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Dennett’s Parable of the Sower
Posted: 07 August 2009 03:10 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Daniel Dennett has an odd way of working the Parable of the Sower into the narrative of Breaking the Spell.  The parable originally appeared in the writings ascribed to Luke (see 8:4ff) , Matthew (13:2ff) and Mark (4:10ff) in the New Testament.  Basically, a sower throws seed out over a field with four types of terrain:  Hardened soil that is part of a pathway, rocky soil, weed infested soil and good soil.  The parable is offered as an explanation for why the word fails to produce the outcome the nation of Judah had expected as a reward for her faithfulness to her god.  Each of the New Testament authors ties the parable back to Isaiah 6:9 en loc so that it functions, additionally, as an explanation of why Israel’s historical past looks so bleak.

Dennett is examines religion as a natural phenomenon.  In particular, he is trying to demonstrate the failure of religion.  The statement ‘the seed is the word’ is compared to a Lancet Fluke which afflict an ant’s nervous system creating zombie ants who act outside of their normal behavior by crawling up plant stems and attach themselves to exposed portions of the plants such as leaves in order to facilitate the generation cycle needs of the fluke.  Similarly, the word spoken by a teacher, prophet, etc. is designed to meet the needs of the teacher/prophet through zombies.

I can see Dennett’s point.  Priests in ancient cultures and in our present day appear to be creating a need for their services through an appeal to the belief in gods that occurs in all ancient civilizations.  However, Dennett’s argument is weakened since it depends upon the accidental cases in religious systems rather than encompassing all cases where religious reform was called for by prophets and seers in ancient cultures.  His thesis would look very different if he included the critiques of ancients like Zoroaster, Socrates, the Buddha, etc..

For example, Isaiah’s critique of the fertility cults prevalent in his own day is a precursor to the vision he has of the god of his own nation in chapter six of his prophecy.  Chapter five begins with a parable of a god who digs a winepress in the middle of vineyard but is disappointed when the grapes produced turn out to be putrid.  Isaiah applies the parable to the greedy landowner’s of his time:  God looks for justice (a good grape) but finds injustice (the putrid).  How can this be included among religious enterprises that prey upon people’s superstitions?

A myth contempoary with Isaiah from Ancient Sumer illustrates the propaganda that Dennett is critiquing but Dennett does not appear to understand that Isaiah is a critique of religious futility which had become dominant among his own people.  The myth is simply called Enki and Ninhursag. It is straightforward:  The gods need to be cared for through offerings of plants, etc. (see section 21) and when these needs are not met, fertility of land, women and cattle is withheld. The central metaphor of the semen of the god stands for fresh water that is sent from the festival grounds to water the lands of Dilmun. 

Note the dysfunctional element:  The gods are not interested in justice.  They require sacrifice.  In Isaiah and the various Parables of the Sower, it is not sacrifice that is being called for but justice.  This is a universal human need which religious systems have sometimes overlooked and sometimes incorporated.

[ Edited: 07 August 2009 06:49 PM by John Brand]
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Posted: 07 August 2009 08:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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John Brand - 07 August 2009 07:10 PM

However, Dennett’s argument is fallacious since it depends upon the accidental cases in religious systems rather than all cases where religious reform was called for by prophets and seers in ancient cultures.

That’s what I always liked about you John ... you have a good heart ... and you’re so smart I can never fully understand half of what you say.

I’m not sure what you mean by accidental cases. Jesus was supposed to be a prophet and religious reformer, look where it got him - sacrificed. That was far from any accidental case and a far cry from my idea of justice.

How can this be included among religious enterprises that prey upon people’s superstitions?

First, did they ever use plain succinct language that’s to the point, or were they ever beating around the proverbial burning bush? People actually believe all that stuff literally as written. That kind of crosses the superstition threshhold, I think. Besides, you don’t have to leave home to know that there are a lot of susceptible people that are easily fooled and will believe anything when the spin is right, even in this day and age.

Second, ‘preying upon’ might depend on what god’s expressed retribution is for getting a bunch of sour grapes. Apparently, he sets unrealistically high expectations and makes bad investments (check many of the slick front-people he has on his team), but the marketplace (and the legal system) will be the final arbiter. Is god supposed to mete out harsh punishment for his own PR shortcomings? Is that the justice you mean? If so, it sounds like the standard form of religious coercion to me. If god is so great, why so many flaws in his business plan?

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Posted: 08 August 2009 06:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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goodgraydrab - 08 August 2009 12:41 AM

That’s what I always liked about you John ... you have a good heart ... and you’re so smart I can never fully understand half of what you say.

And what I have always liked about you, GGD, is that you press for clarity and simplicity in argument.  You have well understood most of what I am saying.

I’m not sure what you mean by accidental cases. Jesus was supposed to be a prophet and religious reformer, look where it got him - sacrificed. That was far from any accidental case and a far cry from my idea of justice.

Great reformers, such as Buddha, Socrates, Zoroaster, recognized that they were dealing with a Moby Dick:  An political institution impervious to the objections of minorities.  That is not justice but it does prove to be the downfall of the institution time and again.

I gave the example of ancient Athenian oligarchs who expropriated the land of those who had put themselves up as colateral for loans.  The land wasn’t yielding the amount of grain that could pay back the loans so the debtor had to sell himself as a slave.  This led to civil war.  Solon pointed to the greed of the oligarchs who were the power in this particular Moby Dick. 

The Athenian fish gets caught in its own net, eventually. The greed for power and insecurity that comes from that greed, forced an alliance with other nation states in Greece, heavy taxation of these states, and raising the ire of another Moby Dick, Sparta.  Eventually, Athens is overpowered but Sparta, too, falls prey to the rise of Pilip II of Macedon and Alexander. And that leads to the downfall of Persia.  And Greece succombs to the power of Rome ... and Rome is undone by Christian orthodoxy.

How can this be included among religious enterprises that prey upon people’s superstitions?

First, did they ever use plain succinct language that’s to the point, or were they ever beating around the proverbial burning bush? People actually believe all that stuff literally as written. That kind of crosses the superstition threshhold, I think. Besides, you don’t have to leave home to know that there are a lot of susceptible people that are easily fooled and will believe anything when the spin is right, even in this day and age.

Absolutely right.  Political institutions are made by spin.  But what of the lone voice that goes unheard.  I think this is the lesson we learn from the great reformers:  Follow your bliss.

Second, ‘preying upon’ might depend on what god’s expressed retribution is for getting a bunch of sour grapes. Apparently, he sets unrealistically high expectations and makes bad investments (check many of the slick front-people he has on his team), but the marketplace (and the legal system) will be the final arbiter. Is god supposed to mete out harsh punishment for his own PR shortcomings? Is that the justice you mean? If so, it sounds like the standard form of religious coercion to me. If god is so great, why so many flaws in his business plan?

I think that you are putting too much responsibility on bliss which is what the ancients thought of as god.  The majority do not listen to the stillness within.  Rather, they pursue passion and that is the cause of the sour grapes.  The Parable of Isaiah outlines what happens when the grapes are sour or passion is left unrestrained:  The institution implodes.  But Isaiah’s theology sees god as an active force with a will and an investment that modern day conceptions of bliss do not incorporate.

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Posted: 08 August 2009 06:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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John Brand - 07 August 2009 07:10 PM

I can see Dennett’s point.  Priests in ancient cultures and in our present day appear to be creating a need for their services through an appeal to the belief in gods that occurs in all ancient civilizations.  However, Dennett’s argument is weakened since it depends upon the accidental cases in religious systems rather than encompassing all cases where religious reform was called for by prophets and seers in ancient cultures.  His thesis would look very different if he included the critiques of ancients like Zoroaster, Socrates, the Buddha, etc..

What exactly are “accidental cases in religious systems”? Are you sure you’re not criticizing Dennett for simply choosing a given target of criticism—he criticizes apples, so you point out his criticism doesn’t fit oranges as if that’s a problem? I know that’s a very common analytical error among religious apologists.

John Brand - 07 August 2009 07:10 PM

A myth contempoary with Isaiah from Ancient Sumer illustrates the propaganda that Dennett is critiquing but Dennett does not appear to understand that Isaiah is a critique of religious futility which had become dominant among his own people.  The myth is simply called Enki and Ninhursag. It is straightforward:  The gods need to be cared for through offerings of plants, etc. (see section 21) and when these needs are not met, fertility of land, women and cattle is withheld. The central metaphor of the semen of the god stands for fresh water that is sent from the festival grounds to water the lands of Dilmun.

Note the dysfunctional element:  The gods are not interested in justice.  They require sacrifice.  In Isaiah and the various Parables of the Sower, it is not sacrifice that is being called for but justice.  This is a universal human need which religious systems have sometimes overlooked and sometimes incorporated.

More important would be their definition of justice. It’s a term that’s often drastically misused, particularly by hard core religious types, who basically just attach all good and noble descriptors to their beliefs. In fact how things match up with their dogma is pretty much how they define what’s right and good, so it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot when hard core fundy types in particular, but less critical thinkers in general, claim they’re after justice. They’re often after petty vengeance or just their way when they use the term. Like Palin, they often need to feel like heroes and champions of virtue, when in fact they haven’t enough self-discipline to even responsibly develop a genuine or meaningful concept of what that is, and they’re really just after what they want.

IOW, one man’s religious futility is another man’s injustice if you’re focused on form, but both are religious futility and injustice when you consider the substance. Religious types are really into the whole Swiftian Bigender vs. Littlender schtick. This is what such a parable often becomes (and how it may well have been intended). It’s great when it’s perceived in a more conscientious way by more truly virtuous believers, but while their interpretation better because it yields more positive ideology that doesn’t make it The Right Interpretation[sup]tm[/sup] (i.e. it may not be better in terms of accuracy regarding original intent/use, or applicable to Dennett’s critique).

Byron

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Posted: 08 August 2009 06:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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John Brand - 08 August 2009 10:31 AM

Great reformers, such as Buddha, Socrates, Zoroaster, recognized that they were dealing with a Moby Dick:  An political institution impervious to the objections of minorities.  That is not justice but it does prove to be the downfall of the institution time and again.

Literary foul!

“A” Moby Dick would be a self-destructive obsession. A self-destructive construction, such as an unresponsive political system, would be a Frankenstein’s Monster (and it’s really strange that the forum dictionary recognizes Frankenstein but not Frankenstein’s, which is the more technically correct use here, and should certainly work in the case of a name).

Just a technical point.

Carry on.

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Posted: 08 August 2009 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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SkepticX:

Thanks for clearing this up.  I thought I must be dumb as rock because I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this:

John Brand - 08 August 2009 10:31 AM

Great reformers, such as Buddha, Socrates, Zoroaster, recognized that they were dealing with a Moby Dick:  An political institution impervious to the objections of minorities.  That is not justice but it does prove to be the downfall of the institution time and again.

Now that you have called to our attention the difference between an obsession and construct, I am also reminded that Moby Grape has not heretofore been seen to be a metaphor for social relations, economic organization or the appropriation of the means of production, but rather for the indifference and power of nature, and hubris in believing that one could wholely bend nature to his will.

With respect to

John Brand - 08 August 2009 10:31 AM

An political institution impervious to the objections of minorities.  That is not justice but it does prove to be the downfall of the institution time and again.

Although there may be a possible exception of some small tribe in the rain forest, I am not aware of any form of government based on anything but a political institution designed to PROTECT the rights (and privileges) of a minority: the chief, the king and his lords, or the owners of capital.  Even the USSR, by creating centralized power in the hands of the CP USSR, organized itself in this fashion.

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Posted: 09 August 2009 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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SkepticX - 08 August 2009 10:33 AM

What exactly are “accidental cases in religious systems”?

A Fallacy of Accident occurs when a general rule is applied to an irrelevant situation[/url].  In this case, Dennett is applying his general definition of religion to a Parable which is an exception to the rule he has defined.

He defines religions as ‘social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought’ (Breaking the Spell, 9).  Matthew, Mark, and Luke are believers; therefore, they are those under the spell that Dennett seeks to break:  “The word of God is the seed, and the sower of the seed is Christ.  These seeds take root in individual human beings ... and get those human beings to spread them ... and, in return, the human hosts get eternal life ...” (Ibid., 6).

The Parable of the Sower is talking about how the mind can overcome self-destructive obsessions but would not include all religious thinking among the obsessions.  That is why Dennett’s argument becomes irrelevant is the particular case.

The meaning of the parable can be profitably applied to any number of enterprises:  The limitations of anxiety and pleasure on human actualization had been the subject of debate from Stoics (limited theists) and Epicureans (non-theists) among the greeks for centuries before the writing of Luke, Matthew and Mark.  And the conclusion was the similar:  Pleasure is to pursued with discipline and in spite of suffering.  Seneca was a solid Stoic who opposed the abuse of Nero’s power.  He calmly accepted the verdict of death for his belief.  Pleasure could not come, in his view, from cooperating with Nero’s program.

Are you sure you’re not criticizing Dennett for simply choosing a given target of criticism—he criticizes apples, so you point out his criticism doesn’t fit oranges as if that’s a problem?

Dennett misses the central point of the Parable because he is working with an inadequate definition of his subject.  He is talking about dysfunctional religion.  His limitation comes from his belief that all religion is by definition dysfunctional.

For Isaiah it is not religion by definition that is the problem.  It is dysfunctinal religion that is going to be the undoing of the political institution of ancient Judah.  The wealthy are not salvaging the poor in their pursuit of wealth.  They are using the poor as a means to greater wealth and assuming that this is irrelevant to their religious beliefs.

More important would be their definition of justice. It’s a term that’s often drastically misused, particularly by hard core religious types, who basically just attach all good and noble descriptors to their beliefs. In fact how things match up with their dogma is pretty much how they define what’s right and good ...

I don’t think that this general rule applies to Isaiah and how Matthew, Mark and Luke are interpretting him.  From the parallel situation of ancient Athens, the case where justice is being called for is clearly not a matter of dogma. It was about the wealthy frustrating the poor in order to pad their own pockets.

Solon’s analysis and solution to the problem are outlined in The Athenian Constitution, Section 1, Part 2.  He proposed freedom for the slaves, return of land and the abolishment of all loans secured against the person. 

The ancient Mosaic law outlined a solution that was similar but would have been less economically devastating for the wealthy.  A man could sell himself as a slave but the enslavement would be limited to a period of six years.  Land could be expropriated and owned by others for a period of 49 years.  In the 50th year it was to be returned to its original owner.  Economic forecasts could be made by both the rich and the poor in this kind of system. 

The laws of Moses were laid out as a covenant with god.  If Israel remained faithful to their agreement the promise was divine protection and prosperity.  No outline of an eternal reward occurs in the original covenant.

These ancient approaches to practical problems can be studied with benefit in our own time.  Dennett misses all of this because of his dismissing of all religious thinking as dysfunctional.

IOW, one man’s religious futility is another man’s injustice if you’re focused on form, but both are religious futility and injustice when you consider the substance. Religious types are really into the whole Swiftian Bigender vs. Littlender schtick. This is what such a parable often becomes (and how it may well have been intended). It’s great when it’s perceived in a more conscientious way by more truly virtuous believers, but while their interpretation better because it yields more positive ideology that doesn’t make it The Right Interpretation[sup]tm[/sup] (i.e. it may not be better in terms of accuracy regarding original intent/use, or applicable to Dennett’s critique).

1.  Philosophy is all about debating interpretation. 

2.  Dennett is a philosopher.

Therefore, debating Dennett’s interpretation is applicable.

This sounds like a solid syllogism to me.

[ Edited: 09 August 2009 03:58 PM by John Brand]
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Posted: 09 August 2009 07:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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SkepticX - 08 August 2009 10:40 AM

“A” Moby Dick would be a self-destructive obsession. A self-destructive construction, such as an unresponsive political system, would be a Frankenstein’s Monster.

Your point is noted.  However ...

“Melville allows a number of symbolic possibilities for the whale, ranging from the religious to the political or social, yet the formidability of the whale is never in question.” (Moby Dick Study Guide)

Shelley’s Frankenstein and Melville’s Moby Dick are both formidable but the pivotal difference is that Moby Dick is better left alone while Frankenstein’s creature is ignored to Frankenstein’s peril.  I interpret Shelley in the genre of the dystopian.  Something is created by man, left alone and evolves to become man’s undoing like the Triffids in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

The conflict in Melville arises because of man’s interference where he does not belong.  I agree that this is an obsession. But the conflict widens the application to social and political constructions, as well.

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Posted: 09 August 2009 07:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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John Brand - 09 August 2009 11:06 AM

Your point is noted.  However ...

It seems to me you have a tendency to over think and lose focus.

Moby Dick was an obsession that a foolish man allowed to overcome him, costing him his life and the lives of his crew. Frankenstein’s monster was a construction that turned on its creator and destroyed him.

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Posted: 09 August 2009 07:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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John Brand - 09 August 2009 10:50 AM
SkepticX - 08 August 2009 10:33 AM

What exactly are “accidental cases in religious systems”?

A Fallacy of Accident occurs when a general rule is applied to an irrelevant situation[/url].  In this case, Dennett is applying his general definition of religion to a Parable which is an exception to the rule he has defined.

It sounds to me like exactly what I said—you want to evaluate his criticism as if it were universal when he’s focused his criticism to his target.

You’re criticizing criticism of apples because it doesn’t work for oranges.

John Brand - 09 August 2009 10:50 AM

Dennett misses the central point of the Parable because he is working with an inadequate definition of his subject.  He is talking about dysfunctional religion.  His limitation comes from his belief that all religion is by definition dysfunctional.

That’s just to say that you disagree with Dennett. I don’t. Religious communities and individuals may be perfectly functional, but it’s because they overcome the influence of religion (or rather, they don’t allow it to overcome them).

Dennett is arguing that there are no oranges on the apple tree in question. I think he’s right.

Byron

[ Edited: 09 August 2009 07:51 AM by SkepticX]
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Posted: 09 August 2009 08:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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SkepticX - 09 August 2009 11:44 AM

Religious communities and individuals may be perfectly functional, but it’s because they overcome the influence of religion (or rather, they don’t allow it to overcome them).

Religious communities and individuals survive, but I know you didn’t mean “perfectly” in a literal sense. There is an entire science devoted to the notion that survival has nothing to do with optimality, let alone perfection. This science is called “biology”. The survival of religious communities and individuals is only very loosely coupled to “biology”, and has to do with stupidity seeking safety in numbers.

John Brand - 07 August 2009 07:10 PM

Isaiah applies the parable to the greedy landowner’s of his time:  God looks for justice (a good grape) but finds injustice (the putrid).  How can this be included among religious enterprises that prey upon people’s superstitions?

God is a superstition; we know this now. But was not in the time of Isaiah. Inventing ideas about what God “looks for” is just icing on a putrid cake, no matter what exotic metaphors (e.g., Moby-swinging-Dickism, good grape-ism, or even Moby Grape-ism) one attempts to slather upon it.

[ Edited: 09 August 2009 08:30 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 09 August 2009 08:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Traces Elk - 09 August 2009 12:23 PM

Religious communities and individuals survive, but I know you didn’t mean “perfectly” in a literal sense.

Good call.

How about “Religious communities and individuals may function effectively, but it’s because they overcome the influence of religion (or rather, they don’t allow it to overcome them). “

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Posted: 09 August 2009 08:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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SkepticX - 09 August 2009 12:29 PM
Traces Elk - 09 August 2009 12:23 PM

Religious communities and individuals survive, but I know you didn’t mean “perfectly” in a literal sense.

Good call.

How about “Religious communities and individuals may function effectively, but it’s because they overcome the influence of religion (or rather, they don’t allow it to overcome them). “

How about “religious communities and individuals survive”? That’s what we take away from the evidence. We don’t know optimality, and that’s all the religious nuts have for parity in ignorance. But optimality is only important to them; what a non-religious-nut seeks is simply an account of what religion accomplishes. Justice ain’t it. Lip service to justice, maybe. What we know is that the religious nuts can feel the hot breath of biology down their necks, which is why we see increasing amounts of strained pseudo-scientific metaphor slathered all over religious-nutterism like just so much semen. It is, in fact, falling on barren ground, namely brute stupidity, and these Onanistic practices will become more and more private as people begin to realize that the scent of chlorine and organic seafoam all over them is not any kind of camouflage.

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Posted: 09 August 2009 08:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Traces Elk - 09 August 2009 12:43 PM

How about “religious communities and individuals survive”? That’s what we take away from the evidence. We don’t know optimality, and that’s all the religious nuts have for parity in ignorance. But optimality is only important to them; what a non-religious-nut seeks is simply an account of what religion accomplishes. Justice ain’t it. Lip service to justice, maybe. What we know is that the religious nuts can feel the hot breath of biology down their necks, which is why we see increasing amounts of strained pseudo-scientific metaphor slathered all over religious-nutterism like just so much semen. It is, in fact, falling on barren ground, namely brute stupidity, and these Onanistic practices will become more and more private as people begin to realize that the scent of chlorine and organic seafoam all over them is not any kind of camouflage.

Absolutely. My point is that some religious communities are functional, but that they’re functional to the degree that they resist the influence that faith has on them, or to the degree that they don’t practice religious faith. The religious aspect of these communities is inherently dysfunctional.

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Posted: 09 August 2009 11:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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SkepticX - 09 August 2009 12:54 PM

Absolutely. My point is that some religious communities are functional, but that they’re functional to the degree that they resist the influence that faith has on them, or to the degree that they don’t practice religious faith. The religious aspect of these communities is inherently dysfunctional.

In what sense is a “religious community” that resists the influence that faith has on it a “religious community”? I’d be willing to call it a “bullshit-loving community”, but that is only because I detest liberal theism even more than I detest fundamentalism. The fundies just invite you into a shooting war with ‘em. The moderates try to get you to make concessions to their expensive idiocy without making any sacrifices themselves. “Be nice to us,” they say “or we won’t help you against the fundies.” With friends like that, who needs an enemy? “Be nice to us, or we’ll go off on you. It’s only moderate theism that keeps the tops of our heads from peeling away.”

Ever see a more empty threat? The moderates’ conceit is in not threatening violence, in order to uphold their absurdly-high opinions of themselves. Once you recognize the fact that fundies make moderates more nervous than they make atheists, or than atheists make moderates, you’ll see the solution in a nutshell. When moderates harangue atheists, they’re trying to finesse the deuce.

[ Edited: 09 August 2009 12:05 PM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 09 August 2009 01:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Traces Elk - 09 August 2009 03:56 PM

In what sense is a “religious community” that resists the influence that faith has on it a “religious community”?

That’s a solid point. I separate religious faith from the religious community, or the things that the religious group does as a community vs. the aspects of that community that are about religious faith, but when I do that you’re right that I may very well be cutting the heart out of the “religious community” (the dark, putrid, corrosive heart that it is) and just leaving a community. I think those things are important to separate conceptually though.

Still, I think our nature is to resist the pure presumption that is religious faith. It’s harmful and could be deadly, particularly in a less controlled world than we’ve achieved in modernity. A religious community doesn’t have to be completely or even very heavily dependent upon the use of religious faith in order to be a religious community (in my experience the vast majority are, though, and to an intellectually and psychologically toxic level, almost as often to a sociopolitically toxic level as well). So just as a chocolate chip cookie is still a chocolate chip cookie even if there’s only a fragment of a chocolate chip, so a religious community is still a religious community even if human nature successfully resists most of the religious faith element.

The question then, it seems, is whether it’s still a chocolate chip cookie even if there are no chocolate chips, but only some residual chocolate, or even none at all, due simply to having been produced from the same batch of spooge.

Byron

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“We say, ‘Love your brother…’ We don’t say it really, but… Well we don’t literally say it. We don’t really, literally mean it. No, we don’t believe it either, but… But that message should be clear.”—David St. Hubbins

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