Richard Dawkins on the Emptiness of Theology


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a inactive to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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161 Responses

  1. Avatar Carl Pierce says:

    Except you don’t really need to know anything about the different types of fairies to dismiss fairyology as a valid subject of study. I think your argument would hold weight if Richard was attempting to argue on theological issues in theological terms except he isn’t he is simply dismissing the subject.Report

    • Avatar Caleb says:

      Read what Dawkins actually writes, especially in his books and essays. He doesn’t just dismiss the subject, he delves pretty deeply into various theologies to find elements he finds most objectionable. Presenting these arguments requires a certain amount of constructive assertion about the subject on his part. It is his construction of these elements that his critics find objectionable.Report

    • Avatar Philip H says:

      No, he’s not. Much of his non-scientific writing (and a fair amount of his scientific work back when he was still a practicing scientist) was all about disproving Christian theology on a scientific basis – God can’t exist because you can’t prove the existence of God in double blind randomized studies. So he is arguing theological issues. And he argues them on theological terms in as much as he has to engage the theology in his attempts to prove it doesn’t scientifically exist. Which bears Kyle’s point rather nicely. If he were REALLY dismissing theology as you suggest, he wouldn’t be a multi-book best selling author, regularly featured on the talk show and lecture circuit.

      He can dismiss theology all he wants. but to do so THIS way smacks squarely of the cognitive dissonance he so easily ascribes to religious believers. Which makes it hubris at best and hypocrisy at worst.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      There’s kind of the problem, though, that this particular “art”, if you will, has been around approximately as long as there has been civilization (seriously, the best parts of The Epic of Gilgamesh are the theology). To dismiss all of it as “fairyology” is to communicate much more about oneself than about the topic.

      I mean, it’s possible to have a very meaningful conversation about Swan Lake… but Dawkins is standing up and shouting “THE BITCH AIN’T A SWAN!” and preening as if that were the only dynamic going on and the only reality worth discussing.Report

  2. Avatar veronica dire says:

    Well, while I don’t really favor Dawkins’ attack dog style atheism, he seems to me to have a fair point. The assertion, “Go spend {thousands of hours} learning the minutia of my thing before you dismiss it” is itself a dodge, since one can fairly conclude that theology is an enormous waste of intellectual effort.

    My take: I agree with Dawkins (on this one point); theology is content-free word games about things that do not exist. It is roughly equivalent to establishing the ecology of unicorns.

    On the other hand, we are all frittering away our time between birth and death; if you want to write a treatise on unicorn ecology, go for it. I like TV shows about sexy androids with guns. No place to judge.

    Now when theology hits politics — well, different discussion.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I’m not sure that theology is as worthless an endeavor as this. If religion is a set of rituals, beliefs, norms, and cultural identifiers, then theology can be a way to reconcile that mass of irrational and seemingly arbitrary choices to morality and, to a degree, rationality.

      If one is an atheist, one might sourly observe that 100% reconciliation will be impossible! but this atheist says that doesn’t make it a fool’s errand. If it gets people to think more clearly and act more ethically, it’s at least arguably a net good.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I disagree with the idea that theology is worthless endeavor if only because you can expand that into a general attack against all of the humanities as is currently being done. One can argue that history is worthless endeavor because understanding the past never actually seems to any change in policy in the present. We can read about the Great Depression and try to determine its causes and what worked to end it but it does not translate into policies to end the Great Recession because there are still ideological and political debates to get through. This makes history a useless endeavor. The same goes for economics, literature, LBGT studies and anything that isn’t in the STEM category.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        But we know that history actually happened. That god actually happened? That remains pure speculation without any solid evidence.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        According to the conspiracy theorists, we don’t know if anything actually happened. ;).Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        The world began last Thursday. Any “history” that supposedly occurred before that is a shared delusion.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        The world began last Thursday. Any “history” that supposedly occurred before that is a shared delusion.

        Sweet. Now I don’t have to pay back that tenner I supposedly borrowed.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      “The assertion, “Go spend {thousands of hours} learning the minutia of my thing before you dismiss it” is itself a dodge”

      Except that people actually make that argument all the time. “You think this video game stinks? Well, maybe you should LEARN how HARD it is to make games before you say that!” “You think my book is terrible? Well, where’s YOUR book, then?” “You think it’s stupid that I’m so into My Little Pony? Well, maybe you should WATCH some of it before you dismiss it so casually!”Report

      • Avatar Katie says:

        I agree with you. He was probably responding to someone who was saying “well, you don’t know about this “fact” which is true because it’s in the bible”
        Sounds like he’s saying there aren’t any theology “facts”, there are just theology theories which have in no way been proven.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        Nitpick – your last example is different from the first two.

        The person complaining about the book and video game has presumably experienced both the thing complained of, and some other examples of those same arts as a basis for comparison. The person complaining about someone else’s taste in TV shows sounds like (a) they haven’t watched the show, and (b) their beef is not with the show anyway, but about someone else presuming to like it despite not being in its target demographic.

        I can neither confirm nor deny that my little pony is one of the few kids’ shows I will actually sit down and watch with my daughter, as opposed to putting on at her request and then leaving the room and undertaking some domestic task that produces enough noise that I won’t have to hear the godawful voice acting.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        (finishing my initial unfinished thought)

        Arguing theology is empty and valueless from a position of having spent some time becoming familiar with both it and other fields of the humanities is one thing – analogous to the book and video game examples.

        Arguing that any effort expended on theology is stupid and valueless because “Come on, adults with invisible friends? Duh,” is more like the someone-else’s-taste-in-TV example.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        “Nitpick – your last example is different from the first two.”

        Your nitpick is irrelevant. “You can’t criticize (thing) without direct experience of (thing)!” is a very common argument, and “but (thing) is stupid!” is generally not seen as an effective response.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        I don’t think my nitpick is actually irrelevant.

        The first two objections you give are silly – they are arguing that the perspective of a mere audience member is insufficient to judge a thing, and you have to be a creator of the type of thing to critique it.

        The third one is valid – it’s merely saying you have to at least be an audience member; you can’t critique the thing solely because you know some audience members and presume on the basis of their age that anything they like will be beneath you.

        If the first two were arguing that the critique was baseless because the critic hadn’t even played the game or read the book, or if the third were arguing that the critic needed to produce an animated TV series in order to have a valid opinion on one, then they would be either equally sound, or equally silly, respectively.

        Unless that was exactly your point, and I’m the one missing it?Report

    • Avatar veronica dire says:

      @burt-likko and @leeesq — Sure, but note I am not saying one shouldn’t research religion as a phenomena, insofar as religious belief clearly exists and can be studied as such, just as a sociologist might study SciFi fandom. It’s a thing that happens. However, that seems a rather different thing than theology as such.

      Now, theology as a way to harmonize and rationalize god-belief — sure, why not. Sounds like a fun puzzle game, perhaps even more fun than Sudoku.

      Personally I’d rather play with Set Theory or something, all the intellectual challenge without the angels-on-pins — although I might suggest that a well ordered set of reals is as imaginary as any set of angels. But that’s just me.Report

  3. Avatar Kim says:

    Any evidence that Dawkins has bothered to look into the psychological experiments on mindfulness?Report

  4. Avatar Herb says:

    Zoom in on the word “Fact.” A theological fact is something likes this: “Fairyologists believe that blue fairies can turn puppets into boys.”

    The fairyologist, on the other hand, accepts something like this as a theological “fact:” “Blue fairies can turn puppets into boys.” But that’s not a fact at all. That’s an argument.

    I think that’s the point Dawkins was trying to make, mangled in the Twitter word-limit as it is.

    Even more importantly, are his critics right? Is he mis-describing their beliefs? Would he be able to pass an ideological Turing test? Is he actually ignorant of their theology?Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Yeah, that’s exactly right. Saying “it’s a fact that some people believe X is a fact” is different than saying “X is a fact”.

      I hope there’s more to this issue than a confusion about the use/mention distinction.Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      Except the vast majority of theology doesn’t concern itself with empirical facts, and to pretend that it does means again that Dawkins is either abysmally ignorant of the practice of theology or is focusing on a very small subsection of it.

      I mean, yes, there is theological debate about measurable phenomenon, but even in these cases, the average practitioner has something very different to say about the issue than the average scientist would.

      Theology, for the most part – at least, outside certain branches of fundamentalism – is largely focused on justice, commons, intentions, consequences, moral dilemmas, ineffability.

      Whether or not transubstantiation is empirically real is pretty much a tabled discussion, and it’s not really relevant.

      It’s like, eh, analogies are hard in this space… criticising medical practitioners as woo artists because they still can’t explain the placebo effect.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Theology, for the most part – at least, outside certain branches of fundamentalism – is largely focused on justice, commons, intentions, consequences, moral dilemmas, ineffability.

        And insofar as the conclusions derived from those explorations constitute facts (truths that hold objectively, say, even moral truths) and they require the existence of a God as part of their justification, then I think Dawkins is justified in criticizing them.

        I mean, at a trivial level, theology is just the study of the nature of god and how god’s will is manifested in the world, be it “divine commandment” or something less along the lines of “you guys sort it out”.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I wanna add that I’m not a big fan of Dawkins stuff, not because I disagree with his conclusions so much as I think his arguments tend to not get him where he thinks they do.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        And insofar as the conclusions derived from those explorations constitute facts

        Er… ah…

        (truths that hold objectively, say, even moral truths)

        Facts and truths aren’t interchangeable words.

        and they require the existence of a God as part of their justification, then I think Dawkins is justified in criticizing them.

        This might be a cogent criticism, but again, the “existence of God” and “part of” are carrying a lot of weight, there.

        Dawkins might make a secular humanist argument for benevolent actions, something like, hm… “people ought to be charitable”.

        You can make an argument for “people ought to be charitable” from normative principles without relying upon the tools of science. But you’re arguing from normative principles.

        You can have a pretty large raft of normative principles justifying your secular humanist argument for charity, just like you can have a pretty large raft of normative principles justifying your theological argument for charity.

        If “the existence of God” is one of a number of normative principles informing your argument for charity, it’s not really all that stunning of a criticism to critique the theologian’s argument for charity under the, “IT DEPENDS ON GOD!” banner.

        (And, I’d argue, being something of a lapsed student of theology, that many of the more interesting arguments in theology the existence of God is ancillary or even just window-dressing, and not really all that important at all).Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Facts and truths aren’t interchangeable words.

        No, they aren’t. A fact is something that is the case, and a truth is an expression of something that is the case. (I think anyway.)

        Regarding the normative stuff: God isn’t a normative concept. At least, that’s not a concept of God that I’ve seen Dawkins argue against. He’s arguing against the idea of God as a fact (something that is the case).

        This stuff can get murky and nuanced pretty quickly, and simplistic rejections/affirmations aren’t going to address lots of that nuance. My comments in defense of him and his views, given that nuance is required, is that criticizing Dawkins for inconsistency in thought because he claims theology doesn’t mean anything to him isn’t valid or even on point. He might be wrong about his specific conclusions regarding religion and religious beliefs, of course, but that’s another issue.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        To some extent, the best challenge that people like Dawkins present to the deist community is, “Convince me of the rightness of your arguments without pulling the God card”.

        I’m entirely onboard with this project.

        To another extent, the worst challenge that people like Dawkins present to the overall community is, “Be distracted by the Sturm un Drang instead of focusing on being good people”.

        I’m kind of disgusted by that project.

        Generally, I feel that Richard has a tendency to spur an environment where the second is the case instead of the first. This is not entirely his fault nor his responsibility, since a goodly part of the Sturm un Drang is provided by the audience, not any of the participants.

        Still, it’s pretty obvious that the audience is there.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Theology, for the most part – at least, outside certain branches of fundamentalism – is largely focused on justice, commons, intentions, consequences, moral dilemmas, ineffability

        I don’t think Dawkins has any beef with philosophy.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Perhaps his problem, then, is that he doesn’t recognize theology as a philosophy.

        I mean, really, the non-existence or existence of a supreme being is in-and-of-itself a philosophical question as much as a theological one, basically boiling down to, “Can non-causal things exist in a meaningful sense?”

        Since the jury is still out on free will among philosophers, it seems an odd choice to lambast theologians for believing in one particular non-causal thing without taking a larger stand against the free will folks.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Most of the philosophers and theologians I’ve known would reject your conflation of the two. I’m sympathetic to your position myself, but the experts in those fields tend not to be.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        it seems an odd choice to lambast theologians for believing in one particular non-causal thing without taking a larger stand against the free will folks

        If you see his statement as “communication” rather than “conclusion”, the choice is not only understandable but you can totally see why he made it. Nothing but upside, baby.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        With all due respect to philosophers i really doubt they have much to say about free will. Neurologists, cognitive scientists,etc could tell me a lot though. Which sort of gets back to Dawkins point in a way. Philosophy/theology is nice and has its purposes but doesn’t exactly specialize in determining the nature of objective phenomenon in a rigorous manner.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Most of the philosophers and theologians I’ve known would reject your conflation of the two. I’m sympathetic to your position myself, but the experts in those fields tend not to be.

        If you and I agree on something, we can pretty much assume it’s correct.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Theology, to my understanding, is a way of piercing out and sifting through the holy books and practices of a religion in search of things like “justice, commons, intentions, consequences, moral dilemmas, [and] ineffability.” (As well as rationality and logic; e.g., Augustine.) Even we non-believers can see, with even a casual reading, a significant difference in those philosophical constructs between the holy books of various religions and even (as I exchanged with @leeesq a few days ago) from holy books of a particular religion written at different points in time.

        Particularly for societies whose culture incorporates an overwhelming presence of religion, finding good (by which I mean both “morally satisfactory” and “effective”) reconciliations of religious teachings and sometimes arbitrary-seeming text of ancient writings and the present demands of justice, morality, and workable communal living arrangements is a matter of some importance. To the extent that Dr. Dawkins and his subspecies of atheists complain that religion is too dominant an influence on society, then the condemnation of theology is a rejection of a means of mitigating the very ill effects of religion that Dawkins condemns.

        This does not mean that Dr. Dawkins needs to be particularly fluent in theology, of course; but I find his dismissal of it to be as disagreeable to civil discussion as is the courtier’s reply that because he knows less of theology than a theologian, he has nothing of value to contribute to a discussion about it. Both statements are atheists and believers thumbing their noses at one another, an exercise which does not seem to me to benefit anyone.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Philosophy/theology is nice and has its purposes but doesn’t exactly specialize in determining the nature of objective phenomenon in a rigorous manner.

        This is the really weird thing: I’ve read a lot of philosophy and a lot of theology and I’ve never really heard any philosopher or theologian who wrote after about 1850 made any sort of claim about objective phenomenon and/or rigorous evaluation thereof.

        Which says to me, again, that Richard is probably beating up on a strawman. Or he’s arguing with Aquinas and/or Aristotle, but those dudes have been dead for a while, and they don’t exactly represent the cutting edge of either theology or philosophy.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Enough monks talk about being able to slow their heartbeat — or punch through a wall.
        I assume if anyone past 1850 was particularly “theologically inclined” and able to spontaneously bleed on their palms, they would have written about it.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Perhaps his problem, then, is that he doesn’t recognize theology as a philosophy.

        Well, they’re distinct disciplines, it seems to me. I mean, the type of theological philosophy you seem to have in mind might be (as an example) taking the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as divinely inspired and resolving inconsistencies in past and current Christian thought in those preferred terms. But the presupposition underlying that philosophical project is that Jesus’ words are divinely inspired! So the justification of the project rests on a spiritual component and a fundamental spiritual “fact”, one which Dawkins (apparently) thinks requires justification itself.

        I’d say that religion is, and has been, fighting a rearguard action against philosophy as well as science since the enlightenment.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I feel like this discussion has forgotten that the context in which Dawkins was dealing with the subject of theology in that tweet and elsewhere was (likely? perhaps in this case it wasn’t, but it certainly has been in the majority of cases when I’ve seen him dealing with being accused of being ignorant of theology) in response to others who brought it up to address what they view as a shortcoming in his approach to the question of the existence of God. So, even if theology does treat other questions (and I’m sure it does), in this context, by the initiative of those who claim greater knowledge of theology than Dawkins and that that ignorance is relevant to the holding forth he was doing that occasioned them to raise it (i.e. likely on the subject of the likely nonexistence of God), the relevance *is* in fact limited way it informs the question of the existence or non-existence of God, excluding all the other things that theology comprises. So it’s pretty much completely irrelevant to this discussion of that as an umbrella term for lots of topics in religious studies, it comprises study of lots questions to which that question itself is pretty much irrelevant (if only for being settled or at least tabled in some kind of presumptively positive way, i.e. lots of questions about God’s nature may be left entirely open, but if there weren’t general agreement that God exists in some way, there wouldn’t be much point to those inquiries… or maybe there would. In any case…)

        Now, if the accusations were made in this case more generally, which would probably be fair on its own, then okay, it makes sense to look at all the other parts of theology he’s ignorant of. But if, as is usually the case, the context of the accusation was essentially, “The reason you are so wrong and oversimplistic about the existence of God is that you are ignorant of theology, then it’s really immaterial to that discussion that he’s ignorant of the parts of theology where the question of the existence of God is a very peripheral question is it is one at all.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Context is important, but the tweet itself pretty much discards context, right?

        He says, “But what is there in ‘theology’ to be ignorant about?” That’s a fairly baldly general statement.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        The question is open-ended. So in what way is *he* mistakenly limiting what theology is about to the existence of God question? It’s his detractors who are saying it’s such an important missing element of his treatment of the question – it’s they who are injecting it directly into a discussion that (I’m presuming) started out as a simpleminded denial of the existence of God. It’s they who come back to *that* with “But theology!” So he says, “Okay, what don’t I know that makes me wrong?” At which point you should step in, given the point you’re making, to tell them they need to pick out the relevant parts of “theology” to the debate they were actually having. Which really just means disengaging from the position, “But you’re ignorant of [discipline]” and re-engaging with the actual relevant aruments again. Which reveals the, “But theology!” response as a meaningless detour, which your point about its broadness helps to show. It’s not really on-point. Only the actual relevant arguments are on point. If they don’t want to make them, that’s on them, and, “But, theology!” doesn’t make them.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot11 says:

        “Most of the philosophers and theologians I’ve known would reject your conflation of the two. I’m sympathetic to your position myself, but the experts in those fields tend not to be.”

        This +1000

        Even theistic philosophers can be disdainful of most of theology as a discipline.

        The worst theology is the nonsensical stuff that is influenced by postmodernism. Blech.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:

    I think Dawkins loses focus on the role that religion provides in people’s lives. The meaning, the security, the comfort, the fellowship, the explanations, the useful rules of thumb.

    He is fixated on the myth and loses sight of the value myths play in some people’s lives.

    On the other hand, it has been years since I read his God Delusion book, so I may be too harsh. I just remember him being strangely unscientific about it.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Guilty pleasure Mencius Moldbug wrote about The God Delusion at length back in 2007 (those were the days).

      If you ain’t read it and you ain’t nothing better to do, you could do a lot worse than starting here and going for a while.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      The God Delusion was a polemic, not a treatise.

      Maybe instead of “polemic,” a better word would be “Jeremiad.”Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I agree with this. +1 Roger. What the more militant atheists really don’t understand the comfort that religion gives many people. The rituals in various religions provide meaning to people’s lives and makes things special. A religious marriage ceremony usually has a lot more symbolic importance in its ritual than a civil marriage ceremony at city hall, especially if the officiating clergy knows at least one member of the couple well. Even if this isn’t the case, its usually also longer and ceremonious, giving it more meaning. If these sort of things are important to a person than secularism can’t really offer anything in return.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        What the more militant atheists really don’t understand the comfort that religion gives many people.

        Why think he doesn’t understand that? I think he would concede that point in a heartbeat since from an atheists pov it’s the only justification for religion. It provides an account for why people believe what they do, but not a justification for those beliefs.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Maybe he does understand that, maybe he doesn’t. The problem is that he really doesn’t suggest any replacement for those things and I somehow think that most people aren’t going to be fine with complete giving up all the symbolic and community benefits that religion provides for nothing.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        But notice that justifying religious beliefs and practices on pragmatic social and psychological grounds is – or at least can be – consistent with Dawkins attacks on the truth of religious beliefs.

        Those are different domains covering radically different intellectual content.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        Regarding comfort, that seems to boil down to the idea that believing something that’s not true can be good if it makes you feel good. I suppose that there are cases where that’s true, but how true is it in general?

        A religious marriage ceremony usually has a lot more symbolic importance in its ritual than a civil marriage ceremony at city hall, especially if the officiating clergy knows at least one member of the couple well.

        This one seems way off base to me. I’m an atheist from a Catholic family and my wife is an agnostic from a Buddhist family and we managed to have a secular wedding that had plenty of symbolic importance and no small amount of ritual, all with an officiant who was a good friend of my family. I think that the comparison falls a little flat because people who opt for a quick wedding at city hall probably aren’t looking for ceremony to mark the event.

        The idea that a wedding without religious ritual lacks significance seems like a more fundamental misunderstanding of the way the other side lives than atheists minimizing the importance of ritual. It’s up there with, “If there’s no God, why not kill yourself? Because life is meaningless without God. You’re just matter.” To which I can only respond, “Huh?”Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Maybe I have the terminology wrong, but I understand the word “theology” to denote a field entirely distinct from the social anthropology of religion.Report

      • Avatar kenB says:

        I haven’t read Dawkins, but my understanding is that his writing goes beyond the issue of the empirical claims of various religions and also makes sweeping statements about religious people, the effect of religious belief on the world, etc. Perhaps that wasn’t germane to this particular twitter exchange, though.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot11 says:

        +1000 to this too.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      I have a real problem with this line of argument.

      On the one hand, any theist making this argument doesn’t believe it, since religion can only be a comfort if you believe it is true.

      On the other hand, any atheist making it is a condescending asshole. Clearly they can function Ok without religion, it’s those people over there who cant, the poor dears.

      It’s a really difficult argument to make in good faith.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        JamesK, I’m not so sure about this. The number of true believers in among Jews, at least in the sense that Christians or Muslims are true believers, is probably on the low side percentage wise. Yet, many Jews do derive a lot of comfort and meaning from the Passover Seder despite not believing in the literal truth of the Exodus.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Perhaps it reflects how I was raised (and no, I was not raised to be a condescending asshole — that was an unforeseen accident). My parents always encouraged me to be religious, they just never cared which religion it was.

        The value in religion is the set of beliefs, the reinforcement mechanisms, the community and so on. There is a spiritual essence to religion which is not captured by the myths and rituals.

        People differ in what they need and value. The value in religion is in its consequences– some of which are extremely personal — and these are what I believe Dawkins does not consider as objectively as he could. Would the average believer be better off if he no longer believed? I leave the choice to them.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        @leeesq @roger

        Ah, OK I was thinking of a different claim than the one you are making. You’re talking about the community of religion being of a benefit, aside from any truth value to the religion’s tenets.

        I’m in favour of the growing tradition of “Jewish atheists” who see themselves as part of the Jewish community but profess no belief in God. I also realise that we need to do better in terms of developing communities for those who leave their religious communities behind. Atheism is having to work against some large historical and cultural barriers, but hopefully one day there will be enough alternatives to faith communities that religion will become easier and easier to leave behind.Report

  6. I agree with you, Kyle, however, he is–in a tweet–responding to an accusation. If it was a flippant accusation, it deserved a flippant response. So without context, I won’t judge this tweet too much.Report

  7. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    “There’s not one single theological fact worth knowing!”

    (person provides a fact about how Paul’s obsession with sex being solely for procreation was a response to the Roman culture of slave rape.)

    “Well that’s not a THEOLOGICAL fact, that’s just a FACT fact, so I’M STILL RIGHT. No TRUE Scotsman would ever mis-label his facts!”Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      But it’s not a theological fact. It’s a historical fact. They really are different things.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Which is to say, what Dawkins is saying is that God isn’t real, and as such any inquiry into the specifics of his nature is pointless. This doesn’t imply that the study of the history of religion and its effects on human society is pointless.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Theology isn’t limited to questions about the nature of God. Of course, if we value ignorance of theology, not knowing that is a good thing.Report

  8. Avatar Lefty Green says:

    Mr. Dawkins rigid assertions are dogmatic and display the same cognitive rigor mortise as his fundamentalist counterparts. He has an archaic interpretation and understanding of god and theology; which is so outdated that it reeks like a putrid carcass.Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I would generally agree with Roger on what Dawkins styled atheism tries to do and that there are psychological and other benefits to religion. I’m far from Orthodox, practicing or traditional but I am very proud and happy to be Jewish as I’ve written about before.

    That being said, there is a lot of bullshit in theological arguments. Let us look at Corenilius van Til and his presuppositional apologetics. According to wiki presuppositional apologetics believes that “the Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought.”

    As an argument or belief, this is absolute bullshit. It can not be tested or argued against. It is ingenious. How can one argue that this school of thought is false and win any argument against an adherent? They already made their mind up. Science provides for testing and experiment. Other theological arguments might be able to concede that they are wrong on some matters. SReport

  10. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Despite his protestations to the contrary, theology does mean something to him.

    Isn’t there an ambiguity in this sentence that makes both your view and his view correct?

    He cares about theology insofar as people think facts of the matter regarding certain religious truths can be settled by theological argument. His view is that they’re wrong to think so, even while he concedes that they think they are right.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I miss Douglas Adams. Anyway, he has a great quote from the not-particularly-great Mostly Harmless about astrology that fits fairly well with “theology” (as Dawkins understands it):

    “In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hidden. The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing the indentations. So you see, astrology’s nothing to do with astronomy. It’s just to do with people thinking about people.” Report

    • Avatar kenB says:

      Also see this from Buddha:

      “I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      I love the Adams quote; I quite agree. Anything that helps individuals shift their thinking and look at things from a slightly different perspective can be of enormous value. And human’s have a long and complicated history of doing this; from reading tea leaves and chicken knuckles to palms and stars and head bumps and (somewhere, I’m sure) freckles across the nose.

      But most religions also seem to frown on these soothe-saying arts; in some places and some times, this shifting-of-perspective from contemplating the tea leaves in the bottom of a cup seems enough to spur an inquisition. And nobody wants an inquisition.

      So as an atheist who’s none too happy to have Dawkins as frontman for my particular brand of disbelief, it’s a muddled cup that holds Abraham and his sons, three kings following yonder star, Pope Francis, Sharia Law, and Osel Hita Torres as science with the oh-so-valuable shifting of perspective, as Adams and Jaybird have both pointed out, thrown in as unhealthy sugar to make it all easy to swallow.

      If you believe, God is real to you; and in most western countries, that belief is given government’s protection. Dawkins chokes up all the air in the room; we argue over his militant tendencies vs. his scientific method. Eventually, that lack of air might smother the fires, and we can get down to discussing justice and morality instead of arguing over inquisitions.

      But too often, the short path of the discussion, atheist = Dwakins = militant = immoral seems a form of inquisition, so the reality show God: real or hoax never gets a slot on prime time TV.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Oh yeah, one more that, for some reason, I’m reminded of. Take it away, Uncle Upton:

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.Report

  13. Avatar trizzlor says:

    Thing is, Dawkins writes extensively about the negative impact of religion on society. Even if his findings are purely statistical (which they are not), understanding theology is vital to drawing conclusions about causality that aren’t biased by some hidden con-founders. The Dungeons & Dragons example is a good one; if I’m concluding that D&D is responsible for a wave of teen-suicides, I better have a deep enough understanding of D&D culture to account for things like social anxiety/bullying in the cohort. I should also have read enough D&D theology to identify passages that are (for example) interpreted by players in a pro-suicide way. As a preeminent scientist, I’m sure Dawkins understand this and is just more interested in controversy than scientific rigor.Report

    • Avatar Philip H says:

      Richard Dawkins is a popularly known scientist – though not really for his science. As a practicing professional scientist I wouldn’t call him preeminent.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      trizzlor, I don’t disagree (too much!) with your conclusion here but it’s worth noting, I think, that an argument which justifies religious beliefs solely on pragmatics and the positive role religion plays in individual and social life pretty much gives up the game as far as his larger critique (ie, justifying the truth of religious beliefs) is concerned.Report

    • Avatar Shazbot11 says:

      Interestingly, I don’t think theology is an attempt to describe the beliefs of the vast majority of self-ascribed theists or religious believers. The vast majority of believers wouldn’t understand the first thing out of a theologians mouth and haven’t read anything. Theologians study an idealized version of what they think is the best way to interpret religious texts, not how people do think of them.

      The relevant discipline would be the psychology or sociology of religion, which Dawkins is quite interested in and cites frequently, if you wanted to form conclusions about the pernicious effects of religion. You wouldn’t ask a bunch of D&D players about strategy and characters. You’d ask a psychologist who had measured their affects, behaviors, etc.Report

      • Avatar Guy says:

        “You wouldn’t ask a bunch of d&d players about strategy and characters”

        I’m pretty sure, as a practicing d&d player, that this is the opposite of what you would do. (Though I think I can see where you’re trying to go with this)Report

      • Avatar Shazbot9 says:

        The perniciousness of D&D is that if too many people played it, since no one would have sex with the players, obviously, the human race would die out.


      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        The vast majority of believers wouldn’t understand the first thing out of a theologians mouth and haven’t read anything.

        I’m basing this on experience with the Jewish faith, but isn’t the weekly sermon given by a religious leader generally a theological work, or at least a practical distillation of theological writing? It would seem to me that, outside of their own personal analysis, this would be the main source of thinking theists get on religion.

        You wouldn’t ask a bunch of D&D players about strategy and characters. You’d ask a psychologist who had measured their affects, behaviors, etc.

        And if that psychologist was any good, those measurements would include talking to DMs about how they interpret passages of the guide, which doesn’t seem much different from understanding major theological works. Maybe the analogy is getting worn out, let’s say I claim “this passage in the Koran incites suicide bombers,” would you take me seriously if I was actively ignorant of common theological interpretations of said passage? How credible is my claim of causality if I refuse to understand the mechanism?Report

  14. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Could Dawkins explain the “fact” of whether or not there is such a thing as “love”?

    Love is empirically as false as “god” as any “scientist” surely knows (you can’t prove it in a lab, naturally). Same with “thought” for that matter, but that is another post. 🙂Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

      If people want to say that god is real in the same way love is real, as an atheist I’m totally on board with that.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        You are learning grasshopper Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Yeah, that’s a God (can?) I believe in. Sympathy, empathy, love … those are spiritual concepts, it seems to me. Unbounded. Unanalyzable. I’m down. Also peace. That concept doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        And what about the negative space of love? Religion frequently barters there.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Spirituality barters there. I’m not sure Religion has anything to say about it.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, except to fill it for you.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        You know, cognitive psych and linguistics spends a lot of time playing around with concepts that are “Unbounded. Unanalyzable” (although they might not use those terms) and otherwise not well served by classic truth value semantics. For instance, the ideas of gestalt and construals are nothing new. Nor is the idea that human subjective experience is colored by meaning and emotion at every level, even if that meaning and emotion is not in fact mind independent.

        (And I know that is tough to swallow, because we really, really want our sense of meaning to emerge from something outside ourselves. I get it. It’s hard to set aside myth. But this appears to be the universe we live in. Accepting it is, I believe, part of being a modern adult.)

        This is well-covered territory. Laying on a dose of false profundity does the subject no favors.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Laying on a dose of false profundity does the subject no favors.

        False dose? Aren’t these the very terms that Religionists use to describe spirituality? There is no pretension to false profundity in anything I wrote. From my pov, the concepts of love and sympathy and empathy are unalyzable and unbounded.

        Also, I’m not sure how to respond to your comments about modern linguist’s and cog scientist’s views of terms, since I dont’ know precisely how it relates. I don’t think it requires scientific confirmation that some terms are so infused with emotional content that their meaning is infused with subjectively determined content. That doesn’t mean that the term itself has no objective meaning, tho.

        Or at least, I hope so. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Shazbot9 says:

        God is love and energy. Like totally, dude.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire says:

      This is silly.

      Humans exist. We feel emotions, many quite deep. Love is among them.

      Is anyone truly confused about the existence of love?

      Now, if you’re one of those “human consciousness exists, and it’s not obvious (to me) that brains could do that — so GOD!”

      Well, whatever. I think there is plenty of evidence that brains do consciousness, thought, memory, emotions, etc., and thus love. No god needed here.

      To say that science doubts love is kinda gross.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I know more than a handful of arch-empiricists who insist that love is nothing more than a hormonally-triggered wash of chemicals triggering synaptic responses in the brain. If you can reproduce the hormones, you can reproduce the sensation of seeing your sweetheart.

        It’s a little too far down into the Matrix for me.

        And it doesn’t explain why, without the hormone injection, I get that flush of chemicals in my brain when I see Mrs. Likko, and why a similar flush of chemicals does not occur when I see or even interact with some other, objectively equally-attractive woman.Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        It sounds like those “arch-empiricists” don’t understand reductionism very well. Of course love is a chemical reaction, given how the human brain works it would have to be. Understanding what love is, doesn’t make it less profound or significant.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @burt-likko — So here is the thing, that is probably exactly what love is — brain chemicals, electro-stimulation in your neurons, etc. And yes, that can probably be faked — maybe someday, if we ever learn the full measure of how brains work. (Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t.)

        The question is, what do we do with the knowledge?

        Consider this, there is no reason to suspect the universe will be comforting. It might be bizarre.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        @veronica-dire & @james-k , I get what you’re saying and of course chemical washes and neurons firing is how the brain works. There is probably a cellular-neurochemical explanation for why a particular stimulus produces a particular reaction, too. If love is reducible to this granular level, then so are other emotions, like fear or malaise. But there is still something more to it than that.

        We could, in theory, conjure up the chemical formula for “awe” and inject it into a human test subject in the laboratory. Or, we could drive that same person up to Inspiration Point in Yosemite Valley on a clear morning and have her take a look at something awe-inspiring. From a cellular-neurochemical level, the experiences are identical. I submit that what would happen in the laboratory and what would happen on that mountainside are qualitatively different events — because looking only at what’s going on at the neurochemical level is not a complete enough picture.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @burt-likko — So, here is the thing: the implications of neuro-physicalism is that they are not different, except in the banal sense that no two things are exactly the same.

        I suggest you read up on the Mind Projection Fallacy, which the LessWrong folks explain pretty well:

        It seems our brains are wired to see beauty, truth, and meaning out there, but that is an illusion. But more, I think it is an illusion that is so deeply “baked into” our psychology that we can’t let it go, even if we wanted. (And why should we want to?)

        On the other hand, I see value in confronting this, even if we cannot psychologically “dwell” in this place. I can’t explain why exactly, but I have a sense that knowing how arbitrary our deeply held feeling are might be ultimately healthy — insofar as this: when we strip away the falsehoods, what remains are humans clinging to an unbearably fragile life, with no meaning outside of ourselves. Maybe people who accept that will have deeper empathy.

        Maybe not.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        It seems our brains are wired to see beauty, truth, and meaning out there, but that is an illusion.

        Just as our brains are wired to (correctly) attribute heat, mass, texture, color, etc to objects out there.

        The experience of awe is an internal property (*not* identical to a specific chemical wash or sequence of synaptic firings or whathaveyou, in my view). The property of “being awe-inspiring”, however, is a property of external objects. Is it an objective property of objects? Well, that’s a pretty deep philosophical issue, it seems to me, one that people disagree about. It seems to me that the properties that make a human sexy are objective properties of objects (human persons, in this case) even tho the experience of feeling sexually attracted to X is (by definition!) an internal property.

        Or so it seems to me.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @stillwater — Did you read the article I linked to?

        Look, this is a very old conversation. The thing is, the answer is very obvious, but also troubling to people, so we go round and round.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Yeah, I did read the article. I read the comment thread as well, which was interesting.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Also, I don’t think the persistence of the problem derives from people finding the answer troubling. I think it’s because there isn’t an easy answer to it.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        From a cellular-neurochemical level, the experiences are identical. I submit that what would happen in the laboratory and what would happen on that mountainside are qualitatively different events — because looking only at what’s going on at the neurochemical level is not a complete enough picture.

        I don’t know. The nuerochemical experience that a heroin addict gets from sitting in a squalid little room injecting the drug is enough of a qualitative experience to make him forget about and forsake all sorts of other “real life” experiences. And there are also lots of people who spend large amounts of time sitting in front of screens taking part in virtual experiences that they often find more fulfilling than the “real life” experiences in which they could be out taking part.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        Well, at this point I don’t know what to tell you. To me it seems as if you are saying, “Yeah, the rock falls, but it doesn’t really fall, ’cause there is this other mysterious fallness, which is found in some rocks but not this rock, and just because it fell doesn’t mean it has fallness.”

        Two people can stand at the same lookout point and see the same scene. One feels awe. The other does not. (Such things happen all the time, which leads to bickering during trips.)

        Neither is wrong, as the awe is not in the scene — which is light reflected from stuff arranged some particular way. The awe happens when that configuration triggers some response in your brain.

        Different brain, different response. No brain, no response at all.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I think it’s more like this: if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?

        If you identify the property of sound with the experience of hearing, then the answer is no. If you identify the property of sound with a sound wave, then yes.

        The experience of awe requires minds and bodies. THe property of being awe inspiring is a property of objects, which can cause the experience to be realized in certain people.

        If you’re just saying that the emotion of feeling awe is mind dependent, then it’s sort of trivially true (since emotions, as far as we know, are only realized in minds/bodies). But it doesn’t follow from that that there aren’t real properties in real objects which cause the emotion to be realized in people.

        Going back to the article you linked to, the projection of emotional states to aliens is incorrect, on a bunch of levels. But that doesn’t mean that the woman we humans supposed to think of as sexy doesn’t actually have properties that most people agree are in fact sexy (and inspire the emotion of sexual attraction).Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        the answer is very obvious, but also troubling to people, so we go round and round.

        That’s pretty much my position, but this is an issue I don’t enjoy arguing about. Thanks for carrying the load.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Now I keep hearing the word “qualia” in my head.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        What’s the very obvious answer, tho? Is it that the experience of awe is mind dependent and people project their subjectively determined concept of being awesome on objects in the external world? Doesn’t that reverse the causal chain of events, that the emotional response or experience of awe is caused by our interactions with objects in the external world?

        Is it that the emotional experience of awesomeness is nothing more than a chemical wash in the brain or otherwise entirely mind-dependent? Even if that’s right, isn’t there still the question of what causes that chemical wash in people?

        I mean, look at it this way: the argument in the linky tried to establish that attributing to others a specific emotional reaction in response to the presentation of an object is incorrect, and in fact is an instance of projecting our own subjectively determined emotional content as if it were objective. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t objective properties inhering in objects which cause that emotional response.

        Are we disagreeing about the truth of the last sentence or something else?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Now I keep hearing the word “qualia” in my head.

        Yeah, tho I’m not exactly sure what the disagreement is about so I don’t know if it’s relevant.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I assume it’s relevant, because otherwise what “subjective properties” are they talking about. If this isn’t a conversation about qualia and their distinction from other types of phenomena, then I am surprised to learn of some people that they believe there is such a sharp distinction and separation between the “external” and the “internal,” between the world of the “object” and the “subject,” that it is possible to talk about the properties of one and the properties of the other in this way (again, without reference to some sort of uniquely first person properties like qualia).Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @stillwater — We both see a scene. You feel awe. I go, “meh.”

        How does the scene know to send awe photons to your eyes and meh photons to mine?

        Well, I mean, that isn’t what happens. Assuming similar light levels and similar vantage points, the photons that reach our eyes are roughly the same. We more or less see identical scenes, at least to the point of our visual cortices.

        From there the differences arise, as our brains process the images, yours from your sense of aesthetics and values, and mine from mine. This is where the difference lies, not in the physical makeup of the scene, but in our brains.

        Consider this, I see the same scene on two different days, similar times of day, similar light levels, more or less the same visual image.

        On the first day I have date coming up, to see a girl I very much like. I hopeful. The scene fills me with a sense of beauty and life.

        On the next day the date is over, and it didn’t work at all, and she didn’t like me at all, and now I am wondering if anyone will ever like me or if I am an unlovable freak. How do I respond to the scene today?

        Somehow the scene knows the difference. On the first day it sends awe photons. On the next day it sends photons of emptiness.

        What strange properties for a scene to have.

        Personally, I think the difference is in my brain. YMMV.Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        I think there are two ways to look at this. On the one hand you can look at what’s happening to the person having the experience, in which case their brain chemistry is the only factor at work. An awe-inspiring event and awe-inspiring chemicals would have the same direct effect.

        But seeing an inspirational sight means being part of an experience others have had, you can think about all the other people who have come to that place and seen that sight. The experiences of others add to the profundity of the event, without in any way contradicting the fact that the emotions the experience evokes are made of chemicals.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Lord of the Rings [1] brings up an interesting version of this question. Gimli is overwhelmed by Galadriel’s beauty, so much so that he’ll fight anyone who denies that she’s the most beautiful female in Middle-Earth. And in fact, there’s general agreement among all of the men, elves, and dwarves he meets, with the single exception that Arwen is just as beautiful. All properly medieval, that he’ll defend his lady with no thought of reward, except that he’s a different species than she is. We never meet any female dwarves, and have no idea what they look like [2] or what would make one more attractive than another, but certainly they’re not tall, slender elf-maidens. So either Galadriel has some sort of objective beauty, separate from the subjective beauty that attracts males to females, or every dwarf in Middle Earth would really rather be with an elf.

        1. The books, not the overly-prolonged CGI sequences. It annoys me that I even need to clarify that.

        2. Pratchett’s idea that they look *exactly* like male dwarves and that part of courtship is discovering the gender of the potential mate is specific to Discworld.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Are the Middle-Earth peoples more akin to “species”, or to “races”? IIRC they are referred to as “races” in the books (like “the race of Man” – I may be imagining that, and certainly the Elves are seen as set somewhat apart from the others, more “magical”).

        As such, even though I don’t think we ever see any miscegenation in the stories, I’d expect dwarves to be just as vulnerable to the lure of the exotic as men are.

        Some guys like tall/short/blonde/black/Asian/etc. chicks.

        Gimli’s got a weakness for the Elven sisters. It happens.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Veronica, I’m a bit confused what the topic of discussion is, so let me try a different track to gain some clarity. It seems to me you’re saying that there’s nothing more to the concept or property awe than the chemical wash which causes an emotional response which is then incorrectly projected onto objects in the external world. (Is that right?)

        If so, then it seems to me that the same argument would apply to other properties like heat. That is, there is nothing more to the concept/property heat than the chemical wash which causes an emotional response and which is then incorrectly projected onto external objects. Do you accept that conclusion under the general argument?

        Of course, the latter may not be an argument you accept and perhaps you restrict the types of properties which are incorrectly attributed to objects to only aesthetic properties (or something like that). But if so, how would that distinction be sustained?

        And then there’s the whole issue of qualitative experiences and mental/physical identities and what not. Are you also arguing that mental properties are identical to physical properties?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Are you also arguing that mental properties are identical to physical properties of the brain?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        If it were just Gimli liking some strange, sure, but Galadriel and Arwen’s beauty is presented by the omniscient narrator as fact, over and over.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @mike-schilling – Well, Tolkien was well-known for bursting into the smoky Oxford faculty lounge and braying “WHERE THE ELF WOMEN AT?!?!”

        But like I said, Elves are seen as the magical beings. Maybe the narrator was just reinforcing the idea that they can be literally “bewitching”.

        IOW, a wizard did it.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @stillwater — Heat differs from awe. Heat is (largely) the energy contained in tiny molecular vibrations. (We could at this point pull out a thermo text and get super technical. Let’s pretend we did that.)

        Awe is an emotional response to certain kinds of stimuli, which have a general sense of significance. It can be very powerful.

        (Note that I say they have a sense of significance. Here the term sense is doing important work.)

        If the stove it hot, can I be wrong about that? Can I place my hand on the stove and find it was hot when I thought it was not, and vice versa?

        I can do this. Heat is mind-independent.

        Can I be wrong that I feel awe?

        Hmmm. What would that even mean?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        It’s like humor. At first you might think it’s purely subjective, but that leads to the false conclusion that there’s a sense in which Adam Sandler is funny.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        OK. Good. You wrote,

        Heat is mind-independent.

        According to you’re view, there is a distinction between the property of heat (which applies to objects external to the mind) and the property of feeling heat (which is a property realized in the mind and typically caused by MMKE), but the property awe permits no such distinction and is merely am emotional property of minds not caused by any properties inhering in external objects. Is that right?

        OK. So the whole dispute is limited to the semantics of aesthetic terms?

        Yeah, that’s an old dispute, but also one that’s not settled. I mean, I disagree with your view, but at least I’m clear what you’re arguing now.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I’m not sure what it means for a judgment of “heat” to be wrong either, for that matter. I mean, my experience of the ambient temperature is largely dependent on wholly internal factors (body temperature, hormone levels, expectation, level of acclimation, etc.) that have as much to do with me as awe would under any explanation I can think of. We might argue that there are extreme variances between a physical state and the subjective perception of “heat” that suggest an error in the latter, but we could probably do so for “awe” as well.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        @stillwater ,
        In many ways our experience of heat is subjective,y determined. But we can also measure heat objectively (at the physics level, its about how fast the constituent bits vibrate). Can you show me a comparable objective measurement for “awesomeness”?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Can you show me a comparable objective measurement for “awesomeness”?

        This strikes me as being as likely to be a modeling problem as it is a fundamental metaphysical distinction between “heat” and “awesomeness,” to the extent that those properties are comparable at all. To the extent that they are not comparable (which may be a great one), I suspect that the category distinction between them will be largely semantic rather than metaphysical.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        I don’t quite understand. Are you saying we can come up with a physics definition of awesomeness comparable to heat? One that is entirely distinct from human experience? Because I can’t see that.

        I can see us taking different landscapes, recording human ratings of theur awesomeness, and working toward a more precise understanding of what features are likely to trigger what degree of awe with what probability. But that’s fundamentally distinct from physics’ measurement of heat.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        James, to the extent that the distinction between heat and awesomeness is not merely one of different semantic categories, sure, I can see that. It would be a pretty complex model, messier than any one of heat since heat is a pretty basic physical property, but I see no reason why “awesomeness,” again to the extent that the distinction between “heat” and “awesomeness” is not merely one of different semantic categories, couldn’t be modeled. To the extent that they are different semantic categories (“heat” referring to a physical property and not to the sensation of “heat” at all, and “awesomeness” referring to the sensation of “awe” and not to physical properties, perhaps even of the brain, at all) then that’s probably not the case.

        In short, it’s all in that distinction. We’re comparing two different things, unless “heat” becomes the sensation of heat, in which case it looks a lot like “awesomeness” both in terms of its “subjectivity,” and in terms of its physical explanations (which would have to refer to properties of objects and properties of subjects).Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        I think it matters that the sensation of heat can clearly be connected to a fundamental physical property, while awesomeness requires a messy model. At least to the extent that Stillwater’s easy analogy of the one to the other is too glib.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Sure, it matters because it makes modeling the relationship between physical properties and the sensation of “heat” significantly easier. It doesn’t make the two things different on a fundamental metaphysical level. Unless the distinction remains semantic (and we’re talking about qualia only when talking about “awe”), in which case a trick is being played.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        You wrote

        I think it matters that the sensation of heat can clearly be connected to a fundamental physical property, while awesomeness requires a messy model. At least to the extent that Stillwater’s easy analogy of the one to the other is too glib.

        That may be true, but I agree with Chris on modeling and complexity and stuff like that. Surely there is no fact of the matter that chocolate is better tasting than vanilla, but there is a causal relationship between foods having the property of being vanilla (or vanilla flavored) and the sensory experience of what vanilla tastes like. But the subjective perception/sensation of what vanilla tastes like isn’t the property found in external objects which causes it. The two things are distinct, with the external property being identified (causally!) by the appropriate internal perceptions and sensations.

        To step back out a bit and reconsider where this discussion started … a claim was made that the total analysis of awesomeness (or being sexy in the linked article) is limited to the subjective experience of certain brain functions, and given that analysis, attributing the property of awesomeness or sexiness to external objects is incorrect. The (not so glib) reply was that according to analysis, the sensation of heat ought to also be analyzed as a purely subjective experience identical to, or caused by, or correlated with, certain types of brain activity.

        The reason the analogy isn’t glib is that we don’t think heat is a subjective property. We think it’s an objective (mind-independent) property of objects in the world which causes certain types of (mind-dependent) sensory responses perceived by, or experienced by, mind/brains. And if that’s the case with heat, then why think it it’s not also the case with awesomeness, or sexiness? That is, why think that there aren’t properties inhering in objects in the world which case the feeling of awe, or the feeling of sexual attraction?

        It’s not enough to say at this point, it seems to me anyway, that the two types of events are distinct since that begs the question. Or at least *a* question, which is: no one disputes (in this discussion, anyway) that there is a specific subjectively experienced perceptual content picked out by the terms “feeling warmth” and “feeling awed”, so why think that only one is caused by properties external to the mind? Of course, I agree with you to some extent that the lack of a measurable property which causes the awesome meter to peg fire red counts as evidence. I’m just not sure – actually, I am sure – it doesn’t count as evidence that the sensation of feeling awed isn’t caused by objects and events that are awesome.

        If there is an argument for that conclusion, it’s not going to be the lack of a scientific measuring instrument, it seems to me, since that begs a different type of question, namely, that the only evidence upon which properties and causal relationships can be established is via reductive analytical materialism. And that’s where I think Chris’s arguments about modeling and complexity are spot on.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        the sensation of feeling awed isn’t caused by objects and events that are awesome

        Well, if you preemptively declare them awesome, I guess you win the argument by definition.

        But I think it begs the question. Is there a quality of awesomeness distinct from the human experience of it? There is for heat. Heat continues to exist in the absence of humanity. Those things we see as awesome continue to exist in our absence, but do they continue to be awesome, or have awesomeness in any meaningful sense?

        See, I don’t think Veronica denied that the things we call awesome actually exist, or that our sense of awesomeness is connected with those things. But awesomeness, unlike heat doesn’t exist absent humans. It is like the sensation of heat, perhaps: existing only as a set of physical reactions (the chemical wash, if we must). It has no objective reality disconnected from our responses to it.

        We can define heat without reference to humans. What kind of non-nonsense description of awesomeness without reference to humans could we come up with?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, if you preemptively declare them awesome, I guess you win the argument by definition.

        I didn’t do that, of course. I made an argument by analogy to the concept of heat and the relationship between the experience of heat being caused by external objects wondering why that model doesn’t hold in the case of other types of perceptual experiences.

        I mean, consider a naturalistic account of the types of phenomena we’re talking about, one which is pretty banal it seems to me: Certain types of stimuli cause certain types of chemical washes in certain types of brains, one of which is chemical wash A321. No mention of minds or subjectivity. Do you object to that type of description of what’s going on here?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I don’t think it’s necessary to attempt a definition of awesomeness that stands alone from the participation of a human being. What we’re discussing is the experience of awe. A human being is necessary to have that experience. The chemical wash in the human being’s brain that causes neurons to fire in a particular pattern and proteins encrusted upon those neurons to dissolve and reconstitute just so, is experienced by that human being as “awe” (or “love” or “fear” or what have you).

        My question is, and remains, is a neurological analysis of the experience of awe (etc.) sufficient to completely describe that experience? I maintain that it is not. The sensation of awe (etc.) may be identical whether the stimulus is environmental or artificially-induced, but the experience is different.

        I might inject myself with endorphins and feel very good about myself, but that is not the same thing as winning a big case (or, in your case, whatever the equivalent might be). There is a difference between reading about wine and drinking it. Why is intercourse so much more satisfying than masturbation, even if the orgasm winds up being not as intense? A photograph of Yosemite is not the same thing as standing on the edge of the mountain gazing into the valley. The child in the Matrix does not make the spoon bend, because there is no spoon at all. Taking the red pill may not be as pleasing as taking the blue one, but the result of taking the red pill is inherently richer.Report

      • Avatar Coke-Encrusted Hollywood Exec says:

        @burt-likko Say, pal, you know where I can score any of those blue pills?

        Or red. It doesn’t really matter, does it?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        I say the experiences are the same. What makes winning different from just an endorphin rush is that with the endorphin rush alone you know you have not won, and the knowledge changes the chemical wash. If the chemic wash is so perfect that you “know” you have won, the experience is the same for you. If we had a virtual reality so perfect you could not distinguish it from reality, and could not tell when we shuffle you from reality to virtual reality and back, your experiences would be identical.

        As Veronica says, I think, we resist accepting this because we’re uncomfortable with the implications, but the imitations have no bearing on whether or not it’s true.

        This is why I don’t like these arguments. It’s entirely unclear to me that we’re using words in the same way, or whether they have consistent meanings from post to post. And I don’t think that debate gets to Burt’s question, which Veronica was trying to answer.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        And I don’t think that debate gets to Burt’s question, which Veronica was trying to answer.

        I don’t know how to settle that issue in her absence. But she *did* say, via the linky she provided, that attributing the property of sexiness to external objects is a mistake because the property of being sexually attracted to X is entirely mind dependent and subjectively determined.

        I think that’s descriptively incoherent, myself. It’s pretty dang clear that external objects *cause* us to feel sexual attraction. Just like it’s pretty dang clear that external objects *cause* us to feel awe. In the absence of the external stimuli why do we experience the chemical wash?Report

      • Avatar Shazbot9 says:

        “Just as our brains are wired to (correctly) attribute heat, mass, texture, color, etc to objects out there.”

        I didn’t read this whole subthread, but the sentence quoted above is subtly false.

        Heat does not exist in the external world. Mean kinetic energy does. The sensation of heat exists in the mind and is, presumably, identical to (or supervenient upon, if you’d like) some brain process. So too color. Objects reflect light, but they don’t have the color that we naively perceive them to have.

        Of course, mean kinetic energy is the ultimate cause of the sensation of heat or the brain process that realizes that sensation. But interestingly, very different swarms of atoms can have the dispositional power to cause us to experience sensations of heat. So it is with the power to cause us to have experiences of awe. The molecules composing the grand canyon can cause us to experience sensations of awe. The molecules composing Michael Jordan can do the same. Whether you wish to be a nominalist and say that Jordan and the Grand Canyon share no properties but are only given the same name of “awesomeness” or be a realist who says they do share a mind-independent property of awesomeness that is multiply realizable by different collections of atoms and thus reducible to the physical is really pretty academic.

        Rainbows are just refracted light. They are still, despite being unwoven by the scientists, still awe-inspiring. Reductive science has not emptied the gnomed mine. It does not take nature’s charms. Oh, Lamia.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot9 says:

        If you really studied that last comment, you could figure out who I am and remove my anonymity.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Reductive science has not emptied the gnomed mine.

        This. I get very irritated by the argument that the more we know the less awe-filled we will be. It’s always been my experience that more knowledge increases the awe-filledness.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I get very irritated by the argument that the more we know the less awe-filled we will be.

        Do you think anyone on this thread is making that argument, that materialistic explanations are inconsistent with awesomeness? I actually made the same point as Shazbot upthread, tho it apparently went unnoticed. It seems to entirely within the realm of materialism to define the property of awesomeness in naturalistic terms. I just don’t think it will be simplistic.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Burt, you get at what I’m trying to express (first with visions of qualia dancing in my head): there are, at a coarse level of analysis, three types of phenomena at play in this discussion: the “object” “out” there (I use scare quotes because I think out there vs in here and objective vs subjective are problematic distinctions), with its physical properties, the physical properties of the “in” here (a sensing body), and the first-person, conscious experience of what something is like. Only the last of these is not modelable on a way that allows “heat” and “awe” to be roughly the same (differing in the complexity and knowledge required to do the modeling). The properties of things “out there” that produce what we call “heat” and “awesomeness” are modelable, the physical processes of sending bodies that result in perceptions of what we call “heat” and “awe” are modelable, and what “heat” and “awe” are like for us may not be. Now, if “awe” and the attendant “awesomeness” only refer to the last of these (what it is like), or the last two (sending bodies and likeness), then if we are comparing it to the physical phenomena “out there” that we label heat, then we’re playing a trick on ourselves and or our interlocutors. It’s a sophistry that allows us to pretend that “heat” “in here” is different from “awe” in here because there is another phenomenon “out there” that we call “heat,” which bears a rough but hardly one-to-one relationship with our experience of what heat is like or our reaction to it as sensing bodies, but there is no such “out there” phenomenon or set of phenomena that we refer to as “awesomeness.”This means that if we attribute “awesomeness” to “objects” “out there” in the same way that we refer to “heat” in “objects” “out there,” we’re just using the word wrong, or we’re using them to mean the properties in things that produce in us the experience of “heat” and “awe,” in which case we’re not making an error in either case.

        Put differently, the difference is either semantic or no difference at all, but I already said that a few times.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I think it matters that the sensation of heat can clearly be connected to a fundamental physical property, while awesomeness requires a messy model. At least to the extent that Stillwater’s easy analogy of the one to the other is too glib.

        This is actually exactly what doesn’t matter in the distinction we’re trying to draw between heat and awsomeness. It doesn’t matter that the human perception of heat can be connected to an objective physical property. The human perception of heat is as subjective as the human perception of awe. Sticking your hand in a bowl of warm water can feel as painfully hot is you’ve been outside in sub-freezing weather for a long time as sticking it in a bowl of hot water if you haven’t. That that perception can be linked to real physical properties that can be measured objectively, unlike the perception of awsomeness, neither distinguishes the human perception of heat from the human perception of awesomeness (they’re both perceptions subject to human subjectivity), nor is it what distinguishes heat itself from awesomeness itself. Rather, what matters is just that heat is an objective physical property and awesomeness isn’t: awesomeness is only a perceived property. But when it comes to humans perceiving heat and humans perceiving awesomeness, they’re both very much contingent on the condition of the specific perceiver. Different human perceivers won’t perceive the same objects as equally awesome, nor as equally hot; even the same perceiver will perceive the same scene of awesomeness or the same object at the same temperature as varyingly awesome or hot as her disposition varies over time.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      We abound in empirical evidence that love exists, it’s difficult to explain why parents don’t murder or abandon their babies without it. God is rather more elusive.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        You’ve heard the stories of moms lifting cars to help their babies escape, yes? (We can, if you like, ascribe such abilities to “love”).

        Well, what do you say to someone who can do that skill on a moment’s notice? (If, as monks do, they wish to ascribe such abilities to “God” or “mindfulness” or some other form of spirituality).Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        I expect adrenalin is involved.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        Pray tell where exists this empirical “evidence” James?Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        First off a definition – empirical evidence is any observation that is more likely to be observed in a world where x is true than if x is false. Some people think that empirical evidence only includes the results of double-blind experiments with highly-calibrated scientific instruments. While that’s the best kind of evidence, weaker kinds of evidence exist that are still valid, you just can’t draw conclusions that are as strong from them.

        If parents did not love their children they would abandon them shortly after birth – who would put up with anything so annoying as a baby otherwise? This generalises to other kinds of love. People make sacrifices for people they purportedly love that they wouldn’t for anyone else. There’s probably some neurological evidence at this point, but that’s not my area of expertise.

        In any case, human behaviour makes more sense and is more predictable if you assume love exists than if you don’t, and that means there are empirical grounds for believing love exists. The same cannot be said for gods of any description.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I see the debate as similar to the aesthetics one. There is *SOMETHING* going on that makes this statue better than that one. There is something going on that makes this Pollack better than the mess made by the toddler.

        Bach is better than Bieber.

        I’ll be damned if I can pinpoint why, though.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        You realize James that by your same squishy definition of “empirical”I can easily “prove” the existence of God.Report

  15. Avatar North says:

    As an agnostic, either a cousin or a squishy fellow-traveler to atheists, I’ve always found Dawkins uncomfortable as a standard bearer.

    That said as long as theists insist that their theological beliefs have empirical material demands that they should enforce on believers (and worse, unbelievers) I’m content to let slip the Dawkins to harry them.Report

  16. Avatar Alan Clark says:

    The literal meaning of Theology is the study of god(s), but ironically that is one thing that theologians never do. So what is the point of it?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      See it as “the study of God’s thoughts”.

      This way, you don’t even need the deity to exist. You just need to study what He would be thinkin’ if He did. This can, of course, take you some weird places… it seems to be a Rorschach test in many (most?) cases but, sometimes, it can result in papers on Time.Report