Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)

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Can we prove there is no God? Does it make sense to equate religion with science? Do theists have a monopology on morality or is secular morality superior? Was Richard Dawkins right to bring up the religious beliefs of Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney? Cara Santa Maria (Senior Science Correspondent, Huffingtonpost.com) leads this week’s panel on ‘The Point’ to discuss these issues and more with Michael Shermer (Publisher – Skeptic Magazine), Sean Carroll (Theoretical Physicist – Caltech), and Edward Falzon (author of ‘Being Gay Is Disgusting’).

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39 COMMENTS

  1. None of them seems to have read ¨The Moral Landscape¨ by Sam Harris. They claim that we need to do groundwork on ethics, but Harris has done a solid job on that.

    It seems banal – but if we can just agree that hunger, sickness, pain and fear are ¨bad¨, while prosperity, health and safety are ¨good¨, then we are well on our way of building a morality from scratch.

  2. I enjoyed this show, including the host. 

    On self identifing as an atheist v. ‘brights’, etc. 

    I agree that the term (for me) used to be a perjorative term in my earlier life (though I can’t say why exactly).  In anycase, it has taken some time for me to warm up to the term and I’m still a little uncomfortable with it.  The fact that there is no god is an aspect of the universe, why should I get stuck with a lable? 

    On morality:

    I have a conscious.  When I hurt someone I feel bad.  This, at least in part, informs my morality.  I just no longer feel the need to invoke a ‘higher power’ as an explanation. 

  3. Can we prove there is no God? 

    Firstly, on many definitions we can prove or all-but-prove it, yes; secondly, the burden of proof is on the other side anyway.
     

     Does it make sense to equate religion with
    science? 

     What, like creationists? Or do you mean “judge religion by scientific rules”? Yes; it makes factual claims.

     Do theists have a monopology on morality 

     Firstly, “monopology”, which is a type of apology, is probably not what you meant; secondy, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on religion because of the Euthyphro dilemma, human conscience etc.

     Was Richard Dawkins right to bring up the religious
    beliefs of Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney? 

    Given that his beliefs are crazy even by the standards of US presidential candidates, yes.

  4. Carla Santa Maria suggested she thought religious people voted for religious candidates because they wanted to be able to think that the candidate was just like them and someone they could have a beer with.

    I think that’s only true in part. I think people vote for religious people for two other reasons before that:

    1. They think a religious person will be more honest and better behaved because they will be god-fearing;
    2. People vote for people who are confident about what they say and do. Having faith is equated to being a strong leader, which people generally (and unfortunately) crave.

  5. Cara ever so slightly controls the discussion maybe a bit too much. She poses a question and then spends the same amount of time giving her own opinion. A conversation with Cara! Irritating.

  6. The only thing  I didn’t like here was when she repeated the infuriating nonsense that we don’t know what happens after death.

    We know exactly what happens and why the question itself is nonsensical and borne out of fear and ignorance.

    Could we all stop pretending that we don’t “know” what happens when you die just to sound philosophically sophisticated and open minded?

  7. Enjoyed that, especially the first bit with James Randi :D

    Wasn’t crazy about how agnosticism was discussed though. It really irritates me when people who don’t really understand what agnosticism means simply declare that they are agnostics, but not atheists. However, it irritates me even more when those who should know better, instead of explaining their error, respond that they are atheists, but not agnostics, thereby simply compounding the confusion. Agnosticism is an important term which describes how we gain knowledge, it has no direct bearing on belief in God.

    Gnosticism is a belief in revelation.

    Theism is a belief in God.

  8. Metameg – yes.

    Sean Carroll was really good on this point and has woken me up! I was a bit of an apologist “we can’t prove god doesn’t exist, but blah, blah, whinge etc”, Sean has set me straight!

    I’ve watched that part again as it is worth getting the whole quote down:

    He starts off with something like James Randi is right that we can’t prove god does not exist, but Randi does not

    “make the distiction between proof and warranted belief. Of course, we can’t prove that there are no unicorns in Equador, but we all know there are no unicorns in Equador…. We can’t go through life only believing things we can mathematically prove – nobody believes we can do that and noone thinks we should try to do that. In science we never prove anything and yet we make progress because we have warranted belief. We have justifiable claims backed up with evidence. …. I believe god does not exist exactly as much as I believe the sun will rise tomorrow”.

  9. Luckily for us, we have many very smart people (like A.C.Grayling) for us to have to rely on Sam on this one. I think even he would baulk at being our authority on morality.

    Make no mistake, just because we don’t have a proscriptive morality doesn’t mean we don’t have a morality at all. We are moral people because we treat issues of morality with all due seriousness. We want to hear both sides of the issue first and that makes us more moral than the theists.

  10. I don’t know if we should “take Obama’s word for it” regarding his Christianity, when he has such an excellent reason to lie. We know educated, extremely intelligent people who were never indoctrinated as children are statistically unlikely to buy into religion as adults. And for it to happen right at the same time that they decide to go into politics in a highly religious country, is more unlikely still. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt (meaning I’d like to believe he’s a liar.)

  11. I think the “science doesn’t prove anything” meme is overused and leads to confusion. It is interpreted by the public as “scientists don’t really know what they are doing”.

  12. Given her upbringing, I’m not surprised that someone of her manifest intelligence is slightly out to lunch; I enjoyed the debate, if such it was ; more like a love-in really.

    However, it finally did the trick – I’m now a full-blown atheist! Because that term encapsulates all the other non believing catagories in one word. 

  13. Here is the actual quote:

    “No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.… I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.”

    It looks pretty well authenticated to me. 

  14. If you read Obama’s biography or books written about him its pretty clear that he is genuinely a Christian. Unlike most other recent presidents he actually belonged to a church and was a regular church goer before becoming president. 

  15. True, just like misuse of the word theory makes it safer to talk about scientific facts. But if people are going to go around claiming to be agnostic they should at least be told what it means, they might just learn something about the scientific process as well.

  16. It does seem unlikely that he should be able to fake it so well for so long. But is it more unlikely than that a man of very high intelligence, who was taught to be critical of all religions from an early age, gets convinced in his late twenties that one of them was true after all, and that Jesus indeed rose from the dead? I’m not sure. I do know that he became a Christian “by choice”, whatever that means, around the same time he decided to lead a public life, and that he won’t commit to being sure of heaven, or anything, really, except the golden rule, the value of love and charity and obvious stuff like that. And he believes arguments based on religious teachings are invalid in politics. And Hitchens didn’t believe he’s a theist, which always counts for something.

    I’ll read his biography at some point; maybe I’ll be convinced, though I really don’t
    want to be.

  17. Peter Grant:

    I must quibble with your definitions.

    As I understand it, “agnostic” is a term for describing what is known, or sometimes for what is possible to know. It does not describe how we gain knowledge.

    “Gnosticism” refers to a specific system of beliefs which does indeed include a belief in revelation, but the term “agnostic” does not derive from the term “gnosticism.” Instead, both words are separately derived from the greek word “gnosis,” meaning simply “knowledge.”

    Yes, the knowledge refered to by the word “gnosticism” is specifically revealed knowledge. But revelation is not necessarily implied by the original greek word, nor does that implication transfer to the term “agnostic,” which simply means “without knowledge.” It is mostly just a fancy term for “I don’t know.”

    Of course, some “strict agnostics” will insist that agnostic doesn’t mean only “I don’t know” but rather “it is not possible to know.” i.e. some particular type of knowledge is outside the realm of human confirmation; no meaningful opinion may be formed. (I find that such arguments usually amount to special pleading for theistic propositions.)

    In the vast majority of cases, the term “agnostic” does have direct bearing on belief in God. It’s most common usage is in describing one’s position regarding knowledge of a deity.

    The distinction between atheism and agnosticism does not amount to “belief in revelation” and “belief in god.”  Instead, one answers the question “what do you believe?”; the other “what do you know?” The terms are popularly misused with the presumption of mutual exclusivity. (i.e. “Are you an atheist or an agnostic?” Where “both” is not considered a viable option.)

  18. I watched the video twice. The main thing I learned that if you put a
    ring through your lip and affect a valley girl accent, no matter how
    intelligent you are, you will come across like a bimbo.

    roedygreen and others who “liked” this comment,
    I come here expecting rational, mature responses. Although we may not like or agree with everyone’s view or approach, attacking someone personally is unacceptable.Resorting to base slams rather than finding intelligently chosen descriptions (about the content) is a lazy, cheap shot.  I find your “bimbo” comment sexist and lacking in integrity; comments like these bring down the quality of RDnet. So few women remain here, perhaps there is good reason.

  19. I found her demeanor just as inappropriate and distracting as had she been naked, wearing a bald wig, or sporting  a clown nose.  She is supposed to be a moderator and science editor, not a contestant on a gong show.It not only ruined her own comments, her behaviour also distracted from the contributions of the others.  It was as stupid self-indulgent thing to do.

  20.  They actually have two different and acceptable uses, however. Language can help us describe and define or it can help us communicate. Sometimes, the functions don’t align right. ‘Atheist’ and ‘Agnostic’ are mutually exclusive when used as a group label (as a means of communicating where we stand). When used to describe and define what is going on in our heads, they are often inclusive.

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