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Good Even If Not True: Anderson on Religion

Bruce Anderson, for the Spectator, opines about his atheism and the factors that caused him to reject the Christianity of his youth. Religion is attractive, culturally indispensible, and may even be necessary. Unfortunately, it’s probably not true, says Anderson, and that creates his intellectual barrier.

So why do I still abstain? For two reasons: realism, and science. The urgency of need cannot of itself summon the necessary help into being, as bank managers have been telling their customers down the ages. Although science cannot prove that God does not exist, it does make the search vastly more complicated.

Thanks to Stan Dokupil for the link.

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Is Religion to Blame?

“Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today.” Richard Dawkins – A Devil’s Chaplain

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil-that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg - Facing Up

religion-and-warHow many have heard this statement: “Religion has been the cause of more wars than atheism.” This has been stated by academics and non-academics alike (see Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great , chapter 13, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion , chapter 8, and Sam Harris, The End of Faith , chapter 4 for examples of more formal cases for this position). This reasoning has been accepted as a truism in Western societies and recited as a mantra by many who passionately believe that religion is principally a source of conflict and harm rather than a source of good. The prevailing thought is that if we could eliminate religion, we would be well on the road to peace on earth. Just think about the song “Imagine” when John Lennon sings ”no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace….”

When you read about modern conflicts, you can’t help but think that religion is to blame. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging even before the modern state of Israel was created in 1948. What about the conflict in Ireland which has occurred from the 17th century until the late 20th century? This conflict pitted Catholics who opposed British rule versus Protestants who favored British rule in Ireland. Then there are the conflicts in the former Yugoslavian republics in the Balkans which took place throughout Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo and involved Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim followers. The religious tensions that have engulfed Nigeria since 2000 are another example. Demographically, Nigeria is essentially divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south and this factor, along with other factors, has produced inter-religious violence. There are more conflicts that can be mentioned here but these illustrations serve the purpose.

Is religion truly the cause of human suffering through conflict? Is this ingrained notion correct? A philosophical examination of war is a complex issue. Although warfare and conflict are common throughout human history, the causes of conflict are not simple. For something as complex as war, single-attribute causes are rare. There are a variety of reasons people, groups, and nations enter into conflicts and one of them has been religion. But does that mean that most wars are based on religious differences? The difficulty with answering this question comes largely from the lack of a clear distinction between why people go to war, and why people remain in conflict. The former pertains to the primary reasons that engender conflict while the latter pertains to the elements used to help the combatants achieve their objectives.

Carl von Clausewitz, the German military theorist and philosopher of war of the early 1800’s, wrote a famous book titled On War. Clausewitz writes about the theory, nature, and strategy of war in great detail and his views have been widely debated since then by political scientists, historians, and philosophers. One of the remarkable theories in his book is his “fascinating trinity of war.” In this short, yet significant, doctrine (300 or so words), Clausewitz argued that war consists of three sets of inputs: violence and passion; uncertainty, chance and probability; and political purpose and effect. Regarding the trinity, Clausewitz explains,

“The first of these three phases concerns more the people; the second more the general and his army; the third more the Government. The passions which break forth in war must already have a latent existence in the peoples. The range which the display of courage and talents shall get in the realm of probabilities and of chance depends on the particular characteristics of the general and his army; but the political objects belong to the Government alone.”

Religion can apply to the first element in that it has been used to ignite the passions of the people. Leaders have appealed to religion to serve as motivation for the participants of the conflict. For instance, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade in 1095 by urging the knights to stop fighting each other and to make common cause against God’s enemies. On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous “a day that will live in infamy” speech in which he requests Congress to declare war on Japan. Preceding his verbal request to Congress, the President stated, “With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounded determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.” The President appealed to God and thus, another example of religion serving as a motivator to the people. There are numerous examples of this type of motivation used by leaders.

Even so, it seems that confusion regarding the distinction between the cause of war and reasons that sustain it is what drives the “religion has been the primary source of more wars and conflicts than any thing else” mantra. Religion has unfortunately played a role as a cause or contributing factor to wars throughout human history, but it has played that role alongside myriad other causes and factors. For instance, when one examines the Crusades and the conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries such as the series of civil wars fought in France in the late 1500’s and the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, religion was one of the causes, it was not the only cause. Other factors, particularly economic factors such as trade, property, and wealth were also causes in these conflicts. Maj. John Conway of the US Army wrote in his essay, War and Religion: Is Religion to Blame? , that “religion played the essential role amongst the individual combatants (the Crusades) and was the essential fabric of the two warring cultures. Economics, power, influence, and trade are the true causes; causes that hold firm regardless of the religion factor.” Seldom has a conflict been fought solely because of religion.

The point is not to dismiss the role that religion has played in many conflicts, past and present. Rather, the intent is to point out that placing the blame squarely at the feet of religion is a gross overstatement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves as a good illustration. There is a clear religious element involved here, on one side there is the Jewish state of Israel and on the other side are the Palestinian people and their state which is predominantly Muslim. Moreover, some of the participants on this conflict such as Hamas and radical Orthodox Jews make strong theological claims such as "God gave us this land." However, at its core, this conflict arises from disputes over self-determination and land (i.e. occupied territories, checkpoints, pre-1967 borders, control of seaports and roads, etc.) and its main participants, the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, have secular not religious roots. The founders of the modern state of Israel were secular Jews and the PLO was founded as a secular group whose goal is to prohibit Zionism and to gain self-determination for the Palestinian people and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Again, there is no doubting the religious overtones in this conflict but to claim that this conflict is solely a religious conflict is unfounded. Some have even argued that this conflict would remain the same even without the religious elements.

Of course, there are those who strongly disagree and believe that religion has caused more wars than any other factor and produced the greatest evils in this world, none more so than modern atheists. Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian apologist and author, contends that atheists have "greatly exaggerated the crimes that have been committed by religious fanatics while neglecting or rationalizing the vastly greater crimes committed by secular and atheist fanatics." This is a strong statement that runs counter to popular belief about the role of religion in historical conflicts but it is a statement that merits further examination in the next installment of Table Talk.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

Faith and Reason in Tension

“Faith has declined in contemporary western culture because contemporary westerners have become emotionally and imaginatively impoverished. We have ceased to care in the right way about the right things.” – C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard: An Introduction”

Reason: If anyone is to have justified beliefs in what is true, then they must believe based on evidence and argument. Faith, you have little to offer when it comes to truth-gathering.

Faith: You’re not the boss of me!

Reason: If you mean by that odd remark to claim that faith is just as relevant to truth seeking, how do you know? What evidence do you have for such a claim?

Faith: You always ask for evidence but you can’t provide evidence for the claim that you require evidence. Stop looking around for what does not exist and live your life, Reason!

Reason: But what life should I live? How can I adjudicate between alternate possible lifestyles? Either one must live by reason or by faith. It is not the case that one should live by faith. Therefore one must live by reason.  Evidence for the second premise can be put in terms of the following modus tollens: If one should live by faith then any lifestyle will do. But it is not the case that any lifestyle will do. Therefore . . .

Faith: Stop right there. I can only live the life that’s been given to me and that’s what I choose to do. Embrace life instead of sitting around mulling over pseudo-intellectual problems that have an appearance of significance!

Reason: Faith, you appear to be making truth claims. What am I supposed to do with them? I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying yourself but why tell me? If you want me to understand and, more importantly, believe, what you’re saying, I need to consider evidence provided through something that at least resembles an argument. If you disagree, why? (By the way, if you attempt to answer the ‘why question,’ you will need to use an argument to do so.)

Faith: And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
     For last year's words belong to last year's language
     And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
     To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
     Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
     In streets I never thought I should revisit
     When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
     To purify the dialect of the tribe
     And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight…

Reason: This is hopeless.

Faith: That’s the first thing you’ve said that I agree with.

Over time, well-worn intellectual debates pick up a number of elements that analysts will tend to use as a pre-analytic framework and unpack the issue in light of that framework. Many times, the framework includes the very positions being debated and analysis may proceed without questioning whether those positions are valid ways to frame the debate. In the United States, the “pro choice” versus “pro life” labels used to describe the two opposing positions on abortion may be an example. On even a cursory inspection, these labels are grossly misleading and designed to foster unfortunate caricatures that not only stagnate any forward movement politically but frame this important issue in terms that don’t allow for any analytic success (even anecdotally, it seems obviously true that most in the “pro choice” camp are not at the same time “pro death” and those on the pro life side of the question actually do not eschew significant reproductive liberties).

Are faith and reason opposed?

Characterizing the discussion about the intellectual viability of religion in terms of “faith” versus “reason” has a long history. It’s both effortless and obvious to adopt these two monikers as labels for a real conflict. But are faith and reason really opposed? Is this the right way to think about the debate? More fundamentally, is there a debate at all? As I’ve attempted to show in previous essays, I believe the answer to all these questions is yes. There is manifest evidence that there has been and presently is tension over the validity and role of religious belief in a modern worldview and there is strong historical evidence that the tension is centered around what broadly can be understood as a distinction between a rational—or in contemporary language, scientific—understanding of the nature of things and one that uses faith as the locus for understanding the essential aspects of the world.

But perhaps this distinction is only linguistic. Perhaps it is the case that all clear-thinking humans that aren’t suffering from some dysfunction and are really aimed towards seeking the truth are rational but many mistakenly create a façade which they call faith even though this term does not really refer to any actual epistemological or psychological construct. Some have argued that the ethical construct “altruism” is like this. Many, in a sort of folk-ethical way, believe they can and do sometimes act entirely for the interest of another with no self-interest involved. But, say some theorists, this is not actually possible. Any personal action, if it is goal directed and not capricious or random, ultimately is performed to satisfy some personal desire on the part of the agent performing the action. A simple bit of evidence for this is that every ethical “why” question—why did you step out in front of that car to save the cat—appears to involve answer centered on personal desire: I didn’t want the cat to die. While it seems undeniable that the hero performed a brave act involving the potential loss of her own life, the action is motivated by a personal desire to see some state of affairs come about. The cat’s life functioned as an object for the desire, not for the action. The desire should be considered the primary driver of the action at least insofar as an ethical analysis is concerned. Perhaps faith is like this.

This does not seem to be the case. Thinkers on both sides of the question that have attempted to dig into the nature of the dichotomy have isolated fundamental epistemological and psychological differences between knowledge that comes by way of a rational analysis and knowledge that is grounded on what can broadly be called faith. Some key terms I’ve thus far used to capture this distinction are: essences and existence, first-person experience and third-person descriptions, and existentialism and rationalism. These terms appear to label real differences. As we saw in James, some view faith as a psychologically isolated approach to dealing with questions about aspects of reality that reason is incapable of unpacking. Reason may have its place, but it most certainly is limited in what it can do epistemically and psychologically.

In the next few essays, I want to explore this distinction further by looking at some themes in Kierkegaard—arguably the foremost religious existentialist. Whereas James sought a both/and approach to the faith-reason dichotomy, Kierkegaard argues for an either/or  solution concluding that religion is essentially non-rational.  For Kierkegaard, the religious mode of existence is the more authentic way to live and so his distinction becomes central to his entire philosophy. It is necessary to remind the reader at this point that my central claim in this series is that proponents of religion in the contemporary West are attempting to ground their religious beliefs existentially but sustain and publicize their beliefs as a rational epistemology (and psychology). In this way, modern religionists are not pure Kierkegaardians in the strict sense but the modern Christian worldview has absorbed the spirit of Kierkegaard and seem to agree with his fundamental philosophy. By examining Kierkegaard’s thought, we may be able to gain better insight into why Western religion finds itself in the position it does and better understand where the modern debate is headed.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

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Christianity and Christmas

Ross Douthat, for the New York Times, uses the upcoming premier Christian holiday to reflect, briefly, on Christianity in America. His reflection focuses on Christianity primarily as a social and political force through two recent book-length treatments that attempt the same. His essay is notable not for what it includes but for what it leaves out. Douthat does not even introduce the idea of the truth-conditions of Christianity but discusses it purely as a social device for good and a political device for power and concludes that it is struggling in both areas. Notably, he comments that its marginalization was predictable when it shifted from a dominant cultural world view to a “persecuted” worldview at “war” with the general culture. He writes, “[the war footing'] has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Anecdotally this is certainly true. People who consider themselves of the “pure faith” certainly describe themselves and their beliefs in the way Douthat describes. Douthat reinforces other data that suggests that organized religion is become less and less attractive to many in the younger generation which leads to a more fluid, less rigid, and more egalitarian view of faith. But the more egalitarian and eclectic faith in some circles becomes, the more entrenched, isolated, and victimized those seeking to be “true Christians” find themselves (a topic I touch on here). Christmas is a time where some of these sentiments are ignored but also a time when the state of Christianity is most exposed.

Perhaps the broader point is that the face of religion in America is changing and fairly dramatically. There are important philosophical questions that need to be explored and answers as these changes occur and thankfully there are a few thinkers willing to take on the task.

Thanks to Bill Pardi for the pointer.

The full Douthat article is here.

Second Annual Notre Dame/Northwestern Graduate Epistemology Conference

Keynote Speaker: Ernest Sosa, Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University. The philosophy departments at the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University are proud to announce the second annual Graduate Epistemology Conference, including a Symposium on Disagreement.

Submission Guidelines: We welcome submissions in the field of analytic epistemology, broadly construed. The conference will include a small symposium on the epistemology of disagreement (whether religious, moral or theoretical), and papers in this area are especially solicited for inclusion in the symposium. Papers should be no more than 4000 words (approx. 13 pages), excluding notes. Papers should be prepared for blind review: include detachable cover page with paper’s title, abstract, author’s name, mailing address, email, phone number, school affiliation, and word count; please  omit any self-identifying remarks within the body of the paper.

Deadline: Papers must be received by January 10th, 2011. Papers should be emailed as an attachment to the conference organizers at preferably in PDF format.

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Montclair State University's Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy

imageMontclair State University's Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy is one of a very few programs in the country that bring the disciplines of pedagogy and philosophy into dynamic interaction. The program builds on the University's nationally recognized programs in teacher preparation and decades of leadership in critical thinking, precollege philosophy education, and inquiry into the public purposes of education. It provides a unique opportunity for those who wish to participate in the highest level of philosophical and empirical scholarship, to apply that scholarship to the work of teacher education, and/or to bring philosophical practices to the classroom.

Graduates from the Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy pursue careers in the following fields in higher education:

  • Philosophy of Education
  • Educational Foundations
  • Teacher Education

The program has also prepared students for, or advanced their positions in the following careers in precollege education:

  • Teaching philosophy in middle schools, high schools and community colleges
  • K-12 classroom teaching that employs philosophical methods, addresses philosophy of the school subjects, and/or engages children in philosophical practices

Applications for fall 2011 are being accepted until Feb. 1. We will be hosting an information session on December 1, 2010, from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. at the University. To register for the session, visit More information about the program is available online at and from program administrators at

Please forward this email and the attached flyer to colleagues and students who might be interested.

Program Web Flyer:

PhilPapers Philosophy Survey Updated

PhilPapers recently updated the home page for their 2009 Philosophical survey (see details below). The survey asked questions on a variety of topics and surveyed over 1800 faculty and PhDs as well as over 800 graduate students. Here are some of the results:

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

Accept or lean toward: externalism
398 / 931 (42.7%)

287 / 931 (30.8%)

Accept or lean toward: internalism
246 / 931 (26.4%)


Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

Accept or lean toward: compatibilism
550 / 931 (59%)

139 / 931 (14.9%)

Accept or lean toward: libertarianism
128 / 931 (13.7%)

Accept or lean toward: no free will
114 / 931 (12.2%)


Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?

Accept or lean toward: physicalism
526 / 931 (56.4%)

Accept or lean toward: non-physicalism
252 / 931 (27%)

153 / 931 (16.4%)


Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?

Accept or lean toward: correspondence
473 / 931 (50.8%)

Accept or lean toward: deflationary
231 / 931 (24.8%)

163 / 931 (17.5%)

Accept or lean toward: epistemic
64 / 931 (6.8%)


From PhilPapers:

We have just released a wealth of additional information about last year's PhilPapers Philosophical Survey.

First, we have posted detailed results regarding correlations between answers.  This includes correlations between answers to the main philosophical questions, and also correlations between these questions and background questions such as nationality, gender, age, and other factors.

Second, we have posted an attempt at a factor analysis, isolating a number of key factors that tend to predict an individual's responses to the survey.

Third, we have made available the answers of respondents who chose to make them publicly available. The list of these respondents is here. In addition, all respondents who have PhilPapers profiles can see who among public respondents have answers most similar to their own. If you have completed the survey, your answers will now be available through your profile and you can modify them if desired.  You can also modify settings to make your answers public or private as you choose.  If you have not answered the survey yet, you can now do so by following the 'My philosophical views' link from your profile.

The updated home page for the Survey is here.

Philosophy Conferences, November/December 2010

November 2010
15 Wellbeing: A Cure-all for the Social Sciences? Online Other
17 'Homo Ludens 2.0. Media, Identity & Play' Utrecht Netherlands
18 Comics Forum Leeds United Kingdom
20 Oxford Philosophy Graduate Conference Oxford United Kingdom
22 Development Philosophy of Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe Ibadan, Nigeria
22 International Conference for Academic Disciplines Rome Italy
23 Chulalongkorn International Conference of Oriental Studies (CHICOS) Bangkok Thailand
25 Humanities and Social Sciences 2010 (HSS-2010) Lviv Ukraine
26 8th International Conference Cyberspace 2010 Brno Czech Republic
28 European Conference for Academic Disciplines Gottenheim near Freiburg Germany
29 International Conference on Islamic Education 2010 Shah Alam Malaysia

December 2010
01 Gendered Ways of Knowing? Gender, Natural Sciences and Humanities Interdisciplinary Congress Trento Italy
01 Metaphysics, Language, and Morality Zagreb Croatia (Hrvatska
02 40th Conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia Inc. Perth Australia
09 Contained Memory Conference 2010 Wellington New Zealand
10 Economics made fun in the face of the economic crisis Rotterdam Netherlands
10 ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed’:
Centenary reflections and contemporary debates: modernism and beyond
Glasgow United Kingdom
28 Meaning,Identity and Culture Kolkata India

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Workshop@CMU: Experience, heuristics, and choice: Prospects for bounded rationality

On December 1st there will be a workshop at CMU focusing on bounded rationality especially as applied to choice, featuring various central issues like the role of heuristics in choice and inference.  The program, and other details can be found here.  No registration is needed and attendance is welcomed.  For details about organization you can contact me at my CMU email address. The workshop celebrates the work of Herb Simon in this area and features Ralph Hertwig as one of the main invitees.  Ralph has made decisive contributions to bounded rationality in a series of recent papers.  He is a student and a frequent collaborator of Gerd Gigerenzer.

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