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Journal of No. 118


November 10th, 2006

Breaking the Aorta @ 07:13 pm


I finished Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell. It's an intriguing and hard-to-categorize book. In many ways, he is the anti-Dawkins. Rather than swinging a machete of heavy anti-religious wit, Dennett bends over backwards to reassure his religious audience that, like a doctor or dentist, his scientific probing of religion 'won't hurt a bit'. He's trying to allay the fears that this investigation might 'break the spell' of religion. I wish he spent more time doing the investigation than allaying fears. Though the book is filled with many interesting ideas, it still reads as a prologue for work yet to be done.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing is Dennett's idea of 'belief in belief'. Obviously, theists typically believe in God, but another common idea is the 'belief in the belief in God'. In other words the idea that religion itself confers benefits, whether or not the religion is true. A recent Harris poll demonstrated that 42% of Americans aren't absolutely sure of God's existence. Yet, America is hardly 42% agnostic and atheist - those groups tend to poll at around 10-11% at most. So there's something like a third of the country that believes more in belief than they do in God - they absolutely assert that they are religious, but they do not absolutely assert the existence of their god(s).
You've all heard (well, okay, I have -- many a time) the theists who say that, if they lost their faith, they'd immediately run out and start robbing, raping and killing. After all, what's to stop them, if not religion?
This is part of 'belief in belief', the idea that having a religion (any religion) somehow automatically makes you a better person. And that without belief, one is automatically morally defective. Of course, this is baloney. The prison population looks more or less like the nation, religiously speaking. If anything, there is a dearth of atheists in pokey. So belief in belief can act like a self-scare tactic - I hafta believe to be a good person. But it appears that there's no reason to be scared after all. Maybe this is a spell of self-hypnosis that deserves to be broken.
On the whole, the book gets a tepid thumbs up from me. But I give a more enthusiastic recommendation to something Dennett's written even more recently. He's currently in the hospital, recovering from an operation to repair a dissected aorta. (Why is it that guys like Randi and Dennett wind up in the hospital with heart problems while jerks like Haggard enjoy meth-fueled gay orgies?) In any case, it gave Dennett the opportunity to Thank Goodness. (page is a bit munged, start reading at the second Thank Goodness)

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.
 
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From:ladyeuthanasia
Date:November 10th, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
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I love "thank goodness."

I think a lot of those 42% folk are actually agnostic but they don't want to say it because agnostic has some kind of cooties from atheism (gosh, it must be the "a"! Eewwww!).

OR...

They aren't sure that what they feel spiritually is actually and in fact a "god," but rather something far less personal. Without a concensus as to what "god" is, it's like asking someone "Do you believe in god?" is like asking them, "Do you believe in whatchemacallit?" That is, worthless.

Does that make sense?

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From:essentialsaltes
Date:November 10th, 2006 07:33 pm (UTC)
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Does it make sense? Probably for some of them. But (and this is one of the points Dennett makes) clearly we could use more study of what people actually mean when they make various religious statements. It's surprising (yet very interesting) that when you ask people to judge the truth or falsity of the two statements:

A) "God Exists"
B) "I Believe in God"

apparently you don't get just True-True and False-False responses.
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From:ladyeuthanasia
Date:November 11th, 2006 07:56 am (UTC)
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I absolutely agree with Dennett. All this pontificating and analysis about polls is meaningless without finding out what people actually mean. People are truly incoherent on most topics of this nature, mainly because they never learned how to think, much less articulate their thoughts.

But that said, I can totally see why you'd get a False-True response on the above statements. My hunch is that people feel that you must prove God when you say "God Exists," whereas an "I believe" statement does not have to be proven. If the statements were more along the following:

A) God Exists (but I can't prove it)
B) I believe in God

Those are now equivalent statements (at least, to the people who would say True to B).

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From:edgyspice
Date:November 10th, 2006 10:45 pm (UTC)
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You've all heard (well, okay, I have -- many a time) the theists who say that, if they lost their faith, they'd immediately run out and start robbing, raping and killing. After all, what's to stop them, if not religion?

Oh, I've heard this many a time too. It never fails to make me want to stab the person saying it in the eye. I guess that's because I'm a dirty atheist.
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From:ladyeuthanasia
Date:November 11th, 2006 07:59 am (UTC)
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There is a short story I had to read in AP English my senior year, and I could have sworn it was called "The Problem with Goodness," about a dangerous man who breaks into an old woman's home and holds her hostage (or something like that). They rapidly fall into a discourse about goodness and it becomes clear that she's been good her whole life for one reason: she's afraid of Hell. In short order, the guy brings her down to his level philosophically. It's genius, but I can't find it anywhere. I tried once on the Net. I think I'll look again.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:November 11th, 2006 01:55 pm (UTC)
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I think I'll look again.

Do so. It might be worth it. I was going to relate my own story of an unfindable short story from a textbook anthology, but now that the internet is a few steps closer to self-awareness, I may have found it.
The title that stuck in my mind was "Grains of Paradise" and it's about a guy who goes on a mission to find the hottest peppers in the world to eat them, and the titular grains are the oh-so-hot seeds that inspire an almost religious ecstasy among the native pepperphiles.
Now, on a site devoted to demonstrating proper bibliography format, one of the entries is:

James Street, "The Grains of Paradise." In Encounters. New York: McGraw Hill, 1979.

Encounters is just the sort of faintly familiar, yet snooze-inducing, title one would expect for a textbook anthology (it's something of a wonder how either of these stories actually made it inside - let's hear it for the slightly subversive librarian-anthologists of yore) and certainly the date is right for my being exposed to it.

It looks like the story first appeared The Saturday Evening Post May 14 1955
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 12th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)

Grains of Paradise

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I read this story in high school and it stuck with me too. If I find out more, I will reply.

Journal of No. 118