Religious Beliefs in the Public Square

Richard Dawkins provocatively suggests that the superstitious religious beliefs of politicians should be more openly challenged. “You challenge a candidate about his beliefs about taxation, about military policy, and so on; why don’t you challenge his beliefs about what he thinks about the universe and the world?”

“As a voter, if I know that the person I’m contemplating voting for, however good his beliefs on taxation and so on may be… If I know that he privately believes that a 19th century man called Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets, read them with the aid of a stone in a top hat and translated them out of some ancient language into not 19th century English, but 16th century English – that man was a fraud and a charlatan – and any modern politician who nails his colours to the mast of that particular religion is someone that I’m suspicious of voting for. I know those beliefs are private, but they’re crazy beliefs. And why should I vote for a man, however sensible his public beliefs may be, if his private beliefs are ridiculous and mad?”

It does seem a rather odd contradiction that most Americans feel the private, doctrinal religious beliefs of their political representatives are somehow sacrosanct and beyond skeptical analysis while at the same time demanding that they not only openly demonstrate and profess their religious convictions, but also translate selective aspects of their beliefs into public policy.

35 Replies to “Religious Beliefs in the Public Square”

  1. Good for Richard. This is something which needs to be said. On the other hand, if a politician vows to honour separation of church and state and keep his/her private nonsense completely out the public sphere, then I think we must accept them at their word until they prove otherwise. If we eliminate everyone with irrational beliefs from public life, we would have precious few able to run for office.

  2. Two responses here.

    First, aren’t the religious beliefs of candidates already openly translated into policy for all to see (in most cases)? Santorum comes to mind; I’m sure other examples are easy to find. It’s not a hidden agenda, it’s quite visible.

    Second, after some years of personal contemplation I’ve come to the conclusion that “Sunday morning Christians” are the ones I don’t mind. The 24/7 ones worry me more so.

  3. A super idea. I’d love to see an atheist politician on the CBC forced to defend his or her beliefs that we all evolved randomly and purposelessly, that the electorate only loves their spouses and children because their invisible genes impel them to, that our notions of good and evil are mere social constructs born of a survival imperative and that, although the odds of life emerging randomly and accidently have been calculated at less than one in the number of atoms in the universe, shit happens.

  4. What difference does it make what you’re religious or not? Being religious doesn’t make a person any more compassionate or moral than atheism makes you rational or progressive (warning on the last link: guy’s a real knuckle-dragger).

    Separation of church and state — let’s keep that wall up.

  5. Peter: LOL That’s certainly an amusing litany of mischaracterizations and fallacies (e.g., the ignorant belief that evolution is a “random and purposeless” process), but sure, by the same token Dawkins proposes, those lacking faith in the supernatural utterances of Bronze Age “prophets” should reasonably be expected to explain their understanding of basic science (which btw, doesn’t include the belief that spousal love is solely the result of being impelled by their “invisible genes”).

    However, I do take your point – facetious though it may be, which goes to the strenuous objections raised by Chris Hayes about the matter when he said, “that way lies ruin and civil war” and called it “a recipe for the worst kind of debate.”

  6. Religion and Ethics often go hand-in-hand, but there are ethical constructs that are free of Divine Intervention, so Peter … wrong again !

  7. Red, I will restrain myself from arguing with you whether they are “mischaracterizations and fallacies” because I was being facetious, but anytime you wanna step outside….

    Sharon has it right. Dawkins has become very tedious.

  8. Peter: I don’t know that’s exactly the point Sharon was making at all. You seemed to have read that opinion into her comment.

  9. Dawkins has become very tedious.

    Not nearly as tedious as centuries of worn-out, nonsensical theological arguments proffered by religious ‘thinkers’ pretending to intellectual sophistication.

  10. in·vis·i·ble; adjective

    1. not visible; not perceptible by the eye:

    philosoraptor: Sticks and stones, etc. Man up. Which nonsensical theological arguments are you referring to that pertain to Dawkins’s focus on “the universe and the world”?

  11. Which nonsensical theological arguments…

    The ones that don’t require any actual evidence, and that eventually make their way back to a talking snake or a god-of-the-gaps.

  12. Low-hanging fruit, I’m afraid. It may frustrate you no end to learn most theologians agree with you there. Dawkins, too, likes to chortle at uneducated biblical literalists from Appalachia, but let’s remember he professes to consider all religious and theological beliefs to be contra-scientific and the preserve of the dishonest or stupid. It’s typical of his method to skim over the highly complex and unsettled question of what science does and does not (or can and cannot) say about the origins of life and the universe in order to score cheap points by embarassing simple folks about whether they believe the whale literally swallowed Jonah.

    It interesting that you see the god-of-the-gaps (by which I assume you mean the tweaking god) as part of centuries of worn-out, nonsensical theological arguments. The concept has only been around for about twenty years or so, and it is obviously inexorably tied up with American constitutional controversies over what can be taught in schools. Both St Augustine and Maimonedes rejected the idea that the deity steps in on occasion to give natural laws a little supernatural push-and-shove. Bummer, eh?

  13. St. Augustine – 4th century
    Maimonides (correctly spelled) – 12th century
    Bummer – 20th century
    I wonder if Peter is a mormon.

  14. what science does and does not (or can and cannot) say about the origins of life and the universe

    Please enlighten me as to the questions that religion or faith can answer that can’t also be addressed with either scientific or secular philosophical inquiry. Then explain to me how anyone can possibly know the answers to these questions.

    The concept has only been around for about twenty years or so…

    Huh? History is rammed full of examples of scientific explanations and models overturning religious dogma. ‘God-of-the-gaps’ may be a decades-old term, but the lazy intellectual sophistry that invokes it certainly is not.

  15. A Mormon? That’s a first. How about we skip the twenty odd comments where you try to guess whether Peter owns a creationist theme park and just talk about science.

    Atheism and skepticism are perfectly respectable beliefs that long pre-date Dawkins and even the Enlightenment. If Dawkins were just touting them he wouldn’t be news. What he argues is that science has somehow “closed gaps” and made steady progress in “disproving” the notion that the universe and life are the objects of design and/or purpose, such that no educated or even thoughtful person could think otherwise. That is certainly not true. There is plenty of evidence of design in the universe, arguably more than fifty years ago, just as there are plenty of problems with it. The most that can be said is that science has established and confirmed that cosmological and biological history consists of physical and bio-chemical developments that obey(ed) natural laws, some better understood than others and all subject to ongoing investigation and revision. That is an answer to certain schools of scriptural literalism, but theology is much broader than that.

    Dogmatic materialists who look for an unguided or natural material explanation of anything will always find one, but they hardly can be said to be scientific explanations and models overturning religious dogma. Wise and honest scientists know that questions of initial causation, purpose and destiny are beyond the scientific purview and that Dawkins’s conjectures about them are based on opening assumptions and axioms that are every bit as faith-based as Genesis. Every “gap” science closes opens two others and Dawkins’s harping on “evidence” as defined by the scientific method is not only illogical (he demands material evidence of the immaterial), it is as disingenuous as a believer saying he will only accept the truth of gravity if God gives him a sign in a dream. I think, philosoraptor, you would have a much harder time substantiating that reckess comment about science over turning religious dogma than you imagine, unless you are simply imagining yourself arguing with a Sunday School class of ten year olds. But even then, you may find that their religious faith is based on something considerably broader than questions about creation and the physical origins of life.

  16. well, it’s a good thing for us that direct sight isn’t our only means of perception.

    when i cover my face with my hands, i become invisible….


  17. “Bummer, eh?”

    personally, i’m ambivalent. while the dismal of the fantastical notions which have been embraced by the ignorant for millenia encourages me, the reluctance to sluff the rest of the veil underscores the futility to which we gods, ourselves, must concede.


  18. “Wise and honest scientists know that questions of initial causation, purpose and destiny are beyond the scientific purview ..”
    Not really. How could a wise and honest person make such an absolute claim with any authority at all? An honest assessment would be that Science has nothing to say about the creation of the universe before 10^-15 seconds after creation. It has quite a bit to say shortly after that and even more from 3000 years post initial causation onwards. A lot of this has occurred very recently indeed and whether you accept what it has to say is another matter altogether.
    As for purpose and destiny well, firstly they are words that mean many different things to many different people; secondly they might not even be relevant to the existence of the universe anyway. They could just have been imposed on their surroundings by folk in order to make sense of what they experience anecdotally i.e. An unnecessary assumption.
    An honest person with an open mind about future discoveries of the nature of existence could never rule out scientific incursions into any realm anywhere. To do so would be claiming a form of privileged knowledge available only to them or a select few.
    As to materialism, I am pretty sure the material exists, Descartes/matrix aside, and I do work with the material daily. As to the immaterial realm I am unsure; I am unsure if it exists and I am unsure that if it does exist how it would interact with the material. I’ve seen the material interact with the material even at an atomic level and witnessed the production of new compounds via such interaction. Material – material interactions are pretty well accepted and a large number of them are understood. But I’ve no idea how the immaterial would interact with the material. In fact this is one of the major problems with hypothesising the supernatural, by its own definition it has no physical characteristics that would enable it to cause actions in the material realm. This lack of interaction means that even if the immaterial exists it can’t affect us, so why live your life taking it into account? Once those who propose the active existence of such a realm can explain how this problem can be overcome, I’ll be all ears.
    I don’t think that sounds dogmatic or even illogical, it just sounds like I’d like some explanations to some pretty basic problems before accepting the existence of something that appears not to matter, if it exists at all.

  19. “… in order to score cheap points by embarassing simple folks about whether they believe the whale literally swallowed Jonah.”
    The greatest threat to non-believers isn’t posed by the theology profs with their arguments that most believers have never heard of, or would agree with if they had. Fatwahs, martyrs, anti-gay legislation, anti-“anyone who doesn’t believe what we insist they do” legislation are created and supported by these “simple folk” of whom you speak. Forgive me if I pay little heed to the minority who wouldn’t hurt a fly and instead keep an eye on the majority for whom direct action is a real option. They may be theologically unsophisticated with regard to argumentation, but automatic weapons and a noose are tremendously effective in restricting alternatives in reality.

  20. Hey, harebell, how it going? You don’t think I’m a Mormon too, do you?

    You are more than familiar with arguments over the Big Bang, the strong and weak anthropic principles, the finely-tuned universe, the cosmological constant, the extreme improbability of life arising spontaneously, the Landscape and others. If having considered them, you are intellectually satisfied with unplanned materialist explanations, good for you, but my point is that there is no scientific basis for claiming that such has been “proven” in the scientific sense or even that we’re close, and there is enough disagreement and controversy within the scientific community, both about this and also about how much we even know without hauling in theology and scripture. As to interaction with the immaterial, my own view is that that is something that occurs within us rather than in the outside physical world, but whole libraries would both support and attack me on that.

    I’ll leave the last word to W.H. Auden, who clearly understood some things Dawkins is wilfully oblivious to:

    The self-observed observing Mind
    We meet when we observe at all
    Is not alarming or unkind
    But utterly banal.

    Though instruments at Its command
    Make wish and counterwish come true,
    It clearly cannot understand
    What It can clearly do.

    Since the analogies are rot
    Our senses based belief upon,
    We have no means of learning what
    Is really going on,

    And must put up with having learned
    All proofs or disproofs that we tender
    Of His existence are returned
    Unopened to the sender.

  21. Peter
    No I don’t think you are a Mormon.
    You are a hopeless romantic though.
    If there was no disagreement within the Scientific community over such cutting edge research as the early stages within the process of creation I would be not only disappointed but highly surprised too. Science is all about answering the weirdos (Wegener) and the contrary (Einstein), but as long as their views are based in the material realm. After all you can only measure that which is measurable.
    As for what happens within, a lot of that is material and is affected by material things. Phineas Gage, brain scans of activity and the effects of chemicals on the brain all indicate that consciousness has a very physical component. It also indicates that those who claim otherwise need to provide the evidence, the materialists already have.
    Looking at cosmology, well I dabble and am interested in some of the more outlandish suggestions and the attempts to justify them. But the discovery of a whole swack of new fundamental particles using the colliders has certainly opened the entire field up again. The claim by a Canadian company to have created a true Quantum computer has also added to the buzz. At at the end of the day those making the claims will have to put up or shut up because there are many waiting to show just how wrong they are.
    Religion and supernaturalism doesn’t even have the same chance of succeeding that even the most outlandish materialist proposal has because by definition it can’t even be measured. To me that is the devastating issue that renders any proposal from the more ethereal realm a non-starter. I look forward to being shown otherwise, but I don’t think that is going to happen while I’m breathing.

  22. Peter: Rather than get into a drawn-out discussion about design, I recommend My brief response is that lack of design is just as apparent, if not more so. As for the beginning of the universe, I still have yet to hear an adequate reason why god is necessary, and how you don’t need special pleading to make that claim.

    As for purpose and destiny, I’m not even sure why you think these things even exist in an objective sense. You need to presuppose existence of god (or, necessity or ‘validity’ of religious inquiry) to define them, after which you use them to justify existence of god (or necessity or validity of religious inquiry). I’m sure you see the problem with that. Outside of any objective definition, I have purpose and meaning in my life, but it is defined by me and is related to real things in the world, like my family, or my career goals.

    And finally, I still have no answer as to what knowledge you think is better provided by religion (and, I should add, is not defined by or relative to any supernatural entity). On a related note, how is it that anyone could have more knowledge than I do about the supernatural in general? Note: If the reason has anything to do with something written in a book, I’m afraid it is rather flimsy, particularly given the extraordinary nature of the claims.

  23. I’m also curious….rather than proving the existence (or necessity) of god, can you explain to me how things would be different if he didn’t exist? I mean other than the religious conflict, the ridiculous obsession with peoples’ sex lives, and the millions of hours wasted on theological ‘scholarship’? How would the non-existence of god even affect the universe? How could we even know?

  24. “how things would be different if he didn’t exist?”

    that’s a great question, philo, but it’s that kind that’s easily sidestepped with a facepalm tautology.

    just telling you not to get your hopes up.


  25. Peter: It’s typical of his method to skim over the highly complex and unsettled question of what science does and does not (or can and cannot) say about the origins of life and the universe in order to score cheap points by embarassing simple folks about whether they believe the whale literally swallowed Jonah.

    While it’s not unfair to say that Dawkins is utterly contemptuous and dismissive of religion, his intent isn’t to merely score “cheap points” at the expense of “simple folks” but more one of being appalled that such an astonishing number of people (in America, at least) do, in fact, claim to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true – not an illustrative metaphor, mind you, but actually the way things really happened. They actually believe (or say they do) that “creation” occurred exactly as it’s written in the Bible (not sure which contradictory version of the myth they believe in this regard, but that’s another matter) and that everything in the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

    Good grief, who could NOT be horrified at such heinous stupidity?

    As for him skimming over “the highly complex and unsettled question, etc.” I don’t derive that impression from Dawkins at all.

  26. Red, I’m not sure I would agree with “heinous stupidity”, but they are certainly very wrong, and I sometimes wonder whether a lot of their in-your-face fervor isn’t a product of circled wagons in response to American consitutional and legal battles and high-profile attacks from the likes of Dawkins. There was no organized religious right in the fifties, the supposed golden age of faith and family values. Why do people care so much what they believe? But let’s not forget that Darwinism and various other philosophical underpinnings of materialism are not only complex and debatable, most of us must rely as much on the authority of the scientific establishment to guage their validity as the fundamentalists do on pastors. The notion that religion is some kind of unnatural indocrination of innocent young minds that would be happily and serenly comfortable with random, purposeless existence if left alone is bollocks. You have to be educated into materialism and it’s not for the thick-headed.

    philo, I wouldn’t know how to begin to answer that question. It would take a lot of thought and debate just to decide whether it’s very meaningful. But the god who takes all the fun out of your life is a very long way from what we were talking about above, which is whether there is design or purpose in the universe (Please, that’s very different from the god of the gaps). All religions claim some connection with the infinite and other-wordly, but they are all human inventions nonetheless. My only initial thought relates to why belief (different from church membership) comes so naturally and persists so widely, much to your and harebell’s chagrin. Not only is our very existence irrational, inexplicable and scary (something atheists of a few generations ago understood very well. Remember the “terrifying abyss of nothingness”? Today we have a jocular Dawkins running around telling us to relax and enjoy our sex lives. Atheism for the DisneyWorld century.), the way most of us lead our lives can hardly be described as based on a plinth of rational materialism. I don’t necessarily believe religion makes us collectively behave better, although it can definitely improve the behaviour of individuals, but I do think that if we all walked truly guiding our lives according to a materialist worldview that was in the forefront of our minds at all times, the suicide rate would soar.

    On of the fallouts of today’s religion vs science debates is that all the focus on the mechanics of natural history keeps both sides from seeing that most of us are prefectly capable of believing apparently inconsistent things at the same time, and we’re often a lot healthier and more grounded for it. A modern professional couple with a sick child needing dangerous surgery may pull out all the stops to get the best, most modern medical care and pray fervently during the operation, and they may attribute a success to both. Indeed, their lives may be transformed as a result. A Darwinist scientist may believe at some intellectual level that his marriage and family are just products of an unconscious genetic imperative and that there would likely be others if not they, but I wouldn’t like to imagine his home life if such convictions were reflected in his anniversary cards.

  27. Peter: You do seem terribly fond of that “random and purposeless” expression, don’t you?

    First of all, I really don’t know how anyone can say that life isn’t random. To imagine otherwise is simply a wilful denial of reality. That any of us are here in the exact form that we are is the result of an incredible number of random factors, starting with winning the 40 million to 1 sperm lottery!

    As for being “purposeless” well, that’s a matter of opinion – obviously our primary “purpose” at the most base level is to survive by whatever means and, if possible, procreate. But of course, being the clever monkeys we are, humans have invented all manner of “purpose” to give our brief existence on this uniquely habitable rock meaning and significance.

    Regarding the religious fervour of “simple folk” as you suggest perhaps being more a case of getting their back up, so to speak, in response to perceived attacks on their faith by secular types, there may well be an element of that involved. Personally, I think a lot of polling in this area is even more full of shit than is normally the case.

    I think the difference between the “golden age” of faith (if it can be described as such) in the 50s and now is that religion has become much more politicized than was the case back then. Keep in mind that it used to be a standard practice of evangelicals and the like not to be involved with politics. That of course changed dramatically when they were actively courted as a previously untapped constituency by the Republicans starting in the 70s and more especially during the 80s when they were truly mobilized as a force to be reckoned with. Since then, religion and politics have become inextricably entwined in American political discourse – much to its detriment, I’d say.

  28. ran·dom  adjective

    1. proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern:

    Which is not quite the same as unpredictable. And purposeless, in the context of this discussion, just means non-teleological.

    I agree with your comments about religion having become troublesomely politicized, as has materialism, but is this not mainly an American issue, at least in the West? I believe polls show a very large majority of Canadians say they believe in God, but we are barely touched by it.

    And while wide-eyed scriptural literalists certainly exist and cause havoc out of proportion to their numbers, I think you are hinting at an amusing feature of modern materialist criticisms of fundamentalist or indeed any religion, one that betrays the fact that many critics have obviously never been to church since they were children and are spooked by what they think goes on there. Those who have know that there can be quite a gulf between offical doctrine and what many, if not most, of the congregation will privately say they actually believe. I’m not sure too many of those fire-breathin’ Baptists go to church because they thirst for weekly refreshers on the origins of the universe. All those priest, rabbi and pastor jokes weren’t invented by non-believers.

  29. Peter: Who knew that when 40 million sperm are ejaculated there is a “definite plan” for that one individual organism amongst them to succeed in its fertilizing mission? Because, you know, otherwise… it would be an outcome involving equal probability of occurrence, thereby making it, um, what’s the word? Oh yes, random.

    But never mind that. You’re quite right in assuming that I was taking the word as basically synonymous with “unpredictability” – which is what I thought you intended and how it’s most commonly understood (even though not technically correct).

    Perhaps polls do show that a large majority of Canadians believe in God, but that finding is practically meaningless. The notion of “God” is in the air we breathe, in a manner of speaking… part of the cultural environment and all that. However, it doesn’t really translate into practice here in Canada for the most part. Last weekend’s WFP had a lengthy feature about how all the rural churches in Manitoba are falling into ruin and will likely close up shop and disappear once the few remaining elderly parishioners have passed on.

    Your point about the social and cultural aspects of attending church are well-taken. I totally get the fact that it’s not all about “religion” per se – often far from it. It’s as much about fellowship and socializing as anything else. And those so-called “mega churches” in the States (and a few here in Canada too) are more like weekly entertainment events than the stuffy old notion of prayer services and what not that we may have grown up with.

  30. Peter
    No chagrin. People are entitled to invent and believe whatever they want to. As long as they realise they have no right to inflict that belief on the rest of us.
    The politicisation of religion was mainly an American issue, but thanks to the activities of missionaries from the US, the same issues are being encountered in Europe, Australia and the Far East, not to mention Africa. Uganda and it’s christian inspired “kill the gays” laws is an example. In fact the expansion of christian fundamentalism can be attributed to the good work of the US zealots.
    I like the way you try and separate the so called minority who are literalists from the majority who interpret sections of their holy texts and doctrines. That raises a whole new raft of issues:
    Who get s to decide what is literally true and just anecdotally so?
    Who gets to decide which interpretation is the correct one?
    And more importantly how do they decide this? These are important questions if you happen to be a gay person in Uganda, a female victim of rape in Afghanistan or someone about to part with cash for their first lesson in Scientology.
    It also means that if the word of god is the word of god, just how powerful is this god if its words needs interpretation by man? That’s the trouble with invisible friends who never talk to anyone else, it’s tough to separate out the views of this friend from the prophet. If only god showed his working in a clear and unambiguous manner then we could all check it out.

  31. Who get s to decide what is literally true and just anecdotally so?
    Who gets to decide which interpretation is the correct one?

    Not atheists, that’s for sure. If you want to get into the schism game and refight the Reformation, harebell, you’d better be ready to recite the Lord’s Prayer with conviction first. 🙂

  32. I meant to add..
    I have no issues with those who pray while evidence based medicine ensures the survival of their child. I do have issues when they claim that the survival was because of those prayers. Prayers only help those praying, they have been shown to be less than useless to those in need of help.
    The only ones who are honest in their belief are the literalists, the others who pick and choose are playing at it. Why? Who knows, a need to belong, a need to maintain a link to the past?
    So I’m going to remain criticising religions because the true believers are truly dangerous, the others are dangerous because they enable to lunatics through their half-hearted faithiness.

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