The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
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Published on January 15, 2014
Secular Contempt Religion As Magic

Viewing religion in an unbroken continuum with every variant of magic is a perspective grounded in a widely diffused class of people—part of the culture of an international intelligentsia.

In its issue of December 21, 2013 (as a sort of Christmas present), the German news magazine Der Spiegel carried a story by Manfred Dworschak, under the heading “Between Religion and Magic”. A better title, reflecting the bias of the story, might be “Religion as Magic”. It is the cover story of this issue (though it starts on page 112, which hardly signals an important topic). The picture on the cover indicates the approach: Religion and magic (or if you will, superstition) are treated as one comprehensive phenomenon. That is what I find interesting here.

The picture shows a young woman with folded hands and an aura around her head (perhaps the Madonna?), looking down on a black cat running by her. I was reminded of an episode I read about years ago: A group of American tourists were on a visit to the Soviet Union. They were shown around by a guide supplied by Intourist, the government agency which made sure that nobody strayed from the pre-arranged itinerary and which routinely reported to the secret police. As the group left the hotel, a black cat ran across its path. One of the tourists said, with a laugh: “A black cat. Perhaps we had better turn around?” The guide frowned thoughtfully, then said: “Oh, I see. You are religious.”

Der Spiegel was founded in 1947 by Rudolf Augstein (1923-2002). It quickly became the most widely read news magazine in Germany, and is still that today. In its early history it was known for its relentless exposure of the Nazi past of various individuals occupying important positions in the Bonn government. It was also known for its style—brash, irreverent, more than a little supercilious. The style has remained in the magazine itself and has become influential beyond its pages; it has become conventional in the German media. Religion in general has ever been a favorite target of the magazine’s irreverence. Politically, Der Spiegel was critical early on of the conservative trend of the Federal Republic, and specifically critical of its increasing closeness with the United States and the American-led NATO. The magazine was never ideologically on the left, but I think it is fair to say that its position on the political spectrum today is left-of-center. It is suggestive of this bias that Der Spiegel (along with The Guardian and The Washington Post) was one of the three publications to which Edward Snowden entrusted the huge cache of NSA data with which he absconded.

The main focus of the Spiegel story is what it calls “the belief of unbelievers”—the persistence of all kinds of magical or superstitious practices among atheists or others with no avowed religious beliefs. It would appear then that there is a deeply rooted human propensity to believe in supernatural realities. The author (mercifully, in my opinion) does not ascribe this persistence to neurological peculiarities of our species or other vicissitudes of the evolutionary process. (One curiosity of the contemporary religious scene is that even some theologians find it plausible to look on religion as a variety of brain disease.) Various psychological experiments are quoted; I particularly like the one (conducted, of all places, in Helsinki), in which avowed atheists are asked to loudly petition the deity (in which they don’t believe) to burn down their house or to drown their parents: The unhappy subjects of the experiment evinced obvious reluctance and physiologically measurable stress (this can be done by analyzing the degree of sweating). The author of the story opines that this is nothing new, that it was always the case. In other words, he agrees here with what a Protestant theologian of my acquaintance has called “the eternal return of the Stone Age”. Sweating Finnish atheists today thus stand in a long line of supernaturally terrified humans, going back to the dawn of history, uninterrupted by allegedly more Christian periods (such as the Middle Ages) or the alleged emancipations of the Enlightenment.

All these are empirically well-founded assertions. What is intriguing is that these descriptions of surviving magic are mixed in with polling data about conventional religious beliefs. These data would indicate that, whatever deep supernatural needs are around, the Christian churches are not doing a good job meeting them, at least in Germany. According to recent surveys, 38% of Germans believe in angels, 52% in miracles; but only 22% believe in a personal God (so much for the Christian creeds). Things become more complicated if one looks at other data: 54% of West Germans believe in “God, divinities or something divine”, only 23% in East Germany reply yes to the same question – which obviously covers a very broad spectrum of religious possibilities. To underline this fact, 24% believe in reincarnation (not exactly a Christian doctrine). There is a photo of a group of Buddhist monks and nuns in Hamburg. [The difference between religion in West Germany and in the territory of the old German Democratic Republic is well known. It is one of the great puzzles in the sociology of religion in Europe—one which, in my opinion, has not as yet been adequately explained.] As to church membership, it has markedly declined in both German regions, again more sharply in the East. The story hardly mentions other parts of the world. There is a photo of magical accessories sold in an African market, implying that there are customers ready to use them. The more robust presence of organized religion in America is mentioned, and is very briefly explained in terms of the energizing effects of competition (a currently fashionable, if somewhat ethnocentric, supply-and-demand theory in the sociology of religion).

Most of the facts cited in this article are well-known and not in dispute. Yes, there is a substratum of quasi-magical beliefs surviving even in supposedly Enlightened populations. And yes, both Catholic and Protestant churches have declined in most of Europe. I don’t know Manfred Dworschak. Thus, for all I know, he may be an overt atheist, whether anxiously sweating or calmly dry; or he may be a committed or potential Christian, belonging to that minority targeted by Rome’s campaign to re-evangelize Europe. Be this as it may, he sees religion in an unbroken continuum with every variant of magic—a rather serious distortion of both phenomena. Yet this perspective is not an individual eccentricity. Rather, it is a perspective grounded in a widely diffused class of people—part of the culture of an international intelligentsia.

This class is internally variegated, from an upper stratum of celebrity sages and public figures who function as a cultural elite, to lowly workers in the knowledge industry who take their cues from this elite and aspire to join it. They believe in progress, which they represent. Thus, by definition, they are “on the right side of history”: Given time and the proper educational programs, everyone will be like them. They are the epigones of the European Enlightenment. They share its view of religion—a backward phenomenon, regrettably still surviving among the unwashed lower orders. Not surprisingly, this class has been most successful in Europe in terms of shaping the general culture. Europe is indeed the most secularized continent, giving credence to the belief that the secular elite is riding the wave of the future. In other parts of the world this view of things is grotesquely out of touch with a furiously religious reality. However, there exists an international intelligentsia which has been converted to the secular worldview emanating from Europe. [If you like to use old Marxist concepts, you can see this situation as one of cultural colonialism, with a native comprador class serving the interests of the Western imperialists.] In this worldview, the huge religious explosions in the Global South—Asia, Africa and Latin America—are dismissed as the last gasp of superstitions about to wither away [comprador academics may nod in agreement].

The United States does not fit comfortably into the progressive secular worldview. Fortunately, at least since the middle of the twentieth century, there has emerged a Europeanized American intelligentsia, which shares the secularity of its European counterparts. H.L. Mencken can be seen as the granddaddy of this class of smugly self-assured progressives. Proof text: Read his account of the triumph of Clarence Darrow over Jennings Bryan in the 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee; Mencken’s account positively oozes with contempt for the ordinary citizens who cherish the Bible and refuse to see human beings as nothing but a subset of chimpanzees. A useful question to ask is which superstitions are more socially damaging: the superstition that the earth is only six thousand years old, or the superstition that moral values can be based on the view that we are all animals.

I suppose that The Washington Post is read by people across the political spectrum whose main interest is what goes on inside the Beltway. But core readers of Der Spiegel and The Guardian should feel comfortable with each other.

  • free_agent

    You write, “One curiosity of the contemporary religious scene is that even some
    theologians find it plausible to look on religion as a variety of brain
    disease.”

    I don’t think this is as surprising as it looks. If you believe that a Diety specifically created humans (either through a direct process, or through arranging a more broadly acting creative process), then it would hardly be surprising if the Diety arranged for human brains to have a specific ability to interact with the Diety (that is, a “religious sense”).

    And this does seem to match with our experiences: Religious belief/knowledge is dealt with by people differently from belief/knowledge about more mundane matters (like, what was the weather last Tuesday? and how long does it take to boil the water in a tea kettle?).

  • free_agent

    What seems to be waning in prosperous countries is what we call traditional religion, but what is commonly called “spirituality” these days is not waning, or at least, not nearly as much. It seems to me that the difference is that “religion” contains a strong component of obligation on the individual, to support and participate in shared community rituals and to obey certain codes of conduct. “Spirituality” and “magic”, while embracing a vast amount of supernaturalism, seem to largely avoid this sort of obligation.

    As Theodore Dalrymple said, “the kind of philosophy that emerges when religious feeling is no longer disciplined by religious ritual that is established by tradition and upheld by social pressure.” or as Joan Acocella said, “a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave.”

    • fredx2

      To belong to a religion is to declare yourself. Unfortunately, once you have declared yourself, you are easy to caricature. And, because the attacks are more sophisticated these days, most people with just a passing interest in their religion cannot defend themselves. So people avoid it all and call themselves spiritual.
      So – we have become a weakly catechised, easily ridiculed. By Atheists, who don’t seem to want to remember that lack of religion is what allowed both Hitler ( a near atheist, best described as a materialist) and Stalin (an atheist) to rise. 100 million dead in the last century. And they are deriding us.

      • TomPaine

        Then, presumably, Sweden should be a fascist state and Saudi Arabia should be a libertarian dream, right? Oh, wait, that can’t be right, can it? Maybe the problem with Hitler and Stalin was that they elevated dogma over truth, the exact opposite of what most atheists — who reached atheism simply by applying the scientific method — would suggest. Unfortunately, you probably, as a matter of reflex, regard all atheism as dogmatic. In my experience, that is how many relgiosos react to atheism because they are afraid to address the atheists’ points directly.

        • Orwellian_Dilemma

          Perhaps religious people do not address atheists’ points directly, because their points are frequently nonsensical non sequiturs such as “presumably. . .Saudi Arabia should be a libertarian dream.”

          My regard of atheism as dogmatic does not arise out of reflex–it arises out of experience of dealing with atheists.

        • fredx2

          Your point about Sweden and Saudi Arabia is difficult to understand. Nobody said that the Saudi brand of Islam was wonderful and the (presumed) atheism of Sweden is bad. To compare on such broad bases is useless. Wahabbi Islam represents all religion? Hardly. Do you really make judgments on such broad categories? Hopefully not. It would not be very scientific.
          I have deep respect for many atheists. It is an entirely respectable intellectual position. However, the idiocy that now reigns supreme and comes under the name of “New Atheism” – that brand of half baked, stupid bigotry whose main point is that “Religion is Bad” is pathetic. It is nothing but a half informed parrotting of debating points. It neither seeks to engage religion in an honest debate nor does it seek understanding. Mainly, it seeks to embarass, mock and then run away. It fails to understand basic points, such as “religion is not attempting to replace, or undo science”. Over and over again, it pretends it does. It is hard to have respect for such people. Hitchens, you remember was a POLEMICIST. Not a seeker after truth.
          Believe me the attempt of New atheists to pretend that Stalin had nothing to do with atheism is an embarassment. Of course he was an atheist. The idea that the Soviet Union was a “religion” is nonsense. . You simply redefine what an atheist is. It is no longer a person who disbelieves in God. You redefine it as a person who refuses all dogmas. Atheism, if it were honest, would say, yes, there definitely was a problem there. How can we assure that future applications of atheism do not give us the same results? You have to answer the question “Why not kill some for the betterment of the many?” Because in atheism, there is no reason why not.
          You cannot reach atheism by applying the scientific method. It’s impossible, unless you are the first person to have PROVEN the non existence of God. Science is the system we have developed for explaining the physical world. That is the only thing it has been tested on. It is the only place it works. It is not a system for determining the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings.

          • Orwellian_Dilemma

            When dealing with a New Atheist, one of my favorite questions is “If I provided you the Beta Max tape of G_d speaking the universe into existence, would that evidence change your mind?”

            The response is usually telling. It’s amazing how their disbelief in a deity exceeds their willingness to consider evidence.

          • TomPaine

            I think you lose people with the ridiculousness of the premise. If you ask me, “Assume that you’re an all-powerful alien from Alpha Centauri, what would be your favorite galaxy to live in?”, sure I can give you an answer. But when I’m laughing at your question, it’s because I recognize the absurdity of the exercise.

          • Dan045

            Atheists aren’t the ones ignoring the proof the world offers.

            If you can get supernatural creatures, any supernatural creature, to do anything, then there’s an atheist with a million dollar prize for you. Better, there’s probably a business model which would make that look like chump change.

            Right now there’s *no* *one* getting *any* competitive advantage due to supernatural influence. People who claim supernatural advantages have to sell to people of faith, they never have a business plan to make money off of mother nature or an engineering plan to create a light bulb.

            We can measure amazing things, a 1% swing of the odds would be enough to make Millions gamboling and Billions on the stock market, and those are only two examples of lots.

            But *no* *one* is doing *anything* that requires actually doing something.

          • Orwellian_Dilemma

            Uhhhm. Faith is not a get rich scheme, and I’ve never met anyone in my life who seeks a competitive advantage due to supernatural influence. And the term “supernatural” is just a way for you to be condescending. Is this supernatural advantage canard a story you atheists have at your meetings after the abortion films and before your Two Minutes of Hate?

            Run along. Maybe you can count cards or something with that over-sized brain of yours.

          • Dan045

            “Faith is not a get rich scheme…”

            It’s awkward to say ‘god doesn’t like money’ when churches use it, need it, and are always asking for more. Churches are usually “rich”, i.e. businesses with large budgets and employees. Priests get paid and can always use (and are looking for) more money. Money is a tool, it enables all efforts, churches/priests want to do things.

            “…I’ve never met anyone in my life who seeks a competitive advantage due to supernatural influence…”

            Exactly. It’s claimed you can pray for jobs, health, life after death, innumerable other good things, but no one has figured out a way to profit when a tenth of a penny per share (0.005%) advantage can create a Billion dollars.

            “And the term “supernatural” is just a way for you to be condescending.”

            It’s a way to lump all magic thinkers together. Business doesn’t care who your supernatural is, just what effects are offered.

            You asked if I’d believe if you offered proof on a DVD. My answer is I’d love a deal where I’m protected/helped by a supernatural source. I’ll believe whatever you want me to believe. No one understand all aspects of science, a faith would just be one more thing not well understood. But while I’m willing to believe, your supernatural is unable to follow through on his side.

            If it were possible to read the future in the entrails of a goat, then every Fortune 500 would have a team of priestesses and herds of goats. The most accurate priestess would command a salary which dwarfs that of an NBA star, and there’d be massive experimentation on how to make her better. All of this is legal, Fortune 500s are ruthless and profit seeking, and there’s lots of religious types who use money. Since we see none of this, I infer it’s not possible to get *any* useful information this way.

            Not just that I can’t do it, if *anyone* could do so the world would be a very different place.

            That same reasoning holds up for any religious/supernatural claim that affects the real world. Write down what god does for you, and if it affects the real world, then it’s trivial to come up with a million (or Billion) dollar business plan and to get backers.

            Figure out a way to get supernatural aid, any type of aid, from any type of supernatural, and the world will beat a path to your door. Problem is you don’t have a product after we get rid of wishful thinking.

          • Orwellian_Dilemma

            I’m not sure that a deity would be interested in whether the Knicks beat the spread. . . .

            Enjoy your delusional cynicism. It seems to give you great joy.

          • Dan045

            The next time you pray for someone in a hospital you’re making claims that can be tested and (if they worked) paid for. The delusion here isn’t mine.

          • Orwellian_Dilemma

            Interesting that you believe that a deity capable of speaking the universe into existence would be so easily manipulated for money.

            Now move along. You’ve made a very clean record of your bigotry and we’ve nothing further to discuss.

          • Dan045

            Manipulated? You mean “measured”.

            Problem is science can measure a lot. Does praying for someone in the hospital do anything? Trivial to set up tests, you can look them up if you’re interested (which I doubt).

            Another way to put this is whenever we try to measure any supernatural claims, we find nothing.

          • Guest

            I can imagine the response of an intelligent person to your unintelligible question: loud guffaws, or perhaps an expression of concern for the obvious mental health issues you are facing.

            Let’s have some fun, shall we? How would such a tape exist, given that God didn’t see fit to have his human slaves invent the Betamax cassette recorder until some time AFTER the universe was created (or do you believe it was already there at the moment of creation, and humans just didn’t stumble upon it until some time later)? And, if it did exist, wouldn’t playing it back produce the creation of ANOTHER universe? If it didn’t, how would you purport that it constituted proof that the uttered material had such powers?

            You haven’t thought very long about your own silly question, have you?

          • Orwellian_Dilemma

            You’re kind of a moron aren’t you?

          • TomPaine

            I accuse you of attacking straw men atheists, and you respond by attacking a straw man atheist. An honest engagement with atheism would attempt to answer questions like, “How come there have been countless religions since the dawn of homo sapiens, all the others are wrong, but the one I was taught as a child must be right?” “Although religion purports to offer explanations for events, those religious explanations have been consistently superseded by science. What better explanation is there for that fact besides that religious explanations are merely facile excuses created by under-informed, imperfect humans?” “We can tell from archaeology, sociology, and psychology that the stories in … [e.g., the New Testament] are human creations, not divine, why do pretend otherwise?” All of these have nothing to do with whether religion is “good” or “bad,” just as I don’t take a position on whether living life under psychadelic delusions would be better” or “worse” than facing reality.

          • Orwellian_Dilemma

            What straw men? You’re the one who says that people of faith won’t take atheists on the points, then proceed to suggest that those of faith think Saudi Arabia is a “libertarian’s dream.”

            An honest engagement of atheism with those of faith would ask the questions, not present Christianity and Wahhabi Islam as being similar. By the way, they’re your questions–not mine.

            Now, when you make assertions like “We can tell from archaeology, sociology, and psychology that the stories in … [e.g., the New Testament] are human creations, not divine, why do we pretend otherwise?” you’re simply being argumentative. An honest question would set forth a particular biblical narrative, present contrary evidence and ask for a response.

            And I tell you what, when you stop listing my faith along side territorial disputes between sovereign nations such as the Crusades, I’ll stop pointing out atheism’s central and necessary role in all the major atrocities of 20th Century (the Holodomor, the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, etc.). Deal?

      • Dan045

        Hitler very openly did his thing because of his God, he’s got lots of quotes talking about the why of it.

        Calling Stalin “an atheist” is only somewhat true, clearly it’s what he self ascribed to, but Communism is full of “magic” thinking and is basically a god-less religion.

        Look at most of the hot spots in the world, and “lack of religion” isn’t normally the problem, just the opposite.

      • Guest

        Could you give us some evidence to support the claims that “lack of religion” was the key, or even just A, causal element in the triumph of national socialism and Stalinism? Please?

        Of course, there is none, but it’ll be fun to see you wave your hands.

  • Boritz

    Good article. Perhaps the best reply to the intelligentsia is a “Nietzsche is dead. -God”
    t-shirt. Also, this phrase is redundant:
    “…smugly self-assured progressives”

  • Anthony

    The beliefs and practices of religions (Religion as Magic) are endogenous to human affairs generally and often reflect both intellectual and social currents. Despite the the idea of objective reality (a contribution of Western thought), humans have historically expressed the need to transcend. Indeed, a useful question to ask is why must humans (generally) incline to existential transcendence (sans neurological peculiarities).

    In the same way, essay brings to mind “philosophy of mind” (David Gelernter in Commentary Magazine wrote a relevant piece to Religion as Magic – referenced from Fat_Man); in short, “the moral claim urged on man by Judeo-Christian principles and his other religious and philosophical traditions have nothing to do with” Religion as Magic but the human need to allay consciousness – essentially, sanctity of life and meaning gives rise in “Googleplectic West of 21st century” to belief of unbelievers (part of the culture of an international intelligentsia nee unbroken continuum).

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    “We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said the knowledge is power, and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we call Beautiful Knowledge…What we call knowledge is often positive ignorance, ignorance our negative knowledge.” — Henry David Thoreau from “Walking”

  • fredx2

    If they are on the right side of history, why is Europe declining?

    • Asmodeus Belial

      And the highly religious US is going gangbusters????

  • Fat_Man

    Umberto Eco wrote:

    “G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: ‘When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.’ Whoever said it – he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

    “The “death of God”, or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church — from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3621313/God-isnt-big-enough-for-some-people.html

  • TomPaine

    Who taught Peter Berger how to write? Let’s see … gather a smorgasborg of observations … throw them together in an unorganized pot of chili … add a dash of unsubstantiated contempt for the “intelligentsia” … be sure to include random ad hominems … use a few unsourced statistics … employ an occasional 50-cent word so that your readers will know you went to college, regardless of whether you actually learned anything … and, voila, you’re done!!! Whatever happened to: (a) here’s my thesis, (b) here’s the evidence that is relevant to my thesis, and (c) here’s why I think the evidence supports my thesis? Is that too much to ask?

  • Anthony

    Point of clarification, historians have documented that many of Hitler’s elite melded Nazism with German Christianity and though Russian communism be godless, repudiation of such does not grant dispensation (aforementioned provided in response to Hitler and Stalin referenced below as symbols of contravention). Religion still for many remains subject matter steeped in emotional investment that takes elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred as license to dismiss other people’s interest.

    • fredx2

      I suggest you read the wikipedia article on Hitler’s religion. It actually is pretty accurate. The Nazis hardly melded Nazism with Christianity – quite the opposite. The confusion comes about because Hitler appeared to endorse Christianity as a tool to get popular support to get into power. After he came into power, he made it clear that Christianity was, in his opinion,the thing that made Germany weak and it had to be destroyed or changed. It is clear from the article that Hitler really was a “materialist” and that materialism is almost exactly the same as atheism.
      Your conception of religion as something that “takes parochial values to the realm of the sacred as a licence to dismiss others interest” is just an atheists definition of religion. If your definition were correct, then why are “Turn the other cheek” “Love one another” “Love your enemies” and such things at the very heart of Christianity? And far from dismissing other’s interest, Christianity demands that you put others interests before yours.

      • Anthony

        Internet sources have never been primary reference point for me.(Nazi elite melded Nazism with German Christianity in a syncretic faith, drawing on its millennial visions and its long history of anti-semitism – Erickensen & Heschel, 1999). Finally, my parochial values reference stands as intended via points of view deem intolerable when in conflict with religious conviction. Atheism has nothing to do with it and Christian aphorism are not at issue. So, let us end this now and acknowledge that Peter Berger’s essay attempted to demonstrate that the movements we call religions have little in common but their distinctness from secular institutions. On this, I am done.

      • Dan045

        “And far from dismissing other’s interest, Christianity demands that you put others interests before yours.”

        I’ve gone to lots of churches, and lots of denominations. The one thing that is really consistent is God always wants what the Priests want, and/or good things for the Priests. That “putting others first” normally means “give money to the church” or “talk others into joining”.

      • RayIngles

        Actually, while Hitler was certainly not a Christian, neither was he a ‘materialist’. He explicitly rejected the notion of evolution, for example, holding that the various species – and, note, human ‘races’ – had been created separately. By a creator with a capital ‘C’.

  • polyscifi

    My apologies for the crudeness of my conclusion compared with the high level of English in the article but… I think he nails it. The strength of religion, and Christianity in particular, in the United States is such that it will be interesting to see what the intelligentsia elites resort to if cultural pressure alone does not cause people to leave their beliefs in areas such as creation or morality.

    • fredx2

      We are already seeing it. They have attempted to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to sign a paper that would violate their beliefs. The ACLU is suing the American Bishops conference – not the hospitals – for prohibiting abortions in Catholic hospitals. In essence, the Obama administration has decided that it and it alone will be the sole decider of morals in the country. Its morals are not only better morals by their reckoning, but their morals should be enforced by the heavy hand of the law.

  • Phredd

    There is one point about the supposed conflict between religion and science that I find interesting. Now, this is just my own personal observation, but I still think telling. In the late 60′s & early 70′s, I returned as a student to the University of Washington after some time in the Navy. From time to time in conversations the issue of religion would come up, and the other person would declare as an atheist or agnostic “because of science”. Almost invariably, said person turned out to be majoring in sociology or economics or political science or some other such of the arts or social sciences. Belief and even church attendance, however, was not at all uncommon amongst physics and engineering students! All of us pursuing engineering degrees naturally had to take the fundamental courses in relativistic physics and quantum mechanics. Those, like me, in Electrical Engineering had to take a nasty course called Physical Electronics. It was just quantum mechanics WITHOUT most of the “training wheels”, the simplifying boundary condition assumptions used in the earlier courses to make the math reasonably doable. (Although I did well in the course, it prevented more than one person from obtaining the EE degree.) So, with degrees in EE and Math, I think it a fair statement that I have a far better grasp of science that the crowd that seems to get all of their information from PBS specials. I’m a Catholic, and I’ve just never seen the conflict between my faith and my knowledge of science.

    • Dan045

      Yeah, I used to think there was no conflict too… problem is, religion keeps insisting that it has testable claims, and that those claims should be accepted but not tested.

      Someone is in the hospital, pray for him? Science can test whether that does anything.

    • banger377

      You are correct. As an ex catholic, I can say that the Bible IS testable. Compare catholic Doctrine with what the Bible says. There is a load of conflict there. Look at a little history and anyone can see that paganism has crept in over time and while there is still enough Christian doctrine to be “saved”, it is a place where someone who finds the Truth will want to get out. I have to admit that it is a powerful club to belong to. I chose the “narrow path”. I would rather be right, than comfortable.

      • Phredd

        Not exactly my point, and my denomination is not really important here, The narrative on the “liberal” side seems to be something on the order of all people of faith are uneducated idiots. (Mostly toothless and from the Ozarks, no doubt.) On the other hand, they are the enlightened ones of the modern scientific world. Well, first of all this argument is not entirely new. It was going on in First Century Rome. Second, it is utter nonsense. (I could have said it’s a big fat lie, but I was being polite.) Of course some real scientists are atheists, but there are many with a robust faith. Furthermore, most of these acolytes of science can’t actually DO science and don’t really understand it. (If you can’t do the math, you don’t really understand it.) I was simply gently nudging rather than screaming about the flaming arrogance. Finally, faith is not really about the mechanism of how the physical universe functions. How many times must “My Kingdom is not of this world” be said?

        • banger377

          I used to be polite all the time. I now play it by ear. Sometimes it takes a rock hammer to knock down that bigoted wall. The Bible reveals the way world and spirit works. THAT is science.

  • gabrielsyme

    A useful question to ask is which superstitions are more socially
    damaging: the superstition that the earth is only six thousand years
    old, or the superstition that moral values can be based on the view that
    we are all animals.

    Well said, and exactly so. The only difference between the irrational beliefs of materialists and the irrational beliefs of some religious people is that the former are typically unexamined and not clearly articulated. At least the young-earth creationist understands and owns what he believes.

    • RayIngles

      Well, actually, there’s another difference. A ‘superstition’ would seem to necessarily involve some kind of supernatural component. As to the view that secular morality is possible… one might claim it to be a delusion, perhaps (though I’d disagree) – but it can’t be a ‘superstition’.

      (And I’d also argue that the reasons why young-earth creationism is wrong are pretty clearly understood and articulated.)

      • gabrielsyme

        Well, “secular morality”, at least of the normative type Berger and I are referring to, does involve a supernatural component. There is no conceivable thing in the material world to which a moral statement corresponds. Moral statements, if normative, necessarily correspond to some supernatural reality.

        • RayIngles

          Is it a supernatural truth that, if you want to win a chess game, you shouldn’t sacrifice your queen at the start of the game?

          • gabrielsyme

            Is it really so hard to grasp? Leaving aside the question of whether sentences are natural objects, one can see that your statement is a statement that is true about the natural world: one can observe chess games or analyse the game of chess and find the statement corresponds with things in nature. However, if one was to make a moral statement about chess, that, for instance, one ought to try to win at chess, there is nothing in the natural world that can make that statement true or false.

            As I said earlier, “the irrational beliefs of materialists… are typically unexamined and
            not clearly articulated.” I appreciate your illustration of my point.

          • RayIngles

            I’m afraid this is an illustration of a different point. Think about chess – you have fixed rules of the game, and a goal to win the game. From this, it objectively follows that sacrificing your queen early is something you shouldn’t do. Given goals and fixed constraints, strategies arise – objectively.

            Of course, you can pick different rules when it comes to games. But you can’t pick different rules when it comes to the laws of physics. And humans do have fairly diverse goals – but the range isn’t infinitely wide, and game theory shows that when it comes to non-zero games, a wide range of rules and goals are served by a fairly narrow range of strategies.

            I’d contend that morals are the strategies we humans use to work with each other. And they are as objective and non-supernatural as chess strategies – but rather less open to variation.

          • gabrielsyme

            I attempted to be quite clear that I was speaking of normative morality (as was Berger). In defining morals as “the strategies we humans use…” you are adopting a descriptivist version of morality. I would suggest that most people would not actually recognise this as morality (dishonesty or flattery can be a good strategy in some circumstances to achieve one’s goals, but most would not therefore recognise such activities as therefore morally superior).

            The real moral content in your approach is in the goals – analogous in your example to the goal in chess of winning the game. Such goals have moral content. Ought we to seek comfort, glory, justice, power, love or honour? Those are the moral values in the equation. By assuming these goals are already in place, and reducing morality to a description of how people attempt to achieve these goals, I’m afraid you misidentify morality.

          • RayIngles

            If I can say that you shouldn’t sacrifice your queen at the start of the game of chess, how is that not normative? If one can identify the best strategies to achieve ones goals, why wouldn’t someone use them? (Note that game theory shows us that in zero-sum games, a set of related strategies works really well – Google ‘nice, provocable, forgiving, clear’.)

            You also miss the distinction between short-term and long-term goals. Dishonesty and flattery can work in the short term but undermine trust for the long term. (Again, life is non-zero-sum.)

            I admit my phrasing was slightly unclear – I probably should have said, “The strategies humans should use” or something of the sort – but I thought it would be pretty clear from context.

          • gabrielsyme

            Let’s break this down: you have your strategies, and you have goals. Now, both can have moral valence, but there are strategies and goals without. In your chess example, neither the goal of winning the game nor the strategies involved have moral valence. The strategy may be normative inasmuch as it is a reliable rule to obtain the goal, but it is not moral.

            You seem to be saying that there are certain goals that people have, which is true; but you are not saying that these have moral valence, you are not saying there are some goals that we ought to have and others we ought not. And if strategies are merely effective or ineffective at achieving the goals in mind, we are left with nothing holding a moral quality. You only evade the supernatural by evading the moral.

          • RayIngles

            Chess strategies in themselves aren’t morals. Morality is the study of what strategies to use when dealing with other humans. Interacting with objects doesn’t have moral connotations, it’s dealing with subjects that has moral connotations.

            Goals have hierarchies – e.g. Maslow’s as an illustration. Some goals are more fundamental than others, and take priority. We keep learning better strategies as time goes on. Morality is a lot like engineering in that respect. The institution of slavery was an improvement over ‘kill everyone you conquer’, just as steam power was an improvement over animal power. But we’ve learned better ways still since then. (Slave societies can’t progress because they have to devote enormous resources to keeping down the slaves and can’t afford potentially-society-rocking innovation, among many other reasons slavery is suboptimal.)

            If humans have fundamental goals, then a general human morality is possible. The goals aren’t moral as such – it’s how people go about fulfilling them where morality comes in.

            Humans have inbuilt talent for physics (at Earth-normal gravity and air-pressure, at least), talents for dealing with objects. We also have instincts for dealing with other humans – the moral senses we all have. Just like language or even our sense of physics, they need practice to develop, but they’re there. I’m not at all surprised that the outcomes of game theory wind up matching the basics of morality that we’ve learned over the couple hundred thousand years of being human together, e.g. the Golden Rule.

          • gabrielsyme

            I’m afraid you’re making less and less sense. While it seems clear that you think the ends sought are morally neutral, it is unclear how you are evaluating the means or strategies employed to obtain the ends. Is a strategy morally positive purely due to whether it effectively achieves the ends sought?

            My point is that any statement about morality does not have an answer discoverable in the natural world. If you answer a moral question in a utilitarian manner, you are merely putting off the need to make an actual moral judgement. If slavery is wrong because it does not effectively achieve our fundamental goals, we must then ask why ought we to achieve our fundamental goals? Why is, say the goal of happiness worth pursuing? Ultimately, we have to attribute actual meaning or value onto something if we are to ground any moral statement we make. And those attributions of meaning can only be either of our own creation (in which case they are not normative) or referents to an external standard.

          • RayIngles

            You’re almost there. Humans can create meaning (indeed, things can’t just ‘mean’ something, they have to mean something to someone). But – note carefully – if there’s such a thing as ‘human nature’, if it means something to call someone ‘human’ as opposed to something else, then there could be commonalities in the meanings and goals of humans, no?

            The morality that would arise from that would be limited to humans, true. Hypothetical intelligent insects might have a rather different morality (google ‘traumatic insemination’ for a horrific example). But hey – I’m human. I’m willing to bet a lot of money that you, too, are human. Indeed, I’ll go out on a limb bet everyone who’s written anything on this page is human.

            Why is, say the goal of happiness worth pursuing?

            “A man can do whatever he wants. But he can’t want whatever he wants.” – Lawrence of Arabia. If we do know what we want – if we do accurately know ourselves – then we should, allowing for human failings, choose accordingly. Why would we do otherwise?

          • gabrielsyme

            Well, perhaps I made the error of taking you at your word that you were attempting to describe a normative theory of ethics. If human desires were to alter, then in your model morality would also alter; under that definition we do not have a normative moral order, but a relativistic one.

            If we do know what we want – if we do accurately know ourselves – then we should, allowing for human failings, choose accordingly. Why would we do otherwise?

            It may be that we will choose to pursue our desires. That does not mean that we ought to pursue our desires. Desiring a thing does is not equivalent to the idea that we should pursue those desired things.

            This is actually pretty simple. Hume knew it. G. E. Moore knew it. You simply cannot get a prescription of what ought to be from a description of what is. Normative morality requires an external standard.

          • RayIngles

            If human desires were to alter, then in your model morality would also alter; under that definition we do not have a normative moral order, but a relativistic one.

            ‘Relative’ in what sense? I mean, even in more traditional conceptions of morality, what’s moral for child to do is different from what’s moral for an adult to do, what’s moral for a female to do may not be moral for a male, etc. Therefore traditional morality is ‘relative’ too, right?

            This moral scheme is ‘relative’ to two things – (1) the laws of physics, which I’m going to go ahead and contend are not in any sense ‘relative’, and (2) human nature, which has been stable for, oh, about two hundred thousand years now.

            I’ve been waiting for you to pick up on how closely this scheme matches ‘natural law’ morality. See Robert T. Miller’s essay, for example. And as to Hume… well, see this.

        • Gary Novak

          Your claim that “moral statements, if normative, necessarily refer to some supernatural reality” is not Berger’s view. In a passage I have quoted previously, Berger writes: “Suppose that I woke up tomorrow and decided that I am an atheist– what would change about my moral convictions? I decided that virtually nothing would change” (“Questions of Faith,” 2004, p. 156). In particular, he does not see respect for the inviolable dignity of the individual and opposition to capital punishment and racial discrimination as requiring acknowledgement of a supernatural reality. Those convictions “are based on a deeply grounded perception of what it means to be human . . .” (p.157). And that perception presupposes no religious commitments.

          But theists can take comfort in the fact that secular morality is itself a signal of transcendence, even if it is not recognized as such. Those who obey only the Second Commandment are not the enemies of those who also obey the First.

          • gabrielsyme

            Well, I cannot speak for Dr. Berger. I was simply noting that Berger was speaking of normative morality in his statement above. However, the quotations you offer do not demonstrate what you claim: atheism is not the same thing as materialism/naturalism; it does not necessarily entail a denial of all supernatural realities, and I would certainly argue that any “deeply grounded perception of what it means to be human” necessarily refers to a supernatural order, if not to a particular religious commitment.

          • Gary Novak

            When
            Berger argues that the persistence of belief in magic and superstition (among unbelievers) indicates a “deeply rooted propensity among humans to believe in
            supernatural realities,” he is clearly counting (atheistic) magic as supernatural. I, too, would not claim that atheism precludes supernaturalism. But unlike Der Spiegel, he does not regard all supernaturalisms as equal—that is, equally absurd. Some are more equal than others. As non-theistic supernatural foundations for morality, magic and superstition do not pass the laugh test. So when Berger says that even if he were an atheist, he would still recognize that racial discrimination and capital punishment are wrong, he does not mean
            “because the devil would still have my back.” Rather, it is because “one must doubt the widespread view that only religion . . . can provide a reliable foundation for morality.” Morality does not require religion or a witches Sabbath.
            But a bit later in the chapter “On Christian Morality,” he notes that love for other human beings is “linked” with love of God and that “faith in God provides a transcendent meaning, an ontological foundation for all moral judgments and actions.”

            Berger clearly has no objection to providing morality with a religious foundation. The richest and deepest understanding of morality will be religious. But if terms
            like “necessary reference” and (logical) “entailment” are absent from his discussion of morality, I think it because he approaches morality perceptually. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. But some may be pure enough to see that the Holocaust was evil—but not (yet) pure enough to see God. Meanwhile, some believers may view the Holocaust as God’s punishment for the Jews’ murder of Christ. Berger ends his post by asking which superstitions are more socially damaging: the superstition that the earth is only six thousand
            years old, or the superstition that moral values can be based on the view that we are all animals. Similarly, he might ask which is morally superior: the
            theistically-grounded belief that the Holocaust was God’s punishment of the Jews, or the atheist belief that the Holocaust was evil?
            The “linkages” between faith in God and morality are best perceived, not deduced. Putting the theological cart before the moral horse might entail a violation of the ethics of responsibility! But, after all, there is not a great deal at issue here. When you say that you would certainly argue that any deeply grounded perception of what it means to be human necessarily refers to a supernatural order, I would be inclined to agree, but I would prefer to speak of an ultimate (perhaps
            still implicit) linkage, rather than a necessary reference. Morality can function “on credit” for an entire lifetime—and probably does frequently in our
            secular age.

  • MikeB

    It is not at all “useful question to ask is which superstitions are more socially
    damaging: the superstition that the earth is only six thousand years
    old, or the superstition that moral values can be based on the view that
    we are all animals.” This is a false dichotomy, because it does not follow at all that the moral values of one who rejects religion would necessarily be based on the view that we are all animals. On the contrary. A thoroughly stupid statement to end off an interesting article.

  • Jason Gardner

    As a “smug, self-assured progressive,” I do indeed “ooze with contempt” at this deeply despicable attack on this who choose not to believe in religious rubbish. Religious belief or non-belief is not a question of intelligence quotient. It is the individual’s willingness to accept the reality of death (ie: one’s personal extinction), versus the denial of that death via the escape hatch of magical thinking. When you die and “go to heaven,” please give my best to the mermaids and leprechauns, Mr. Berger.

  • Asmodeus Belial

    The numbers are clear in the most recent polling data. The single category that is growing EVERYWHERE in the US is the category of those who are not members of any religious group and do not hold religious beliefs.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    While we should welcome informed and intelligent critiques of religion, including examinations of the tendency to blur religion and superstition, there are ugly elements of classism and cultural imperialism that pervades much of the rhetoric, and that is unfortunate.