Why Philosophy of Religion is Awesome

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 22, 2009 in Funny,Philosophy of Religion 101

standoff

Why is philosophy of religion so cool?

1. Because it’s fucking epic. The stakes could not possibly be larger. We’re arguing about the most fundamental nature of the universe, the ground of all existence, the source of morality, the purpose and meaning of human existence, eternal life or imminent death.

2. Because there are two distinct sides, basically: atheism vs. theism. Two guys in a ring, trading blows.1

3. Because it is immediately relevant and supremely important to billions of people. The other schools of philosophy envy us. You don’t get as much press writing about epistemology or the philosophy of language.

4. Because it is focused on a list of easily summarized arguments, which are continuously swung, blunted, resharpened, counterattacked, and redeployed in rapidly shifting environments of epistemology and evidence, like two ninjas in a sword fight atop a moving train.

5. Because it has an unusually long and interesting history.

6. Because it lends itself to public debates better than many other philosophical topics.

7. Because it disguises ancient, bloody religious battles in rigorous and gentlemanly philosopher-talk. :)

But there is one reason that philosophy of religion is not so cool, and it is enough for some people to ignore it all together:

  • Philosophy of religion consists of arguments and speculations about magical beings.

So yeah, that’s one downside. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing “philosophy of werewolves.”

  1. Okay, it’s way more complicated than this, but if you want you can focus on just this part of philosophy of religion. []

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark May 23, 2009 at 10:46 am

Maybe religion seems so epic because God is really there.  The fact that it seems to never go away and seems pervasive in all cultures is reasonable evidence (not mathematical proof) that there may be Something there after all.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.

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Chuck May 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Just because everyone believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. They use to think the sun revolved around the earth.

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Reginald Selkirk May 23, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Mark: The fact that it seems to never go away and seems pervasive in all cultures is reasonable evidence (not mathematical proof) that there may be Something there after all.

You could easily say the same thing about astrology. Your argument would suck just as badly.

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Reginald Selkirk May 23, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Because there are two distinct sides, basically: atheism vs. theism.

Except that one “side” consists of a great number of different positions and beliefs about god(s). When a boxer or a pizza chain claims that it’s them against the world, the ploy is easily seen through as marketing hype.

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Lorkas May 23, 2009 at 5:28 pm

We’re not taking on just any -ism–we’re taking on THEism.

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Eric May 23, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Mark’s point is indeed reasonable, *as he phrased it*.

He didn’t claim that the pervasiveness of belief is proof, but evidence. Evidence, unlike proof, is defeasible.

He claimed that it is evidence that there *may be* something to theism, not that it’s evidence that there *is* something to theism. His conclusion is a weak one, and is well apportioned to the sort of evidence he’s adduced.

Finally, the analog to astrology doesn’t work. Astrology, while pervasive, isn’t nearly as pervasive as theism. Since the degree of the pervasiveness of astrology simply isn’t comparable to that of theism, and since it is just this degree of pervasiveness that Mark rests his claim upon, the analogy fails. Also, we can reasonably date the beginnings of Astrology to roughly 2500 BCE. Theism, however, can be reasonably  dated to 40,000 BCE. This substantial gap in time between the two should be expected, of course: theism only requires the use of language and abstractions, while astrology requires careful observations and rigorous mathematical calculations in addition to the use of language required by religion. However, such a gap, and the preconditions that explain it, also point to relevant disanalogies between theism and astrology (again, with respect to Mark’s claim).

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Chuck May 24, 2009 at 7:24 am

Pervasiveness of belief is not evidence.

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Eric May 24, 2009 at 8:11 am

“Pervasiveness of belief is not evidence.”

Let’s test this.

Take two beliefs, P and P1.

Let’s say that all we know about P is that one person, in one culture at one time has believed that P.  And, let’s say that all we know about P1 is that the vast majority of people, from the vast majority of cultures, at all times have believed that P1.

Further suppose that either P or P1 is in fact true, and that the other is false.

If the pervasiveness of a belief isn’t in any sense evidence that a belief is true, then it follows that we have as much reason to believe that P as we have to believe that P1 — again, given the limited information we have about both P and P1.

Now, do your intuitions tell you that this is the case? Think about it this way: if you had to bet your life on the truth of either P or P1, which would you go with? I’d wager that nearly everyone in this case would go with P1,  even though the only reason we have to prefer P1 to P is the pervasiveness of  the belief that P1. However, if, as you claim, the pervasiveness of a belief isn’t in any sense evidence for it, we’d have no reason to prefer either one in such a situation.

Now, the interesting question is *why* most of us would go with P1. I say it’s because it’s obvious that the fact that a belief is held by nearly all people,  in nearly all cultures, at nearly all times does give us a reason to think that it’s more likely to be true (which is what we mean by ‘evidence’) — even if only slightly more likely — than a belief that is held by only one person in one culture at one time.  What’s your explanation?

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Dave May 24, 2009 at 10:29 am

In choosing P1 over P on the basis of pervasiveness, one must make several assumptions: that there is no outside influencing factor causing people to falsely believe P1, to which the sole P-believer is immune, for instance. We have no reason to believe that that is the case, but since ALL background information is hidden from us in your example, we don’t have any reason to believe that it’s NOT the case either. In order to make any kind of meaningful estimation about the probability of the existence of a mind-controller, and you would therefore have to add information to your hypothetical to account for each and every POSSIBLE alternate explanation for pervasiveness as false or unlikely. Which, of course, would defeat the purpose of the hypothetical, which is to examine whether pervasiveness, considered in isolation, can be considered evidence for P1.

So I tentatively agree with Chuck, that pervasiveness is not evidence.

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Reginald Selkirk May 24, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Eric: Let’s test this. Take two beliefs, P and P1. Let’s say that all we know about P is that one person, in one culture at one time has believed that P. And, let’s say that all we know about P1 is that the vast majority of people, from the vast majority of cultures, at all times have believed that P1…

Why get so long-winded for what is easily categorized as an argumentum ad populum? It seems you are reinventing the wheel.

Consider another test: Consider a belief P3.14159, which was universally believed by every individual in every culture before a certain time. (e.g. that quantum mechanics is not an accurate description of the natural world, at a time before quantum mechanics was invented)

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Teleprompter May 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Mark,

“Maybe religion seems so epic because God is really there.  The fact that it seems to never go away and seems pervasive in all cultures is reasonable evidence (not mathematical proof) that there may be Something there after all.”

The fact that religion seems pervasive in all cultures is, for me, reasonable evidence that there are some underlying factors which can explain the presence of religions and which can also apply to any individual religion itself. 

It seems more probable that there are common explanations which apply to the presence of all religions than that any one religion has a separate explanation than all of the other religions.  The pervasiveness of belief seems to imply that belief is not special or unique, and seems to remove the luster from any individual religion’s claims that their beliefs imply some priority or some special merit for their followers. 

For me, it is far more probable that all religions have a naturalistic explanation of some kind rather than competing religions sharing a supernatural origin or one religion having a supernatural origin while others have naturalistic origins.  I realize that this is not necessarily a sound argument, but that is merely how the probabilities appear to me.

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Jeff H May 24, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Eric: I say it’s because it’s obvious that the fact that a belief is held by nearly all people,  in nearly all cultures, at nearly all times does give us a reason to think that it’s more likely to be true (which is what we mean by ‘evidence’) — even if only slightly more likely — than a belief that is held by only one person in one culture at one time.  What’s your explanation?

I think we should make a distinction here. The actual number of people that believe in something does not in any way impact the truth value of that statement. If I get a billion people to believe that my backyard is full of zombies, it in no way impacts whether my backyard is full of zombies.

Now, if you’re trying to argue about probabilities, then perhaps you can make an argument that something is more likely to be true if many people believe it. I would say, instead, this: If many people believe something to be true, I should investigate it more thoroughly. For example, I should take greater care to determine if my backyard is full of zombies if a billion people believe it. If there is only one person who believes it, I won’t give it much thought (though I might look out the window just to check). But this is a matter about my beliefs, not a matter about the truth value of the statement itself.

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Democritus May 25, 2009 at 5:26 am

Maybe religion seems so epic because God is really there.  The fact that it seems to never go away and seems pervasive in all cultures is reasonable evidence (not mathematical proof) that there may be Something there after all.

Mark: Maybe religion seems so epic because God is really there. The fact that it seems to never go away and seems pervasive in all cultures is reasonable evidence (not mathematical proof) that there may be Something there after all.

Actually, there are other ways to explain the pervasiveness of religion without considering an actual God. The best explanation I’ve seen (in a purely naturalistic form) is the one Carl Gustav Jung gave, in which the religious “experiences” are actually related to the deepest part of our instinctive minds, and God (by whatever name we call that concept) is but a projection of the deepest recesses of the most primitive parts of our mind. Jung explains it much better than I do, though. ;-)

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cartesian May 25, 2009 at 6:50 am

Reginald:
>>Why get so long-winded for what is easily categorized as an argumentum ad populum? It seems you are reinventing the wheel.>>

An argumentum ad populum is a deductive fallacy. Eric is offering you an inductive, defeasible argument. So your objection is not to the point.

And I think Eric’s right: if the only evidence I had about two beliefs was that one was more widely held than the other, and if I were forced to bet on one of the beliefs, I’d choose the one that was more widely held.

We do this in restaurants all the time. We ask the waiter “Which dishes are popular?” Why? Because we think popularity is a useful guide to deliciousness. Of course we don’t think that if a dish is popular, it is delicious. That’s not deductively valid. But we do think that the popularity offers defeasible, inductive evidence for deliciousness.

The same thing happens when we shop for computers, cars, etc. We find popularity to be a relevant and useful guide to performance.

And suppose we ask 100 people with calculators to perform some calculation. 90 of them get x, and 10 of them get y. Which one do you bet on? I’d bet on x. It’s like ask-the-audience in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I heard that lifeline was incredibly accurate.

So yep, it looks pretty clear that popularity of a belief counts as inductive, defeasible evidence in its favor.

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 8:07 am

The majority of people throughout history agree that Yahweh does not exist. Therefore (defeasibly) Yahweh does not exist.

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cartesian May 25, 2009 at 12:29 pm

>>The majority of people throughout history agree that Yahweh does not exist.>>

Really? I would have thought that either the majority of people throughout history didn’t have any beliefs concerning Yahweh at all, or they did have beliefs about Yahweh, but not under that name. Either way, it doesn’t look like your defeasible argument works.

The difference is this: In one sense, the majority of people throughout history didn’t have any beliefs about the sun, since “sun” is a relatively new word/concept, and one can believe that the sun is bright only if one possesses the concept “sun.” Clearly this fact about concept-dependent beliefs doesn’t provide much if any evidence for the conclusion that the sun isn’t bright.

In another sense, the majority of people throughout history DID have beliefs about the sun being bright, since they possessed some concept or other that referred to the sun. But again, this fact won’t lend any support to the conclusion that the sun isn’t bright. Quite the opposite, really.

Likewise with Yahweh. In one sense, very very few people have believed that Yahweh exists, since “Yahweh” is a relatively new word. But this lends little if any support to the conclusion that Yahweh doesn’t exist.

In another sense, very many people have believed that Yahweh exists, since very many people have possessed some concept or other that purports to refer to a supremely powerful God. This fact doesn’t lend support to your intended conclusion, namely that Yahweh doesn’t exist. On the contrary, it lends support to the conclusion that Yahweh exists.

So either way we understand belief-contents, it looks like your defeasible argument fails.

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Ironic that you would think this, since most people living today don’t even believe that the Biblical God is real. They either believe in another God, with an entirely different history and preferences, believe in many gods, or believe in no gods at all. Christians+Jews make up about 1/6 of the global population, and most of the rest would agree that Yahweh, the God of the Bible does not exist (that is, if you ask them, “Do you believe in Yahweh, the God of the Bible?” their response would be “No”. Otherwise, they would be Christians or Jews, unless they are polytheists who include the Biblical God in their pantheon, but isn’t really Yahweh as presented in the Bible). I don’t even need the millions of human beings living before Yahweh was invented who believed in other tribal gods for this point (hardly an argument, I would say) to be valid.

The point I was making (perhaps too subtly for some) is that, if an appeal to the people against atheism is admissable, then an appeal to the people against any particular religious belief is also admissable. If we narrow the argument down to the things that people really have agreed on, then we’re left with a watered-down deity without any significant resemblance to any specific deity proposed, except perhaps the deistic God.

Perhaps, as you say, people throughout history have believed in a supremely powerful God. That isn’t evidence for the proposition ”Yahweh exists and Vishnu does not exist and Allah does not exist and Sol Invictus …”, which is the main proposition made by Christianity. All I’m saying is that we need to be honest about what this argument provides evidence for: some superior beings exist (it’s overgracious to even think that monotheism is in the majority historically).

This argument provides no support whatsoever for the propositions that the superior being (here I grant the monotheism assumption, even though it is unsupported by the appeal to the people) authored any of our books, that the superior being has ever fathered a son with a human woman, that the superior being wants us to symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood. If you believe that this argument (the argumentum ad populum, which is, as you say, a valid inductive argument) supports those propositions (or the thousands of other specific propositions of Christianity or any other particular religion), then you are being dishonest with yourself.

Perhaps you have other arguments that support those propositions, but this one does not.

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Ask yourself whether you would have reacted similarly if I had said “Most people throughout history have agreed that Vishnu does not exist. Therefore, (defeasibly) Vishnu does not exist.”

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Ben May 25, 2009 at 10:02 pm

If humans were known experts in metaphysics, then a critical consensus might exist and would be worth taking seriously.  If religion had nothing to do with wish fulfillment, argumentum ad populum might actually be a serious mystery.  That’s simply so far from the case as to be completely irrelevant and/or <i>already taken into account</i>.  Doesn’t it always start with, “well maybe there’s something to this…”  Insert critical thinking.  Processing.  “Nope, apparently not.”  It doesn’t make much sense to pretend like you aren’t just being asked to go back the way you came (as an apostate) despite your better judgment, since most people are exposed to religion “ad populum” to begin with. 

Ben

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Mark May 26, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Our instinct toward religion/worship is a remnant from God’s image originally created within mankind.  It is now distorted due to our sin.  So people have a sense of a deity or the supernatural, but no one knows the full truth about God inherently.  Thus mankind cannot agree on the true identity of God by consensus, but the pervasive instinct is a reasonable clue that reasonable people should pursue.

Ecclesiastes 7:29  “Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.”

Romans 1:20-21  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

John 2:23-25  Now when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing.  But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man.

John 3:3  Jesus said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

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Lorkas May 26, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

This is the same thing that people of every exclusivist religion say, Mark. Your Bible is only privileged above the Qur’an (for example) to you by your personal beliefs, which not all of us share. You’ll forgive us for not bending knee in response to you quoting the Bible saying it’s the one book truly written by the creator of the universe.

I won’t let you pull a bait-and-switch and say that the pervasiveness of belief in something supernatural is all evidence that the Christian God specifically exists. At most, it suggests that the generalized deist God (or gods) exist(s), but it’s not even really good evidence for that (although it is some evidence, in the Bayesian sense). I’m sorry, but a person’s belief in Vishnu doesn’t count as evidence that Yahweh exists, any more than belief in Yahweh is evidence that Vishnu exists. What you’re doing here is applying a double standard–holding your religion to one standard of evidence and holding others to another, much higher standard of evidence.

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Mark May 27, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Lorkas, the verses are intended to show that I’m not trying to prove anything and indeed cannot prove anything along these lines.  Jesus said that no one can see God or His kingdom without being born again.  Certainly no one can control or produce their own birth – natural or spiritual.  On my own I am left with darkness and distortion and I cannot alleviate that for myself, you, or anyone else.

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Lorkas May 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Mark: Lorkas, the verses are intended to show that I’m not trying to prove anything and indeed cannot prove anything along these lines.

On the contrary, you proposed that the explanation for the lack of consensus on religious questions is that:

Mark: Our instinct toward religion/worship is a remnant from God’s image originally created within mankind. It is now distorted due to our sin.

In other words, you say that the reason for all of the differences in religion is our sin, a distinctly Judeo-Christian doctrine. In other words, you are claiming other religions as evidence that Christianity is true. This is the claim I rebut above.

Perhaps this is not what you intended to say, but it is, as a matter of fact, what you said. Even rereading your post above, I can’t really see how you could say what you said and think that you mean what you claim (now) to have meant. You give no indication whatsoever that you meant “Christianity can’t offer proof one way or another on this question” and every indication that you meant “Christianity offers the best explanation for this phenomenon: the sinfulness of man.”

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Lorkas May 27, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Mark: On my own I am left with darkness and distortion and I cannot alleviate that for myself, you, or anyone else.

I’m not really sure what you mean here. That there is no good way to make an evidence-based decision between different religions?

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Mark May 28, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Lorkas,
All religions I’m aware of, except Buddhism, have schemes for Man to be reconciled to a god, gods, or god-like force.  They may not call man’s unreconciled condition “sin”, but it is some imperfection that man must overcome.  Even Buddhism has a suggested path to enlightenment.  So the unreconciled, a.k.a. unenlightened, a.k.a imperfect condition of man is what religion attempts to address.  

The Bible calls it ‘sin’ but I see that as one name on this universally recognized concept.  The verses I listed are some of the biblical perspective on the issue.

I think you can make great progress evidentially comparing religions and have addressed that on my site here:
http://www.everygoodpath.net/ExitStrategy

But Jesus claims no one can truly understand what’s going on unless they are born again.  A person has no final control over his own spiritual birth, which is a work of God’s mercy.

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Lorkas May 29, 2009 at 5:28 am

Yes, but the concept of what constitutes “sin” is different in practically every religion. That’s what I meant.

Not every religion teaches that the origin of sin was an attempt to gain moral knowledge (the forbidden fruit), for example.

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cl August 25, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Nice post, Luke. I was especially feeling the way you worded 1. Indeed, the stakes couldn’t possibly be larger.
As far as the thread goes, I agree with Mark, Eric and cartesian. I think that Reginald Selkirk and Chuck gave Mark’s opening comment short thrift. cartesian’s note that Eric offers an inductive, defeasible argument is a sound objection to Reginald Selkirk’s “argumentum ad populum” attempt. cartesian’s distinctions about deliciousness and popularity in relation to ordering from restaurants, and the “lifeline” analogy from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, were also spot-on. If what Mark was saying didn’t have a grain of truth behind it, there would be no reason to believe 50 witnesses who said X over 5 who said -X, with all other things being equal, of course.
Then again, the concept of “preponderance of evidence” we use in civil court cases applies to quality and not necessarily quantity of evidence, so I could also respect a call for emendations to Mark’s position along those lines.

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lukeprog October 30, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Here’s Robert M. Price in his course “Modern Christian Theology,” speaking about the practice of theology:

I hope that for you as for me… this becomes intellectually fascinating. To think of us little lemurs in suits thinking about these great invisible matters, these metaphysical questions and trying to get a handle on them… what an endeavor! How fascinating! And really, whether you believe in it or not, what an experiment in thought!

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lukeprog October 30, 2009 at 8:13 pm

While I’m at it, here’s another great quote from Price, regarding those theologians who don’t think the resurrection had much significance:

What does [the resurrection] add to the teaching of Jesus or to his character? …Suppose Jesus was said to have said some odious thing: “Don’t wait until somebody hits you; punch them out without provocation!” Would you do that, if somebody could prove that the jerk who said that rose from the dead?”

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Eggplant January 29, 2010 at 8:22 am

Jeff H:
I think we should make a distinction here. The actual number of people that believe in something does not in any way impact the truth value of that statement. If I get a billion people to believe that my backyard is full of zombies, it in no way impacts whether my backyard is full of zombies.Now, if you’re trying to argue about probabilities, then perhaps you can make an argument that something is more likely to be true if many people believe it. I would say, instead, this: If many people believe something to be true, I should investigate it more thoroughly. For example, I should take greater care to determine if my backyard is full of zombies if a billion people believe it. If there is only one person who believes it, I won’t give it much thought (though I might look out the window just to check). But this is a matter about my beliefs, not a matter about the truth value of the statement itself.  

Oddly if one person believes his backyard is full of zombies I would check it out, if a million people thought that, I would run, very fast indeed. I would check less as I would assume others to have checked.

The popularity of an idea gives it credence, but thats the nature of propaganda. The more people believe something to be true, the more true it becomes. Religion has benefitted from a lack of exposure of ideas for the last 5000 years. People have been cuccooned by their religion.

The internet has changed the world and at long last we are all begining to see how daft the whole religion thing is. As the world appears to tear itself apart because of Zealots screaming my god is better than your god, the atheists or pragmatists are finally finding their voices.

Okay, I do accept if I were in a horror movie, I would be the guy going into the dark cellar on his own with a flashlight that doesnt work, but it would be a quick death I’m sure.

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Jordan February 12, 2010 at 9:03 am

“Philosophy of religion consists of arguments and speculations about magical beings.”

PoR issues are most typically considered issues within metaphysics. I take that as a fairly uncontroversial claim (really, just pick up any metaphysics reader). Also, it would seem that the reason for this being the case is that PoR issues just are metaphysical issues. In which case, I would hope you share the same disdain for metaphysics that you share with PoR. Of course, metaphysics is a subject that a significant number of people don’t have a disdain for – that is, do find cool.

For what it’s worth… I have very confused commitments when it comes to metaphysics. I find the whole subject both terribly important and terribly un-understandable with regard to what is actually going on. I suppose, though, that the vast majority of systematic inquiry of basic and deeply significant issues shares much of the same.

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nopper February 12, 2010 at 11:09 am

I´m sorry I didn´t read the whole list of comments, but I missed one essential point, which is vital in that discussion (since we argue about that in Germany too). If you already dicussed that, simply forget about it.

Your conclusion was, that believing in any godlike beeing is as sensitive as believing in fantasy characters – since there is no evidence for its existence.
Problem: If you deny the existence of a godlike mind, using the argument of lacking evidence, you deny any mind beyond your own.
Question/Argument: How can you prove that any given person owns a mind like yours (Cartesian ego, see also Kant, Transzendentale Analytik)? You can´t. You can only imagine what another mind (alter ego) is about. What do I feel, hear, taste, smell. Am I real, am I possibly only a programmed machine desingned to simulate a human beeing?

That doesn´t matter in any way. In order to communicate sensitively you have to have faith that everybody who is part of any kind of interaction owns a mind similar to yours. If you like it or not, you have to believe in MY mind!
And now you have to face the problem, that your mind is probably not the archetype of all human minds. So lets invent a theory or model that helps us understanding ourselves and our shared lives – and call it God, or Werewolf if you please. No matter what you call it, the real subject is and ever will be the same.

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Steve May 23, 2011 at 1:56 am

You just cant explain it. Thats why any belief to a religion is so strong and almost out of body. Because nothing you run through in your mind as an explanation has any relevance to your every day life. Some believe the aforementioned, others have the strong feeling towards science, and any other religious belief. If you can’t make solid evidence on something then people search within themselves, the most respected “thing” to them. This is why there will always be such a TRUE belief in such a vast amount of conclusions related to religion.

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