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July 22, 2003

"Brights" and (I presume) "Dulls"

I was busy during the "brights debate a few weeks back, but Steve Sailer's recent comments jogged my memory. As one of the only theistic Gene Expressors, I'll concede that atheists' unpopularity is for the most part undeserved. Having known several atheists in Europe (and many whom I suspect are closet atheists in America) I think that atheists' ill-rep is mostly an image problem. In my experience most American atheists know that they are ill-favored and tend to keep mum. Therefore, an atheists who readily identifies himself as such quite frequently has a GIGANTIC chip on his shoulder and alienates most believers due to his hystrionic antisocialness. Not to say that many believers don't have an instinctive revulsion for atheists (as they often do for theists, but I suspect that relatively few religious Americans have close friends who are open atheists. Therefore, whenever some self-infatuated wanker decides to promote himself on the back of his school-aged child, religious people read the paper and say "Huh, I was right about them."

However, as a believer myself, I can assure you that "brights" is not the way to go. Richard Dawkins manifests in great abundance the atheist stereotype that I find to be probably the most accurate among them: noxious arrogance. I am not saying that religious people cannot be arrogant, but however great a scientist Dawkins might be, an image repair campaign of this magnitude requires skills and talents he does not have. Stone-hearted atheists who feel unloved, listen up: Chuck the obnoxious intellectuals and hire the best PR consultant money can buy. And here's some free advice: trying to improve your image among believers by implying that you think they're all stupid is a really dumb idea. Maybe Dawkins isn't as "bright" as he thinks.

P.S. from duende: As of tomorrow, I'll be in Japan for 4 weeks, so you won't see me around here much.

Godless commments:

Sailer's a great guy and I like him a lot, but he's totally wrong on the Dawkins issue. I mean, Dawkins may be a militant atheist, but he's done a *huge* service in advancing the public's understanding of evolution. Others (like Gould on the left, Robertson on the right, etc.) did much to advance the public's *misunderstanding* of evolution.

As for theism... needless to say, as "godless" I disagree with duende. I do feel that if you believe in religion, you believe in magic and fairy tales. In the end, there are no believers in foxholes, because when push comes to shove you'll reach for your gun rather than your cross. Science *works*, but religion does not.

I admit that I have less respect for people who can't understand this, but I don't push it in their faces. This is because I now understand that blaming them is like blaming people who can't understand math. Developments in neurotheology and heritability estimates [2] for religious belief have made me realize that arguing with someone who believes in God is often much like teaching someone to do mathematics who just doesn't have the ability...it's pointless because their brain simply isn't programmed that way

...religion and belief in God is a human construction. I covered Bouchard's twin studies showing a roughly 50% heritability of religiosity, Persinger's research in replicating spiritual experiences in the laboratory (with electromagnetic fields), Ramachandran's research with temporal lobe epilepsy-triggered religious experiences, NDE's being replicated in the laboratory (all to show that religiosity and religious experiences are at least, in part, a function of our genes and biology...

I'm thankful that I don't have quite so developed/influential a "god zone" in my brain. I'll close with Sailer himself:

Anti-religiousness is the appropriate professional prejudice of scientists. The "Far Side" cartoon summed it up. A lab-coated researcher is filling the left and right sides of a black board with equations, but the only thing connecting the two clouds of symbols are the words, "A miracle happens here." Another scientist suggests, "Maybe you could give us a little more detail on that middle section." Relying on miracles in science is like relying on the lottery in retirement planning.

The difference, of course, is that relying on the lottery is far more certain.

[1] I am open to counterexamples.
[2] Ctrl-f for "religiosity".

Posted by duende at 03:21 PM

To your defence of Dawkins I'll add a defence of Dennet. 'Darwins Dangerous Idea' is a great elaboration of evolution as a general algorithmic process, and not just a biological one (even though he does labour his points sometimes).

Posted by: Richard O at July 22, 2003 04:56 PM

Traditionally, believers have been the most active and formidable fighters. So, the notion that "there are no believers in foxholes" is absurd. It is a conclusion drawn from a false premise: that believers are those that "reach for their cross, and not for their gun". That premise is false because it is not based on facts, i.e., what believers actually do, but rather on a subjective stereotype of believers.

Posted by: Dienekes at July 22, 2003 05:12 PM

Independent of any research, many years ago I came to the conclusion that (1) religion is something we are biologically programmed to believe in; (2) even people who claim not to believe in God often have some kind if irrational religious-like belief in something else; and (3) the religious experience is also programmed into our brain.

I know people who claim they saw Jesus. I believe that they believe this. But people in Saudi Arabia or India never happen to see Jesus. The religious experience in the U.S. is interpreted in light of one's constant exposure to Christianity.

Obviously believing in religion must have offered some kind of survival advantage. Maybe the people who didn't believe got kicked out of the tribe and never got to have have sex and pass on their genes.

It would be nice if more people could use the powers of logic to overcome the otherwise irrational brain.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 22, 2003 06:00 PM

>> When push comes to shove, you go with what works: science.

It's not an EITHER-OR thing. One can have a scientific worldview AND be a believer. In fact, the vast majority of scientists throughout history had both. There are of course some militant atheists and fundamentalist believers who think the two can't co-exist. But that goes against the facts as well, that show that not only can science co-exist with faith, but actually science itself was created by believers.

Posted by: Dienekes at July 22, 2003 06:08 PM

Praising the Lord and passing the ammunition are not mutually exclusive. The believers with whom I am associated have a practice of praying for miracles but not counting on them.

Posted by: triticale at July 22, 2003 07:31 PM

That the religious experience is a cultural and socialized experience is without question. Similarly, that religious stigmata and hallucinatory states are fully described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead in also not to be denied. None of this says anything about the existence of the diety.

Of course our brains have evolved/developed in a way that enhances our appreciation of the world we live in, and the religious explanation for the question of who we are and how we got here fits in well with the equipment that we all have. Some believe one way, some another. Is there any debate to be had here? The differences between the Dim and the Bright point of view are scant, and merely seem to revolve on whether God is self aware or is merely a force of nature. Yet millions have died for their stance in this debate.

Posted by: Michael Gersh at July 22, 2003 07:45 PM

No believers in foxholes? You have to believe something pretty stupid to end up in a foxhole in the first place. Why do people think saying that there are no athiests in foxholes is pro-religion? If I said "There are no nonsmokers in lung cancer wards. No one would think that I was arguing in favor of smoking.
Since for so long religion and ethnicity were strongly tied, and they still are, most Catholics are the children of Catholics, etc. I think the no atheist in a foxhole thing means to disparage the honor and loyalty of atheists to the group.

Posted by: rob at July 22, 2003 09:18 PM

"I admit that I have less respect for people who can't understand this, but I don't push it in their faces. This is because I now understand that blaming them is like blaming people who can't understand math." Decent of you, but is this mutatis mutundi? Atheists, then, should not be blamed for their underdeveloped and partially inherited zone or organ? How people act is more telling than what they say they believe in, but even a poor math student can experience exhilaration when the answer is suddenly made clear and apparent. An epileptic I know describes seizures both petit and grand as vortexes of pure misery, a test of belief in a benevolent deity rather than a confirmation. The great Nicola Tesla experienced some pretty bizarre mental states in contrast to, say, Edison, whose style of invention was quite different. Transcendent states result when barriers are transcended and some longed for (or unexpected insight) is revealed. New information is being discovered daily on the brain, something we should all keep in mind, so I don't know if the left brain-right brain approach is still accepted, but if it is, it would be pertinent in this discussion.

Posted by: MaryClaire at July 23, 2003 07:15 AM

Who coined the term "scientific laws"?-isn't it just a euphemism for "commandments"?-
Whenever science leaves mere pragmatic working knowledge, it sinks back down to mere belief.
Certainly science "works"-but so did tide tables before Kepler's insight that they were caused by the Moon. "Working" grants no certainty or finality. Perhaps a future Kepler will upset the entire theory of gravity and transform our current beliefs into primitive proto-theories.
How will we know when we have produced the final equation?
In the end, reason must be rejected on rational grounds.
The same brain that produced religion has now produced science. I don't see the stark contrast that so many draw. Different taste maybe, same fruit.

Posted by: martin at July 23, 2003 10:05 AM

"Working" grants no certainty or finality."

Then again, science does not pretend to be about certainty and finality - science is about *probability*. Certainty and finality as absolute concept's aren't very useful at all.


Posted by: Döbeln at July 23, 2003 01:20 PM

One more:

"Different taste maybe, same fruit."

Hardly. Mantras and H-bombs are very different beasts indeed. Ask any inhabitant of Hiroshima.



Yes, I know the Hiroshima bomb wasn't an H-bomb, but an A-bomb, but I wanted the whole H-bomb thing in the text for some fuzzy reason. There.


Posted by: Döbeln at July 23, 2003 01:24 PM

It IS the same fruit, Döbeln. The H/A bomb vs. mantra argument is a strawman. Compare your H bomb to Noah's flood and you're fighting fair.

Posted by: Michael Gersh at July 23, 2003 05:48 PM

"Mantras and H-bombs are very different beasts indeed."

Yes Dobeln-but don't forget that at the first atomic explosion Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu epic composed about 500 BCE-not, e.g. the Principia:

"If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty one...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds."

I'm 100% pro-science, but I don't understand the need to sneer at and dismiss the religious history of humankind as a useless and disgusting relic-seems like an invaluable database to me-
especially as certain issues (e.g. was it just to drop an A-bomb on Hiroshima?) are not ready to be handed over to science for objective resolution.

Posted by: martin at July 23, 2003 08:52 PM

By the way, I made a mistake in attributing that classic "A Miracle Happens Here" cartoon to The Far Side. I think it was by Sidney Harris (???).

Posted by: Steve Sailer at July 23, 2003 09:39 PM

>Richard Dawkins manifests in great abundance the atheist stereotype that I find to be probably the most accurate among them: noxious arrogance.

'Brights' is a silly term, very PC, though I buy the argument that 'a'-anything is a negative. Doesn't 'secular humanist' have a pleasant ring?

The arrogance is accurate, but here's a better take -- we find it damn hard to take many of the ideas of religion seriously, although a few of its adherents are highly intelligent and ferociously analytical in their defense. Literalist interpretations in particular are hard to swallow.

The neurotheology angle is quite interesting, There are others: basic religiosity (the laiety, not the analytical defenders) tends to be inversely correlated with perception of power and with one's understanding of probability.

The powerless, often the poor, blame forces beyond their control, which is why animism springs up spontaneously throghout the world.

A poor understanding of probability means that correlation is often mistaken for causality (superstition, cargo cults).

Posted by: Gumnaam at October 11, 2003 08:55 PM