or "with" constructions and prepositions.

    Your blog title should be in the nominative, since you're stating that this blog is your "two cents". In that case, the title would be "duae quartunciae". If you instead mean to imply that you're offering "two cents"-- thus using "two cents" as the object of the verb "to offer"-- you should use the accusative, and make it "duas quartuncias". Keeping it in the nominative makes more grammatical sense in English, in my opinion, but that's your call.

    I've enjoyed paging through your blog-- good luck with further writings.

  22. Thanks Kate! I gather I have (at last) got the blog name to be grammatically consistent, and the only remaining concern is whether I should use nominative or accusative, and that depends on how I use the term.

    I'm pretty hopeless at grammar, but I've read through your comment carefully, and had a chat to my saintly mother who is a retired teacher, and I think I've got it sussed.

    The advice I was given by one Latin scholar was accusative, and that was apparently based on the usage "Here you read my Duas Quartuncias -- my two cents -- on science, mathemathics, and unbelief." that appears in the byline of my title.

    Following your account, I gather this is okay for that sentence, since it's a direct object of "read".

    The problem is that in just about every other context, I'd be using a nominative. For example, "Here is my two cents on Archaeopteryx". In this case, I gather that "two cents" is the complement of the intransitive verb "to be", and should be nominative.

    The nominative will also look much better as a personal name in comments or as a name for a blog. So I've made a poor choice...

    If I go with "Duae Quartunciae", I could give the description as "This blog is my Duae Quartunciae -- my two cents -- on ..."

    I'm pretty much guessing with all of this; I have trouble identifying the proper grammatical roles in sentences. As matters stand I think the usage in the blog description is probably okay, but that I'll be rather constrained in how I use the blog title in other contexts.

    The blog is still only 30 days old; so one more name change is probably going to be okay as part of my settling process. I'll think on it!