Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Is intelligent design religion: how do we define religion?

To progress the discussion about the question 'Is intelligent design religion?' we need a definition of religion. But how can we get one that isn't biased?

For those who get their ideas about religion in the form of short memorable slogans from Brian Cox, Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, there is no problem. Religion is mumbo jumbo bronze age fairy tale delusional nonsense for losers without a shred of evidence and the cause of most of the evil in the world and has been disproved and displaced by science. But what about those of us who would like to think calmly and rationally about the subject?

my Oxford Reference Dictionary defines religion as 

'1) Belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship; the expression of this in worship . 
2) A particular system of faith. 
3) A thing that one is devoted to. 
4) Life under monastic vows 
(Latin religion-obligation, bond, reverence.

Well that is interesting. Evidently the Dictionary was put together by men (and/or women) who like me are fallible and may have differences of opinion, so the above cannot be claimed as absolutely definitive. It seems reasonable, if not absolutely clear cut. Fair enough, the great Oxford scholar C S Lewis wrote a book (The Four Loves) about the 4 different Greek words that can be translated 'love' and their different meanings. As Einstein is reported to have said, 'Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.' Reality isn't always easy to comprehend and we should not violate reason and stifle enquiry by oversimplification, let alone in pursuit of a partisan agenda. I have a partisan agenda, perhaps readers (if any) have one too. Dawkins openly does, he wants to eliminate religion (including, perhaps especially, Christianity which he compares to child abuse, cancer and a virus). See 'confounding factors.

Christianity is a religion under definitions 1-3 (but not IMO 4) above. I'm a Christian, so I am (or try to be) 'religious' in the sense that I believe in, worship and seek to obey and follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth. But as soon as I say that, someone will quite reasonably ask 'What kind of Christian? Catholic? Eastern/Russian/Greek Orthodox? Protestant? And if the latter, what species of Protestant?' And I can respond to this, but not right now. Thousands of books have been written about the differences between different sects of Christianity, but that's not what I'm writing about here.

Religion: 'A thing that one is devoted to'

I note with interest the 3rd definition above 'A thing that one is devoted to'. This would appear to be capable of including various human philosophies and other objects of desire and perceived worth, even football or music. The question 'Is Atheism/materialism eligion?' is raised occasionally, and of course the proper response is 'it depends on how you define materialism and religion.' My Dictionary defines materialism as

'1) The tendency to prefer material possessions and physical comfort to spiritual values. 
 2) The theory that nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications.'

Materialism: theory, philosophy, fact or religion?

Once again, I do not claim that any dictionary is absolutely reliable, but am interested to note that in 2 above materialism is called a theory. I would call it a philosophy, but I find that many of its followers consider it an established fact. More than a fact, the very ground and nature of our being. Anyway, can we consider materialism to be a religion?  Clearly it is not belief in a supernatural being, quit the reverse. It is a belief that there is no supernatural being. But materialism (which is basically another name for atheism) is clearly '2) A particular system of faith and  3) A thing that one is devoted to.

Do we ever deceive ourselves?

Atheists in my experience tend to be touchy when accused of BELIEVING in atheism. They reply that they have no beliefs but simply accept the findings of science. They have an absence of belief in God or gods for the same reason they do not believe in unicorns or fairies, that they have seen no evidence for these things. (*) They would believe in God if they were presented with compelling evidence, they say. Obviously their world view compels them to say that, they can hardly say that they would continue to refuse to believe if they saw good enough evidence. But how could we test that assertion? Sometimes we say things that we feel we ought to say in order to preserve out high self esteem and impress others, but maybe sometimes we are lying to ourselves. 

Christian apologists and preachers like G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Ken Ham, John Piper and others would say that there is plenty of evidence if you look at it in an unbiased manner (see earlier post on confounding factors) but that no evidence will convince someone of something that he is determined not to believe.

Let me cut to the chase. every country has a criminal prosecution system of some kind. Why? Why do we need lawyers to prosecute and also to defend accused people? For the very simple reason that when people are in the wrong and facing sanctions, they lie, lie and lie again to evade facing their responsibilities. Same for politicians. The idea that people are routinely persuaded by good evidence when they don't want to be is.....unsupported by evidence.

When 2 men disagree, one of them at least must be wrong

But how can we know which is wrong and which is right? Its easy if we just say 'The one who agrees with me is right' but can we be more objective than that? Look at a Muslim and a Christian arguing. One of them (at least) must be wrong, but neither will change his mind. Look at a Catholic and a Protestant arguing about whose interpretation of the teachings of Jesus is correct. One must be wrong, but rarely is either persuaded by arguments. Atheist versus theist: same thing again. If you think I'm wrong, Dear Reader, then you have to ask yourself the question 'Why does this apparently educated person persist in believing nonsense which has been refuted many, many times?'. Fair question, why do you think I believe poisonous nonsense despite the evidence? But can you then find the wit and grace to apply the same reasoning to yourself and the position you hold? Oh but you don't need to, do you, because your beliefs are all supported by mountains of overwhelming evidence, aren't they? Obviously that would not apply to everyone, but it describes some fairly IMO.

Anyway, clearly the task of finding an agreed, clear and reasonable definition of 'religion' is not quite as simple as some would like to make it. But as we can't progress this discussion without a definition, why not go with

'1) Belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship; the expression of this in worship . 

Suits me. For the purpose of the discussion 'Is intelligent design religion?'


PS the question of religion and good and evil is often raised. Too big and too interesting a subject to deal with as a postscript to this discussion which is about the question 'Is intelligent design religion?' but I'll very briefly address Christopher Hitchens' famous question 

'Can you tell me of any good deed which could be done by a person of faith but not by an atheist?' 

Hitchens evidently thought this was an incredibly powerful anti-religious question, because as set the answer is clearly 'no'. But, as his brother Peter said 'It's a duff question.'

to address the question, 2 questions and an observation about measurement.

1) What do you mean by 'good'?

2) Why are you so sure that atheism isn't a 'faith'?

3) 'could' versus 'would'. In other words, potential versus performance. What might happen versus what does happen. If you are into science and evidence, we are not interested so much in what might theoretically happen, but what actually happens in the real world and can be MEASURED. Not anecdotes or questions designed so that only one answer is possible but careful measurement with confounding factors taken into account.

More on this later.

(*) Oddly, many atheists are Marxists despite the evidence of misery, tyranny, poverty, environmental degradation and war produced by that particular godless philosophy when put into power in countries like China, Russia and North Korea. When I was approached by a Socialist Worker Party man with their magazine, I said 'No thank you, Marxism has failed.' He sneered at me 'It's never been tried.'

How deep our denial can run when the evidence is against something that we really desire to believe in?

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