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February 08, 2008


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Very true. Analogy, by itself, cannot work as an argument. The only thing an analogy can do is clarify a point. But even then, only if it has clearly defined boundaries. A poorly defined analogy can really confuse an issue, especially if the comaparison is also extremely weak, like the racism/religious criticism analogy above.

Apart from the false analogy, Kristof misses one fundamental point here: sex, race etc. are *properties* of human beings and not choices, whereas religion is an idea, a belief, a choice. So while properties cannot be criticized (it doesn't make sense now does it?), ideas, decisions, choices, beliefs should be (by definition) susceptible to criticism.

I do not approve mocking of any kind (unless it is between us skeptics :-) or if the woo woo guy has gone way too far!) but criticism is a completely different thing.

Yeah, and where woule PETA be without its Holocaust comparsion.

This sort of nonsense comes from people who can't seem to understand that religious beliefs aren't something you are, but rather something you've adopted. (Actually, it isn't even that.)

You want an analogy, compare it to a political belief and then come back and tell me how criticizing socialists are the same as racism.

And lest we forget, who here doesn't think that Kristoff wouldn't hesitate to criticize Moonies, fundamentalist Muslims, the FLDS, Scientologists or the Jonestown gang? Does he consider this to be tantamount to racism?

When someone argues by analogy, you can be pretty sure it’s because they don’t have any facts, evidence or logic to support their position.

I disagree. For example, one can rebut this argument by drawing an analogy with political beliefs. We're happy to discriminate against McCain on the basis of his political beliefs, so why shouldn't we discriminate against Huckabee on the basis of his religious beliefs?

I don't think analogies are the strongest arguments and they should be used sparingly and with caution, but sometimes they are the best way to argue a point.

I made this exact point the other day. My analogy was: Jesus is the good shepherd, He cares for each one of us, shaves us bald and occasionally eats one of us.

"We're happy to discriminate against McCain on the basis of his political beliefs.."

I would not classify that as discrimination - it's disagreement. I'm a liberal. I don't like McCain based on his past statements and actions (legislation he voted for, support for Bush/the surge, etc). If McCain were to step up tomorrow and announce that he is going to fully support a single-payer universal health care plan that would provide basic medical care to all Americans regardless of income level I wouldn't automatically dismiss that *just because* he's a Republican. I might be suspicious and wonder what the catch or ulterior motive was - however given the general Republican party stance on universal health care it would be an understandable reaction until more details of the plan were revealed. (I would actually be just as suspicious of any Democrat that made the same claim - again based on past evidence).

Stavros has got it right.
It is a category error.
Skin colour and sex are pretty much set parameters in a person's existence.
Political views and religious inclinations are learned behaviours and these can and should be changed (or even abandoned)in the light of differing evidence.
One of the biggest obstacles to revision of these learned behaviours is the manner in which they are taught to children and the age at which indoctrination begins. Opposing views are hardly ever involved at any stage of the indoctrination except to point out their inadequacies.
A good example was the remark in "Jesus Camp" about how Moslem fanatics were passing on beliefs to children and how this was a method to be imitated. But these Moslems were wrong because as the fundigelical mouthed to the camera, "WE know we're right."

I'm certainly with ya on the failings of argument by analogy. But I want to propose something here that may not be popular.

I dont think religious people can help being religious.

I'm not even sure that its 100% their upbringing that makes them religious. I'm not even convinced that it is 50%.

Numerous studies have shown biological proclivities towards religion. Some studies have pointed to DMT levels released by the pituitary that gives religious experiences. Discover magazine (yes I realize this is not a bastion of hard science) had a whole article where they examined 5 different biological possibilities for religion.

Think of it another way: Most of the world population is not gay. There is some small population of the world population that can't help being gay (for the most part). Isn't it just as likely that there is a small part of the population that can't help not seeing 'god' like most of the population does. Perhaps this godless part of the population have genetic differences, its just that in the past this diffrerence led to quick death, while these days it has absolutely no ramifications on our lifespan at all.

In all my discussions with religious people, it was very plain to me that most of them can't stop believing in god any more than I can start.

This doesnt mean I agree with Kristoff. Bringing black people, women and gays to be as equal as everyone else progresses our species. It allows for less conflict, less suffering, less death. I dont see how allowing strong religious ideas to permeate our society will supply the same benefit. History has shown otherwise.

Techskeptic, I understand what you're saying, and I think that's an interesting point of view that deserves to be explored further. It goes against my expectations, but that sort of objection is meaningless, so there might be something in it. In any case, the issue deserves to be studied just so it can be settled.

My first reaction, however, is to consider your analogy of religion with gaiety to be potentially flawed. Straights and gays tend to know, without much (if any) consideration, which sex is attractive to them; indoctrination in one direction or the other is neither necessary nor, when attempted, all that widely successful. (And just to muddy the waters a little bit, all the systematic attempts at indoctrination that I've heard about are in one direction only, from gay to straight -- and are religiously based, just to confuse these issues further.) The type of upbringing one has seems to have no bearing whatsoever on one's sexual orientation.

However, my understanding (and correct me if I am wrong) is that upbringing tends to be a HUGE influence on one's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and establishes a very high correlation with the type of religious belief (when one is present). Also, there are many people whose beliefs undergo major changes, and quite a number of those are the ones who lose their religious faith and become atheists. While there are some atheists who contrariwise change to become theists, my impression is that there aren't nearly as many of them -- so it seems to me that what we see is that, in general, cultural indoctrination at an early age is the reason for the vast majority of religious believers.

Now, you might have a point that certain people may be genetically predisposed to having difficulty with critical thinking, but that would apply to ALL irrational beliefs, not just religious ones, including alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, and so on -- and, in any case, that's sheer speculation as far as I know.

This isn't coming out quite as clearly as I'd like, but this post has been far too long already. Any ideas on how to address these issues?

~David D.G.

maybe atheism is a recessive gene then, and once the intelligent people realize we have to populate at a faster rate than the unintelligent, we can reverse some damage. Kinda like that movie "idiocracy". Except with better actors. :-D

When someone argues by analogy, you can be pretty sure it’s because they don’t have any facts, evidence or logic to support their position. And all you have to do to debunk their argument, is find the flaw in the analogy.

I would disagree, but that's probably because I'm planning on writing a book on the miscegenation analogy, so I've got a personal stake in this, I guess.


I am not an expert on any of this, so I will not do much correct because I don't know that you are wrong.

In fact, i didnt mean to suggest that childhood indoctrination isn't a strong force in the persistance of religion (if not THE strongest force).

I too have the perception (and no hard data, it would be nice if this sort of data was available) that more poeple go from theists to atheists than the other way around.

But the fact remains that the great majority of theists remain theists and some get more fundamental and some get less.

I have living proof that emotion is a far stronger force than logic. always. I have a daughter. If you have one you will know what I mean.

When she cries, the desire to pick her up is overwhelming, even though I know I should not submit to her every whim. When she falls down the desire to be there to catch here is overwhelming even though I know she learns best by making mistakes. But it is even more than that.

There is no logical reason to have your own child. Not one. If you wish to have a child, the right thing to do as far as humanity goes and the reduction of suffering, is to adopt (which is why those pro-lifers who bring their gaggle of kids to parade disgusting signs around truly drive me crazy). Having your own child is an emotional outcome, not a logical one.

But once we decided to have a kid, the desire to have our own became overwhelming. we continued to rationalize it "its cheaper", "its easier", etc. but these are truly pale reasons when faced with the huge numbers of orphans around the world.

My point is (yeah it took a long time for me to get here) with emotion being such a strong motivator, it is easy to see how when people are brought up with the idea that the big sky daddy is there and loves you more than anyone in the world, you may have a hard time dropping that idea.

I suspect that the emotional attachment to this concept is really strong with these folks, and this may be a biological mechanism. The difference is, I can resist picking up my child every time she whines, I can now let her fall down (its still hard to watch though!), and our next child will be adopted. With the ability to recognize emotional decisions from logical ones, I have some hope of choosing the thing that better serves humanity. I am not sure strong theists have this choice.

Techskeptic, those that manage to question their lives and their beliefs may be luckier to have more tolerant families, better education and may even be financially better-off allowing more independent lives and thus more freedom of choice. I suspect that any biological tendency to believe is not as strong as the social/cultural forces. Even the seemingly biological urge to protect your child is challenged by the fact of religious extremists who happily send their child off to blow themselves up or to fight in wars. Perhaps your urge to protect your child, techskeptic, comes from the moral position you’ve adopted from a thoughtful life, rather than an urge to pass on your DNA (also supported by your decision to adopt). I suspect it is social and psychological forces that explain why the poorest countries and the poorest people have the most religious faith. I suppose if life is not happy on earth, it better be happy somewhere. I think, with better standards of living and better education more people might be freed from false hope. Perhaps the religious (except those that make a mint out of it and exploit others) should pitied.

Well, as I said or implied, my statements are more conjecture than anything i inteneded to prove (which is why I didnt post a single link).

Im sure social pressures are a strong froce in our development. I just cant get past the fact that 10-15% of the world population are able to cast of the shackles of religion and focus, in an extremely positive fashion, on the betterment of humanity while the rest continue to mire themselves in the abyss of false gods.

Perhaps the religious ... should [be]pitied.

My sister said the same thing to me. When she did it struck me that perhaps, against PZ myers and others POV, she (and you) are right. Perhaps pity and a continued effort to educate and tolerate are things that are better for all of us than ridiculing the lost.

im not sure....

oops, that last one was me... Tech. Sometimes my sign in doesnt work for some reason.

This is a pretty good post and I tend to agree with it.

One small thought though; "right" and "wrong," "bad" and "good" are all categories that depend upon people agreeing with one another about the definition. In fact, I would submit that religion uses "bad" and "good" in arbitrary measure, without anything but a ten commandments definition. Even in the example of racism being "bad," it is possible to conceive of a position where "bad" depends on context and agreement by parties in the conversation. As an example, if some sub-population of humans possessed a genetic marker that, when bred into another sub-population of humans, results in hybrid individuals who are somehow detrimental to both populations (say the offspring tend to go insane and run on huge, mad, indiscriminate killing sprees), segregation of the populations would become beneficial to both populations and discrimination against hybrids (say exposure of infants) would also become beneficial to survival of non-hybrids. Keep in mind that this is perilously close to a strawman, but it is an example of when the definitions of "bad" and "good" might contradict how we currently regard them.

The more accurate statement about racism might actually be, "Racism disrupts interaction between two community groups who might need to cooperate to the benefit of both and is therefore detrimental to both groups." We understand that as "bad."

I would suggest that the arbitrary imposition of "bad," "evil," "wrong," as well as "good" and "right" enable classification of conditions in total ignorance of the nature or state of any given condition. Religion uses "bad" and "good" liberally because religion is designed as a salve for ignorance. Given, there are often reasons why certain things became "bad" or "good," but it is still dependent on a context which may not be either constant or permanent. Note, I'm not suggesting that racism is "right."

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

This sort of tripe completely baffles me. Evangelicals have a blind spot themselves, thinking they're somehow being singled out from the huge numbers of groups that are still fashionable to mock. For example, it's still fashionable to also mock anyone from appalachia, or the south, since both groups are instantly considered rednecks, also the poor - especially of the trailer trash variety, crack addicts, the obese (but not the rarified obese crack addicts) , the elderly, men with small penises, women with bad hair, anyone with weird teeth, facial moles, anyone who stutters, or a those poor bastards without an iPod or a cell phone the size of a thimble.

When someone argues by analogy, you can be pretty sure it’s because they don’t have any facts, evidence or logic to support their position. And all you have to do to debunk their argument, is find the flaw in the analogy.

I think it's more precise to say that, when people argue by analogy, they may be doing it because it's easier than finding evidence to support their position. I think you're probably right about the weaknesses of arguments from analogy. I do it all the time, but mainly because I'm lazy - not because I don't have or cannot find data to support my case.

Of course, when you pick an analogy, it has to work. I don't think there any good analogy between making racist or sexist comments, and questioning someone's extreme views (religious or otherwise). It's preposterous to claim that criticizing someone's ideas and thinking - regardless of how firmly held and popular they are - is the same as denying someone else opportunities or limiting their social power due to their race or gender. This notion becomes much more preposterous when you consider the relative social power of the affected groups. I suspect that evangelicals are hardly power-limited as a group, and they've certainly never been on the downside of historical institutional discrimination as women and africans have been.

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