Monday, July 30, 2012

On Religion. 2. Epistemology (1/3)

So, let's talk about faith. Faith is a common term to many religions, particularly the Judeo-Christo-Islamic axis. It's unfortunately also an ambiguous term, which is used in a number of different contexts to mean a number of different things.

In this part, I'm dealing with faith in terms of epistemology. "Epistemology" is one of those ten-dollar words that philosophers have coined by stealing from the Greeks. "Episteme" means either "knowledge" or "understanding", depending on how you want to read the relevant chunks of ancient Greek. So, "epistemology" is the study of knowledge. This means that the sense of faith I'm interested in is the one which treats faith as a way of knowing something about god or the divine or the supernatural. (Last part's arguments about the coherence of the supernatural as a concept notwithstanding.)

Faith can be used differently. It can be used to express an attitude of trust or confidence sufficient to justify action. That is, one can have faith in god by trusting that god will make sure things work out for the best, and act on that basis. This connection to action, though, makes this sort of faith really a matter of ethics, and so I'll deal with it when I get to religion and morality.

Faith can also be used to express a sort of feeling, such as a sense of confidence that there is a god or hope that god exists. This also clearly has nothing to do with knowledge. It's also worth noting that it makes faith a pretty random thing. As with most feelings, faith will come in and out of existence, and will vary widely between people. If that's what religious faith really is, then I don't see why it's worth worrying about at all.

The best version of faith I know comes from Immanuel Kant, and it goes something like this. On the one hand, there's what can be known -- the knowable. Whatever is knowable lies within our cognitive capacity. That is, the knowable is what our minds are capable of grasping and understanding. (Okay, there's more to it, but this is the bit that matters now.) On the other hand, there's faith. Faith relates to the limits of cognition, the boundaries around knowledge.

The idea is that your mind functions on the basis of certain rules. Whatever the rules do for your mind -- whatever they make it possible for you to conceive, for example -- that is knowable. But the rules themselves can't be known. They aren't knowable. This is because they say what the knowable is; they set the conditions on something being knowable. But whatever sets the conditions on something can't be that thing itself.

Not everything -able works like this. Reflecting, refracting or otherwise being affected by light is the condition (well, one of them) on something's being visible, and you can very well see that light is being reflected, refracted or what have you. But some do. But that's a physical process; most abstract -ables, like knowable, are such that the conditions lie outside what they are conditions on. Something is admirable because, among other things, it deserves praise. But that condition -- deserving praise -- is not itself admirable. It is the things that deserve praise that are admirable; the condition of deserving praise is not admirable at all.

Taking another example, something is imaginable, approximately, if an image of that something can be brought to mind. But that condition -- being an image of something which can be brought to mind -- is not itself imaginable. (Because it's not actually an image; it's a verbal definition.)

Knowable is like that, according to Kant, anyway. There is the condition on something's being knowable, and then there are the things that condition determines to be knowable. But the condition does not so determine itself.

So what is the condition, then? According to Kant, it is something thinkable, rather than knowable. It's something we can construct a thought for -- so, we can say it in a grammatical sentence. And, as something thinkable rather than knowable, we can take it on faith. According to Kant, this sort of faith is rational.

Applying this back to the religious case, which Kant actually does, we can say that god is a thought and a condition on the knowable. (It doesn't matter, but according to Kant, god is the condition on moral knowledge. Moral knowledge relates to happiness, and happiness to god.) So, you can think the thought of god and be rational to do so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (3/3)

[Ed: Yes, it used to say "/4", now it says "/3". The last bit got away from me, so I smooshed the next two sections into this one.]

Okay, now, at this point, you might be thinking I was just a tad unfair. After all, lots of clever people have thought religion and its metaphysical claims made a lot of sense, so maybe there's more to them than what I'm allowing.

When it comes to the explanatory arguments, the attempts to defend the strategy come out more as attempts to evade the criticism. This is sometimes referred to as the hypothesis of the "god of the gaps". That is, wherever there's something that's difficult to understand or where naturalistic explanations are incomplete, well then, that's because a supernatural explanation is the way to go.

That, to me, exposes how silly this line of argument really is. There's no positive reason to take the explanation seriously; it's all "well, what else have you got?" The lack of a naturalistic explanation actually doesn't imply the presence of a supernatural one. I may not be able to explain the crack in the wall or the noise in the attic, but that doesn't imply they're a portal to another world or ghosts, respectively.

When it comes to the ontological argument, I'm not going to get into the details of all the various attempts to kep that one afloat. Suffice to say, they are very, very complicated. And, to my eye, they don't address the fundamental concern.

That, of course, is the basic emptiness of the concept of the supernatural. Immanuel Kant has a nice way of thinking about this -- he actually uses it to address the god issue. According to Kant, there are the things you know, and then there are the things you can think. What you can know is something you can, at least potentially, experience. If you can't ever have some sort of experience of it -- which boils down, basically, to a perception of it -- then you can't know it.

However, our minds are capable of doing more than simply recording what we find in perception. Our minds can draw inferences from perceptions. And, in some cases, those inferences can outrun perceptions, in the sense that we infer something which, although coherent and apparently sensible, is entirely unknowable because not something we can experience.

One example Kant gives is freedom, in the sense of being free-willed, i.e., being able to make decisions which are your own. As far as he's concerned, and he's probably right, this is not something we can ever know to be true. You can't ever find evidence which shows you that people are free-willed; in fact, if you actually look into the evidence, it starts to look like we aren't.

But, the thought persists. Somehow, we are led to conceive of the idea of freedom. And, even though we can't know that we are free, we are nonetheless allowed to believe we are. After all, the thought makes sense.

That's the key, though. In Kant's system, a thought has to make sense in order for it to be a permissible thing to think, even if it is, strictly, not known. And it seems to me that the concept of the supernatural doesn't even pass that test. So, I can tell you what freedom is like -- it's the ability to make your own decisions, without compulsion from anything else -- but I can't tell you what the supernatural is. Indeed, no one can.

Moving away from Kant, here's another way of making the same point. We can't ever experience a mathematical operation like addition. We can experience instances of it -- here's one now: 1+1=2 -- but the general process of addition is something we have to infer from those instances. So, mathematics is inferential knowledge, not experiential (or empirical) knowledge.

Is the supernatural like that? Is it something we infer from our common experience? Certainly the explanatory and ontological arguments are attempts to infer the existence of the supernatural from common experience. But what, exactly, is inferred?

When it comes to mathematics, I can tell you what's being inferred. What's being inferred is a general rule: in fact, a set of general rules, which are used to manipulate certain symbols (mathematical ones, that is). I don't know what's being inferred when someone says that thus-and-so shows that the supernatural exists.

And, I continue to hold, no one really knows what it is. The supernatural is literally unknowable. To say that the supernatural exists is thus to say literally nothing.

Of course, at this point, religious folks will come back and talk to me about faith, as a special process of knowing which allows us access to the supernatural realm. So that's what I'll talk about next.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (2/4)


There's two basic problems about the metaphysical claim of religion, and when I say "basic", I mean very, very basic. Basic in the sense of fundamental, ground-level, at root.

Problem the first: the standard arguments in favour of the existence of the supernatural are awful. Problem the second: this is not because these arguments are unsophisticated, careless or poorly thought-out, but because the idea of the supernatural is completely empty.

Let me start, just to be crazy, with the first problem. You can argue for the existence of the supernatural in two ways. You can argue that there's something about the natural world which doesn't make sense, can't be explained, or couldn't exist without the supernatural. So, for example, you could argue (following the Catholic saint and philosopher Thomas Aquinas) that God explains the existence of motion. The details aren't important; what's important is that this argument starts by identifying something that exists in the everyday natural world -- motion -- and then tries to infer that the supernatural -- God -- is what makes this possible.

There's a long tradition of this sort of argument, especially on the Christian side of things. The (in)famous argument from design is another example. This argument, which can be found in the ancient Greek philosophers, but was most famously made by the 18th-century philosopher William Paley, Paley shows us something about the natural world, namely that it, in many ways, resembles a mechanical device. It consists of lots of parts which work together to produce sophisticated and unusual effects. Now, there are some things like that -- Paley uses the example of a watch -- which we know are made by a designer. So, something much more complicated, made of many more parts, which achieves more sophisticated and unusual effects than a watch -- like, say, a living being -- must have been made by a very sophisticated and powerful designer. And that designer must be a supernatural being, namely God.

It's the same basic argument again. Feature of the world must be explained by the supernatural.

These arguments never really work, though. The problem is that they trade on unexpressed assumptions and/or deep ignorance of the non-supernatural alternatives. Aquinas' argument about motion, for example, assumes that motion must start in something unmoving. He borrows this assumption from Aristotle, and it leads in an odd direction. If the movement of one thing must be started by another thing, then that second thing must already by moving. After all, it couldn't transfer motion to something if it weren't already moving itself. That means, then, there must a third moving thing which made the second thing move. And a fourth moving thing. And a fifth. And so on. Ultimately, both Aquinas and Aristotle end up believing in an Unmoved Mover -- something which is in motion, but is itself not moved. Aquinas calls this thing (eventually) God.

But this is in contradiction to our current best physics. (Okay, to be fair to Aquinas, he did live in the 13th century, so it's not like he could've known this.) According to current physical theory, all objects are made up of small particles which are in constant motion. It's only at a limit point of temperature -- absolute zero -- that the motion of basic particles stops. When objects move, then, what's happening is that the particles which constitute those objects are energized -- literally; they receive more energy -- and that energy is translated into movement of the object.

Yes, that is over-simplified. But the point I'm making is not something arcane about modern physics; instead, I'm pointing out how odd the Aristotelian physics that Aquinas' argument relies on really is. There are perfectly good alternatives which don't need an Unmoved Mover in order to explain motion, that can explain motion by appealing to motion that already existed, affected by energy which is either added to the object by an energy source (such as a star), or is redistributed within the object. Nothing supernatural needed.

The same sort of point can be made against Paley. (And it's worse for Paley, because he actually knew about the natural alternative to his supernatural explanation.) Paley seems to confuse the appearance of design with the presence of intent. Certainly some things, like living beings, look like they were designed for certain purposes. And usually when we see things designed for certain purposes, we know that they are designed for that purpose by a designer, a human being who intended that the object serve that purpose. In the case of objects that are not made by humans, though, the appearance of design is just that -- an appearance.

How does this appearance of being designed come about? The short answer is "natural selection", but as with many such common terms, it's not much of an explanation of the process. Here's the gist. You start with a simple living thing, so simple that we couldn't possibly think it was designed, unless we were being really obstinate. So, a single-celled organism, with no complexity and thus no purpose which it serves. We need, first, some instability in this organism. When it reproduces, it doesn't produce perfect copies of itself. Every once in a while, there's a copying error. So, we get variation in the population of one-celled organisms; they aren't all the same.

Now, some of these variations -- most of them -- are either neutral or maladaptive. The former means that there's no benefit or detriment to being different than the other single-celled organisms, where benefit and detriment basically boil down to ability to reproduce successfully. A benefit is thus the ability to have more offspring survive to produce offspring of their own; a detriment is the opposite. So, a difference that is maladaptive, then, is one which produces a detriment to the ability to produce offspring.

However, a few of the variations are actually beneficial. This means that the organisms which have them tend to be more reproductively successful. They might reproduce faster, or have more offspring survive to adulthood, or be able to kill off the offspring of other single-celled organisms. (Hey, anyone who told you nature was nice was lying.) Whatever the exact mechanism, these few organisms with a benefit will, eventually, overwhelm the organisms without the benefit and take over the population.

There is a wrinkle here, though, in that what is beneficial in one environment may be detrimental in another. So, say a single-celled organism suddenly develops a slightly higher tolerance to cold. This means that it will be able to reproduce more effectively in cold environments. However, there may be a trade-off; this organism will not do as well in warm environments. So, the cold-adapted organism will take over in cold environments, but will not take over in warm environments. This will then give us two seperate species of single-celled organisms: the original ones, who are in the warm environments, and the cold-adapted ones, who are in the cold environments.

You should be able to see at this point how this process -- which is called "evolution", if you weren't clear -- can give rise to the presence of design. If you keep repeating this process of slight changes from generation to generation, some of which produce benefit, you will eventually end up with a wide range of different species, all of whom seem perfectly suited to their environments. But it's an illusion. It's a function of limited perspective, because we can't see evolution happen on a mass scale, that we think these organisms must have sprung into being, designed exactly as they are by a great creator.

Even if you don't believe in evolution -- or modern physics, for that matter -- one thing you have to concede at this point is that they are totally naturalistic views, with no feature of the supernatural whatsoever. Any view which includes the supernatural, therefore, is going to have a problem. Because such a view wants to start with the natural and argue that the supernatural explains it. But these alternatives show that the natural features identified can be explained without the supernatural.

Although I can't show it here, because that would be a massive undertaking, every example of something in the world that has been trotted out to show that there must be a supernatural force producing it is a failure. And the failures work pretty much like the two discussed above. Once you start looking at what's been assumed, you'll find that there's something that's been overlooked, a naturalistic possibility that is at least as plausible -- in most case, more plausible, but let's be modest -- as the supernatural claim.

Now, there's another possible way to argue for the supernatural which I should say a little something about, and that's the idea that the supernatural is somehow necessary. This is not the claim that the supernatural is the explanation for some natural feature of the world. It's a much stronger -- stronger in the logical sense, of being committed to more -- view, which holds that the supernatural cannot fail to exist.

The most famous version of this argument is what's called the "ontological argument", which is a really terrible name for it, but we're kinda stuck with it due to hundreds of years of use. So. Ontological arguments try to show us that something about the very idea of the supernatural implies that the supernatural must exist, cannot fail to exist, is necessary in the strongest sense. The 11th century Catholic philosopher and saint Anselm had a version of this, as did the 17th century French philosopher Ren&233; Descartes. The outline is always the same, though.

We start by characterizing which features of the supernatural are essential or of greatest importance. Anselm says that the supernatural -- God -- is the greatest possible being that can be conceived. Descartes said something similar; God is that being which can be clearly and distinctly perceived as supremely perfect. The point, however exactly you phrase it, is the supernatural has something essential or basic to it, a fundamental quality.

We then conclude that this fundamental quality is such that it cannot fail to exist. Anselm holds that a being which exists is more perfect than a being which does not, and thus the most perfect being that can be conceived is a real God. Descartes similarly argues that the clear and distinct perception of God as a supremely perfect being would not be such a perception if there weren't a real supremely perfect being which it was a perception of.

It's a weird bit of reasoning, isn't it? It's clearly pretty clever; I've summarized drastically here, but the original presentations are worth looking at, just for the level of care that goes into them. And there are many newer variants which are even more sophisticated. But, for all that, the ontological argument has more than a whiff of sleight of hand about it, almost as if we temporarily looked away while the arguer was pulling the card out of his sleeve or the rabbit out of the hat, thus leaving us disconcerted when it "magically" appears in his hand.

There's actually a lot of attempts to show what's gone wrong with the ontological argument, which are even more careful and sophisticated and complex. I won't get into them, though, as I think it's really enough to show just how weird the logic of the argument is. The exact diagnosis of what the weirdness is, and what sort of weirdness it is, and whether there are other arguments with similar weirdness, can be someone else's problem.

We start with a concept, an idea we have. That idea has a feature. This feature implies that the idea is of a real thing. There's problems with every step in this sort of reasoning. First, not everyone has the same concept of what the supernatural is; it's a loose concept, after all, and it's implausible that everyone shares the same idea. Second, not all ideas of the supernatural share the same features, let alone the feature of being perfect. (More on that in just a bit.) And, third, it seems very weird to conclude that an idea is of a real thing because of some feature of the idea. Usually, it works the other way around: we know our ideas are of real things because of the way the things are. So, my idea of a zebra is of a real thing because I can go and find some real things which match my idea. I know my idea of a unicorn is not of a real thing because I cannot do so; any things which match my idea are fictional objects, not real ones.

Now, what's gone wrong here? Why are these arguments bad? The people who advanced them aren't ignorant or stupid; and the arguments themselves are pretty carefully put together. There's even long, long debates about how such smart people could give us arguments that are this bad. I think it's because of the second problem I mentioned above: the idea of the supernatural is completely empty. And given that, it's impossible to have a serious debate about whether the supernatural exists. It's a debate without any real content, because the word "supernatural" doesn't actually mean anything.

I don't intend here to say that "supernatural" has no clear meaning or a disputed meaning. A word like "liberty" has a disputed meaning; it means slightly different things to different people, depending on overall political or ethical orientation. However, the different meanings are clear (more or less). It's a case where there are several possibilities, and arguments arise over which of the possibilities is better. Similarly, a word like "small" has an unclear meaning. The central idea of the word is straightforward -- it's the opposite of big, it's related to tiny -- but exactly which things count as small, where the boundary between small and big lies, and so on, are not settled. And, really, probably can't be settled; "small" seems to be a word that will never be clear.

But what can we make of "supernatural"? If we look at the construction of the word, it just means "above natural" or "beyond natural", which is unhelpful. After all, these are just metaphors. The natural isn't a place, so you can't literally be above it or beyond it. Metaphors are nice to illustrate a point, often quite vividly, but they don't actually make a point on their own. I mean, if I tell you that light is a wave, that's a nice metaphor: you know what waves are like, so you can get the idea of light flowing in a similar way. But that doesn't actually tell you what it means to say that light is a wave; that work is done by a stack of physical theories which take a while to explain (but everyone really should have at least a passing familiarity with).

You could also, I suppose, say that "supernatural" means "not natural". But that's pretty useless, too. After all, you can tack "not" in front of anything; it's a purely formal move. "Unreal" just means "not real"; "unwanted" means "not wanted"; "undead" means "not dead". And the list goes on. In no case does this actually tell us anything about what the unreal is like, what it is to be unwanted, and whether anything is actually undead. Why not? Because all we're told is what these things aren't.

Now, I hasten to add, often being told what something isn't is a useful way to triangulate on what it is. If I know that, say, the undead aren't dead, then that can help me to discern what they are like. I know that the dead don't move around, so I expect the undead to move around. And so on. But when it comes to the natural and the supernatural, taking the latter to be not the former doesn't serve that kind of purpose. And that's obvious once you start looking at some of the ways the supernatural gets characterized.

For example, the supernatural is a realm beyond time, space and causality. I mean, really: what is this supposed to mean? Every single thing I have experienced in my life is a thing within space and time, is a thing with a location and a duration. Furthermore, every single thing I have experienced is related to other things by cause and effect; it causes some things to happen, in certain circumstances, and it is caused to undergo change by other things, again in certain circumstances.

To make matters worse, I have literally no idea what a thing outside of space, time and causality is. I can't think of a thing like that. And, really, neither can you. Our thoughts are of things we can possibly experience. Maybe not things we have actually experienced -- we can creatively imagine, after all -- but at least possible objects of experience. So, things which have locations in space, durations in time, and stand in cause and effect relations.

In fact, the possible objects of experience have lots of other features too, which we are unable to conceive of things without. So, saying the supernatural is without space and time is like saying it is without perceptible qualities, like colour and shape for objects, timbre and pitch for sounds, and so on. Everything that we are capable of thinking of, bringing to our minds at all, has some qualities we can perceive, at least potentially.

In short, "supernatural" is a label people pull out when they don't want to say something is natural, but haven't a clue what it's actually like. So, we get metaphor -- beyond natural, above natural -- and arbitrary nonsense -- beyond space and time -- instead. The term "supernatural" is thrown around like it means something, such that religious people even say that the supernatural exists, but really, at heart, the term has no meaning at all.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (1/4)

What are the metaphysical claims of religions? It sort of depends on the religion. I say "sort of" because, although there are distinctions between the ways religions deal with metaphysics, these distinctions aren't really all that important. It's like changing the icing without changing the cake; it may look and taste a little different, but it's still the same old cake underneath.

"Metaphysics", for those who aren't familiar with or, worse, have a really screwed-up idea of, the term is a word that derives from the works of Aristotle. In the standard way of organizing them in the Middle Ages, there was a book called the "physics" which dealt primarily with motion. Then there was the book after the physics and, in Latin, "meta" means something like "after". So, the "metaphysics" is the book after the "physics".

However. The meaning of the name quickly got changed so that, instead of just referring to the book as a title, it instead referred to what the book was about. And Aristotle's Metaphysics discusses the fundamental nature of the world, including what it is to exist, what sorts of things exist, and how things can continue to exist and yet still change. So, that's what "metaphysics" now means: it's the branch of thought that deals with fundamental questions of existence and reality.

Now, let me be clear: there's nothing wrong with metaphysics, as long as you do it carefully. Real, rigorous philosophical metaphysics is worth studying, if only because it makes your brain hurt and leaves you questioning what actually exists, anyway. (There are reasons most academic philosophers drink.) But these are important questions and they are not answered by any science; science, after all, is only capable of talking about the world that exists, not about what makes that world capable of existing. If you wonder what atoms are like and how they work, then you're interested in doing some science; if you wonder why there are atoms at all and what it means to say that atoms exist, then you're interested in doing some philosophical metaphysics.

Religion, clearly, makes metaphysical claims. The standard Judeo-Christo-Islamic axis -- we could throw in Zoroastrianism too, of course -- claims that there is a supernatural being of unlimited power, intelligence and compassion who created us and all things that exist. If anything's a metaphysical claim, that is. It doesn't tell us anything about motion or light or any of the other standard concerns of physics; instead, it tells us how existence is possible, where existence came from, and how the world came to be at all.

This sort of approach to the metaphysical derives from a much earlier, much older tradition which saw the entire world as imbued with spiritual entities. Rivers had spirits, as did trees, the weather, natural disasters such as earthquakes, fire, and so on. The Judeo-Christo-Islamic version takes this to the ultimate degree -- instead of treating gods and spirits as a superior order of living being, God becomes the superior order of being Him/Itself. There is no longer a sort of additional species, the spiritual one, but a single being which contains all the power that was previously attributed to the pantheons of ancient gods.

Of course, this isn't the only way that religions make metaphysical claims. It's a common mistake to focus just on the Western religious traditions. These are clearly very important, having dominated history in the West for millennia, as well as significantly affecting the East. But they're not the whole story.

For example, some versions of Buddhism hold that there are no divine beings, strictly speaking. (Some versions disagree; there are strands of Chinese Buddhism, in particular, which treat spiritual beings called bodhisattvas as at least quasi-divine.) Instead, there is a process which underlies the physical world that we observe and interact with, a process of reincarnation which accounts for the existence of the living beings that we see, and for how they change and develop.

Similarly, Taoism holds, more or less, that there is a literally indescribable process -- called Tao -- which underlies all change and development in the physical world. Taoism counsels us to, effectively, surrender to this process and allow it to determine our fate.

There are also versions of Hinduism which discard literal talk of deities in favour of, again, an underlying or unifying principle -- the Brahman -- from which all existence and all things that exist emanate.

So, it would be a mistake to think that the metaphysical claims of religion are best understood as being about particular beings. They could be, as in ancient spiritual traditions, and as in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic axis, but that's not fundamental. What's fundamental is that religion, in making metaphysical claims -- claims about existence, how things come to exist, what things actually exist -- makes those claims about some other order of reality.

That is, rather than appealing to something about the natural world which makes it exist -- its necessity, its inevitability, its unity, its basic laws -- religions think that the natural world is a secondary world, which depends for its existence on another sort of world. The simplest name for this other world (and there are many names) is the supernatural.

So, that's the basic metaphysical claim of religion: that the supernatural exists, and the natural depends upon it. Unfortunately -- for the religious, although not for disreputable atheists like me -- it's nonsense.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On future plans.

As I'm heading into one of my periodic moments of frustration and disgust with politics and current affairs in this third-rate, bush-league country of ours (I mean, seriously, do we need another superficial nitwit trading on his father's name for influence and power? Whether the name is Trudeau or Ford, it's equally disgraceful; say what you like about Harper, but at least he earned his position by good old-fashioned brown-nosing and a certain innate tendency towards ruthlessness. Not to mention that the Libs are still incapable of articulating a policy vision that's substantially different from that of the Conservatives and, unlike the Conservatives, have no real ambition for making the country great. The Conservatives' problem is their ambitions are flawed and doomed to failure by their policies, but at least they want something for Canada. The Liberals only want things for themselves -- still, now and always. Anyway, for an aside, this is getting long, so back to the point) I intend to go back to a point I last touched on some months ago. I don't find it sufficiently interesting or important to make it into a book segment -- and if you aren't reading the other blog, you just suck -- but a long pamphlet seems about right.

That topic, dear readers, is religion.

As I see it, there's four areas of concern within the topic, and I'd like to talk about them all.

First is the metaphysical aspect. This is the obvious one, but also the least relevant. Very few religious people, in my view, believe in a deity as a straightforward objective reality. At some point, people clearly did, but I suspect that this belief is holding on as little more than a formula. Anyone who seriously believes there's some sort of super-being outside normal space and time -- who doesn't take it as a metaphor or an abstraction or a moral ideal or some such -- is so deeply irrational that they should probably be kept away from sharp objects. That said, it's a fun point to play with because it sets the stage for pointing out the problems with the other aspects of religion; the metaphysical aspect is so obviously screwed up that starting with it gives a bit of a rhetorical edge to the later points.

Second, there's the epistemological issue. This is, simply, the problem of faith. "Faith" can be a weasel word, used by cowards to insulate some cherised beliefs from rational scrutiny. In that sense, faith isn't worth talking about because it's just a disavowal of responsibility for one's beliefs, and a refusal to engage seriously with the beliefs of those who disagree with you. There are, however, other senses of faith which are worth taking more seriously. For example, Kant's sense of rational faith, applied to the things that one can choose to believe in but never really know, for they lie outside the reach of experience (and, we could add, logical inference), and thus are literally unknowable. There is no proof for them, but also no proof against them, and thus one can only have faith in them. That sort of thing is an interesting attitude, and it's worth considering where it goes wrong.

Third, there's the moral issues. Many people rely on their religious beliefs to provide them with moral teachings. This is a basically juvenile approach, pushing responsibility for what one does and says onto some external force which (see point one) doesn't actually exist. But not only does religion teach us to be dependent for our moral views, it also warps us by eliminating or degrading our sense of human dignity, leading us into a sort of slavery. And religion also inculcates a list of vices which is pretends are actually virtues, modesty and humility among them.

Finally, there are political issues. This requires reading "political" broadly; the issue worth talking has nothing to do with, say, the US Catholic bishops taking shots at Obama for daring to say that health insurance should cover contraception. No, this is political in the sense of communal, of involving relations between people. It's probably the strongest argument in favour of religion that it provides people with a community, devoted to some sort of common purpose, many of which purposes are justifiably considered good. However, I suspect that there's very little that's actually religious here. That is, while it is true that groups can be good, and common purpose can be good, it's not true that these are necessary, nor is true that religious communities are a necessary or even preferable form of political unit.

So, stay tuned. This should be fun, at least for me. If it goes well, I may throw things together, tighten and edit them up a little, and e-publish it on Amazon or something as a little experiment in e-publishing. I'm not at all convinced that one can make a living publishing things any more, but it might be possible to at least make some pocket money.