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Austin Cline

Denouncing Superstition: Where are the Intelligent Christians?

By May 1, 2007

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When atheists criticize religion, religious beliefs, and theists, it's common for liberals and moderates to complain that atheists are attacking a "straw man" — their own religion is nothing like what's being criticized. Apparently, liberals and moderates follow a very intelligent, reasonable, and rational sort of religion. It's difficult to get them to explain what exactly this religion is like, though.

Even worse, it's also difficult to get them to denounce absurd and superstitious religion when it appears. What good is their "intelligent" religion if they are going to stand idly by and allow the more superstitious and absurd forms of their faith to continue without comment? What good is their "reasonable" religion if they are going to object when atheists step forward to criticize superstition?

Matthew Paris writes:

A nun has apparently been cured of Parkinson’s disease through writing the name of John Paul II on a piece of paper. Ecclesiastical authorities in the Roman Catholic Church have been investigating the alleged miracle, interviewing neurologists, graphologists, psychiatrists and medical experts. The diocese of Aix-en-Provence is now satisfied that it has a putative supernatural intervention on its hands, and this week submitted its dossier to Pope Benedict XVI, who may declare an official miracle and begin procedures for making the late Pope a saint.

Meanwhile, Gerard Baker (“‘Israel right or wrong’ is not a grown-up debate”, March 30) writes that one determinant of US foreign policy towards Israel is the belief, widely held on the Religious Right, that before the prophecy of the Second Coming and the end of the world can be fulfilled, the Israelites must be given their Biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria.

Where are you, intelligent Christians? Where is your voice, your righteous anger? Where is your honest contempt for this nonsense? Take that claimed recent miracle, for instance. I know lots of nice, clever Catholics — friends, thoughtful men and women, people of depth and subtlety, people of some delicacy, people who would surely cringe at the excesses of Lourdes. Do they believe that John Paul II may have cured this nun from beyond the grave?

Where are the shouts of self-respecting bishops and cardinal-archbishops, raised against the woeful confusion of faith with superstition? I have a theory about their reticence. I think they know this stuff is the petrol on which the motor of a great Church runs; that without these delusions to feed on, the unthinking masses would falter. And they may be right. But what a melancholy conclusion: that the thinking parts of a religion should be almost extraneous to what moves it; far from the core; just a little fastidious shudder; a wink exchanged between the occupants of the reserved pews.

Paris received many negative reactions to the above. Some people claimed that it is "possible" that such miracles could occur, so it's unfair for Paris to rule them out so definitively. Well, in a sense almost anything is "possible" if we want to define the concept broadly, but not everything that is "possible" is likely enough to take seriously. It's "possible" that I'm the king of England, but anyone who sincerely believed and based their life around it should be deemed mentally ill.

Many others said that if Paris didn't believe in miracles, he should just shut up and stop being a nuisance to those who do believe. This is a standard tactic employed by people opposed to atheists: if they cannot directly challenge or address our arguments, they choose instead to insist that we stop offering any arguments or critiques at all. I would go so far as to say that if they did have any substantive, rational response to atheists, they would offer it — the fact that they demand atheists shut up is thus a sign that they have nothing to offer.

The problem being identified by Matthew Paris above, although he doesn't make it explicit, is that so many self-professed liberal and moderate believers want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to insist that their religion isn't superstitious and is reasonable — so atheists' critiques of religion apparently don't touch upon their beliefs. On the other hand, though, they also don’t want to speak out against cases of superstitious, irrational, and unreasonable religion when they do occur.

This is why Sam Harris argues that liberals and moderates "inadvertently provide cover" for those further along the spectrum of "fanaticism." Of course, in situations like this it's difficult to credit liberals and moderates with providing cover only "inadvertently." Perhaps "providing cover" really isn't their goal, but they are deliberately refusing to criticize fellow believers they are deliberately objecting when atheists step in to offer their own critiques.

Comments
May 1, 2007 at 6:41 pm
(1) beepbeepitsme says:

People who espouse religious beliefs appear to be superstitious about many other things as well. (Just my experience on the matter.)

Across the board they do not by necessity share the same superstitions, but they are likely to share cultural superstitions such as:

1. a distrust of black cats crossing their path
2. a fear of walking under ladders
3. a suspicion of the number 13 ( if it is in asian cultures it is 4)

Now, I am not suggesting that all theists have the same irrational fears, but there seems to be a tendency towards accepting superstitious beliefs in other aspects of their lives.

May 8, 2007 at 12:17 pm
(2) Todd says:

They don’t step up because they don’t want to open that can of worms. Each time a theist says “that’s not the work of the divine” there is one less place for their view of god(s) to hide. Eventually, they will have to draw a line, or admit that they don’t know that god(s) exist. Then they would be an unplugged coppertop, cold, alone and awakened to a world that is alien and scary. It is much easier to stay jacked into the matrix where all good comes from god and evil comes from devils (instead of humans, themselves and dumb luck).

May 8, 2007 at 2:30 pm
(3) John Hanks says:

There are plenty of intelligent Christians. They just hate intellect and thinking, that’s all. It almost boils down to a matter of taste and the ubiquitous presence of lower middle class values everywhere including the media.

May 19, 2007 at 10:31 pm
(4) Patricia says:

Why didn’t the pope cure his own Parkinson’s?

January 25, 2009 at 3:40 pm
(5) Tim says:

Christians who are against superstition? I think that’s called being a hypocrite.

Christianity:

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree…

March 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm
(6) George says:

I apologize for all Christians you have met who are superstitious. There are certainly a lot of Christians who do not offer a rational explanation for the existence of God. Your criticisms in this post are valid and should be addressed.

These two basic statements are a summary of the first two laws of thermodynamics.

1) a rock cannot make itself (matter is neither created nor destroyed)
2) a fire cannot burn forever (entropy is increasing, so the universe had a beginning).

These two statements are the beginning of a theistic worldview in that they prove that everything material had a beginning that was not initiated by itself (there must exist something immaterial that created the material world). The fact that we are rational beings and use the laws of reason and logic (which are not material and cannot be deduced using our 5 senses) is evidence that we have an immaterial component to us (our spirit). Since we had a beginning, we must have had a cause.

It is a mischaracterization to state that Christians hate intellect and reason. The foundation of science is based on a theistic worldview. Most, if not all of the fathers of the physical sciecens (Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Faraday) believed in God so they obviously didn’t hate reason and logic. We stand on their shoulders.

March 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

There are certainly a lot of Christians who do not offer a rational explanation for the existence of God.

You are one of them.

1) a rock cannot make itself (matter is neither created nor destroyed)

Those two statements do not mean the same thing.

2) a fire cannot burn forever (entropy is increasing, so the universe had a beginning).

The first (entropy) does not imply the second (beginning).

These two statements are the beginning of a theistic worldview

And since they are mistaken, you have proven that the theistic worldview is mistaken. Thank you.

in that they prove that everything material had a beginning that was not initiated by itself (there must exist something immaterial that created the material world).

That’s wrong, too.

The fact that we are rational beings and use the laws of reason and logic (which are not material and cannot be deduced using our 5 senses) is evidence that we have an immaterial component to us (our spirit).

Nope, does not follow.

It is a mischaracterization to state that Christians hate intellect and reason.

Well, you’re not exactly demonstrating a love of them.

We stand on their shoulders.

Looks to me like you jumped off quite a ways back.

March 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm
(8) George says:

Atheists like to mischaracterize faith as “blind faith” meaning they don’t thing there is any evidence for a Christian’s faith. Just because you can’t touch something or prove with repeatable lab experiments doesn’t mean it does not exist. There is reasonable evidence that God does exist and that the Bible is true. However, if you are so disposed so as to not consider it, you will easily find Christians to criticize because there is no shortage of people who say stupid things. However, if God does indeed exist, we will stand before him at the end of our life an answer for how we have lived and what we have believed. Are you ready?

You can read an online moderated debate between a theist and an atheist at:
http://www.theologyonline.com/forums/showthread.php?t=7709

March 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

Atheists like to mischaracterize faith as “blind faith” meaning they don’t thing there is any evidence for a Christian’s faith.

If there is evidence, how does it still qualify as faith?

Just because you can’t touch something or prove with repeatable lab experiments doesn’t mean it does not exist.

Funny enough, those aren’t also demanded as requirements for belief. Talk about a straw man fallacy…

There is reasonable evidence that God does exist and that the Bible is true.

Good, then provide that evidence.

However, if God does indeed exist, we will stand before him at the end of our life an answer for how we have lived and what we have believed. Are you ready?

Pascal’s Wager – the last refuge of those lacking anything remotely like evidence and logic to support their religious claims.

March 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm
(10) George says:

You misunderstand faith. Faith is not belief in something without any evidence. Faith is the belief in something you cannot see based on evidence. Faith is not superstition, which was the point of your post. Faith is based on evidence (see Hebrews 11:1). Superstition is more like blind faith.

The link to the atheism debate contains much evidence for the thoughtful reader. A comment board limited to 2000 characters is not a sufficient forum to present much evidence for a God. I attempted to in my previous post. But if one’s purpose is just to dismiss any comment you disagree with – “Nope, that’s wrong” then this forum is just right.

March 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm
(11) Austin Cline says:

You misunderstand faith. Faith is not belief in something without any evidence. … Faith is based on evidence (see Hebrews 11:1).

I have read that passage, and you are misrepresenting it. Paul asserts that faith is evidence, not that faith is based on evidence.

If you have evidence, faith is unnecessary. If you have faith, you don’t care about evidence.

But if one’s purpose is just to dismiss any comment you disagree with – “Nope, that’s wrong” then this forum is just right.

Ah, more misrepresentation. I don’t simply dismiss anything I disagree with. I call out as false when I see a falsehood – and what you wrote was a blatant falsehood. Actually, everything you wrote in that post was false and when you write things that are so wrong, and so consistently wrong, I feel no obligation to try to correct every little thing. You need to take several steps back before you can even understand why you’re wrong, much less understand any corrections.

Or you could adopt a different approach like presenting an actual logical syllogism which you think demonstrates the validity of the claims you make. But you won’t, will you? Because you can’t – but you also won’t be able to admit that. So, instead, you just complain when people don’t drop everything and immediately believe you. This saves you the trouble of actually having to mount a defense of your claims while also allowing you to continue feeling superior.

March 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm
(12) George says:

I think you are wrong in your unbelief, but that does not make me superior to you. You believe there is no God, but you must offer a rational explanation for how and why you exist. I assert that theism answers the question of our existence.

Here are some actual logical syllogisms you requested.

Nothing can move itself.
For any object to move, something must move the object.
Therefore, If any object moves, then there must be a mover.

There exists things that were caused or created by other things.
Nothing can be the cause of itself (a rock cannot make itself).
There cannot be an endless string of things causing other things to exist (a fire cannot burn forever).
Therefore, there must be an uncaused first cause – this is God.

Contingent beings are caused (every contingent being depends on another being).
Not every being can be contingent (there must be something that isn’t dependent on anything else.)
There must be a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.
Therefore, this necessary being is God.

Design presupposes an intelligent architect.
The world shows evidence of design in every part.
Therefore, The world has a designer or intelligent architect

March 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm
(13) Austin Cline says:

You believe there is no God

You don’t even know how atheism is defined, do you?

you must offer a rational explanation for how and why you exist.

I do?

Nothing can move itself.
For any object to move, something must move the object.
Therefore, If any object moves, then there must be a mover.

Your conclusion introduces agency to the movement but there is no basis for this in the premises. Ergo: fail.

There exists things that were caused or created by other things.
Nothing can be the cause of itself (a rock cannot make itself).
There cannot be an endless string of things causing other things to exist (a fire cannot burn forever).
Therefore, there must be an uncaused first cause – this is God.

1. Even if the argument worked, it would only justify the “uncaused first cause” conclusion. Not your Christian god.

2. Your conclusion introduces the concept of an “uncaused” cause, but does not justify why it can’t be ascribed to the universe itself.

Ergo: fail.

Contingent beings are caused (every contingent being depends on another being).
Not every being can be contingent (there must be something that isn’t dependent on anything else.)
There must be a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.
Therefore, this necessary being is God.

1. Premise #2 is unsupported.

2. Premise #3 is unsupported.

3. Nothing in your argument, even if it worked, justifies equating the “necessary being” with your Christian god.

Ergo: fail.

Design presupposes an intelligent architect.
The world shows evidence of design in every part.
Therefore, The world has a designer or intelligent architect

Premise #2 is unsupported.

Ergo: fail.

Your arguments are neither valid nor sound.

April 7, 2012 at 12:29 pm
(14) Marvin says:

Tim (5):

I like your definition. It may sound flippant, but it pretty well covers the territory.

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