Monday, March 14, 2005

Is Nothing Sacred?

I'm sorry that Philalethes has had to struggle with the limitations of Haloscan in responding to my post below. He is welcome to continue our discussion on his own board (but please link back and alert us), or to post here, as far as I'm concerned. For those who thought my previous post was intemperate, I just ask you to read Philalethes's original post, to which I linked, and decide for yourselves whether my response was proportionate and in keeping with the tone he had established.

I think that rather than continue to respond point by point, and risk an adversarial dynamic with my friends, I would like to begin at the beginning. In my last two posts, I have been striving, apparently unsuccessfully, for clarity. People are upset with me for using words like god, faith and religion in the ways they are usually used in English, to have the referrents they normally have in public discourse. When George W. Bush talks about faith, and God, he isn't talking about the kinds of personal experiences of transcendence that Speechless discusses here: he is talking about organized systems of very specific beliefs centering on an all powerful, sentient being purported to have created and to rule the universe, who demands specific forms of worship and who makes promises to the faithful and threats to the rest of us.

Before we can have a discussion, we need to agree on the meaning of our important terms. Otherwise, we will not really be communicating. I requested two posts down that before people engage in discussion about whether God exists, they define the term. If God, to you, means an entity which does not intervene in the universe, is not in the universe, does not communicate with humans, and has no describable properties, I would say that is a pretty good definition of something that does not exist. (I am reminded of the Gahan Wilson cartoon, of priests and acolytes bowing down before an empty pedestal. A passerby asks, "Is Nothing sacred?") For an entity to exist, it must be part of the observable universe. Its existence must have consequences, we must be able to detect it. We cannot say that we have detected something unless we know what its properties are so that we can distinguish it from any other entities we might detect.

So this is all I ask. We're here because we want to have dialogue. We want to learn what common ground people share, where our beliefs may differ but not in any way that seems to matter, and where we disagree in important ways. We hope to resolve the latter or at least to better understand our disagreements. Please do not call me ignorant, or denigrate my intelligence or my learning, as some have done. That does not help to make your case.

Just address the issues at hand. If you believe in God, or you wish to defend faith as a partner of reason, first define your terms. What do you mean by God? What do you mean by faith? If you do believe in this God, however defined, why do you have this belief? If in the process you wish to distance yourself from most people who call themselves religious, that's fine; but then don't be angry with me for criticizing beliefs which, as it turns out, you also criticize. Let's keep the discussion on topic. Everybody who is sincere, constructive and thoughtful is welcome here, and I at least promise to eschew ad hominem arguments.