1. "Anaxagoras is the earliest historical figure to have been indicted for atheism" (Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History... & see Tim Whitmarsh's Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World - "Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills"), but the first "avowedly atheist work" was by whom? Who does Baggini name as some of his ancient precursors?
2. Did original Marxist communism advocate religious oppression?
3. Which of the traditional god arguments does Baggini find "philosophically interesting" but banal?
4. How do most believers justify their faith, according to Baggini?
5. What methodological principle does Baggini invoke, to reject the imposition of stringent standards of evidence and truth?
6. What's a humanist?
- Comment: "In the case of ghosts, we not only lack a rational explanation of how ghosts can exist, we also lack any rational reasons to suppose that they do." 77 Does this apply equally to souls, spirits, and dualistic minds? Is there a way of conceiving naturalism broadly enough to admit their possibility?
- Do you agree that Enlightenment values (liberty, equality, tolerance etc.) remain triumphant, dominant foundations of the western world? Thinking of the European refugee crisis, the American election, are they at risk?
- "The main danger we need to guard against is not religion but fundamentalism" - agree? Are atheist fundamentalists equally dangerous?
- Are you hostile to (ir-)religion? Should "Friendly" Atheists confront militant atheism or ignore it? Should moderate theists confront or ignore religious extremists?
- If a "god of the gaps" is objectionable, what should we say about gaps in our natural understanding? Is it an article of scientific faith, to believe that the gaps will eventually be filled?
- If "evolution accounts for the appearance of design," and evolved minds are capable of discerning this, doesn't evolution (after all) contribute significantly to what it means to be human?
- Does Baggini give short shrift to the role of "inner conviction" in establishing personal belief? Isn't subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though the official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth?
- Do you agree with Baggini's rejection of the the Nietzschean critique of religion as inherently life-denying? 105
- "Atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us... [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives." Fair?
Also of interest:
Book Review: The Illusion of God’s Presence
Summary: Not a new theory, but a new and strong case for an old theory, supplemented with up-to-date neurological evidence.
Jack Wathey is a neuroscientist and computational biologist and the founder of Wathey Research, a scientific firm that focusesafter on problems like protein folding. His new book, The Illusion of God’s Presence, presents an answer to a puzzling problem: Why do human beings believe so strongly in a supernatural deity, even in the face of ample contradictory evidence? (Full disclosure: Jack and I have been correspondents for several years, and I sent him feedback on an earlier draft of the manuscript. It also cites my writing as reference material in a few places.)
The book begins with a gutsy personal anecdote in which the author, with painful honesty, describes the worst mistake he ever made – a family hiking trip in the Sonoran desert of southern California, which almost turned deadly when midday temperatures soared and they hadn’t brought enough water. Although no one died, he was tormented by guilt and thoughts of what he should have done differently. It was while grappling with his guilt that night that he was unexpectedly visited by the overwhelming sensation of a loving, forgiving presence in the room with him – despite the fact that he was and still is an atheist. It was “a religious experience devoid of religious belief”, as he puts it.
Wathey reflected on this experience after the emergence of the New Atheist movement. He writes that he found the books of prominent atheist authors “rousing and delightful”, but that they neglected “the real reason that most believers believe: their personal experience of the presence of God” [p.16]. It’s this subjective and highly emotional sensation, the same one he experienced for himself, that he believes lies at the root of most religious belief, and that this book seeks to explain in scientific terms...
His theory – the illusion of the title – is that belief in God is a misfire of the brain systems that evolved to promote parent-child bonding in infancy. A baby instinctively believes, without needing any prior experience, that its crying will summon a powerful, loving parental figure. Wathey calls this instinct “short-circuit certainty” and says:
“Even if she cannot be immediately seen, heard, tasted, or felt, the mother still exists. Even if she takes what seems an eternity to respond to the infant’s cries, she still exists. This knowledge would give an infant separated from its mother the persistence to keep crying for her, even if hunger and exhaustion would otherwise compel silence and rest to conserve energy. This hardwired, innate sense of certainty of the mother’s existence is, by definition, certainty in the absence of evidence. The infant is certain because certainty confers a survival advantage.” [p.63]
Wathey’s proposal is that in times of great despair, anguish or helplessness, this deeply buried neural network sometimes reactivates, giving a person the unshakable sense of a powerful and benevolent presence that’s willing to give aid or comfort. Effectively, belief in God is a supernormal stimulus for the innate parental image which all humans inherit.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. Sigmund Freud proposed something similar, that religious belief grows from an unconscious longing for a childhood father figure. But where Freud was groping in the dark, Wathey backs his argument up with modern neuroscientific evidence, identifying the specific brain regions and networks that he believes give rise to this phenomenon. If you, like me, have a geeky fascination with how the brain gives rise to the mind, there’s a lot of material here to mull over: the role of nucleus accumbens in mediating reward-seeking behavior, cholinergic signaling in the basal forebrain, the top-down role of the visual cortex in sensory perception, and more. He surveys comparably complex neural programming in other species, like newly-hatched sea turtles which have sophisticated instincts that govern when to emerge from their nest, how to seek out the ocean, and how to tell which direction they should swim. He also devotes considerable time to infant cognition and what patient, careful experimentation has shown us about the way babies perceive the world.
There are probably a few questions that come to mind when you consider this hypothesis. I had them myself on my first reading of the book: Given that the parental caregiver is usually the mother, why isn’t God more widely believed to be female? Isn’t it maladaptive for this brain network to confer the sense that the supplicant’s prayers have been answered, whereas an infant is only soothed by the actual presence of its parent and not merely the wish? Why do so many religions believe in a God who’s a cruel, punishing lawgiver rather than a comforting maternal figure?
Wathey addresses those objections and others in the book, and I’m not going to go into detail about his answers in this review. Instead, I want to touch on what I thought was a very clever and unexpectedly persuasive argument: in addition to the neurological evidence, he describes “infantile imagery” in a wide variety of religions and cults: texts and rituals that, implicitly or explicitly, tell believers to picture themselves in an infantile role and God as a loving parent.
Sometimes, this infantile imagery merely consists of stressing the believer’s total helplessness and dependence and God’s omniscient willingness to aid. But sometimes the connection is unambiguous, as in prayer manuals which compare believers in prayer to a helpless baby nursing at a breast, or doctrine which instructs believers that they must be “born again”. (One tidbit I learned is that Jim Jones demanded his followers address him as “Dad”.) He also points out that prayer often involves rhythmic rocking or swaying, which parents know has a calming effect on small children. The first time I read this, I thought of devout Jews rocking back and forth in fervent prayer at the Wailing Wall.
The other thing I liked about the book is that Wathey demonstrates the explanatory fruitfulness of his theory. He argues that it can explain a diversity of questions under the same banner: why nearly all religions are obsessed with sexual proscription and taboos, or why denial of God consistently attracts such anger, or why prayer so often involves kneeling and prostration, or even why churches and temples have common architectural motifs. He does venture into speculation that the greater religiosity of women is partly biological, which I suspect will attract some opposition. But overall, when it comes to secular works on the origins of religious belief, this is a thoughtful and worthwhile contribution and a persuasive case for atheism.
- See more at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2016/01/book-review-the-illusion-of-gods-presence/#sthash.KHlyHB8c.dpuf==
...Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Living towards death in time gives one's life a direction and framework within which to understand the changes that life brings. The world looks very differently to the young and the old. The young look forward. The old look back. What matters to us changes as we get older. The prospect of death informs these changes. The young have an intellectual understanding that death comes to us all, but their mortality has not become real to them. For the old, mortality starts to sink in.
For a long time, I have been puzzled by two famous philosophical ideas about death, one from Plato and one from Spinoza. The first is that a philosopher has a vital concern with death and constantly meditates upon it. The second is that the wise person thinks of nothing so little as death. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ignoring death leaves us with a false sense of life's permanence and perhaps encourages us to lose ourselves in the minutiae of daily of life. Obsessive rumination on death, on the other hand, can lead us away from life. Honestly coming to terms with one's death involves reflection on its significance in one's life, and thinking about the larger values that give life its meaning. In the end, it is useful to think about death only to the point that it frees us to live fully immersed in the life we have yet to live.
JEFF MASON WAS A LECTURER IN PHILOSOPHY AT MIDDLESEX UNIVERSITY. HE WROTE THIS PIECE IN 2011 SIX MONTHS BEFORE A DIAGNOSIS OF TERMINAL LUNG CANCER.
Related Article: Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind (written by Jeff Mason two months before his death in August 2012).http://www.philosophersmag.com/index.php/reflections/17-death-and-its-concept