Sunday, January 17, 2010

What does atheism have to offer Hatians?

If ever there was proof that religion is not going to yield to reason surely it must be the sight of Haitians praying to God for relief from their suffering. That God either doesn't give a tinker's damn about Haiti, or else has has such a cruel and twisted disregard for the suffering of innocents that we would call Him a psychopath or the devil incarnate were he anything but God, cannot possibly be made any plainer. And yet the sound of prayer is heard in Port au Prince. Surely it must occur to the Richard Dawkinses of the world to wonder why? If having their lives destroyed isn't enough to convince these people that God doesn't love them, can anyone really believe that reading "The God Delusion" is going to do it?

The reason that Haitians turn to God is self-evident: it's all they have. When your entire country is in ruins and your family is dead and you can't even go down to the corner liquor store for a fifth of vodka in which to drown your sorrows, you are faced with this choice: turn to God, or try to salve your emotional wounds by contemplating the finer points of plate tectonics. Is it really all that mysterious that Haitians choose God?

Religion may be false by scientific standards. It may be a delusion. But it nonetheless has something real and powerful to offer: hope. A sense of purpose. A reason to go on even in the face of unspeakable horror. Even though I've seen a bit of the third world, I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like in Haiti right now. Richard Dawkins speaks about truth as the greatest good, but I wonder if even he would be so callous as to walk up to a Haitian mother praying to God after she has lost all her children and volunteering that, by the way, the God she is praying to doesn't exist.

That notwithstanding, I applaud Dawkins for taking a prominent and God-free lead in providing material aid to Haiti. That will win more hearts and minds than strident rhetoric can ever hope to.

9 comments:

Philip said...

Is it any wonder that the religious are so callous that they walk up to a Haitian mother after she has lost all her children and use her as a way to spread their ideology?

Yes, I would tell that Haitian mother that her god doesn't exist. I would give her no reason to want to join her kids in some afterlife. I would tell her the truth.
It's not callous, it's allowing her dignity and respect in her loss.

Philip said...

What I'm trying to say is:

It is not the truth that is offensive. It is the lies that are portrayed as truth that make the truth offensive. That cycle must be broken to stop the offense.

Sun Tzu said: All warfare is based on deception.

If we stop deceiving each other, we lose most of the reasons to hurt each other.

Ron said...

> It is not the truth that is offensive.

Of course the truth isn't offensive. The truth is *painful*. An uneducated Haitian woman who has just lost her children is already in plenty of pain. Can you really blame her for rejecting the painful truth in favor of a palliative falsehood?

> Sun Tzu said: All warfare is based on deception.

Sun Tzu was wrong. Sometimes the truth hurts, and a deception can ease the pain.

Philip said...

No Ron, I don't blame her. But, if she's already accepted a lie out of comfort then she wouldn't listen to the truth regardless of who said it, so there's no reason they should sacrifice their own values by lying. The worst that may occur is she considers the guy a jerk. The best thing that may occur is that she comes to grips with reality.

Hasn't religion always demanded sympathy? Hasn't that been a big part of shuttering out opposing viewpoints?

When my mother passed away two years ago, I didn't compromise my atheism by pretending, in spite of my religious family members. No one got upset except for my own christian wife and since then she's had time to realize that it wasn't my fault that she got upset, it was hers.

When my aunt passed away last year, I didn't compromise my atheism. Still, no one got upset. They either took what I said or they left it and believed whatever they wanted.

We don't help anyone when we entertain the concept that everyone has to think the same, even if it is done out of sympathy or seems sympathetic. They have their say. You have yours. There's just not any good reasons for anyone to compromise their values except under direct threat of physical harm to yourself or another.
Otherwise, we might as well become the Borg and be assimilated.

Ruben said...

Sorry for your losses. But I wouldn't say that's the same situation. Your family already knew you and your views, to begin with.

Now, about the Haithian mother. The key is not whether what we say is the truth (so we believe), or that we are respectful speaking about it (I take for granted you would be respectful).

The key word here, as Ron said, is painful. I am slightly more accepting of Dawkinsian methods than Ron is, but in this case I agree with him: pain is the key.

You say: The worst that may occur is she considers the guy a jerk. No, the wors that may occur is that we have unnecessarily caused her more pain, for the odd, slim chance that she might "come to grips with reality".

I think there's a moment for that. That might come years later, in another setting, more relaxed, more reflexive. And then, I might speak my views. But right now, no, it wouldn't feel right to me.

A very different matter is if she asked me. If she asked me, for example, "do you think God has sent this as a punishment", or "at least my children are now in heaven, don't you think so?".

In that case, I wouldn't compromise my atheism faking an answer I don't believe. But then, it would be hardly the place to do some constructive teaching. In the first case, I might just say. "I don't think the things that happen to us have anything to do with any gods". The second case is tougher. Perhaps I would say nothing and just make a comforting gesture. Who knows :-(

Ron said...

> If she asked me, for example, "do you think God has sent this as a punishment", or "at least my children are now in heaven, don't you think so?"

That first one is a no-brainer. There is only one right answer whether or you are religious or not, and that is, "No, absolutely not." Even if you believe that everything is part of God's plan you have no way of knowing whether this earthquake was meant to be punishment, and it would be the height of arrogance for you to presume otherwise.

The second one is tougher. An objectively, scientifically correct answer could go something like, "No, your children are dead. Their bodies are worm-food," but surely we can all agree that it's probably not the best choice of words under the circumstances? Maybe something like, "I believe that your children have been freed from the concerns and suffering of this world, and their memory will live forever in your heart. If that is heaven then yes, I believe your children are there."

Blake said...

religion is not going to yield to reason

What is religion? What do you mean by religion?


religion is not going to yield to reason

Whose reason? Your reason? Who determines what is reasonable and what is not?


cruel and twisted disregard for the suffering of innocents

Who says they are innocent? What makes a person innocent? Innocent of what? Who determines innocence?


we would call Him a psychopath or the devil incarnate were he anything but God

Have you seen the whole picture so as to judge God in such a way? Can you see how all of history is unfolding? Can you see the beginning and the end? Do you know what the future holds? How can you make such a judgment call based upon such a limited perspective? What gives you the ability to judge God?




the God she is praying to doesn't exist

How do you know? Have you seen all things and all places so as to determine there is no God?

Evil and suffering do not disprove the existence of God anymore than use of tables over CSS proves your ability as a website designer.


Religion may be false by scientific standards.

According to who? Which scientific standards are you referring? Which version of the scientific method are you employing? Can any scientific method prove the scientific method? If not, does that mean the scientific method is irrational?

There is more evidence for the existence of God than against.

SOME BOOKS:
(1) Who Is Agent X?: Proving that Science and Logic show it is More Rational to Think God Exists (Paperback)

(2) The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

(3) I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist

(4) The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine


That will win more hearts and minds than strident rhetoric can ever hope to.

I cannot speak of other religions, but Christianity doesn't seek to "win" hearts and minds just for the sake of growing or perpetuating ideas. The ultimate goal of Christianity is love. The aim, is not to win someone to my viewpoint, but rather, to see them revitalized with new life--to see them possess a true hope of real place (ie. Heaven). The goal is a relationship of love with the only true and good God who created all things. Is that irrational? Is that unreasonable?

Ron said...

My goodness, what a lot of questions. I'll have to split my response into two comments. Blogger now limits comments to 4096 characters, and that's not enough.

> What is religion? What do you mean by religion?

Any belief that tries to justify itself through faith rather than evidence.

> Whose reason? Your reason?

I probably should have said "science" instead of "reason." But "yielding to reason" seems to roll more trippingly off the keyboard than "yielding to science."

> Who determines what is reasonable and what is not?

It's not a "who" it's a "what." The "what" is the scientific method. See http://rondam.blogspot.com/2009/04/why-i-am-not-unicornian.html

> > cruel and twisted disregard for the suffering of innocents
>
> Who says they are innocent?

I do. And so do you. Unless you really want to argue that every single person in Haiti who was killed, maimed, or rendered homeless by the earthquake did something do deserve it, including children and babies. (And if you really want to argue that you are one sick motherfucker.)

> What makes a person innocent? Innocent of what? Who determines innocence?

We do. You, me, and all our fellow humans. Collectively we decide how we expect each other to behave.

> > we would call Him a psychopath or the devil incarnate were he anything but God
>
> Have you seen the whole picture so as to judge God in such a way? Can you see how all of history is unfolding? Can you see the beginning and the end? Do you know what the future holds? How can you make such a judgment call based upon such a limited perspective? What gives you the ability to judge God?

If you believe science, it is my evolved moral intuition that gives me this ability. (See http://rondam.blogspot.com/2008/05/can-morality-exist-without-god.html.) If you don't believe science but believe the Bible instead, it is Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But regardless of the source of this ability, no one but a psychopath would doubt my ability to tell right from wrong, or hold me to account if I did not conduct myself according to this knowledge.

> > the God she is praying to doesn't exist
>
> How do you know? Have you seen all things and all places so as to determine there is no God?

The same way I know that Santa Claus, elves and unicorns do not exist: because there is no evidence that they exist.

> Evil and suffering do not disprove the existence of God anymore than use of tables over CSS proves your ability as a website designer.

Please refrain from taking cheap shots here.

Ron said...

> > Religion may be false by scientific standards.
>
> According to who? Which scientific standards are you referring? Which version of the scientific method are you employing? Can any scientific method prove the scientific method? If not, does that mean the scientific method is irrational?

That's a loaded question. The most complete answer is in the work of Popper. The best summary I know of is in Chapter 7 of David Deutsch's book "The Fabric of Reality." If you really want to know the answer, buy that book and read it.

> There is more evidence for the existence of God than against.

Which God? There are so many to choose from.

> > That will win more hearts and minds than strident rhetoric can ever hope to.
>
> I cannot speak of other religions, but Christianity doesn't seek to "win" hearts and minds just for the sake of growing or perpetuating ideas. The ultimate goal of Christianity is love.

You mean like the Westboro Baptist Church? I think the world would be better off without that kind of love.

> The aim, is not to win someone to my viewpoint,

Then why bother to say "There is more evidence for the existence of God than against."? What difference does it make if there is evidence or not if your goal is not to win someone over to your viewpoint?

> but rather, to see them revitalized with new life--to see them possess a true hope of real place (ie. Heaven). The goal is a relationship of love with the only true and good God who created all things. Is that irrational? Is that unreasonable?

What is irrational and unreasonable (and, by the way, a thoroughly modern idea at odds with centuries of Christian theology, as I am coming to learn) is insisting that heaven is "a real place" in the same sense that, say, China is a real place. It isn't. That is what modern evangelical Christians fail to understand. (I single them out because I've met a lot of Catholics who actually do get this. I have no quarrel with them.)

What modern atheists fail to understand is that it doesn't matter if heaven is not a "real" place. God can give people true hope and provide their life with love and meaning even if he is not "real" in the sense that China is real. Just because God isn't real doesn't mean He can't have a positive influence in your life.