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Sunday, April 26, 2009

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Here's my reply to John Lennon's Imagine. It's from George Strait's Oceanfront Property:

if you'll buy that
I got some oceanfront property in Arizona
From my front porch you can see the sea
I got some oceanfront property in Arizona
If you'll buy that I'll throw the Golden Gate in free

Whenever someone talks about how there would be worldwide peace if only religion were gone, I have to wonder what the source of the delusion is. I sometimes get the feeling that for a lot of atheists (or at least anti-theists), we're still back in the days when the "Enlightenment" was first starting to surge. No expressly atheist governments to speak of, much less a track record of those governments and how they treated their people or even other secular governments. No large-scale retrospect examination of the motives of war or conflict throughout history.

Nope, clearly the problem is religion!

Yes. It is a measure of Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg's cluelessness about human nature that when he quipped 'only religion makes good men do bad things' it never occurred to him to ponder the truth value of the same statement substituting, say, 'ideology', 'money', or 'politics' for religion.

So, I'm unsure of your argument in the quote above. The quote from Baber is fairly seen as not an objection to Christianity, and the Strawman characterization of liberals or in my case, liberal-minded philosopher, should merit more charitable reconstruction. It is not simply that "I'm in the know" about these things. Being Liberal-minded philosopher that I am, I'm more than convinced by the success of a naturalist program in cognitive science, the metaphysical inadequacies of non-naturalism, the successful project of semantic externalism. I have good reasons, and good arguments that are more nuanced than how I feel you present your case here.

JEH

Victor,

Nice parody. I too have some oceanfront property. You ought to come by sometime. We'll sit on the beach and play some chess.

Joseph A,

Yes, lefties just won't face the murderous upshot of their own policies and attitudes. It has to be religion!

Hello, Bill.

I agree with your assessment.

I would add that my hunch is we're living in interesting times. The Enlightment project is exhausted. It has explained as much as it reasonably can, but it is not sufficient. Many an academic is frustrated by this and so shakes an adolescent fist of a rage at God -- or at least most handy thing around, Christians.

Meanwhile, others who love the truth more than one Big Idea to explain all are finding that there is much more to man and his place within the scheme of things than secularists will imagine. These are good times for the explorer, not the gatekeeper.

Regards, Bill T.

I hope I won't offend anybody here, particularly our gentle host, by noting again that I consider myself a liberal -- i.e., I view such things as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry and freedom of association as fundamental principles for a well-ordered society. That other people call themselves liberals, despite their illiberal opposition to the principles just noted, is irritating, but not sufficiently so to compel me to drop the label I accurately apply to myself.

With that preamble behind me, I don't even think it necessary to address the question about liberal opposition to religion.

However, I do take issue with what Mr Tingley says about the "Enlilghtenment Project" being exhausted. That project never had the goal of "explaining everything." In fact, it was the reflective understanding that reason could not adjudicate some fundamental questions that divide us (such as the truth status of certain religious claims) that underwrites the commitment to the various freedoms noted earlier.

Hi Bill,

As someone who is a politically conservative atheist, I suppose I am something of an odd duck. I have always thought that the real religion that the left is opposed to all displays of the ten commandments has less to do with the fact that they were supposedly written by the finger of God, than the fact that they are written in stone. The idea that there are objective facts about ethics as --opposed to desire projections-- is something that the left finds particularly odious (at least until they start talking about "social progress" or "remaking America" or what have you). The rejection of religion emphatically does not commit one to accepting secular dogmatism.

Sorry, that was supposed to read "The real *reason* the left is opposed to all (public) displays of the ten commandments..."

Hi Bob,

You write, "I view such things as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry and freedom of association as fundamental principles for a well-ordered society." I agree, and almost all contemporary conservatives would as well. Or can you think of some prominent contemporary conservatives who would not?

I've found that some liberals are so, ahem, hell-bent on chastizing and condemning religion that they often make statements that could just as easily be directed towards themselves, but they are so eager to ridicule that they are unable to see this, so there is a rather convenient double standard going on.

An example which may be relevant: yesterday, I have no idea how exactly it happened, but I found myself on the website of Richard Dawkins. On his website he has a page dedicated to his "fleas." From what I gather, a flea is someone who puts out a book which criticizes and tries to refute Dawkins' ideas, and so this person is sort of piggy-backing on Dawkins' success by putting forward a response in book form. But couldn't the very same thing be brought against Dawkins himself? By this reasoning, isn't Dawkins basically a flea on the back of religion? "The God Delusion" is arguing that religion is a bad thing (just as Dawkins' "fleas" say that Dawkins' arguments are bad), and the book has brought Dawkins much success and sales (which he claims are what his fleas want as well.)

Shampoo, anyone?

Anyway, I thought perhaps this might be somewhat relevant to the discussion.

Hi Bill - If virtually all prominent conservatives endorse the key liberal principles, then I don't think it's particularly useful to use these labels without a good deal of qualification. I note that your criticism was directed at those who would be liberals "in the popular understanding" -- but I think the popular understanding of both liberalism and conservatism is too muddled to be of much use in framing serious discussions.

In a post some time ago some of us had the opportunity to discuss briefly the notion of ideals. I do not remember exactly the context of that conversation, but Bill presented a fairly detailed account of ideals (if memory serves me well).
Theists atheists, agnostics, left, right, and everything in between cherish certain ideals. For instance, sincere theists of a Christian faith cherish the ideal that everyone accepts God, live a righteous life, and their soul joins God in eternal tranquility.
One of the enduring ideals regarding life on this earth has always been peace, happiness, and the acknowledgment of human universality above differences. This is the underlying message of that song by John Lennon. And in that message he is not singling out religion: he applies the standard of universality to many other sources of "us vs. them". Two more points:
Having the ideal in which the attitude of "us vs. them" is absent need not be a world in which differences are gone;
and
There is a difference between religion as a complex social phenomenon which consists of an amalgam of cannons, social institutions, history, practices, and adherence vs. religion which consists of the theology and fundamental canons. Lennon's song can be taken to object to the historical role of the former and need not be taken to object to the content of the later.
I find some of the critical and cynical comments against Lennon's song posted by some above as uncharitable at best. The notion that the state of affairs depicted in the song is not realistic any time soon is not an objection if we take the song to depict an ideal ("Imagine...."). Neither is the objection that it cannot be an ideal because this state of affairs is "impossible" because it contradicts human nature. Such a claim must be defended based upon a detailed theory of human nature which contradicts this notion of universality that allows for differences. I do not see any such theory presented that contradicts the ideal I believe is offered to our sensibilities by Lennon's song. Moreover, those who promote such an "incompatibilist" argument should beware that the thesis they maintain might have consequences regarding the ideals and positions they themselves hold dear.
And finally:
Imagine that Lennon never sang that song. Take out the line about religion. I bet that if you were to imagine that, you would whole heartedly support and perhaps even write yourself this song as supporting your ideals or the ideals of the flock with which you find common ground.

peter

Hi, Peter.

You wrote: "There is a difference between religion as a complex social phenomenon which consists of an amalgam of cannons, social institutions, history, practices, and adherence vs. religion which consists of the theology and fundamental canons. Lennon's song can be taken to object to the historical role of the former and need not be taken to object to the content of the later."

I suppose one could do so with "Imagine", but that really does ask this pleasant but sophomoric toe-tapper bear too much weight. This should be evident in light of Lennon's talent for writing political songs with genuine bite and insight -- e.g., "Revolution".

Regards,
Bill T.

Peter writes:
"There is a difference between religion as a complex social phenomenon which consists of an amalgam of cannons, social institutions, history, practices, and adherence vs. religion which consists of the theology and fundamental canons. Lennon's song can be taken to object to the historical role of the former and need not be taken to object to the content of the later. "

I understand how you are spinning the song which is commendable. I personally like the tune. But I do believe Lennon wants us to "imagine" the absence of certain "theology and fundamental canons" when he sings:

"Imagine there's no HEAVEN
It's easy if you try
No HELL below us
Above us only sky"
(emphasis mine)

Now you could spin it, that he was simply talking about the actual "geographic" location of heaven and hell... However I do believe these two concepts exhibit a fundamental role in the canons of a number of world religions and I simply don't think that Lennon was referring to geography.

Hello, Bob.

You wrote: "However, I do take issue with what Mr Tingley says about the 'Enlilghtenment Project' being exhausted. That project never had the goal of 'explaining everything.' In fact, it was the reflective understanding that reason could not adjudicate some fundamental questions that divide us (such as the truth status of certain religious claims) that underwrites the commitment to the various freedoms noted earlier."

You make my point for me. True, the "Enlightenment Project" does not have the goal of explaining everything. What cannot be reduced by its adherents to their peculiar understanding of reason -- e.g., religious claims specifically, metaphysical claims generally -- is consigned to the dustbin of mere opinion or even irrationality. In other words, nothing worth arguing against unless those opinions get uppity and strut about as objective truths.

Regards,
Bill T.

Bill T - I don't think we're talking about the same "Enlightenment Project." Kant is usually considered "central" to the one I'm talking about. I don't recall when or where he consigned religion and metaphysics to the dustbin of mere opinion, etc. I think you might be confusing the Enlightenment Project with one of it's bastard offspring -- Positivism.

JR,

"Now you could spin it, that he was simply talking about the actual "geographic" location of heaven and hell... However I do believe these two concepts exhibit a fundamental role in the canons of a number of world religions and I simply don't think that Lennon was referring to geography."

Nope! I did not mean that he was talking merely geography. My understanding here is that the song attempts to inspire us to imagine the possibility of an ideal world right here on earth, *whether or not there is heaven or hell or both*.
So, here are the two sides:
Option A: Aspiring to achieve an ideal world could be a common ground among theists of all stripes, atheists, agnostics. Thus, lets reject the "us vs. them" mentality;
Option B: cling to the "us vs. them" mentality and insists that the only way to achieve the ideal world here on earth is if everyone accepts "my way".

Take your pick!

peter

Yes Peter, I see your position. Good thoughts!

Hello, Bob.

I think this is just a matter of settling terms. There is a distinction to be made between the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment PROJECT. The former is a historical period of thought and the latter is the decay of that thought into, as you quipped, bastard offspring like positivism. My fault for not being clear on this.

Therefore, my original point wasn't that the Enlightenment hasn't taught us anything we should continue to value, but rather those lessons are being lost to Enlightenment project dead-horse-beating perversions by radical secularists. So it is the project that is exhausted.

That said, I also believe that there are no more advances to be had in Enlightenment thought. Rather the task is now to conserve what we have learned has worked well from the Enlightenment and apply those lessons more widely in the world.

Regards,
Bill T.

Hello, Peter.

I don't see how Option A isn't utopianism, the discredited quest for heaven on earth, the rationalism of the Big Idea run amuck.

By the time Lennon wrote "Imagine" a hundred million people had been slaughtered over the course of a half-century in utopian schemes. He wasn't ignorant of recent history, yet offers no explanation in the song why the desire for utopia remains good when the experience of it had been so horrible.

Other than, perhaps, posing Option B as the alternative. But that, of course, is a false choice. There is no need to idealize society in the first place. If you've gotten Lennon's meaning right in "Imagine", the song's message fails on its own terms. That's because any effort to idealize society gives rise to an "us vs. them" struggle. Option A and Option B collapse into the same thing: One group's idea upon which to perfect the world.

Regards,
Bill T.

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