Impromptu Religious Debate on Real Time September 20, 2008

Impromptu Religious Debate on Real Time

Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher go at it on last night’s episode of Real Time (the religious talk begins at the 6:35 mark):



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  • I agree with Andrew Sullivan. Just because a person believes in angels doesn’t mean that he or she cannot make rational decisions regarding something like health care. The idea that religious people believe they are healed by spirits and don’t need health care is absurd.

    Also, Hemant, I’m reading your book and find it quite well-written. You should be proud of your work. Check me out at asad123.wordpress.com.

  • “The idea that religious people believe they are healed by spirits and don’t need health care is absurd.”

    I agree. It is completely absurd. And I wish that kept it from being true.

  • Sullivan doesn’t really counter the overriding point that faith-based reasoning is absurd on its face because it lacks any evidentiary justification. No atheist claims religious people are totally detached from reality in every way, only that in those aspects in which they choose to forgo evidence are they being ridiculous. And, naturally, many religious people forgo evidence in plenty of fields outside of religion, especially since most religious belief overlap with decidedly “real world” phenomena, as religious texts frequently step on matters of science, history, etc.

  • Jason

    One of the problems I find debating religion is the notion of, “don’t describe my faith to me.” As Andrew Sullivan said. Since religion/faith can be so many different things, people can often skirt around any of your arguments. Don’t attack me! I don’t believe that silliness, but I do believe this…

    I did enjoy Andrew discussing how people can be rational about the economy and not about their religion.

  • You can’t be religious and not apply that to everything without seriously ignoring the spirit of said religion. There is no room for compromise if you truly believe your immortal soul is in the balance.

    Moderates are hypocrites, and, although evil, fundamentalists are practicing religion as it was meant to be practiced. This is obvious to everyone but the moderates and fundamentalists themselves…This is why we can live with religious secularists but we really have to pity them just as much as we worry about fundies…

  • I’d like to explore Will I Am’s idea of demons. I think he was using the idea as a metaphor. I also think that he is absolutely right in the closing seconds of the discussion that people without recourse to government are more likely to turn to anything that offers help and religion does make that offer.

    Plus he was the only one in a hat.

  • SarahH

    @Samizdat

    I’ve felt that way myself, but I’ve come to think that rationality and religion can coexist – it’s just that rational people don’t look too closely at their religious beliefs. I think, for the most part, this is because they don’t want to. Religion brings them comfort, it gives them a social circle, it makes them part of a bigger tradition that may be cultural as well as spiritual, and they don’t want to lose that.

    The word fideist has often been used as an insult or accusation of hypocrisy in theology and philosophy, but I don’t think fideism is so bad – believing in something, despite knowing it’s irrational, because it feels good. And the difference between rational fideists and fundamentalists is that the first group is much more likely to have secular principles when it comes to politics and the second, as you say, REALLY believe their holy books and therefore can’t separate real life from religion

    Sure, many moderates “know” somewhere that they’re believing in fairy tales. But they like the fairy tales and may find them useful or comforting, so they hang onto them. I don’t mind this, personally. I think that, so long as these people keep real-world facts in mind when making decisions that affect others, these people are harmless, and I don’t pity them.

  • Spork

    If you believe in one kind of magic, the amount of reality which you accept as a functional paradigm through which to interpret the world in which you live is greatly diminished.

    The amount is great enough to be a mental handicap.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    SAMIZDAT: “fundamentalists are practicing religion as it was meant to be practiced.”

    Um, who says how religion is “meant to be practiced”? God or the gods? But if they don’t exist, how can they inject their opinions? Consulting a religion’s holy books isn’t that helpful either when those books are neither overarching manifestos of religious belief nor internally consistent. Is there some Platonic ideal of religion to which real-world religions conform to greater or lesser degrees? There is no evidence of such a thing. Tell us, then, how do you know how a religion is meant to be practiced?

  • When I say ‘how it’s meant to be practised’, I mean only that it makes more sense in the religious context than moderation. If you aren’t a fundie, you’re necessarily picking and choosing, and that just makes me ask ‘on what authority?’

    If you just chuck out the bits that don’t agree with how you would live your life regardless, and keep the bits that make no difference (confirmation bias?), then you have to admit it looks like just paying lip-service to religion. I’d go so far as to call moderate Christians ‘fake Christians’.

    If you ignore the bits you don’t like, it’s as if you’re admitting that the religion is a bad place to get ideas from…except where the ideas don’t actually matter. You just can’t quote-mine a religion–you have to take everything from a source as ‘gospel truth’ or admit that it’s not to be trusted.

    Obviously not everyone would agree with me. I don’t think it’s bad for religious moderates to practice as they do, just a bit superfluous.

    Mind you: this is coming from an atheistic practicing Asatruar which I do purely to ‘enrich’ my life and to have something to teach the kids. So I can’t really complain: my only real objection is that it’s monotheism, with a logically incoherent perfect God. IMO, Paganism at least makes coherent sense even if it is superfluous. You’re allowed to take the whole thing as a metaphor. If I could just shrug off this damned natural skepticism and rationalism I’d settle for being an a-mono-theist!

  • Sudo

    Well, some people would consider believing in God completely rational, merely for the fact that in our world something is never created from nothing. Spontaneous generation was disproved in the 19th century.

    To some, it would seem that believing the universe came into exist by itself is the irrational belief.

  • But the statement ‘something is never created from nothing’ is completely bogus! Provided you accept that some things are beyond our current comprehension, and that an exception to this particular rule isn’t ‘impossible’, it’s obvious this isn’t the case. It’s like saying that nobody in the world can speak a language other than english, simply because everyone you’ve ever met speaks english: in another country, different rules apply.

    The Big Bang took place under extremely specialised circumstances in which causality doesn’t necessarily apply. It involved the creation of time, so there was no previous moment for a cause to happen in. Our understanding of causality is based on linear time: linear time does not apply to the creation of itself and the universe it governs. Obv.

  • Andrew’s last statement about dealing with religion separately than secular issues is where all people of religious belief should be. But Maher’s point still stands… most people of religion aren’t good at separating the two, especially when it comes to enacting governmental policies.

    I don’t Maher attacks people that believe in some religion. He attacks their actions and how they try to apply them to everyone, religious or not.

  • PrimeNumbers

    However, we know the universe is here, and we don’t know how it got here. Surely believing in any unproven method of the universe coming into existence is irrational? Why can’t people just accept that it’s here, and we’ll probably never know how or why! For all practical purposes, the simpler explanation of the universe being sufficient to explain itself is more useful than the more complex explanation of using a god. That to me, makes the god explanation less rational than the universe explanation.

    It seems that there are those that are non-religious, those that are religious and those beliefs effect how they view the world and act in it, in the dangerous ways we see, and those that are religious but very good at compartmentalizing. However good you are at compartmentalizing, it must cause a lot of internal stresses as reality and god fight it out with each other. And which things do you put on one side or the other – or both? I’d think that these people are Dennet’s “belief in belief” people. In themselves harmless, but they do protect and sustain the religious belief of the dangerous fundamentalists.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    SAMIZDAT: “If you aren’t a fundie, you’re necessarily picking and choosing”

    And if you are a fundie, you are still picking and choosing, just picking and choosing different things.

    Also, who appointed the holy books of a religion as being the last word on the behavior of those subscribing to the religion? If we are talking, for example, about the Christian Bible, that is, the Bible including the NT, then we are about a book that wasn’t even around in full form until after about 300 years of Christians’ existence. Furthermore, the Bible in practice isn’t always the go-to book on the behavior of Christians. For example, the NT gives just about no leeway with regard to divorce. There is an exception for adultery, and an exception in the case where a pagan spouse abandons the Christian spouse, but that’s it. The Orthodox Church, however, allows for divorce and allows for second and third remarriages. Should the Orthodox be considered inauthentic Christians because they don’t follow Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura, even when Luther is not recognized by them as an authority, to say the least?

    SAMIZDAT: “I’d go so far as to call moderate Christians ‘fake Christians’.”

    To have fake Christians, there has to be a standard by which one can judge who is a true Christian. Fidelity to the Bible, for example, isn’t a useful standard, and some of the reasons for that are mentioned above.

    SAMIZDAT: “you have to take everything from a source as ‘gospel truth’ or admit that it’s not to be trusted.”

    Says who? The all-or-nothing approach makes no sense. We regard all sorts of sources as being partially reliable. For example, newspapers are useful, but anyone who has seen a newspaper story on something that they know about can see that reporters get details wrong. Historians deal all the time with sources that, though useful, are biased. Why should believers not take a similar approach with their own holy books? More to the point, who are you, as a non-believer, to tell them not to?

  • Sudo

    But the statement ’something is never created from nothing’ is completely bogus! Provided you accept that some things are beyond our current comprehension, and that an exception to this particular rule isn’t ‘impossible’, it’s obvious this isn’t the case. It’s like saying that nobody in the world can speak a language other than english, simply because everyone you’ve ever met speaks english: in another country, different rules apply.

    Not really.

    Your English language analogy doesn’t apply because people can use only the data they are given. That’s like saying we cannot conduct scientific experiments because the rules may different on some other planet.

    My point is that it is not ‘irrational’ to believe in a creator, or ‘source,’ if you will, because nothing in our world comes into being without a source, whether that source is a seed, egg, or whatever. People can look around and view existence as it is and be led to believe that something must have ‘sourced’ everything because everything else they see has a source. If everything that we know of has a source, it’s more irrational to believe something that exists does not have a source than to believe it does. To believe otherwise means one has to disregard everything they see around them on a daily basis.

    However, positing a ‘source’ for all things is not the same as saying that the ‘source’ is the Christian god, Allah, or any other being espoused by any religion.

  • Sudo

    I want to clarify one thing: I’m not arguing that ‘creation’ or the ‘source’ is FACT. My point is that it is merely more ‘rational’ for the average person to believe in a god, creator, or source for the existence of the universe than not, based on what they see around them.

    Nor is this the same as saying that the Christian god is real, Allah is real, Buddha is real, no: I’m simply pointing out what is ‘rational’ for the average person to believe, based on their own observation of the world around them.

  • Aj

    It’s not about being a fundamentalist, literalist etc… it’s about nonoverlapping magisteria which is religion’s “cease-fire” on reality. That’s the picking and choosing, or as Richard Dawkins calls it “having your cake and eating it”. Someone who doesn’t apply their theology to the real world isn’t going to become a terrorist, they’re not dangerous. Where’s the religion like that? There aren’t many like that, and I suspect such people don’t truly believe the things they say they believe anyway. They talk about “their” beliefs like an outsider and treat them as such, like atheists that believe in belief.

  • Spork

    Why the hell are you arguing creation at all? That isn’t the topic being discussed, and it’s a pathetic attempt at derailing the thread into your christian nutjobbery whackaloon up-is-down nonsense.

    Can the way a person views the world, magically, or scientifically, affect their other critical thinking and decision making skills?

  • Moderates are hypocrites, and, although evil, fundamentalists

    Everyone is a hypocrite. None of us live up to our perfect ideals. So what?

    Fundamentalists are not evil. Sadly misled? Yes. But evil? I’m sure a few are, just as in any other group, but that’s not the rule. Must fundamentalists are nice, sincere, loving people who care about the same things as everyone else does: taking care of their families and finding the best way to live on this earth.

  • “People can look around and view existence as it is and be led to believe that something must have ’sourced’ everything because everything else they see has a source.”

    Yes, but “everything has a cause” is surely an irrational justification for positing an entity which does not have a cause.

  • Sudo

    Spork said:

    Why the hell are you arguing creation at all? That isn’t the topic being discussed, and it’s a pathetic attempt at derailing the thread into your christian nutjobbery whackaloon up-is-down nonsense.

    Can the way a person views the world, magically, or scientifically, affect their other critical thinking and decision making skills?

    Hi Friend.
    First, I do not label myself a Christian, which is why I pointed out that thinking ‘creation’ is rational is not de facto support of Christianity.

    Second, the bulk of the commentary on this thread is about whether or not belief in the supernatural is rational or not. Discussing whether ‘creation’ is rational or not is a logical part of the topic of belief in the supernatural, is it not?

    Third, I am limiting my discussion to entirely one point: is it rational to believe that something created the universe. Not what it is, what the purpose would be if so, if it’s in fact true or not; merely whether there is a reason such an idea should be considered ‘rational.’

    jtradke said:

    Yes, but “everything has a cause” is surely an irrational justification for positing an entity which does not have a cause.

    I personally concede that point. However, look at it this way. If most everything you see around you has a source or ‘creator,’ would the average person be more or less rational to think that everything came by way or source or creation; or that it all sprang from nothing? Again, I’m not saying it’s true, or that there is actual evidence of such, but what would the average person be made to think by mere observation of the world around them?

    Just my .02. Obviously every one will have their own opinion, and I’ll not post on the topic again in this commentary, as it seems unwelcome.

    Cheers!

  • False Prophet

    Samizdat, I think there was a time I might have agreed with you–or maybe it was H. L. Mencken: “The only really respectable Protestants are the Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots…”

    But looking closely at the practices of various fundamentalists, they’re not really following their original faiths either. Near as I can tell, the difference between moderates and fundamentalists is which parts of scripture they choose to cherry-pick and how they read them. Moderates focus on the “love thy neighbour” part and ignore the fire and brimstone, while fundies latch on to the handful of vague passages condemning homosexuality and the…non-existant passages condemning abortion. Meanwhile, many of their filthy rich preachers ignore the 200+ passages condemning the filthy rich.

    Christian fundies love to quote Leviticus, but how often do they quote from Obadiah or Haggai? Aren’t those part of the Complete Word of God(tm)? Why are they held in such less esteem by the fundies, or by Christians in general? Why are those books in the Bible if they’re not consulted regularly? This is where certain evangelicals get drawn into uncomfortable questions about early Christianity and the fact their faith splintered from the hated Catholicism, which they usually avoid with a spurious disregard for historical fact.

    Fundamentalist Muslims? Are they really embracing the way the faith used to be? Back during the Golden Age of the umma when Islam strode across half the world, and Muslim scholars invented algebra in a cosmopolitan and relatively tolerant society?

    And Jewish Orthodoxy is based on how many of the 613(?) Laws you uphold, but no one can uphold them all, given that about a quarter of them require use of the Temple, which was destroyed (for the second time) 2000 years ago and never rebuilt. (Someone once told me the fact that the whole Law could not be followed was the point–that man can never be as perfect as God. That sounds kind of evasive to me.)

    I feel the notion that fundamentalists are “more correct” in their faith smacks of a No True Scotsman argument.

  • cipher

    Writerdd,

    Fundamentalists believe that the vast majority of humanity will be tormented forever (many, probably most, of them are Calvinists, and believe that God created them specifically for that purpose), and are largely untroubled by it. And they’re fine with it; they’re perfectly happy to abandon billions of their human siblings for all of eternity, so that they can have the ontological security blanket for a few brief decades. I see that as evil. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to define it as anything else.