A nice barely-planned symmetry: we begin the second half of our semester in A&S with  Carl Sagan, who also began the first.

In Demon-haunted world the “elegant and witty” exobiologist again implores us to light a candle and neither curse nor fear the darkness. Cursing and fearing are inveterate bad habits of our species, going back to St. Paul’s “high places” and beyond. How delightfully, wickedly ironic, that “demon” means “knowledge”… and that women have so frequently been demonized in our sexually repressed, male-dominated society. And, how appalling that more than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence. They should read the Devil’s Dictionary: FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

In the Gifford lectures that became Varieties of Scientific Experience we’re reminded it’s very easy to call people who believe in a different kind of god atheists, and in fact anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do. Sagan brings the same perspective to bear in sifting the differences among Abrahamic believers as he does when comparing ours to the gaze of an extra-terrestrial. The fundamental differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are trivial compared to their similarities.But those trivial differences, comic though they are (as with the naive Western view of God as an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard) have been deadly. Maybe it’s time to give Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God a hearing.

Sagan: Certainly it is insufficient to say “I believe in that sort of god because that’s what I was told when I was young”… We cannot depend entirely upon what people say. We have to look at the evidence, or else admit that we’re just not interested in trying to defend rational beliefs.

There are a few arguments Rebecca Goldstein missed here. The argument from atomic combinations and the argument from the suspension of the world fail, but they try.

Is Sagan being impertinent when he asks why God wouldn’t have engraved the Ten Commandments (say) on the Moon?

Also in today’s reading: an excerpt from John Updike’s Roger’s Version (Updike was a theist, btw), J.L. Mackie’s Miracle of Theism, Michael Shermer’s “Genesis Revisited,” A.J. Ayer’s weird oxygen-deprivation account of “what I saw when I was dead” (not God), and Dan Dennett’s more sensible (and grateful) reflections on his own near-death experience in “Thank Goodness!”

[NOTE to A&S students: the syllabus got ahead of itself. For Thursday read thru the next Dennett piece, “A Working Definition of Religion”]


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3 Responses to “exorcists”

  1. Kristin Says:

    I don’t know how we get so far on cursing and fearing and what we’re told when we’re young. I remember distinctly hearing from my peers with no point of reference whatsoever that if you wore green on Thursdays, you were gay (and, of course, that it was really bad and should be avoided). One of the ironies now is that no matter how much I believe, in whatever most “correct” God, the general consensus is still that I’m going to burn in “Hell.” I don’t know what kind of argument it is to atheists that they should believe lest they be condemned, when belief is clearly not the get-out-of-jail-free card they like to market. If my faith were founded on religion, I definitely wouldn’t have any. I guess I’m glad I don’t have to choose between theism and atheism based on who or what I am.

  2. Phil Says:

    I suppose this is one of the key points of division between New and Friendly Atheists. Friendly Atheists are happy for you to dally with moderate or progressive theism, so long as you acknowledge the modest claims of science. Newbies, on the other hand, tend to think that the moderates and progressives are “enablers” who provide cover and respectability for the Hell-mongers who would consign even the friendliest of us to the flames. So, they say you should choose. But I still say: some of my best friends are moderate and progressive theists.

  3. Kristin Says:

    Ha, I’d be really curious how welcome my partiicular cover & enabling is, from a fundamentalist “Christian” p.o.v. I also would rather err on the side of inclusion & have treasured folks at both ends of what I’m beginning to view as the theistic continuum. One of my most beloved & trusted friends is a rare (possibly unique) VERY devout but utterly nonjudgmental Christian (even w/o “s, in her case); & my dad declared himself an unbeliever the last time I saw him before he died of leukemia a month later. So I definitely know my way around the answer “I don’t know” and forego ANY assumptions about some things. How could I not?

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