07 July 2009

Blogging the Giants of Atheism Pt. 1/3

Poking around on utube, I found this fascinating discussion between 4 of the most outspoken atheists out there today: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I have watched four parts out of the twelve so far and have decided to start a 3 part series of my own, linking to four clips at a time and throwing out stream of consciousness reflections on what I watch. Here are the first four clips. I invite your own commentary on these videos!

Discussion - Part 1
Discussion - Part 2
Discussion - Part 3
Discussion - Part 4

So far most of what they say I agree with, except of course the atheism part. I have been a little disappointed by the fact that they haven't differentiated between rational faith and irrational faith. (for example accepting scientific empiricism vs. believing in a 6000 year old earth) I was happy in the beginning of the second clip when Harris allowed for the reality and language of supernatural experiences, if not supernatural reality itself. I was also appreciative of Hitchens (who I think in general to be an incredible charismatic and profoundly intelligent writer) disagree with Dennett that religious people claim not to doubt their faith, giving a few examples. Then Dawkins makes an unfair assertion in my view that people of faith pray over and over to brainwash themselves out of doubt. Not really. We pray because it invokes the experience of self sacrifice and oneness with our reality. We pray because we want to detach ourselves from our own ego and open up to love and compassion in our lives. I don't pray because I want to be cured of doubt. It would scare me if I had absolutely no doubt. Of course I doubt; there is no way to prove that I am praying to anything other than the floor and ceiling. But I feel that it is even harder to prove that something (the universe) came from nothing. Human consciousness has evolved the capacity for self reflection, scientific inquiry, and the conscious development of all virtues. It seems to me unlikely that this consciousness born out of some form in some galaxy was an accident. It seems to me likely that the universe itself is moving towards a greater perfection, one that will spawn in our day and age the unity of humankind. It is interesting to think of how the cells in a human body unite to form a human consciousness. What new meta consciousness will be created when humankind unites?

By the beginning of part 3, it is starting to feel like an atheism support group. The biggest frustration with watching this is that they are taking the most extreme examples of religious dogmatism and intolerance, and using them as examples of the delusion of belief. Why not instead argue the most rational forms of spiritual practice? Why not argue against Robert Wrights argument for purposeful directionality in a material universe? Why not argue against Adam Frank's promotion of spiritual experience without regard to religious reality?

Finally! by the middle of part 3 Dawkins suggests that there is a difference between sophisticated, nuanced professors of theology and the Jerry Falwells of the world. Then he says, which I agree with, that many of these said theologians will say one thing to each other and something much more dumbed down and literal to their congregation. I think that this has been a major problem with religion generally. The "flock" relies on the clergy for spiritual interpretation, and are then very susceptible to manipulation. In the Baha'i faith, we are all encouraged to independently investigate the truth. There is no clergy to interpret the writings for us. In fact, there is a highly developed process of study that relies on dialogue and practical application.

Interesting line by Harris: "What does moderation consist of, it consists of having lost faith in all of these propositions, or half of them because of the hammer blows of science." If religion is seen as a static belief not prone to evolution, then I agree. But, if religion is viewed as a constantly evolving structure, based upon the conceptual capacity of its adherents, then science can be seen as a necessary catalyst for religious evolution. And religion can be seen as the core human experience of the sacred that takes us beyond reductionist explanation, into a realm of meaning and motivation.

In the beginning of part 4, Dennit says that in fact the clergy deserve ridicule because they should know better. The flock should not be ridiculed because they are just placing their faith in a percieved authority. Good ol' Hitchens. He counters Harris and says that its the congregation who make a fool out of themselves. Also compares irrational believers to racists who claim that they know no better. Concludes by saying all those believing in religious superstition are open to ridicule.

Near the end of part 4, they argue that science is subject to competition and peer review, whereas religious theology is not. Dawkins makes the point that we don't understand quantum physics, but that it can still be used to make very accurate predictions and eventually we will understand it better. On the other hand, we don't understand the concept of the "Trinity" and it never will be understood, much less be used to make any kind of prediction. Again, while I agree with the said virtues of science, it does not address human motivation in an ontological manner. In a manner that is meaningfull in that we choose to give it meaning because it makes our life worth living. The "Trinity" was a theogical construct arising out of a projected ontological need, and was valuable for its time and place. In this day we can move on from antiquated theologies, but we shouldn't forget them.


  1. I always wonder how people say that God is a mere creation of the human mind, the He cannot be explained and that there is no proof of His existence... therefore there is no God... but can they proof His inexistence? these people don't even have proof of how the universe was created...
    I remember I read a book for a physics class, it was called "the first three minutes" and it is all about the origin...of creation.. THE beginning... the book has complex explanations of energy, particles and atoms and how in their interaction it produces the big bang.. but what about 3minutes - t? i mean, how did that initial atom or particle come into existence?

    Sometimes I feel that in atheism there is this huge criticism of following something based on pure Faith, where as in reality, that is exactly what they are doing when they reach that point in their argument that they themselves cannot explain...

  2. This was an excellent entry! I look forward to reading your follow-ups in the near future.


  3. Sjona,

    That is kind of where my mind is at. Of course, many Athiest will say that they are not absolutely sure that there isn't a higher power, but the most honest thing to do is to disbelieve until god is proven through science. That sounds like an agnostic to me, but they will deny the term.

  4. AdibM,

    Thanks for the encouraging words. I am interested to hear your response to these discussions.

  5. Jason, I also generally agree with the arguments of atheists. The religion that they are disbelieving in is false. As Baha'is we know that the current understanding of God, salvation, creation, etc., are man-made superstitions and dogmas. It's so interesting to see these arguments go back and forth in society while the ultimate truth hasn't even caught their attention.

  6. As Abdul-Baha said "The God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."

  7. I believe that was Mr. Furutan who said that to a Soviet questioning him. I don't think Abdu'l-Baha said that.

  8. If any of these types of atheists bothered to take a close look at bahai scripture, they would find big chunks of it that would easily be demolished.

    Western religion arose in slave societies, and contains a "middle man scam" - people have to use the "middle man" (prophet/priest) to get to a transcendent/mystical state.

    No such middle man is needed for people to engage in transformative practice.

    Examples: Esalen Institute, Naropa, Noetic, and many Yoga and Buddhist oriented communities.

    Generally speaking, bahais talk about transformation a lot more than they do it.

  9. The basic fact is that the Great Atheists (GAs) are correct in 99% of what they say is bad/wrong about religion.

    The GAs however usually do not have a holistic, or integral, view of spirituality or transcendence. Sam Harris is somewhat of an exception, he has dialoged with integral theorists, and has a good grasp of consciousness studies.

  10. Sjona wrote "but can they proof His inexistence?"

    This is a well documented logical fallacy. One can not prove a negative. The onus of proof belongs to those that posit a theory or put forward an assertion.

    If I say for example, that there is proof that the Earth is older than 6000 years old, then I have the burden of proof. I must present arguments, evidence, facts, etc. to show that the assertion I made is correct.

    It is false to expect that after making an assertion devoid of proofs, others must then prove the negative of what I asserted.

    For more, see argument from ignorance

  11. "these people don't even have proof of how the universe was created... "

    Well, nobody does. But religious people are the only one to claim they do and that's a big difference with atheists.

    "how did that initial atom or particle come into existence?"

    It takes a big leap of faith to say that it did come into existence due to a supreme being, whatever its form. For religions (Bahais included) it has to be something more than just a trigger... this trigger had a bigger role (i.e. a Plan or these sort of things) and still has today.
    Whereas this trigger could be only that. A trigger, unexplainable by atheists (or anyone for that matter) but that keeps its initial role as such... Again, it takes a big leap of faith to imagine for it a bigger role... (In my humble opinion, it goes without saying ;) )